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Commons Chamber

Volume 115: debated on Tuesday 5 May 1987

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House Of Commons

Tuesday 5 May 1987

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Pontypridd Markets Fairs And Town Hall Bill

Lords amendments agreed to.

Hastings Borough Council Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

County Of South Glamorgan (Taff Crossingbill

As amended, considered; to be read the Third time.

London Regional Transport Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration read.

To be considered upon Thursday 7 May.

London Docklands Railway (Beckton) Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time upon Thursday 7 May.

Oral Answers To Questions

Defence

Nato (Discussions)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussions he has had with Defence Ministers in other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries; and if he will make a statement.

I have regular collective meetings with my ministerial colleagues in NATO as well as, from time to time, bilateral visits and meetings. A wide range of subjects of mutual defence interest are discussed at such meetings.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there could yet be a sting in the tail in the new climate on nuclear arms reductions? Does he agree that if all short-range and medium-range nuclear weapons were removed from Europe now, NATO would be left facing the Warsaw Pact in a position of great conventional inferiority? Would that not increase, rather than decrease, the risk of war? If my right hon. Friend agrees with me, will he ensure that his fellow Defence Ministers realise that as well?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. In considering the recent proposal by Mr. Gorbachev we need to bear in mind NATO's overall deterrence requirements in the light of the totality of the threat that is facing us. I shall certainly take up that matter with my NATO colleagues when next I meet them.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what is the evaluation of the Secretary-General of NATO of the Soviet proposals on cuts in nuclear missiles in Europe? Is there any difference between the position of the right hon. Gentleman's Ministry and that of the Secretary-General of NATO? What progress can he report to the House on the matter'?

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's concern about this issue. The Soviet proposals to extend the zero option further down the scale from the longer range intermediate missiles are being carefully studied throughout NATO. I certainly hope that agreement can be reached in this area in the near future. It would be an historic agreement if we could get it. It is most important to examine all the implications. All our allies are doing so, and we shall be doing so with them.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his colleagues about the gross disparity in chemical weapons in Europe? Is he aware of the considerable feeling that in any future conflict the forces of the West would start with a great disadvantage? General Rogers has mentioned the possibility of the Soviets firing one chemical weapon on the front at each corps, and the effect that that would have. What new proposals will NATO come up with?

My hon. Friend is correct, in that the existence of large Soviet stockpiles of chemical weapons is a serious threat to our forces and the balance of forces between East and West. We have made it clear that that matter will have to be addressed, along with the imbalance of conventional forces if further proposals for arms control are to be considered.

In view of the Government's indications that the West should have the power to match the numbers of Soviet short-range nuclear weapons, do NATO Ministers have any plans for the manufacture of such weapons? What will they cost, and in which countries will they be deployed?

There are no such plans at the present time, but of course this is one of the factors that will have to be considered by the allies when considering the suggestion by Mr. Gorbachev that we should look for a zero option lower down the scale from the intermediate nuclear weapons.

Do my right hon. Friend and his colleagues agree that while hopes are justified, euphoria is certainly premature, and that it is absolutely essential that unity is maintained, because lack of it would be fatal?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The recent move by the Soviet Union shows that it has at long last come to the same proposals as the West has been pressing upon the Soviet Union for several years. That is solely because we did not listen to the siren voices of the Opposition and other people who would have had us give up these negotiating cards before they were of any use. My hon. Friend is right in saying that we have to be careful that before we agree to any deal we make sure that it works.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that since the Russians have a 3:1 superiority in medium-range weapons, that is SS20s, cruise and Pershing IIs, and a 9:1 superiority in short-range weapons, it is in the West's interests to agree to these proposals, subject to suitable verification, because such an agreement would enhance our security? Will he deny press reports that as a kind of macabre compensation for that scheme the Government intend to have more F111s at Upper Heyford and Lakenheath and more hydrogen bombs as a result of that agreement?

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's latter point, we have no plans of that kind. On his former point, he is right to consider the question of imbalances at lower levels as well as at higher levels. It is not as simple as he says, in that one can take each category of weapons totally separately from any other. Therefore, that is why the new proposal by Mr. Gorbachev that we should look at a zero option below the intermediate range-long range level must be studied very carefully by all the NATO allies. We shall play our part in that.

Nato (Discussions)

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to meet the Soviet Union Defence Minister to discuss deployment of nuclear and conventional forces in Europe; and if he will make a statement.

I have no plans to meet the Soviet Defence Minister. The United Kingdom plays a full part in the multilateral negotiations and discussions aimed at reducing conventional forces in Europe and, together with other members of NATO, consults closely with the United States on the bilateral negotiations with the Soviet Union on nuclear and space issues taking place in Geneva. We also play a leading role in the conference on disarmament, which is concerned principally with achieving a global ban on chemical weapons.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and welcome all the initiatives being taken in furtherance of negotiations to reduce armaments. Does he agree that the security of Europe will rely on the nuclear deterrent as long as the Soviet Union and its allies have massive superiority in chemical weapons and in conventional forces?

I agree with my hon. Friend that deterrence combined with a flexible response certainly is, and has for some time been, the basis of the NATO Alliance's defensive posture. That has been supported by successive Governments. We should be very careful that these desirable developments in arms control do not put that at risk, and the Government intend to exercise that care.

Is the Secretary of State aware that while the Prime Minister and Chancellor Kohl go on dragging their feet over the zero-zero option there will be pressure on this country to accept balancing increments of nuclear weapons, not merely at airfields in Oxfordshire and in East Anglia, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) has warned, but at Holy Loch? Does he think that public opinion will stand for that? Does he want that exposed in the coming general election?

Those appear to be the hon. Gentleman's proposals, which certainly have nothing to do with me. I have no doubt that public opinion would stand whatever was put to it as a tenable case in these matters by the hon. Gentleman or by anyone else. The hon. Gentleman asked about balancing. These weapons systems must be looked at as a whole to see whether they enhance or degrade our deterrent posture, combined with flexible response. We must do nothing in haste to put that in danger.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm once again that Trident represents very good value in terms of its deterrent effect? Will he tell the House once again exactly what the unwise cancellation of Trident might mean if the money were devoted to upgrading conventional weapons, and how little that would mean in terms of the overall imbalance of conventional forces in Europe?

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. There is no way in which the vital deterrent effect of the present Polaris and the future Trident programme could be replaced by the expenditure of any realistic sum of money on conventional weapons instead. It is simply not possible. On cancellation costs, it is very difficult to calculate in the abstract what would happen if this were done. Apart from losing a vast amount of jobs, there would probably be only a certain amount of the Trident money left to spend on other matters. Even if all of the money was used, it could provide only about one extra armoured division, which would make no detectable difference to the huge conventional imbalance that we presently face.

