House Of Commons
Wednesday 16 January 1980
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
Oral Answers To Questions
Foreign And Commonwealth Affairs
asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on the progress being made towards a ceasefire and new elections in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, following the appointment of Lord Soames as Governor.
asked the Lord Privy Seal what arrangements have been made to hold elections in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.
The ceasefire in Rhodesia came into effect at midnight on 28 December. Rhodesian forces disengaged and deployed to the vicinity of their company bases. Some 20,000 members of the Patriotic Front's forces have subsequently gathered with their arms at designated assembly points. A number of breaches of the ceasefire have been reported. These have mostly been attributable to elements of Mr. Mugabe's forces. The Governor has taken appropriate steps to deal with breaches of the ceasefire in accordance with the, Lancaster House agreements. Cross-border liaison arrangements have been made between the monitoring force and the defence forces of Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana. These are working satisfactorily. Zambia and Mozambique have opened liaison offices in Salisbury. The House will wish to pay tribute to the skilful and courageous performance of the monitoring force during this difficult period.The Governor has announced that elections for the white roll seats will take place on 14 February and those for the common roll seats on 27 to 29 February. Registration of parties for the election was completed on 14 January, and nominations have to be in by 21 January. The election commissioner and his staff are supervising preparations for the elections.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. While appreciating and acknowledging the difficult, dangerous and unique combined military and civil operation now under way in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia—and in no way wishing to belittle or exaggerate any recent problem or tragedy in the last three weeks—may I ask my right hon. Friend to give the House some reassurance about how the Administration intend to deal with possible intimidation of voters, especially in the scattered rural areas?
My hon. Friend will be aware that intimidation is forbidden by the Lancaster House agreements and it will be for the Governor, his staff and the police to see that intimidation does not occur. It is impossible to abolish it completely, but the Governor will do everything in his power to see that it is kept to a minimum.
Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that South African troops have been withdrawn from Zimbabwe-Rhodesia? If they have not been withdrawn, will he assure us that they will not be allowed to interfere with the election process, and that all the parties involved in the election will be allowed access to the broadcasting media? Is the right hon. Gentleman disturbed by the comments made by the front-line Presidents to the effect that there should be complete impartiality in these matters?
I cannot assure the House that all South African troops have been withdrawn because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Governor has reviewed the situation and has decided that a small contingent of South African forces is required to guard the Beit bridge. The Governor will keep this matter under review. The bridge is half South African property. On the question of broadcasting, an official from the BBC visited Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. The Governor is observing the broadcasts carefully and, here again, it is laid down in the Lancaster House agreements that there should be impartiality. So far I have heard no complaints.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the tribute of the House to General Acland and the British and Commonwealth forces is not merely recorded here but is actually transmitted? Secondly, will he deal with what seems to me a small problem that has been built up to major proportions, namely, the small contingent of South African forces which is on one side of the bridge—
which is considered incorrect? Is it not possible for the Commonwealth monitoring forces to be there? It seems that this matter is greatly exaggerated in the eyes of many coloured people.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I shall certainly see that the tribute is sent out to General Acland. I also entirely agree with my hon. Friend that this matter has been greatly exaggerated. We made clear at the Lancaster House conference that there will be no external intervention or involvement in Rhodesia at this period, and we are in touch with the Governor to ensure that this is so. But I cannot accept that a small South African presence to defend Beit bridge amounts to external intervention. All that is required is the protection of the bridge, which is a joint venture. I can assure my hon. Friend that there is a monitoring force very close to the bridge which monitors what goes on.
I am sure that the whole House will welcome the progress which has been made so far towards the difficult goal of acheiving an effective ceasefire and taking the first and very important steps towards holding elections, which we trust will be free and fair. May I turn to two questions, one of which has just been raised by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans)? The question of the safeguarding of Beit bridge is difficult. We know very well that it is a crucial installation and therefore it must be properly protected. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind about that. The right hon. Gentleman will know better than most that a specific pledge was given at the Lancaster House conference, and in the House on 18 December he said:
In the light of the need to keep good will and general acceptability and to build up trust, it does not make sense to do what is being done. I am in favour of using either the direct Rhodesian security forces to secure the Rhodesian side of the bridge or of using any Commonwealth or other forces which are available. Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand—he surely must—the legitimate and reasonable sensitivity that there is about this matter, particularly in the light of his own strong words and the pledges which he has given?"…there will be no foreign forces in Rhodesia."—[Official Report, 18 December 1979; Vol. 976, c. 309.]
My second question—
All right—I shall put it quickly.In terms of the ceasefire arrangements, is the Lord Privy Seal satisfied that enforcement is in the first instance by the forces of the two sides and, where an infringement takes place, does he agree that that process ought to precede any attempt to call out the security forces, which should be the last resort? Is he satisfied that that procedure is being followed?
The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's second question is that that is in fact what happens, and the Patriotic Front commanders are invariably, if time allows, contacted before anything happens. As regards the right hon. Gentleman's welcome to what is going on, I think that the House will be interested to hear one figure which puts a good deal of the reports of the past few days into perspective. The total number of people killed in Rhodesia since the ceasefire is the same as the number killed daily before the ceasefire. That again calls for considerable congratulations to all concerned—to the Governor, the monitoring force, the Rhodesian forces and the Patriotic Front.I have already said what I have to say about Beit bridge. I cannot accept that the presence just across the border of a very small detachment of South Africans can be said to be a foreign involvement in Rhodesia. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] As I have said, this is also monitored by the monitoring force, and the Governor will, of course, keep this situation under review. We hope that, before independence, the need for special measures to defend the bridge will have disappeared.
May I join right hon. and hon. Members on both sides in pressing the Government to look again at this question? Is it not normal practice, where there is a crossing point between any two States, that each side is guarded by the respective State? Why is that normal rule not being followed here? Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that this is a provocative irritant in an otherwise possibly successful ceasefire settlement?
With respect, I must ask the House to look at this matter with some sense of proportion. Let us look at what has happened since the Governor took over. The ceasefire has been established; the monitoring force is deployed; a large number of the Patriotic Front forces have been assembled, with very few incidents involving the forces of both sides; restrictions on political parties have been lifted and arrangements for elections are well in hand; the majority of ZANU and ZAPU political leaders have returned; relations with neighbouring countries have been normalised; plans for the return of refugees are well advanced and it is hoped that movement will start next week; internal restrictions have been greatly relaxed; many detainees have been released, while the cases of the remainder are being reviewed, and a general amnesty has been declared.Those are remarkable achievements in a very short time, and it seems to me extraordinary that, instead of concentrating on that, the House should concentrate entirely on a very small detachment of South African troops.
Order. This matter comes up again.
asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will invite the Foreign Minister of Cyprus to London.
The Foreign Minister of Cyprus is always welcome in London, and I look forward to seeing him here soon.
Does the Lord Privy Seal agree that there is a need for a new initiative on Cyprus? Does he also agree that it is primarily Britain's responsibility to try to achieve a settlement in that country, and will he tell the House what plans he has to do that?
I am not sure that now is the best moment for an initiative. I certainly agree that an initiative of some sort is welcome, but intercommunal talks under the Secretary-General of the United Nations remain, I am sure, the only practical means of progress towards a settlement. Some small progress was made last summer and then other events intervened. We continue to give the fullest support to Dr. Waldheim's efforts, and if we see any opportunity to take an initiative ourselves we shall take it. At present, I do not see that opportunity.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Dr. Waldheim said before Christmas that there was some hope of restarting intercommunal talks this month, that is, in January this year? What has changed in the meantime to put that back? Did the right hon. Gentleman's last reply mean that he does not see any chance of the intercommunal talks taking place in the first half of 1980?
I did not say that. I said that I did not see any prospect of an immediate initiative by this country. As regards the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I think that the reason for delay was merely events elsewhere in the world.
British Engineering (Overseas Representation)
asked the Lord Privy Seal if he is satisfied with the current state of representation given to British engineering overseas via British embassy, facilities; and if he will consider the setting up of a Foreign Office-sponsored international engineering bureau for the purpose of co-ordinating British engineering developments and industrial growth with world-wide sales initiatives so as to ensure full integration between international banking and credit facilities, United Kingdom engineering manufacture and the successful sale or leasing of British engineering products overseas.
We are satisfied that British embassies take proper account of the overseas interests of British engineering. The question of departmental support in setting up an international engineering bureau is a matter for my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Industry and for Trade.
Would the Minister of State give support to such a concept? Does he agree that now is the time when initiatives of this sort worldwide should be taken in order to enhance the efforts of British engineering to sell its products overseas? Although the whole House would pay tribute to the services now offered and given by British embassies throughout the world, is it not a fact that they remain unco-ordinated and there is, therefore, a need for a fresh look at the trade services and facilities offered by the Foreign Office so that they may be improved and linked with the efforts being made in this country?
