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Commons Chamber

Volume 978: debated on Monday 11 February 1980

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House Of Commons

Monday 11 February 1980

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions


Oil And Gas (Depletion Policy)


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the Government's depletion policy for indigenous oil and gas.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he intends to make a statement on the Government's oil depletion policy.

I refer my hon. Friends to my reply of 26 November to my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) and the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson).

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is the Government's duty to lay down guidelines on the rate at which oil and gas should be consumed, in order to ensure that there are adequate supplies for future generations, and that a good starting point for such guidelines would be net self-sufficiency—in other words, not using more oil and gas than is needed for this country's own needs?

My hon. Friend is correct. It will be the Government's intention to try to extend the period of self-sufficiency as far forward as possible. We expect to reach the level of net self-sufficiency in the latter part of this year, and in formulating our policy for depletion in the future we shall take account of my hon. Friend's remarks. It will also be necessary to take other relevant factors into consideration.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this target of self-sufficiency is proving illusive? Is there not, therefore, a need to maximise exploration activities in the North Sea? How does the seventh licensing round fit into this strategy?

I accept that the seventh licensing round is not, perhaps, as large as the industry would have liked, but, taken with the increase in world oil prices, which has made existing acreage still very attractive, we believe that there is considerable incentive for the industry to explore to the full.

Is it the Minister's intention to confirm that what have been loosely called the Varley assurances are to be reneged on?

The Varley assurances were given in good faith and the present Government will continue to honourthem, but we must bear in mind that in the changing situation to which the oil industry is constantly subject we must review the position from time to time.

Will my hon. Friend make certain that, whilst listening to the voices of conservationists, he does not adopt a policy that will preclude further extensive exploration, because it must be realised that companies which put large sums of money into exploration wish to obtain a reasonable return from the gas or oil that they find?

I can accept what my hon. points out. We have frequent consultations within the industry, and as a result of these consultations we shall devise a policy that will be beneficial to the nation and also give fair opportunity to those who invest money in our continental shelf.

May I suggest that when the Secretary of State offers shares in the British National Oil Corporation to employees of the BNOC and the British public he should make clear the policy on depletion, as that will be of extreme interest to anyone wishing to invest in BNOC? In those circumstances, would it not be wiser to be a little less coy now and tell us more about the Government's depletion policy?

I think that my hon. Friend would agree that the term "depletion policy" is somewhat misleading, and that what we are really talking about is "resource management". Bearing that in mind, we shall take account of what my hon. Friend has said. In due course my right hon. Friend will make a statement to the House, in which he will clarify the position about BNOC and the future rate at which we shall deplete our resources.

North Sea Oil


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when next he plans to meet representatives of the oil industry to discuss the latest situation in the North Sea.

In view of the Government's success in achieving an increase of almost 50 per cent. in the number of exploration rigs currently operating in the North Sea since February last year, what consideration is my hon. Friend giving to any new means of making marginal fields commercially viable? When does he anticipate announcing proposals to encourage far greater development of those fields.

My hon. Friend will be aware that in the middle of last year, in conjunction with the oil industry, represented by the UK Offshore Operators Association, the Treasury and the Inland Revenue, we set up a committee to examine the position. Its purpose was to present ideason how we might further encourage the development of marginal fields. The committee has not yet reported, but I hope that it will do so before long. However, the increase in world oil prices has meant that some areas that were formerly considered marginal have become reasonably attractive.

:How can the Minister justify the intended build-up of staff in the office of the Department of Energy at Millbank, at the expense of the Offshore Supplies Office in Glasgow? That office is expected to lose 40 per cent. of its staff. As a Scottish Member of Parliament, how can he justify such action?

Not for the first time the hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. The number of staff at the Offshore Supplies Office in Glasgow had increased considerably during the last Administration. At their own suggestion they carried out a rationalisation, which has been highly successful. As a result, the Offshore Supplies Office will be more effective. The increase in staff at Millbank has nothing to do with the Offshore Supplies Office. It is purely a consequence of removing responsibility from the British National Oil corporation as special adviser to the Government. That responsibility is now undertaken by the Department, as it should have been before.

As there is a clear need to encourage further exploration, will my hon. Friend say when we may expect the oil industry to be allowed to explore in the Western areas? Those areas are said to contain significant sedimentary basins in deep water.

:My hon. Friend will appreciate that it would not be right if I were to make a positive announcement now. The seventh round arrangements are now under negotiation, and no doubt he will learn of our proposals in due course.

In the light of the flow of assets in the general economy, is any consideration being given, in discussions with industry and the special committee, to the possibility of using oil in a positive way? Oil is an expensive component of transport. Because of all the ways in which it is used, it may be possible to bring down the cost of living and thereby lessen wage demands.

:Like its predecessors, this Government would dearly like to keep down the price of oil. However, we cannot divorce ourselves from the rest of the world. World oil prices rose by more than 100 per cent. last year. However anxious a Government may be to control prices, it is impossible to do so.

Coal Industry


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will take steps to increase the resources available for investment by the coal industry.

The NCB's capital expenditure this financial year will be about £610 million compared with £464 million in 1978–79. I expect a further increase in 1980–81.

Does the Minister accept that it is important to go ahead with vital projects such as the Park colliery in South Stafford shire? Does he agree that there must be a public inquiry as soon as possible about that type of pit if mining skills and the continuity of jobs at short-life collieries such as West Cannock are to be maintained?

I fully understand the problems and worries of that case, but it is for the Department of the Environment, in conjunction with the parties involved, to decide the timing of the inquiry. I shall ensure that that Department is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's point.

Will my hon. Friend comment on the £22 million deal between the National Coal Board and the BSC to stop coking coal imports? Will he also indicate the impact on investment?

If the stories in the press are accurate, the Government will be delighted that the two nationalised industries have been able to come to a commercial arrangement. Such an arrangement will offset the transitional difficulties caused in South Wales and other parts of our coking coal industry by the possibility of further imports. If those reports are accurate, they are to be welcomed.

The Minister should be more forthcoming. He must know whether there has been an arrangement between the National Coal Board and a nationalised industry about coking coal. We are discussing jobs and employment. As regards Park, I hope that the Minister realises that we are talking about an area that employs highly skilled manpower. Pits do not last for ever. Will the Minister do everything that he can to expedite the Park project, in order to retain that manpower?

The Government are aware of the concern about Park. Where it is in the power of the Department of Energy to do so, we shall ensure that those points get across. I have just been informed that a press release has been issued by the National Coal Board and the British Steel Corporation. Obviously, we welcome their arrangement.

Nuclear Power Policy


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what proportion of energy used in the United Kingdom was derived from nuclear power at the latest date for which information is available.

Figures published in the latest issue of the Department's statistical bulletin "Energy Trends" show that for the period January to November 1979 nuclear electricity constituted 3·9 per cent. of total inland energy consumption.

Assuming that my hon. Friend's plans for the extension of such an excellent programme come to fruition, what proportion of energy will be derived from nuclear power in the United Kingdom compared with that derived by France and West Germany?

If our plans come to fruition, by 1990 France will have 60 gigawatts of nuclear-generated electricity, Germany will have 40 GWs and the United Kingdom will have only 12·3 GWs. Therefore, our programme will leave us substantially behind other countries.

With regard to the fast breeder programme, did Ministers authorise the recent visit by a Russian delegation to Dounreay?

The Government were consulted before the visit and agreed that it could go ahead. The visit was made as a result of a co-operation agreement that had been signed in 1961 between the Atomic Energy Authority and the Soviet state committee for the utilisation of atomic energy. The scientists involved were not particularly senior. It has been our policy to review prestige visits by senior politicians. The visit of the Soviet Coal Minister was cancelled as a result of that policy. Had the scientists in this case been more senior, their visit would have been cancelled also.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are more likely to reach our target on time if the Central Electricity Generating Board makes its announcement as quickly as possible? In constituencies such as my own there have been non-radioactive leaks about where the new power stations are to be built. It would help if we knew where we are. We could then discuss the matter seriously, and not be bombarded by all sorts of pressure groups, when we do not know what is happening.

