Skip to main content

Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 77: debated on Monday 15 April 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Transport

Airports Inquiries

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport how many representations he has received concerning the report of the inspector on the airports inquiries 1981–83; and if he will make a statement.

I wish, first, to convey the apologies to the House of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his absence on export business in India.

The reply to the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) is that between 10 December 1984, when the inspector's report was published, and 1 April 1985, my right hon. Friend received 1,164 written representations on this subject.

Does the Minister accept that airports policy has a major impact on wider issues of economic development? Will he therefore try to ensure that when the Secretary of State is making his decision, full account is taken of the need to encourage economic investment in parts of Britain other than south-east England?

My right hon. Friend will take into account all the evidence that was put to, and the recommendations of, the inspector in respect of the regional dimension which the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Will my hon. Friend assure the blouse that the main consideration that will be given when arriving at a conclusion will be that of the national interest?

Will the Minister convey to his right hon. Friend the message that export business is no valid excuse for failing to be at the service of the House?

I shall convey the right hon. Gentleman's view to my right hon. Friend. I must, however, remind hon. Members that India imports about £800 million worth of goods from this country and that it is the duty of a Minister of the Crown to assist that business.

Luton airport was outside the terms of reference of the inspector's inquiry, but will my hon. Friend confirm, nevertheless, that it will be in order for those who wish to see the expansion of that airport, perhaps rather than the contemplated expansion of Stansted, to make representations accordingly, and have any been so made?

Luton is an integral part of the London airport system and was mentioned in the inspector's report. Any development there would be subject to the appropriate planning procedures.

Will my right hon. Friend's decisions on the applications that are at the heart of the inspector's report be subject to the approval of the House?

No, Sir. The Secretary of State has already said that there will be a debate on airports matters, including the matters to which my hon. Friend refers, subsequent to the announcement of the decision by him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

What proposals does the Minister have for the further development and expansion of Carlisle airport?

Carlisle airport is a good airport, which the hon. Gentleman espouses rigorously and vigorously, and which I visited recently. It has certain problems, notably to do with Customs and Excise, into which we are currently looking.

Did my hon. Friend say that the House would not be further consulted by his Department about the development of Stansted? If so, is he aware that some of us will take no notice of that but will regard it as nothing less than our duty, in the national interest, to do what we believe to be right, when his Department has made up its mind, on an issue that affects the whole nation?

The statutory planning procedure now requires the two Departments, of the Secretaries of State for Transport and of the Environment, to produce their decisions to the House.

Bus Services

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received from Scotland in the last three months concerning the likely effects of the new policy on bus transport; and if he will make a statement.

I have received representations from several organisations and members of the public in Scotland.

Does the Minister not understand that there is virtually unanimous opposition in Scotland to the terms of the Bill, not least among the old and the disabled, whose interests will be jeopardised severely by the privatisation of bus services? Does the Minister understand also that the Government have no mandate for the Bill and that there is opposition not only in rural areas in Scotland but elsewhere throughout the United Kingdom?

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman is correct in referring to widespread opposition to our proposals. That opposition is based largely upon misinformation, much of which has been distributed widely by the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary colleagues.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the manager of the Gosport depot of the National Bus Company, Mr. McQuade—

Mr. McQuade came from Scotland, Mr. Speaker. Is my hon. Friend aware that Mr. McQuade has made representations about guarantees for the ex-employee pensioners of the NBC after privatisation? Is he yet in a position to make a statement on this issue?

Like Mr. McQuade's family, my own and many others spread from Scotland south of the border. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to pensions, which is an area of some unease. The company will have to make proposals to the Government. We accept fully that the position of the staff has to be protected.

Does the Minister realise that transport was municipalised in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom after private ownership many years ago, which utterly failed the people? That is why it was municipalised and, ultimately, nationalised. That was done in the interests of the people.

The hon. Gentleman portrays the Labour party's ongoing approach, which is to look back instead of looking to the future. It is not prepared to face the challenges of the present and to recognise that past systems have failed and that the industry has been in a state of chronic decline. That decline is well demonstrated in Scotland by the fact that in the past 12 years no less than 43 per cent. of jobs in the Scottish NBC have been cut. If the hon. Gentleman wants to continue to defend a system which is declining as rapidly as that, he will not find much support.

Bus Safety

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received concerning the safety of the public on transport following deregulation of buses.

Since the publication of the Transport Bill at the end of January we have received about 800 letters and a number of petitions about various aspects of the policy, including the implications for safety.

Is the Minister aware of the great concern of the general public and of workers in the industry over the great dangers that will result from poor maintenance following the privatisation of the buses? Do the Government intend to employ more staff to keep tabs on cowboy operators, who will flourish when the Bill is enacted?

