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Commons Chamber

Volume 15: debated on Wednesday 16 December 1981

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 16 December 1981

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Foreign And Commonwealth Affairs

Spain (British Visitors)

1.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make representations to the Spanish Government about the failure of the Spanish authorities to prosecute those who are responsible for attacks on British visitors to Spain.

I am prepared to do so whenever such representations seem necessary and proper.

As at least 71 British citizens, including two of my constituents, have been the victims of violent attacks while travelling in Spain during the year, and as it appears that the Spanish police have not yet pbhzcuted anybody for any of these attacks, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the time may have come to issue a warning to British tourists and Scottish, Irish and even English—Heaven help us!—football supporters who may be travelling to Spain next year?

Our consul in Malaga has already responded in line with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question in leading a deputation of consuls to ask the civil governor in that part of Spain to make representations. This matter is entirely for the Spanish authorities, and we cannot control what they do. However, it is as well that they should be aware of our feelings. We all hope that next year the football supporters who go to Spain, whether they come from Scotland, England or anywhere else, will behave themselves. We are taking such steps as are availble to us to ensure that proper representation is available in Spain to deal with any matters that may arise, but, like the hon. Gentleman, we all hope that they will not.

As general attacks are taking place on Britishers in Spain by certain Spanish authorities, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is necessary to ensure that our point of view is well ventilated? If so, is it not the wrong time to close the BBC world service to Spain, which is one of the most successful and responsible in the world?

The hon. Gentleman talks about general attacks. I should remind him that 3·5 million British people visited Spain last year on holiday and for other reasons, and that there were 71 attacks. That cannot be described as "general".

Nuclear Weapons (Negotiations)

2.

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government that any nuclear weapons possessed by the United Kingdom shall be regarded as negotiable in the context of theatre or strategic arms talks between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

No, Sir. By agreement between the two Governments concerned these talks are bilateral, involving the Soviet Union and the United States. It would be unacceptable for British nuclear forces to be the subject of negotiations to which her Majesty's Government are not a party.

Does the Minister realise that, whereas in 1950 the nuclear weapon countries had 200 nuclear weapons, they now have 50,000, each of which is more destructive than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshirna? Does he agree that the Government should play their part in seeking successful negotiations and that, to ensure the success of talks, they should consider cancelling the proposal to purchase Trident?

We give our fullest support to the talks that are taking place in Geneva between the United States and the Soviet Union, and we hope that they will succeed. They are related specifically to intermediate range nuclear weapons. The hon. Gentleman's question is directed towards whether our independent nuclear force should be a part of the talks. We regard our force as a strategic force and, therefore, not part of the Geneva discussions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the talks are so important for the future defence of Western Europe, there is a need for negotiations between the United States and its Western Allies? To what extent are the Government being consulted by the American negotiators on the progress in Geneva?

There is the closest possible consultation between the United States and its Allies within the NATO Alliance. There have been discussions this week between the United States and the other members of the Alliance on the Geneva negotiations.

Does the Minister envisage that Trident will ever feature in multilateral disarmament negotiations to which Britain is a party?

The hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is not related directly to the question, and it should be directed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

As the outcome of these discussions is of such importance to the British people, and as the British Government are about to embark on a whole new phase of nuclear capability, is it not unrealistic for the Government to continue to suggest that the discussions are a matter solely for the Soviet Union and the United States? Will the Government give an assurance that the House will be kept informed of developments in this area and that there will be no exclusion of any aspect of our nuclear capability?

I make it clear once again that our independent nuclear force is separate from those discussions. It is a strategic force. The discussions in Geneva are between the United States and the Soviet Union on intermediate-range nuclear forces. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is of course the closest possible consultation between the United States and the rest of the NATO Alliance on that matter.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although it is right for United Kingdom nuclear forces to be the subject of future disarmament negotiations, to which the United Kingdom should be a party, it would be entirely irresponsible for this or any other British Government to follow the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and unilaterally renounce British nuclear weapons without adequate safeguards on multilateral arms control?

Middle East (Fahd Plan)

3.

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether, in view of the failure of the Arab States to agree to the Fahd plan at the Fez summit, he will take steps to encourage Saudi Arabia to enter into direct negotiations with Israel.

The Fahd principles remain on the agenda for the Arab summit, which I understand is to be resumed next year. We encourage all the parties concerned in the Arab-Israel dispute to enter into direct negotiations with a view to a peaceful settlement.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Does he agree that the only peace agreement in the Middle East at present is that between Egypt and Israel? Following the Government's failure to gain support for the Venice declaration, would it not be better to press for direct negotiations between Israel and the other Arab States singly, despite recent events, to try to achieve a genuine peace agreement for the whole Middle East?

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I confirm that there is only one peace treaty in operation. On the third part, I have already said that we encourage the parties concerned to enter direct negotiations. On the middle part, however, I do not agree that the Government have failed to gain support for the Venice declaration. It was supported by all our European Community allies.

Is it not highly regrettable that few people will wish to negotiate with Israel unless she desists from her present ridiculous endeavours?

I do not think that what the Israeli Parliament has done in the past 24 hours helps at all.

Is it not absurd to talk about direct negotiations when every facet of Israeli policy does all that it can to make direct negotiations impossible? Would not Israel's major contribution to peace be to stop its proposed annexation of the Golan Heights, to stop its policy of illegal colonisation in occupied Palestine and not to proceed with its illegal proposal to build a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea?

One of the things that Israel wants more than anything else is recognititon of its own secure boundaries. If it wants that, it must extend the same courtesy to others.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us fear that the Israeli decision formally to annex the Golan Heights was designed to stir up trouble among the extremists in the Arab world and thus provide a pretext for Israel not to withdraw from Sinai next year?

I cannot answer for the Israeli Government. I very much hope that that is not so, as the one thing that we are all keen on is that the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which provides for the withdrawal of Israel from Sinai, will take effect on 25 April 1982 as agreed.

Does the Mininster agree that part of the background to this which must be taken into account is the dangerous and irresponsible missile attacks launched by the Syrian Government from the Golan Heights on to the kibbutzim below?

Yes. Does the Minister further agree that, apart from being utterly pointless, the annexation is provocative and could imperil the dialogue between Egypt and Israel, which was painstakingly achieved by Mr. Begin himself, by President Carter and by the late President Sadat?

Yes. One of the difficulties in the Middle East for too many years has been too much provocation on both sides. It is not our business to apportion blame to one side or the other. I can only say once again that the most recent Israeli action cannot contribute towards the peaceful settlement that we all seek.

Angola And Namibia

4.

asked the Lord Privy Seal what representations he has received on the feasibility of securing a simultaneous withdrawal of Cuban military forces from Angola and South African military forces from Namibia.

None, Sir. The collective efforts of the five Western countries are directed towards a Namibian settlement. The withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola is not a pre-condition for a Namibia settlement, although there is obviously a relationship between the two issues. Her Majesty's Government have on several occasions made it clear that they regard the presence of Cuban troops in Africa as a destabilising influence.

In the light of my hon. Friend's answer, does he agree that a simultaneous withdrawal of Cuban and South African troops from both countries as a prelude to free and democratic elections in both countries offers the best hope for peace in that troubled part of southern Africa? Does he agree that for the British Government to take that attitude would at least be even-handed?

I answer my hon. Friend's important point in two ways. Of course the Western group of five nations are working under Security Council resolution No. 435, under which there are various arrangements, which include the withdrawal of South Africa troops to certain bases within Namibia during the transitional process. I have also said, however, that I believe that there is a relationship between the Namibian settlement and conditions in the next-door country of Angola. As the Angolan Government have already said, it is their intention in the long term to demonstrate that Angola is a non-aligned country and it is their desire to see the withdrawal of Cuban troops. We believe that that move and those measures would lead to an easing of the tensions in the area.

Will the Minister draw a clear distinction between the presence of Cuban troops in Angola at the invitation of the legitimate Government to defend Angolan territory against the repeated attacks of the South African Government, and the presence of South African troops in Namibia, which is being illegally occupied and used as a staging post to invade Angola? Will the Minister resolutely condemn the latest attack on Angola, which the South Africans now admit took place?

As I have already said, we believe that the presence of Cuban troops in Africa as a whole is a destabilising influence. Their presence in Angola is, of course, not directly linked with resolution 435, but it is the belief not only of the British Government but of the group of five Western nations that there is an important relationship.

Middle East Peacekeeping Force

6.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on the current situation with regard to the setting up of a Middle East peacekeeping force.

We and three of our European partners have offered to participate in the Sinai peacekeeping force at the request of the United States Government, supported by the Governments of Egypt and Israel. We are currently considering with our three partners how to respond to the United States-Israel statement of 3 December and a subsequent communication from the Foreign Minister of Israel. The force is due to be in place on 20 March next and to assume its functions on 25 April. The detailed practical and legal arrangements connected with our participation remain to be negotiated.

Will the Minister comment on the incursion of the French Foreign Minister into the discussion during his recent visit to Israel? What has been the impact of the Israeli Parliament's current decision to re-occupy the Golan Heights on the endeavours to operate a peacekeeping role in the Middle East by next year?

The four countries of Europe—the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Italy—each made the same statement when they announced their participation. Yesterday the Ten confirmed their adherence to the principle set out in the Venice declaration and their terms of acceptance of the invitation to participate in the Sinai force. The policy of the Ten—and of the four countries that are participating—has not changed, and it is not for me to answer in detail what is said by the Ministers of other Governments.

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the recent talks between Israel and the United States have in no way invalidated his original statement on the Sinai peacekeeping force, which is still specifically related to the Venice declaration and self-determination of the Palestine people?

Yes, Sir. We were invited to participate in a peacekeeping force in the Sinai, in pursuance of the peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel, and we made it clear that we in Europe have not departed from our belief in our policy for the Middle East, any more than Israel or any other country has departed from its belief in its policy. Our acceptance was in response to an invitation. The United States and Egypt have accepted our offer. Israel has communicated with us and we are considering how to reply.

Can the Lord Privy Seal give the House any idea when this tragicomedy will end? We cannot go into Sinai unless the Israeli Government agree to receive us, and the Israeli Government have agreed a form of words to justify our arrival that is quite different from that agreed by the European countries. Is not the position of the Israeli Government now completely changed by their decision to annex the Golan Heights, since that is clearly in violation of the Camp David agreement and was stated to be so by the Foreign Minister of Egypt only the other day?

I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman calls it a tragicomedy. It is not. It is a sincere attempt by the parties concerned to ensure the return to Arab hands of Arab land, in pursuance of a peace treaty. There are various actions that the Israeli Government have taken that do not help. If we can play a useful part in ensuring the return of Sinai to Egypt, to which it properly belongs, we are ready to do so.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have noticed the considerable confusion on the Opposition Front Bench on this issue, confusion which is becoming more marked every moment. Will my right hon. Friend pursue the same course of calm as has been announced today by the Egyptian Foreign Office, namely, that what has happened in the north, in Golan, is a matter entirely between the belligerents, Syria never having made any form of peace treaty with Egypt—[Interruption.]—with Israel—or with Egypt, for that matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who is confused?"] In these terms, would it not be best if we pursued an open-handed policy on this matter, as the disputes between Israel and Syria are not concerned with the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel?