I understand my hon. Friend's opinions and worries. We shall do our best to ensure that uncertainty is removed. Those announcements that can be made will be made as soon as posible.

Is it not a fact that output will be down this year, because Bradwell and Dungeness B nuclear power stations have closed because of cracks in the reactors? Is the Minister aware that there is great concern because inspectors of British nuclear installations are 20 per cent. below strength? Ice further aware that those inspectors are distressed because their jobs will probably be moved to Liverpool? The nuclear station at Chapel Cross does not have a safety inspector. There is great public concern about the safety of these stations.

We are aware that the Nuclear Inspectorate is somewhat below strength. We are also acutely aware of the urgent need to make sure that pay and conditions in the inspectorate are sufficient to attract people of the right calibre. The inspectorate needs to be up to strength so that the programme can go ahead. The Government are giving urgent consideration to the matter.

Nuclear Power Policy


asked the Secretary of State for Energy, in the light of recent announcements on nuclear policy, what plans he has to ensure that reactors in the current programme are built to date and to cost.

In the first instance the construction of nuclear power stations to date and to cost is a matter for the NNC and the generating boards. The Government are, of course, concerned that stations should be built as quickly and economically as possible. As my right hon. Friend said in his statement on 18 December 1979, the Government attach importance to the steady build-up of the NNC into a strong and independent design and construction company, fully able to supply nuclear power stations efficiently, at home and abroad.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and, as is necessary, declare an interest. However, does he agree that some time has passed since that announcement and that there has been no noticeable action? Will he consider knocking some heads together to produce action?

If my hon. Friend is referring to strengthening the management and appointing a new chairman to the NNC, I agree that that is a matter of great urgency. We intend to make an announcement as soon as possible.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that doubts have been expressed in all parts of the House about the possibility of fulfilling the programme under present conditions? Is he further aware that those doubts have been expressed to the Secretary of State by the Select Committee on Energy? Will he look into the matter closely and make a statement soon?

We are well aware of delays in construction. We wish to strengthen the management of the NNC to make it into a free-standing, more efficient and effective company. We have decided that the PWR option should be explored, because of past difficulties. PWR appears to have advantages of time and construction and in regard to the amount of work done off site. We are mindful of what has gone wrong with the nuclear programme, and our policy is to try to overcome those difficulties.

Is not my hon. Friend worried about the monopoly enjoyed by the National Nuclear Corporation? Does he accept that the time has come to ensure that we receive the best possible benefit from the experience of companies in this country and overseas?

I do not know quite what my hon. Friend has in mind. In this country not one order has been placed for a decade, and it is extremely difficult to think in terms of more than one supplier to the nuclear industry. As my hon. Friend knows, various consortia came together precisely because there was not enough work.

Bearing in mind the cracks in the Magnox reactors and the fact that the AGRs have been an engineering disaster, does the Minister agree that safety should take precedence over a quick program me?

Safety is our top priority and takes precedence over all other considerations. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong and irresponsible to describe it as a crash programme. It can in no way be described as that. If the programme is implemented, the proportion of our electricity generated by nuclear power will be substantially less than the forecasts in the Green Paper that was initiated by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) when he was Secretary of State.

It appears increasingly likely that the principal delay will be in getting approval for a PWR. What steps is the hon. Gentleman taking to make sure that in 1982 he can place an order, whether for an AGR or any other type of plant?

The Government have yet to announce the precise form and scope of an inquiry into the PWR. We understand the need to place orders quickly and make swift progress.

Combined Heal And Power Scheme


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects to make an announcement concerning the implementation of the Marshall report on schemes for combined heat and power.

As I said on 14 January, the Government are carefully considering the issues raised in the Marshall report, but expect to be able to make an announcement shortly.

Will that announcement at least agree in principle that large quantities of energy can be saved by that method? Further, will it pay particular attention to the capital cost of laying hot mains, which is a point at issue?

The Marshall report clearly shows that CHP can save energy. When we first published the report I said that there were many other questions, and capital cost in urban areas is clearly crucial.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disappointing that the Department of Energy forecast that heat saved from power stations by the year 2000 will be only 2½million tons coal equivalent, bearing in mind that the amount of heat loss from power stations is between 60 million and 70 million tons coal equivalent, and that the Marshall report states that 15 million tons could be saved by the year 2000?

I approach all forecasts to the year 2000, including our own, with a degree of humility. There is a major difference between recognising the totality of potential energy saving and that which can be saved economically. We should wait just a little longer for the final report.

Does the Minister agree that, as a priority, we should use the enormous quantity of heat that is going to waste rather than create new capacity for electrical generation, when we already have a surplus?

As I said, there are many other considerations beyond the pure apparent saving in energy, such as technology and institutional planning. Those questions should be answered fully before we proceed in that direction.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is reassuring that British industry has extensive and satisfactory experience of CHP? Will it be possible for the Government to get EEC funding or support for our efforts with CHP?

I am glad that my hon. Friend drew attention to our experience. About 15 per cent. of privately generated industrial electricity usage comes essentially from CHP. The background of involvement in the industrial sector is substantial. All financial avenues must be examined when we get down to specific proposals.

Fuel Prices


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what has been the increase in domestic gas prices as compared with the commercial gas price, household coal, two star petrol, electricity, heating oil, retail prices and supplementary benefit for the period since December 1975 to the latest convenient date; and what the estimate is for each of these to December.

It is not possible to give a meaningful summary of fuel prices for the country as a whole. Prices vary according to geographic location, quantities purchased and, in the case of coal, petrol and heating oil, individual merchants. I have arranged for the relevant information related to the Northampton area to be tabulated in the Official Report.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and look forward to reading the remainder of his answer in the Official Report. However, does he agree that even under the new circumstances domestic gas will be a good buy, and that the higher the profit level of the British Gas Corporation the lower the amount of taxation that we shall have to raise? Does he further agree that that is of great benefit to gas and non-gas users?

My hon. Friend is right. Over the past five years, much the lowest price increase of all fuels has been for gas. It has been much lower than for almost all other fuels, and certainly lower than retail prices generally. It is correct that, for the coming year and the years thereafter, a large part of the profits of



Consumption level

Percentage price increase

Gas (Domestic)80 therms/Annum27
400 therms/Annum39
1,200 therms/Annum40
Gas (Commercial)5,000 therms/Annum87
Household CoalDeliveries of 1 ton91
2 Star Petrol53
Electricity (Domestic)750 Kwh/Annum70
5,000 Kwh/Annum69
30,000 Kwh/Annum76
Gas OilDeliveries of 500 gallons97
Retail Price IndexAll Items64
Fuel and Light65·3
Long Term RateSingle Householder73
Supplementary BenefitsMarried Couple75
* The estimated increases for fuel prices to December 1980 are not available except for gas to the domestic sector where the figure is 29 per cent. The estimated increase for supplementary benefit is a question for the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Nuclear Security


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the discussion of the Under-Secretary with Dutch and German the British Gas Corporation will be needed to finance considerable increases in transmission lines and new facilities to meet the large surge in demand for gas caused by oil price rises and the encouragement of the rising demand for gas consumption, which seems to have received unrestrained blessing from the Labour Government.

If the Government are entitled to get from the gas industry a far greater income than is required tomeet the cost of gas, why do they not put an extra price on the oil from producers in the North Sea, to ensure that the £700 million which they are at present receiving can be brought into the Government's coffers? It will be £2,000 million in the next two or three years.