While it is perfectly correct that in the future NATO's deterrence must rest on a mix of nuclear and conventional capability, does the Secretary of State not accept the view of his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that if we were to remove all the intermediate range nuclear weapons, NATO would retain over 4,500 nuclear warheads in Europe? Is that not quite sufficient on which to base nuclear deterrence?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point, but that is a considerable development on anything that my right hon. and learned Friend said, although I did notice something like that was said by Richard Perle recently. It is not possible sensibly to look at only that aspect. It is important to look at the whole range of weapons that would be available to the Western Alliance to maintain flexible response. It is the flexibility of the response that is the strength upon which NATO's strategy is based.

Assuming that my right hon. Friend, with responsibility for security, is aware that I was in Hungary last week, is he aware that during an interesting discussion with the mayor of a town called Gyula, which is on the Romanian border, and in the light of his earlier comments about Mr. Gorbachev, I asked the mayor whether he could envisage the day when Hungary might, of its own volition, leave the Warsaw pact. The mayor replied that even if such a delightful situation were to arise, it would be meaningless because the Soviet border was merely 160 km away. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that that is the chilling reality of life in Eastern Europe?

I confess to my hon. Friend that I was not following his travels in Hungary with great closeness, but he makes the valuable point that it is no use letting our enthusiasm for arms control, great though that is, blind us to the effects of any changes that are made. It is our responsibility to make sure that the reductions in those weapons systems that we hope will take place will not remove NATO's ability to deter attacks flexibly.

When the Americans are negotiating on behalf of Her Majesty's Government with the Russians, will the Americans be confirming on behalf of the Government that no decision has yet been taken on the replacement of the existing 155 mm nuclear artillery rounds deployed in Europe? If the Americans are to say that on our behalf, are his right hon. and hon. Friends going to sue Peter Kellner and The Independent for accusing them of telling lies in this House? If they are not going to sue, will they apologise to the House for making material inaccuracies on a matter of such importance?

I am not sure to what the hon. Gentleman is referring, but no such statement has been made and no such decision has been taken. Sueing people is not a matter for me.

Strategic Defence Initiative

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what further consultations his Department has had over the strategic defence initiative testing programme being drawn up by the United States of America.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement
(Mr. Archie Hamilton)

We are in regular contact with the United States authorities over the SDI research programme.

Will the Minister inform the House whether he intends to discuss with the United States the SDI testing of the patriot anti-aircraft missile or the development of the Rapier missile as an anti-tactical weapon? Does he agree that if any such testing takes place it will be a major breach of the ABM treaty?

Testing missiles is a matter for the United States. We have no locus in the interpretation of the ABM treaty.

Is my hon. Friend confident that what is being developed at the moment by our friend and alley the United States is within the ABM treaty? Will he state the number of British firms that have contracts for SDI, and the value of those contracts in terms of either money or jobs?

Some $34 million worth of contracts have been awarded already to British industry. A total of 400 companies and 100 academic institutions have expressed interest, and 36 are now involved. Therefore, it is certainly in our interests and we are going ahead with it.

The Minister must reflect on the answer he has given in relation to the interpretation of the ABM treaty. Is it not a fact that Her Majesty's Government have a memorandum of understanding with regard to that treaty? Will the Minister give us an assurance that, no matter how the United States tries to interpret the treaty, we will interpret it within the narrow definitions of the treaty?

All that I can do is refer the hon. Gentleman to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. Deployment is clearly a matter for negotiation, as we have agreed, and we have received satisfactory assurances from the United States that there will be consultation about any significant change of policy in relation to SDI research.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, through our co-operation with our American allies on the whole of the programme, there is enormous future potential for our allies and our companies here and that it may give us an opportunity to get away from the awful doctrine of mutually assured destruction to something more sane?

I accept that there are enormous technical advantages to be got out of SDI. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister realised that when she came to an agreement with President Reagan some time ago.

Expenditure

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence by what percentage expenditure on conventional defence has risen in real terms since 1979.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the current level of expenditure on conventional forces in real terms; and what was the level of expenditure in 1979.

In the last complete financial year the provision for defence expenditure was 26 per cent. higher in real terms than in 1978–79.

In 1978–79 expenditure on our conventional forces was some £14,400 million at 1986–87 prices. Last year, on the same price basis, and excluding Falklands expenditure, it was some £17,400 million—£3,000 million higher in real terms.

Over the whole period since we have been in office expenditure on our conventional forces, excluding Falklands expenditure, has totalled some £16,000 million more in real terms than would have been the case if expenditure had remained at its 1978–79 level.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an impressive rate of increase and that it fulfills previous manifesto commitments? Will he confirm that that figure would not be greatly altered by any changes in expenditure on Britain's nuclear deterrent?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As we have said on many occasions, expenditure on Trident over the lifetime of that programme represents only about 3 per cent. of the defence budget.

Has the Minister taken notice of the ever-increasing evidence which shows that by going ahead with the Trident project our conventional forces have been placed in jeopardy? Indeed, it has been suggested in some quarters that Britain can no longer be properly defended. Is that not the warning that has been given repeatedly over months and years from the Opposition Benches? Would it not appear that the Government's chickens are now coming home to roost?

If the hon. Gentleman heard my original answer he will, I hope, appreciate that our conventional forces are £16,000 million less in jeopardy than they were when his party left office.

Essential to our conventional defence is the ability to produce and maintain certain armaments. My right hon. Friend knows that the Royal Ordnance factory in Nottingham has a unique facility for gun making. Does he not agree that it is essential, in the national interest, that that gun making facility is retained in the United Kingdom?

I am aware of the important defence facility in my hon. Friend's constituency, and I am sure that the quality of that will be taken into account fully by the new management of the establishment.

In spite of the increase in expenditure, is the Minister satisfied that we have sufficient supplies of modern helicopters, modern frigates and modern fighters?

In all those three areas we have made a substantial amount of progress since 1979. Unlike the Labour party, we are maintaining the essential requirement of balance between nuclear and conventional defences.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the growth in spending in real terms on conventional forces has led to the development of real jobs in Shrewsbury? Is he further aware that the policies of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party, as put forward by their Front Bench spokesmen, would lead to the loss of those jobs in Shrewsbury? If Trident were to be cancelled, the cancellation costs would diminish further the conventional budget and lead to further job losses.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that if the Trident programme were cancelled there would be a serious loss of jobs. As for jobs arising from expenditure on conventional forces, the commitment of the Opposition Front Bench to their long term objective to reduce defence expenditure to the average of the major NATO countries would result in a one third reduction in conventional expenditure by a Labour Government.

Is the Minister aware that an 86 per cent. increase still masks a decline in our escort fleet from 66 craft in 1980 to 48, as estimated by Jane's Defence Weekly next week?

We have had a policy since 1981 of a destroyer and frigate force of about 50. That is still our policy. The capabilities of the destroyer and frigate force today are a quantum jump ahead of what they were at the end of the 1970s.

Trident

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the value of contracts already placed in the Trident programme with British firms.

The estimated value of current Trident commitment in the United Kingdom is some £2,250 million out of the total amount committed of about £3 billion.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. As 62 per cent. of jobs on the Trident programme will be in firms in the United Kingdom, can he estimate how many tens of thousands of jobs would be destroyed and how devastating would be the effect in Cumbria if the Liberal and Labour party policies of one-sided disarmament took effect and Trident were cancelled?

