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Commons Chamber

Volume 983: debated on Wednesday 23 April 1980

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 23 April 1980


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Transport M25


asked the Minister of Transport if he will make a statement on his plans for the M25 motorway.

Its completion retains the highest priority in the trunk road programme.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that at the recent inquiry in my constituency into the link between Reigate and Wisley, the greatest criticisms came from people who were worried about atmospheric lead from petrol? The recent Lawther report has recommended a reduction of lead in petrol. Would my hon. and learned Friend like to comment on that?

We are, of course, very concerned about the Lawther report and are considering it anxiously. The Government intend to produce a reaction on behalf of all Government Departments, and it is hoped that that will be available by the summer of this year. Meanwhile, we are considering all our road programmes, and when the decision comes to be made on the Leatherhead interchange, we shall consider the problem of lead pollution and the levels of lead in the atmosphere on those congested urban roads which the M25 is designed to relieve.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the public inquiry into the Swanley Sevcnoaks section of the M25 took place nearly a year ago but we still have not had the inspector's report?

I am glad to say that the inspector's report is now to hand. However, it is a substantial document about a controversial proposal. I hope my hon. Friend will understand that my right hon. Friends will need some time to consider it before they can come up with the right conclusions.

Is full weight being given to the views of such organisations as the Friends of Epping Forest regarding the route in that part of the country?

We have always given the fullest consideration to the views of that organisation, because it is always difficult when a road programme encroaches on an area such as Epping Forest. Of course, parliamentary approval was specifically needed for that part of the route. I hope that we shall continue to treat the forest with the greatest sensitivity when dealing with road problems near it.

Order. I am sorry, but I cannot call every hon. Member whose constituency is affected by the road.

British Railways


asked the Minister of Transport when he intends to meet the chairman of British Railways.


asked the Minister of Transport when he plans to meet the chairman of British Railways.


asked the Minister of Transport when he intends meeting the chairman of British Railways; and if he will make a statement.


asked the Minister of Transport when he expects to meet Sir Peter Parker.

When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman, what will he say to him about the recent 20 per cent. pay settlement for British Railways employees, which was claimed to be a major commitment to change, not least in regard to productivity, upon which the future of British Railways depends? What is my right hon. Friend's view about productivity in British Railways in view of the recent wage settlement.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that productivity is basic to the whole question. What has been offered is a basic increase of 16 per cent., and 4 per cent. once—and only once—productivity improvements have been achieved. Such productivity improvements must be achieved because it simply cannot be a question of loading further fare increases on to the commuters.

I propose to call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of British Railways, will he discuss the subject of further railway electrification? Does not he agree that it is vital that there should be a continuous programme of investment so that the United Kingdom traction industry can maintain its position in the United Kingdom market as well as develop its position in the wider and more important overseas markets? Will he encourage British Railways in that respect?

Yes, we shall try to give British Railways as much encouragment as we can. A report of a joint working party between British Railways and the Department will become available later this year. Yesterday, I met the Railway Industry Association. We shall bear in mind the importance of exports in any decision that we make.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that more than 90 per cent. of the freight entering and leaving Cornwall is china clay? Can he give an assurance that the application which is now being made jointly by British Railways and the companies concerned for financial assistance for new rolling stock will be given sympathetic consideration.

Yes, I can give an assurance to my hon. Friend that we shall give the application every consideration. Clearly, it is part of our policy to try to get as much freight of that kind as we conceivably can on to the railways.

When the Minister meets the chairman of British Railways will he raise with him British Railways' support for the pressure group " Transport 2000 " which is campaigning against the roads programme decided by this Parliament? Does the right hon. Gentleman think it appropriate that taxpayers' money should be used in this way?

My hon. Friend tempts me into a general essay on the question of pressure groups in transport. I sometimes wish that the common interests of more groups were recognised but I am sure that the chairman of British Railways will take note of what my hon. Friend has said.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us remember the pledge that he gave to the House that there would be not cuts in rural transport while he was Secretary of State? Will he renew that pledge today?

Yes, Sir. I am not prepared to see any substantial cuts in the passenger network. I have made that clear in this House and in a letter to the chairman of British Railways. No Minister of Transport has ever said that there would be no closures of any kind, but I wish to make it absolutely clear that we are not prepared to see wholesale closures of local services. Our position is exactly the same as the position of the previous Government, which is that there will be no further round of Beeching cuts. Opposition Members should accept that assurance and not look for mischief where there is none.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Sir Peter Parker says in the annual report of British Railways published today, that, in spite of the operating surplus achieved by British Railways, unless the stringent cash limits are lifted his industry will not, in the long term, be able to provide the kind of service provided by railways in Europe? What action is the Secretary of State taking to lift those cash limits?

We hope that the chairman of British Railways will be able to manage the railways within the external finance limits. I have had talks with him and he has given me assurance that it will be possible to operate within those limits. The hon. Gentleman would do well to consider in detail what the chairman of British Railways said.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the annual report of British Railways published today indicates that—[HON. MEMBERS: " Reading ".] Of course I am reading.

Order. Though that confession is an admission of guilt, the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) must at least look as though he is not reading his question.

In the annual report of British Railways for 1979 it is made quite clear that a deterioration in rail services took place in 1979 compared with 1978. As most of the decline in service seems to have taken place on the Dartford loop line, will my right hon. Friend express urgent concern to the chairman of British Railways, when he next meets him, about the level of service provided in the South-East area?

I am not sure that all the late arrivals can be affecting my hon. Friend's constituency but I shall certainly take up the question of the quality of service with the chairman of British Railways when I next meet him.

In view of what the Secretary of State has just said about railway closures, will he give an assurance to the people of Wales that no further lines will be closed in the Principality during the next five years?

I can certainly give an assurance that there is absolutely nothing in front of me at the moment proposing that any lines in Wales should be closed. Nor, may I add, is there any report in the Ministry of Transport—as was alleged by one newspaper recently—saying that further lines should be closed. It is all a myth and I ask the House to accept my assurance on that.

Will the Secretary of State discuss with the chairman of British railways the extent to which the cash limits which he has set for British Railways have led to British Railways replacing their assets more slowly than any other railway service in Europe at a time when there is a big increase in passenger mileage and to British Railways having to turn away £10 million to £15 million worth of profitable freight traffic due to the lack of locomotive power?

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the PSO grant for 1980–81 was reduced by £22 million of which £13 million was decided on by the previous Government? Investment in British Railways is being maintained at exactly the level decided upon by the previous Government. As for freight locomotives, permission was given for 25 such locomotives to be built though 16 only were built. That is not a matter for Government, it is a matter for British Railways.

British Rail (Financial Objectives)


asked the Minister of Transport if he is now able to make a further statement on the financial objectives for British Rail.

I announced financial objectives and interim financial targets for the Railways Board's freight and Inter-City businesses on 17 March. Work is proceeding on financial objectives for the board's other commercial businesses.

Will the Secretary of State say what the position is on British Railways freight operations? Will those operations cover their costs in future?

It is the position of the Government—as it was that of the previous Labour Government—that we want to see British Railways' freight business running commercially and covering its costs. That is one of the reasons why we have set the financial objectives. Clearly, the annual report of British Railways is not encouraging in that respect. However, our aim remains as I have stated.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the too rigid application of cash limits to the railway industry is causing a rapid deterioration in rail services throughout the country? For instance, on the London to Birmingham service—starting with the May 1980 timetable—there will be a 10-minute slow down in services? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that he is the first Minister of Transport for over 30 years to move Birmingham further away from London, in rail terms?

I ask the hon. Gentleman also to study the reality of the situation and refer him to what I have just said to the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth). The position is, of course, that British Railways have had to make economies in line with the Government's general programme. But. if the hon. Gentleman consults the chairman of British Railways he will not find that British Railways have been treated in any way unfairly in that programme.