The hon. Gentleman should be aware of the tax regime affecting oil producers in the North Sea, which is, basically, the petroleum revenue tax. This is a fairly assessed and pitched tax and it brings substantial benefits to the Exchequer. It has, I think, been agreed by successive Governments that this is the right approach, and it is one which ensures that the large rent or surplus accruing to the oil producers comes to the Exchequer.

Following is the information:

Ministers about security arrangements at Urenco, Almelo, Holland, in the light of the Khan incident.

I myself have had no discussions with Netherlands or German Ministers, but the Prime Minister has raised this matter with Mr. van Agt, the Netherlands Prime Minister. There have also been official level discussions in the joint committee and through diplomatic channels. As the hon. Member is well aware, the necessary action to strengthen the implementation of troika security procedures throughout the collaboration is being taken to ensure there is no repetition of the Khan affair. I cannot discuss the details.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, various representations have been made to the Dutch Government. He knows also that we have received in confidence a report from the Dutch Government discussing the issues. I cannot reveal what the report says, and it is for the Dutch Government to decide whether it is published and whether it is revealed to the Dutch Parliament.

Are any research workers or other people from South Africa involved in this Urenco set-up?

I have no reason whatever to think so. I shall raise the question and write to the hon. Gentleman, but I would say that it is extremely unlikely.

Gas Prices


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what level of surplus arising from the sale of gas during the financial year 1980–81 is expected.

The precise level of forecast profits is a matter for the British Gas Corporation, but on the basis of the recently announced financial target I expect profits in the coming financial year to be of the order of £600 million before tax.

That answer means that the Minister took a decision in total darkness, having no idea what the estimates would be. Does he agree that now that he has imposed the tax upon gas, this is tantamount to a declaration of war against both gas consumers and the gas industry, and does it not contradict his whole energy policy when at this moment he is attempting to increase the amount of gas consumed, especially for growth in industry?

The hon. Gentleman should be under no illusion but that the increase in the figure for the coming year which I have just mentioned is in line with what the British Gas Corporation recognised as necessary at the very least to overcome the danger, of which we were warned, that without increases in price of the size proposed for the coming year there would be a clear possibility of supply interruption. That is the danger that we face. Over and above that, the sort of profit that we are talking about for the coming year is needed and is in line with the colossal investment required to put in the new transmission lines and to meet the vast backlog of those who wish to have gas, which at present for both homes and factories is twice as large as normal—70,000 homes and 4,000 industrial concerns all waiting for gas. The money is needed to meet that demand, which, as I say, has been allowed to develop in recent years, apparently with the unrestrained blessing of the previous Government.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the bulk of the profit comes from the industrial sale of gas rather than from domestic sales, that until now the domestic sale of gas has shown a loss, and that even with the increased prices for domestic gas the British taxpayer will be getting a return of only about 9 per cent. on his money, whereas the Government are borrowing at some 14 per cent. or 15 per cent.? Is it not about time that we stopped looking on nationalised industry as part of the welfare services?

For domestic gas sales the position is precisely as my hon. Friend puts it. In this present year there would broadly speaking, be a breakeven or zero profit position on sales of domestic gas. If there had not been permission to increase the price in the way that the British Gas Corporation believes to be right for the coming year, domestic gas would have been sold at a loss. If the Opposition are now arguing for subsidised energy prices in an age of energy shortage, this is taking us beyond even the usual level of perception of Socialist economics.

Does the Secretary of State realise that the public are beginning to think that the Government have a one-track mind on conservation, which means that they have only one conservation policy, namely, to price energy out of people's reach? Will he give an assurance that some of the excess profits made by the gas industry will be used for genuine conservation methods?

A conservation policy involves both price and encouragement, with the right information about how to respond to that price in the future. One of this Government's aims has been openly to explain to people the realities of the high-cost energy era so that they may know how to plan for the future in order to use energy efficiently instead of being led in a dance from year to year without ever being told the truth about price increases.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has no powers under the Gas Act 1972 to take back the windfall profits of the industry, and should not this be considered extremely carefully since these moneys could be deployed for the future energy requirements of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is right. The present system under which the moneys are returned to the national loans fund is the one for which there are powers, and there are no powers to take them back in tax. If the latter were to be the arrangement, new powers would have to be taken.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is the Government's policy to tax gas? Why has there not been any suggestion of a scheme, either from him or from the Treasury, to give massively increased grants for insulation? Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the reports in the press that the insulation industry is scared that even the existing grant will be reduced? Can he promise any increased grants for industry or domestic users, in order to carry forward a genuine conservation programme?

The Government have recognised, as have the nationalised industry consumer councils, that while it is the right aim to move towards economic energy pricing, for those in hardship there should be extra help to meet that hardship, to encourage both consumption and conservation. That is recognised. On the broader question of how much people should be given in additional grant or incentiveto do what it is anyway in their interests to do, that is a matter which the hon. Gentleman should consider carefully before proposing that hard-pressed wage earners and taxpayers should pay money to others for things that they would do already for themselves.

British Gas Corporation


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he plans next to meet the chairman of the British Gas Corporation.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when next he will meet the chairman of the British Gas Corporation.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when last he met the chairman of the British Gas Corporation.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when next he plans to meet the chairman of the British Gas Corporation.

I meet the chairman of the British Gas Corporation regularly and whenever necessary.

When he next meets the chairman, will my right hon. Friend be in a position to report substantial progress on working out the details of the fuel allowances scheme to which he referred two weeks ago? When can we expect that scheme to see the light of day?

The details of schemes for additional help are primarily for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I told the House that not only will increases be taken into account in next November's up ratings of pensions and supplementary benefit heating additions and family income supplement, but that the Government are reviewing the whole range of help available. I told the House also that proposals will be announced in good time to allow people to plan how they can manage next winter—it is the impact next winter with which we are concerned—and that is still the position.

When the Minister next meets the chairman to discuss gas prices, will he bear in mind that there has been a startling increase in the number of applications to the social services committee of the London borough of Newham for help with fuel bills, and I have received a letter from the chief executive telling me that the committee has already spent more in the first seven months of the current year than it did in the whole of last year? Will the right hon. Gentleman take it that many people, especially the elderly, the frail and the housebound, are frightened to put on their heating systems, and that there is real fear of deaths from hypothermia as a result?

It is recognised that there are these serious worries. The price increases which we have been discussing affect next winter, but as regards this winter it was recognised last October that for a limited number of people much more help was desirable. That is why the scheme which my right hon. Friend proposed, although that was admittedly for a more limited range of people, made increased allowances available, in some cases up to seven times the average available under the previous Government's electricity discount scheme. I know that the discount scheme was put forward with good motives, but I think that it is recognised by all concerned, including the consumer councils and the fuel poverty groups, that it was not effective and not satisfactory, and my right hon. Friend's scheme provides a far better basis in social policy for developing the right kind of help.

When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman, will he make clear whether responsibility for future pricing policy lies with the British Gas Corporation or with the Government?

The question of deciding tariffs lies with the nationalised industry corporations. The Government are required to set financial targets, ideally for three years. The previous Government stated in a White Paper that the targets should be set for a three-year period, but when it came to the point they did not face up to it and set the target for one year. The Government have set the targets, which have pricing implications, for three years. Detailed tariffs are a matter for the corporation.

When my right hon. Friend next sees the chairman, will he discuss the possibility of an inverse tariff for domestic users, which would have the double effect of making cheaper the essential therms which are used by old people and other needy people, and encouraging energy conservation?