I confirm that the amount of labour directly employed on the Trident programme will be 7,500 on average and 15,000 at the peak. The amount of indirect labour will be some 6,000 on average and 12,000 at the peak, so a significant number of jobs are involved in this programme.

Do I understand that the Government's policy is to go on producing useless weapons in order to keep people in work? Is that what the Government are saying? Has it ever struck the Government that the British people need all kinds of things besides weapons? If the Government's philosophy is to go on producing these useless weapons and boasting that it keeps people in work, but it has nothing in common with any kind of thoughtful process, why do they not switch to producing those things that are of some use?

The primary objectives of the Government are to ensure that this country is properly defended and to stop the next war. If we were to have a Europe with no nuclear weapons, it would make it free for conventional war. We have had two world wars so far in Europe and there would be nothing to stop a third. That would be devastating, and it is something that this Government are not prepared to encounter.

The Minister has accepted an invitation from me to visit the Cleveland Bridge Company at Darlington, which has recently completed the fabrication of 150 cradles under subcontract to Vickers for the Trident programme and is looking forward to more work in Faslane and Coulport. Will he explain to the work force what will happen to the work load if Labour comes to power and announces the cancellation of Trident?

I am happy to come to my hon. Friend's constituency and to explain the devastating effect of many of Labour's policies on jobs, about which Labour Members claim to be so concerned.

Is it not a fact that this country spends a greater percentage of its national wealth on arms than most countries in Western Europe? Is that not why our economic performance in this country has been so poor one of the worst in Western Europe? Will the Minister reflect on the fact that, after eight years, all that the Government's defence and economic policies have produced are the best defended dole queues in Western Europe?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the country has been well defended, and, on top of that, the economy is booming.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a substantial part of the Trident programme is represented by a major civil engineering contract at Coulport in the west of Scotland? Will he take this opportunity to remind the House that every Opposition party is pledged to scrap that programme, with the result that thousands upon thousands of jobs in the west of Scotland would be sacrificed on the altar of their political ideology?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Some 2,500 jobs are dependent on that programme, and most of them are locally recruited, so its scrapping would have a devastating effect on local employment.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the House will be grateful to him for confirming what the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and the Secretary of State have said that at the moment £3 billion has either been spent or committed — I take committed to mean committed in legally binding contracts—on Trident? As three from nine equals six—[Interruption.] I am trying to be helpful to Defence Ministers—that leaves, and I am glad that it is confirmed, £6 billion to be spent on conventional defence if and when the Trident contract is cancelled.

There is no question of the Trident contract being cancelled, because there is no question of Labour winning the next election. That expenditure is spread over the years until the end of the century, which is a long time.

Procurement Policy

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress currently being made between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries on co-operation over defence procurement.

Within NATO's conference of national armaments directors good progress is being made, both on projects responding to the Nunn initiative, and on other programmes. In Europe the revitalised Independent European Programme Group is achieving considerable success in the harmonisation of operational requirements and is continuing its efforts to promote greater collaboration in defence research.

Does the Minister accept that joint procurement and co-operation in procurement in Europe is no longer just desirable, but essential, if we are to retain an effective defence industry in Europe? Do the Government support the continued strengthening of the Independent European Programme Group in order to provide the political backing and commitment that that joint co-operation needs?

The group is getting the backing that it needs from British Ministers. I accept that we cannot afford to embark on many of the development programmes on our own.

Will my hon. Friend confirm, should there be any doubt in anyone's mind, particularly on the Opposition Benches, that the Government's commitment to the Euro-fighter project — the multinational project—is still as strong as it is ever was, and that any rumours to the contrary, emanating from Opposition spokesmen, should be dismissed as the rubbish that we know them to be?

It is complete alarmist nonsense. The EFA programme is a stage-by-stage programme and we are planning on the basis of the United Kingdom remaining part of it. We would expect a decision on the launch of that development some time later this year, I hope in the summer.

Has the Minister seen the article in The Independent yesterday by Mr. Peter Kellner containing allegations that Ministers have deliberately misled Parliament——

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not suggest by attribution that Ministers have misled Parliament.

On the assumption that the Minister must have read the article, will he address himself to the important question whether there is a NATO decision to modernise short-range nuclear weapons? Is there, or is there not, such a decision?

I am afraid that I cannot confirm that. I did not read the article and I do not believe everything that I read in the newspapers.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although there is progress on European defence procurement, the progress on the harmonisation of weapons and ammunition has been lamentably slow in NATO? In view of the major contribution that we make to NATO, should not we do a great deal to try to overcome that problem, and will my hon. Friend undertake to see what he can do to try to push that forward?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Harmonisation has improved no end, but there is still much room for improvement. I accept that, and we shall continue with the programme that we have followed in the past.

Will the Parliamentary Under-Secretary give us a precise date for the signing of the development contract for EFA?

The original date was supposed to be 1 August this year. We are behind schedule, but the signing will occur later on.

Horseshoe Barracks, Shoeburyness

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is yet in a position to announce when he expects to have completed his assessment of the future defence role of Horseshoe barracks, Shoeburyness; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces
(Mr. Roger Freeman)

My Department has a continuing long-term requirement for the land used by the Proof and Experimental Establishment, Shoeburyness, lying within the Horseshoe barracks complex to the south of the Chapel road.

For the area of Horseshoe barracks itself which lies to the north of Chapel road we are considering various options. These include its rehabilitation for a military unit, its use as a training camp or its possible sale.

In view of the notable contribution made by Horseshoe barracks and related facilities to the defence requirements of the nation for many years, is my hon. Friend willing to visit Shoeburyness to meet the military personnel and local councillors before a final decision is made on this important issue?

Yes. I am happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend. If that visit happens after a general election it will be a double pleasure, as I am sure that my hon. Friend will be returned with an increased majority.

How many officers from Shoeburyness, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), interviewed Mr. Colin Wallace? Is it not true that there is a memorandum in the Ministry of Defence which says that he may have been framed on a manslaughter charge? Will the Minister deny that that memo exists in his Ministry?

I regret that I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman an answer to his question, because it does not relate directly to the future of Horseshoe barracks, but I shall write to him.

Westland (Tv Programme)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will acquire for the library of the Ministry of Defence a video recording of the Granada television programme "World in Action" on the Law Officer's letter in the Westland affair broadcast between 8 and 9 pm on Monday 30 March.

Do Defence Ministers accept that they have some responsibility for the Government's responses and evidence to the Select Committee on Defence? Why, then, did the Cabinet Secretary state to the Select Committee that the Prime Minister had no knowledge of the Law Officer's leak in relation to Westland? If the Granada television programme is inaccurate, do Ministers not think that they ought to call for an apology, if not take Granada to court? If the programme is accurate, has there not been some deception of the Select Committee?