Given the general concern about financial objectives, I believe that the House will be reassured by my right hon. Friend's statement that the 4 per cent. payment for productivity will not be made until productivity has increased. Can my right hon. Friend say how that productivity is to be measured?

I understand that the chairman of British Railways is negotiating on this issue with the trade unions. Sir Peter Parker has made it absolutely clear that the productivity payment will not be made until an agreement has been signed.

May I press the Secretary of State further on the question asked by my hon. Friend for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier)? Is it not a fact that comparative studies of British Railways and European railways are extremely favourable to British Railways? Is it not further a fact that, if British Railways had anything like the amount of money that is poured into their railway systems by the Governments of France and Germany, the problems of British Railways would be greatly eased? Does not productivity in British Railways stand excellent comparison with our much-vaunted European counterparts?

It is not realistic now, nor was it realistic a few years ago, to talk in those terms. It is true—and I pay tribute to British Railways—that compared with other European railway systems, our system is cost-effective. There is no question about it. However, I do not think that it follows from that that we should continue to pour more money into British Railways. What we surely need is a balance between the passenger on the one hand and the taxpayer on the other. I believe that we have achieved that.

British Railways Board (Subsidiary Businesses)


asked the Minister of Transport when he expects to receive the results of the joint examination by his Department and the British Railways Board about the setting up of a holding company for its subsidiary businesses.


asked the Minister when he expects to announce his proposals for certain British Railways subsidiaries.

I expect to receive the results within the next month and shall make an announcement as soon after that as possible.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the holding company proposal is fiercely resisted both by British Railways and the railway trade unions since that proposal will deprive them of the finance that is urgently needed for British Railways' passenger services? Is this not another example of a Tory Government bowing to private enterprise?

It may come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman to hear that this Conservative Government are in favour of private enterprise. May I say to him that there is no difference in objectives between what I am doing and what the chairman of British Railways wishes to do. The chairman of British Railways wants private investment in the subsidiary companies. We are now disscusing the method. My mind is not closed on the method, but on the objective I remain absolutely firm.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the figures which indicate that the 29 hotels of British Railways produced a profit of £328,000, which will not do very much to help their investment programme? Does he agree that if there is true concern about the expansion of the subsidiary companies and employment in them, there will be a wish to see them separated from the public sector to allow new investment to come in and to allow the expansion to take place that has been constrained under successive Governments in the past?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Last year the hotels made a surplus of £328,000 on a turnover of £38 million. That is the sort of performance that we are seeking to improve. I believe that the opportunity to grow free from the restraint of the public sector is good for those organisations and will be good for the creation of jobs within them.

Does the Minister agree that if finance from the subsidiaries is not available for the capital funding of British Railways the taxpayer, about whom he is always mouthing concern, will have to find the capital? To demonstrate that, will the right hon. Gentleman quote the equivalent figures for the British Rail Property Board?

The majority of the money that goes to British Railways from its property interests comes not from non-operational property but operational property. We are seeking to get private investment into the non-operational property side of British Railways. We are not saying that British Rail should not have a stake in the company—clearly it should. The hon. Gentleman's fears are regrettably misplaced.

Will my right hon. Friend make a genuine attempt to point out to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) and others the reality that Sir Peter Parker's plans would in all probability mean more and not less investment in the subsidiaries, and that that would mean more jobs and more secure jobs? Will he go on from that to discuss with the Chairman the financial relationship between British Railways and Her Majesty's Government in the light of the board's current views? When he has done that, will he make a statement to the House?

I shall try to achieve all that my hon. Friend asks of me. I emphasise that we genuinely believe that by giving the subsidiary companies greater freedom, which not only the Government but British Railways want to see for them, we shall be acting in the interests of those who work for the subsidiary companies and for employment generally.

The House will recognise that the profits both from hotels and shipping has increased from £2 million in 1974 to about £14 million now, despite difficult circumstances. Will the Minister make it clear to the House whether private equity capital will have the same voting value in the determination of commercial decisions as those shares held by the British Railways Board?

Yes, that would be the aim. I shall be making a further announcement. It is clear that the details of the scheme are now under consideration. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until that consideration has been completed. After the initial consideration we shall be talking to all the interests, including the trade unions.

Channel Tunnel


asked the Minister for Transport if the studies at present being carried out by Sir Alec Cairncross include any into the benefits that Great Britain might derive from a Channel tunnel.


asked the Minister of Transport when he expects to receive the report of Sir Alec Cairncross on the Channel tunnel.

Sir Alec Cairncross will be advising me on the broad economic aspects of any Channel link proposal. I am discussing with him what work he should undertake following my statement in the House of 19 March.

Will that remit and that study include the possible commitment of private funds? Will it include an examination of the possibility of the commitment of funds from the EEC for this purpose?

The answer to both of my hon. Friend's questions is " Yes ". We have made it clear that it is basic to the scheme that it must be financed by private risk capital. As for EEC money, we welcome the initiative of the Commission in proposing infrastructure aid. Clearly the tunnel would be a chief candidate for that form of aid. At present the infrastructure aid is merely a proposal.

In the light of current discussions on the United Kingdom contribution to the EEC budget, will my right hon. Friend consider an offer of funds from the Commission as a proper, sensible and relevant factor to offset the current imbalance?

The EEC budget is a different issue. It is no part of the specific negotiations. It is the wrong time scale for immediate help. It is also wrong in terms of the amount that is under consideration. However, if an infrastructure programme comes from the EEC there is no question but that the Channel tunnel could become a candidate, and a good candidate, for that aid.

Will the Minister ask Sir Alec Cairncross or someone to consider the severe dangers of terrorist activity if there were a tunnel? Is he aware that there would be nothing to stop bombs from being put on to the trains? No one seems to be able to decide what would be the result. Surely someone must consider this issue.

A characteristic of almost every transport system is that it is subject to some form of sabotage. The security aspects will concern the two Governments, among other things.

Will the Minister ask Sir Alec Cairncross carefully to consider the industrial development implications of establishing the Channel tunnel? Does he accept that if there are to be any benefits from the creation of the Channel tunnel they might not be spread equally within the United Kingdom?

The effect of a Channel tunnel would be generally beneficial to the United Kingdom. We shall take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Will the studies take into account the serious general economic disadvantage to Britain of this project?

I do not think that there is a serious economic disadvantage in the Channel tunnel. It is one issue on which there is considerable agreement on both sides of the House. It is felt that it makes a great deal of sense to go ahead with it.

Cyclists (Road Safety)


asked the Minister of Transport what action is being taken to improve road safety for cyclists.

We give advice and encouragement to local authorities on the provision of better and safer facilities for cyclists. We shall seek to improve machine safety, particularly braking. We shall continue to encourage cyclists to make themselves more conspicuous and other road users to treat cyclists with more care and consideration. We commend RoSPA's national cycling proficiency scheme, which last year trained 300,000 children between the ages of 9–14.

In spite of those facts, is not the Minister being rather complacent about this important issue in view of the great increase in the number of cyclists, which is likely further to increase because of present circumstances? Will the hon. and learned Gentleman consider the introduction of a massive publicity scheme on do's and don'ts for cyclists? Will he consider including in that campaign the need to make car drivers more aware of the existence of cyclists? Is he satisfied with the accuracy of the present cycling accident statistics?

We are not complacent. The hon. Gentleman is right to observe that, with the steady increase in cycling—which on the whole we welcome—there is a tendency for the number of accidents to increase. I am satisfied with the accuracy of the statistics that we have, but my colleagues and I will always consider ways of improving them. There is scope for publicity, apart from the other features that I have described. I agree that publicity must be aimed at cyclists themselves, especially children, and to other road users, including motorists, to make them more aware of cyclists. Many accidents are not the fault of the cyclist.