It is important to keep these matters clear in our minds—[Interruption.]—on the Opposition Front Bench. We are talking about a peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt, under which Egypt will obtain the return of the Sinai. We have agreed to assist in that process at the request of the Egyptian arid Israeli Governments. It is right that we should continue to do that, that we should respond to the invitation, and do anything we can to make that advance in these very difficult circumstances.

My right hon. Friend referred to events over the last 24 hours in the northern part of Israel. That is, of course, a related matter, but it does not affect our belief that Sinai should be returned to Egypt. If we can help in that way, we shall.

The official Opposition solidly support the statement just made by the Lord Privy Seal. Perhaps I may clear up the confusion of the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Sir H. Fraser) about the Camp David agreement. That agreement was posited on two resolutions of the United Nations, which have been violated by the decision to annex the Golan Heights. That was a point made in the reaction to the——

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is advancing an argument rather than asking a question. Hon. Members ask the questions and the Minister gives the answer.

I deeply apologise, Mr. Speaker, but you will recall that I introduced my remarks by asking whether I could clear up the confusion from which the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone——

Order. I think that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) understands.

Middle East (Fahd Plan)

7.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if, in the light of Arab reaction to the Saudi Arabian eight-point peace plan, he sees any prospect of further progress with the plan.

11.

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he regards the Fahd plan as still a matter for realistic negotiation, following the outcome of the Fez conference; and whether he will make a statement.

I understand that consideration of Crown Prince Fahd's eight principles remains on the agenda of the Arab League. After a period for reflection and consultation, a further summit is likely to be held. We continue to hope that the Arab States will agree on a common positive approach to the Arab-Israel dispute which will encourage further progress towards a negotiated settlement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the annexation yesterday by Israel of the Golan Heights puts in severe doubt any progress on this front? Does it not justify, at least in their own eyes, the action of those Arab States which have opposed the Saudi peace plan? Will the British Government explain to Israel that, while most of us are committed to Israel's continued existence, and to supporting it, we also wish to see a fair settlement for the Arab people in that part of the Middle East?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I draw his attention to the statement issued yesterday by the Ten, deploring the decision of the Government and the Knesset to extend Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration to occupied Syrian territory in the Golan Heights. The statement went on to say:

"Such an extension, which is tantamount to annexation, is contrary to international law and therefore invalid in our eyes. This step prejudices the possibility of the implementation of Security Council resolution 242 and is bound to complicate further the search for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East to which we remain committed."

Instead of producing theoretical Western initiatives or backing Saudi plans which succeed simutaneously in falling foul of the Government of Israel, the rejectionist Arab States and the PLO, would it not be better if my right hon. Friend followed the example of the Foreign Minister of France and went to Israel to talk to the people there, rather than relying on the Americans to produce leverage on them?

My noble Friend the Foreign Secretary will be going to Israel in the early part of next year.

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that the Saudi plan is entirely consistent with the principles of resolution 242 and that the annexation of the Golan Heights is a flagrant breach of that resolution, although Israel claims to accept it?

Yes, Sir. The Saudi plan is in conformity with resolution 242. Unfortunately, the Saudi Government were not able to obtain general acceptance for it at the Fez summit.

My right hon. Friend has criticised the Israeli vote purporting to annex part of Syria and mentioned the statement by the European Community. What further effective action is proposed by the Government to deal with this very serious challenge to peace?

Representations have been made to the Israelis by ourselves and our partners that what they have done has set back the cause of peace to which we—and, we believe, they—are committed. We shall continue our discussions with all the parties concerned and hope to persuade the Israelis that this kind of action does nothing to ensure the peace that is so essential for them.

What is so important about this arid piece of land in the north of Israel——

What is so important about it that it seems to take precedence over what ought to be achieved—a peaceful settlement of the arguments and the disputes between the Arab States and Israel? Why has it assumed such tremendous importance in relation to the other very serious events that are going on in the world today?

What is important about this arid piece of land—to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase—is that it does not belong to Israel.

Israel has annexed it by force. The United Nations, in its resolution 242, denies the right of any country to retain land that it has annexed by force. If Israel wishes other countries to accept its borders, it, too, must accept those of other countries.

Shackleton Report (Implementation)

8.

asked the Lord Privy Seal to what extent the Shackleton report proposals for the Falkland Islands have been implemented by Her Majesty's Government.

Her Majesty's Government gave the recommendations of the Shaldeton report very careful consideration after its publication in 1976. Since then, very many of the recommendations have been accepted and have been implemented or are in hand, whilst others have been rejected.

Is it not deplorable that many of the key recommendations relating to the development of the fishing and mineral rights have had no response whatsoever from successsive British Governments? In view of the early-day motion that appeared on the Order Paper this morning, signed by 66 hon. Members, will my right hon. Friend take steps to bring an end to any further discussions with the Argentine Government about the future of the Falkland Islands and launch a new era of co-operation between Her Majesty's Government and the Falkland islanders?

As I said earlier, very many of the recommendations that relate to the development of the Falkland Islands have already been fulfilled. On the specific point about fishing, if my hon Friend is talking about fishing inshore, there is some possibility that the Falkland Islands Government may be involved in a survey on this matter, but the investigations that have been done indicate that the fishing industry here believes that there is very little market for exploitation at present.

With regard to the talks with the Argentine Government, it was proposed that talks should be held tomorrow in Geneva between the Argentine Government and the British Government and in company with two Falkland Islands councillors. At the request of the Argentine Government these have been postponed in view of the change of Government in Argentina this week. We await their request for further talks. It is up to them to put their proposals to us.

East-West Relations

9.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on East-West relations.

Her Majesty's Government will continue to work for a lasting improvement in East-West relations. A vital condition for this, however, is the full implementation by all parties of the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act.

Does not my right hon. Friend think that in the light of the Polish tragedy, it is increasingly important for the Government and people of this country generally to try to develop closer links with the individual nations and people of Eastern Europe, with the long-term objective of helping them to reduce their economic dependence on the Soviet Union? On the more immediate point, has my right hon. Friend any news of the rumours that appear to be circulating to the effect that Russian aircraft have landed in Warsaw with at least military supplies on board? Will he bring us up to date on the latest position?

Yes, Sir. I quite agree with my hon. Friend on the first part of his question. We are very anxious to remain in close touch with the Polish Government and with what is happening in that country. Therefore, the action that they have taken over the last 48 hours is extremely unhelpful, because they have severed communications. It is very difficult to be in touch with what is happening in Poland, and any hope of making progress in restoring good relations between our two Governments seems to be at a standstill.

I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer on the point about aircraft. Information out of Poland is scarce and unreliable at present, and I am not able to confirm or deny what he said.

Does not the Lord Privy Seal agree, however, that if Soviet aircraft have ferried Soviet troops to Warsaw this would inevitably present very serious risks to the progress of negotiations for a settlement? I take it that Her Majesty's Government will continue to insist that of all aspects of the Helsinki agreement, the most important single one is non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

Yes, Sir. I think that it has been made perfectly clear, not only by ourselves but by our partners, that any direct interference by the Soviet Government in Poland would create the most grave situation that any of us has known for many years. We shall continue to try to contact the Polish Government to discover what is happening so that we can keep the House and the country informed, but at present, as I say, owing to the clampdown on the distribution of news and communications, it is very difficult to know exactly what is happening.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is growing concern, I think on both sides of the House, about the deterioration of what I might call West-West relations in regard to our connection with the East? Over the Middle East there has been a deplorable difference of opinion between the United States and Britain, and over Poland the communiqué issued by the European Ministers yesterday seems to have been considerably less forthright in its condemnation of recent events in Poland than the American view as expressed by the Secretary of State in the United States. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be no question of financial or physical aid to Poland or of any favourable settlement with Poland of its indebtedness until we have clear evidence that the Polish Government are resuming a dialogue with Solidarity and the Church?

I do not believe that there is as much difference between ourselves and our United States allies as my right hon. Friend makes out. We have made it clear that we do not accept the current situation; so have they. We have made it clear that we attach importance to General Jaruzelski's assurance that the current measures are temporary; so have they. We have made it clear that while we are prepared to proceed with existing agreements on the economic front, we are not taking any further decision on future agreements and future assistance; and so have the United States Government. I believe that our positions are very close together, as they should be.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the worst tragedy for the Polish people would be to see all the gains made in the past 18 months towards greater civil liberties destroyed? Therefore, is it not important that the extremists, be they within the Polish Communist Party, in the Soviet Union, or in Solidarity, should be warned of the terrible bloodshed that will undoubtedly prevail in Poland if moderation does not come about? Should not that warning come clearly from all shades of opinion in Britain?

Yes, Sir. I find myself in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. I am not always in agreement with him, but I am in this case. The worst thing that could happen would be an intervention by an outside Power in Poland. Our efforts must be directed towards ensuring that a dialogue between the Government of Poland and Solidarity should start immediately.

What evidence does my right hon. Friend have in support of recent reports that the Commander-in-Chief of the Warsaw Pact forces is at present in Poland? Why do Her Majesty's Government not have access, through allied satellite photography, to information about major airlift movements, if they have been taking place between the Soviet Union and Poland? Will my right hon. Friend consider sending for the Soviet ambassador and making representations in the strongest terms that any intervention, either by the two Soviet armoured divisions at present in occupation of Poland today or the 50 divisions surrounding that country, would be regarded as a most serious development?

This last message has been made quite clear to the Russians already. As regards our intelligence about the movement of Russian troops, clearly my hon. Friend would not expect me to go into details in the House, but we have certain intelligence about these matters. At present there is no cause for immediate alarm.

As for the presence of the Soviet general in Warsaw in the last day or two, we have reports of that, but they are unconfirmed. As I said a moment ago, one of our difficulties is that although there is communication between the Government and our chargé d'affaires in Warsaw, the main difficulty is that he is not in a position to gather as much information as we would like.

Namibia

12.

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he has received any indication from the South-West Africa People's Organisation and the front-line States that the new constitutional proposals on Namibia will be acceptable to them.

The Five have received initial reactions to their proposals for constitutional principles from SWAPO and the front-line States. The details of these are confidential, but the Foreign Ministers of the Five noted in their communiqué of 10 December, a copy of which I am circulating in the Official Report, that the ground was now prepared for achieving final agreement on the principles without delay.

Does the Minister agree that SWAPO and the front-line States have bent over backwards to be co-operative and helpful in the Contact Group? That cannot be said about South Africa. What evidence does the Minister have that South Africa is negotiating in good faith?

Judging from the reactions to the consultations on the first stage of the constitutional principles, there has been a helpful and positive attitude by all parties and that has enabled the Group of Five to make substantial progress. We hope to move on to the second stage as soon as possible.

Following is the communiqué:
The Foreign Ministers of Canada, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States of America met in Brussels on December 10 1981 to assess the progress made towards the early independence of Namibia in accordance with Security Council resolution 435.
They were encouraged by the constructive results of the recent senior officials' mission of the Five to Africa. They noted that the ground is now prepared for achieving final agreement on constitutional principles without delay and decided that appropriate contacts promoting such early agreement will be initiated immediately.
The Ministers reviewed the extensive work done by officials of the Contact Group in meetings from December 1 to 8, 1981 in Washington and Ottawa on proposals concerning the remaining issues to be resolved in the next phase—the practical establishment of UNTAG in Namibia and assurances that the transitional process will be carried out in an impartial manner.
The Ministers reiterated the firm commitment of their Governments to continued co-operation with the parties concerned and to vigorous action in the search for a peaceful settlement in Namibia, which they see as essential for the stability of Southern Africa. They hope that agreement of all concerned can be reached at the earliest possible date thus opening the way for implementation of SCR 435 in 1982.