The hon. Gentleman must accept that this is not a matter for me or for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I have nothing to add to the statements made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 23 and 27 January.

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that Granada Television makes some wonderful programmes, including "First Among Equals"? I wonder whether he will consider asking for all Granada's programmes to be placed in the Library for us to view?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because it enables me to tell the House that I was able to see the Granada programme to which the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred, as a result of his question. Indeed, I would not otherwise have seen it.

Arms Sales

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will review his policy on arms sales; and if he will make a statement.

No. The general policy remains unchanged from that of the previous Administration; that is, within the limits of the United Kingdom's political, strategic and security interests, to encourage defence sales and thereby increase the wealth and job opportunities of this country.

Does the Minister recall that until April 1982 the centre of arms supply to the navy of the Argentine dictator was here, in London? As the Government have now arranged for HMS Glamorgan—along with many other arms—to be supplied to the dictatorship in Chile, which is still involved in murder, torture and the suppression of its people, will the Minister confirm that the Government's loyalty to their friends in the arms trade—the merchants of death—is greater than their respect for human rights?

The defence industry is a very important industry. Everything should be done to encourage the exports of defence equipment. On the question of selling frigates to Chile, I point out that one cannot involve a frigate in the suppression of the civilian population.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the Labour party's commitment, as represented at its conference last year, drastically to reduce arms sales abroad? That will obviously have great implications for jobs and employment opportunities throughout the country, specifically in the west midlands.

I agree with my hon. Friend. More than 100,000 people are now involved in defence export sales. I am sure that, with an election coming up shortly, they must be extremely worried about their future.

Is there not something radically wrong with a society, country and Government when the Government boast of increasing defence expenditure during the whole of their tenure in office — unlike expenditure for most of the Departments that they run — claim that employment relies entirely on defence weapons being bought, and now boast that wealth and job opportunities depend on ever-increasing arms sales, mostly to Third world countries where the people are crying out for the supply of things that are much more essential to human life than arms?

I have never been able to understand the neo-imperialistic attitude of the Opposition which says that we should dictate to Third world countries what they should and should not buy with the resources available to them.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if there were the mutually assured destruction of an incoming Labour Government, the consequences of the Labour party winding up the Defence Export Sales Organisation, which made a profit for this country of over £5 billion last year, would be catastrophic for constituencies such as mine?

The defence manufacturing industry pays great tribute to the Defence Export Services Organisation, which does much to boost our sales abroad.

American Forces

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he next plans to meet the United States Secretary of State for Defence to discuss the level of American forces in Europe; and if he will make a statement.

I next expect to meet the United States Defence Secretary at the spring meeting of NATO's nuclear planning group when a range of Alliance defence issues will be discussed.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the United State Defence Secretary that the Government are firmly committed to nuclear deterrence and that, unlike the Labour party, we do not expect 300,000 United States troops to put their necks on the line defending us when we are busy shutting their bases and throwing away our nuclear weapons?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it would be totally disastrous for the defence of the West if anything remotely resembling the policy that the Labour party has adopted on withdrawal of American forces were ever to be undertaken.

When the right hon. Gentleman meets Caspar Weinberger, will he congratulate him on being candid—more candid than the British Government have been so far—in his statement to Congress admitting that 155 mm nuclear shells were now being deployed by NATO? When the right hon. Gentleman returns from that meeting, will he explain to the House why I was misled by a ministerial answer to a written question in 1984 about the Montebello decision, when I was told that there were no such plans to deploy these nuclear weapons with a neutron potentiality?

The fact is that no such weapons are deployed in Europe by NATO or by any member of NATO. I think that the hon. Gentleman has had that information. On 24 March my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to the House:

"as Defence Ministers have made clear … no decisions affecting the modernisation of the theatre nuclear weapons in service with British forces have yet been made."—[Official Report, 24 March 1987; Vol. 113, c. 162.]

Defence Export Sales Organisation

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence in how many countries outside the United Kingdom the Defence Export Sales Organisation has permanent staff based.

The Defence Export Services Organisation has permanent staff based in four overseas countries.

In view of the major contribution made by the Defence Export Sales Organisation, does my hon. Friend feel that there is any justification for scrapping it, as has been suggested? Does the organisation represent value for money in terms of what it delivers?

It represents very good value for money. We expect that last year will prove to be a record for defence export sales. The DESO will have played a key role in achieving that target.

Nuclear Weapons

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received on the implications of his policy of flexible response for the stage at which nuclear weapons are used.

Since the beginning of the year five letters have been received on the general issue of flexible response but I am not aware of any recent representations on the specific aspect referred to by the hon. Member.

Will the Minister confirm that there have been representations from NATO that the remaining stockpiles of nuclear weapons should be upgraded, and will he give some indication of when Her Majesty's Government intend to ensure the effectiveness of the remaining stockpile by upgrading those nuclear weapons?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the decisions take at Montebello. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I dealt with that in detail in our answers on 24 March. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has said, no decisions affecting the modernisation of the theatre nuclear weapons in service with British forces have yet been made.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 5 May.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

While the Opposition have a vested interest in generating misery, is my right hon. Friend aware that in the real world — certainly in my constituency — investment decisions are now being held up pending the outcome of the general election? Is this not the clearest possible evidence that those who are responsible in our country for creating new jobs and generating prosperity want a continuity of the present Government's economic policies and not a return either to the failed policies of the past or, even worse, new policies to fritter away the gains that have so dearly been won in the last few years?

Yes, I believe that overseas investors prefer a Government who believe in free enterprise and sound finance, and who practise both.

Does the right hon. Lady realise that she will have difficulty explaining why manufacturing investment in this country is 20 per cent. lower than it was in 1979 if all she has to say is that it is being held up pending the general election? In their time in office the Government have increased the tax burden on the nation by 17 per cent. and on the average family by 10 per cent. How could the Prime Minister claim last week that hers is the party that reduces taxation? Is it not obvious from that tax-raising record that she cuts truth, not taxes?

Since 1979 the family man on average earnings has had his income tax reduced by £10 per week compared with the tax regime that Labour left. In addition, this Government have got rid of four taxes that were imposed by Labour, and done many other things to reduce taxation.

Why does the Prime Minister so often seek to obscure the truth—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister promised that taxes must and would be cut when she was first elected. The Prime Minister has presided over an 87 per cent. increase in VAT, a 50 per cent. increase in national insurance contributions, and higher rates and charges, which together mean that that average man with that average family is meeting a tax burden that is 10 per cent. Higher under her Government than under any previous peacetime Government. Does she not realise that it is the total tax that is important to the average family, not merely income tax—or does she not know anything about the average family?

The Prime Minister knows very well that there were choices. With the £3 billion from the 2p tax change the best that could be expected was an extra 80,000 jobs. With that £3 billion targeted on manufacturing, construction and vital services, 300,000 jobs could have been created in Britain. Does the Prime Minister not think that that would have been better value for money, better value for people and better value for Britain?