There is always concern about safety standards. It is because of that concern that, quite apart from the Bill, we have been reviewing numbers and priorities for both vehicle and traffic examiners. I shall be having meetings about the issue later this week. The Government are already committed to making additional resources available for vehicle and traffic examination. Following deregulation, the quality of long-distance services has improved immeasurably. There is no reason why services cannot improve, irrespective of the operator, provided that they are supervised properly, and that will be done.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the safety standards of many municipal and public services leave much to be desired and that the steps that are being taken by herself and her ministerial colleagues will ensure that the safety standards of private operators in future will be an improvement on those which now exist in the public sector?

The comments of the chairman of the West Midlands traffic commissioners and others, which take into account the experience of private operators as against public and passenger transport executive operators, suggest that the private operator is generally no worse and no better than other operators. There is variability. In 1983, pass rates for private operators were about the same as the average pass rate but well above the rates of the PTEs and, at that time, of London Transport. I have no doubt that proper vehicle examinations annually and spot checks will ensure that safety can be as good as at present, if not better, and we shall ensure that it is improved.

Does the Minister agree that the present regulations will not be able to cope adequately with both the large number of companies and the small companies? Does she agree that if the regulations are inadequate the spot checks will be completely useless, no matter how many more people are put into the inspectorate?

I am aware of some concern about the regulations. I would review those regulations regularly in any case. Clause 31 of the Transport Bill, which is being considered in Standing Committee A, provides for the extension of the public service vehicles prohibition powers to those vehicles which are not for hire or reward. There are nearly 10,000 such vehicles. We are already doing what the hon. Gentleman asks.

Surely the Minister must acknowledge that there is growing concern about the fact that the deregulation of buses will result in a vast reduction in expensive maintenance services, especially in inner-city areas, and will be liable to cause breakdowns and accidents in busy city streets.

Just because the hon. Gentleman keeps on repeating his concern and keeps on whipping up concern among people who do not know the facts, he cannot expect—any more than I do—dead silence on the issue from the press. There is a need for improvements in maintenance standards, but that need is in no way restricted to private operators. We are in the business to ensure that the maintenance standards of all operators are improved.

Why are the safety requirements on carriage for hire and reward that are laid by the House on British Rail so much more stringent than those laid on coach operators?

In the past, more people—sadly, not as many today—chose to travel by British Rail, and I am sure that that aspect was considered in framing the original legislation. I have made it clear to the House this afternoon that the safety standards imposed on buses should not be lower than those imposed on British Rail. That is exactly what we are working for.

Did the Minister see the party political broadcast last week on behalf of the Conservative party? Does she agree that the bus shown in that broadcast does not operate in Hereford, despite the commentary? Is it a fact that one of the two passengers concerned is an active member of the Conservative party? Is it true that the other passenger admitted afterwards that she had never used a bus? Is it not disgraceful that the Conservative party should seek to mislead the country in this way? Bearing in mind this type of appalling conduct, how on earth is the House supposed to accept the hon. Lady's views on future safety standards?

I have sufficient confidence in my party not to have to be persuaded by party political broadcasts on its behalf. I did not watch the broadcast, but I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman did so. Conservatives and members of every other party, including many hon. Members, regularly travel by bus. There are others who do not travel by bus regularly, but do so at times. am sure that if the hon. Gentleman analysed the antecedents of some of the actors in Labour party political broadcasts he would find them wanting. The hon. Gentleman knows well enough from past debates and discussions that what I have said about safety is absolutely correct. We are not prepared to have safety standards that do not meet the regulations. We shall increase the staff by the number necessary when we know how many private operators will come forward. Their buses will need to be checked on an annual and spot-check basis.

M25 Motorway

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is his latest estimate of the date of the completion of construction and opening of the last link of the M25 London orbital motorway.

The last contract, for the length from the A405 to the A6, is due for completion in November 1986.

If there is no slippage in the timetable for the completion of London's orbital motorway, my hon. Friend will know that fate, if not, her Department has decreed that the last link to be completed will be near to my constituency and deeply affect my constituents. In view of the undoubted and exceptional congestion that will take place on the roads in that area during that period, may I have my hon. Friend's assurance that there will be personal monitoring at ministerial level of the congestion of those roads so that exceptional and temporary traffic management schemes can be introduced if necessary?

My hon. Friend may not be aware that last month I did a tour with the Hertfordshire police of the A405, the M25, the A1, the Al(M) and the new section that is being built. I have discussed traffic control and traffic signing with the police and my traffic engineers. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will check the matter regularly and, in particular, when the junction 8 works on the M1 have to take place for up to a fortnight at the beginning of July. I shall keep in touch with ny hon. Friend and with the travelling public through the media about those works.