That idea has been put forward over the years. It was looked at closely in 1976 and in 1978 by the previous Government, and we have looked at it again recently, as have the nationalised industries consumer councils. In all cases the conclusion is that although inverted tariffs would help some poor small consumers, some poor but large consumers of energy would be grievously hurt by such an inversion—wherever the line was drawn. The natural instinct is to try to look for ways in which any pattern of tariffs will meet the problem, but the idea of inverted tariffs, while it might help some people, will certainly hurt others, who might be very poor.

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that Sir Dennis Rooke and his colleagues asked the Minister to raise the price of gas? Was it a policy forced upon him by them?

I have made clear that the BGC shares the objective of moving towards economic energy pricing.

The British Gas Corporation agreed that for the present year an increase of the order proposed was necessary, and it agreed to implement that increase. It believed that for the years thereafter the objective was right, but said that it wished to go slower than the two-year proposals in the financial target. I have set that out. I have also set out the Government's reasons for differing from the BGC about the later two years, which lie primarily in the area of the need to conserve energy in the dangerous world situation, which it would be utterly irresponsible for any Government to ignore in the move towards a more market-related price structure.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many industrial projects have been held up as a result of the high demand from domestic users of gas?

I cannot give a precise number, but 4,000 industrial customers are now waiting for gas and cannot get it. To some degree that must be related to the supply of and the demand for gas. It is also related to the conditions under which the British Gas Corporation is required to supply to the domestic consumer on a statutory basis. Nevertheless, we face today something akin to mass rationing. We inherited that problem, but to have to apply gas rationing in an island with such extensive gas resources seems to require the sort of genius that belongs to the Labour Party.

When the right hon. Gentleman next meets the chairman of the British Gas Corporation, will he take up the problems of gas supply in rural areas? Will he ask the chairman to use some of the surplus profit to carry the supply into such rural areas as my constituency?

The first problem facing the gas corporation is to connect up the enormous backlog of customers who cannot get gas, and then to cope with the continuing numbers of new customers—now running at about 300,000 each year. The chairman has a major problem of supply to deal with, and he must overcome rationing and interruption. Those must be his priorities.

In view of the pending increase in the price of gas, there is likely to be a greater demand for solid fuels. Is my right hon. Friend aware that distributors in the Bristol area are already expressing concern about supplies of solid fuel, particularly for domestic use? Is he entirely happy about the National Coal Board's distribution policy? Will he investigate that policy and make sure that there is sufficient solid fuel available for domestic purposes when the price of gas goes up? Will he make a statement in due course?

Distribution is a matter for the chairman of the National Coal Board. I shall look into the point that my hon. Friend raises and write to him.

If we are to move to economic energy pricing, it is vital that the Department of Energy does not absolve itself from the responsibility for gas consumers—whether they are poor, in rural areas or in domestic or industrial areas. Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear to the House that he accepts that the moneys now being received by some of the energy industries as a result of a pricing policy which is influenced by OPEC will be available to consumers of energy, both in terms of generous schemes for helping the poor and in generous schemes to increase conservation?

The Government have made clear that they believe in developing effective social policies. It is through social policies that the consequences of fuel hardship should be met. That applies as much to those in hardship through supply or consumption of fuel as to those in hardship on the conservation side.

As to the availability of moneys, the right hon. Gentleman should not overlook the gigantic investments in the energy industries, some through the Exchequer and some through public funds. Britain is Europe's leading energy producer and one of the largest energy investors. That is the Government's policy. We believe that it is the right policy to meet the energy crises ahead.

I shall allow a minute extra on each of the groups of questions to be answered later.

House Of Commons

European Parliamentarians (Facilities)


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what progress has been made on the question of the provision of facilities in the Palace of Westminster for Members of the European Parliament.


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what is the latest position over the representations being made for facilities in the Palace of Westminster for Members of the European Assembly.


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what progress has been made in considering the proposal to provide facilities in the Palace of Westminster for Members of the European Parliament.


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he expects to be able to announce a decision on the question of the use of the facilities of the House by Members of the European Parliament.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. St. John-Stevas)

I have nothing at present to add to the reply that I gave to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on 14 January.

That is acceptable as far as it goes. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, however desirable increased liaison between the Members of the European Parliament and Members of this House may be, so long as facilities in the House are so grossly inadequate for existing Members it would be intolerable to give facilities to another 81 Members of Parliament and their wives, friends, families and secretaries. If such a proposition were to be put to the House on a free vote, there would be an overwhelming majority against it.

I am sorry to have given such ableak reply to the hon. Gentleman, but it seems to have provoked him nevertheless. I cannot agree with his thesis. If it were a question of offering accommodation to Members of the European Parliament there would be something in what he said, but that is not the issue. He cannot extend from that to the general thesis that no access and no facilities should be granted to Members of the European Parliament. The Services Committee is considering the matter, and I hope that it will put forward reasonable recommendations.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the continued opposition to any proposal that facilities of the House of Commons should be given to people who are not elected to the United Kingdom Parliament? It is not simply a matter of accommodation. It is a constitutional question.

I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman's views, but other views are held in the House. It is important that we should not go forward in a doctrinaire manner—though one may call it constitutional if one's doctrine is concerned—but should try to be as reasonable and courteous as possible.

On this difficult matter, would it not be better to keep out Members of the European Assembly, on the ground that

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder"?

I think that a modicum of presence could lead to happy relations between the two Parliaments, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take his normal civilised, reasonable attitude to this matter.

Members Of Parliament (Insurance)


asked the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bottomley), as representing the House of Commons Commission, what changes have been made in the group personal accident insurance for hon. Members and if he will make astatement.

I am pleased to announce that a revised group personal accident policy has been effected, the premiums for which will be met from public funds, to cover risk of death or injury on any day on which a Member of the House of Commons is engaged on parliamentary or constituency business in the United Kingdom or abroad. The policy will not cover bodily injury caused or contributed to by war or sustained whilst flying or taking part in other aerial activities except whilst travelling in an aircraft as a passenger and not as aircrew. Details of the main benefits payable will be circulated in the Official Report, and I have arranged for full details to be included in a memorandum available in the Fees Office.

These arrangements will operate from today.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will be welcomed in all parts of the House? Will he confirm that the policy relates to death or injury of an hon. Member and does not cover damage to personal effects or property?

That is the position. It does not apply to personal effects, but only to death or accidents.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this represents what is for many hon. Members a desirable further move towards the status for hon. Members of employed persons? Will he say whether this extends compulsorily and automatically, or whether we can have contracting out?

Having been responsible for this scheme, perhaps I should explain that I had an accident in the House last year and was told that if I had been permanently injured I should have had no claim for compensation. In those circumstances I thought it only reasonable that all hon. Members should be covered by some sort of insurance. That is now the case. If any hon. Member wishes to contract out, he or she is at liberty to do so.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether accident or injury on picket lines is covered by the scheme?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is to be congratulated? If we are treated for income tax purposes as if we are employed persons, it seems a little unfair that we should not be so treated in other respects. Will my right hon. Friend circulate in the Official Report a comparison between our scheme and that applying to First Division Association civil servants?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I welcome the scheme? May I ask him to confirm that no right hon. or hon. Member who dies during his Parliamentary service need apply for compensation if he does not wish to!

Will the right hon. Member tell us, first, whether all Members are equal when it comes to meeting their death in an aerial or constituency disaster and, secondly, by what strange alchemy the worth of an hon. Member was computed?

Following are the details:

The benefits provided by the policy are as follows:

Death—a lump sum of £60,000.

Loss of one or more limbs, permanent and total loss of use of one or both hands or feet, or total and irrecoverable loss of sight in one or both eyes—£60,000.

Permanent total disablement—£60,000.

Temporary total disablement—£200 per week for so long as such disablement continues subject to a maximum period of 104 weeks.

Medical expenses—15 per cent. of amount paid for Temporary Total Disablement subject to a limit of £500.