There are about 750 United Kingdom-based and senior locally engaged officers employed on export promotion at more than 200 posts in more than 100 countries. I believe that they do excellent work, and I am grateful for the tribute which the hon. Gentleman paid to them. As to whether there should be co-ordination, that, as I have said, is a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friends.
Secretary Of State Vance
asked the Lord Privy Seal if he has any plans to meet Secretary of State Vance.
My right hon. Friend has no immediate plans for a meeting with the United States Secretary of State.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the effectiveness of the proposed United States trade boycott of Iran depends very much upon the co-operation of Europe and Japan? Will his right hon. Friend make that clear to the Secretary of State when they next meet? Does my hon. Friend agree that there have to be steps to support the position of the United States in practice rather than merely verbally, which the Government have done so far?
My hon. Friend will know that the Russians vetoed the United Nations sanctions motion. My right hon. Friends are considering, along with our European and other allies, what they can do to show solidarity and to express the world's disapproval of the detention of the American hostages. We shall do everything possible to secure the release of the hostages.
Does the Minister recollect that when his hon. Friend the Minister of State was answering questions on the statement on Afghanistan on Monday he stated that no agreement had been concluded with the United States on the expansion of the base at Diego Garcia? Are we to take it from that reply that such an agreement is under discussion? If so, what arrangements are the Government making to embody the views of countries around the Indian Ocean, such as India, which have previously opposed such expansion?
All the factors that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned are taken into consideration. I have nothing to add to what my hon. Friend said on Monday.
Has Mr. Vance been told that the refusal to sell arms required by the Royal Ulster Constabulary for its protection and that of Her Majesty's subjects is an unfriendly act towards an ally that is giving President Carter and his Administration considerable support?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made that point of view abundantly clear during her visit to Washington, and to the President shortly before Christmas. What she said to the House on her return made it clear that she shares, as I do, my hon. Friend's view.
When the right hon. Gentleman meets the United States Secretary of State will he make it plain to Mr. Vance that we share American feeling about the outrage that is continuing against the personnel of the United States Embassy in Tehran? Was this dangerous and, in my view, intolerable situation discussed at yesterday's meeting of NATO at Brussels, and if so, with what effect?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those comments, which express entirely the Government's view about the continued detention of the American hostages in Tehran. I assure him that there has been no lack of activity to try to co-ordinate action, both in Europe and with our American allies, on what should be the next stage of the response after the failure of the United Nations motion.
asked the Lord Privy Seal what staff will be attached to the Governor of Rhodesia in Salisbury to deal with aid and development planning and co-operation during the transitional period.
There are no staff attached to the Governor specifically for this purpose. But senior officials from the Overseas Development Administration visited Salisbury from 8 to 12 January to make a preliminary assessment of Rhodesia's aid requirements.
I am glad that those staff have gone to Rhodesia to take account of the situation there. Will the Minister make an announcement to the House on the level of aid that the Government propose to make available to Zimbabwe following the elections? Will he make that announcement now, or at least before the elections, and give an assurance to the House that the level of aid will not be dependent in any way upon the outcome of the elections in Zimbabwe?
The British Government have already made it plain that they are willing to consider any requests for aid that emanate from a newly formed Government. Obviously, it is too early as yet. Once a Government have been formed in March, and once they form a view that they would like to request aid from the United Kingdom, we shall be very willing to consider that request. In the meantime there are some forms of temporary assistance that the British Government have already given.
While it is not surprising that that represents a change from the policy of the previous Government is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is a serious matter? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it had been assumed that a certain amount of money would be available not from the aid budget but the contingency fund for the inevitable and necessary assistance with the economic development of an independent Zimbabwe? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman also knows that there was an effort to elicit the assistance of other countries in forming a Zimbabwe development fund. If he is not able to comment on these matters today, will he undertake to make, very soon, a full statement to the House on the whole issue?
As the right hon. Lady rightly suggests, there have been considerable changes in Rhodesia since the Government assumed office. I do not quite understand what it is that she is getting at when she talks about aid. As she well knows, we provide considerable sums for the education of Rhodesian students, principally in this country. When a newly formed Government emerge in March, we shall be ready to consider any form of assistance that they want. We have already been assured by the United States and by Western European countries that they will be ready to consider forms of assistance.
asked the Lord Privy Seal when he expects to meet the Governor of Hong Kong.
My right hon. Friend has, at present, no plans to do so, but the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker), met the Governor on Friday 11 January.
Will the Minister instruct the Governor to repeal the Draconian public order law that makes it a criminal offence for three or more persons to hold a meeting in a public place? Is he aware that it is a law that may be used by the police to intimidate workers and others who are threatened with eviction from their homes and work places, such as is the case of the villagers of Muk Min Ha in the New Territories? Is he not ashamed to have responsibility for a British colony where such fascist legislation still exists?
We do not instruct the Governor, but the hon. Gentleman probably knows that extensive discussions have been taking place on the public order ordinance. The Hong Kong Government expect to introduce amendments to that ordinance in the near future to deal with the problem that he has mentioned.
Will my hon. Friend make clear to the Governor and the people of Hong Kong our appreciation of the way in which they are accommodating a substantial flow of immigrants into their country and giving sanctuary to a large number of refugees? In spite of the economic difficulties to which these factors give rise, the colony is still a most significant market for British goods in Asia.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for saying what I think should be said about the extraordinary successes of Hong Kong economically and in terms of humanitarian assistance in dealing with refugees from all quarters. There are still 55,000 Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. I am sure that the House will appreciate that that is an enormous burden on the Administration of Hong Kong.
Is not the fact that there are still 55,000 boat people in Hong Kong a comment on the resettlement programmes which have been introduced, which are obviously failing in terms of speed and time scale to deal with the serious problem that has arisen?
What about Merthyr?
The people of Merthyr volunteered to take refugees from Vietnam, as did many other communities.What is the position with the large-scale illegal inflow of refugees or immigrants into Hong Kong from China? What was the result of the important discussions with the distinguished Chinese guests of a few months ago?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it presents a major problem to have so many Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. About 10,000 of them are about to come to the United Kingdom. Others will go to other countries. The more that can be done to persuade other countries to accept more of these refugees for permanent settlement, the better. As for immigration from mainland China, the recent visit of Chairman Hua Kuo-feng has resulted in much improved border security arrangements. The flow has greatly reduced, to the great assistance of Hong Kong.
asked the Lord Privy Seal what reports he has received from the Governor of Southern Rhodesia about the activities of foreign troops or mercenaries in that territory.
There are persons of various nationalities serving with the Rhodesian forces, as there are with the Patrotic Front forces. The Government made clear during the constitutional conference that there would be no purge of the forces of either side during the interim period. The Governor has agreed that a small contingent of South African forces should be stationed at Beit bridge on the Rhodesian-South African border for the protection of the bridge.
Now that the Government have quite shamelessly admitted to the presence of South African troops on Rhodesian territory, in flagrant contradiction of the explicit assurances given to the House that such troops would not be permitted there, does that not cast a shadow over the good faith of the Government in the implementation of the Lancaster House agreement?
No, of course it does not. It is astonishing that the hon. Gentleman should get up and ask the same question that has been asked already by three hon. Members.
We still want an answer.
Many other matters are of greater importance to the House, such as the breaches of the ceasefire and the detention of ZANU detainees by Mr. Mugabe in Mozambique. To concentrate on the matter referred to by the hon. Gentleman and others seems to show a complete absence of any sense of proportion. As I have said already—I may as well say it again—I cannot accept that one small detachment of troops to guard the Beit bridge adds up to involvement by foreigners in Rhodesian affairs.
Questions relating to EEC matters, No. 22.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to register a protest about the short amount of time that has been given to questions dealing with foreign and Commonwealth affairs at a time of world crisis.
asked the Lord Privy Seal when he intends to raise the question of the relationship between the different Community institutions at the Council of Ministers.
The Government do not intend to propose changes in the present balance of powers between the institutions of the Community. However, the European Parliament's rejection of the 1980 draft budget is likely to lead to further discussion in the Council of its relations with the Parliament.
After his recent tour, is my right hon. Friend more optimistic that both the longer-term reform of the budget and the elimination of our excess contribution—the short-term problem—can be achieved in a spirit of genuine compromise? That is the only way in which the Community can move forward. Does my right hon. Friend see a positive role for the European Parliament in the formulation of sensible ideas for reforming the budget structure?
Plainly, the European Parliament has an important role to play. The direction in which it is seeking to alter the budget is a direction which will appeal to many hon. Members, if not to all. It also strikes a chord with public opinion. Exactly how the negotiations between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament will proceed, I cannot yet say. Presumably, the Commission will produce a paper some time next month.
Will the Lord Privy Seal confirm that the present position is that the EEC can pay up only one-twelfth of last year's budget? Will he also confirm that, if the Council so wishes, it can authorise payments in excess of that amount under the Treaty of Rome? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether that matter was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council that was held on Monday and yesterday? If so, what was the conclusion of such discussion?