The right hon. Gentleman never says how many jobs would be lost by taking away the money from the people who would have invested it. He wants to talk about losing jobs. Look at his programme on defence, look at his programme on nuclear energy, and look at his programme for minimum wages.

Order. I have not called the right hon. Gentleman before on Prime Minister's questions.

With regard to certain speculation that has appeared in the press about the date of the general election, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that in exercising her constitutional duty of tendering advice she will be guided not by the ephemera of the opinion polls but by the best interests of the country?

During the past fortnight the Government have abandoned the search for sites for nuclear waste on land, announced 82 major road works programmes, given nurses their full pay award and now announced the saving of rural schools. In view of all these deathbed conversions, may we have a general election every year?

I seem to remember the right hon. Gentleman holding things up by virtue of the Lib-Lab pact.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a movement has erupted in Manchester composed of all parties—Labour, Conservative and alliance—against a 20 per cent. increase in the rates and the mortgaging of their future, and that this petition is a cry for help from the people of Manchester to the people outside it? Will she find time today to give it her support?

I hope, with my hon. Friend, that people will remember when they vote on Thursday that Labour authorities mean high rates, which mean fewer jobs and a great penalty on domestic rates.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 5 May.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Can the Prime Minister explain why a nurse sharing a room in Westminster will have to pay the same amount of poll tax as a millionaire living in Park Lane, and why my constituents will have to find an additional £60 a year in Wigan while she will save £37 per week when she retires to Dulwich?

I think that what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that one will pay a good deal less poll tax if one lives in a good Tory authority area than if one lives in a Labour authority area. [Interruption.]

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 5 May.

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge the invaluable role played by village schools in rural communities such as central Suffolk, and will she confirm—[Interruption.]

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no strict criteria are laid down—financial or otherwise—for the closure of such schools and that the decision to close schools will be determined entirely on the ground of whether they are educationally satisfactory?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science recognises the wide support for village schools in the rural community. I understand that an answer will be given later this afternoon.

Will the Prime Minister undertake to circulate copies of the parable of the unjust steward to any Cabinet member who has not yet acted upon it?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the ingenuity of his question.

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 5 May.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that next week, for the first time, no fewer than 200 licensed conveyancers will take up their jobs? Is that not first-class news for home buyers and all those on the domestic front? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government are to be congratulated on giving this opportunity to buyers in what was formerly a very restricted market?

Yes. The powers in the Administration of Justice Act 1985 on licensed conveyancers come into effect on 11 May. Those powers will be generally welcomed by all house buyers and by both sides of the House. They will introduce more competition into conveyancing and that competition is already helping to reduce costs and secure better value for money.

Q5.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 5 May.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity today to tell the House whether the statement made by General Rogers to a Congressional Committee that a decision was taken to deploy nuclear weapons before the last general election is true, or a lie?

I am not responsible for the comments made by General Rogers. I know of no such allegations.

Will my right hon. Friend have time today to fit in a message of congratulations for the six newly elected Conservative councillors returned on Thursday with an increased share of the poll, and in particular for the victor in Devon, who succeeded with a 22 per cent. swing from the alliance to the Conservatives?

Yes, I gladly congratulate those councillors. I hope that the result augurs well for later in the week.

Q6.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 5 May.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Will the Prime Minister comment on the assertion in Sunday's Observer that she was the ultimate beneficiary of treachery and subversion?

Q7.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 5 May.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that most parents are appalled by the promotion of gay rights or lesbian rights, so-called peace studies in our schools and some of the more dangerous loony Left policies in places such as Brent? Is not the Government's suggestion that schools should be given more independence the only way to keep people such as Mr. Lawrence Norcross of Highbury Grove in place and in good heart? Should not those rights be given sooner rather than later?

Mr. Norcross was a highly respected and regarded head teacher who gave the children in his care an excellent education. The fact of, and the reasons for, his retirement will cause concern in the minds of many parents and underline the wisdom of Conservative policy to give more powers to head teachers and parents over the future of their schools.

Q8.

asked the Prime Minister of she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 5 May.

I refer the hon Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Does the Prime Minister accept that over the years artists have done significantly more for the well-being of nations than have politicians? Will she try to be a little more understanding about the problems of the arts, and especially those of Kent Opera?

This Government have increased, in real terms, the budget given to the arts, because we have great respect for the services that they provide and for the way in which they enrich the life of the nation. However, I do not entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's initial premise.

Civil Service Pay Dispute

3.30 pm

(by private notice) asked the Minister for Social Security what arrangements he is making for the provision of assistance to families with urgent financial needs, who were denied the payment of benefit during the civil servants' dispute; and if he will make a statement.

This is a pay dispute which extends across the Civil Service, although the two unions taking action have chosen to target local offices of my Department and of the Department of Employment. We are now in the fifth week of a rolling programme of strikes, which this week will affect the public in London and the south-east.

The situation for those who will not receive on time giro-cheques due this week will be broadly the same as for Scotland over the Easter period. If claimants cannot manage to tide themselves over the few days until their girocheque arrives, they may be able to obtain help from their local authority.

This falls far short of the standard of service that we wish claimants to receive and I greatly regret the fact that the two unions have chosen to further their pay campaign in a fashion which is bound to hurt the most vulnerable members of society.

I must make it clear that the Government believe that the Civil Service pay offer is a fair one. For the second year running, it is above the rate of inflation and will give many civil servants increases of between 5 and 6 per cent. Three Civil Service unions have accepted the Government's offer. The Society of Civil and Public Servants and the Civil and Public Services Association should do the same.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the acute hardship that will be suffered by many low-income families and benefit recipients if this regrettable dispute continues and escalates? Will he take some emergency measures in co-operation with local authority social service departments to ensure that deprivation is avoided wherever possible? As the employing Minister, will he convey to the Treasury the special problems of recruitment in areas such as the south-east, where costs are high and competitive wages and fringe benefits in the private sector are much higher? Does he agree that our civil servants, whose general standards of service are higher than those in other competitive nations, merit at least a proper review of salaries comparable to that recently given to teachers and nurses?

As I stated in my answer, approaches have already been made to local office managers and to local authorities to provide, in cases of hardship, emergency help under the standing contingency arrangements that apply in all our local offices. Experience in other parts of the country has been that services are quickly restored to normal after the strike, with urgent cases being given the highest priority.

On my hon. Friend's second point, we have made it clear to all the unions, including the CPSA and the Society of Civil and Public Servants, that the Treasury is entirely ready to talk to them about a flexible pay system similar to that recently concluded with the Institution of Professional Civil Servants. As my hon. Friend may know, that agreement includes a framework for settling pay, based firmly on the recommendations of the independent Megaw report of 1982.

Is the Minister aware that to avoid industrial disputes in social security offices, which all of us wish to avoid, it is incumbent on the Government to provide decent working conditions and fair pay? Is he aware that the working conditions are Dickensian and the pay is at poverty level? Is he aware that the workload per person has increased by 30 per cent. while at the same time pay has decreased by 30 per cent. relative to comparable workers, such as bank clerks? Is he aware that one third of social security staff earn less than the Council of Europe's decency threshold and that 40,000 staff have pay so low that they are entitled to means-tested benefits? Is he aware that conditions are so bad that staff turnover nationally is 70 per cent. and that in London it is over 100 per cent. per year?