Paymaster General

Government Policy (Press Coverage)


asked the Paymaster General whether he is satisfied with press coverage of Government policy.

I think that press coverage of Government policy has been reasonably adequate. Comment is another matter, and I do not suppose that any Minister in any Government has ever been wholly satisfied with that.

In view of press reports of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's weekend speech demanding Draconian powers to clobber the trade unions, will the Paymaster General tell us who is responsible for stating Government policy on industrial relations? Is it the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Employment? Or will they both be overruled by a diktat from Attila the Hen?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's description of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech, but any questions about that must be addressed to my right hon. and learned Friend himself.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that when Government policy is spelt out regularly and frequently the people understand and accept it, and will support the Government accordingly?

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the amount of publicity given to Government policy in my constituency, where public expenditure cuts are leading to the pumping of raw sewage into the River Tweed, in order to have a few coppers on running a pump?

:That is a question which should more properly be put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Ministerial Broadcast


asked the Paymaster General if he intends to make a ministerial broadcast.

Since the Government are so keen to save public expenditure, will the right hon. Gentleman consider making a ministerial broadcast to explainwhy he, as public relations adviser to the Government, is paid out of public funds and not by Conservative Central Office?

I am not a public relations adviser to the Government. My job—which previous Governments have also recognised is a necessary task—is to see that the Government information services do not operate merely in the interests of getting the facts of Government policy over to the public, but that they provide an adequate service of information to the press and the media.

Has my right hon. Friend any information on whether the public would prefer to have Labour Party political broadcasts on all three channels at the same time or whether they would rather have a choice?

If the right hon. Gentleman is not a public relations adviser to the Government, what the heck does he do? In particular, where is his job specification different from that of Lord Wigg in the Labour Government between 1964 and 1967?

I understand that the noble Lord had a job specification which the Government of the day were careful not to reveal to the public.

Government Policy (Press Coverage)


asked the Paymaster General whether he remains satisfied with presentation in the media of Government policy.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I have just given to the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan).

Does my right hon. Friend think that the press is aware of the co-ordinated campaign being run by the Labour Opposition to support every strike on which they can lay their hands, with a view to fomenting bad industrial relations and denigrating the police and security services at every attempt?

Whether or not the press is aware of that—I think that it is—it is becoming increasingly aware that rank and file trade unionists and members of the public generally are well aware of it and that they look to this Government for a remedy.

Steel Industry

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the position of pay negotiations in the steel industry. First of all, however, I extend to the House the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for not making this statement himself. He is carrying out engagements in South Wales—a visit that has already been postponed twice—and, in view of the special problems of South Wales, he judged that he should not put off his visit for the third time.

The House will know that following private exchanges between the BSC management and union leaders the full negotiating bodies of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and National Union of Blastfurnacemen met the British Steel Corporation on Friday. It was soon plain that a misunderstanding between the two parties existed and that there was an important difference between what the BSC had offered in the private discussions and what the union side thought had been offered. The union side promptly withdrew from the meeting.

Following this breakdown, ACAS, the independent conciliation service, immediately tried to get in touch with both sides. It had discussions with the BSC on Friday afternoon and again this morning. I am told that the ISTC and the NUB have not yet been able to give a positive response to ACAS's invitation for an early meeting.

On Sunday, negotiators from the BSC and the craft and general unions met and agreed a pay formula, which is to be recommended for acceptance. The formula provides for a 10 per cent. pay increase in respect of a central agreement, with provisions for improved productivity, plus 4 per cent. in respect of locally negotiated productivity schemes. The 4 per cent. is a minimum; there is every opportunity to earn more from local productivity schemes.

The BSC's negotiations with the ISTC and the NUB broke down because of failure to agree on the all-important question of productivity improvements. The Government have made it clear from the beginning, and I repeat it again today, that they are not prepared to put more taxpayers' money into the BSC to finance a pay settlement. Therefore, the money has to come from the BSC's own resources. It is there to be earned, and productivity improvements are essential if the BSC is to compete and survive.

This strike is in its sixth week and has already cost the average BSC worker about £650 in gross pay. Unless a settlement is found soon, there will be permanent loss of jobs and permanent damage to our steel industry, and—without question—the risk extends to many other jobs in the rest of British industry.

I hope that all the parties concerned will display a real sense of urgency in trying to reach the settlement that this situation demands.

With due respect to the Minister, the absence of the Secretary of State is rather like Hamlet without the first grave digger. [Interruption.] Conservative Members seem to prefer the Secretary of State to keep away—I quite understand that—but that is not our view. Our view is that the Secretary of State must make a statement to the House this week, and we shall expect him to do so.

Leaving aside the general damage to the industry—the Minister of State has again pointed that out—what effect has the cost of this dispute so far had on the Government's cash limits? I think that there are three constituent elements to the cash limits—investment capital, working capital and operating losses. Which of these will suffer as a result of the dispute so far?

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said:
"It was soon plain that a misunderstanding between the two parties existed".
Has there not been a misunderstanding between the Government and the steel industry right from the beginning? The Opposition warned the Government well before Christmas of the effect of this dispute. The Government have shown complacency. The Prime Minister in her television interview on 6 January talked about days, not weeks. That is the basis on which the Government have dealt with this problem.

The Minister ended by saying:
"I hope that all the parties concerned will display a real sense of urgency in trying to reach the settlement that this situation demands."
The one party not displaying a sense of urgency are the Government. Every person in this country—the press as well—knows perfectly well that the Government are intervening and have intervened all along the line. The time has come for the Government to intervene openly and honestly. They should call the parties together within the next couple of days.

I am sure that the majority of hon. Members appreciate the reasons why my right hon. Friend felt it necessary to go to South Wales today, where he will be meeting many local councils and the Welsh Development Agency.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about cash limits. He stated that cash limits were there for the purpose of meeting operating losses next year. We have tried to make plain on many occasions that that is exactly what the £450 million of taxpayers' money will not be doing. It will be meeting some capital investment and some redundancy costs, but not operating losses.

What the right hon. Gentleman still does not appreciate when he charges the Government with complacency and not intervening is that unlike the right hon.

Gentleman and his right hon. Friends, we see this primarily as a matter between the BSC management and the unions concerned. Therefore, it is not for the Government to become involved in negotiations. We have made that plain previously and I have made it plain again in my statement today. Of course, we are involved to the extent of the £450 million and, as custodians of the taxpayers' money, we have made it clear that we do not intend to put any further cash behind the industry.

The hon. Gentleman has made it perfectly clear that investment capital, redundancy payments and working capital are the three aspects. If so, and if there is only £450 million available—[HON. MEMBERS: "Only?"] only £450 million available, and, incidentally the hon. Gentleman has not told us what the dispute has cost so far—out of which section is the cost of the dispute so far to come: redundancy payments, investment capital or working capital?

The cost of the dispute has been given on a previous occasion. The estimate of the British Steel Corporation is that it is running at about £10 million a week. I am glad to say that production generally throughout the country is still only slightly affected. The right hon. Gentleman asks where the money comes from. If there is no more money forthcoming from the Government, the British Steel Corporation has to act like any private sector company. It has to find the money from within its own resources. There are a number of ways in which it can do that.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that events over the weekend, since the talks broke down on Friday, namely, the 14 per cent. settlement with the craftsmen and the return of the private steel workers today, mean that negotiations should be resumed immediaely and that it is up to Mr. Sirs and Mr. Smith to return to the negotiating table quickly? Does he not also agree that to ask for 20 per cent. without strings in the negotiations when the craftsmen have settled for 14 per cent. is totally unrealistic, bearing in mind that the British Steel Corporation is losing between £5 million and £10 million a week?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the House to the example of the craft and general unions. In reaching this settlement, which is substantially self-financing, I believe that they took the position of the industry into account. Further, the fact that a number of workers in the private sector have either stayed on at work or, in the case of Hadfields, have decided to go back, shows that there is a real desire among the membership of the ISTC to end this strike and to save their industry. I am hopeful that their example will be noted by the leadership.