Will my hon. and learned Friend continue to emphasise that there are two crucial safety factors, namely, that cyclists should be seen and, if possible, separated from other road traffic? Does he agree that many cyclists now seem to be using fewer lights than some years ago, and that that is one of the reasons why there are more accidents?

The problem of lighting on cycles is largely one of enforcement. Cyclists should be seen, and we do everything that we can to encourage the wearing of conspicuous clothing by cyclists. The separation of cyclists from the main traffic is a desirable aim wherever possible. We give considerable help to local authorities to bring forward schemes to try to segregate cyclists from other traffic.

Will the Minister consider the Swedish and Swiss experiment of banning children under the age of 5 from cycling on public roads? Is he aware that the experiment has had a phenomenal success in reducing the casualty rate for young children? May I urge him to consider it, and to do so rather more quickly than his consideration of introducing provisions to increase motor cycle safety?

I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, now that it has been brought to my attention. We must weigh carefully the need for a ban on any use of the roads. Most children under the age of 5 should not be on a bicycle on any public highway that has a normal amount of traffic use. I shall deal on another occasion with the allegation that we are being slow on motor cycle safety. We are near to producing our proposals.

Due to the rather disappointing progress throughout the nation that has been made in the provision of cycle tracks by local authorities, will my hon. and learned Friend consider the possibility of making it a legislative requirement that local authorities should provide cycle tracks for reasons of safety?

We are limited by finance and sometimes by the physical geography of particular towns. We give financial grants to local authorities which introduce experimental schemes. There are some interesting schemes at Peterborough and Middlesbrough, and four or five other schemes are on the way. Certain towns are easier to adapt for the use of cyclists than others. We must face up to some of the practical problems.

M63 (Stockport)


asked the Minister of Transport if he will make a statement about extension to the M63 in Stockport.

Construction of the M63 Stockport east/west bypass between Cheadle Heath and Portwood is under way and is proceeding satisfactorily.

Is the Minister aware that there have been one or two unfortunate accidents as the result of the contractor's activities along that section? Will he confirm that my constituents in the Cheadle Heath area have made a considerable number of complaints about the contractor's behaviour? Will he ensure that no more accidents take place and that there is better liaison between the contractor, his Department, the road construction unit and local residents in order that any inconvenience may be minimised?

The construction of any major road is bound to lead to some disruption. Although everything possible is done to avoid the possibility of accidents, occasionally they occur. There is a liaison officer on the project who is meant to handle individual complaints. I shall follow up any complaints that are passed on to me by the hon. Gentleman or by any hon. Member. We are following up every complaint that we hear about. I am led to believe that arrangements between the engineers, the liaison officer, the RCU and the local community will improve.

Perhaps the Minister did not hear Monday's debate on the North-West—in which case he should read it. Is he aware that the completion of this road is crucial to the economic and industrial future of the whole of south Manchester? Does not he accept that his Department has prevaricated about the future of the M63? Will he assure us that he is not losing some serious debates in Cabinet about its future completion?

We are not prevaricating about that stretch, but building it. Indeed, that is what has given rise to complaints in Stockport. The extension from Portwood to Denton is planned, and there is no doubt that it will go ahead. The hon. Gentleman will have to await the arrival of the White Paper for exact details of its timing. In addition, we have just announced the preferred route for the remainder of the road. The motorway box round Manchester remains one of our highest priorities and should not be delayed by any financial constraint.

Enterprise Zones (Road And Rail Systems)


asked the Minister of Transport what studies his Department is making of the road and rail system aspects of the proposed enterprise zones.

The transport aspects of the enterprise zones are being considered in relation to particular sites as part of the consultations now in progress with local authority and other interests.

Does not my hon. and learned Friend agree that the availability of good communications into the enterprise zones is a vital ingredient if those zones are to be the success that Conservative Members wish them to be?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why we are paying particular regard to the problems of access to possible sites. We are, therefore, going through the present short-list of possible sites. If there is no proper access to motorways, railways and markets it will inhibit the success of those zones. We all hope that these enterprise zones will make a valuable contribution to the boosting of small businesses.

Who is expected to pay for the cost of access—central Government or local authorities?

In choosing sites we are looking at existing access. We hope to designate those sites that are best placed to give access to the markets Where improvement is required local authorities will probably have to provide it, but we shall be particularly sympathetic to requests from local authorities for grant assistance, when they improve access to those zones.

Does not the Minister agree that it is essential, when planning enterprise zones in Manchester, to bear in mind not only road and rail links, but the fact that the Manchester ship canal and the port of Manchester are also important factors? What proposals does he have in mind that will be in time to assist that industry?

The extension of the M602 to Salford is probably the most important proposal under consideration, and we are about to go ahead with its construction.

European Community (Council Of Transport Ministers)


asked the Minister of Transport when he last met his European Economic Community colleagues; what subjects were discussed; and if he will make a statement.

At the December Transport Council, which I attended, agreement was reached on all six inland transport matters under consideration. Full details of the matters discussed are contained in my reply of 10 December 1979 to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn). The most significant item from the United Kingdom point of view was an agreement to increase by 20 per cent. the Community quota on road haulage permits which marked a further step towards the liberalisation that I have always sought.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Has he put forward any projects that will take advantage of increased EEC expenditure on infrastructure projects? Will he bear in mind that any infrastructure projects that are financed by the EEC should be carried out in the assisted areas?

As I made clear earlier, the proposals on infrastructure policy are still under discussion. We hope that they will be discussed at the next council meeting in June. I shall certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman's point.

Will the Minister give an assurance that he will seek a commitment from his European colleagues that there will be a specific infrastructure fund? At the moment any fund that might come from Europe will come out of the social and regional fund. Is he aware that this disturbs me and a number of my colleagues who have recently been in Europe?

We certainly favour constructive discussion on all those points. We welcome the Commission's Green Paper. We shall consult interested parties and do what we can to get a scheme that is in this country's interests.

Has there been any discussion about the implications of oil price increases for the Nine and for public transport in the Nine, particularly their effect on rail electrification?

That specific question has not yet been raised, but I expect that it will be one of the subjects under discussion either at the Council meeting or during meetings with European Ministers of Transport during the next 12 months.

Has my right hon. Friend had any chance to talk with his colleagues about comparable productivity of the various European railway networks? Would it not be helpful if we could understand why some of our friends in the Common Market have a much higher degree of productivity in the railways than we do?

My hon. Friend has made an important point about productivity. There are always dangers in European comparisons and that is why I warn the House against making too many superficial statements, on the European example, to the effect that more support should be given to British Railways.

Motorway Maintenance


asked the Minister of Transport if he is satisfied with the present safety measures operating on motorways during maintenance work involving contra-flow systems.

I am as satisfied as anyone can be that safety measures at motorway repair sites strike a reasonable balance between keeping traffic moving safely while completing essential repairs quickly and economically.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his reply, but is he aware that there is great concern, particularly in the Midlands, where tragic accidents have recently taken place on the M5 and M6 as a result of cross-overs in contra-flow situations? Is he further aware that several local private enterprise companies are considering developing innovations which may help that problem? Will he at least consider those innovations?

I know of one bad accident in particular, and there have been several others. Unfortunately the figures for accidents rise slightly when such repairs are carried out. However, the motorways remain safer than the road network as a whole. The contraflow system has been considerably improved over the past two or three years. We are always happy to look at any suggested innovations, particularly those that will improve the safety of those passing such sites.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that considerable inconvenience was caused to holidaymakers over Easter where the M5 passes near to Taunton because the road is under repair and the flow of traffic was restricted to one lane in one direction, and two lanes in the other? Will he ensure that the four lanes capable of carrying traffic and the hard shoulder are put to use at peak times during the coming statutory holiday periods?