European Community

Political Co-Operation

39.

asked the Lord Privy Seal what proposals he has to develop initiatives for closer political co-operation within the European Economic Community.

41.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he is satisfied with the machinery that exists for political co-operation between European Economic Community Foreign Ministers.

A year ago my right hon. and noble Friend took the initiative in proposing that the Foreign Ministers of the Ten should re-examine the operation of political co-operation. The results of that work are contained in the London "Report on European Political Co-operation", which was agreed by Foreign Ministers of the Ten on 13 October and has been published as Cmnd. 8424.

We shall continue to look at ways of further improving political co-operation. Meanwhile, the most important contribution that we can make is to ensure that the machinery that exists is well used. That is what we have tried to achieve during the United Kingdom Presidency.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that comprehensive answer and wish him well in the development of the work. Can he say further, specifically on recent developments that mean that we must have a united position in the Middle East, whether, as President of the Council of Ministers, the Foreign Secretary has been able to sort out the rather unusual utterance of the French Foreign Minister? Can he confirm that that does not reflect the Presidential opinion and is another spontaneous outburst?

I referred earlier, in answer to another question, to yesterday's declaration by the Ten of our continued adherence to the Venice declaration and our support for the four countries of the Ten contributing to the Sinai force. That is a good example of political co-operation and arose from the fact that the Foreign Ministers of the Ten were meeting in London yesterday and the day before.

Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether the EEC Foreign Ministers are united on an approach to the Polish crisis and whether he has any information about future food supplies to Poland?

Yes, Sir. Again, there was an agreed communiqué given to the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday about the Ten's views on Poland. The position about future food supplies has been agreed among the Ten and is straightforward. Existing undertakings and arrangements will continue, so far as they can. With the Polish border closed there are certain difficulties in moving anything into or out of Poland. However, no new agreements or undertakings will be made until the situation becomes a little clearer. That is the position of the Ten.

In view of Israel's continuing expansionism, will the right hon. Gentleman institute a review within the EEC of its financial and trading agreements with Israel with a view to having them abrogated?

There will be no problem about studying our future attitude towards Israel. The events of the past 24 hours are newly on us and I take note of what the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am sure that that will happen, because all our policies towards Middle East matters are, to use a Civil Service phrase, "under constant review". That means what it says and it is happening as of today, because there is a meeting of the political directors now going on.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it has never been more important that we should act in concert with our EEC allies and act with resolution? Reverting to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), may I ask my right hon. Friend to discuss with other EEC Foreign Ministers the summoning of the Soviet ambassadors in every EEC capital to make it plain how gravely we view the Polish situation?

Of course I shall consider my hon. Friend's suggestion. He need not be under any misapprehension. The Soviet Government are perfectly aware of the views, not only of Britain and the Ten, but of the United States and all other free countries.

British Presidency

40.

asked the Lord Privy Seal what progress has been made in resolving differences within the European Community during the British Presidency.

The main preoccupation of our Presidency has been the 30 May mandate, on which we have made a determined effort to resolve differences. In this context, as requested by the European Council, an informal meeting of Community Foreign Ministers, under the chairmanship of my noble Friend, was held at Lancaster House on Monday and Tuesday of this week. The purpose of the meeting was to consider the four outstanding issues on the 30 May mandate—milk policy, Mediterranean agriculture, a financial guideline for CAP expenditure and the problem of unacceptable budgetary situations. The Foreign Ministers had a useful discussion, though they were not able to reach final agreement. They decided that the next step was to invite the President of the Commission to make revised proposals for guidelines on the four points in the light of their discussion. They agreed to hold a further special meeting to consider these proposals as early as possible in January and, at any rate, before 18 January. It will now be for the Belgian Presidency to carry forward the work on the mandate. We for our part will give the fullest possible support to its efforts to reach an early solution.

During our Presidency we have taken forward discussions on many other difficult matters, not without success, for example in developing political co-operation, and the negotiations on enlargement.

Has the Government's experience of the Presidency resulted in their developing any sort of attitude towards the brevity of the six-month period, or a consideration of, for example, the idea of having an overlapping Presidency covering a period of 18 months and therefore being better able to sustain initiatives? The right hon. Gentleman said that enlargement had been carried forward. Can he say in what way that has been done, because it seems to me that there has not been any notable progress in connection with Spain's accession?

I well understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the six-month period. It is short, particularly if, during any country's six-months Presidency, there are first the summer holidays and then Christmas. That cuts down the period much further. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a case for considering whether the period should be extended. However, it has not been and we give up our Presidency, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on 31 December.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about enlargement, because during the period of our Presidency many more dossiers were delivered to the Spanish and Portuguese, their replies obtained and the matter is being carried forward. I fully understand the impatience of Spain and Portugal to move these matters forward more quickly. We have sought to push them forward as fast as we can. They recognise that during our Presidency we have made as much progress as could be expected.

While recognising the Government's efforts during their Presidency, may I ask my right hon. Friend to say why we always appear to come off worst in the differences that occur between ourselves and other European countries? I particularly refer to the renegotiation of the multi-fibre arrangement, in which one of the basic issues in the mandate is the level of quotas for the next MFA, which will be established on a base level of 1982. That will undoubtedly lead to substantial additional unemployment, with the loss of a further 30,000 jobs in Britain. Will my right hon. Friend consider the real interests of Britain, which are often different from those of European mainland countries?

My hon. Friend pays great attention to these matters and he knows better than to say that. He knows that the Geneva negotiations about the MFA are being conducted on a mandate about which Britain had a considerable say. He also knows that we have produced, devised and had accepted by our European partners a mechanism to ensure that the sort of difficulties that he foresees—his figure of an extra 30,000 unemployed next year is nonsense—will not come about. This is because we have insisted in the mandate that the Commission has from the Community that a mechanism be devised and incorporated in any new arrangements to ensure that any low-cost imports cannot increase at a rate that would damage our industry to the extent suggested by my hon. Friend.

Apart from "a useful discussion", was any progress made in London this week on the reform of the CAP or the EEC budget?

Yes, Sir. Four matters were discussed in London this week. There was general understanding on two of them about the way in which we should move forward. On the other two, there was definite progress towards what we want. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, these negotiations are not easy. Everyone has to take account of every one else's interests. Each time these discussions take place we move closer to a solution, but we have not reached that solution yet. It would have been agreeable to us, for the sake of our Presidency, to have settled these matters before the end of the year. Indeed, that would have discharged the mandate given to the Foreign Ministers by the European Council earlier this year. However, we have not done so. Nevertheless, we have moved another stage nearer to the kind of conclusions that we want, and I hope that we shall get there before long.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it emerges clearly from his reply that by far the best hope of securing progress and resolving contentious issues within the EEC lies in allowing the Commission to assume the role that it was originally assigned in the Treaty, that is, as the initiator of a constructive compromise that is likely to be far more effective than that reached by horse trading between individual Governments?

Yes, Sir. That is what has happened. The Commission has been invited to go away and re-write the proposals for solving these problems. It has listened to the discussions, and it has been consulted by all parties. In my view, the Commission will be in a position to produce proposals which will bring us a stage nearer to the agreement that we all seek.

42.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will list the principal achievements of the British Presidency of the European Economic Community to date.

Good progress has been made in a wide variety of areas. I propose shortly to place in the Library of the House a list of the issues on which decisions have been reached or significant progress achieved during the United Kingdom Presidency.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that one important achievement has been the way in which the British Presidency has sought to maintain a constructive and continuous dialogue between the Council and the European Parliament on budgetary matters? Does he accept that that is very important, bearing in mind that they are the joint budgetary authority of the Community?

Yes, Sir. This has been a useful step forward, and it is one that we initiated during our Presidency. It seeks to keep the Council of Ministers in closer contact with the European Parliament. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is now in Strasbourg addressing the European Parliament.

Will the Lord Privy Seal confirm that the list of the Government's achievements during their Presidency will be contained on the back of a very small postage stamp? Is he not genuinely concerned—if not, he should be—that no progress has been made on reforming budgetary arrangements, the common agricultural policy or the fisheries policy or dealing with non-life assurance, or the reduction in European air fares? Is he not further concerned that the major political initiative on the Middle East, which many of us on both sides of the House welcomed, has stalled, and its requiem read in Israel by the French Foreign Minister the other day?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong, and not for the first time. I have the draft of the document that I propose to lay in the Library of the House at the end of our presidency. It is already 15 pages of single-space typing, and it covers the whole range of our activities and those of our European colleagues. I do not know what size postage stamps the right hon. Gentleman uses, or whether he does not pay attention to what happens in the Council of Ministers, but this document will cover agriculture, fisheries, energy, environment, trade, aid, and many other matters. I invite him to read it as a new year resolution.

I am prepared to have a look at it, but is it not true that the document to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is a superb example of the work of the circumlocution office in the Foreign Office?

During our Presidency, obviously one of the objectives has been to move towards a resolution of the budget problem and a resolution of the problems of the CAP. My right hon. Friend said recently that we were moving towards what we want. Could he tell the British people, loudly and clearly, precisely what we do want?

I shall do so in two sentences. On the common agricultural policy, we want to ensure that expenditure on the CAP grows at a slower rate than the Community's resources—in other words, that there is a transfer of the weight of expenditure from agriculture to the social and regional policies and other funds of that nature. On the budget, our intention is that no country should be put in the unacceptable situation in which we found ourselves in 1980—in which the Germans now find themselves—and that the budgetary contributions of any country should bear some relation to its ability to pay.

Mandate (Negotiations)

43.

asked the Lord Privy Seal when next he intends to meet the President of the European Commission in order to discuss the progress of negotiations over the mandate.

I have no such plans at present. I described the latest progress on the mandate in my reply a few moments ago to the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston).

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Commission does not introduce workable proposals for restructuring the finances of the EEC and reforming the common agricultural policy, it will give ammunition to the misguided people who want us to withdraw from the EEC?

Yes, Sir. I know that the Commission is well seized of the difficulties and problems, and we hope and believe that it will introduce proposals that will form the basis of an agreement between all 10 members.

Does the Lord Privy Seal agree that, no matter what the Commission proposes, what happens in the Council of Ministers is of primary importance? Will he therefore tell the House how far up on the list of principal achievements of the British Presidency he rates the fact that we have approaching 1,000 unemployed fishermen in Hull, 5,000 unemployed in ancillary trades, and people who cannot get employment because of the foolishness of a Conservative Government 10 years ago in entering the EEC without a common fisheries policy?

As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, in the Community we are seeking to find a scheme that can be agreed by the Council of Ministers, because it will take the decisions. All countries in Europe are faced with problems of one kind or another. The hon. Gentleman outlined a number of them that we are not alone in facing. No one is more sorry than the Government that we could not proceed with a discussion of fishery matters on Monday of this week, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, that was due to circumstances that were wholly outside the control of nine out of 10 of the EEC Governments.

Europe-Japan Relations

45.

asked the Lord Privy Seal what was the result of the discussions in the European Council on European-Japanese relations.