Is the Minister aware that against that background the Government's offer of 4·5 per cent. is no answer for staff who are grossly overworked, undertrained, undervalued and underpaid and whose morale has hit an all-time low? Until a proper pay offer is made which is not 50 per cent. below the current going rate, what emergency payments will the Government make under section 1 to protect claimants, especially families, who are the innocent victims of this dispute, who in many areas support it, and who are currently penalised by the Government's meanness?

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman precisely of what I am aware. I am aware that this is a fair pay offer which will provide a minimum increase of £5·75 a week for everybody over the age of 17; that many civil servants will receive between 5 and 6 per cent.; that they will also get improved leave arrangements; and that this is the second successive year in which the pay award is well in excess of inflation. I am aware and surprised that the hon. Gentleman and many of the unions concerned seem to oppose many of the computerisation improvements which will lead to better working conditions and a better service to the public. I am also aware— I hope that the hon. Gentleman is, too, because he did not mention this—that it is unreasonable for those with secure jobs to threaten the interests of those with no jobs.

Is my hon. Friend aware that most people will see it as the height of cynicism for any trade union leader to pretend that we can get a better Civil Service by holding the most needy to ransom?

I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point. The majority of civil servants have high standards and offer a good service. We wish to reward them for that with a fair pay offer, and that is what we are doing.

Will the Minister, as a useful backdrop to this sad dispute, provide figures showing the increase in the number of social security claimants since 1979 compared with the increase in staff to administer that system? Will he concede that a comparison of those proportions shows that the terrible scenes, particularly those which we witnessed in Glasgow over Easter, and the dispute could have been avoided if the Government had been more sympathetic to the position of social security staff? Does the Minister agree that the voluntary sector is having to make a major contribution because, clearly, local authority input, which the Government expect, is curtailed because of the constraints imposed by central Government on its budget?

It is precisely because we are concerned about the interests of both claimants and staff that we have sought to introduce a far simpler social security system in the Social Security Act 1986, much of which the hon. Gentleman's party objected to and voted against during its passage through the House. The hon. Gentleman may well be aware that we have substantially increased the staffing level in the past 12 months and that we are seeking to introduce a computerisation system which will make life much more efficient for both claimants and the staff working the system.

Is it the Government's view that the present pay offer is sufficient to recruit, retain and motivate the civil servants to whom the pay offer has been made?

For the second successive year the pay offer exceeds inflation and on that basis it is fair and will achieve the objectives that my hon. Friend sets out.

Is the Minister aware that many of my constituents work at the Livingston centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and naturally come to my hon. Friend and me? Will the hon. Gentleman answer a factual question? How many employees at the Livingston centre claim benefit? The Minister has been pressed for figures on that. Some of us suspect that it is one-fifth or one-sixth of the workforce. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many staff are claiming benefit?

I have no reason whatsoever to suppose that the figures quoted by the hon. Gentleman are accurate, but I will investigate them and let him know.

Is not this latest example of the abuse of trade union power—which is used to harm some of the weakest people in our society and which has the support of the Opposition Members—a cogent reminder of the importance of returning a Conservative Government?

On the latter point, the electorate will make their own decision at some future stage. On the substantive point, I must repeat that this is a fair offer, it is one that the trade unions should accept, and it is unreasonable of them to target their action on a section of the community that cannot otherwise be defended.

Will the Minister acknowledge the Government's responsibility in bringing about this dispute? Is it not the result of eight years of attacks on the value of the services that are performed by the Civil Service, particularly in the DHSS offices? Is it not the case that under-staffing has been allowed to continue and that working conditions have deteriorated? Is it not the Government's responsibility, because they dismantled the pay research unit in 1980, thus leaving civil servants with no proper means of arbitration and is it not that which is now required to bring this dispute to an end?

I think that the hon. Member is wrong on many of the points that she has made. Over the past 12 months staff levels have been increased substantially and, for the second year, the pay offer is above inflation and the system has been simplified.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Leicester DHSS offices are in the hands of militants? The leader of the CPSA in Leicester, Mr. Tony Church, took great delight in announcing on the radio that my constituents would suffer and that it did not matter that new claimants would not receive their money for a while. Is he aware that no ballot has been taken, yet the CPSA is taking action starting on Monday 11 May? Does the Minister agree that that is callous and greedy and that it shows no care, love or understanding for those who are desperately in need and that the union is merely a servant of the Labour party?

I had no knowledge of the circumstances in Leicester. My hon. Friend speaks most forcefully for his constituents. In my judgment, the vast majority of civil servants, even though they may be caught up in this dispute, carry out their jobs in a wholly non-partisan and effective way. I want them to accept this fair offer and return to providing the service that the Government, and the majority of them want them to provide.

Does the Minister accept the figures quoted by the two unions involved that some 40,000 members are in receipt of social security benefits? Is that not why in some local offices—and they are not all Militant-controlled — the vote, taken on a democratic basis, was, perhaps sad to say, overwhelmingly in support of industrial action?

I am not sure whether the figures quoted will include the universal child benefit payment. I have not seen the breakdown of the figures quoted by the union leaders. If the circumstances are as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, surely it would be sensible to accept the offer, which is substantially above the rate of inflation?

Is the Minister aware that his crocodile tears for the claimants will not fool anyone outside the House and very few people in it? The cause of the dispute is the disgraceful pay of many civil servants, who do a good job trying to deal with the most appalling social problems that have been created by the Government. The culprits in this dispute is the Minister and the Government who have paid insufficiently high benefits and have maintained very low wages and provided disgraceful working conditions for hard-working civil servants.

In no sense was I seeking to cry crocodile tears, but in no way does the hon. Gentleman condemn the action that hurts many people who have no jobs and who will lose their social security benefits this week. Why does not the hon. Gentleman condemn that?

Is it not a fact that the Government are once again blackmailing an orderly and well-behaved section of the community, as they did with the nurses and the teachers? Have not the Government driven these people to desperation because they knew that they would not take action as they wanted to look after those whom their jobs entailed them looking after? Are not these people turning because they are desperate? Does the Minister lake pride in doing this to these well-behaved people? Is it not obscene that a wealthy lawyer, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who is mostly out of the Chamber and in court making money hand over fist, should attack these poor people? Tory Members, especially the hon. and learned Member, should be ashamed of themselves.

The answer to most of the questions asked by the hon. Gentleman is no. I reiterate that the Government are seeking, have been seeking, and will continue to seek a fair settlement, and we believe that one is on offer.

Order. I must have regard for the rest of the business on the Order Paper. This is an extension of Question Time.

State Security

3.45 pm

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the implications for the conduct of Her Majesty's Government's legal action in the Australian courts as a result of the publication in newspapers in the United States of details from Mr Peter Wright's book regarding the security services."