I saw the considerable traffic jams that occurred on that stretch of road. As much carriageway as possible was kept in use. I am afraid that there is bound to be some delay when major structural repairs are carried out on motorways. We are anxious to complete the work at Taunton by June so that the worst inconvenience will not occur during the height of the holiday period.

Is the Minister aware that often, following the completion of maintenance work on motorways, contra-flow systems remain in operation? Is he further aware that other obstructions are put in the motorists' way? Will he undertake to examine how long such systems remain and whether the length of time can be shortened?

Whenever I get reports on such delays, I try to follow them up. Obviously we do not want a contra-flow system in operation for longer than is necessary. Our policy is that there should not be any unnecessary delay. It is not as simple as it is sometimes thought to take the whole thing away and then put it back to avoid particularly congested periods.

M4 (Warning Lights)


asked the Minister of Transport when it is proposed to install a modern motorway warning light system on the M4 between Chiswick and Heathrow Airport.

This length of motorway signalling system is under consideration for renewal but no firm decisions have yet been taken.

Is the Minister aware that I am disappointed with that reply? I hope he will agree that this is a most important section of the strategic road network. In the interests of the prosperity of the country, will he not agree to look at this matter with considerable speed?

It is certainly important and it is the oldest section of warning light system in the country. It is still functioning quite well, but it will need replacing at some stage, and integrating into the national network. We have it under consideration, and I have no doubt that over the next two or three years a contract will be placed for its renewal with up-to-date equipment.

Type Approval Regulations


asked the Minister of Transport what discussions he has had with Leyland Vehicles Limited concerning type approval regulations.

Officials of my Department are in discussion with members of the company on this and other related matters.

When will my right hon. Friend be in a position to make a statement about taking action to improve or bring into existence type approval regulations for commercial vehicles?

We are discussing the possibility of a scheme that is similar to those applied in Europe for national approval for commercial vehicles. We expect a decision to be arrived at shortly and then we shall consult industry. The short answer to my hon. Friend is " very shortly."

Heavy Lorries


asked the Minister of Transport what consideration he has given to varying the top speed at which lorries may be driven on motorways.

We have no change immediately in mind, but we have submitted a memorandum on lorry speed limits to the committee of inquiry under Sir Arthur Armitage. This memorandum, which will be published shortly, puts forward possibilities for reductions in the limits applying on motorways to certain categories of lorry-trailer combinations.

I welcome what my hon. and learned Friend has just said. Is he aware that there are no fewer than three different speed limits for commercial vehicles on motorways? As such a large number of lorries seem to flout these speed limits, is there not a case for introducing a single speed limit, strictly enforced, or for governing lorry engines down to the relevant speed limit as set out in the statute?

I have no doubt that everybody responsible for the management of road transport is aware of the different speed limits which are calculated on the size of the vehicle. I do not think that there is any case for altering the present system to the extent suggested by my hon. Friend. Enforcement is a matter, and no doubt a problem, for the police and the Home Secretary.

Is the Minister aware that when these heavy lorries drive faster and faster on motorways there is greater danger in rain or wet conditions? Is he aware that these lorries spray water so that it resembles fog, making conditions on the motorway very dangerous? Will he do anything about this?

There is a great deal of research being done into ways of reducing lorry spray, but I am afraid that all the technical advice that I have received continues to say that the perfect solution has not yet been found. I assure the hon. Member that we shall make all the necessary changes to regulations once we have found the answer to a particularly worrying problem.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware of the problem of enforcing speed limits on lorries from the Continent, particularly those using the A28 and the A2? Will he ensure that the police are able to apprehend and prosecute them before they leave the country?

I am not sure that the problems are quite as grave as that. The police attempt to enforce the limits. We always look into complaints that foreign lorries are somehow exempted from the speed limits, compared with our national lorries. If we can do anything to tighten up the procedure to ensure that a German driver obeys the law just as much as a British driver, we shall do so.


asked the Minister of Transport if he will make a statement on the progress made by the Armitage committee on heavy lorries.


asked the Minister of Transport when he expects to receive the report of the Armitage inquiry on heavy lorries.


asked the Minister of Transport when he expects to receive the report of the Armitage inquiry on heavy lorries.

Sir Arthur Armitage and his assessors are now considering the written and oral evidence presented to the inquiry. I understand that Sir Arthur hopes to submit his report by the autumn.

In considering that report will my hon. and learned Friend pay due attention to the impact of heavy lorries on the A95—the road which feeds the whisky to the A9?

All the road maps in my Department stop at the Scottish border. North of that border the responsibility is that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I assure my hon. Friend that the reason for having inquiries is that we are concerned about the impact of heavy lorries on the environment generally. I am sure that the problem is not confined to England, but is just as serious in Scotland.

Will the Minister make it clear to Sir Arthur Armitage that many of us feel that the road haulage industry enjoys an unfair advantage over its major competitors because working hours laid down by the EEC are normally flouted in the industry and also because log books provided by lorry drivers are regarded as a joke. If the Minister is aware of this, will he do something about it?

Our policy is to ensure that there is no unfair advantage enjoyed by any mode of transport dealing in freight. We want to see them on an equal footing as far as possible, so that they can compete fairly for the traffic. I agree that the log book is easily abused, and that is why it is a good thing that we finally got round to introducing tachographs. The last Government sadly failed to introduce these for many years.

Will my hon. and learned Friend agree that this is a matter of the utmost environmental importance? Will he consider the suggestion that, before any Government decision is taken, on maximum lorry weights, this matter should be discussed fully by the House of Commons?

Without a doubt. For that reason the Government have reserved their position in the EEC. We have entered into no formal consultation with the EEC about its proposals, and we have no intention of moving on this subject until we have had time to consider Sir Arthur's report, and the House has had time to consider it. Although we are not responsible for the business of the House, I would expect that the House would debate this matter once the report is to hand.

Will the Minister accept that no committee on heavy lorries will make any impact at all on the lives of people living on heavily-trafficked urban roads which are used by juggernauts which have nowhere else to go? Therefore, will he go ahead and build the western bypass for the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, thus relieving the misery of many thousands of my constituents?

One of the main priorities in the roads programme, which will be set out in the White Paper that we are about to produce, is to get heavy traffic out of residential areas and away from people, particularly in areas where there is no alternative route at present. I am aware of local pressure for the Newcastle western bypass, but I must ask the hon. Member to await the White Paper in order to get up-to-date news of where this project stands in the programme.

Will my hon. Friend draw the attention of the Armitage committee to the environmental effect of heavy lorries on roads in rural areas? I have in mind particularly the effect on buildings and on the atmosphere. One specific example is the A350 in my constituency where the buildings of Bland-ford and other villages along that road are seriously affected by the level of heavy road traffic at present, and would be badly damaged by any increase in heavy vehicle size.

I do not believe that Sir Arthur and his colleagues have been left in any doubt about feelings in many parts of the country over the impact of the heavy lorry on rural areas where roads go through villages. My Department has submitted a great deal of evidence to Sir Arthur on this aspect of the problem, along with many others. All the evidence that we have submitted to the inquiry will be published and made available to the House and to the general public.

Should not the Department of Transport have submitted to the Armitage inquiry a very heavily weighted view in favour of the transfer of freight from road to rail? Is it not in the country's longer-term interests, because of the increasing price of fuel, to realise the advantages of rail as opposed to road transport, and move inevitably in that direction in order to save fuel in the future?

All attempts at direction of traffic from one mode of transport to another are completely doomed, and no Government have ever found any way of putting that into practice. We use the arrangements of section 8 grants to those customers of the railways who need some assistance in putting in facilities for rail transport where they can demonstrate some environmental advantage by doing so. The present pattern of oil prices will improve the competitive climate in favour of the railways over the next few years. This means that the railways will need to organise their freight business in such a way that they are in a position to take advantage of that and attract customers on to the tracks.