I confirm the position about the payment of one twelfth—it is as the hon. Gentleman says. There was no discussion on this matter on Monday and yesterday and, therefore, the position about the one-twelfth payment remains the same.
Is not the position that, if the European Parliament asks for a larger budget sum, differently divided, the Government will go along with that as part of their compromise?
I cannot possibly speculate as to what will happen. I cannot say what will be our reaction to the European Parliament's proposals on the budget until we know what those proposals are. I stress to the hon. Lady that the first step is for the Commission to resubmit the budget. It is not, in the first instance, for the Parliament to produce its proposals.
Will my right hon. Friend go further than he did in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and say what changes he believes may be necessary in the relationships between Community institutions in view of the European Parliament's rejection of the Community budget? Should not such changes ensure that, in future years, the European Parliament does not have to take such a drastic step in order to have its views heeded?
That is an extremely important and difficult matter. I am not convinced that any changes in the institutions are necessary. Plainly, some change in the working of the institutions may be necessary, but I trust that, in the future, there will be better relations between the Council and the Parliament. No doubt, more attention will be paid to the Parliament in future. As a result of that, similar constitutional crises will not arise in the future.
Council Of Foreign Ministers
asked the Lord Privy Seal when his noble Friend expects to meet his European Economic Community counterparts.
At the next Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels on 4 and 5 February.I attended the Foreign Affairs Council yesterday at which we considered the measures which the Community should take as a result of events in Afghanistan, trade with Rhodesia, the appointment of an extra Advocate General to the Court of Justice, staff pay, and the Community's relations with ASEAN, Yugoslavia and Latin America. There was a brief procedural discussion of the United Kingdom budget problem. I am circulating a more detailed account in the Official Report.
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the Community can respond quickly enough to the serious and changing international situation? If not, will he put proposals before his colleagues at the next meeting of the Council to improve the machinery for developing Community foreign policy?
It is in the nature of a community, a collection of States or an alliance, that it is able to work less quickly than an individual country. Obviously, there are difficulties in concerting measures in the Community. As my hon. Friend will be aware, important decisions were made yesterday concerning the cancellation of food aid to Afghanistan, the urgent consideration of the refugee problem in Iran, an agreement by the Community not to fill the gap left by the halting of United States' food exports to the Soviet Union and the temporary suspension of butter sales pending detailed examination of further measures. Further action will be contemplated next week. As I have said, I do not believe that we should be paying attention to constitutional changes at the moment.
Did the right hon. Gentleman discuss with his colleagues the question of other measures to be taken as a result of the Afghanistan invasion, in particular the possible cancellation or removal of the Olympic Games from Moscow?
The Olympic Games were mentioned at the NATO discussion, which I did not attend. However, they were not referred to at the discussion yesterday, although they will be in the future. That was because of lack of time, as much as anything else. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the Government have not yet formed a final view. The International Olympic Committee and the British Olympic Association are independent bodies.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is not entirely satisfactory that the decisions that were reached yesterday by the Community Ministers should be communicated to the House only by way of an accidental question on the Order Paper? There should be a proper statement on the matter which could then be the subject of questions. In the circumstances of Afghanistan, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the members of the European Community are doing what is required and not merely talking about taking measures? Is he aware that, as an ardent European, I am disappointed by the reaction of our French and German friends-to date?
The question of making a statement is always difficult. Sometimes the House complains of too many statements, while at other times it complains that there are not enough. I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said, but, as I said earlier, it is difficult for a community or an alliance to reach quick decisions. Only the first step has been taken, and I hope that more will be done in the future.
I should like to associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). I agree that there should have been a proper statement on the matter. As I understand it, the meetings that took place yesterday in Brussels, both at NATO and at the EEC, were of some importance. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman attended the wrong Council meeting. He might have had more serious discussions at the NATO meeting than at the EEC discussions. We hear a great deal about political co-operation—
Order. The right hon. Member really must ask a question.
Was there, at the EEC meeting, or during consultations with the Lord Privy Seal's right hon. and hon. Friends who attended the NATO meeting, any serious discussion of trade policy? If so, what was the response of our partners? Perhaps at the meeting which the right hon. Gentleman did not attend, but of which he will have heard, there was discussion of the Olympic Games.
I believe that the Minisster of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), said at the end of the meeting that no decision had been reached about the Olympic Games. I have already told the House what was decided about trade in agricultural products at the meeting that I attended.
Following is the information:
I represented the United Kingdom on 15 January at this first meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council under the Italian Presidency.
The Community has agreed that EEC supplies of food should not be allowed to take the place of those from the United States on the Soviet market, directly or indirectly. The Council has invited the Commission to take all appropriate measures to implement this decision, as regards cereals and products derived from them, and to propose further measures if necessary, for other agricultural products.
In addition, the Council decided to cancel the 1979 Community food aid programme to Afghanistan, and to consider as soon as possible a proposal which will shortly be produced by the Commission for emergency aid to Afghan refugees.
This represents a concrete and substantial economic response by the European Community to the situation which has been created, which complements the political positions also adopted yesterday by the Nine Foreign Ministers. It was agreed that work in the Community on this question should continue and that a further report would be made to the next Foreign Affairs Council on 5 February.
The statement on Afghanistan approved by Foreign Ministers recorded their grave concern at the Soviet Union's military intervention in Afghanistan which they viewed as a flagrant interference in the internal affairs of a third country and a threat to the peace of the region. They called on the Soviet Union to act in accordance with the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly and withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.
Agreement was reached in principle to an EEC trade regime for Rhodesia and, eventually, an independent Zimbabwe which will last up to the end of 1980. This regime provides for free access for industrial products and generous treatment for agricultural products—including duty-free access for tobacco. The Council's agreement is subject to the opinion of the European Parliament but that will, we hope, be forthcoming by the end of this week. I should like to record here the Government's appreciation of the contribution made by other member States and, in particular, the Commission towards securing so quickly full agreement on this important subject.
The Council agreed that details of the Community's improved offer for a new EEC-Yugoslavia co-operation agreement should be settled at tomorrow's meeting of the Committee of Permanent Representatives so that the Commission can continue negotiations with Yugoslavia next week in time for a final decision on the new agreement to be taken at the next Foreign Affairs Council on 4–5 February. We welcome this sense of urgency.
No agreement was reached on the appointment of an additional Advocate General to the European Court of Justice or on the annual staff pay review.
The Presidency made a statement drawing attention to the importance of developing relations with Latin America. There was no discussion.
Ministers agreed that the next ministerial meeting with ASEAN should take place when the co-operation agreement is signed. The first week of March will be proposed to ASEAN.
The Council took note of the resolutions passed by the Parliament at its session of 10–14 December 1979. There was no discussion.
The Foreign Affairs Council reviewed progress in other specialist councils. There was no substantive discussion.
asked the Lord Privy Seal when he intends to meet his European Economic Community counterparts.
asked the Lord Privy Seal when next he will meet his EEC colleagues.
I met them at the Foreign Affairs Council yesterday. I shall meet them again at the next Council on 4 and 5 of February in Brussels.
Will my right hon. Friend please make a special effort to have further discussions about whether the Olympic Games should be held at a venue other than Moscow and will he see whether his European counterparts have the same views, even if that means postponing the Olympic Games? If those Games are postponed, surely any disappointment felt by a few thousand athletes sould be seen as a minor matter compared with the possible effect upon Russian public opinion that withdrawal might have. It may help to prevent a third World War. Surely the Government are not entirely without influence, as they contribute to the cost through the Sports Council.
At the Council meeting yesterday it was agreed that all possible measures relating to Afghanistan should be considered in Rome next week and therefore discussion of the Olympic Games will take place then. I appreciate my hon. Friend's point about the advantages of finding another place at which to hold the Games, but he will understand that many difficulties are involved because there is such short notice. Other countries, like Britain, do not control their Olympic committees.
Will the Lord Privy Seal tell the House of any benefits that Britain derives from membership of the EEC?
One benefit I hope will appeal to the hon. Gentleman is that the EEC strengthens the Western orientation of Britain. Given Soviet behaviour in Eastern Europe, that should appeal to all hon. Members.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread disappointment at the published reports of the meetings of the EEC yesterday? Will he give the House an absolute assurance that Her Majesty's Government will urgently examine, with all their allies, measures for decisive action against Russian influence in all parts of the world as an unmistakable demonstration of our refusal to march, again, along the path of the 1930s?
I understand from newspaper reports, and from the House today, that there is some disappointment about our achievements. However, as I have said, alliances and communities can move only slowly. No doubt my hon. Friend is aware that my right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign Secretary is now touring the area adjacent to Afghanistan. He will return at the end of the week and we shall consult as to what further measures should be taken.