As the Minister's Department will be able to "trunk" roads in London without a public inquiry, will the hon. Lady tell the House what motorway-style improvements are planned for London? Will she tell us something about the future of the west cross route?

First, let me make it clear for the umpteenth time that there are no proposals for motorway building in London. Secondly, the assessment studies currently being carried out, which include the possibility of a west cross route along the line of the railway, are not complete. Thorough consultations have been carried out and comments are still being received by the consultants. When I can make a statement about that, I shall do so. For the present, the hon. Gentleman knows, as well as I do, that there is a finite date by which the ownership of a limited 65 miles of road will be transferred. It means no more "trunking" than the transfer of ownership to my Department.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, before its completion, the M25 has become a dangerous race track, in particular during the rush hour? What consultations has she had with the Home Secretary about the necessity for adequate policing of that motorway? Are the present resources being used less than those advocated by the chief constables involved?

My right hon. Friend is right about the standard of driving on some sections not just of the M25 but of other roads. Unfortunately, because people tend to use the M25 for short runs only, they do not adjust to motorway driving as quickly as they should. I have already had meetings with the chief constables of the home counties and with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office about adequate policing. I am in correspondence with them to ensure that there is adequate enforcement on the motorway.

Heathrow (Fifth Terminal)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the extent of his responsibilities in relation to the decision on the application for the construction of a fifth terminal at Heathrow.

My right hon. Friend has responsibility for overall policy on the future of Heathrow, but it is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment who will take the decision on the existing application from Uttlesford district council.

Will the Government attach great weight to the strong feelings of large numbers of people around Heathrow, not just about aircraft noise, but about the huge traffic jams, to which the inquiry inspector had no satisfactory answer?

The feelings of the local people and the travelling public will be given proper weight in our considerations. The inspector made a number of recommendations for improvements to the roads in the vicinity of Heathrow. He also recommended that a working party be set up to study the improvements required to provide a satisfactory highway network to serve the airport, regardless of whether a fifth terminal is constructed. I assure my hon. Friend that those recommendations will be carefully considered.

Does my hon. Friend accept that for many years the people of Ealing and west London have suffered unbearable aircraft noise and pollution as well as the traffic congestion to which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) referred, and that a fifth terminal would make life intolerable and must be resisted at all costs?

I cannot comment, as I think my hon. Friend knows. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction will make their decision as soon as they can.

Will the Minister accept that the development of a fifth terminal will act as a positive incentive for regional airline operators such as Ecosse Air, which now flies from Carlisle to London? Because of the success of the airline on that route, will the Minister put it to Ecosse Air that the people of Cumbria need a jet link from Carlisle to London? Will the Minister support that principle?

I have noted very carefully what the hon. Gentleman said, but, as I said earlier, I am afraid that in the light of the decision to be taken on the Eyre inquiry I cannot comment further.

What representations have been received by the Department of Transport from those living in the area around Heathrow? Is my hon. Friend aware of the deep concern about the environmental impact of a fifth terminal on an area of the green belt which is already under severe pressure?

Just as the inspector at the inquiry was well aware, so also are we well aware of those representations. However, I cannot comment further. All the representations will be borne in mind.

Bus Services

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what further representations he has received regarding the Transport Bill.

Since the publication of the Transport Bill at the end of January we have received around 800 letters and a number of petitions about various aspects of the policy.

If the Minister will not consider the widespread opposition to the Bill and drop it, will he at least give an assurance that no person who enjoys concessionary fares at present will be detrimentally affected by the passage of the Bill? Will he also assure the House that those employed in the industry will not find that their pay and conditions are worsened when the Bill becomes law?

Concessionary fares are a matter for local decision by locally elected people. The hon. Gentleman is already aware that it is not for the Government to dictate what pattern they choose to follow.

Is my hon. Friend aware that those who enjoy the meanest and most unsatisfactory of bus services are easy fodder for the distortions of the Oppostion, in particular since Labour councils have promised that when the Bill becomes an Act no financial support will be given by county councils to existing bus services? Is it not time for a more determined effort to be made to present the virtues of the bus policy nationwide so that people may be satisfied that their services, particularly in rural areas, are likely to be improved, not destroyed?

Ministers are undertaking a series of visits to explain the Government's policy and proposals in order to combat the widespread distrotion to which my hon. and learned Friend has referred. So widespread and so extensive is it in some parts of the country that local authorities have been spending not hundreds, not thousands, but in some cases over £100,000 of ratepayers' money on campaigns to distort and discredit the Government's proposals.