British Railways (Overseas Work)


asked the Minister of Transport if he will give a general direction to British Railways not to tender for overseas consultancy work or the supply of rolling stock or other equipment

Is the Minister aware that I very much welcome that answer? Will he agree that British Rail could do a lot of valuable work in Third world countries, both in the form of consultancy and by supplying equipment and rolling stock?

I congratulate the hon. Member on his impromtu supplementary question. I agree entirely with what he said. I have just come back from leading a small delegation to China, and one of the results of that will be that British Rail and its overseas arm, Transmark will have the opportunity to go to China and bid for important electrification work there. This kind of work is important, not just to British Rail, but to the whole of the rail industry, much of which is in the private sector.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Sir Peter Parker on the great initiative that he and his colleagues in British Rail have shown in going out into the world and selling the enterprise that exists in this country?

Yes, Sir, I shall certainly do so. I endorse entirely what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that the House would also wish to pay tribute to the real efforts and real achievements of the private railway industry. Those have also been substantial.

Civil Service



asked the Minister for the Civil Service if he is satisfied with the progress being made in the Government's policy of reducing the number of civil servants.

No, Sir. But we have made a reasonable start.

Is the Minister aware that, in spite of all the publicity and ballyhoo about this populist policy, there has been a reduction of only 4 per cent. in the number of civil servants? Will he confirm that many of those who have gone are highly qualified specialists, some of them expensively trained by the Government, and that there have been no reductions in the higher echelons of the administrative hierarchy?

I am glad to tell the House that the numbers in the Civil Service have fallen to 705,100, a reduction of over 27,000 since we came to office. It is approximately of the order that the hon. Gentleman stated. I do not think that such an achievement is too bad for the first 10 months. We are pressing ahead. The hon. Gentleman is right. I do not think that there has yet been a sufficient reduction, proportionately, in the higher structure of the administrative Civil Service. I am looking at that matter.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Conservative Members will be satisfied that the trend is downwards rather than upwards? It was upwards under the previous Government. Is he further aware that we are especially pleased about progress in the Department of the Environment, where staff has already been reduced by 7·4 per cent.?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has, I agree, set a fine example. Figures are getting down to the levels of the last Conservative Government. I hope that by this time next year we shall have done even better.

Will the Minister say whether the report in the press that the Government are planning to cut the Civil Service by a further 70,000 is correct? If so, what was the source of that report?

Goodness knows what was the source. It was not me. I do not intend to comment on speculative press reports. The Government are naturally considering their manpower policy for future years. I am in discussions with all relevant people.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is only one way in which a 25 per cent. increase in wage costs and 14 per cent. cash limits can be reconciled, namely, by substantial reductions? Will he assure the House that, this afternoon, unlike the last time he answered questions, Sir John Herbecq will not be going along to a Committee upstairs to tell it of a projected increase in civil servants in one Government Department?

No. I read my hon. Friend's article with great interest that Sunday. For once and, I am sure, for the only time, he got the matter slightly wrong. It was very unusual. I assure him that there is a distinction between complement and staff in post. I have announced today new figures showing that staff in post on 1 April were 705,000. As a result of the 2½ per cent. reduction I announced on 14 March, the Civil Service will be well below 700,000 by the end of 1980–81.

Despite what the Minister has told the House, will he make clear exactly what are the Government's intentions on the cuts in Civil Service manpower? Is he aware that this House asks for certain services for the community to be provided by the Civil Service? It is not good enough to be talking in terms of 70,000 further cuts in manpower without saying which services will be affected. Will he also comment on reports that he and his Department will be abolished by the Prime Minister? Is there any truth in that report?

If my position is to be abolished, that would, no doubt, be a great relief to everyone. The hon. Gentleman will have to put that question to the Prime Minister. Questions on the organisation of government are a matter for the Prime Minister. The figure of 70,000 is the hon. Gentleman's. It is not one I have ever used. I assure the House that when the Government come to any conclusions about future manpower policy, the House will be kept informed and the trade unions consulted, as is proper in a situation of this kind.


asked the Minister for the Civil Service if he is satisfied with the changing proportion and numbers of non-industrial to industrial civil servants in recent years; and if he will make a statement on future Government policy on total numbers.

The proportion and numbers of non-industrial to industrial staff reflects the tasks which are undertaken by Government Departments. As to the Government's policy on total numbers, I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave him on 19 March.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that over the last 20 years, until recently, whereas the number of civil servants has increased by 100,000, the number of non-industrial civil servants—those most people know as civil servants—has increased by no less than 180,000? Is not one concealing a great increase in the other? When my hon. Friend gives these figures in future, will he always give the total number of non-industrial civil servants?

Yes, certainly. My hon. Friend is broadly right The number of non-industrial civil servants today is 547,600. The number has gone down considerably, by about 18,000 in the past year or so. Numbers of industrial civil servants have fallen by about half that number, although I am speaking from memory. My hon. Friend is broadly right. Numbers in the industrial Civil Service have fallen while those in the non-industrial have increased. That is a matter about which the Government are concerned.

What progress has been made in the dispersal of civil servants, as recommended by the Hard-man report? What progress has been achieved in regional dispersal to the extent of placing more jobs on Merseyside?

The hon. Gentleman may recall that I made a statement last July. There have been no changes in the situation since then.



asked the Mnister for the Civil Service, if he will make a statement on the current pay negotiation with the Civil Service staffs.

I refer my hon. Friend to my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall) on 3 April. Since then the Government have decided that the settlements for the non-industrial civil servants should be staged with the new rates being paid in full from 7 May. Negotiations on the pay settlement for industrial civil servants, whose settlement date is 1 July will take place nearer the time.

Will my hon. Friend give an assurance to the House that the pay settlement falls within the Government's cash limits policy of 14 per cent., and that this is based not on the post-dated cheques of the previous Administration, as mentioned in the press recently?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Civil Service pay award for 1980–81 is contained within the cash limits allowing for only 14 per cent. increased pay costs. The difference of 4¾ per cent. will be covered by staff reductions and the staging that I have announced. That is the reality of the situation. The Government are enforcing a limit of a 14 per cent. increase in pay costs, and making manpower economies to achieve it. I hope that others will take note.


asked the Minister for the Civil Service if he is satisfied with the level of salary increases being obtained by civil servants.

Is the Minister aware that the truth of the situation is that average wage increases in the Civil Service have been in excess of 20 per cent. and not the 14 per cent. to which the Minister refers? Does not this signify that the Government have no more hope of introducing a pay policy in the Civil Service sector than they have of doing so in the industrial sector? Would the Minister care to tell the House what will be the cash limits for the next wage round for civil servants?

I will not say now what are to be the cash limits for 1981–82. It will be many months before anything has to be settled. I am not even over this pay round, let alone starting on the next. The hon. Gentleman's figures are wrong. The position remains as I stated to my hon. Friend a few moments ago.

Is the Minister aware that there are several hundred boys and girls in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne languishing on social security who, but for the policies that he is pursuing, would have been following gainful employment? Does he feel satisfied with this situation? Is he proud of himself?

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments. I do not think that they relate to the question of pay rates for civil servants.

Should not another hard look be taken at the role of the Pay Research Unit? Since the Government rightly set cash limits, based on their calculations on what the community can afford, is it not thoroughly unfortunate that the Pay Research Unit should come forward with solutions that can only lead directly to redundancies?

I understand my hon. Friend's view. I must point out to him, as I did on an earlier occasion, that the Conservative Party election manifesto said that we would reconcile pay research with cash limits. That has been the Government's policy and one that I have been trying to implement. I take note of what my hon. Friend says.

Civil Service Staff-Side


asked the Minister for the Civil Service, when next he will meet representatives of the Civil Service Staff Side.

If the Civil Service is reduced by 70,000 would the Minister welcome that?