On Sunday the Washington Post published an account of extracts from the Wright book. Thus Americans can read in their country information about what occurred here arising from activities of the British security services which British citizens cannot read in their own country because of the legal action taken in Australia and other action, to which apparently I am not allowed to refer.

The piece which appeared in the Washington Post has been syndicated throughout the United States and Canada to some 400 other papers and journals. The story which was published in the Washington Post dealt as well with the alleged plot by a number of MI5 officials to undermine the Government of the day. But prior to that Government being elected in 1974 the article quoted Mr. Wright as saying:
"The plan was simple. In the run-up to the election … MI5 would arrange for details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic press men … word of the material contained in MI5 files, and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk, would be passed around."

These are the most serious allegations that could be made against officials who are meant to be politically neutral. There are very serious allegations regarding the fact that Mr. Wright believes that MI5 was involved after the election in undermining an elected Government. What, then, about the definition of subversion which states that those who undermine parliamentary democracy are a security risk. The very people involved in the security services were apparently doing their best to undermine parliamentary democracy.

I believe that this is a matter which should receive urgent consideration. Surely it is totally unsatisfactory for all these matters to be aired in the United States press when this House is denied the opportunity to discuss issues which go right to the heart of our system of parliamentary democracy. I believe that it is necessary for a debate to take place. The excuses of former officials that we have read in the British press to justify their actions of 10 years ago to try to undermine and subvert a British Government are most flimsy. For all those reasons, I believe that a debate is absolutely essential.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the implications for the conduct of Her Majesty's Government's legal action in the Australian courts as a result of the publication in newspapers in the United States of details of Mr. Peter Wright's book regarding the security services."

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I regret that I do not consider the matter that he has raised as appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20, and I cannot, therefore, submit his application to the House.

Peek Frean Factory, Bermondsey

I beg to ask leave to move the Ajournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the announcement last Friday afternoon of the closure of Peek Frean's factory in my constituency of Bermondsey with the loss of more than 1,000 jobs."

The matter is specific for obvious reasons: on Labour Day, above all days, the closure of a firm with a long and respected history was announced. That firm is also the largest private sector employer in north Southwark. The matter is important because Peek Frean is a firm that is owned by Nabisco, which is run from the United States, but it is none the less known throughout Britain for its production of biscuits, crackers, crisps and Christmas puddings, which, no doubt, most hon. Members have relied on every festive season in the past. It is the last of the series of large manufacturers in the food and drink industry left in a part of London that relied on that industry for its jobs.

The matter is urgent because of the sheer statistics involved in the closure of a plant of this size—more than 1,000 jobs will be lost, most of which belong to women. That adds to an unemployment number of more than 7,000 in my constituency alone. The overall unemployment rate is 22 per cent. — 29 per cent. of males and 14 per cent. of females. That puts the constituency in the top 25 constituencies for unemployment in the whole of England.

The unions will be meeting this week and have, I gather, only a few days in which to accept the terms by which the whole work force will be laid off. I ask that the matter be debated, not only for the sake of the workers there, but so that the future of manufacturing industry in the inner cities can be debated in the House as a matter of great importance.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the announcement of the closure of Peek Frean's Nabisco factory in Bermondsey and the loss of more than 1,000 jobs, the majority of whose holders live in the hon. Gentleman's constituency."
Again, I have listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I regret that I do not consider the matter that he raised as appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20, and I cannot therefore submit his application to the House.

Early-Day Motion 931

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I refer to early-day motion 931, which states:

That this House notes that the names Brooks, De Wesselow, Otley, Fletcher and Gordon have been identified as conspirators in the treasonable plot to bring about the downfall of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, Prime Minister between February and October 1974; and further demands a statement from the Prime Minister as to what disciplinary action was taken against them when they were identified to Sir Michael Hanley, Directer General of M.I.5 in 1975.
Is it in order, Mr. Speaker, to use the Order Paper to indict individuals with substantive and serious offences of treason? Do not we bring the House into disrespect if we adopt procedures that we would never have considered appropriate if adopted in courts elsewhere? Is it not particularly oppressive in this instance, as those so indicted are almost certainly bound by the Official Secrets Act and are therefore unable to speak in their own defence? Such individuals have given signal service to the country—for example, Anthony Brooks won the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order for action behind enemy lines, and was also awarded the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre with palms for action behind enemy lines. Is it not a matter of deep regret that such men, without a shadow or scintilla of evidence against them, should find themselves indicted in this, the highest court in the land, and do not we bring ourselves into disrepute by these actions?

My responsibility is to consider whether early-day motions are in order. Those which may not be are brought to my attention. This early-day motion was not brought to my attention, so it is in order. I say to the whole House that we should use our parliamentary privileges with the greatest discretion and care, because under the privileges that we enjoy we can name and accuse those outside who have no recourse.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your advice? With the exception of yourself, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House, I am one of a small and dwindling band of MPs who were here when Hugh Gaitskell was Leader of the Opposition. I say this in the presence of a former Home Secretary who was Hugh Gaitskell's constituency successor in Leeds. I am not in any way questioning your judgment about your answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but the fact remains that in the Washington Post statements have been made about the death of Hugh Gaitskell that cannot go without comment. The Washington Post says:

"It was also during this period that MI5, spurred in part by the Angleton report, began to investigate Wilson. Wright says his own suspicions had begun with the mysterious death in 1963—"

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not read out the letter. I think that many of us have read this.

It is a very serious allegation and I should like to be very precise. It goes on:

"—of Labor Party leader—"

Order. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to do that. I am aware that he also submitted an application under Standing Order No. 20 in broadly the same terms as the application that I have just heard from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to make a second application under the cloak of a point of order. I fully appreciate the importance of this matter to the House, but my only discretion in these matters is whether they meet the criteria laid down for Standing Order No. 20. That is the total of my discretion. There are many other ways in which these matters can be brought before the House.

May I ask for guidance about how the memory of Hugh Gaitskell and these very serious allegations against his successor as Labour leader can be debated if all this is sub judice? The implication is that a Labour leader was the beneficiary of the possible assassination of a previous Labour leader. Ought there not to be a Government statement? Government statements are coming in The Times today under the cloak of Mr. Chapman Pincher's article.

Order. Whether there should be a Government statement is a matter for discussion between the usual channels and the Government. It is not a matter of order for me.

Could I appeal to the Leader of the House for some kind of statement from the Government? We cannot have 400 news media throughout the western world carrying all these allegations about the possible assassination of a former Labour leader, the former Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell) and have absolutely no comment about it. It is deeply unsatisfactory that the Downing street view should be put in an article in The Times under the name of a particular journalist, in this case Chapman Pincher——

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you help the House and especially Opposition Members by confirming that, if it is the view of a major part of the opposition parties and certainly if it is the view of the usual channels, the Opposition are free to use Opposition days which still exist in this Parliament? Parliament still continues and Opposition days still roll round. Can you confirm that, if it is the view of sufficient Opposition Members who give the matter sufficient weight, and not just the view of some eccentrics who want to peddle this for their own purposes, they are perfectly free to bring these matters to the House? In so far as that is allowed by you, Mr. Speaker, and by sub judice rules they can give the matter a proper airing in the guise of an Opposition day debate.