How did so great a misunderstanding arise about the basis of the resumed discussions? Is there not a lesson there?

That is very difficult to answer. Private discussions were held. As far as the management was concerned, or so I am told, there was no question about what the offer was. But there was a misunderstanding. It led to a most regrettable breakdown of negotiations.

Will my hon. Friend make clear to the unions and to the country, when talking of new money, that there are only two places from where that money can come—either from the taxpayer paying yet more money to the British Steel Corporation or from improved productivity? That is the realkey. There can be substantially improved and better earnings through improved productivity. Will he press that point whenever possible?

I am glad that that voice should come from the Back Benches; it has come from the Dispatch Box on many occasions. There is plenty of scope for improved productivity within the BSC. The money can be earned through increased productivity and the consequence of getting improved productivity is that the industry will move towards a competitive state. Without being competitive, it does not have a future.

If there was a misunderstanding, as the Minister said, why did not the Government take steps to try to secure a return to work on an interim settlement in return for the setting up of some sort of inquiry?

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service—ACAS—exists for the purpose of trying to help in these matters. As I have told the House, ACAS has had two discussions with the British Steel Corporation. For some reason, Mr. Sirs and Mr. Smith—this was my information when I left my office—have still not indicated when they are prepared to undertake talks with ACAS. It is the responsibility of ACAS. That is why it is there. It has to try to find a way forward.

:Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government have no intention whatever of setting up another inquiry into the steel industry? The industry was thoroughly investigated by a Commons Select Committee recently. Such an inquiry would merely delay the taking of vital decisions.

The Government agree with my hon. Friend. This is not the time for a court of inquiry. The time is for a settlement of this dispute. The way forward is there.

The Minister mentioned Hadfields, which is in my constituency. Will he accept that whatever differences may exist currently between Hadfields and the BSC workers in Sheffield, as I witnessed this morning, they are completely united in holding his right hon. Friend responsible for their present predicament and believe that only he can now break this deadlock? There is a widespread view in Sheffield and not only in this morning's issue of The Times, that this strike ought now to be settled. Even among lay people there is an instinctive feeling that some give on the Minister's part—no matter how moderate—on cash limits, or the intentions or purposes for which they were arranged, could help break the deadlock. Will the hon. Gentleman convey that to his right hon. Friend.

The hon. Gentleman speaks for his constituents. They have, surely, shown that they believe strongly that this strike should not have been spread to the private sector. The hon. Gentleman talks about my right hon. Friend. I believe that the hon. Gentleman, who, I know, wishes, like all of us, to see an end to the strike, could best help by explaining to his constituents that the Government are not prepared to put in more tax-money. The hon. Gentleman should explain that this amounts to £700 million in the current year and another £450 million next year. That is all that will be forthcoming. If the hon. Gentleman would explain that to them I believe that the Government's position would be understood.

Does not the experience of Hadfields show that local plant dealing is much more effective where management is close to the shop floor? Is not the British Steel Corporation hopelessly top heavy? Was not the negotiating committee of about 70 or 80 representatives of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation imposing an impossible burden on smooth consultations? Will my hon. Friend explain what steps are being taken to break up the British Steel Corporation, bearing in mind the reports in the Financial Times about chemicals. bridge building and engineering?

Yes, I also saw the reports in the newspapers. I believe that there is considerable merit in decentralisation and local bargaining. One of the features of the agreement now reached with the craft and general unions is that local productivity schemes should prove an important part. I believe that will help for the future.

Does the Minister not accept that continual drift in relation to this strike is causing a crisis in the Government's credibility? Does he not think, in view of the non-statement made today—that is the only way to describe it—that the time has come for his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to intervene?

I would have thought that the Government's credibility was standing up very well. If one thing was demonstrated by the otherwise regrettable breakdown of negotiations, it was that there is no question of U-turns, silent or otherwise.

Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that the Government's credibility in my area is nil? [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] It is not nonsense. I am being very serious in what I say. In my area, when pits are closed in similar incidents, miners are prepared to Say "Let them put the top on". On the picket lines at British Steel, due to the inactivity of the Government, they are saying "Let them close it. We have nothing to lose." Will the Minister not accept that there is need for an inquiry into British Steel after the dispute is over? Any industrial relations department that can announce a loss of 53,000 men and at the same time a nil increase in wages must be out of its cotton-picking mind. Does the hon. Gentleman not realise—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long:"]

Order. Long questions will prevent my calling some hon. Members who want to be called.

I am now finishing. Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that the £450 million about which he talks is derisory against the £1½ billion given away to 6 per cent. of the population?

The hon. Gentleman will do best if he takes the view of all his constituents working in steel and not just those on the picket lines. I believe that he will find a different story and that he will find that they wish to return to work.

Was not an important question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn)? In view of the fact that the British Steel Corporation has said throughout that the sort of money that the steel workers aspire to can be got through appropriate local productivity schemes, does my hon. Friend not agree that it would be more sensible to negotiate—where the area or plant is open—rather than nationally? As long as ACAS is asked to act nationally it can do little to help. Locally, it could play an important part in solving this wounding dispute.

At present ACAS must work nationally, because it has to bring the leaders of the ISTC and NUB together along with the BSC management. Of course the money can be earned. Indeed, it was a figure that my right hon. Friend gave early on in the strike, which showed that even the first BSC offer would allow the average steel worker to earn about £123 or £124 a week.

Does the Minister accept that many people such as myself are not normally in favour of the Government's intervening in industrial disputes, believing that these should be settled by management and trade unions? However, in this case the matter has gone well beyond that stage, in that the average steel worker in my constituency and throughout Scotland is frustrated and bitter because he believes that he is negotiating at second hand and that these directions are being given to the BSC by the Secretary of State. We have only to watch television, where the Secretary of State appears with monotonous regularity, to see that that is the case. A serious situation has now developed, and the Secretary of State and his Government colleagues will have to give just a little in order to settle the steel strike and so maintain a steel industry in this country.

Like many of his hon. Friends the right hon. Gentleman continues to ask for more taxpayers' money. Why should the steel workers ask for more taxpayers' money when the money is there to be earned? It is not as though the productivity cannot be gained; it can. That is the answer to that question.

Is there not general unrest and uncertainty in the steel industry at the fact that the productivity schemes proposed by the BSC are complicated, with the result that the details are not fully understood? Without in any way asking my hon. Friend to intervene, may I suggest that he should ask the BSC management to go out of its way to make the details of local productivity schemes known to all its employees?

I am sure that the BSC management will take note of all that has been said, including my hon. Friend's suggestion. I remind him that the craft and general unions have just settled for a proposal that was similar to that which was on the table on Friday. One part of it is to offer 4 per cent. against local productivity schemes being worked out and agreed to. In the case of the craft unions, it has been agreed that these agreements shall be worked out by the middle of May. I think that that will help to meet my hon. Friend's point.

Is the Minister aware that even the BSC makes no complaint of the co-operation that it has received from the two main production unions concerned, including my own—the National Union of Blastfurnacemen? On the other hand, the craftmen's unions have dragged their feet considerably. Therefore, they have more concessions to make and are able to receive benefits from productivity schemes. Does not the hon. Gentleman know that the Redcar complex, in my constituency, is fully competitive and can compete with the best foreign plants? Even at this late stage, will he take action to enable the two unions, which never wanted to strike and do not want to strike, to settle?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will play his part in trying to achieve that. There is certainly scope for increased productivity in relation to the craft and general unions, but as far as I am aware there is comparable productivity to be gained by the two unions to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the latest BSC offer means that a steel worker would get an increase of about £14 a week if it were accepted? Does he further agree that most workers would regard that as a generous increase, particularly if they worked for an industry that was effectively bankrupt?