Is it true that yesterday the French even opposed the complete cancellation of sales of cheap butter by the EEC to the Soviet Union?
It is not the custom to reveal the attitudes of individual Governments in Council meetings. There have been reports on that matter.
asked the Lord Privy Seal what is the cost of holding plenary sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and Luxembourg, and committee meetings in Brussels; and what would be the saving if the Parliament were based in a single place.
According to a recent report of the European Parliament's Committee on Budgets, the cost of the three centres including rent and accessory items amounted to approximately 17·1 million European units of account—£11·39 million—or 20·3 per cent. of total expenditure in 1978. If the member States were to agree that the Parliament should be established in one place, savings would no doubt be possible. But no official estimates have been made.
While it was bad enough in the previously indirectly elected Parliament, is it not absurd that a European Parliament of 400 Members should be peripatetic and unnecessarily caravanning around Europe?
With his European experience, the hon. Gentleman will know that this is a matter for the Parliament and the European Council. It can be changed only by unanimous vote in the Council.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there would be an even greater saving if there was no European Assembly?
Of course, all parliaments cost money. However, no one would regard that as a reason for abolishing the European Parliament. I would have thought it was common ground that the European Parliament has already shown its great usefulness and that it is a great asset to the Community.
asked the Lord Privy Seal what steps he is taking to reduce the amount of EEC legislation.
The Government have made clear on a number of occasions that they are against unnecessary legislation and standardisation for its own sake.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that we need a drastic reduction in legislation? Is he aware that the legislation is a particularly heavy burden on small businesses, it is costly and it is unnecessary? Does he appreciate that such a practice spoils the good legislation that can come out of Brussels? Will he make a special effort to ensure that a drastic reduction in legislation occurs? Perhaps my right hon. Friend will bear in mind the stupidity of the directive concerning harmonisation of bathing water.
I do not remember that particular incident, but it seems a most cogent example.
Does the Lord Privy Seal agree that some public scrutiny would help to curtail the mass of legislation from the EEC—most of which is trivial and absurd? Rather than keep the decisions of the Council of Ministers behind closed doors would it not be of help to open those doors to the public, so that they may know what is going on within an absurd Common Market?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is against excessive legislation, but if that is so within the context of Europe, that is a matter for him. It would not be helpful for Council meetings to be open to the public. As the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, a good deal leaks out, despite the so-called privacy. Apart from anything else, there is no space in the room. There is, therefore, a good technical reason for leaks.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be reductions in all forms of legislation, both nationally and within the Community? Will he remind the House that it is always constitutionally open to the Council of Ministers to say "No" to the Commission if it wishes to on any proposal?
I agree with both parts of that question.
Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that these EEC regulations have the force of law and that there is great disquiet in the House about the number of decisions that are taken without giving the House an opportunity to discuss them? Will he look at this question again and will he bring many more issues before the House as quickly as possible before decisions are taken, rather than afterwards?
I was not aware of great discontent. I thought that we had been most scrupulous. I shall certainly look at the point.
asked the Lord Privy Seal what arrangements have been proposed or agreed to within the European Economic Community to harmonise statutory regulations for the recording of urgent calls for fire services, police, and ambulance services in accordance with the arrangements now in existence in France and Germany; and if he will make a statement.
No arrangements have been agreed to within the Community and I am not aware of any proposals for the harmonisation of recording procedures for such telephone calls.
Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that Britain is sadly lagging behind in modern technology for very important emergency services? Is he aware that both France and Germany have improved on our efforts? Although that might not come within the province of Common Market harmonisation, will he make representations to the Home Office to bring us up to date?
The hon. Gentleman has baffled us with his question. He seems to be making a case for harmonisation within the EEC, and perhaps there is such a case. I shall draw the attention of the Secretary of State for the Home Department to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
asked the Lord Privy Seal when he expects to make a statement concerning his recent official visits to Governments of various member States of the EEC.
My round of visits is not complete. I have so far visited Rome, The Hague, Luxembourg and Brussels. I shall be visiting West Germany tomorrow and the remaining Community countries next week.I have at present no plans to make a statement to the House. I can, however, say now that I am not discouraged by my discussions so far.
Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that yesterday when he was at the EEC Council his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in answer to a question from me, changed her objective of £1,000 million to "vastly increased receipts"? Can he tell the House what that figure is?
The hon. Gentleman's premise is wrong and I therefore cannot answer the question. After Dublin, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that it was the Government's policy to seek a genuine compromise with our partners and she added that we had little room for manoeuvre. At a time when the Government are pursuing negotiations, it is quite impossible to give figures or disclose our exact negotiating position.
asked the Lord Privy Seal what projects for rural development have been approved during the last five months.
Two major rural development projects have been approved since July 1979. This brings to 10 the total of such projects initiated in the first nine months of the current financial year. I am arranging for these projects to be listed in the Official Report.
I thank the Minister for that information. Has he seen the report of the American Commission on World Hunger which predicts that within 20 years there will be acute starvation and malnutrition in the Third world unless measures are taken to step up food production in those countries? Will he redouble his efforts and the aid that he gives to rural agriculture in underdeveloped countries?
It would be difficult to double the amount of aid that we give on these rural projects. The share of bilateral aid committed to the poorest countries, where this is very much one of the main projects, has exceeded 60 per cent. in recent years. However, I agree that the emphasis should be placed in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Since India is the principal recipient of British overseas aid, will my hon. Friend look for an early opportunity to have discussions with the new Government? Is he aware that there are a number of rural projects there where British aid could materially assist in improving food production?
Yes. I hope to do so in March, but already this year there are four projects going ahead for rural development in India.
Following is the information:
|APPROVALS OF RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS IN 1979–80 FINANCAL YEAR|
Date of approval
|5 April 1979||…||Nepal||…||Khosi Hill area development programme (Khardep)||5·76|
|3 May 1979||…||India||…||Foot and mouth disease vaccine plant||7·3|
|17May 1979||…||Peru||…||Cajamaraca agricultural development project||1·22|
|14June 1979||…||Sudan||…||South Darfur savannah project||4·63|
|14June 1979||…||Sudan||…||Southern region agricultural project||9·24|
|21 June 1979||…||India||…||Kanpur fertiliser plant||7·7|
|12July 1979||…||India||…||Earthmoving equipment||17·0|
|26 July 1979||…||Jordan||…||IRBID rural electrification||3·5|
|6 September 1979||…||India||…||Orissa family welfare||10·84|
|7 November 1979||…||Tanzania||…||Rural water supplies||1·4|
"Aid To The Poorest"
asked the Lord Privy Seal if he proposes to maintain the aid policies of Cmnd. 6270, "Aid to the Poorest" or if he proposes to produce a new White Paper.
A review of the aid policy is well advanced and I hope to make a statement shortly.
Can the Minister be a shade more informative? Is he proposing to change the priorities of the White Paper, which were accepted by the Conservatives when in opposition? He must come clean a little more.
That is precisely what I propose to do. I intend to make a statement to the House.
When reviewing the aid programme, will my hon. Friend recognise that anger has been caused to a large proportion of the population by the continuous attacks on Britain by Presidents Nyerere and Kaunda?
I recognise that but it is not a factor that one can take into account when considering a development programme.
Why are we giving so much aid to Turkey, which is one of the richest of the developing countries?
Turkey is still very much a developing country, particularly in rural areas. It has had balance of payments problems and we have offered Turkey £15 million programme aid, which I think is quite right.
asked the Lord Privy Seal if he is satisfied with the progress being made within the overseas development programme to ensure that population programmes are integrated into all overseas aid development projects; and whether he will make a statement.
I am sure that more might be done, but not all aid-financed development projects can logically contain population programmes, and in any event such projects must obviously be designed in relation to the wishes and policies of the recipient Governments. I accept the argument that there may be a link between economic development and the constraint of the world population.
Is the Minister satisfied to see the largest British aid programme of £100 million which is devoted to the Mahewelli plan project in Sri Lanka remain an economic project without any social input? Does he recognise that land being allocated to families cannot sustain an increasing birth rate and that population growth is an obstacle to progress in many Third world countries? Will he give a firm commitment to integrate into this and other development projects administered by the British Government an element dealing with welfare and population activities?
I believe that in that case the aid is to go to the dam. The Mahewelli project is further down, outside the dam. This is a World Bank project and obviously the Bank integrates those matters.
Does the Minister accept that one of the best ways of dealing with the problem is to improve the general economic well-being of the area as a first priority? If so, how does he justify the £115 million cutback in the aid programme for 1980–81? That is a 14 per cent. cutback and the most savage public expenditure cut by this Government.
I do not agree with those figures. They are wrong, but they were published in The Guardian. If the hon. Gentleman will table a specific question, I shall answer it.
asked the Lord Privy Seal what proposals he has with regard to aid directed towards children in developing countries.