Is the Minister not aware that Conservative Members of Parliament have been telling those who are very concerned about losing their concessionary fares that they have nothing to worry about? The Minister seems to be peddling a new line from the Dispatch Box. Will he give a clear assurance that if the Transport Bill is enacted all bus operators will be required to preserve concessionary schemes in those areas which now operate them and that they will be no worse that existing schemes?

Two separate matters arise from this question: first, the scale of the concession; and, secondly, the operators through whom it is available. The Bill provides that concessions through operators will have to be available to all operators and not, as at present, be reserved to the municipal operator or to the other favoured son of the rating authority. As for the level of concessionary fares, I repeat the point that I made earlier: it is for the local authority to decide what it believes to be right in the light of its own local circumstances.

My hon. Friend has already said a little about the pension rights of the various bus operators' employees, but is he aware that there is great concern about pensions and that it must be a matter of principle for pension rights to be fully protected after the Bill is passed? Will he therefore say a little more about this matter?

It may be helpful if I say that I understand that the matter will be debated fully in the Committee examining the Bill. I am sure that all the more detailed points in which my hon. Friend is interested will be brought out then. It is for the National Bus Company to make the proposals which it believes to be appropriate in relation to its staff and their pensions. We fully accept that the position of the staff has to be protected.

As the Adam Smith Institute would appear to be the only organisation supporting the Transport Bill, will the Minister have another look at the 800 representations that he has had and heed the voices of more moderate groups such as the Women's Institute?

A number of groups, particularly those representing the consumer, have expressed support in principle for the Government's proposals. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that there has been widespread misunderstanding and distortion as to what the Government's proposals actually envisage.

Will the Minister explain to the general public that, far from writing in safeguards either for those who work in the industry or for consumers who at present have concessionary fares, he is removing the few safeguards that exist? Why did he agree to remove from the Bill, more than two thirds of the way through the Committee stage, a safeguard which would have enabled the public to make representations to the traffic commissioners about the quality of the operators? Is that what the hon. Gentleman calls offering safeguards? Is he not just, as always in the Bill, seeking to perpetrate an enormous confidence trick on the public?

The hon. Lady knows perfectly well that what she is suggesting is not true. The position is that we removed, under pressure from my hon. Friends, a clause in the Bill which was otiose, unnecessary and repetitive, and the right of being heard by the traffic commissioners that remains.

Channel Link

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to be in a position to invite applications to build a fixed Channel link.

Guidance was issued to promoters on 2 April following a statement in the House.

Many colleagues on both sides of the House will welcome the statement that at long last, after nearly 200 years of discussion, something concrete will happen with regard to the Channel link. Will my hon. Friend give the House an indication as to how many people will be employed, not just pouring concrete, but in the steelworks?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. However, it will depend on the project—if there is a project—as to how much employment the building and operation of the link, if it is to go ahead, will provide. The structure will also affect where the employment will be. However, steel, shipbuilding yards, traffic control, signal makers, for both road and rail routes. the construction industry, the heavy goods equipment industry —all such industries—could benefit if the decision is made to go ahead.

What special efforts will the Department make to ensure that we get our fair share of the contracts involved?

I presume that the hon. Gentleman is referring not to the United Kingdom generally but to Wales in particular. Obviously, we are bound, if the project is going ahead, by the rules within Europe, but we shall do all that we can to make sure that the British tenders, if they are called for, are—

If the project is to go ahead. Such a decision has not been taken, as the House is well aware. We shall do our best to ensure that all the British tenders are among the best tenders. That will ensure that the jobs will come to Britain if the project is to go ahead.

Is my hon. Friend aware that between the French and British systems there is an entirely different trend in planning procedures, and that on the British side there will be no planning inquiry? Does my hon. Friend not regard that as a defect in the arrangements, and how will the ordinary people in the street be able to express their view if it is to be only by private Bill procedure?

The Bill procedure in the House, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said when he made his statement on 2 April, would be by a Government Bill, which would be a hybrid Bill. That would cover the planning procedures necessary. However, we are giving full consideration to the most appropriate form of consultation if and when proposals satisfying all the requirements in the guidelines have been received from the promoters.

St Pancras To Sheffield Line

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he has recently held discussions with the chairman of the British Railways Board regarding the further electrification of the St. Pancras to Sheffield line.

Is the Minister aware that the deep, abiding, and growing concern about the future of this vital line has resulted in the past year alone in three conferences of all the councils along the line? Rather than accentuating people's fears by stating that the line is not in danger, when everyone knows that it is, will the Minister now allay those fears by stating that it is intended to carry out the planned electrification of the line beyond Bedford and gradually further up over the years?