There was no discussion of Europe-Japan relations at the European Council, but the Foreign Affairs Council on 8 December agreed a list of requests for specific action in the economic sphere to be put by the Commission to the Japanese Government. The Council will assess the Japanese response at its meeting on 22 February next year.

Will my right hon. Friend take care to maintain the position in the Council of Foreign Ministers, which is that, although we sympathise greatly with Japan in being an island with no resources and therefore dependent, as we are, on the import of raw materials and the export of manufacturers, such exports cannot for long be allowed to be confined to so few and destructive items, as opposed to a more general spread of export activity?

That is one of the matters that the Community has been pointing out to Japan for some time. This month we have moved on from saying that early and effective action in general terms is needed to proposing the precise forms that we believe such action should take. We have spelt out the areas in which, in our view, they should take action, and we await their response, which we shall consider at our meeting on 22 February.

Will the right hon. Gentleman beware of making Japan the scapegoat for his Government's economic failings? Does he realise that the threat to many of our industries, including the car industry, comes not from the Japanese but from the EEC? Will he do something about that?

We are concerned about the penetration not only of our markets but the markets of our Community partners by the Japanese in certain specified areas. That is a worry to us, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said. It is also a worry to our Community partners. That is why we have produced a long list of areas where we believe that the Japanese must take urgent and effective action. I hope that they will come forward with proposals, which we shall consider on 22 February.

Electricity Supplies

(by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement about the resumption of electricity supplies which have been disconnected since Sunday last.

On Sunday 13 December throughout a wide area of the country bad weather conditions, including blizzards and high winds, combined with freezing conditions, caused damage to electrical transmission and distribution lines. The extra load arising from snow and ice on overhead lines caused failures and short circuiting. At least 250,000 consumers had their electricity supplies cut off, chiefly in the South-West, South Wales, Merseyside and North Wales electricity board areas.

The area boards undertook emergency work immediately. However, continuing bad weather hindered the progress of repairs. The boards called on other electricity boards, private contractors and the Armed Forces for assistance. They also liaised with the emergency services to alleviate hardship wherever possible. I am happy to say that the number of consumers now without supply has fallen to fewer than 30,000. I hope that by tomorrow most consumers will have been reconnected.

I am conscious of the hardship and discomfort suffered by those affected by the incident. However, those concerned with the repairs have worked all hours in difficult circumstances and deserve our thanks.

I pay tribute to the maintenance staff of many of the boards who worked on Sunday and Monday morning in unbelievable cold and conditions of hardship to bring supply back to a vast number of consumers in the South-West.

May I ask two questions about the South-West? I am sure that other hon. Members will ask about their areas. First, why have not emergency generators been used for groups of consumers where the problem has involved bringing a supply to a particular area and where emergency generation could be used? Secondly, what consideration has been given to farmers with milking parlours where it has been impossible to use electricity and where a major tragedy has been caused?

Some emergency generating equipment is available locally and it has been used. If my hon. Friend has particular instances that he wishes to draw to my attention he should write to me and I shall be happy to consider them further.

I am advised that many farmers involved in milking have the capacity to generate electricity themselves. Some standby generators are already being used. The National Farmers Union has reported no major problems in the area.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we have sympathy with those involved in the appalling problems being experienced in the areas to which he referred? The problems that were shown on television yesterday seemed heart-rending. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we fully support what he said about the hard work under incredible conditions of the electricity power line staff?

May we have an assurance that even with all the hard work there has not been an organisational breakdown? Have the CEGB and the local authorities been affected by cash limits? Is it possible that they have not had the money to do the job properly? Is there a shortage of small generators that are under the control of local authorities?

I am satisfied that there has been no organisational breakdown. What is at issue is whether the technical standards for overhead lines are satisfactory. That is kept under regular review. I have looked into the matter and I have been advised that with conditions as severe as those that we have experienced recently lines would be affected, even if their strength were considerably increased. Many areas experienced the worst conditions in living memory. Nevertheless, I have asked the area boards to review the matter in the light of the recent experience.

There is no question of the cash limits having any effect. Indeed, there has been no shortage of generating capacity. The problem involved a breakdown in the transmission and distribution lines. I am not aware of a lack of generating equipment by local authorities. Local authorities must decide what generating equipment to invest in. The House must accept that when there is freak and unusual weather we should be lucky to get by with no adverse affects.

To ensure that such a catastrophe does not occur again—its scale is unprecedented—will my right hon. Friend undertake to conduct a detailed inquiry with area boards and the CEGB into the causes of the massive breakdown? Will he ensure that the results of that inquiry are published? My right hon. Friend said that at lunchtime today 30,000 households were still unconnected—and that includes mine. Will he ensure that everything possible is done to bring in technicians from other areas to reinforce the work being done by the devoted people in the South-West and other areas?

I accept that great hardship has been caused to many thousands of people. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend's house is disconnected. Assistance from other area boards has already been provided. Assistance has also been provided by the Armed Forces and various other bodies. Everything possible is being done. However, a further review seems necessary. I have no reason to believe that such a review would reveal that standards are inadequate, but in the light of the recent experience it is right to review further the technical standards for overhead lines. I have asked the area boards to look into that in particular, in the light of the recent experience.

Order. This is a private notice question and not a statement, but I realise the deep constituency concern involved. Exceptionally—and it is exceptional—I shall allow questions to continue for longer than normal.

The Secretary of State said that 30,000 households were cut off. How many households in South Wales have no electricity supply? If he supports the idea of an inquiry, will he ensure that it investigates the effects of cash limits on nationalised industries? As it is possible that we shall have an extended winter, does he agree that there is an urgency about the matter? Will he also investigate the cuts in local authority expenditure which have prevented some authorities from gritting the roads and therefore prevented access to overhead lines?

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by saying that we are to have an extended winter. Perhaps he has information that I lack. I can assure him that the emergency services, particularly of the electricity boards, are in no way hampered in their work by cash limits. Of course they must operate within a financial discipline, but so does everybody.

I have an interest in these matters. Is my right hon. Friend aware that for four days my farmhouse has had no electricity, and that that is not funny? Will he also take note of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) that far more repair gangs should be brought in from other areas more quickly? It was a real emergency and much more should have been done. Will he investigate the possibility of providing additional spacers on the lines to stop them touching during high winds, as that causes many of the failures?

My hon. Friend's last point is one of the matters that will be considered in the review of transmission and distribution lines. I readily acknowledge that farmers probably suffer most from the power cuts. I understand that the Milk Marketing Board has made special arrangements for the collection of milk and that that is no longer a problem. Many farmers have standby generators which have helped them with their milking process. I am assured by the National Farmers Union that there are no major problems in that area. However, it has undoubtedly caused great difficulties for farmers.

Is the Minister aware that extremes of weather are not exactly unknown in the far South-West, and that freak storms can be guaranteed every year—if "freak" be the right word? Will he investigate whether a major contribution to the disaster that has hit the South-West has not been the CEGB's policy of closing down all local power stations in the far South-West peninsula?

The problems have nothing to do with the CEGB. There has been no problem with electricity generating. The supergrid has, on the whole, worked properly and has not caused a problem. The problem has been failures in the transmission and distribution lines operated by the area boards.

If hon. Members will co-operate, I shall call all those whom I know to have a direct constituency interest.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) for raising this matter. If he had not done so there would not have been a statement. Does my right hon. Friend accept that when communities are without supplies for long periods, their frustration is increased by the total lack of information? Will he encourage the electricity authorities to install a system similar to that of the speaking clock to give local weather reports and up-to-date information about the source of the troubles and what progress is being made to remedy them?

I have examined the question of information. I am assured that the area boards made every effort to use local radio, BBC regional broadcasts and the press to give up-to-date information about the extent of the trouble, what was happening and what was being done to put it right. Emergency information rooms were also established and isolated areas were visited by police. One problem has been the large number of telephone calls which jammed the lines and caused problems for people wishing to obtain information. Those who possessed transistor radios heard up-to-date information on the state of play.

I have some small practical experience of these matters. Is the Minister aware that the British electricity supply industry has one of the best records in the world for restoration of supplies after storms? Will he not extend the thanks of the Government to the engineers and workmen who have been out day and night during the past few days?

I am delighted to have the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of the vote of thanks that I have already given.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that not enough news is given by telephone because the boards do not have enough lines or telephonists? Could they not install more lines against a stormy day? Is he aware that there is no shortage of generators, most of which are manufactured in my constituency? Will he ensure that the boards hire them and have them on tap?

That is a matter for the boards. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is a most assidious constituency Member, will tell them how they can assist his local industry.

Is not the lesson that should be learnt that electricity board exchanges become swamped and people cannot respond to broadcast messages? Is not the cure for that the provision of a number of ex-directory lines to which the clerks of councils have access? They can act as collecting centres for information about local supplies and conditions and can quickly phone the ex-directory numbers. Should we not learn that important lesson from the present experience?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many parts of Wiltshire have been severely affected? What message can he give me, especially for homes in the Warminster area, to assure the local people that their ordeal is almost over? When there was last bad weather a couple of years ago, there were grievous problems of disconnection and we were assured that that would not be repeated. What progress has been made in the intervening period?

As I said earlier, it is my hope that by tomorrow most consumers will have been reconnected, and that includes those in my hon. Friend's constituency. He must be aware that conditions during the past few days were very much worse that the conditions of two years ago.

Local Government Finance

3.47 pm

I will, with permission, make a statement about a number of rating and local government finance matters. In its relationship with local government, the Government face two main problems—first, the need to contain levels of expenditure, and secondly, the need to make progress with their commitment to reform the rating system.

The Government are determined to reduce the level of local government current expenditure and to ensure, through the distribution of the rate support grant, that the consequences of high spending policies are financed more directly by those local communities where the highest spending takes place. The majority of local authorities have now proved that the Government's expenditure targets were realistic and attainable. I am most grateful to those authorities for the very real efforts that they have made.

The continuing wish of most local authorities to co-operate with Government by reducing the rate borne costs of public expenditure in their areas is further reinforced by the publication today of the latest local government manpower figures for England.

They show the largest total drop in manpower ever achieved in one year. At 1·9 million the number of full-time equivalent employees in local government in England is the lowest total recorded since the joint manpower watch system was introduced, and effectively eliminates all the manpower growth that has taken place since 1974.

In their determination to maintain pressure on current expenditure, particularly in authorities which do not co-operate with the overall policy of securing a better balance between the public and private sector, the Government decided to legislate this Session to deter high spending.

The Government intend to proceed with legislation. Instead of the proposals to permit supplementary rates only after a poll of local communities, the Government propose to ban supplementary rates altogether. Parts II and III of the Bill subject to drafting changes, will stand. I am therefore withdrawing the Bill which was introduced on 6 November and I am introducing today a new Bill incorporating these proposals.

During the financial year, an authority may incur unforeseeable expenditure. In these circumstances, it could apply to me for temporary borrowing permission. I would not grant such permission unless it was absolutely essential for the expenditure to be incurred in the year, and unavoidable commitments met. I would expect the borrowing to be repaid out of revenue income within the first quarter of the following year.

Our election manifesto restated our determination to reform the domestic rating system. I am today publishing, together with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales, a Green Paper on alternatives to, and possible reforms of, the present system of domestic rates. The present system contains anomalies and unfairness. In publishing the Green Paper, the Government reaffirm their long-standing commitment to reform.