I should welcome the smallest Civil Service that the country can have which can carry out the tasks which Parliament sets it. I am certain that a smaller and even more efficient civil service would be in the national in- terest and in the interests of the Civil Service.

Will my hon. Friend study the replies to a series of written questions to various Government Departments which I have tabled which, while bearing out the good results that he announced this afternoon, show that some Departments are still lagging sadly behind his requirements?

Each Department varies. I certainly do not wish to criticise any individual Department. I shall take note of what my hon. Friend says and bear it in mind when considering future policy.

Will the Minister be able to assure the Civil Service Staff Side that before highly-paid jobs in industry or public corporations are offered to senior civil servants such as Mr. Ron Dearing, they will be advertised throughout the Civil Service? May we have assurances that such jobs will not be given to people in a clique working with a particular Secretary of State, but that the jobs will be brought into the open and advertised either generally or throughout the Civil Service?

The usual practice for the appointment of the chairmen of nationalised industries will be followed by those of my right hon. Friends who are responsible for appointments. The practice has not varied under successive Governments.

Questions To Ministers

I have a short statement to make.

I reminded the House recently of my concern at the way in which Question Time is being changed by open questions. By such questions I mean questions which give no indication to the House of the real question which the hon. Gentleman seeks to ask. Examples of such questions—and we have had them today—involve asking when the Minister expects to meet the chairman of a particular nationalised industry, of a particular trade organisation, the Director of Public Prosecutions, or his colleagues in the EEC.

Questions are listed on the Order Paper so that the House itself is given notice of questions that are to be raised and so that considered answers to them can be prepared. The whole House knows that the open question is allowed for Prime Minister's questions because of the desire of Members to table questions that will not be transferred to other Ministers. I confess to the House that I feel embarrassed when I see as many as 20 or more questions on the Order Paper all asking about the Prime Minister's engagements for the day. It would be far better for us all if the hon. Members concerned tabled the actual questions which they wished to ask the Prime Minister.

Since the special problems of Prime Minister's Question Time have been considered by the House relatively recently, I do not propose any change in practice in relation to it. When it comes to other Ministers, however, I see no reason why hon. Members should not put on the Order Paper the question that they intend to ask, or at least disclose its subject matter so that the whole House may know the topic that is being raised. In all honesty I have to say to the House that very often a supplementary question to an open question turns out to be one which could not have been accepted by the Table Office and is, therefore, an abuse of our rules.

In an effort to protect the House, I propose, for an experimental period, to extend the practice that I introduced in March 1978 for questions to departmental Ministers asking them about their engagements for the day. When a question about a Minister's meetings with various persons or organisations appears on the Order Paper without its purpose being stated reasonably precisely, I shall allow it to be called and for the Minister to reply but I shall not call any supplementary questions. If the subject matter is indicated in the question, supplementary questions will be confined to that subject.

If in consequence of this action I find that other open questions are being devised, I shall consider applying the same restrictions to them. The new practice will be applied to questions tabled after today.

As I see it, if such action is not taken at this stage the character of our Question Time will be changed without the House itself having consciously decided that the old system of giving notice of questions should be pushed aside. I hope that I have the support of the House in the course that I have outlined.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you please examine a matter which arises as a result of your statement? The general problem arises because of the difficulty of pinning down Government Departments. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, want to protect the rights of Members to ensure that the Government are accountable.

Since you have, in effect, narrowed the opportunity of asking questions, will you also examine the way in which Government Departments narrow their opportunities to provide replies and the blocking mechanism which Government Departments put on answers by replying " No "? Such a reply means that it is impossible to table a similar question in the Table Office for three months, which eradicates the possibility of making the Government accountable for that period. All Governments use that system consciously. If we are to be inhibited to some degree, you, Mr. Speaker, should examine the matter which I have put to you.

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood my statement if he thought that I was talking about pinning the Government down. There was no such reference in my statement. I remind the House that I am expected to be the guardian of our rules and Standing Orders. I can see a danger that the whole character of Question Time will change unless this course is followed. I propose to follow it until the House instructs me otherwise.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that there will be a wide welcome for your proposal. There is a special characteristic and possible problem in respect of EEC questions after the Foreign Affairs questions slot. Specific subjects are bound to be transferred to the relevant Departments because of the way in which the constitutional relationship between the Government and the EEC operates. There is bound to be a wider aspect in EEC questions because of the Foreign Office spokesman's role in dealing with constitutional matters relating to the EEC.

I shall call the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in a moment. I welcome him back, on St. George's Day.

Whilst I am preparing myself to call the hon. Gentleman, I must tell the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) that the subject of open questions about the EEC was one matter which I considered carefully. Such questions were asked last week. Neither the Minister nor the House knew what topic was coming up. The topics ranged between Afghanistan, the Olympic Games and Iraq. The House is entitled to have notice of the questions which are to be asked.

I have left the dragon outside!

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that you have not looked at the matter as closely as you should, especially in relation to the Common Market and the chairmen of nationalised industries. One of the problems is that we cannot ask relatively narrow questions about nationalised industries because of arguments about day-to-day administration. One of the reasons for questions about meetings with the chairmen of British Rail, the National Coal Board and other nationalised industries is to overcome the possibility of such questions being stopped at the Table Office. There will be difficulties if we are not allowed to table that type of question about nationalised industries. The matter needs another look.

May 1 say, before responding to the hon. Gentleman's question, that I am glad that he is in his old forum? I mean that. I am very glad to see him. I do not say anything about hearing him, but seeing him—certainly yes.

Question No. 2 today, an open question, drew supplementary questions dealing with salaries on the railways, electrification on the railways, freight in Cornwall, " Transport 2000 ", rural transport, cash limits and the question of transport in Wales. Those questions, or some of them, could have been put on the Order Paper, and if they could not, they were out of order.

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

May I, Mr. Speaker, express the gratitude of, I think, most hon. Members for your statement today, because I believe that the open question at Prime Minister's Question Time has led to abuse. Both the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the present Prime Minister have attempted to return to the tradition of the more specific question. The more specific a question is, the more Ministers are in fact pinned down by it. I think that there would be a great danger to the tradition of our Question Time if the open question became the norm for all questions to Ministers, and I believe that the vast majority of hon. Members will be most grateful for the early action which you have taken.

While thanking you for the ruling or suggestion which you have given to the House, Mr. Speaker, may I say that some of us have some sympathy with what has been said by my hon. Friends, and one of the dangers of jumping out of the frying pan is that one may land in the fire. One of the problems is that these developments have occurred precisely because of real difficulties, and I therefore urge you, Mr. Speaker, since you have yourself said that there shall be an experimental period, that if you find that the alternative abuse of Ministers being able to transfer questions or to escape their responsibilities arises, we should have the matter looked at by the Procedure Committee. Indeed, perhaps the Committee ought to look at it in any case. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that while we conduct the experiment which you have asked for, we shall look at the other possibilities, and I urge that that should go to the Procedure Committee.

I thank you for your statement, Mr. Speaker, but may I draw your attention to the other side of the coin in relation to Departments and Ministers? I have recently put down questions to Ministers and been told in reply that, because of the disproportionate costs of finding out the information which I required, they were not able to give me the answer. When I have asked the Ministers concerned to tell me what the costs were to which they referred, they still did not give me the answer. Would you have a look at that side of the coin, Mr. Speaker?

I am much obliged to the House for the way in which it has responded. I suggest that we have this experimental period at least until the spring bank holiday, which, I think, is about five weeks away. We shall then look at it again, but I hope that it will work in the interests of the House.


With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on yesterday's decision by the Foreign Ministers of the members of the European Community concerning Iran. I am arranging for a copy of the text of the approved communiqué to be published in the Official Report.