Children should benefit directly and indirectly from much of our aid expenditure. So far as concerns programmes specifically directed towards children, I intend to continue aid to education and child health, to support international organisations such as UNICEF and the organisations concerned with population questions and to contribute to suitable projects designed for children put forward by British voluntary organisations.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware of the great disappointment both inside and outside the House about the way in which the Government's expenditure cuts affect aid to underdeveloped countries? Will he assure us that any further cuts will not interfere with the programmes for children in the Third world?
I can give no assurances because the aid framework is not finally agreed. The right hon. Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart), my predecessor, will, perhaps, explain to the hon. Gentleman exactly what that means. The programme will continue, but at a possibly slightly reduced level. We simply must understand that our duty is to get our economy right first. The latest report of the World Bank said that, unless countries such as Britain do that, it is the developing countries that will suffer.
Can the Minister give some assurance that at least another side of the question is being put by himself and his colleagues in the Foreign Office? As he well knows, there is another side of the case, as I think the Brandt report will show when it is published. Is he aware that one of the solutions to our economic problems is the promotion of development in the Third world? Are the Minister and his colleagues in the Foreign Office pressing for minimum reductions in the aid programme and the earliest possible increases?
It is natural that we should do so.
London School Of Hygiene And Tropical Medicine
asked the Lord Privy Seal what funding is provided towards work at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine by the Overseas Development Administration.
In the current financial year our commitment is of the order of £556,000.
Will the Minister accept that this is an internationally renowned centre which appears to be facing a serious financial crisis, primarily as a result of spending cuts by the Department of Education and Science? If overseas students from the poorer countries cannot go to this centre, that will represent a serious indirect reduction in our overseas aid effort. Because of that, will the Minister have urgent talks with the Secretary of State for Education and Science to see whether he can assist in satisfactorily resolving this problem?
I accept the importance of this institution. It is fair to say that the students who are placed there by the Overseas Development Administration will be fully funded at economic fee levels, and I cannot forecast the demand from other students. However, I am visiting the institution at the end of this month.
Standing Order No 63
I have a brief ruling to make. The House will recall that yesterday I replied to a point of order about the attendance of Law Officers at Standing Committees. The question was raised by the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan). I had no notice of the the substance of the point of order, of which I make no complaint. Therefore I ruled extemporarily and off-the-cuff.In view of a misunderstanding that I believe has arisen. I make it clear that Standing Order No. 63, which I read to the House, confers a right upon Law Officers to attend meetings of Standing Committees but does not impose any duty upon them to do so, nor does it confer any right upon a Committee formally to summon them. Should any Member, during the course of proceedings in a Standing Committee, express the wish that a Law Officer should attend, it is for the Chairman to decide whether that is in order. He is subject to no guidance from me in this respect.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that it is in order for the Chairman of a Standing Committee to accept a motion that an invitation be extended to one or other of the Law Officers to attend the Committee? I am sure that you appreciate the difficulty that faced the Standing Committee on the Education (No. 2) Bill yesterday when, due to certain legal complexities, we wanted the attendance of the Solicitor-General for Scotland and possibly other Law Officers. The Solicitor-General for Scotland is a difficult man to get hold of. His attendance in this Chamber is rather irregular, to say the least—
Order. I allowed the hon. Member to proceed, but I must emphasise that the Chairman of a Standing Committee is in charge of that Committee and there is no appeal from the Chairman to the occupant of this Chair, and certainly not to me. The Chairman of the Committee decides what is in order and what is not.
I wish to raise a point of order on your original statement, Mr. Speaker. I thank you for the clarification. Does not the ruling that you gave yesterday and the explanation that you have just given highlight the difficulties facing Standing Committees of the House when the Secretary of State from one Department makes a ruling that affects a Committee that is being sponsored by a different Department? In this case the Department of Education and Science was affected by a ruling given by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Secretary of State for the Environment gave a legal ruling in terms of section 97(4) of the Local Government Act 1972, and it was that legal difficulty that caused all the problems for the Committee yesterday. May I ask the Leader of the House, through you, Mr. Speaker, whether the appropriate Committee of the House might look at the whole matter?
The remarks of the hon. Member will have been heard by those who have more influence than I have on such matters.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I speak as the hon. Member who has the privilege of chairing Standing Committee D. As a result of the ruling that you gave yesterday there was some confusion in the Committee. I appreciate that the ruling was given by you at very short notice. It resulted in an effort to table a motion by hon. Members in good faith which I, as Chairman, ruled out of order at equally short notice. I am most grateful for the clarification this afternoon, which shows that Standing Order No. 63 is quite specific. I based my ruling on that Standing Order. I am sure that all members of the Chairmen's Panel will be grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for having clarified the position in relation to that Standing Order for the conduct of future Committees.
Foreign And Commonwealth Affairs Questions
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise again the point made previously by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford shire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) about the allocation of time for general Foreign Office questions. It seems to be the impression of all hon. Members that it is preposterous to have only half an hour every four weeks for these questions. Will you, Mr. Speaker, advise the House about the status of the present time arrangements and how they might be changed?
First of all, it is not half an hour; it is 25 minutes. For five minutes we seek heavenly wisdom from above, and our prayers are not always answered. Those who manage the affairs of the House—the usual channels—must be approached if hon. Members feel strongly about this matter, and it appears that they do.
On a point of order about Question Time, Mr. Speaker. One appreciates that there are difficulties in dealing with specific issues at Question Time. However, will you take into account the fact that on the question of Rhodesia, as the Lord Privy Seal said himself, there are many areas that need to be discussed? Is it possible for you, Mr. Speaker, bearing in mind that this House is responsible for events taking place in Rhodesia, to prevail on the Government to make a regular weekly statement on progress in that country? There are serious issues at stake and to rely on chance private notice questions does this House no credit.
This again is a matter for the usual channels, and hon. Members should pursue it in the normal way through their party machinery. This afternoon I allowed nearly 10 minutes on Question 1, which was a considerable share of the 25 minutes, because I knew that the matter was of considerable interest.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is true that there are private ways in which hon. Members can raise matters about the time allocated. However, surely there are other occasions when a more open approach should be made, as on this occasion. My Question 4was put on the Order Paper as a result of all-party discussions with various engineering organisations, and some hon. Members who wanted to supplement the questioning on this matter did not do so because they wanted to question the Lord Privy Seal about Helsinki. That raises the question of those hon. Members who do not voluntarily pursue points that we have commonly discussed.Secondly, is it not the case that the embarrassment suffered today by the Lord Privy Seal arose because he is the Lord Privy Seal and not the Foreign Secretary? The Foreign Secretary, being in another place—
Order. With respect, that is not a matter for me. On the earlier point, the House has expressed its opinion and no doubt it has been noted by those responsible.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hesitate to pursue this matter, but the issue of Question Time has been raised on a number of occasions. Today during Foreign Office questions we had to deal with international affairs, European matters and overseas development. Will the Leader of the House undertake to look again at this problem and make some recommendations?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am well aware of the difficulties. As hon. Members know, I have done my best to try to accommodate the wishes of all hon. Members. The great difficulty is that if there are to be more questions for one subject it means less time for other subjects, and no one is willing to give up any time to a subject other than his or her own. Certainly, in response to what has happened today I shall look at the matter again and discuss it with the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore). Certainly I shall seek help from above and, if necessary, help from below as well.
Order. Amend, I hope that we can now leave that matter with the assurance of the Leader of the House that he intends to look at it further. There is nothing to be gained by pressing it further this afternoon. I believe that the House is anxious to move on to the statement that is to follow. A large number of hon. Members also wish to speak on the rate support grant later.
If hon. Members feel that they have something to say that is of the utmost significance and will help the House, I shall call them.
I should like simply to suggest that since—
Order. If we were open to suggestions, we would be here all day. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House. If he has a substantial point of order, on which I am required to give a ruling, perhaps he will now make it or for ever hold his peace.
I was hoping, through you, Mr. Speaker, to suggest to the Leader of the House that, like questions about the regions of England, Scottish and Welsh questions could be referred to a Committee.
Order. I am sorry that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman.