The Green Paper considers first the main requirements to be met by any revenue-raising system for local government. Against those requirements, it discusses, first, domestic rates, and then the most promising alternatives—local sales tax, local income tax, poll tax and assigned Exchequer revenues. It then discusses a number of associated questions, including the economic effects of change and the consequences for the system of Exchequer grant towards the cost of local services.

We have said in the Green Paper that the country views the question of domestic rates with a sense of urgency and that the Government wish to move ahead as quickly as possible. I am, therefore, asking for comments on the Green Paper to be submitted by 31 March 1982.

I look forward to wide-ranging consultations between now and next April. We shall then aim to produce proposals for a system which would remedy as fully as possible the shortcomings of the existing system of domestic rating and which would command the widest possible acceptance in the country as a whole.

This is an important day for Parliament. The decision to withdraw the Local Government Finance Bill introduced six weeks ago means that the Secretary of State has learnt a lesson in democracy. He has learnt that, whatever the size of their majority, no Government can simply slap down a Bill and complacently assume that the House of Commons will rubber-stamp it. The Secretary of State would have done well to admit that frankly, rather than to try to wrap up his humiliation in verbal camouflage that will deceive no one. For example, we note that he has claimed credit for increasing unemployment.

Does the Secretary of State recall that this is the second local government Bill in two years that he has introduced and then had to withdraw? Paraphrasing Lady Bracknell's remark in "The Importance of Being Earnest", to lose one local government Bill may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two seems like carelessness.

How can the Secretary of State justify the turmoil into which he has thrown every local authority in the country over the past three months, all for what turns out to have been an exercise in futility? His decision to ban supplementary rates is deplorable in itself, but is it not also a direct invitation to every borough treasurer to evade the control by recommending a high initial rate for contingency purposes? Accordingly, could it not be an incentive to overspend?

Since the Secretary of State himself clearly has little confidence in this No. 2 Bill—his seventh attempt to arrive at a solution to a problem that does not exist—why should anyone else support it? Is he aware that, although shorn of the unacceptable device of the compulsory referendum, it is still a gross interference with the independence of local government? Is he aware that every hon. Member who cares about genuine local democracy will oppose it?

We shall study the right hon. Gentleman's Green Paper and await the Government's conclusions. We hope, this time, that there will be genuine consultation with the local authorities and that their knowledge and experience will be taken into account. Will he abandon, once and for all, his meddling with local government and allow it to get on with its job?

I do not believe that the decision to do away with supplementary rates will increase the initial budgeting of local government. The technique of supplementary rates has been relatively rarely used in the past because treasurers have budgeted for contingency items within the original budgets. The fact is that the Labour Party has too often been largely responsible for using supplementary rates actually to increase expenditure.

I cannot accept that the announcement about lower local authority manpower leads directly to higher unemployment. The Opposition will not understand that the alternative is higher rate levels which are a direct attempt to pursue higher levels of unemployment by their deterrent effect upon the private sector. For the Opposition to lecture the Government on parliamentary democracy, when they are riddled with people trying to overthrow parliamentary democracy, is humbug.

Order. I remind hon. Members that this is a Supply day. There are two very important debates to follow. They are preceded by a Ten-Minute Bill. I listened with care to the statement. I believe that if I allow exchanges to continue until 4.15 pm the issue will have had a very good run.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to drop the referendum proposals, which had most dangerous constitutional implications. As the best solution to local government finance would be the abolition of the domestic rating system and the transfer of the cost to the central Government Exchequer, will my right hon. Friend say whether the Green Paper considers this alternative and in particular whether it works out the savings that will be raised in terms of staff and costs in the Inland Revenue valuation department, in the collection of local rates and in the rate rebate scheme?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he says. The Green Paper that is now in the Vote Office explores among many options the one to which he has drawn my attention. It gives considerable indication of some of the economies that might flow. All these matters will be explored in greater depth in the consultation period.

Does the right hon. Gentleman fully appreciate that while there is a duty on all responsible local authorities to try to co-operate with central Government, whatever Government are in power, he has been stretching to the limits the patience of those who have been trying to do so over the last few years? What will happen to those authorities faced with great expenditure incurred last weekend, through damage to sea walls and suchlike, which will come out of revenue expenditure and which will take them above the level of volume targets at which they are to be penalised? Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to be fair and reasonable in relation to the present financial year? Does he appreciate that it was a previous Conservative Administration that in 1974 reformed local government, following which there was a huge expansion of bureaucracy? Does he not agree that the fault lies with the previous Conservative Administration?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that emergencies have been considered favourably in the past, where appropriate. I would obviously discuss these matters with the local authority associations in relevant cases as my predecessors have always done.

As for the claim that there was a growth in the bureaucracy following the reorganisation of local government, any dispassionate observation of the facts will show that this is not the case. From 1956 onwards, local authority manpower increased year by year at an ever-increasing rate. It is difficult to see on the graph the point at which reorganisation took place. It was not until 1973–74 that the first checks to that increase took place, largely as a result of the oil crisis and the effects of the Labour Party.

The hon. Gentleman claims that the patience of local government has been stretched. I pay tribute to those authorities which are co-operating, but I have to make the point that the public and the ratepayer have had their patience stretched beyond endurance in many cases.

In examining ways of reforming the rating system, will the right hon. Gentleman accept the principle that one wants to achieve a greater identity between the discretion of a local authority and its obligation to finance its exercise of that discretion from local funds? To that end, will he not try to take out of local authority funding most, but not all, educational expenditure and place it with the central Exchequer so that there is greater identity between the decisions of local authorities and their means of supply?

The hon. Gentleman will find that a chapter of the Green Paper is devoted to the arguments surrounding the transfer of educational expenditure to the central Exchequer. He will wish, with many other people, to consider that possibility. As to trying to get greater local accountability to link high spending with bills that fall locally, the block grant mechanism achieves that.

I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on dropping the proposal for referendums on rates. Is he aware that I cannot recall when last a supplementary rate was demanded in my part of Britain? Does that not show that local authorities controlled by Conservatives or independents act on the whole with great responsibility and that therefore his decision to abolish supplementary rates should be no disadvantage to a responsible local authority?

My hon. Friend is right. A responsible local authority will budget in the normal way. It will budget for a contingency allowance, as local authorities always do, and it will stick within its budget. If all local government now kept to the level of expenditure achieved by the Conservative-controlled councils there would be no need for the continuing difficulties between local and central government.

Does the Secretary of State agree that by linking the two subjects—the dropping of a Bill and the introduction of a Green Paper—we have all the signs of rushed government, which usually means bad government? Some of us have had some experience of that and we can recognise the signs. Does it not show that the Government have no clear idea about how they intend to reform the rating system?

The hon. Gentleman would be taking a different approach if we had announced conclusions today without a consultation period. I believe that we are right to publish a Green Paper which goes further in the production of supplementary evidence than the Layfield report and will enable us to have a wide-ranging, but I hope relatively short, consultative period.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we welcome his local authority reform proposals? Can he press for early legislation on the matter, which would mark a great contrast to the inactivity and ineptitude of the previous Labour Government?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) is now talking about reforming the local government financial scene, but he did nothing about it when the Labour Party was in office. I wish to have a relatively brief consultative period ending on 31 March 1982, which would enable us to take decisions about the timing of legislation.

Does the Secretary of State accept that he is proposing to take unprecedented powers to approve the spending of individual local authorities? What will happen to those local authorities who fail to get his permission to borrow? Does he agree that most of the candidates that he has mentioned in the Green Paper are the same knock-kneed beasts that he has flogged around the course umpteen times already? Is there anything in his Green Paper that has not already been considered in detail by the Layfield Committee and similar expert bodies?

It would be wrong to assume that I have invented a new form of taxation in the Green Paper. However, the Green Paper sets out arguments, many of which are well rehearsed, but goes further than has been attempted before in trying to show the consequences of moving to an alternative. We have tried to analyse the impact on certain identified groups of householders of possible changes in any one of the alternatives considered to be the front runners. The hon. Gentleman has not understood the announcement that I made earlier today if he believes that I am trying to control individual authority expenditure.

Will my right hon. Friend accept my sincere congratulations on his proposal to drop the Bill as presented to the House, especially the proposals on referendums which would have affected central and local government relations dramatically? Secondly, I congratulate him on the solution that he has put forward. Thirdly, will he resist the siren voices—not least that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins)—who would suggest that the solution lay in a totality of central Government support, which would deprive local government of some independence and the opportunity to present its own priorities?

I have seldom found it possible to resist the siren voice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, but it is not for me today to try to reach a conclusion about the many preferred solutions that will be put forward for the reform of domestic rates. My task is to consult and not yet to reach judgment.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in the part of the statement which refers to the rate support grant it appears that he will cruelly cane ratepayers in cities such as Newcastle upon Tyne? Has he not yet taken it on board that what he calls the big spenders are the inner city authorities who have the big problems to deal with?

The hon. Gentleman is doing me the courtesy of anticipating a statement that I hope to make soon. I did not deal with the issue of the distribution of the rate support grant. That has yet to come. However, I fully understand the needs of the inner urban areas and I am aware that if there is to be a revival of activity it is necessary to have lower rates.

Will my right hon. Friend not spend too much time worrying about the highly polished, pseudo-intellectual irrelevancies of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman)? Will he concentrate on the petition of 3,000 or 4,000 names from my constituency which was sent to him, speaking as always for the people of London as a whole, begging him to protect them against the predatory ravages of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone? Will his new proposals give some protection?

The legislation will deal with the powers of all local authorities, including the GLC. However, there are other matters affecting the GLC which are sub judice and it would not be proper for me to discuss them.

Does the Secretary of State realise that it is nonsense to say that he is not interfering with the freedom of local government? Is he aware that if he interferes with the right to a supplementary rate or the amount of initial rate, that is an interference with the fundamental freedom of local government? How will his proposals help Swindon, which has co-operated with him all along the line and is an expansion area, which he has encouraged, but which is now being clobbered in its efforts to provide housing and new work for my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), who gave the Secretary of State such praise?

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman would expect me to make proposals specifically for his constituents, but within his constituency many people will have grave reservations about the domestic rating system and will welcome the announcements that I have made today.

As one who has been seeking rate reform for at least the past 20 years, I welcome my right hon. Friend's Green Paper. Is it his intention to legislate during the next session of Parliament or must I wait another 20 years for the legislation?

My hon. Friend has provided an eloquent argument about why we should get on with the job and not keep him in suspense for that period.

Why has the right hon. Gentleman lost all his faith in local democracy? Why has he changed his mind since his Local Government Bill was going through Committee? Does he recall using the memorable phrase that it was good for local councillors to feel the prick of the electorate in their bottoms? Has his attitude changed?

It is difficult for me to comment upon the precise impact on local councillors of any impetus that they may feel. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman, who has such a long memory, that other changes have taken place since the 1972 reform, a significant one of which is that many people in local government no longer believe that the traditional relationship of co-operation with central Government is a prime objective.

I welcome the Bill, but will the Secretary of State bear in mind the anxieties of industry and commerce about their rates, which are causing great difficulty, particularly to small firms and shopkeepers? Does he accept that one reason why I welcome the Bill is that industry will now at least be able to plan its budgeting for the forthcoming year, as it will know what the rate demand is?

That is an important point and applies not only to industry and commerce. With the abolition of supplementary rates the domestic ratepayer will also know that he has a fixed outlay which will not be varied for the forthcoming year.