As the House will recall, my right hon. and noble Friend and his colleagues had adopted a decision in Lisbon on 10 April which was, in effect, a last appeal to the authorities in Iran to release the hostages in conformity with international law. Our ambassadors in Tehran were instructed to convey this appeal to the Iranian President and to request him to name the date and method by which the hostages would be released. They did so on 12 April. Mr. Bani-Sadr's reply was unsatisfactory. The most he would say was that he hoped that a decision on the future of the hostages would be taken by the new Iranian Parliament when it had been elected and established. While holding out the prospect that visits to the hostages might be arranged, he could give no firm assurance about when the Parliament might meet, or whether it could be relied upon to act as he hoped.

When this matter came up in this House and in another place on 14 April, the mood of the House was unmistakable, and the phrase " the utmost solidarity with the United States " was used from the Benches on both sides. There was a general feeling that diplomatic methods had, for the time being at least, been exhausted and that the time had come to find some more concrete and far-reaching way of expressing our abhorrence at the continued defiance of the rules of international behaviour and the opinions of the civilised world.

The House will I hope, find this mood reflected in the decision adopted yesterday in Luxembourg. In accordance with a suggestion made last week by the United Kingdom, it was decided to proceed in two stages. In the first stage, the Nine will put into effect to the extent that they are not in force already certain measures mainly of a political nature. We shall reduce still further our embassy staffs in Tehran. We shall insist on a parallel reduction in the Iranian embassies in our own capitals. We shall reintroduce a visa system for Iranian citizens, after giving due notice, and we shall formally ban the export of defence equipment to Iran.

The measures to be adopted in stage 2 are much more far-reaching, and it was this paragraph which occupied most of the time yesterday. If I may, I shall read the key sentences. Ministers decided to seek immediate legislation where necessary in their national Parliaments to impose sanctions against Iran in accordance with the Security Council resolution on Iran, dated 10 January 1980, which was vetoed, and in accordance with the rules of international law. They believe that these legislative processes should be completed by 17 May, the date of their informal meeting in Naples. In the absence of decisive progress on the release of the hostages, they will then proceed immediately to the common implementation of sanctions.

These are decisions of great gravity. If it becomes necessary to implement them, a wide range of commercial activities will be affected. It is, of course, our hope that, at this eleventh hour, the Iranian authorities will draw the inescapable conclusion that the continued detention of the hostages is not in Iran's own interest and should be brought to an end without delay.

If that does not happen, we shall face the situation which we contemplated when we cast our vote for the resolution presented to the Security Council in January except that now the action taken must be on the basis of national measures and not on the basis of a resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations. The necessary measures will be laid before the House, and I believe that the Government can count on the co-operation of the House in handling them with the least possible delay.

The customary statement on the other business taken yesterday in the Foreign Affairs Council is being made separately in answer to a written question.

We are embarking upon a serious and inevitably uncertain course, but the Opposition have already made clear their view that the unlawful six months' detention of United States diplomats in Tehran is unacceptable and that the international community should join in diplomatic, political and economic, but not military, measures to bring about their early release. We reaffirm that view now. We shall, of course, give proper consideration to any legislation which the Government bring forward, and we shall expect the Government to keep the House fully informed as developments unfold.

In the light of the unsatisfactory response of the Iranian President to the European ambassadors last week, has the Minister any real reason to believe that the very modest diplomatic measures now to be taken—which we certainly hope will be successful—will have an effect? Secondly, can he affirm that the Nine have all agreed that, if no effective Iranian response is made, they will on 17 May introduce measures to prohibit direct exports, the movement of goods, credits and loans and new service contracts—in other words, the same measures as were supported by Britain and France and eight other members of the Security Council on 13 January? Is it also the intention to ban oil imports on the same date?

Is it not plain that if economic sanctions are to have a reasonable prospect of success there will need to be much wider support for them than that of the Nine alone? Is not the OECD the obvious forum in which to pursue these matters, both because it includes the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the EFTA as well as the EEC countries, and because it is only through the OECD's international energy programme that emergency measures can be taken to pool oil supplies should that unfortunately prove necessary?

With regard to international political action, is it not a fact that the Soviet Union, along with all other members of the Security Council, voted on 4 December for a resolution calling for the immediate release of the United States hostages? Is there not, therefore, a strong case—in spite of their subsequent veto on 13 January—for seeking renewed Soviet co-operation in the matter? The issue of the hostages should not be seen primarily as an issue of East and West. It is in fact the lowest common denominator of serious and sane international conduct.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's statement of support. We shall, of course, keep the House fully informed.

The political situation in Tehran and throughout Iran remains confused and fluid, and it is, therefore, right to make a further effort during the next three weeks—a little more than three weeks—to try to show those Iranians who are genuinely concerned with Iran's position in the world that that position will be undermined and put at risk so long as the hostages are held.

I confirm that there was complete agreement among the Foreign Ministers of the Nine on the measures that were announced. That is a satisfactory state of affairs.

The right hon. Gentleman will have noted that the subject of oil was not mentioned in the communiqué that was issued yesterday. No request has been received from the United States that we should forgo imports of oil. We received a request that companies should not buy from Iran at prices sharply different from the reigning OPEC prices. As it happens, the new price that was announced recently for Iranian oil is very high, and therefore British companies have not bought Iranian oil, and are not now lifting Iranian oil at the increased prices. I understand that the same is true of Japanese companies.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in pointing out that this is not simply a matter of the United States and the Nine, and that other countries are closely involved. The Japanese Foreign Minister was in Luxembourg yesterday, and my right hon. and noble Friend had a long talk with him. We understand that the Japanese are associating themselves with the measures announced—which is important. Other countries are also involved, some of which are members of OECD. Britain and her partners are in touch with them so as to bring about the maximum solidarity.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in recalling that, initially, the Soviet Union went along with the demand that the hostages should be released. Later, it fell into the temptation of fishing in troubled waters, and it vetoed the second resolution in the Security Council. Nevertheless, we note, and we shall think carefully about, the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion for a further approach to the Soviet Union on this matter.

Have the Government overlooked the notorious and proven ineffectiveness and counter-productiveness of economic sanctions? Are not the Government aware of the widespread and rising dislike in this country at seeing Britain dragged at the chariot wheels of the United States, which would not act in this way if the roles were reversed?

No one can be happy about treading the path to sanctions, or be in any way dogmatic about the result. That is one reason why the European Ministers have given the Iranians more than three further weeks before sanctions come into effect. We very much hope that decisive progress towards the release of the hostages will be made within that time so that sanctions do not have to be implemented.

The right hon. Gentleman must take into account that yesterday the European Ministers were not considering a blank sheet of paper. They were considering a request from the President of the United States of America for help in a desperate situation in which, by universal consent, he has shown immense patience and restraint for five months.

Will my hon. Friend accept that his statement today is welcome as a demonstration that, faced with difficult circumstances, the Foreign Ministers of the Community can provide positive and joint action, which will be most welcome? Will he also accept that in the present delicate international situation a demonstration of solidarity with the United States is of paramount importance?

It is satisfactory that throughout the Iranian crisis the Governments of the Nine and the embassies of the Nine in Tehran have worked together more solidly than on any other issue that I can remember. This solidarity survived a difficult test at Luxembourg yesterday.

I agree with my hon. Friend's second point. If the Foreign Ministers had returned a plain " No " yesterday to the request by the United States, the consequences for the Western Alliance would without doubt have been very serious.

May we on the Liberal Benches assure the Minister that we welcome the decisions that were taken yesterday? We consider that the maintenance of good relations with and support for the United States are of vital importance to Western European unity.

Will the Minister tell us how many British citizens are still living in Iran, and will he give us an assurance that they will be given every assistance to leave the country if they so wish?

One of my constituents and a constituent of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) have been detained for over 10 weeks without any charges being brought against them. My constituent has now been released to the care of a British company but has not been allowed to leave Iran. Will the Minister tell us what is happening in those circumstances?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his promise of support. There are still about 350 British subjects left in Iran. Of course, many of them had an opportunity to leave, but they have preferred to stay. That is one reason why we propose to keep a small diplomatic staff in Tehran, so that they can continue to give what help they can in difficult circumstances.