If there is deep concern, it is because the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends have been peddling it. There is no cause whatever for such concern. British Rail has shown its faith in the line by introducing high speed trains on it only two years ago, resulting in a 20 minutes faster run to London and an increase in the number of passengers of between 15 and 20 per cent. Against that background, the hon. Gentleman should know that it is inconceivable that the ideas that he has been peddling should ever come to fruition.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Derbyshire county council, no doubt with local elections in mind, is planning yet another conference on electrification of the railway? Will he let the council know that there are cheaper ways of communicating with British Rail and with the Department?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the future of the line, the way in which it is managed and operated and any investment proposed for it are entirely matters for British Rail. He is thus also right to suggest that if people are worried or concerned about the line they should address themselves to British Rail, which will provide the same reassurance as I have given today.

Air Traffic (Holland-United Kingdom)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what has been the effect of the more liberal air services agreement with the Dutch Government on traffic between Holland and the United Kingdom.

Excellent. In the first eight months, London-Amsterdam traffic was 16 per cent.)higher than it was a year before, compared with an average growth in air traffic of 9 per cent. between London and Europe as a whole. Six more services have begun between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands and a further 10 are proposed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, which fully illustrates the beneficial effects of deregulation and competition. Having already achieved the same deal with Luxembourg, will he now try to negotiate similar arrangements with other countries, such as France and Italy? May we look forward to further progress in that respect?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the Luxembourg agreement, which we hope will be a model for future agreements with other countries. We are especially pleased with the arrangements whereby the airlines can set their own tariffs, subject only to the very rare cases in which both Governments disagree with them. In the case of Luxembourg, the lowest return fare has already fallen from £98 to £73.

If the Minister is really such a great believer in free enterprise, why has British Airways been offered a subsidy of £7 million to run a doubly expensive air service to the Falkland Islands? I should have thought that if the Royal Air Force could run services more cheaply than British Airways—

Order. That is a little wide of the question—unless the Dutch aircraft go there, too.

Bus Services

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received from Newport borough council and Gwent county council on the deregulation of bus services.

We have received representations from Gwent county council and Newport borough council opposing various aspects of the proposals in the White Paper.

Is the Minister aware that the inadequate protection of pension benefits is a serious bone of contention? Does he agree that the Bill fails to provide the "no-worsening of protection" which employees and pensioners of local authority undertakings and the National Bus Company are entitled to expect?

I have already answered two similar questions. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's difficulty, but I can give him the assurance that we have fully in mind the pension needs to which he refers.

Bedford Midland To Leicester (Electrification)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he has received any proposals from British Rail for the electrification of the route from Bedford Midland to Leicester or for works to facilitate such electrification; and if he will make a statement.

Nevertheless, is my hon. Friend aware that a conference was held on 15 March at Leicestershire county hall to consider the future of electrification? Bearing in mind that there is already electrification as far as Bedford, will my hon. Friend talk to British Rail about the matter? The minutes of the conference show support for further electrification. The line is already electrified between London and Bedford, and there has been a doubling of the service.

British Rail is involved in the electrification of the east coast main line, the Cambridgeshire service, the Tonbridge-Hastings service and the East Anglia service. I understand that BR is considering a proposal for the electrification of the Bedford-Kettering section, with a possible link with Corby, but I have not yet received a formal proposal on the matter.

Will not the Minister accept that it was only pressure from Sheffield city council, Members of Parliament and others that persuaded BR to run high-speed trains in the first place? British Rail opposed the proposal for a considerable time. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that the Midland main line is treated as the poor relation among BR's main line services and that if it is left to the BR management to make such proposals the citizens of Sheffield and other stations on the line will wait for a long time for an electrified service.

The hon. Gentleman says that the Midland line is a poor relation, but in view of the substantial investment, the introduction of modern rolling stock and HSTs and all the other ways in which BR has improved the service, I believe that many other parts of the country would be glad to be treated in a similar way.

Attorney-General

Coal Industry Dispute

20.

asked the Attorney-General if he will update the figures given to the hon. Member for Leicester, East on 18 March, Official Report, column 629, regarding cases heard by the courts and cases outstanding in connection with the recent coal mining dispute to the latest available date.

My reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) on 18 March was based upon statistics compiled by the national reporting centre, which has now closed down. I am therefore unable to say exactly how many cases outstanding at the conclusion of the dispute have yet to be heard. The available figures, although not covering all courts, show that a very substantial number of cases have been dealt with, and I would like to congratulate the magistrates and the court officials on the magnificent way in which they have dealt with this extra burden.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer and join him in congratulating the magistrates who have handled that shocking catalogue of outstanding cases. May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to find out how many cases are still awaiting charge and trial? Victimisation is now occurring again at pits between working miners who never went on strike and miners who returned to work, and there is a need for a deterrent in future.

Where cases of harassment have occurred since the end of the strike, police inquiries are under way. In the case of Mrs. Watson, the Director of Public Prosecutions has advised that certain charges be preferred. If there is any continuing harassment, I do not want those who perpetrate it to feel that they will escape justice.

The latest available figures—those made available before the closure of the national reporting centre — show that out of 9,808 persons arrested only 7,917 have been charged to date, and that of those 1,335 have so far been acquitted. At least 1,000 cases remain to be heard. The overwhelming majority of the cases involve trivial charges against previously law-abiding persons. That being so, I urge the Attorney-General to think again about the answer that he gave me on the last occasion when the matter was raised at Question Time, and to make a general statement, which could provide guidance for those pursuing such prosecutions, at considerable expense to the taxpayer, and to the detriment of respect for the law in mining constituencies. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman issue a general statement telling those people to ease off?

The grant of an amnesty is not within my powers, as in most cases the chief constable is responsible. Even if it were within my powers, it would be highly inappropriate, and not conducive to the preservation of the peace during industrial disputes, for me to give such guidance. It would also be unfair to those already convicted. There must be a number of borderline cases. One saw that recently in Nottingham, when a number of cases were dropped.

Might I ask my right hon. and learned Friend—did you say "Jester", Mr. Speaker.

I should like to ask my right hon. and learned Friend, without jesting, whether he agrees that incidents during the miners' strike rather tarnished the good name of the country? That being so, is it not important that justice is seen to be done and to be dispatched quickly? Was that not the very reason why our Prime Minister thought it necessary to assure our friends in the middle east that we had come to grips with this problem?

I also misheard you, Mr. Speaker, when you called my hon. Friend. I shall not discuss anything that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said abroad. There is no doubt that what happened during the picketing and the harassment during the strike did nothing for the good name of Britain. However, many people have been prosecuted — the conviction rate overall is about 75 per cent.

Order. May I simply say to the hon. Member that if I did say that, it was a term of endearment.

Administration Of Justice

22.

asked the Attorney-General if he is satisfied with the speed of the administration of justice in relation to civil cases; and if he will make a statement.

Although I am satisfied that cases are heard as quickly as possible given the resources at present available and the existing procedural rules, the Lord Chancellor, with the full co-operation of the judges, is always seeking ways in which to improve procedure and administration and has recently set up the major inquiry known as the civil justice review. The speed with which a case comes to trial depends to a very substantial extent on the efforts made by the parties.

I thank the Attorney-General for that answer and information. Is he aware that the legal procedures relating to the original collapse of Ronan Point in 1968 are still moving through the courts and have some way to run? Might the review that he has mentioned be of assistance in this matter, and does its ambit extend to the Official Referee, with whom I understand the case now stands?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling me what he would follow his original question with, as I have been able to do a careful inquiry to give the detailed reply which I think he should have. In this case, as in all civil proceedings, the responsibility for carrying the action forward rests with the parties. Although the writ was issued in 1970, the case was not ready for trial for many years and, as late as November 1978, the defendants obtained leave to amend their defence. The trial took place on 25 February 1980–10 years after the writ. The judgment was appealed against, unsuccessfully, on 9 July 1981. The question of quantum was referred to an official referee. A preliminary issue raised by the defendant was dealt with by the official referee, but, here again, the decision was appealed against. Bundles of documents for the appeal were not approved until March this year. It is plain that the complexity and importance of the issues and the amount of documentation have made preparation a lengthy task. One explanation might be that an affidavit lodged by the defendants refers to the disclosure of more than 100,000 documents.

All of those matters are within the control of the parties, but procedure generally will be part of the civil justice review, and I hope that such matters will be looked into. There is a remedy for the plaintiff. No plaintiff needed to let this take 10 years to get to trial. He has certain remedies which could force the case on much earlier.

Following the original question, might I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that there is a delay of about two years in settling a date for trial for commercial cases in the commercial court? Bearing in mind the significance to our international trade of the availability of British justice, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider devoting more resources to this area of activity so that the trial process can be speeded up?

In a sense, the problem is rather ironic as it is a testament to the court's popularity that many contracts, parties to which—[Interruption.]It will be seen that that is right. Many entirely overseas contracts, neither party to which has any connection with Britain, have written into them a provision that any dispute is to be settled in accordance with English law. That is a great tribute to our commercial court, but it has led to an enormous increase in the court's work. The Lord Chancellor is well aware of this, and he and the commercial court committee are considering the question of delay with a view to reducing it.