Apart from what the Secretary of State said about supplementary rates, will local authorities such as the inner London education authority, from which he has through his previous actions already taken away all rate support grant money, be immune from his further proposals and free to raise and to spend money as they believe is right in the interests of those to whom they are responsible?

There is a chill warning in those words. I am aware that my proposals can not fully control the phenomenon that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I hope that his question is not a recommendation that that authority, among others, should go on a spending spree and disregard the ratepayers.

As I come from the county of Avon which is suffering the burden of a supplementary rate, may I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and the Government's firm intention to reform the rating system in this Parliament? In the meantime, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that local authorities which loyally co-operate with the Government's economic policy and pursue good housekeeping do not suffer thereby in their grant arrangements?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The grant arrangements are the subject of another announcement, but from what I have said it should be apparent that I am determined to co-operate with the authorities that have co-operated with the Government. Substantial differential targets have been set for the authorities which have already made substantial cuts. I sympathise with my hon. Friend's point about his constituents suffering the supplementary rate. I sympathise particularly with people who are living on fixed incomes, including pensioners, who are in now no way able to protect themselves from the effect of the rates.

As the Secretary of State boasts that he is responsible for putting more local authority workers on the dole than any of his predecessors, can he explain why he wishes to keep down rates to protect employment? What connection is there between domestic ratepayers and the PSBR? How can the transfer payment affect jobs and threaten employment?

The economic effects are not linked simply to the PSBR. It is a question of the management of demand in society at large. As local authorities spend about £30 billion a year, the Government must take a view about the way in which the expenditure is managed and directed. I totally reject the hon. Gentleman's view that because the number of local authority employees has gone down to the 1974 level it has necessarily increased the dole queues. The vast majority of employees have left of their own free will, many to retire.

May I thank my hon. Friend for listening to the views of the House expressed in the debate recently and congratulate him on the new Bill? Will the powers that he has taken to himself be limited by time, as he said in the debate might be the case? Will he assure us that this document will be the last Green Paper on the subject?

I very much hope that it is the last Green Paper that I produce on the subject, but beyond that I hesitate to go. It is not my intention that we should need a further Green Paper on the subject. I do not believe that we should take a decision on the limitation of time on banning the supplementary rate. It was a commitment that I gave very much in the context of the referendum provisions. The case is different when one comes to judge supplementary rates.

As one reason why a number of local authorities levied the supplementary rate in the current year was that the Government had given them a falsely optimistic estimate of price and wage inflation, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that they will be given a realistic estimate in the forthcoming year so that they are not forced into either supplementary rate demands or appeals to him?

The hon. Gentleman must have completely misunderstood the situation. Had the assumption been unrealistic all local authorities—not just a tiny handful—would have had to levy supplementary rates.

May I congratulate the Minister on his readiness to withdraw the referendum principle and on bringing forward the Green Paper so quickly? If we do not wish local authorities to levy a rate higher than needed—I believe that they will if there is no chance to levy a supplementary rate—and if the Government's figures on inflation and interest rates turn out to be wrong, will my right hon. Friend reconsider the matter? Does he agree that the temporary borrowing permission affects the Government's borrowing figures and would make a difficult position even worse?

It is extremely unlikely that the Government would be prepared to consider the situation again if the inflation factors proved to be higher than we have estimated. We are trying to secure a better balance between the public and private sectors. We cannot accept that the private sector can only watch while the public sector virtually indexes its whole expenditure patterns. The public sector must make sufficient economies to live within the means that the Government have willed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for praising my readiness to withdraw the Bill. It was a flattering way to describe what happened.

Bill Presented

Local Government Finance (No 2)

Mr. Secretary Heseltine, supported by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Whitelaw, Mr. Secretary Edwards, the Attorney-General, and Mr. Tom King, presented a Bill to abolish supplementary rates and supplementary precepts; to require rates and precepts to be made or issued for complete financial years; to make further provision with respect to the borrowing powers of local authorities; to amend the provisions relating to adjustments of the distribution of block grant; to make new provision for auditing the accounts of local authorities and other public bodies; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed [Bill 41].

Replica Firearms

4.16 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it unlawful without a licence to import, manufacture, or offer for sale any device that resembles or is intended to resemble a firearm unless that device is incapable of being transformed into an actual firearm or is conspicuously dissimilar to the firearm it purports to resemble; and for related purposes.
Shortly after the incident on the Mall when a man with a replica firearm fired six blank shots near Her Majesty the Queen, the Home Secretary told the House that he would review the law on imitation firearms with a view to bringing forward effective control. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), speaking for the Opposition, agreed to support proposals for firmer controls on firearms of all kinds, real and replica.

As it happened, I had been in close touch with my right hon. Friend on the subject of replica guns during the previous six months and urged him to take steps to deal with two things: first, the rapidly increasing availability of replica guns and their increased use by criminals; secondly, the confused and uncertain state of the law. I was joined in my representations at a later stage by the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals), whose constituents had suffered attacks by criminals using replicas and whose support I am happy to recognise.

My right hon. Friend properly pointed to the great difficulties that he and his predecessors had encountered in seeking to devise more effective controls. I should place on record the fact that at no time was he opposed to taking further action. He made only the proper proviso with which I entirely agree—I usually agree with my right hon. Friend—that the controls must be effective.

Thereafter, when hon. Members on both sides of the House made known their feelings in response to the incident in the Mall, my right hon. Friend encouraged the right hon. Member for Norwich, North and me to bring forward a private Bill, and, subject to his being satisfied that it would be workable, he offered his general support.

The case for the Bill is overwhelming. The number of robberies, burglaries, assaults, rapes and muggings carried out with the aid of imitation guns appears to be increasing rapidly. I say "appears" because the statistics are not clear. The principal reason is that in far too many cases where firearms are used in the course of crime the criminal gets away with it or is not arrested and therefore it can never enter the criminal statistics whether the weapon he used was real or fake. But the judgment and experience of the police service is that more and more replicas are being used in the course of crime and that this will continue if nothing is done, for two reasons. First, regrettably, replicas are easier to come by than real revolvers and pistols. A person needs only to go into a shop—there are many hundreds of them—and buy one. That shop is not required to be licensed and the person who buys the imitation gun does not require a licence to possess it—at least not in most cases.

The second reason why imitation guns will continue to be used increasingly in crime is that replicas are cheaper than the real thing. Even on the black market, which thrives on illicit firearms, it costs between £150 and £200 to buy a real Walther or Luger pistol. Yet, for about £30 or £40 one can now buy a look-alike pistol that is so realistic that not even an expert can tell it from the real thing at a distance of 5 ft. That is wrong and it should be stopped.

The second fact that led me to seek the leave of the House to introduce the Bill is that the present law is a muddle. It is undoubtedly an offence to possess an imitation gun with intent to commit a crime. The Home Office has also maintained—for instance, in its Green Paper—that it is an offence, without a licence, to have an imitation weapon that can easily be transformed—for example, by being bored out—into the real thing. But the courts have differed sharply in their interpretation of that. I give two examples.

A London man was recently arrested while carrying an imitation Magnum revolver, of the type used by the American police, in a shoulder holster hidden under his coat. The replica was made in Japan and unquestionably could be converted into an actual firearm. But the judge ordered the jury to bring in a "Not guilty" verdict. I quote his final statement:
"It seems wrong to convict Mr. Lamberg when any of us can go and buy such a gun from dealers who do not need a licence. Perhaps the Home Office might take a long look at the situation."
The second case is a contrary one. It concerns an illegal immigrant who was convicted for possessing a replica gun on the ground that it could be transformed into a real one. At the end of the trial the magistrate asked the chief police witness
"Why are such guns available if possession is restricted by the Firearms Act?"
That is the Green Paper case. The police officer, not unreasonably, replied:
"This remains a mystery."
Defending counsel then said:
"This is a purely technical offence. There are thousands of persons in London who could be arrested for having these guns, including one of my colleagues".
He pointed to a Queen's Counsel—a barrister—attending the case. The magistrate, not unreasonably, told the barrister that he had better get rid of it.

The Guardian reported:
"The barrister, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that he would have advised a not guilty plea … This gun does not fall under the Firearms Act. It is incapable of adaptation by an amateur."
The law is unclear. It needs to be straightened out.

I should make plain what my Bill will not do. It will not outlaw children's toys. It will not affect starting pistols for athletics meetings or flare guns of the type that are used in air-sea rescue. Those who collect antique firearms will not be prevented from doing so. Those who are already the lawful possessors of replicas will not be affected.

The Bill will make it harder for would-be criminals to lay their hands on any sort of replica that can be transformed into a real weapon—for example, by boring out the barrel. I seek to stop that. I believe that it is high time we did so. It will also require all those who in future seek to traffic in replica guns to give anyone who is menaced by them, whether the victim or the passing police officer, at least some chance of being able to determine whether the device that is pointed at him is a fake, not a real gun.

I confess that the second leg of the Bill is difficult. The solution that I suggest is that it should be made unlawful to import, manufacture or sell, though not to possess, replica firearms unless they are made conspicuously dissimilar from the firearms that they purport to resemble. I freely acknowledge that this puts the burden of proof on the trade. It would be necessary for the importer, the manufacturer or the seller to show that he had taken such steps, as would convince the courts, to make the replicas in question conspicuously different in appearance from the real thing.

I realise that the Bill will need careful drafting. I recognise that there are many legitimate interests whose rights must be safeguarded. If the Bill reaches Committee, and receives, as I hope, the help of the Home Secretary, I would be willing to amend it in any way that he considers appropriate.

But in the face of a rising tide of crime and terrorism, we dare not leave things as they are. We simply cannot do nothing. The police service needs the Bill. The general public want it. The public interest, in my view, requires it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Eldon Griffiths, Mr. David Ennals, Mr. Richard Crawshaw, Mr. James Molyneaux, Mrs. Jill Knight, Mr. Ivan Lawrence, Mr. John Lee and Mr. George Gardiner.

Replica Firearms

Mr. Eldon Griffiths accordingly presented a Bill to make it unlawful without a licence to import, manufacture, or offer for sale any device that resembles or is intended to resemble a firearm unless that device is incapable of being transformed into an actual firearm or is conspicuously dissimilar to the firearm it purports to resemble; and for related purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 22 January and to he printed [Bill 42].

Defence Estimates

I apologise to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) for the fact that I overlooked calling him earlier to raise his point of order.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me at all. I gave you notice of a point of order that I wished to raise on the Defence Estimates that are being taken at 10 o'clock tonight. As you will see, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) and I have given notice of an objection under Standing Order No. 18(10), which, in effect, singles out the Defence Vote.

My point of order is that there is no opportunity for hon. Members to single out any section of that Defence Vote. House of Commons Paper No. 42, which covers the Defence Votes, provides in five lines the information for the expenditure of £5·583 billion, whereas House of Commons Paper No. 43, which covers the Civil Estimates, provides no fewer than 10½ pages of detailed account of expenditure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North and I believe that the Secretary of State for Defence should be called upon, through your good offices, to provide further detailed information when the Defence Estimates motion is put on the Order Paper, as is required by the Standing Orders, so that hon. Members can make a judgment of what is contained in them. Even at this late stage, Mr. Speaker, through your good offices, perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence would wish to provide more information for hon. Members, rather than require £5·583 billion to be passed on the nod. Further information may persuade us that it is not necessary to vote against the whole of the expenditure.