Regarding the specific matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and in which several of my hon. Friends have constituency interests, I received this morning two conflicting messages as to the exact position of the two Britons to whom he referred. I shall certainly keep in touch with the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he receives the latest information. Our embassy staff are doing everything that they can, in difficult circumstances, to bring about the safe return to Britain of those two people.

In his statement, the Minister referred to the importance of the position of those Iranians who are genuinely concerned about their country's position in the world. Does he believe that the threat of sanctions will make their position easier or more difficult? If he were an ascetic Iranian mullah—the mullahs are the people with whom we are dealing—given these threats, would it be more or less likely that he would release the hostages?

We are dealing with a fluid and swiftly changing situation in which different groups in Iran are jostling for power. As I said previously, he would be a rash man who would be dogmatic about the effect of particular sanctions. However, it is necessary, not simply for the United States but for her friends and allies, to show emphatically to the Iranians that their position as a major country in the Middle East, and as a major member of the international community, depends on compliance with this basic point of international law—that diplomats should be accorded the protection that international law guarantees. That is a major point, although secondary perhaps to the primary need for maximum unity within the Western Alliance.

The taking and holding of hostages is intolerable, and it is right that we should show our sympathy and solidarity with the Americans. However, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the British and European Governments will also make clear to the United States Government that foreign policy in the Middle East—in Iran and elsewhere—should be conducted in the interests of the West and not only in the interests of internal American politics, as too often it is?

It is certainly the duty of the allies of the United States to make sure that all these decisions are taken against the general background in the Middle East and, in particular, the overwhelming need to stem the threat from Soviet expansionism. It would be wrong and unfair to attribute American concern over the hostages to the fact that it is an election year. As the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) said, if we this year—not an election year in Britain—had 50 British diplomats, or indeed any Britons, held as hostages for five months in Iran, there would be a very high level of emotion, anxiety and frustration in this country as well.

Does the hon. Gentleman really think that the Americans pay such regard to the sensitivities of the British electorate? Does he agree that a one-term presidency in the United States would enormously enhance international relations? Will he understand and accept that if any form of military action is undertaken by United States forces the utmost solidarity of which he spoke will very quickly evaporate?

I do not accept the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

On the second part, certainly we would regard any suggestion of military action—no such suggestion has yet been made—as having very dangerous implications.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many British firms in Iran which undertook contracts before the revolution are now being threatened by the Iranian Government with the cashing in of bonds which were given at that time and which are now made impossible of performance by the Iranian Government? Will the Government look at this matter and ensure that, if we are to impose sanctions against Iran, British firms are not made to pay out on those bonds?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. We understand its importance. Ministers will have to consider its implications very carefully and urgently. Many of the contracts and performance bonds entered into before February 1979 are covered by the ECGD. Cover was withdrawn in February 1979 by the ECGD. Since then there obviously has been an element of risk in any new business.

While deploring the holding of the hostages, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that there is little enthusiasm in this country for economic sanctions and that some of us at least will vote against sanctions whenever the opportunity is provided in this House? As these sanctions are likely to be counter-productive in the situation prevailing in Iran, would it not be wise for Britain and the EEC countries alike to reconsider and recognise that sanctions will not work and that certainly they will not release the hostages?

I agree that there will be little enthusiasm for sanctions in this country. I think that there would have been even less enthusiasm for returning a refusal to the President of the United States and allowing the United States to draw the conclusion that we were only fair-weather friends.

As the Government have agreed to the request made by President Carter on this issue—and I agree with their agreeing—is it not time that they put pressure on President Carter to release the guns for the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are being shot dead—not held as hostages. It is time that we had these guns for use against the IRA.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. The question that he raised was answered yesterday in the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Some of the equipment requested has been delivered. A decision on the rest is awaited.

Whilst supporting completely the backing that the European Community has given to the United States, may I ask my hon. Friend, on behalf of the Anglo-Iranian group in the House, which has support on both sides, to take every opportunity of expressing the sense of sadness that many of us feel that there should be a parting of the ways with the Iranian people rather than with a regime that all of us may find objectionable? We have no quarrel with the Iranian people. Will my hon. Friend also tell us why, after all these months, nothing has yet been done to safeguard the Straits of Hormuz, through which oil from the Gulf is carried?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's first point. [An HON. MEMBER: " Why? "] Because, as he rightly said, it is important to emphasise that our dispute and accusations lie against the detention of the hostages and those who are responsible for that detention. We are not seeking to influence or determine the way in which the people of Iran decide their own future, and I think that that is perfectly right.

My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the importance of the Straits of Hormuz. As he knows, we are in close and, I hope, constructive touch with the United States and the Gulf Governments on this question.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many Labour Members have the gravest reservation about both the wisdom and the manner in which the decision was taken? Is it not time that such decisions were taken in this House before being decided by EEC Ministers?

Secondly, has the hon. Gentleman considered the consequence of his action on many groups of workers in this country? For example, does he accept that the nation, not those workers, should bear the cost? Will there be any compensation for the workers of Talbot if the Iranian order there is stopped?

On the first point, I think that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to complain if we had gone ahead with sanctions, resolutions or measures without knowing that our main competitors—the Germans and the French, for example—were willing to do the same. The hon. Gentleman would have been in a great state of indignation and excitement at our soft-headedness in that regard. It is an excellent thing that the countries of Europe have come together and taken this stand collectively. The hon. Gentleman is right, as I made clear in my statement, that it is a matter for national measures, and these will have to be approved by the House in the usual way.

I have already dealt with the question of compensation. Ministers will need to look at this matter very carefully. I made the point that much of the business entered into before February 1979 is covered by the ECGD and that business entered into after ECGD cover was withdrawn was obviously entered into with some element of risk.

I welcome the initiative of approaching the Government of the Soviet Union to find out what, if anything, they are prepared to do to ease the situation inside Iran, but will EEC Ministers take the opportunity to make clear once again to the Soviet Union that adventures around the frontiers of Iran will not reduce the tension inside that country?

My hon. Friend is right to stress that point, and we take every opportunity to act on it.

Order. I propose to call four Members from either side before we move on.

Is it not a fact that the political instability of Iran is due in part to the rejection by sections of Iranian society of Western economic influence in Iran and that certain sections took the initiative in respect of the hostages? Will the Minister tell us why he thinks that sanctions of the type that he has outlined will influence those who wish to retain those hostages? Is it not even more likely to do the opposite?

We have given the Iranians three weeks to ponder the consequences of the holding of the hostages. We know that people in positions of influence in Iran—I should not put it higher than that—are conscious of the dangers of the path that they are treading. We hope that they will use those three weeks to secure " decisive progress "—that is the phrase in the communiqué—towards the release of the hostages.

I welcome Europe's demonstration of solidarity with our friends in the United States. My hon. Friend described their attitude to the Iranian crisis as " desperate ". That word frightens me somewhat. I hope that our voice and the voice of Europe will not be unheard and go unheeded in Washington if the situation is as desperate as he thinks it is.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's point. One of the advantages of the decision taken yesterday in Luxembourg is that it enables us, in a way that would not be possible if the other decision had been reached, to continue to pass to the United States the British analyses and consideration of what is wisest.

Is the Minister aware that, regrettably, it appears that sanctions will have to be applied if we wish to obtain the release of the hostages being held in the United States embassy in Iran? In the event of sanctions being applied against Iran, will the hon. Gentleman undertake to consider compensation for all firms who have business connections with Iran? If employment is seriously affected as a result of sanctions, will he take special measures to deal with any unemployment problems?

I have tried to answer that question twice already. Obviously it is an aspect of the matter that Ministers will need carefully to consider.