Uninsured Defendants

23.

asked the Attorney-General why it is intended by the proposed amendments to the Supreme Court rules submitted to the Supreme Court rule committee by the Lord Chancellor's Department to exclude from the operation of section 6 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982 plaintiffs taking action against uninsured defendants other than public authorities.

This restriction follows the recommendation in paragraph 240 of the report of the Law Commission, No. 56, which led to the enactment of section 6. A similar restriction applies in Scotland. The matter is now one for the Supreme Court rule committee, which is now considering it.

Surely the issue is that some defendants may be able to pay compensation even though they are not insured. There does not seem to be any good reason for securing the position of such people, because if it is secured they are better off than they would have been had they followed the law and got themselves insured.

The rule committee is looking at that and all the other attendant problems which follow —for example, who is to be exempted, should it be just those recommended by the Law Commission, or should we widen the scope? The probable thinking behind the Law Commission's recommendation is that there must be some finality, particularly for the uninsured defendant who has the possibility of an enormous claim hanging over him for perhaps the rest of his life. That is one of the matters which obviously caused the Law Commission to make that recommendation.

Overseas Development

Food Aid

24.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he is satisfied with the amount of food and aid currently being distributed in Eritrea and Tigre; and if he will make a statement.

Although food and other relief supplies are arriving in Ethiopia in large quantities, I believe that there is a serious shortfall in Eritrea and Tigre. The United Nations co-ordinator is discussing this with the Ethiopian authorities. At the United Nations conference in Geneva last month the Ethiopian Foreign Minister gave a solemn pledge that relief supplies would be distributed to all those in need, without diversion, delay or discrimination. Together with other donors, we are working to ensure that that pledge is honoured.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am glad to hear that the Government intend to maintain pressure on the Ethiopian Government. Is the Royal Air Force still dropping supplies in Eritrea and Tigre?

The RAF is still carrying out its food aid operation, and we shall carefully consider its continuation.

May I ask about the impact of this programme on the rest of the aid programme? While we appreciate that my right hon. Friend has a contingency fund for emergencies, does not the size and scale of this year's disaster in east Africa and the length of time it is likely to last make a case for an upward revision of the entire programme? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be much support from some Conservative Members if that could be arranged?

I understand my right hon. Friend's point, but I have already announced at the Geneva conference a provisional figure for the quantity of emergency relief which we expect to provide as a minimum, and we can contain that figure within our aid budget.

Does not the present crisis and what the right hon. Gentleman said about the United Nations demonstrate the need for an overall strategic policy for the distribution of food? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is now a need to turn loans into grants in respect of the 30 poorest countries, and does he further agree that there is a need to diversify in the nine African countries which rely on just one crop for 70 per cent. of their income?

The hon. Gentleman has asked a diversity of questions. This country and quite a number of other major donors already turn loans into grants, and quite right too. As to overall strategy, we are thinking very carefully about the totality of our policy in Africa, where many of the greatest problems clearly lie.

Ethiopia

25.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the famine in Ethiopia.

30.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the famine in Ethiopia and future United Kingdom Government plans for aid and assistance.

Several million Ethiopians remain at risk. Relief supplies are reaching many of those in need but distribution and other problems persist. Pledges of food aid to Ethiopia for 1985 total more than 1 million tonnes. We shall continue to provide emergency and food relief. both directly and through the European Community.

What part in total has Britain played in bringing about any improvement, how great is the remaining need, and what more can we do?

In recent months we have made a significant contribution to Ethiopia amounting to some £34 million. We have provided food aid, the RAF Hercules detachments, trucks, other transport and other supplies. We have also met our share of the substantial European Community contribution. The needs remain considerable, and we intend to play our part for the remainder of this year.

Is it not obvious that the problem in Ethiopia is not one of insufficient food—because there are ample supplies, at least until the end of this year—but of distribution? In commending both public and private contributions from the United Kingdom to that unfortunate country, is it not a matter for condemnation of the Ethiopian authorities that they cannot distribute the food? In many cases they have inhibited other countries which have offered to distribute that food to the people who need it.

My hon. Friend is broadly right. The overall quantities pledged to Ethiopia look as though they should be enough for this year, but there are serious problems about internal distribution. In our view the Ethiopian Government need to fulfil their promise of nearly 4,000 vehicles for relief and rescue operations on food movements. We also believe that too great a share of their resources are at present going on resettlement.