The hon. Gentleman gave me notice that he would raise a point of order, but, as he is aware, he did not give me notice of the subject of it. However, fortunately, I know the answer. Our Standing Orders mean, as he correctly said, that he cannot take objection to the details within the Estimates. If he and his hon. Friend wish to vote against them, they must exercise their power to vote against the Defence Estimates as such. I shall put the Estimates to the House at 10 o'clock tonight.

Orders Of The Day

Supply

[7TH ALLOTTED DAY]— considered

Television Licence Fee (Pensioners)

4.30 pm

I beg to move,

That this House supports the view of the Director-General designate of the British Broadcasting Corporation that "some way has to be found of relieving pensioners of paying full television licence fees annually"; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to consult with organisations that represent pensioners and their interest so as to determine the best way in which a concession can be provided, and to report its conclusions to this House within six months.
It is difficult to imagine a more emollient motion for a Supply day. The motion makes three modest requests, which are all easily within the Government's power. First, it asks the Government to accept
"that 'some way has to be found of relieving pensioners of paying full television licence fees'".
Secondly, it asks the Government to consult pensioners' organisations on how such a concession could be organised. Thirdly, it asks the Government
"to report its conclusions to this House within six months".
Bearing in mind the sheer modesty of the proposals, we are left baffled by the Government's obduracy in refusing even to contemplate them. The need for a concession seems obvious and overwhelming. The obvious and overwhelming argument for a concession will not be diminished by the Home Secretary telling us that the pension is upgraded each November to take account of the increased costs that pensioners have suffered in the preceding year. The pension may be upgraded next November, but the increased licence fee must be paid now.

On the Opposition Benches and, I believe, outside the House there is no faith in the willingness of the Government fully and honestly to recompense pensioners by restoring the full value of their pension, taking account of what they have lost during the previous 12 months. It is well known, although the Government continue to deny it, that at least 3 per cent. has been deducted from the pensioner's proper increase this year. That amounts to about £61 for a married couple, which is more than a full television licence fee. Surely a retrospective adjustment is necessary.

We believe—it is a belief that is clearly not shared by the Government—that television is the only sustained pleasure for many retirement pensioners. It is their single regular contact with the outside world. I appreciate that the same argument can be advanced for the chronically sick and disabled, but today, believing that the chains of Marley's ghost have not yet clanked loud enough in 10 Downing Street, we ask the Government to repent over only one issue, and that is the retirement pensioner. Therefore, the motion is limited to the pensioner.

We know from experience that for many retirement pensioners a fee of virtually £1 a week is more than they can reasonably afford. I concede at once, as did the director-general designate in the broadcast to which the motion refers, that the Government have recently extended the various easy payments systems which have been introduced for paying licence fees. No doubt those systems will help some, but they will not help the poorer pensioners who cannot afford to pay £1 a week any more than they can afford to pay £46 a year. There will be double inconvenience and double disadvantage if, as is the case, they are required to pay next year's licence now. Easy payments systems are always designed for licence fees to be paid by the poor in instalments, but in advance.

The House will recall that in April 1978 the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), announced a major extension of the pensioner's concession. A year after that extension was announced we proposed, in the Labour Party's election manifesto, to continue the process that had been begun. We proposed that the phasing out of the licence fee for pensioners should be carried out within the life of the then forthcoming Parliament.

We call upon the Government not to implement that policy, but—we make a more modest request—to recognise that the pensioner can be helped in some way. It seems hardly credible in the House—it seems extraordinary outside—that a modest request for an inquiry to ascertain whether pensioners can be helped should be dismissed out of hand.

We accept that in an ideal world no concession would be necessary. In that ideal world the pension would be sufficient to allow for the normal payment for the licence fee and for everything else without hardship. It is the ambition of all to ensure that pensioners receive a pension that enables them to receive all the benefits that the rest of us enjoy without any concessions, but we are very far away from an ideal world, and in the world that we inhabit we are getting further and further away from the ideals that I have described. Indeed, the Government are doing all that they can to diminish the pension increase year by year.

It is no less than effrontery for the Government to table an amendment that talks about the real answer to the pensioners' problem being
"the maintenance of the real value of the retirement pension."
The Government have done less than virtually any other Government in the past 15 years to stick to that principle.

indicated dissent.

If the right hon. Gentleman, with his normal command of statistics, wishes to argue about the 3 per cent. shortfall and the £61 being deducted from pensioners, I shall be delighted to take issue with him. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman's trembling was an indication that he was about to intervene. It seems that I was mistaken. I look forward to learning what he has to say

The Opposition feel strongly that, in an ideal world, the retirement pension should be high enough to prevent the necessity for concessions. However, in the world that we presently inhabit, regrettably, the pension is not large enough to allow that to happen. Hence, the need for concessionary fares and rent rebates. The Opposition believe that it is only reasonable to extend the same principle, the same help and the same modicum of assistance until pensions can be raised to a level that makes such concessions unnecessary.

The Opposition are asking for further help for pensioners. We offer the Government some suggestions about how the revenue may be raised to help to meet the cost of this concession without increasing public spending. If the Labour Party were in the Government's position, it might feel that the economy demanded some public spending increases to finance such a concession.

I shall argue this case in the Government's terms to make their rejection of the motion seem all the more extraordinary. I shall offer the Government some suggestions as to how they can meet the shortfall in the licence fee revenue which would be the result of pension concessions.

I accept without qualification that the BBC needs to receive the equivalent of the income which the £46 licence fee will produce. One might argue, as I do, that the BBC made a good case for a £50 licence fee. I wish not to reduce the funds paid to the BBC, but to change the way in which they are collected. I wish the collection of the licence fee to continue in much the same form as now. I do not wish the Government to be responsible for funding the BBC. I believe that the licence fee is necessary to preserve the proper independence of the BBC, but there are significant disadvantages in financing the BBC through what amounts to a poll tax which falls equally on all television subscribers, rich and poor alike.

I do not believe that the best interests of the BBC are served by a poll tax. That point was made with some force by the director-general designate when I spoke to him yesterday. If we go on collecting the licence fee at a single rate, the time will eventually come—perhaps it has come already—when not enough will be collected properly to finance the BBC, because it will be felt to bear too heavily upon the poor and therefore the licence fee and the overall intake will be artificially held down.

I repeat, the same amount of revenue should be collected, but in different ways. I offer the Home Secretary some ways in which this might be done.

First, it is a scandal that television sets are being used all over the country for commercial purposes without those who own, use and profit from them paying a penny towards the licence fee and the upkeep of the British Broadcasting Corporation. I was told yesterday by the British Tourist Authority that there are at least 300,000 television sets in hotel bedrooms. As a hotel needs to take out only a single licence, virtually none of those sets attracts a licence fee.

I take one example. The Savoy hotel has rather more than 200 bedrooms and rather more than 200 television sets. I was reliably informed by that hotel this morning that it charges £85 per night for a double room. If it paid a proper licence fee for each of its television sets, the cost of a room would be increased by a little under 13p per night. I believe that the Savoy hotel could be required to pay a licence fee for each set without a deeply detrimental effect on the tourist trade or on any of the other matters that are wheeled out by vested interests as arguments for commercial organisations getting away scot-free.

I believe that there should be a commercial licence. If it were levied at the present rate on those 300,000 television sets, it would raise about £15 million. I go further. I believe that the commercial licence fee should be higher than the domestic fee. If a person owns a television set that is used for his own commercial purposes and profit, he should clearly pay more to the Government for the licence than should the family watching television at home.

I go still further. I would not limit this to hotels. There are organisations all over the country with dozens—perhaps hundreds—of television sets on their premises, ranging from the Shell building across the Thames to the Palace of Westminister, where I understand we pay a single licence fee. That is preposterous. Such people should pay a fee for each set, and I believe that they should pay more than the individual family at home.

Such a system would, of course, produce much complaint and a little inconvenience to some commercial organisations, but it would produce the revenue to subsidise the pensioners. I believe that an enhanced fee for all commercial use would produce as much as £50 million. That would be a start—but only a start.

I offer a further suggestion. We are trying not to lay down rules but to concentrate the Home Secretary's mind on matters which he might examine. A further suggestion for raising more revenue for the BBC is an exchange of income between the BBC and the commercial companies. If we gave the IBA 20 per cent. of the licence income, the IBA would have the power and influence that it desperately needs but does not have. If it had this money to spend on programmes through programme companies, it would have the teeth that many of us wish it to have. In return, the programme companies could be required to give 20 per cent. of their advertising revenue to the BBC. The extra revenue would give the BBC the strength, power and general income to make it far easier for it to allow a reduced licence fee to pensioners without detriment to its own organisation.

I do not ask the right hon. Gentleman to reveal a private conversation, but did he discuss this with the director-general designate of the BBC and, if so, what was his reaction?

No; that matter was not discussed with the director-general designate. The hon. Gentleman need not worry that he is intruding into a private conversation. Had it been a private conversation, it would not have been mentioned in the debate and the director-general designate's views would not have been broadcast on television and radio on Friday or have appeared in the motion. The proposal was put to me by other authorities on broadcasting, if I may so describe them, but in this respect at least the director-general designate is free of any guilt.

It is possible that, even with a substantial amount from the levy and a commercial licence at an increased rate, there might still not be enough to provide the concession for pensioners that I seek. I repeat the view expressed last week by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack). I believe that if there were still a shortfall, most families in this country would be prepared to contribute a little more in their licence fee to give the pensioners a fair deal, if that were the only way to do it. I believe that it would be right for the Government to suggest that, and that the response would be overwhelming.

I hope that in moving the Government amendment the Home Secretary will not exaggerate how much such a concession would cost or how great the increased contribution of other viewers would have to be if it were allowed. I know that the size of both the concession and the increase in other licence fees which might be involved depend to some extent on how the concession is calculated and who it is thought should receive it. The motion deliberately makes no attempt to commit the Government to a scheme which might frighten off their more timid supporters. We are asking the Government to examine all possibilities in good faith and with good will and to report their conclusions.

We concede at once that, however it is organised, any scheme to extend the concessions allowed to pensioners is bound to include anomalies—some real, and some apparent. Some pensioners who it is popularly believed should not receive the concession will receive it, while others who it is popularly believed should receive it will not. The Government cannot argue with any conviction that the objection to any scheme that we propose must be the anomalies which might be involved. If any scheme is anomalous and causes great anguish, anger and concern as a result, it is the present system of concessions for old-age pensioners. I think that all hon. Members would agree that perhaps the third or fourth most regular subject of their constituency mail is that raised by the pensioner who points out that a friend, a contemporary, a relation or a neighbour receives a concession while he does not.