Gas And Electricity Industries
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about financial targets for the British Gas Corporation and the electricity supply industry in England and Wales.It is a fundamental objective of this Government's policy towards the nationalised industries that they should be set a clear financial discipline. We therefore opened discussions with the gas and electricity industries on medium-term financial targets for the period 1980–81 and 1982–83. The external financial limits for 1980–81 announced last November were set in the light of these discussions, which have now been satisfactorily concluded. In a period of international uncertainty over fuel supplies and rapidly rising fuel costs, it is important that consumers should be aware of the true value of the fuel they are using. The prices which consumers pay for different fuels must reflect that value, taking into account, in particular, the fact that oil and gas supplies are limited. We must conserve our scarce energy supplies for future generations. After a year in which crude oil prices have risen by 100 per cent. or more, this is bound to mean heavy increases in other fuel prices. The need to move to economic pricing has been our main consideration in setting the financial targets for the two industries. I recognise that adjusting to an era of higher energy prices brings serious problems for many consumers, especially the old and the poor. The new scheme of assistance with heating costs announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services on 22 October was designed to provide worthwhile help for those in most need. We shall take proper account of the cost of energy in our social policies and in determining benefit levels, particularly the levels of extra heating additions. We are reviewing, in this context, the whole range of help available to assist consumers with fuel bills. I should first like to deal specifically with gas. There are five reasons why domestic gas prices will have to rise. First, our reserves of natural gas represent a finite and increasingly valuable national resource. If the price is too low, we shall burn it up too fast and bring forward the day when we have to turn to more expensive sources of supply. Secondly, in the short term, too, low prices cause peak demand to surge above what it would otherwise be, bringing the risk of shortages and supply cuts on cold winter days. Thirdly, gas from new North Sea fields will cost several times more than earlier gas supplies and prices must reflect these much higher costs. Fourthly, a sensible approach to pricing is vital if we are to achieve a proper balance of supply and demand, as between all consumers of gas. For industrial and commercial customers, it has been the longstanding policy of the British Gas Corporation to sell gas at a price broadly related to that of the competing oil product. The Government endorse this policy. The only alternative would be some form of arbitrary rationing and the risk of ever-increasing supply shortages. Fifthly, artificially low prices concentrate the benefits on those who have access to gas supplies at the expense of the rest of the population. Correct pricing is essential if some of the financial proceeds from our natural gas resources are to be secured for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Hon. Members will recall that even the Price Commission, in its report last July, before recent oil price increases, concluded that domestic tariffs should be 30 per cent. to 35 per cent. higher in real terms. Against this background, and the background of soaring world oil prices, we have set the British Gas Corporation a target, expressed as an average annual rate of return to be achieved over the period April 1980 to March 1983, of 9 per cent. on net assets valued at current cost. The target is related to current cost operating profit after taking account of depreciation but before interest and tax. It will be adjusted, if necessary, after introduction of the proposed new current cost accounting standard. The target rate of return is expressed as an average over three years. The actual rate of return is likely to be lower than 9 per cent. at first, but will increase progressively over the period. Details of the tariff changes necessary to achieve the target are a matter for British Gas. However, in broad terms, the Government expect domestic gas prices to increase this year by 10 per cent. over and above the rate of inflation, followed by comparable real increases in the following two years. Against the same criteria of economic pricing, electricity prices will also rise, though the expectation is that this will be less than in the case of domestic gas. The target for the electricity supply industry in England and Wales has been set at an average annual rate of return of 1·8 per cent., on net assets valued at current cost, again over the three years 1980 to 1983. As in the case of gas, details of tariff changes are a matter for the industry. Prices are likely to increase over the three-year period of the target by about 5 per cent. over and above increases in the industry's own costs of which fuel costs are the biggest element. The Government have asked both the British Gas Corporation and the Electricity Council to phase this year's increases in two stages, one in April and another in October.
Against a background of spiralling domestic inflation, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these are astronomical increases? There is not a family in the country that will not be severely affected. Is he aware that fuel, light and power represent 6 per cent. of an average family income and over 10 per cent. of the income of those people whose earnings are 20 per cent. or more below the average? This is a severe blow. Do not these increases demonstrate the appalling economic meanness of the abolition of the electricity discount scheme?Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to accept a rebate scheme for fuel applicable to everyone, whether using gas, electricity, coal or paraffin? Until the right hon. Gentleman and the Government come forward with a generous scheme for helping with fuel bills, we cannot possibly accept the logic of increasing prices to this extent. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain exactly what he means when he refers to the rate of inflation in this coming year? What rate of inflation is he estimating for the year 1980? Will he also come clean and explain what his statement means in terms of gas bills between April of this year and April next year? What will be the percentage increase on gas bills? What will be the percentage increase on electricity bills from April to April that every family will have to find? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will not introduce some modification of the scheme announced by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of state for Social Services, which helped only 350,000 people as opposed to the 3·5 million helped by the electricity discount scheme, which meant a saving from £45 million to £14 million? Will he give an assurance that he will use these revenues for a generous scheme for helping the poor and those with high fuel bills?
I am certainly aware of the impact on all our price levels of higher energy costs. We all regret that, but we must face the fact that there has been a 100 per cent. increase in world crude oil prices in the past year. This necessarily means a major adjustment for all of us.The right hon. Gentleman talked about the needs of the poor and the old. Those needs are fully recognised in Government social policy. The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the electricity discount scheme, but that scheme was only for electricity consumers. I think that it is generally recognised that it was an idiotic scheme, because it spread benefit very widely, often over those who did not need it. I very much prefer the scheme developed by my right hon. Friend and announced in October, which provides a basis for support, in a time of high energy costs, over a far wider area of all consumers. It will meet the needs far more effectively than the electricity discount scheme, which was generally recognised as a bad scheme and a silly one. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] Because it concentrated only on electricity. That is our approach. We are determined to develop our social policies effectively in an era of high energy costs. That is the obvious way forward. As to inflation rates in 1980, we shall have to see what the outturn of inflation is. I cannot predict it. The prices will have to be based on the inflation outturn when it comes along. As to the increases on average bills over the year, bills vary widely for different families, but the broad effect over the year will be an increase in family gas and electricity bills of rather less than the total inflation, plus the 10 per cent., because the second 10 per cent. will not come until October. The precise figures will vary from family to family.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the real price of gas between 1970 and October 1979 fell by one-third? Is he aware that consumers in the United Kingdom are somewhat better off, in that VAT is not charged on gas but in Europe it is, at between5 per cent. and 20 per cent.? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that he has no power under the Gas Act 1972 to claw back to the Crown the excess profits made by the industry?
My hon. Friend is right, in that even after the increases Britain is likely to have the lowest domestic gas and electricity tariffs in Europe.As to the powers concerning the large surplus which will obviously be generated as we move to economic pricing, my hon. Friend is right. The existing powers allow only for the surplus to be returned to the Exchequer and the Treasury to help reduce, amongst other things, the public sector borrowing requirement. That is the limit of the powers.
Why should we conserve resources for future generations when we cannot know what the circumstances of those future generations will be?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman and I agree that the motive force for conservation must be the price decisions and the price signals as they operate in the face of the consumer. Nevertheless, there is another consideration which is not economic. It is a strategic consideration. It is a patriotic one, if the right hon. Gentleman likes to put it in that way. It is that in a dangerous world, when our sources of supply of oil and gas, liquid gas or gas in frozen form, are politically unstable areas, it makes strategic sense for this nation to postpone as long as possible the day when we shall again be dependent on politically dangerous and politically influenced sources of supply. That is not economics; it is strategy. I believe it to be good strategy for this nation.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether in his moving away from the policy of long run marginal costs, which has been adopted by Governments of both parties in the past, the AA/RR of 9 per cent. which he is now setting is considerably higher than that which has been obtained by the long run marginal costs? If that is so, in the state of inflation that exists would it not make greater sense to spread the increase in prices of 27 per cent. in the next 12 months over a much longer period?
It is not the policy to move away from the principle of long run marginal costs. One of the realities that must be faced is that the British Gas Corporation is now having to look further a field for new gas supplies. It can no longer rely on the very cheap Southern Basin contracts, which were running at about 2p per therm. That was for the old gas. But the old gas will not go on for ever. The corporation is already having to pay 14p per therm—seven times as much—for gas from the Frigg field, and it will certainly be asked still higher figures for further gas from the North Sea. Therefore, to replace the very cheap gas that the nation has enjoyed will require a vast increase in resources and revenues. That alone is one reason why prices which have been depressed—the issue was ducked for too long under the previous Government—must now be raised.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that even now, without the increases, I have had quite a correspondence with him about the fact that the aged, the sick, the infirm and those on social welfare benefits who are already having difficulty in paying fuel bills find that the gas and electricity boards are with speed and, it seems, enthusiasm cutting off their supplies. Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will have a word with the Department of Health and Social Security and the boards to see that before such people are cut off the boards consult that Department, to ensure that those con- cerned are not blind and bedridden people who cannot get out of bed to collect the letters of notification or to answer the door, and who find that they are being cut off, so that they have no heat, no light, no gas, no nothing? The Minister has done nothing about it.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the matter is a cause of serious worry. He is wrong to say that we have done nothing about it. First, there is the code of conduct which the nationalised industries are obliged to follow. There have been complaints about that code and the way in which it is used. For that reason, we are reviewing the whole way in which that code is being applied. I say "we", but in fact an independent review is being carried out. I believe that that will help in this matter.The hon. Gentleman also highlights the difficulties, which I do not shirk, over paying higher fuel bills that the energy costs impose on us for outside reasons and that come into our national economy. Perhaps I may give the hon. Gentleman an example. An average quarterly domestic bill is now about £29. Next year it will be £7 more. About £4 of that rise is due to the effects of inflation, and the remaining £3 is due to a real increase in the price of gas. Therefore, average bills will be about 50p a week higher next year, of which less than half will be due to a real increase in gas prices. I tell the hon. Gentleman that, and I should also have said it to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who rightly asked me that question.