My hon. Friend confirms what I said a few minutes ago—that even BSC's first offer would have given £12 or £13 a week extra to the average steel worker.

If, as the Minister said, these men have lost an average of £650 each at a time when they urgently needed money, after Christmas, does he not realise that something must be seriously wrong, because without any strike pay they are now more determined than ever to go on? If at the end of this strike we are to have a viable steel industry for the whole of our community, does not the Minister realise that the community must sustain it? The Government must intervene and put more money on the table in order to get the workers back to work. That is the only way. There is no other.

If the steel workers decided to go on strike against an offer of 12 per cent. minimum, and have lost the sort of sums in gross pay to which I have just referred, why should the taxpayer, who generally earns less than a steel worker, now be asked to put his hand in his pocket in order to find more money for the steel workers?

Has my hon. Friend received, either from the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) or the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillborough (Mr Flannery), any indication that they would prefer more taxpayers' money to go as a greater subsidy to Britishsteel even though it is taken out of the same pocket as that which provides funds for child benefit, maternity grants, education, health and pensions?

It is true that the £450 million is greater than the gross cash limit on the capital side for the NHS in 1979–80.

Is it not the case that there are Ministers in the Cabinet who now favour intervention? Is not intervention the only way in which to save not only the industry but also the country?

If by "intervention" the hon. Gentleman still means providing more taxpayers' money, I can tell him that the Cabinet and the Government are united on that point and that it shall not be so.

Does my hon. Friend agree that steel workers, who in large measure did not want to go on strike and were not asked whether they wanted to go on strike, have a greater interest in a viable and productive steel industry than they have in the industrial virility of Mr. Bill Sirs and his executive?

I am sure that the membership is well aware that if the strike were to go on for much longer the damage would become very serious indeed, not only with regard to their own industry and job prospects but in relation to the whole of British industry. I am certain that the membership is aware of that, and I believe that pressure will start to build up on the leaders of the two unions concerned.

Is the Minister aware that as of Friday of last week, 500 of my constituents who work at the Metal Box Company were laid off? In spite of what he or the Government may say, my constituents believe that the Government are inextricably bound up in this dispute. Is it not now time that Ministers in the Department of Industry discharged their responsibilities to the taxpayers, who after all pay their ministerial salaries, and got this dispute settled quickly?

The hon. Gentleman's constituents at the Metal Box Company have been laid off because of the picketing that was carried out against their company. If one was to inquire of the constituents at Metal Box, and particularly at Neath, I believe that they would be full supporters of the Government's intention with regard to secondary picketing.

Will my hon. Friend drive home the fact that the largest support for Mr. Sirs at present, and for the continuation of the strike, comes from the Opposition in this House? The Opposition are leading the view that the Government should put more money on the table. So long as that view is put forward they are the strongest supporters of the continuation of the strike. That fact must be pushed home to the public at large.

If, despite what Ministers have said, there is a feeling that there is a prospect of more taxpayers' money coming forward, the blame for that lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of Opposition spokesmen. However, I repeat what I have already said—there is no such prospect.

Does not the Minister understand that he is dealing with a trade union that has not had a national strike for 53 years? If it calls a strike at this stage, does it not occur to him that there must at least be some deep reason why? In the light of that, is it not the Government's duty to bring the parties together and to ensure that at least there is no misunderstanding in the Government's mind?

It is a matter of great regret that an industry with such a good strike-free record should now be on strike. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is in touch with the parties and is trying to bring them together. One hopes that the unions will respond more quickly than they did over the weekend to a meeting to see whether there is a way forward. In that way they will gain the respect of the public.

Is it not obvious that without putting in any extra money the Government could enable the strike to be settled tomorrow and that they could have prevented it by simply allowing part of the £450 million allocated for redundancies and closures to be used for wages? Is it not more sensible to get these men back making steel than to save that money for a few months in order to close down half the industry?

The hon. Gentleman does not realise that this money is liable to be paid out under statutory schemes. If that money were to be transferred further money would have to be found from the taxpayer. It is the same answer. More money will be required from the taxpayer.

If hon. Members will be very brief, I will call them all, but I cannot do so if there are long questions, which will cut out some of those who wish to speak.

The hon. Gentleman quoted the figure of £650 as representing the loss by sustained strikers. His chief information officers quoted something similar to the Sunday papers. What Tory Member would reject the return on investment that the strikers already have on their £650? At present rates of interest a return on £650 is £2 a week. The strikers have been offered more than that, since they were offered a 2 per cent. increase.

The hon. Gentleman is trying to perpetrate a myth. The initial offer was not 2 per cent. It has been made clear that the initial offer was 2 per cent. plus 10 per cent. The 10 per cent. was to be earned by productivity. That is still the message.

Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me, as one who met the general secretary of the ISTC last week, along with other Opposition Members, that there was no doubt that at that meeting calling together both sides would result in a conclusion to this serious problem? Will the Government recognise that the general council of the TUC has intervened and that ACAS has intervened on several occasions? Obviously they have not met with success. The only person who can possibly intervene with a reasonable chance of success is the Secretary of State for Industry? Will the hon. Gentleman give that message to the Secretary of State when he returns from Wales?

I shall certainly give that message to my right hon. Friend. His door is open, should Mr. Bill Sirs, Mr. Hector Smith or a member of the management of the British Steel Corporation wish to see him. However, such a meeting would be for information only. The Secretary of State will not enter into negotiations to settle this strike.

Will the Minister accept that the BSC productivity scheme is complicated? Will he also accept as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Mr. Tinn) said, that there are greater opportunities for productivity among some groups of workers than among others? Will the hon. Gentleman further accept that many claims and counter-claims in this dispute have not been considered by the Select Committee? Because it was said to be the first step towards a settlement, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that an inquiry into this dispute was set up?

I have already said that I do not believe that an inquiry would be beneficial in attempting to settle this dispute. A settlement can be reached round the table. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if the details of the BSC offer are not known to the members of the two unions concerned, the BSC has a duty to make sure that the terms are absolutely clear. The unions themselves should also make it quite clear what the terms of the offer are.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many workers outside the steel industry believe that the Government wilfully precipitated the steel strike? What is more, those people are now becoming increasingly worried about the effects on their own jobs because of the shortage of steel. Will the hon. Gentleman tell me what is the level of steel stocks in the car industry, particularly in Swindon, where there is a car body pressing factory?

First of all, I deny absolutely the malicious suggestion—not made by the hon. Gentleman—from some quarters that the Government deliberately precipitated this strike. That is nonsense. The House knows that it is not true. Up to now, manufacturing production in this country has barely been affected by the strike, but clearly steel stocks have started to run down. If there is a specific example in the hon. Gentleman's constituency I suggest that he inquires about it. If stocks there are low, I suggest that he makes that clear to the workers so that they can put pressure on the steel unions to settle. That is what will save the jobs of his constituents.

Is the Minister aware that Bill Sirs originally said that the 2 per cent. offer to the trade union leaders at the start of the negotiations was an insult to the trade union movement? In view of that, will the Minister tell the House where the extra money, that the BSC has now offered to the trade unions will come from?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the original 2 per cent. was through consolidation. It was not a new offer. The British Steel Corporation has made it clear on every occasion that the money on offer—the 10 per cent. that has recently been increased, if one puts the two components together—is to be self-financing from improvements in productivity.

Having listened to the Minister's answers, it is quite clear that the Government have dug themselves into a deep trench on finance. It is also clear that the steel workers are extremely obdurate about this matter. So that the House and the country can begin to assess what is at stake here, will the Minister tell us what 1 per cent. on pay would cost the Government if they were to go over the £450 million? Are we talking about another £10 million or £20 million? I am not expressing a view about it. I want to see, and the country would want to see, what is the cost of the Government's present position.