I have already said that there are other opportunities and the House must use them to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for what you have just said. Is the import of what you have just said that one can forget the fact that there is a sub judice aspect about a book, and that if the information is raised elsewhere it does not prevent us from raising and debating this matter on the Floor of the House?

I made a careful statement about this last week and I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to that.

No, it is not on the same matter. You will know that last Friday I tabled an early-day motion, about which the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) has spoken, and in which five persons were named. My point of order is about the principle of naming persons on the Order Paper. On 28 January I asked a question of the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry——

I am coming to it, Mr. Speaker. I asked him about a licensed security dealer who I refused to name on the Floor of the House. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that Conservative Members nodded in support of the principle of me not naming that security dealer. I said at the time that I was worried that many people would lose money that they had invested in the company.

Last Friday, the Department of Trade and Industry revoked the licence of the company and on Sunday it was made clear that it would be applying for a winding up order. If I had named the company on that day — against my better judgment I gave in to pressures in this House not to name the company — many people, perhaps several thousand, would be today hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds better off. I refused to name the company and investors in IDB lost money.

I hope it is a lesson to the House that there are times in this Chamber when one has to name an individual or company because it is in the public interest to do so. On that occasion, by not naming the company, I failed.

I do not think that a point of order arises out of that, but I cannot recollect a time when an early-day motion submitted by the hon. Member has been drawn to my attention for my adjudication.

Statutory Instruments, &C

With the leave of the House, I will put together the three motions relating to statutory instruments.

Ordered,

That the draft Race Relations (Offshore Employment) Order 1987 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay (Offshore Employment) Order 1987 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Meat and Livestock Commission Levy Scheme (Confirmation) Order 1987 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. — [Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

Parliamentary Elections (Compulsory Voting And Public Holiday) Bill

4.2 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make voting at Parliamentary Elections compulsory and to establish a public holiday in the area for any Parliamentary election.

I realise that it is rather late to be introducing new Bills into what has now become a Parliament of the politically undead, but it is certainly an appropriate time to raise this issue. Within a week or so we will all be involved in a general election campaign which will culminate on a polling day when, if we are lucky, about 75 per cent. of the electorate will vote. I remind hon. Members that in 1983 only 72·7 per cent. of the electorate voted. For a variety of reasons, one in four, 25 per cent. or 10 million of our citizens are likely not to record a vote at the coming general election. Many will have good reasons for that. Some people, such as those who are homeless, in hostels or in bed and breakfast accommodation, effectively have been disfranchised by Government policies. A significant number will deliberately abstain. But I believe that the great majority who fail to vote do so out of sheer apathy.

It was once said of Stanley Baldwin during an election campaign that he went around the country whipping up apathy. Perhaps that was so, but it is facile and misleading to blame politicians and political parties for low turnouts at elections. Representative parliamentary democracy does not exist to serve political parties and politicians. Equally, electors do not do political parties a favour by voting. Voting is not a favour to confer; it is, or should be, a duty to be exercised by all of us.

Our system of parliamentary democracy has been achieved through struggle and still remains a guardian of our liberties. But in turn, as a system, it needs constant nurturing and protection, particularly against those who would seek to undermine and ultimately destroy it. There was the example from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) of the conspiracies within the British establishment to undermine a democratically elected Labour Government.

Our parliamentary system is imperfect. It is still too easily manipulated. At this moment the entire country is waiting for one person, whose party enjoys an overall parliamentary majority of 138 Members elected by 42·4 per cent. of those who voted, or 30·8 per cent. of those eligible to vote, in 1983, to decide when will be the best moment for her to call a general election.

In February this year I introduced a Bill to ensure fixed-term parliaments, which would have meant everybody now knowing when the election will be held. With the Government's majority, that should not be until June 1988. The power of the Prime Minister alone to determine the date of the election and the constant and futile speculation in the press over it is bad for democracy. But equally bad for democracy is having a Government with a massive majority elected by about only 31 per cent. of the electorate. Those 10 million or so people who failed to vote in 1983 have a great deal to answer for to those of us who did vote.

If a Government are going to be genuinely representative and speak with genuine authority, they must be the product of a system which maximises their claim to govern. If a system is considered stronger because a greater percentage of the electorate voted, we should aim to achieve the closest we can get to a 100 per cent. turn out. If the act of voting is considered essential to the health of parliamentary democracy, it is too important to be left as an option for individuals.

Already we consider certain activities in our society too important for the common good to be left as options. We cannot legitimately opt out of paying taxes, national insurance or rates, or opt out of being educated, however hard Government Members have tried. We pass laws which have to be obeyed, on pain of certain penalties. The authority for all that is parliamentary government, yet the act of electing, through the ballot box, that Government is still a permissive rather than a mandatory activity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Douglas Hogg)

:That is freedom.

The Minister talks about freedom. I do not think that Australia, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg and Italy, where voting is compulsory, are countries that are not free. But in all those countries the turnout is appreciably greater than in the United Kingdom. In most cases, it averages over 90 per cent. Therefore, the compulsory voting provision in the Bill will lead to a dramatic increase in the turnout at our general elections.

The second part of my Bill would allow for a public holiday on polling day. This is the slight sweetener because of the compulsory voting provision. We seem to positively delight in making our electoral practices as difficult as possible for people. We vote on a Thursday, a normal working day, which is a tradition that goes back only to 1935. In all those countries where voting is compulsory, they have rest day voting on Saturdays or Sundays. In many other countries where rest day voting is the normal practice, with the exception of Japan and Switzerland, the percentage turnout is again significantly greater than that in the United Kingdom.

Democracy is not strengthened by putting obstacles in the way. Voting on a working day is an obstacle that should be removed. We should perhaps keep Thursday, because any proposal for weekend voting would produce a host of objections from a wide variety of religious groups. But at least we can make general election day a holiday.

If voting is compulsory, there will have to be some penalty for failing to vote. For those without a legitimate reason, a fine of about £50 would seem appropriate. However, this is mere detail. I am concerned today with principles only. Those who wish to go into the polling booths and write something discourteous about the Prime Minister or about the Labour party candidate for Newham, North-West, would still be at liberty to do so. Provided that their ballot paper ends up in the ballot box, there are any number of unpleasant things that the disenchanted may choose to do, but at least they will have been required to make the effort.

The way in which we operate the mechanics of our electoral practice is not beyond change. Changes are badly needed. I believe that we need fixed-term Parliaments and a more equitable way in which the national vote is translated into parliamentary seats. I believe that that means a system of proportional representation. My Bill would be a useful contribution to the process of change, which is necessary to keep our democracy healthy. The consequences of an election are far too important for all of us to allow any of us to opt out without good rreason. That being so, I ask the House to accept the Bill.

4.11 pm