On 5 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) told the House of a block of flats in his constituency in which
"a pensioner living in a ground floor flat … receives the concession but a pensioner, in exactly the same circumstances and of the same age, living in the flat above can be denied it".—[Official Report, 5 March 1981; Vol. 1000, c. 406.]
The system whereby pensioners currently pay for their television licences is riddled with anomalies. One is the definition of what is appropriate property. Another is the distinction between local authorities which help pensioners—Clay Cross and Rotherham are first-class examples, but there are many others—and local authorities which do not. Every hon. Member must have had large quantities of correspondence from pensioners saying that they are badly treated because others who are identical in every circumstance receive concessions while they do not.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also define exactly what he means by a pensioner? Does he include Mr. Harold Macmillan? Does he mean every male over the age of 65 and every female over the age of 60? Does he include people on early pensions? Is any kind of means test involved? How do we distinguish the case of the family in which a pensioner lives? It seems important to define what he means.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman did not imagine for a moment that I did not intend to deal with the subject of qualifying categories. I shall come to that in a moment. When I speculate as to what those categories might be, however, it seems clear that in any concessionary scheme some people will receive a concession that they do not need. I need only to recall the Home Secretary's comment a few weeks ago, that if there were a concession for all pensioners my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition would already be receiving it and he himself would receive it soon. I take it that the Home Secretary looks forward to receiving a free bus pass in a month or two. Despite the implication that he did not need it, I am not suggesting that he should not receive it. It is in the nature of the provision of welfare that sometimes it is received by people who do not need it. I regret that should be so, but I shall explain why we need it. It is one of the things that we have to face, one of the crosses we have to bear, one of the bullets on which we have to bite.

Before I move on to that aspect, I shall try to define the categories of persons who should receive the concession. There will be some anomalies, but there are anomalies in the present system, and they cannot be advanced as reasons for preserving the present system.

Who should receive the concession, and how much would it cost? The usual calculation is based on 6 million pensioner households. Full exemption for all those households would cost £230 million. That is the equivalent of a £69 licence fee for the rest of us if no household with a pensioner were required to pay for a television licence. The Opposition asks the Home Secretary not to phase out the pensioners' licence fee, but to look for concessions.

I note that the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) is in his place. He will obviously be advocating the total abolition of pensioners' licence fees, because that was in the manifesto on which he fought the general election. I know that the Social Democratic Party believes, above all, in sticking to the manifesto. Therefore, I look to him for a robust demand for his election pledge to be fulfilled. I am asking the Government not to abolish the licence fee for pensioners but to examine the alternatives. I concede that if it were phased out completely, there would be a £69 licence fee for all families if the Government made no allowance for the commercial fee or for a contribution from the IBA levy.

I hope that the Secretary of State will not quote the £69 fee and the £230 million total. If he is anxious and determined to help pensioners, he can evolve schemes which, allowing for the commercial fee and the contribution from the IBA levy, would make a smaller demand on the licence fee in general.

For example, I would welcome as a small step in the right direction a simple exemption for households where the pensioner is the head of the household and responsible for the bills, and subsists on a pension. In short, the rich or the fairly rich young married couple who had a parent living with them would not necessarily be exempt, but an elderly woman who had a single daughter living with her and looking after her would be exempt.

I accept that that is not a perfect distinction—there will be some anomalies—but it would absolve from payment a large number of households—perhaps 4 million—in which the retirement pensioner had the prime responsibility for paying the bills and managing the limited money. It would provide a good deal of help for people who desperately needed it. I believe—and I hope the House believes—that while television may be a pleasure for some of us, and perhaps a flippant pleasure on some occasions, for old-age pensioners with little money to spend, confined to their homes, unable to enjoy other pleasures and with no opportunity to go out, it is a near necessity.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that under the previous Labour Government I tried to introduce a Private Member's Bill to relieve the institutes for deaf people of the need to pay the licence fee? That would have cost the Treasury £10,000 but the Government refused to give that concession to those people. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that deaf people do not consider television as vital to them as it is to pensioners? How can he defend the rejection of £10,000 for deaf people, but ask the House to support £200 million for pensioners?

If the hon. Gentleman had followed my perhaps over-convoluted argument, he would recall that I was not defending the £200 million. I was urging the Home Secretary not to quote that figure because my scheme—or a scheme—would cost much less. If the hon. Gentleman had been here at the beginning of my speech—I am sure that he was, but I cannot recall—he would remember two other things.

First, I gladly conceded that a wide spectrum of people could benefit under such a scheme. However, today we make a narrow call on the Government, in the obviously mistaken hope that they will respond to it.

Secondly, I told the House that the Government in which I served made substantial progress in this matter. We advocated concessions. I do not think that we are subject to legitimate criticism for not going far enough. I ask the Government to look at the ways in which necessitous pensioners can be helped to enjoy one of the few things that provide them with certain and continuing enjoyment.

My scheme—or any scheme—would involve some anomalies and administrative costs. It would involve industry paying a fraction more for television reception. It would involve the concession going to some people who did not need it, but it would bring such happiness and end much anguish for pensioners. Therefore the Government ought to agree to our modest request to examine the possibility of concessions. I am astonished, and many hon. Members will be ashamed, that the Government will not do that. No doubt many people outside will be horrified at the hard-faced way in which the Government have responded to our wholly moderate and reasonable motion.

4.56 pm

I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

"this House endorses the Government's decision to increase the television licence fees to £46 for colour and £15 for monochrome on the basis that these will last for at least three years; and believes that the right way to help retirement pensioners is through the provision of a choice of methods of payment and the maintenance of the real value of the retirement pension'.
The House will recall that we had a short discussion on 1 December following my statement announcing increases in the television licence fees to £46 for colour and £15 for monochrome. Since those increases have given rise to this afternoon's Supply Day debate, I think it right that the House should bear in mind the nature and purpose of those increases.

It is my firm belief that the licence fee system, for all its difficulties, is the best available method of financing the services which the BBC provides and for securing the independence of the corporation. I welcome the fact that this view commands wide support, particularly from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley).

In reaching the decision I announced two weeks ago, I considered it to be my duty as Home Secretary to strike a balance between the financial needs of the BBC and what is was fair and reasonable to ask licence fee payers to pay in present economic circumstances. I also saw it as my responsibility to do what I could to make the licence fee system work in the way that it should work. Its value lies in the way in which it distances the Government from the day-to-day affairs of the corporation and also in the way it enables the BBC to plan ahead. This value is greatly diminished if the BBC has to come each year to the Government asking for an increase in the fees. That is why I decided on an increase to last for at least three years. My intention is that the fees will be pegged at least until December 1984.

The increased fees will be taken into account in next year's uprating of pensions. Thereafter, until December 1984 at the earliest, although there will be increases in pensions in line with inflation, I intend there to be no increase in the television licence fees. I believe that there is a broad measure of agreement both with my three-year approach to the licence fee settlement and with the actual level of fee increases that I decided.

Even at the new levels, the television licence fees continue to give extremely good value for money. They represent a cost of less than 90p per week for colour and less than 30p per week for monochrome for two television services, four national radio services and many local radio services, whose quality, range and entertainment value are matched in few other countries and surpassed in none.

As I said two weeks ago, I fully appreciate that it is not easy for some people to find the licence fee in a single lump sum each year. I have been much impressed by the use that is being made of the saving stamps scheme. At present, about a sixth of all licence fee revenue is collected through this scheme, and it is clear that many people welcome the chance to spread the cost of the fee over the year. I recognise, however that this scheme cannot suit everybody, and two weeks ago I said that I proposed to introduce new ways of enabling people to spread the cost over the year, by means of instalments, including cash instalments payable over post office counters. These schemes cannot be introduced overnight into a licensing system which each year has to handle nearly 19 million licences, but I am determined that they should be implemented as soon as possible.

I say sincerely that I regard the right hon. Gentleman as one of the humane persons on the Government Benches. Will he concede that people who have to renew their licences tomorrow, for example, will not be able to avail themselves of the scheme but will be required to pay the full fee immediately?

Yes, that is true.

I come now to the question of concessionary licences. Whenever the licence fees are increased, there are understandably calls for free licences or reduced fees for pensioners—and, indeed, for other groups, such as the disabled. I must tell the House, however, that it would not, in my view, be right or responsible to go down that road.

I am not shaken in that view by the motion that the Opposition have tabled. When they had the responsibility for these matters, when they were in office, they did not take the opportunity to introduce concessions. The reason why they did not do so then was that they would have had to face the consequences. Even in the motion they have tabled, they do not face the consequences. They suggest consultations between the Government and organizations representing pensioners, as though the consequences of concessionary licences were confined to pensioners. It is important that I should put these consequences squarely before the House.

It would, of course, be easy for me to say that I shall have consultations at the same time knowing very well that some of the consequences of what I put before the House would have to be faced during the consultations. I do not believe that at the end a means would be found of meeting any of these difficulties.

Any scheme of concessionary licences would be bound to cost a lot of money. I shall go over the facts, and I shall not be deterred by the right hon. Gentleman from giving the figures as I believe them to be. The House and the country must have the figures plainly and clearly from the Government.

The Home Secretary said that his predecessor did nothing to extend the concessionary scheme. Is he aware that on 6 April 1978, in a written answer, at columns 159–60, of the Official Report his predecessor said that action would be taken that would nearly double the number of recipients of concessions? Surely the right hon. Gentleman does not mean to suggest that his predecessor did nothing to extend the concessionary scheme.

The Labour Government did not make the sort of concession that the Labour Party is now proposing—a complete concession for all pensioners. That is what the Labour Party put forward in its manifesto, but it was not carried out when the Labour Party was in office.

A free licence in all pensioner households—that is in any household in which a pensioner resides—would cost, at the present level of fees, about £800 million over the three financial years ending in March 1985—that is not counting the remainder of the current financial year. Half fees for pensioner households would cost about £400 million over the same period. Even keeping the fees at £34 and £12 would cost about £200 million.

It may be argued that a concessionary licence should be available, not for all pensioner households, but only for some—for example, for pensioners living alone or with another pensioner only. Simply keeping the fees at £34 or £12 for this group would cost about £120 million over three years. But how is the licensing system to distinguish between the pensioners entitled to a concession and those not entitled?

To make that distinction, and to ensure—as the rest of the public would be entitled to expect, particularly if they had to finance the concession—that it was not being abused, would involve costly and, I am bound to say, perhaps distasteful measures of certification and checking. There would be extra work, extra documentation and extra cost for the agencies that would be involved in certifying that a pensioner fell within the class of pensioners entitled to the concession. In many cases it might be impossible to issue a certificate without a visit to the home in question.

How would the cost of concessionary licences be met? First, I must tell the House that not enough money could be found from collecting fees for individual sets in hotels, as suggested by the right hon. Gentleman on the last occasion when the matter was debated, and, indeed, on this occasion. I am, as I have said, looking into the question, but the maximum that it would produce would be about £8 million a year.

A possible way of meeting the cost of concessions would be by direct Government grant. Such increases in public expenditure would not be acceptable to the Government. Moreover, partial reliance on direct grant would inevitably be the thin end of the wedge and lead to increasing reliance on direct grant. In this way, the value of the licence fee system as a method of financing the BBC so as to secure its independence of the Government would diminish and, in the course of time, disappear.

Some will argue that the revenue to finance concessions should come from advertising, but this would be to alter quite fundamentally the character of the BBC and the services that it provides to the public. Indeed, it would change broadcasting in this country in a way which I believe many people in this House would find unacceptable.

My right hon. Friend says that it would provide a worse service if the money were all raised by advertising, but that is precisely what we want, is it not? As it is, we have the whole nation glued to the idiot box.

That may be my hon. Friend's view, but it does not accord with the view previously expressed in the House by many hon. Members, which is that we value the services of the BBC on television and on radio. I believe that they are greatly valued. One of the arguments put forward in the debate is that retirement pensioners greatly value the services. One cannot ride both horses at the same time.

Mr. A. W. Stallard
(St. Pancras, North)