I would have to let the right hon. Gentleman know the figure. I would not like to mislead the House. The right hon. Gentleman is talking of a hypothetical possibility. We have made it clear—it should be plain by now—that no more money is forthcoming for the pay settlement. What we are attempting to do, amongst other things, is to ensure that we have an efficient, competitive and viable steel industry. That will not come about by pursuing the policies that the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends pursued when they were in government. That policy was to put in more taxpayers' money on every occasion. That is not the way forward.

I recognise that there is a difference between the Minister and ourselves. However, I believe that we and the country are entitled to know what sum we are talking about. I am not espousing any claim, because it is not our responsibility. It is for the Government to negotiate the claim and bring the two sides together. That is the difference between us. I heard Mr. Sirs say on television that he believes that that 17·5 per cent. claim is right, because that is the level of the retail price index. How much extra money will be involved in such a claim? The Government are putting in £450 million. Are we talking about an extra £10 million or £20 million? What figure are we talking about, because in the end that figure has to be set against the damage being done to industrial relations and to industry as a whole?

I have told the right hon. Gentleman that I will let him have the figure. I cannot give it at the moment. I ask the right hon. Gentleman where the money is to come from. Would it come by reducing the moneys available to schools or the Health Service? Where would it come from? We have taken the view, looking at expenditure priorities, that the figure of £450 million—in itself equivalent to 1 per cent. on the rate of income tax is enough.

It is not for me to answer questions; therefore, I shallreply interrogatively. Is the Minister aware that the public sector borrowing requirement can be at least £1 billion out in its estimate in any one year? If the cost of settling the strike is to put another £20 million on the PSBR it would not matter a tuppenny damn.

If we were to take that line we would be dealing with real money from the taxpayer. It is because of such an imprudent attitude to the nationalised industries that we must try to rescue the economic situation from the mess in which we found it.

Standing Orders (Business Of The House)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should be most grateful if, at your leisurely convenience, you would be good enough to rule on the following matters. On Tuesday 5 February and Wednesday 6 February there appeared on the Order Paper as private business to be called before Prayers a series of motions the effect of which was to alter the Standing Orders of the House that affect private business. When the House is pleased to alter its Standing Orders this must necessarily be of the nature of an act of public business. That a motion affects private business does not and cannot transmute an act of public business into an act of private business. For instance, a timetable motion whose effect was confined to private business would not be taken with private business before Prayers but under Orders of the Day.

Apart from its technical error, the malpractice of taking that category of public business as private business means that, presumably, if it is opposed persistently it must be set down for debate in the rare time allocated for taking opposed private business rather than in the generality of time allocated to public business.

The effect of taking what is properly public business in time allocated for opposed private business is to prejudice the progress of Private Bills awaiting consideration by the House. It offers the opportunity of prolonging debate on that public business as a means of delaying consideration of the Private Bills which should receive the consideration of the House then instead. That a malpractice has continued for some time has not in the past interdicted Mr. Speaker from correcting it once that malpractice has been drawn to his attention.

Therefore, I respectfully ask you, Mr. Speaker, not to allow motions altering Standing Orders, whether for public or private business, to appear on the Order Paper so as to be taken before Prayers, and to decline to put the Question on any such motion so appearing, as undoubtedly it lies within the power of Mr. Speaker to decide Mr. Speaker: I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) who, this morning, was kind enough to send me in writing the statement that he has just made. I shall rule on it tomorrow.

Broadcasting Of Debates

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Friday a small contingent of the great unwashed infiltrated the Gallery of this Chamber. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I neither know nor care about the purpose of that intrusion. Suffice it to say that the persistent services of blind men from Bedlam would be required before there was any likelihood that those concerned had any personal interest in the subject of the debate.

Hon. Members are worried not so much about the activities, dismal though they were, as about the response by the broadcasting media. Within hours the sub-human noises and caterwauling that interrupted the speech being made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) were relayed to every television and radio in the land. Such far-reaching and quick-acting publicity must give encouragement to any group of fanatics prepared to abuse the procedures of the House for their own ill-conceived and perverted purposes. The great bulk of marches and demonstrations—

Order. The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) must make a point of order on which he wishes me to rule.

If such interruptions are relayed throughout the media other people will be encouraged to make similar interruptions. That would be detrimental to the dignity of the House. It is a grave matter and it may eventually be detrimental to the safety of hon. Members. After all, shouts and screams are far more diverting to the public than the catcalls and caterwauls that we put up with on Friday. I would be grateful if you, Mr. Speaker, could explain how we can prevent the broadcasting media from usurping their privileges in future.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's feeling. He should refer this issue to the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting, which the House set up, so that it can consider what happened. We must be jealous of the way in which we are reported. Broadcasting is an extraneous influence in our Chamber and we all have a right to be concerned about the way in which it is operated. I did not hear the broadcast.

Statutory Instruments, &C


That the draft Export Guarantees (Limit on Foreign Currency Commitments) Order 1980 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[ Mr. St. John-Stevas].

Insurance Companies Bill Lords


That the Insurance Companies Bill [ Lords] be referred to a Second Reading Committee—[ Mr. Nott.]

Education (No 2) Bill (Allocation Of Time)


That paragraph 7 of the Order of the House [29th January] be varied as follows—

(1) For sub-paragraph (1) there shall be substituted—

'(1) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 3 (Exempted business) shall apply to the Proceedings on the Bill—
  • (a) on the first allotted day, for four hours after Ten o'clock;
  • (b) on the second allotted day, for two hours after 10 o'clock.'
  • (2) In sub-paragraphs (2) and (3) for the words 'the said period of two hours' there shall be substituted the words 'the said period of four hours or two hours'.—[Mr. St. John-Stevas.]

    Orders Of The Day

    British Aerospace Bill

    As amended ( in the Standing Committee), considered.

    New Clause 6

    Loans To Successor Company To Rank As Priority Creditor

    The Secretary of State shall stipulate as a condition prior to its nomination under this Act that the successor company shall have included in its initial articles and memorandum the necessary provisions to ensure that where the Secretary of State or any other Secretary shall advance moneys by way of loan to the successor company the loan shall rank as a priority creditor in any winding-up, after the claims for salaries and wages.'—[ Mr. Les Huckfield.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    4.17 pm

    New clause 15—Government funding.

    Government amendment No. 22.

    Amendment No. 23, in clause 5, page 5, line 8, after 'company', insert

    'except that he shall not subscribe for or acquire such shares while the company is making losses, unless so authorised pursuant to affirmative resolutions of each House of Parliament'.

    Amendment No. 24, in clause 5, page line 11, at end insert'; or

    (c) make loans to the successor company for capital investment, for the development of a particular project, or for long term research on such terms as may be agreed between the Secretary of State and that company when the prevailing rate of interest on the open market would prevent or inhibit such investment project or research.'.

    Government amendment No. 28.

    Amendment No. 36, in clause 7, page 6, line 35, leave out 'as a member' and insert

    'as an existing holder of shares or other securities of the successor company or of any subsidiary'.

    Government amendment No. 51.

    We wish to stick strictly to the wishes of the House, but there is a difficulty because we have not yet been presented with the memorandum and articles of association for the publicly quoted company, British Aerospace Limited. We have pressed the Minister and the Under-Secretary of State in Standing Committee since 27 November but all that the Government have done is to present us with the memorandum and articles of association for the private company.

    We have been assured that the memorandum and articles of association of the public company are not dissimilar to those of the private company. However, the purpose of the Bill is to pave the way for the setting up of a publicly quoted company.