Is the Minister aware that there are many lessons to be learnt from the handling of the famine in Ethiopia? Will he assure the House that those lessons will be appreciated by all the aid donors, the multinational organisations and volunteer agencies, in order to be ready for the next famine in another African country?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have thought hard about what has been happening in Ethiopia and Sudan. Tragic though the experience is, I am sure that we shall learn from it.

The Minister will be aware that the problem in Ethiopia also relates to refugees in Sudan, whom the House debated earlier. The problem relates to debt. Recently we have seen a fall of the Government in Sudan largely because of the debt crisis. What advice has the Minister given the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will attend a joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank about this issue later this month, to ensure that meeting Africa's needs is a priority issue and that there is a debt write-off or, at least, a grant funding of some of the debts so that those countries can tackle the appalling drought problem?

The debt problem in Sudan is a different matter from the famine in Ethiopia, to which the question relates. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be thinking hard about how to handle debts in the meetings which take place in Washington this month. No one doubts the importance of that, although, as I have already said, one of the positive features of our aid programme in Africa is that for poor countries aid takes the form of a grant and, therefore, does not generate debts.

European Development Fund (Contracts)

27.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what is the share of contracts from the European development fund won by British companies.

Twenty-five per cent. of EDF contracts are placed in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Of those placed in Europe, our cumulative share at the end of 1984 was 192 per cent. For the first time that exceeded our contribution of 17·76 per cent.

I thank my right hon. Friend for what is essentially good news. How do the 1984 figures compare with those of previous years? Does he agree that Third world countries depend for their growth as much on vibrant trade with nations such as Britain as on development aid?

The 1984 figure of 19·2 per cent. was nearly 2 per cent. more than the 1983 figure. As my hon. Friend said, that is an encouraging tendency He is absolutely right to stress the importance of trade

Does the Minister not regard it as a great tragedy that in places such as Bradford there are large numbers of skilled engineers who could be put to work manufacturing tractors, irrigation and agricultural equipment, trucks and other items which would help to combat the food crisis in Ethiopia and elsewhere? What are the Government doing to invest in manufacturing projects in the United Kingdom, which would put British engineers back to work and help to alleviate starvation in the world?

Almost 80 per cent. of the money that we spend through our bilateral aid programme finds its way back to Britain in the form of either goods or services. It is also a fact that the European development fund, the World Bank and other multilateral organisations offer many opportunities, which are often taken up, for British manufacturers to make goods to be sent to the Third world.

Leeward Islands Air Transport

28.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether Leeward Islands Air Transport has yet reached an agreement with British Aerospace for the purchase of Super 748s with an aid grant from Her Majesty's Government.

Leeward Islands Air Transport has entered into a contract with British Aerospace, subject to finalisation of ECGD support and the conclusion of a formal agreement between LIAT and Her Majesty's Government on the terms of the proposed aid grant for two Super 748s. LIAT has already accepted the broad terms of the Government's offer.

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that useful and welcome reply, may I ask him, first, what is the sum of money involved and, secondly, whether there are any other sources of finance for this welcome order?

We have offered an aid grant from our aid-trade provision up to a maximum of £3·83 million. I understand that the Caribbean Development Bank is providing resources for two other 748 aircraft.

African Governments (Debt Burden)

29.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussions he has had with African Governments concerning the impact of their debt burden on the effectiveness of aid programmes.

My discussions wih African Governments about aid policy from time to time take into account, as appropriate, their debt burdens. Debt problems normally feature within the analysis of aid needs and economic policies considered at each World Bank-led consultative group.

The Minister will be aware that at least £42 billion worth of debt affects African countries as a whole. Since we have this useful chance to further the issue, would he now care to say whether and on what scale in the IMF and World Bank meetings there will be pressure from the Chancellor to write off a proportion of that debt, without which there will be no way in which countries such as Ethiopia or Sudan can overcome their debt problem?

I do not believe, and nor does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the wholesale writing-off of debts is the right answer. However, we have made it clear that, to help countries with balance of payments difficulties, we are willing to consider providing programme aid if they can come to an agreement with the IMF.

Prime Minister's Questions (Printing)

3.30 pm

I have a short statement to make about the printing of Prime Minister's Questions. The House will wish to know that I have approved the recommendation in the first report from the Select Committee on Procedure regarding a shortened form of printing Oral Questions tabled for answer by the Prime Minister. I have also approved a resolution of the Services Committee which endorses the scheme that has been proposed. Arrangements are being made for the new format to apply to all notices of Questions given from tomorrow onwards. This means that the first Order Paper in the new form will appear on Tuesday 30 April. I am obliged to both Committees for their advice.