In the light of the 9 per cent. return on capital, just how is the value of gas in the North Sea arrived at? Who sets the value? Is it ourselves, OPEC or market forces?
It is market forces. We import from Norway about 20 per cent. of our gas. There is competition for gas supplies from the North Sea, and there will be increasingly strong competition in future years. Therefore, the market price of gas is influenced by market forces. The price of gas from the Frigg field, a median field between Norway and Britain, from which a third of our gas comes, is related by a fixed formula to the price of oil. Therefore, every time the price of oil goes up worldwide the price of gas going into our pipes, our stoves and our heaters goes up as well.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that whilst everyone would agree that some increase in energy prices is necessary, in the light of the circumstances that he has described, many people in this country are mystified? They see the gas industry making substantial profits. My own constituents know that it is difficult enough to meet electricity and gas bills now. Can my right hon. Friend explain the justification for the size of the increase in gas prices? That is what people want to know.
I shall do my best to meet the points made by my right hon. Friend. He speaks of the British Gas Corporation's substantial profits or surplus. It is certainly true that as we move towards economic pricing—which the Government believe to be vital—that surplus will increase. While the BGC may have a large surplus and is efficient, it does not mean that it is competing for customers. On the contrary, customers are competing for gas, as industry well knows. That will continue until the price rises to economic levels. Failure to go that way will be grossly inefficient and will lead to arbitrary rationing and shortages. I believe that though people may dislike price increases as I do, the danger, without price increases, is that there will be no gas at all. Then people really will freeze.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his arguments will not carry a great deal of weight because everyone knows that there are many ways of conserving gas supplies without imposing a savage tax upon the poorest consumers, who will be driven to disconnection and poverty? Is he aware that this will increase industrial costs for those firms that depend on fuel and that it will lead to further difficulties in exporting and maintaining employment at home? Is he further aware that in the long run what Britain needs is a powerful manufacturing industry upon which it can rely when the oil runs out? What are the Government doing about that?
I try to listen to, and sometimes learn from, the right hon. Gentleman, my predecessor in this post, but the idea that holding down gas prices is the best way to help the poorest people is surely a silly proposition. Such a policy helps the rich and poor alike. There are much more efficient ways—upon which the Government are bent—of helping those who are in need, particularly as they face hardship caused by high energy prices.Whatever the present price of energy, which is related to oil, industry is clamouring for more gas. That indicates that, whatever the price of gas, industry prefers to move from oil to gas. The policy of the British Gas Corporation—endorsed by the Government—is to relate industrial gas prices to the competing oil products' price. That is our policy and is, I think, the current policy of every Western industrial country, with the possible exception of the United States which is moving in that direction.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the move towards economic pricing of gas will be strongly welcomed on energy conservation grounds by many of his right hon. and hon. Friends? Is he further aware that there may be a case for examining again the possibility of an additional gas tax in order to recoup some of the extra revenue for the Treasury which might then be made available for the poorer gas consumers?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's point about conservation. It is a vital consideration. A gas tax is certainly an interesting idea. The present surplus generated by the British Gas Corporation—which in some ways could be described as a rent because of the cheap gas coming from the Southern Basin—goes to help the Exchequer and thus is to the general benefit of the community. It also helps, among other things, to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House where in legislation is the authority for the sort of considerations that he has just mentioned as a justification for increasing the price of gas to the extent that he has said will be necessary? Has he taken the best legal advice as to the vires of what is being done?
I do not believe that the right hon. and learned Gentleman heard what I said. I said that a gas tax was an interesting idea. There is no gas tax and no authority for such a tax. The present practice is for the British Gas Corporation to contribute its surpluses to the national loans fund. They then count against the PSBR. That is present practice, for which there is recognised authority. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that we would need new legislation for the introduction of a gas tax.
Does the Minister realise that the measures that he has announced will have a great effect on those areas of Scotland and the North where the climate is more severe? Does he realise that elderly people may die of hypothermia because of his moves? Since there will be an increased surplus available from the British Gas Corpoartion, will he make that money available to expand the fuel discount system so that those in greatest need will benefit? As part of his energy policy, will the right hon. Gentleman try to get some work done on insulation so that all consumers may heat their homes adequately without consuming so much energy?
I have said that we shall develop our social policies in the light of the impact of the high cost energy era which is now with us and which will not go away. That era is a reality and we must have the courage to face it. The hon. Gentleman has a good point about insulation. The Government are now encouraging an extensive programme of domestic insulation. It is more extensive than the programme that we inherited, because we have expanded it to cover public authority housing. Recently we announced new guidelines for local authorities which will enable more pensioners and other elderly people to benefit from schemes for home insulation. We recognise the importance of insulation and we shall continue to do so.
As a result of my right hon. Friend's announcement, may we expect a further policy statement on the social considerations of increased gas and electricity prices? Will the Secretary of State confirm that any such further announcement will be made in the very near future to enable any additional assistance that is felt to be necessary to be fed into the budget arithmetic?
We are talking about prices that will have their impact next winter. That is some time ahead. However, I shall draw the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the remarks of my hon. Friend. I have said that we intend to develop our social policy—the Chancellor has effectively said the same—in order to take account of national conditions in an era of high cost energy. We recognise those factors.
Is there not an element of brutality in the right hon. Gentleman's excessive reliance on pricing in pursuit of energy conservation? Is it not clear as a result of his recognition—belated though it may be—that our oil and gas reserves are finite, that his comments can be dismissed as humbug since he has supervised the flaring of gas to the tune, over the past six months, of 551 million cu ft a day? That is far more than has been consumed on any day in the past six months by the whole of the Yorkshire and Humberside region.
We have imposed severe flaring restrictions, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I cannot see his justification for making that point.It seems to me that the worst humbug would be to proclaim, in the cause of helping those genuinely in need, a general reluctance to allow the price of gas to rise to economic levels, thus causing major waste and shortage. Such a policy would possibly bring a small benefit to a vast number of people, but in the long run it would neglect the poorest and the most vulnerable. That is the real humbug.
Is there not a faint aroma of hypocrisy rising from the Opposition in view of the way in which they supported the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) in his aspirations to achieve a gas price which would insulate the National Union of Mineworkers from the consequences of its own wage bargaining? Will my right hon. Friend consider whether it is time to look again at the exclusive access of the British Gas Corporation to supplies of gas from the North Sea? Is there not a case for opening the door to private enterprise to compete with the British Gas Corporation for those supplies at perhaps a more remunerative price?
I note my hon. Friend's second point. It is an interesting suggestion, and the Government are reviewing the whole structure of the nationalised industries to make them more competitive. I have no doubt that such suggestions will be taken into account.As to coal prices, I should make it clear to my hon. Friend that the price of electricity is primarily dragged up by coal and oil prices, whereas the need for the price of gas to rise is primarily to do with economic pricing and the need for conservation. It so happens that in my statement there is mention of an improvement in the balance between gas and electricity. It would be wrong, however, to assume that there is a cause and effect between electricity and gas prices at the centre of our policy. There is not, nor is there meant to be.
I propose to call four hon. Members from each side, which will give a fair run.
Is the Minister aware that coal gas can be used when supplies run out? Is he suggesting that the nation's coalfields are politically sensitive? Will the Minister prevail upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer to recognise that, because of the increase of 27½ per cent. in the price of gas, old people will die next winter unless they receive a higher pension or a subsidy for gas? Does the Minister agree that if he does not understand the difference between a primary source of energy, such as coal, oil or gas, and a secondary source of energy, such as electricity, he needs to do a little more homework?
I am not sure that I understood the depth of the tail end of the hon. Member's question. The hardship caused by rising prices will be met by the automatic uprating of benefits. I have said that our social policies will be developed effectively in an era of high cost energy. The hon. Member mentioned coal gas. In due course it will be necessary, if we maintain a national gas transmission system when our North Sea natural gas has been burnt up, to turn to coal gas. Major research and experiments are being conducted. Undoubtedly that will be expensive and it will mean that once again the price of gas is related to the price of coal, which is within the nation's influence. One of the encouraging factors is the high productivity at many of the coalfaces. We have the basis in the nation—and this is common ground—for building out of the old coal industry a new and profitable enterprise for the future.
To what extent will the new increases in gas prices make flaring uneconomic and therefore make it worth while to use the wasted gas reserves? What estimate has been made of the increased prices increasing the viability of developing otherwise uneconomic or marginal gas fields?
The prices involved are to the customer. My hon. Friend is talking about prices to the producer, which are not changed by what I have said today. Flared gas is an associated gas—largely wet gas, a curious term. Until there is a gas-gathering pipeline in the North Sea, which I hope that we can achieve, there are limits to the amount of gas that can be recovered. When it is recovered, it is used mainly for butane, propane and other bases for the petrochemical industry. What I have said today does not change that. My statement will not directly affect the development of the marginal fields. The British Gas Corporation is now having to pay higher prices for new supplies of gas, and that is bound to have an impact on calculations about whether it is worth spending money on exploring and developing new gas fields.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the increase in gas prices is disastrous for low-income groups? Will he consider announcing an expanded fuel discount scheme at the same time as price increases for gas and electricity are announced? Does he accept that price rises and discount schemes should go hand in hand and that people should not have to wait in fear and suspicion until a scheme is announced to help people at risk?
The development of a social policy of the most effective kind should go hand in hand with the impact of price rises. However, it is necessary to announce the financial targets, as I have today, so that the industries involved can plan their finances for next year. Our social policy must be developed in that way. I emphatically reject the philosophy behind the electricity discount scheme, which seems to spread the margarine too thinly and involves only small sums of money. I admit that large numbers of people benefit, but my right hon. Friend's scheme produces benefits up to 10 times greater—£50 per person—for those who are in genuine need. I am sure that that is right.
Did the British Gas Corporation ask for the increased gas prices which the Minister has announced today?
No. The Government set targets higher than those which the British Gas Corporation wanted. I am happy to make that clear. We did that because we have to ensure that our natural gas assets are not burnt up dangerously fast as oil prices soar and everybody rushes to buy gas.The Government have a responsibility which goes wider than that of the British Gas Corporation. It is true that the British Gas Corporation will have to pay much more for its new gas and will, therefore, need higher revenues. The Government set higher targets than the corporation wanted because of the needs of the national energy policy and because we do not want our resource to be burnt up so dangerously fast that we are confronted again much too early with the need to import from dangerously unstable political areas.
I intend to call the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) when I have exhausted the number of hon. Members that I said I would call.
Is the Minister aware that his statement will be interpreted by the industries which produce electricity and gas to mean that he is encouraging a commercial price for gas? The poorest people especially will be rationed by price.
The nation as a whole will have to be rationed by price. Within that we shall devise social policies to help those who are hardest hit. The aim of the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) is to help those who are most vulnerable. The worst way to do that is to hold down prices. That helps poor and rich alike and that cannot be compassionate or sensible.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the British Gas Corporation indicated to the National Gas Consumers Council that the increases cannot be justified on commercial grounds? I am a fan of market pricing, but I should like a comment on that. May we have an assurance that the profits created by the price increases will not be used to subsidise other more inefficient nationalised industries?
As my hon. Friend is a fan of market pricing, he will be glad to know that we are moving towards market pricing. Of course, that will lead to a large surplus because old gas was cheap; new gas will be much more expensive. It is rubbish to say that the surpluses will be used to subsidise loss-making industries, which is what my hon. Friend suggested in a broadcast yesterday. The surpluses help to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement—an aim to which I thought my hon. Friend was dedicated.
What did the gas and electricity consumer councils say when they were informed about the increases?
The views of the consumer councils have not yet been conveyed to me in detail. The natural reaction of all consumers when confronted with higher prices is not to like them. None of us likes higher prices. However, we shall all have to pay more for petrol, gas and other fuels. That is the reality.
I welcome the broad aims of my right hon. Friend's statement, but why has he chosen to raise gas prices by relating them to the increase in the real rate of return required by the BGC? Why has he not decided to price gas in relation to the price of home heating oil and to phase in such price increases? Why has he not considered introducing a gas tax to recoup the economic rent that will accrue to BGC? Does he agree that part of such a tax could be used to reduce the bills for the poorest consumers?
I answered the gas tax point earlier. Our policy, however, means that the price of gas is being related to the price of the marginal fuel—heating oil—and the real rate of return is the return required to achieve that. That figure is 9 per cent. which, regrettably, is high by today's standards, although 10 years ago a great deal of British industry would have regarded a net rate of return of 9 per cent. on revalued assets as being perfectly attainable. It is a reasonable rate for a highly efficient industry.
Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement is like the flared-off gas to which he referred—wet? It was certainly short of any significant energy conservation measures, and it certainly lacked equity. It is scandalous that the right hon. Gentleman should be compelling a highly efficient nationalised industry to increase its prices to a level that it is not seeking. Is he aware that, in spite of all that he said about the sick, the unemployed and the pensioners—on which I agree with him entirely—the 30 per cent. increase is nothing short of a punitive tax which will hit particularly the lower paid?
The hon. Gentleman's points about social policy and hardship are well taken. I recognise them fully. On the question of the present surplus and profitability of the BGC, the plain fact is that the corporation is not competing for customers. On the contrary, customers are clamouring for more gas. It would be a very serious matter if British industry were to be deprived of the supply of gas that it needs and our entire energy policy were to be distorted. That is a most important consideration because that is the source of the wealth needed to pay for the social policies upon which the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends are always so ready to spend money.
What price increase did the chairman of the British Gas Corporation consider to be commercially justified? What is the expected increase in profitability of the BGC over the next financial year resulting from the extra amount that the Government have imposed on the price list?
The estimate on the latter point would be £200 million to £300 million extra. On the first point, the British Gas Corporation did not express a view in precise terms but took the view that, while it agreed with the aim and objective of moving to economic pricing, for the present year, it would have wanted a somewhat lower figure, but it did not give me a precise figure,
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the course of the Secretary of State's statement, members of the Press Gallery were busily turning over copies of the statement. It is a perennial cause of concern that, with certain limited exceptions, hon. Members are not provided with copies of statements. This practice has continued for years, but there is no reason why it could not be changed. I inquired at the Vote Office, but the statement was not available when the Secretary of State had sat down. If hon. Members had copies, it would give them the opportunity to put more informed questions. It would be a useful innovation for hon. Members to have copies.Will you, Mr. Speaker, therefore, use your powers, which I understand may be limited, in this matter? I understand that motions to alter the procedures of this place are a matter for the Leader of the House, who is a member of the Cabinet and has not the slightest wish to alter a situation that benefits the Government by preventing the sort of detailed probing and questioning which hon. Members have the right to engage in. I ask you, therefore, Mr. Speaker, whether we can make a slight alteration to our procedures to improve them.
I do not comment on the merits of the hon. Gentleman's point of order, but he will know that it is not within my discretion to require copies of statements to be made available to hon. Members. I do not wish to enter into any argument on this. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, and I am sure that it has been heard by those responsible.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I accept that you cannot and will not intervene between Government and Opposition, but I believe that you have a duty to assist hon. Members to carry out their work, a task that you exercise very well with regard to the Library, assistants and so on. If you were to indicate your support for what my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) has suggested—I do not suggest that you should say anything on the Floor of the House—that would be most helpful. If the Leader of the House knew that that was your view and that you wanted to improve facilities for hon. Members, he would be more likely to respond favourably.
I have listened with respect to the hon. Gentleman, who has served in the House for 35 years. He will not expect me to comment further, but I am much obliged for what he has said.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since the Secretary of State's statement covered the electricity supply industry for England and Wales, can you give an assurance that there will be a similar statement in respect of the electricity supply industry in Scotland? Will it be done by a press statement, or will Scotland be exempt from the increase?
I share the hon. Gentleman's ignorance on that matter.
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
I know that it has been indicated that we are shortly to have a foreign affairs debate centring on Afghanistan, but in the wake of the invasion of that country by Soviet forces hon. Members throughout the House are concerned about another and a European country. That concern has been demonstrated in an early-day motion that I tabled last night and that has already attracted about 150 signatures. It is quite obvious that the President of Yugoslavia is a sick man. If the latest reports are to be believed, he is gravely ill. Naturally, we all wish him well and hope that he will recover and be able to lead his people for some years to come. But above sympathy and good wishes, President Tito and his people need a guarantee of their future independence as a nation and of their territorial integrity, and they need that guarantee from the international community. In a case such as this, someone must take the lead. Yesterday in this House my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister showed that she was willing to take an initiative, through NATO. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will allow the House an opportunity to show its united resolve. Too often in matters of grave international consequence we react, we do not anticipate. Here is a chance for us to anticipate and perhaps prevent what could be a global disaster."the urgent need for an international guarantee of the future independence and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia."
The hon. Member for Stafford shire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) gave me notice before 12 o'clock today that he would seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believed should have urgent consideration, namely,
I listened with deep concern to the hon. Gentleman, and I in no way seek to detract from the seriousness of his statement to the House. I am aware that he has raised a most important matter, but the House knows that under Standing Order No. 9 I am directed to take into account the several factors set out in the order but to give no reasons for my decision. After listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman—and I am in no way saying that this matter ought not to be debated—I have to rule that his submission does"the urgent need for an international guarantee of the future independence and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia."