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Adjournment (Christmas)

Volume 124: debated on Tuesday 8 December 1987

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House at its rising on Friday 18th December do adjourn until Monday 11th January, and that the House shall not adjourn on Friday 18th December until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.—[Mr. Wakeham.]

5.8 pm

The motion should secure the whole-hearted approval of the House. We sit for more of the year than any other legislative body in western Europe, and each day we sit for longer hours than our counterparts.

I believe that the topic engendered by the motion is particularly relevant to Shropshire, because it covers the period during which consultation will take place on the Shropshire health authority's proposals for the closure of 10 cottage hospitals. That proposition will go for consultation on 1 January. Therefore, I want to establish points before then, and they can only be established this afternoon in the hope that they will be more generally available by the time the consultation begins and before Parliament returns after the recess.

I shall not detain the House with the background as to why the closure of 10 cottage hospitals is being considered in Shropshire. That proposal derives from a variety of factors. Shropshire health authority believes that the decision to proceed with Telford district general hospital is a major factor in the authority's planning and use of resources. Other considerations have caused the authority to present the current option for the consideration of the county. In common with my parliamentary colleagues from Shropshire and the overwhelming majority of voters, patients and residents in the county, I can state that there is bewilderment about and deep hostility to a proposition that would remove two thirds of the county's cottage hospitals. If that proposal were put into effect, it would stand as a precedent for many other rural authorities with a network of cottage hospitals which perform a valued role in the health care of the community.

It is important that the House should be aware that when my right hon. Friend speaks against the proposed closure of the cottage hospitals, he is making clear his opposition and that of his constituency of Shropshire, North. However, he also voices the opposition felt in my constituency of Shrewbury and Atcham, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and, I presume, in the constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott).

It is important for the House to note that the proposed building of the Telford district general hospital on such a large scale will cause the closure of the cottage hospitals and may cause even more closures according to the health authority's consultation document. The fact that spending has risen in Shropshire from £30 million to £72 million reveals that this is not a question of a cut in resources, but a wrong decision on the health authority's part to build the giant hospital at Telford and close the rural services. That is the root of the problem. My right hon. Friend speaks for the Conservative Members representing Shropshire constituencies when he makes his points.

I am pleased to accommodate my hon. Friend's remarks in my speech. His was a very wise preemptive strike, in case he is less than lucky later in the debate.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) would agree that there is lively debate in the county about the factors that have given rise to the £3 million and which explain the present cost-cutting exercise. The Shropshire health authority view appears to be that proceeding with the Telford district general hospital is not the reason for the proposed closure of the 10 cottage hospitals. All those points will be argued during the consultative period.

The point that I want to put on the record this evening —one that I hope will receive a reply before 1 January when the consultative period begins—is that one or two facts should be available for the guidance of those in Shropshire who will undertake what will be a most important exercise when they explain in the most vigorous and compelling terms why they believe that the traditional network of health care, based upon local community hospitals, should persist.

First, I want my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to tell us in the most general terms— I realise that he can say this only in general terms—what are the virtues and valued characteristics of the cottage hospitals so that they can be taken into account when evidence about the need for their retention is put to the community health council.

Secondly — in a sense it is unnecessary for me to make this request, but this might be helpful—may we have an assurance that the consultative procedure will not be a mere token or ritual? That procedure is at the very heart of determining how decisions are taken about the health services of any community, and in this instance of Shropshire. All those who give evidence at the meetings to be called by the community health council will want to feel that their arguments and cases, which will have compelling implications, will be taken seriously by the community health council. Indeed, I would like an assurance that the Government would want to take account of that evidence. I hope that the council in no sense has a prejudged view of the outcome of health services in the county. I am sure that many of the misunderstandings are unintended and have arisen at random.

The county's paper is the Shropshire Star and it has more prestige and circulation than The Times. I must secure my quotes somehow or other. We were graced by a visit from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I say this with a certain amount of trepidation because the Treasury has a presence in all these matters. It is not just a matter of the DHSS communing with other elements interested in health. Labour Members represent a party with a long tradition of Treasury involvement in health affairs, so hon. Members will be under no illusions about this.

In the Shropshire Star on Friday 13 November Angela Davies reported:
"Chancellor Nigel Lawson today defended the decision to close ten Shropshire cottage hospitals."
That was not the happiest of lunchtime reading. After making references to the case and the controversy about the closures, Angela Davies continued:
"He added: 'The closure of the cottage hospitals is taking place alongside the concentration of all the most modern facilities in one large new general hospital'.
He said that the cash injection would allow better management and a real improvement in patient care."
It is possible to construe those remarks as though Telford district general hospital was the alternative to the 10 cottage hospitals. I cannot believe that that was intended. I informed my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that I would be referring to the newspaper cutting this afternoon. It would be to the advantage of the House and to all those who are conducting this most important health debate in Shropshire if we knew clearly that the consultative period was a time of open argument and open mind and that no decisions had been arrived at prematurely, least of all by the Treasury.

5.18 pm

The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) represents a constituency that I know as Oswestry, as it was until the boundary commissioners in their foolishness over constituency names up and down the country replaced it with something else. The right hon. Gentleman raised a local issue, which is the purpose of the debate in many respects. He raised an important local and county issue.

I want to consider a national issue. I want to argue that we should have a statement from the Government on their policy with regard to the use of the Official Secrets Act and to comment on the drift towards using other methods, namely the use of the civil injunction to achieve what apparently Ministers believe cannot be achieved by using the criminal law of the land. We should know what Government policy is in that respect. I must say to the Leader of the House that two Ministers are involved—the Home Secretary, who is responsible for the Official Secrets Act 1911, and the Attorney-General, who is responsible in the context of the public interest for determining whether prosecutions should take place under the legislation.

In 1976, I became Home Secretary with the full intention — which I never achieved — of reforming the Official Secrets Act, as I had been a member of the Franks committee in 1972 which had put forward recommendations. I thought that, four years later, I was on the royal road towards achieving that aim. After I had made a statement as to my intention, I also said something else. I did that at the request of the then Attorney-General, who spoke to me in that distancing way that Attorneys-General should use when talking to a Cabinet Minister about legislation that he is to use. The then Attorney-General said that, as I had said that we would implement the Franks committee findings, he wished me to tell the House that the Attorney-General would take into account what the Home Secretary had done.

In practice, that meant that the Attorney-General would seek to prosecute under the Official Secrets Act only if it was in the public- interest, and involved matters classified as secret and above, and that anything below that classification would have to be dealt with by the Civil Service or whoever was involved. At least everybody knew where they were.

I appeared in court on behalf of Mr. Ponting not because I approved of what he had done, but because the Government had said that the document about the Belgrano that he had given to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was not a serious security leak and was not classified secret or above. That man should not have been dealt with under the criminal procedure of part II of the Official Secrets Act. I was being consistent with the decision of the previous Government.

We have never heard from this Government—from the Attorney-General or from various Home Secretaries — that they have turned their back on that decision. Instead, we have drifted along, as was shown by that interesting section in last Saturday's edition of The Independent which gave a list of some 14 relevant cases which arose between 1979 and December 1987.

I should like to clarify a point about the book "Their Trade is Treachery", which was published in March 1981. No action was taken by the Government. In my view, sections of that book should have been dealt with under part II of the Official Secrets Act, yet no action was taken. I believe that that book contained information that should not have been given. I have already referred to the Ponting case, and I have read carefully the Wright book. I shall refer to the dirty tricks allegations and the other allegations that emanate from Northern Ireland. Under no heading can they be classified as secret, and nobody can argue that the information should not be openly revealed, because it was not a state secret. It is what the Franks report argued—too often the Official Secrets Act is used to protect the weaknesses of the Government or of Government services.

I shall never stop referring to the 1924 Zinoviev case. Without offending golf players, there are people in the security services who take a golf club attitude to politics. That is to the detriment of the security services.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker told me that it would be in order for me to refer to the programme which has not yet been beamed by the BBC, in which I and others took part. He told me that I could not read a transcript, but that I could say what I had said. I said, and I willingly repeat, that the MI5 officers who served me in Northern Ireland were excellent. They knew what they were talking about and I happily speak in their favour. When it comes to dirty tricks, it would be false for the Government to argue that they must be protected by criminal sanctions or in any other way, particularly as the Prime Minister, the Law Officers and the Home Secretary have said in this House that they do not know what was in the inquiry of 1976.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of what appeared in some editions of The Guardian yesterday? The former MI5 official who was due to speak to the Conservative Back-Bench defence committee meeting which was to have occurred tomorrow but has been cancelled because of the publicity and the injunction against the BBC, is Mr. Charles Ellwell who, apparently, after carrying out various activities on behalf of the security services in investigating the National Council for Civil Liberties — an organisation which I would not have thought could be considered subversive — went to work for Common Cause, an organisation which is extremely Right-wing. It is possible that that unfortunate connection illustrates only too well that some MI5 officials are not politically impartial.

If the dirty tricks allegations in the Wright book, which was only a small section—about two or three pages—contain any truth, my hon. Friend is right. While that may or may not be true, I can say that the men with whom I worked discussed things extremely sensibly and knowledgeably. It would not be their job to discuss them in a way of which I approve, but they served me well. That does not invalidate what I want investigated about the so-called dirty tricks and the allegations that emanate from Northern Ireland.

Part of part II of the Official Secrets Act would probably be better in section 1, but that is a matter for change in future. Instead of that, there is only drift.

I certainly will not get involved in the question of sub judice, but I assume that as no action was taken against the article in yesterday's Independent by Mr. Peter Kellner, I can use part of it to support my argument. He points out that the programme was not secret. When I went into that busy little room to give my half-hour's worth, which no doubt was cut down, I was informed that everybody knew about it and that the programme was not secret. The programme certainly was not secret; the just former Lord Chancellor was on it.

On that occasion, I heard that former intelligence officers were on the programme, and I assume that former intelligence officers would have told MI5. I find it astonishing—indeed, 1 do not believe—that the first that the Law Officers or the Government heard about it was in the "Peterborough" column in The Daily Telegraph.

What Peter Kellner wrote summed it all up:
"The notion that the intelligence community only woke up last Thursday after reading the Peterborough column in The Daily Telegraph is fanciful: or if not fanciful, extremely worrying. (Memo to Moscow: if you are planning a surprise attack on the West, don't worry if the KGB tells Sir Antony Duff, but for goodness sake keep your manoeuvres out of the gossip columns.)"

It is all about politics rather than security, and this is par for the course. We now realise that the Zircon raid on the BBC at 3 am on the Sabbath morning of 1 February was not about politics but about security.

I have said in public and I have told my hon. Friend to his face—he was in the House in the whole period I was in office — that he has been a damned nuisance, and I hope that he will continue to be a damned nuisance to Governments of whatever persuasion, because it is important that somebody ferrets and devils around in the way he does.

I am concerned, as was said in the Reith lectures last year by Lord McCluskey, that we are now moving from the Official Secrets Act. The Government have said that they will have a White Paper and will do something about it, but they are using civil injunctions. Lord McCluskey, in his sixth and final lecture, concluded his argument for keeping separate the functions of making the law and applying it. The Government are depending upon the judiciary stepping in to make decisions that for a long period could be taken only on the basis of the Official Secrets Act.

I say to the Leader of the House—I understand the sub judice aspect—that, at the appropriate time and quickly, it is important that the Law Officer and Home Secretary tell the country, through the House, why they are not using the Official Secrets Act. Much to my astonishment, I read in the Sunday Express—I shall refer to aspects of this in another place, not now—that Mr. Chapman Pincher said in effect that he was given approval for "Their Trade in Treachery" by officials of MI5. From all that has been said, not in the current case, in the courts over the past six months, the Cabinet Secretary did not know this. No wonder that a prosecution was not undertaken, if approval were given by somebody or other who has been mentioned. The Government should soon make clear how they are operating, because I am concerned.

I have listened with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he could help the Government. Did he know, at the time he agreed to be interviewed on the programme to which he referred, that a serving member of the security services would be on the programme? If he did know, did it concern him? When he was Home Secretary and responsible for those matters, would he have allowed a serving member of the security services for which he was responsible to go public on the air?

I did not know, and I do not know what my powers would have been in that respect, but the answer is no. However, I hope that I would not have had to wait until I had read the "Peterborough" column on the Thursday before the programme took place before stepping in.

The answer is no, but I would not have waited to read it in the "Peterborough" column of The Daily Telegraph. As other hon. Members wish to speak, this is not the time to argue for a change to the accountability rule and other matters for which one has argued. The current position with newspapers and the BBC leaves me with a sense of censorship, which our forebears in the war years, let alone at any other time, would hardly credit. We are drifting into a Sargasso sea of media control.

I often ask myself what the media would have done — they grumble and complain very honourably—if a Labour Government had attempted to interfere with the BBC. We would have had much talk about eastern Europe. I have never had any time for that sort of organisation, which is a prostitution of what people have worked for over the years. I have to tell myself that this happens in Right-wing countries, and we are drifting in a direction I do not like. The Government should make a statement about the involvement of the D notice committee.

The Franks report is well worth reading, because it contains many facts. In our report, we wrote that the D notice system is administrative, which means that it is under the control of a Minister. It is an administrative system; it is not flying in the air by itself, doing what it likes. Something is wrong, and the Home Secretary and Attorney-General must report to the House.

I yield to no one in my concern for security; it is vital. We need secret services, but something has gone radically wrong. After having been listened to in far parts during the war years, always with the feeling that there was something right about it, the BBC now faces the Government moving in with injunctions to prevent reporting. There is something wrong; the Government must speak.

5.36 pm

I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) who, in his time, has done the state some service in security matters and so speaks with particular authority. Not for the first time I find myself in agreement twith many of the themes that he struck. In particular, I agree with his concern about the drift, as he called it, of Government policy towards the extension of the civil law of confidentiality. This was once intended purely for commercial and business confidentiality, and is now being extended dramatically into an area that was thought to be covered only by the criminal law of official secrets.

We seem to be drifting in a curious and worrying direction. One could dismiss some of the drift as pure Gilbert and Sullivan farce. The Government A-team on legal and security issues, after turning "Spycatcher" into a world best-seller, making Peter Wright a millionaire and boosting the sales, royalties and revenues of Mr. Chapman Pincher, have graciously turned their mind to boosting the flagging audiences of Radio 4, for which I am sure it is grateful.

On a more serious note, the drift is going in a dangerous direction, in creating a perceived — not necessarily correct — entrenched enmity between the Government and the media. That a respected figure such as the right hon. Gentleman has spoken of a Sargasso sea of censorship is an indication of the worries and fears of many respected journalists. One has only to look at the editorials in last Sunday's papers to see that the trend of Government operations is genuinely worrying and to see a breakdown of the old relationships. In particular, I mourn—it is mourning time—the apparent destruction of the D notice system, which has been undermined totally by the events surrounding the injunction issued against the radio programmes. That is a worrying trend, which can only damage not just relationships between this Government and the media, but the trust between all Governments and the media, upon which our system of government, to some extent, depends.

At the heart of the problem is the Government's new invention, their new Heath Robinson contraption—the doctrine of absolute lifelong confidentiality. I believe that the doctrine of absolute confidentiality, in common with the doctrine of absolute obedience, cannot be morally sustained in a free, democratic society. Although the obligation of confidentiality should, of course, be the basic rule for certain categories of Crown servants, there must, nevertheless, always be honourable exceptions to that basic rule in a democracy. One such exception — I am almost encouraged by the hissing noise that I hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates)—

Surely one such exception should be a Crown servant's right to speak out against serious criminality in his world. Suppose we were to have a Watergate in Britain? Are we to say that Crown servants should never speak out against such activities, on the grounds that they are bound by the obligation of absolute confidentiality? If we were to witness major, unauthorised, illegal crimes of the type carried out by the French secret service when it bombed the Greenpeace ship in New Zealand, are we to say that those who wish to protest against such behaviour are bound to silence by the obligation of absolute confidentiality? I think not, and I believe that society will say not. That is one area of categorisation of honourable exceptions to this new principle of absolute confidentiality that the Government are seeking to introduce, almost by stealth, through the mouths of Queen's counsel rather than through the mouths of Ministers and legislation.

Surely the first person to break new ground was the Prime Minister, when, to the astonished dismay of a number of us — albeit a minority — she suddenly made a statement on the late Sir Roger Hollis and on Blunt. Was it not the right hon. Lady who in fact set this new trend and opened Pandora's Box?

I believe that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has a valid point, to the extent that clearly there was an honourable exception to the old vow of absolute silence and confidentiality when the Prime Minister decided that it was in the national interest to have a more open approach to the issue of Blunt's treachery, which had been buried by successive Governments and successive Prime Ministers with the time-honoured formula, "We do not answer questions about the Security Service." I believe that that move by the Prime Minister, which I applauded at the time, would mean a new openness in the discussion of sensible, Security Service policy. —[Interruption.]

I was dealing with the rights of free speech, and that discussion seemed to get somewhat extended. I believe that there should be some honourable exceptions to the new doctrine of absolute confidentiality.

I do not believe that there is any difference between the various nuances of argument regarding honourable exceptions. The issue on which my hon. Friend and myself have had friendly discussions and arguments before—no doubt we shall continue to do so — is the fact that what we must legislate for and the Government must act upon the dishonourable exceptions. It is with the dishonourable exceptions that we have been dealing. It is Ponting kvho has acted dishonourably; it is Wright who has acted dishonourably; and it is Cathy Massiter who has acted dishonourably. If any of them had had a genuine cause for complaint about what was being done there was a perfectly proper channel of communication through which to make that complaint. None of them chose to do it and that is why—

This is a speech. It is supposed to be an intervention.

Order. It is for the Chair to decide whether it is an intervention or a speech. I hope that the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) will bring his intervention to a conclusion.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) will agree with me. The Government had to act last weekend, not because things were being done in an honourable way, but because they were being done in an improper way. Once that is allowed to happen, there is no way in which the rule can be enforced later.

I believe that we are making some progress at least. We are now admitting, in the formidable voice of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East, that there can be some exceptions to the rule of lifelong confidentiality on an absolute basis. I agree with my hon. Friend that the names he has mentioned—here we are at one—would fall into the category of a dishonourable breach of the rules. However, my hon. Friend and I—certainly the Treasury Bench and I—are unable to agree about the twilight, difficult area of what is an honourable or a dishonourable exception.

With due care for the rules of sub judice, I shall now turn to the recent injunction issued against the BBC. I believe that Crown servants, when retired, should be allowed to comment on certain, innocuous policy issues that have nothing to do with current national security or past operational matters. After all, the Central Intelligence Agency, Mossad and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO, allow their former security servants to comment on basically innocuous matters.

One has only to consider what has taken place in this House in recent days to discover that the doctrine of absolute confidentiality is clearly not a seamless garment. This morning my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) was reported in The Independent—accurately, I am sure—as saying that the Conservative Back-Bench defence committee, in which he plays such an honourable and important role, wished to investigate certain aspects of the policy of the Security Service. Why not? That is a legitimate area of parliamentary concern.

A Back-Bench committee of the Conservative party should be allowed to invite a retired security official, Mr. Charles Elwell, to talk to it on a Wednesday afternoon. However, that invitation has suddenly been cancelled—I suggest, in something of a whiff of panic. If the doctrine of absolute confidentiality, as presented to the court by the Government's counsel, Mr. Robert Alexander, is a seamless garment, there cannot suddenly be a few holes for privileged people, such as Back Benchers. There is no difference between a retired security official coming to talk to a Back-Bench committee of the Conservative party about security policy and going on the radio to talk about the same issues.

At this stage, may I refer to the totally honourable conduct of one retired security official—his name has been mentioned in many newspapers and I see no reason why I should not name him—Mr. John Day. He is an honourable, discreet and circumspect retired official who would no more give away the secrets of his past than he would fly to the moon. He holds the view that the security services of this country need to be more accountable and that there is a need for the oversight of those services. He went on to the BBC programme to say just that and having said it, there was a flurry of excitement in Whitehall as a result of the "Peterborough" gossip column and the injunction was slapped on. I believe that the Government overreacted and overreached themselves by that action.

I appreciate the remarks that the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) is making, but is he at all disturbed by the serious allegation of the lack of political impartiality on the part of MI5 officials —Wright and the official whom the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned—who then went on to work for Common Cause? Surely the purpose of any investigation into MI5 would be to bring out how far that organisation is as politically impartial as it should be.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is peddling some misinformation or disinformation, almost like a double agent. Frankly, I believe that he has got the official confused, but let us not go into that now. Obviously, in the past political bias did occur in the security services in certain regrettable ways, and that is all the more reason for an accountable body or oversight body in the future.

I was referring to Charles Elwell. I was certainly not referring to the other official, Mr. Day.

I am grateful for that clarification.

Just as there used to be an old motto in journalism that comment is free but facts are sacred, so, in the world of accountability of the security services, comment is surely free on the radio or to Back-Bench committees. Perhaps the national security facts, past or present, are sacred, and should be kept so. That, I feel, is the principle on which we should fight, rather than the curious new principle of the doctrine of absolute confidentiality on a lifelong basis.

We cannot expect our Crown servants to be Trappist monks for ever. Indeed, they have not been in the past, as we see from memoirs of Ministers and retired officials, such as Sir William Stephenson or Sir Percy Sillitoe. I am worried that the Government will seek to introduce the doctrine of absolute confidentiality by legislation, perhaps because they have not exactly made good progress with it in the courts around the world, despite lavish expenditure of the taxpayer's money.

Let me end on this note. I said that the Government would introduce the doctrine by legislation, because I understand that they intend to vote down the admirable Bill to reform the Official Secrets Act, on the rather curious ground that it is being introduced by a Back Bencher — my hon. Friend the Member for AldridgeBrownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—so that they can introduce a more formidable and restrictive Bill that will include the doctrine of absolute confidentiality. Let me warn the House against that. We, as parliamentarians, would do better to support the line being drawn in the sensible area in which it has been drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. We should stand up for his Bill and vote and voice down the bogus new principle of absolute confidentiality.

5.51 pm

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). I believe that his speech will be read widely and studied carefully, particularly his remarks about absolute confidentiality. He has done the House a service by giving such a clear-cut exposition of a case that I, along with many other hon. Members — including some on the Conservative Benches—strongly support.

I am tempted to follow both the hon. Gentleman's speech and that of the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) by referring to the Government's recent action against the BBC. However, I do not wish to do that. I shall merely say that it is a serious question, which touches not only on the abuse of power by the Government, but on the individual freedom and independence of the BBC.

I believe that the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) simply misunderstood the importance of the issue when he asked the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South whether he would have acted in that fashion. Of course any responsible Government who had reason to believe that one of their servants was about to breach confidentiality and damage the security of the nation, would act along those lines. I hold no brief for secret service employees, present or past, who give away the nation's secrets. It is a case not of what has been done, but of the mechanism by which it has been done.

We know that the Government knew months ago about the programme and about the people who would take part. I understand that they also knew, in large measure, the points that those people would make. The question that we must ask is: why did the Government then wait to act until the last moment? In answer, I have been presented with the ludicrous proposition that they did so because they had read about the programme in the "Peterborough" column. Even if they had paid no attention to the questions that they had been asked previously, one might imagine that they knew what was going to happen, as the rest of us did, from the pre-release newspaper articles in the days before the programme—if not in the weeks and months before it, as they clearly did.

We are led to only one conclusion; that the Government did not take action until the last moment because they wished to do what they had done so often before, and play cat and mouse with the BBC. I do not believe that such action can be taken in isolation. It must be taken—as I believe the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) suggested— in conjunction with the other actions that the Government have taken against the BBC; with the political appointments of some of the governors —and, some claim, of staff at a lower level—with their activities in the Zircon affair, and with the raids in Glasgow. The only possible conclusion is ghat the Government's action is part of a sustained and deliberate programme of intimidation against the BBC for political purposes. That is itself part of a sustained network of activities which attack the fundamental civil liberties of the people of Britain, as they have been attacked since the Government came into power in 1979.

However, the main point that I wish to raise does not relate to that important matter, although I realise that other hon. Members will wish to talk about it in greater detail; it relates, as the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) mentioned, to a constituency matter. We are discussing today whether the House should rise for the Christmas recess. When it does, we shall celebrate an occasion when a young family failed to find accommodation, but those circumstances produced an entirely happy result. However, in my constituency today—as in other constituencies up and down the country — literally hundreds of young families and others cannot find accommodation. The housing crisis in many of our constituencies is reaching catastrophic proportions.

I have been running regular weekly surgeries in my constituency for the past 10 years since long before I was elected — and, in common with many other hon. Members, I see about 1,000 individual cases each year. Eight out of every 10 people who now come to my surgeries come with a housing problem. They are not trivial housing problems, but serious problems relating to the maintenance of houses or, indeed, to homelessness.

Those people come to see me not because they have no councillors to do the job effectively—they have usually already been to see their local councillors—but out of desperation and, unhappily, in the mistaken belief that I can do something about their problem. But I can do no more than has been done previously.

On my list of cases at present are young couples, many of them living apart and some with children. There are single homeless people with no hope of housing in the foreseeable future under the present conditions in my constituency and elsewhere. In the past year, and more recently, I have found young people sleeping on rubbish tips, because there is nowhere else for them to sleep. Some sleep under the stairs of the local supermarkets. That is happening not in an inner-city constituency, but in a rural and, many believe, prosperous part of the nation.

One 84-year-old women—now alone, as her husband died recently — is living in a four-bedroomed house, which I fear she will be unable to heat or look after, with a garden that she cannot conceivably tend. However, she has to stay, because there is nowhere for her to move to.

We have long been concerned about such problems in inner cities. However, it now affects areas such as my own. On Department of the Environment figures, South Somerset district council has the tenth highest number of housing inquiries of any authority in Britain, including the metropolitan authorities. We have a waiting list of 3,742. It has risen by 1,400 in the past year—by 50 per cent. If that problem were to increase, not mathematically or exponentially, but simply by 1,400 in every succeeding year —and I suspect that it will increase faster than that—by the turn of the century 20,000 people would be on the waiting list. That is one in three of my constituents. Transfers from one house to another, often for strong medical reasons — for instance, an old person who cannot climb the stairs to get to a lavatory or the first floor —are impossible. There is no prospect of such people receiving better housing that is more conducive to their health.

The maintenance of houses, in my constituency and others, I am certain, has fallen to a level where it is practically non-existent. My district council calculates that we would have needed to refurbish 250 houses last year even to make a stab at keeping pace with the level of repairs and refurbishment. Of that number, 22 houses were in fact refurbished. So the stock is diminishing in quality. The number of desperately needed repairs is rising to match the increasing misery and desperation of the families who have to live in inadequate, often leaky, housing. By any standards, that continuing rise represents a desperate situation for a growing number of people.

The really scandalous thing, however, is that it does not have to happen. The South Somerset district council has the money to put it right. We have £13 million in the bank. It does not belong to the Government or to the council. Technically, it belongs to the tenants of South Somerset district council. This £13 million has accumulated year after year at a rate of about £1 million a year. The district council can spend only a tiny proportion of it. We would like the freedom to spend that money to build new houses, to house our homeless, to repair the houses that we have, to provide more jobs in our community and to provide greater prosperity. Yet the Government say that, despite the rising tide of misery, we cannot spend a penny of the sum currently available.

In my constituency, as elsewhere, ten council houses require to be sold before sufficient money is accumulated to build one, as a result, first, of the discounts—which I do not argue with — and, secondly, of the capital restrictions. Last year 350 council houses were sold, but the council was able to build rather fewer than 30 in all to cope with a housing list which is now well on the way to 4,000.

The situation is ludicrous. The money is there but it cannot be used. The problem of homelessness could be tackled immediately; jobs could be created and prosperity increased in the-process. I am certain that the sum of human misery in my constituency and in most other rural constituencies created by homelessness and housing problems is greater by far than that created by unemployment. In rural areas the matter is considerably worse than most people imagine. In most of the small villages in south Somerset it is impossible for a young married couple to purchase a house, because all the houses are being bought up at increasing prices. The average house now costs about £100,000, and a terrace dwelling £60,000 or £80,000. There is no prospect of local first-time buyers getting them because they are being snapped up by people from the south-east and by an increasing number of elderly people who retire to rural areas.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, in view of what he has said about the number of council houses that have to be sold before a new one can be built, with the restrictions that the Government have imposed? The fact is that this problem is countrywide. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is immoral that council houses should be sold at all before the need for public sector rented housing has been satisfied?

No, I do not. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman's comment that the problem is by no means unique. I hope that, as I draw the attention of the House to it, other hon. Members will recognise that a great deal of this applies to their own constituencies as well. My view on the sale of council houses is that people should be given the right to buy them, but that the decision whether to sell should lie with the local council, which is in a position to judge on the advisability of selling as against the need to solve the problem of homelessness. While I do not deny the right to purchase, I think it is a matter that ought to be considered locally in the context of homelessness. If that is what the hon. Gentleman means, I will go that far with him.

I do not want the House to imagine for one second that the situation in my constituency arises because of a behind-the-times local authority which refuses to think about the future, because that is not true. South Somerset district council has been among the most imaginative in the land in constructing new initiatives to build houses. It has set the tone and, in many cases, blazed a trail which others have followed. Those initiatives include, for instance, new starter units—eight units were available and there were 95 applications from first-time buyers—shared ownership, private sector funding, getting together with parish councils to build on parish council land with shared public-private funding, initiatives launched with the Duchy of Cornwall, barter schemes, housing association schemes, the setting up of a single homeless hostels, a housing advice centre, and so on. The council has been really imaginative in finding new sources of funds and ways of meeting the housing problem.

However, what it has been able to do is but a drop in the ocean compared with the scale of the problem. I cannot describe adequately to the House the sense of anger, frustration, misery and despair which now afflicts those people on the housing list: they desperately need rehousing but they have not the slightest prospect of having that need met in the near future. The despair extends to those who are seeking to assist, to the district council officers, to the district councillors wanting to help with the problem on a catch-as-catch-can basis and, when I see the interminable troop of people coming into my surgeries and asking for assistance that I cannot provide because of the Government's closed mind on this issue, even to me.

The housing crisis in Britain is now reaching epidemic proportions and the Government's dereliction of duty in seeking to block the use of funds that are readily available to cope with the problem is a moral and practical scandal. I beg the Government to do something about it. I do not ask them for their money; I ask them to let us use ours. I do not ask them for their help; I ask them to let us help ourselves. I do not ask them to house our homeless, but to let us tackle the problem of homelessness with the resources available to us. I ask them to recognise that their policy blocks the use of this money. If they do nothing, the responsibility for the problem lies on their head and in their hands. The stain of homelessness and misery caused by their neglect will be a blot upon their record and, I hope especially at this time of the year, on their conscience also.

6.7 pm

I am disappointed that, apart from the speech of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), almost the entire debate has been about what I would call an unhealthy obsession with the security services, the media, the BBC and so on. Like many of our generation, my wife and I served throughout the war, for most of the time in highly secret work. Neither of us has mentioned a word about it, either to the media or in private. That is how we were brought up.

The second mistake that is made is that somehow some hon. Members, with some connection with the media—newspapers or broadcasting — or out of a desire for excessive publicity, think that this matter is of supreme importance, dominating everything else before we go for our Christmas holidays. I beg to differ. Of my 80,000 constituents, whom I have had the honour to serve for 17½. years, not one has mentioned this matter to me once, in pubs, in factories, in shops or anywhere else. Nor have I received a single letter about it. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches to cool it a little and put more realism into their thoughts.

The House should not go into the Christmas recess until we have debated something rather more fundamental —the strength, unity and cohesion of this nation. We have a great deal to be thankful for in living in the British Isles, and we should never forget it. To judge from the proceedings of the House and from the news media—particularly the television news and the popular press—one would think that the nation was in a constant state of turmoil. Yet we who are in close touch with our constituents know that that is not so. Proceedings in this place are necessarily adversarial—that is the basis of our system with Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Opposition —but that does not mean that there is not a broad measure of agreement between the Government and the Opposition on wide aspects of our national life. In saying that, I exclude the extreme Left.

I regret the growing level of noise in the Chamber, such as we heard this afternoon. It does us great harm, it is disliked intensely by the public and the sooner it stops the better. I fear that broadcasting started the rot, which is why I utterly oppose the televising of our proceedings.

To make money, the media must stir things up. They do not want to give out good news. They want to give out bad news and keep us glued to the television screen or tempt us to buy the next newspaper to discover what ghastly horror has occurred. We know that ordinary life is not full of horror, violence, crime or the sorts of skulduggery that we hear about so often from the media. I know that in certain parts of the country there is crime, violence and drug taking, and that in some of the inner cities sad things are happening, but I hope and believe that we will tackle those problems. One must maintain a sense of proportion and realise how fortunate we are to be living in these islands and not behind the iron curtain or in some other ghastly country.

There is a disposition among television people and radio producers to make programmes where every kind of social, political or moral problem is examined, dissected and torn to pieces, and having listened to them we have some new worry to think about. Even the best and greatest of our institutions, the monarchy, is put under the microscope. Some time ago I took part in two separate television broadcasts about the monarchy and the House of Lords. Fortunately, there was a large representative audience of the mass of the people. Their reaction was perfectly sound. They were not brainwashed and they had the highest opinion of the monarchy and of the House of Lords, and so do I.

Our institutions are the backbone of our national life. They are extremely popular and should never be taken for granted. For instance, last summer there was enormous interest in the state opening of Parliament, which was broadcast to hundreds of countries throughout the world. There is nothing that I like more than taking constituents round the House and telling them about the numbers of foreigners who come here and envy our ways and wish that they had them.

All these matters are very dear to us, and our traditions, history, ceremonies and pageantry are loved by ordinary people, who feel that great state occasions express the real cohesion of the British people. The only objectors are rootless intellectuals who have no knowledge of real life, and some of them come from a university that is not too far from where I live.

We have much going for us in these islands, which we should not forget. At heart we are still mainly a Christian nation, and Christian mercy and compassion still flavour our lives, even if rather fewer people go to church and the Church of England is not quite what it was. We love freedom and order and everyone living under the law. England is a peaceful nation and it is hard to stir up a revolution or riot. I saw my constituents relaxing in the evenings during the election and realised what an amicable and agreeable people we are.

By contrast, I frequently go abroad, particularly to France, which is a country that I know well and have been involved with for many years since the last war. What a contrast there is there. Under the apparent calm of a highly centralised form of government there is always the danger, particularly in Paris and its outskirts, that people will suddenly become wildly excited, pick up the cobblestones and demand that certain politicians be hanged from a lamp post. We do not do that here. Perhaps the sometimes noisy and angry scenes that we have in the Chamber are a safety valve to save us from street corner agitators and incitement to riot. We have some new Members of Parliament, and some of them are fairly new to our English heritage, customs and traditions of life. If they want to make their influence felt, the best way to do so is to conform to our practices, and I am sure that they will then be heard with respect.

There is much talk among the chattering classes of the divide between north and south. Such talk is not true and can be harmful to essential unity and cohesion of the nation. I travel a great deal and find the same outlook among people, whether they be in Devon, Durham, Herefordshire, Suffolk, Cumberland or Kent. I find the same sense of Englishness, patriotism, charity and tolerance.

The comparison in wealth is most misleading. Not all northerners or Scotsmen are poor, and not all southerners are rich. We in the west midlands, part of which I represent, suffered grievously in the world slump from 1979 to 1983. My constituents never complained and never wanted or expected taxpayers' money in the form of handouts or subsidies. I am glad to say that prosperity is returning, and I rejoice to see it.

We are a quiet and undemonstrative people. We do not wear our hearts on our sleeves, but our patriotism goes very deep, as was demonstrated to a remarkable degree during the Falklands war. For all our failings and difficulties we are still a great nation, enormously respected abroad, as is our Prime Minister, and all of us share a common history and heritage of which we are rightly proud. Our Government will make great efforts to improve affairs in the inner cities, and I shall lend my energies to that in so far as I can.

I wish that the Opposition would not try so much to run down everything in Britain. From time to time they even criticise the armed forces, which are the best in the world and set an example in leadership, organisation, training, morale and dedication to careers that is the envy of many of our trades and professions. The Opposition even criticise the judges and police, but how lucky we are to have such a respected and independent judiciary and a police force that is among the best in the world. I hope that some Opposition Members will realise how lucky we are not to live in some of the iron curtain countries.

I glory in being, and am proud to have been born, an Englishman. The country is facing much better times and probably unparalleled prosperity. Let us all be thankful for that and live our lives accordingly.

I shall end with a warning. In spite of the recent falls on the stock exchange, most people in Britain have never been as prosperous as they are this Christmas. That is all very fine, but that prosperity brings its own dangers. I have noticed, for instance, as may other hon. Members, the growth of a certain arrogance and brutishness, whether it be among British holidaymakers in Spain, on the football field, in the boxing ring or even driving along the motorways. The old influence of parson and squire has gone and nothing has taken its place. There is no longer any deference to anyone or anything, or even any respect.

This world is now so good for so many people that they no longer feel the need to bother about the next. Clergy, parents and teachers are reluctant to proclaim moral standards. However, a new prosperity, widely spread among all classes, must bring with it a greater sense of responsibility, or we shall be in danger of becoming a nasty and unpleasant nation. That is something which the Government and my party should heed.

6.19 pm

I have listened to the usual robust contribution of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) but I must say that having listened to him, I would simply hate to be English.

Before we adjourn for Christmas, I would like some clarity on a statement made by the Secretary of State for Transport on 21 October when he announced the appointment of a group of consultants comprising G. Maunsell and Partners and W. S. Atkin and Partners, to develop a scheme for a second Severn crossing. There was general welcome for that announcement, but there has been a slight difference of emphasis between the Department of Transport and the Welsh Office. For example, on 3 February the Under-Secretary of State for Transport said:
"we wish to be in a position to provide the second Severn crossing by the mid-1990s if traffic growth warrants it by then and Parliament so decides." —[Official Report, 3 February 1987; Vol. 109, c. 569.]
There is a certain note of hesitancy there. On 2 March 1986, the then Secretary of State for Wales Mr. Nicholas Edwards, now created Lord Crickhowell, said:
"We are working to a timetable that will meet our firm intention to be in a position to provide the second Severn crossing in the mid-1990s". —[Official Report, 2 March 1987; Vol. 111, c. 607.]
Yet, more recently, the Secretary of State for Transport said on 21 October:
"We are determined to stay on course to provide their crossing by the mid-1990s if the needs likely to develop by then materialise."
I want to ask why there is doubt about the project.

In the first year after the bridge opened, in 1966, the daily flow of traffic averaged 15,600 vehicles. By 1982, the figure had risen to 33,300—more than double. In 1985, it had risen to 36,100 and in the early part of 1987 it was averaging 40,000 a day. The latest Department of Transport forecasts say that with low growth in the economy, by 1995 there would be a daily flow of 45,600. With high growth it would be 50,400. The free-flow design capacity of the existing bridge is 54,000 vehicles per day. If the growth rate for the 1980s is maintained, the capacity will probably be exceeded by about 1993.

Back in October 1983, I first revealed to the House the contents of a hitherto secret report on the superstructure of the bridge by the eminent consulting engineers Mott Hay and Anderson, which certainly gave cause for concern. Subsequently, £40 million was authorised for various repairs and maintenance work. That work is proceeding now.

However, an important question arises. What if the free-flow design capacity is exceeded by 1993? An important safety factor may emerge. Would there be further restrictions on the number of vehicles using the bridge, and what effect would such restrictions have on the Welsh economy, which heaven knows is depressed enough at present? Practical experience already tells us that at peak times or when the carriageways are closed for maintenance, there are lengthy queues. It is apparent that the project to build a second Severn crossing needs to be speeded up. I have long felt that the Department of Transport has insufficient realisation or understanding of the importance of the Severn crossing to the economy of Wales. I feel that the existing bridge and the building of a second crossing should be handed over to the Welsh Office, which I feel would put more impetus behind it.

My second point relates to finance. The existing bridge was opened in September 1966 and was built at a cost of £8 million. The outstanding debt has now risen to £57·6 million and is forecast to double by 1993. The tolls collected are not meeting the operating and maintenance costs, let alone contributing to paying off any of the rapidly accumulated debt. We know that the Government chose to ignore the findings of the Select Committee on Transport, which in March 1986 recommended that
"tolls should not be imposed on any major estuarial crossing which forms part of the motorway or trunk road system".
The Committee pointed out that it would cost the Government very little to write off the outstanding debt, as all the debt on the Severn bridge is already owed to the Government. The only additional cost would be the loss of interest. In recent years, the Severn bridge has not been able to make any such payments.

This matter is becoming urgent, because decisions will soon have to be taken about the method of financing the second crossing. In February 1987, the company Trafalgar House proposed a privatisation scheme including taking over the existing bridge. Under that scheme, there would be tolls for 30 years. It was turned down by the then Secretary of State for Wales. Nevertheless, the Government have made it plain that they are considering what has become known as a Dartford-style funding operation.

Certain rather important developments are taking place in other parts of the country at present. For instance, it has long been recognised that the Government have got themselves into an impossible position in regard to the Humber bridge. The debt is now about £300 million and is rising rapidly. The Department of Transport has at last been galvanised into action. It has agreed to write off £190 million of the debt with the proviso that the tolls have to be increased. We now find that the Mersey tunnel authorities are appealing for similar assistance and I understand that special assistance has been promised for the escalating financial problems of the Erskine bridge in Scotland. The Select Committee on Transport stated:
"If the Government can acknowledge the difficulties of the Humber Bridge we believe it should also be prepared to acknowledge that problems are faced by other crossings".
What about Wales? Even by the Government's doctored statistics we already have 148,000 people out of work. That is 12·3 per cent. of our population. Of course, there is much hidden unemployment as well. According to the Government's own submission to the European Economic Community 12 months ago, Wales has the lowest rate of economic activity in the whole of Britain. What is more, we have a Government committed to reducing tariff barriers between countries in the EEC. However, at the same time, the Government continue to insist on collecting a toll from those who wish to pass between England and Wales.

We know that the Chancellor has the money to remedy matters. The Secretary of State for Wales is alleged to be high in the pecking order at the Cabinet table. This is an opportune time for him to display some red dragon qualities and get some action on the Severn crossing, which is so important to Wales and on which I have tried to focus the attention of the House before it adjourns for Christmas.

6.30 pm

Our Adjournment debates always have considerable charm. Not least. we had the opportunity to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), who spoke with customary elegance and style, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes), who gave us a wonderful philippic on England today. My hon. Friend usually tempts me to digress into matters concerning our national Church and so on. This evening I shall resist that temptation and concentrate instead on two matters on which the House should have an opportunity to reflect before we adjourn for Christmas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge commented on the influence of the media in our society. There is much talk in the media about whether my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he comes to frame his Budget proposals in the early spring, should concentrate on increasing Government expenditure or on reducing income tax. I wish to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to something which ought to be articulated much more often in this House.

I have the honour to represent tens of thousands of people who cannot be considered affluent by any stretch of the imagination. When I was first elected to represent it in this House, my constituency was suffering high unemployment. The House will be pleased to learn that thousands of those who were out of work then are now in work and can enjoy increasing family prosperity. However, no one should imagine for one moment that they have yet attained any degree of affluence. Many of my constituents' wives work to boost the family income while wishing that that was not necessary.

The tax that those thousands and thousands of people pay is far to high. People earning £140 a week, which is not a princely wage, are having to pay £40 a week, or perhaps slightly more, in income tax and national insurance contributions. That leaves them with £100 a week or even slightly less. No one can say that they have achieved affluence. They live on the margins. They are slightly less on the margins than they were one, two or three years ago and I hope that that trend will develop and become entrenched. However, it is vital to those who enjoy only a modest income that their tax burden should be reduced, and that includes their income tax burden.

One often hears from people with very much higher incomes that they do not mind paying the amount of tax that they pay at present or even more, but no one should be deceived into imagining that they speak on behalf of the overwhelming majority of people in this country. Those of my constituents on modest incomes do not have the ready access to the media enjoyed by many with a more affluent standard of living. I say with all the power that I can that it is essential that direct tax rates be reduced—not just the standard rates but the thresholds. By reducing them we can do a little to make life easier for those who live on the margin.

My second point is entirely different but it too may interest my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport today announced the Christmas campaign to discourage people from drinking and driving, and good luck to that campaign. There is no doubt that we need continual publicity about the evils that accompany the combination of the consumption of alcohol with the driving of motor vehicles. However, I must say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—and through him to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport and all members of the Government—that there is a limit to the success that such campaigns can have. The time has come for us to reexamine the law to see whether more cannot be done.

It is a frightening fact that one third of the accidents occurring on our roads are a direct consequence of the over-consumption of alcohol. The innocent usually pay the price; the arbitrary nature of the destruction means that it often afflicts the innocent more than those whose over-indulgence has caused the tragedy in the first place. The cost to the victims' families is vast, but the cost is also paid by the nation as a whole. Many people have to stay in hospital, often for a long time, as a direct consequence of alcohol-induced accidents, which account for much of the slaughter on our roads.

I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider a number of points carefully for the future. The existing law under the Road Traffic Act 1972 provides that a constable may demand a specimen of breath in any one of three circumstances: first, if there has been an accident; secondly, if there has been a moving traffic offence; thirdly —this is the crucial point—if he has reasonable cause to believe that the driver of a motor vehicle has been drinking. The House will know that the courts have held that reasonable cause need not arise until after the driver has finished driving. If that is not random breath-testing, I do not know what is.

Instead of pussyfooting around the question whether random breath-testing is legal or desirable, it is about time that chief constables made it perfectly plain that they have that power. The power should be advertised much more widely than at present. I can guarantee that our constituents do not appreciate the extent of a police officer's powers that he is entitled to breathalyse them after they have finished driving if he is satisfied that they have been drinking. We must publicise that fact to the nation as a whole.

I come to the legal framework in which these matters are dealt with. Somebody convicted of a drink-driving offence is disqualified for at least one year, but his licence is not removed from him until he is convicted. Sometimes there is a substantial gap between arrest and charging, and the occasion when the matter comes before a court. I should like to see the Road Traffic Act amended so that at the point of charging, a person's licence is suspended but that he should have the power to go to a judge to ask that that suspension be lifted before his conviction if he can give good reasons. That would stop a number of people who undoubtedly use the delay in our court system to avoid facing reality.

Let me take that one step further; here I come to a much more drastic area of law reform. So serious and damaging are the effects of people who drive with alcohol in their blood that the time has now come for Parliament to revise the penalty that suspension be for only a year, and make it a life suspension. People who drink and drive should know beforehand that they will lose their licence for ever. If that message could be got over, the likelihood of people taking a chance would be greatly reduced.

One further change in the law and practice needs to be seriously considered. We are all paying a huge price for medical treatment and so on, as a result of alcohol-induced accidents. The insurance companies should now be asked to foot the bill in full for the consequences. Therefore, they should be allowed to write into their insurance policies the provision that insurance will not follow if somebody has been drinking and driving. Therefore, people who drink and drive would know that not only do they face a life suspension of their licence, but also that they would not be insured and would be liable for the consequences. Those twin effects would dramatically concentrate the mind and bring home to people that they must not continue in the way in which they have been.

It is all very well trying to discourage people from drinking and driving by the enforcement of the criminal law. That, together with publicity and advertising the bad effects, has been the path pursued so far. But the time has now come for a heavy investment in research to produce a device which would physically stop somebody who had been drinking from driving. Such a device, using a microchip or whatever, could cut out the ignition if somebody had a level of alcohol in their blood which was above the limit.

There is no doubt that some American car companies are experimenting in that area and, increasingly, many people think that such a device is a practicality. If it could be achieved, it would be impossible for anybody to drink and drive, and that would be the best result of all. It would cut out all the accidents that are a consequence of drinking and driving.

The time has now come for the Government to take a lead by sponsoring such research and ensuring that it is brought to fruition. Where there's a will there's a way. Such research would not need a significant amount of investment, but rather a concentration of resources over a particular period. If such a device could be found, it would rapidly become compulsory for all cars, not just in Britain but across the world. The patent fees that could be earned by the inventor of such a device would be just as dramatic as those earned by the inventor of cats' eyes and other road safety devices which we now take for granted.

At this time, when we know that the Christmas season will be ruined for a number of families as a result of irresponsibility with alcohol and driving, the Government should go a step further than they have been prepared to go up till now, and take the steps which, all being well, if pursued relentlessly and with determination, would eliminate the prospect of people being able to drink and drive. If that were to happen, the benefit to our fellow countrymen and people elsewhere would be far greater than anything achieved by most of the measures that come before the House of Commons.

6.44 pm

The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) has made a fairly controversial speech, not least in respect of drinking and driving. I drive, but I do not drink, and I would take issue with him on his proposal to remove insurance cover for those found guilty of drinking and driving. I fear that such a measure would mean that the burden would fall upon the injured party rather than upon those who inflicted the injury. Not everyone who drives a car is wealthy enough to meet the bills that would inevitably flow from the loss of insurance cover.

The hon. Gentleman talked about reducing tax and taking people out of tax, but I am sorry that he did not go on to say that taking a large number of the lower paid out of tax would mean that for the Treasury to raise the same tax revenue there would have to be fairly considerable chopping and changing with the bands at the upper tax levels and the wealthier sections of the community might not like that. However, that is an issue that the Treasury is there to resolve and we have to support or oppose as the case may be when the Budget rolls around.

However, I did not come here to talk about tax or drinking and driving, but to raise the question of extradition, especially extradition from the Irish Republic to Northern Ireland. That is a matter of considerable importance at the moment which should be explored before we depart to our homes for a happy Christmas—which, of course, will not be very happy in the Province, one part of which I have the honour to represent.

A Bill has just been passed by the Dail Eireann in the Irish Republic, which had as its background the European convention on the suppression of terrorism. When the definition of terrorism was being decided on by those who drew up the Bill they seem to have had some difficulty, and, having looked at it, I am not impressed with some of the things in it.

For instance, it lays down that one of the terrorist acts shall be an offence involving the use of a bomb, grenade, rocket, automatic firearm or letter or petrol bomb if their use endangers persons. I am only a layman with no legal training, but if an IRA man or some other terrorist in Ulster or elsewhere blows somebody's brains out using an automatic pistol, he can be found guilty of a terrorist offence, whereas if he uses a plain old-fashioned bolt-action rifle, shotgun or revolver he cannot. It is nonsense that that should be written into such legislation.

Only a narrow range of offences can be treated as terrorist offences for the purpose of extradition where an individual would not be allowed to claim political immunity. Although the scope is widened in article 2 of the convention, it could be narrowed again by the application of article 13. It might be worth the time of those hon. Members who have not read the convention to dig it out and have a look at it.

Despite the difficulties caused by the narrow wording, the Irish Republic has certain difficulties itself because it did not vote for the convention. In fact, it abstained. The Government of that day were obviously aware of the difficulties that it was bound to cause them in succeeding years.

In general, there is no difficulty about extradition from any part of the United Kingdom to the Irish Republic, or vice versa, for an ordinary criminal offence. Most cases go straight through. Apparently, a record is not kept in Scotland, but very few people have been extradited to Scotland. Indeed, only one person has been extradited to Scotland for terrorist activities in the past few years. In all cases, extradition was apparently granted.

However, whenever we come to the question as it relates to England and Wales, there are a surprising number of requests for extradition. Between 1982 and 1986, there were 136, of which 49 were granted, 85 were not acted upon for one reason or another—apparently, in some cases, because the individual was imprisoned in the Republic—and two requests were refused. One was refused because of a technicality, which seems a favoured device for refusing extradition. The other was the famous Glenholmes, the lady who managed to get out of the court and go trotting down the street.

In general, there is no difficulty about the ordinary criminal. The difficulty occurs when one considers crimes that could be described as having a political content. It was evident from the answers given last week by the Prime Minister, on Tuesday and on Thursday, to myself, that she was well aware that the new law is not very good when it comes to extraditing dangerous and wicked men to justice from the Irish Republic. I am sure that some hon. Members will have read my question to the Prime Minister. Indeed, some may have heard me ask it, although at the time it was difficult to hear what was said. I asked the Prime Minister why the Government of the Irish Republic had created such a weapon if they did not intend to use it.

The history of extradition from the Irish Republic to the United Kingdom for terrorist offences has been difficult. When Dominic McGlinchey, a dangerous and wicked man, was extradited, everybody thought that the whole defence of political offence had been uprooted, demolished and completely removed. However, later cases did not uphold that point of view. In, for example, the Shannon case, one of the justices held that an offence could be political even if it went beyond reasonable political activity. At the same hearing, another justice held that political immunity depended on the motivation of the individual who was being extradited, the identity of the victim and the true nature of the offence. All those points were to be assessed by their closeness to the alleged political objective.

That seems a fairly solid clawback to the position that existed before the McGlinchey case. One is sometimes left wondering if McGlinchey would have been extradited had he not become so infamous and brutally well known throughout the United Kingdom that he was an embarrassment to all concerned. Similarly, one wonders whether the most recent character, the so-called "'border fox," would have been sought so assiduously had he not become so brutally and wickedly famous. Hon. Members will be able to appreciate from my comments that I view such things with a jaundiced eye.

Some people think that this country is incapable of holding a fair trial. The Incorporated Law Society arranged in Dublin recently a meeting which, according to The Irish Times, was attended by more than 400 people. One individual is reported as saying that the Act was
"inappropriate to exist between two sovereign states … it would operate at a time when there were serious reservations about the justice given to Irish people in British courts."
He is also reported as saying that
"there was a widespread feeling in this country, and to a considerable degree in Britain, that many trials of Irish people in Britain were not far removed from show trials, with a predictable result."
I could quote a great deal more, but those hon. Members who are interested will find a full report in The Irish Times of 2 December. Many English hon. Members should read it. Perhaps I transgress, but that was all part of the general hype in the news media in the Irish Republic about the present trial of the so-called "Birmingham Six". We should not lightly forget that matter at present.

I turn now to the limitations of the new extradition law in the Republic. The Attorney-General of the Republic is appointed by the Prime Minister of the Republic and must be satisfied by the production of evidence that there is a case to be answered. I believe that, under Irish law, that means that a full book of evidence must be available. Often some of the evidence that might be needed would be available only after the police had questioned the people concerned. That requirement will apply only to British requests for extradition.

The person extradited will not be subject to intensive questioning after extradition. Therefore, the police will have no possibility of extracting further information from them. The person extradited will not have to face charges other than those that are specified on the warrant. The extradition warrant may be refused because of a lapse of time if it would be unjust, invidious or oppressive to allow the case to go ahead. If anyone believed that it would be unjust to allow the case to go ahead, no doubt a perfectly good reason could be found for refusing the warrant.

It is well known that many people in the Irish Republic are guilty of many murders, extending far back, even to beyond the time when the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Some of those people are known to me and many of the victims were personally known to me. Refusing a warrant because of the time that had elapsed would mean that many of those people would be beyond the reach of the United Kingdom courts for ever. That is unacceptable to those who have suffered, and this country should not be asked to accept it. Murderers of soldiers, policemen and civilians, and people who have escaped from prison while awaiting trial — I think of one individual especially— can now escape justice simply because their crimes happened a long time ago.

Have there not been recent exchanges between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in which the Taoiseach has given various undertakings that the extradition treaty will not cause any trouble? From his contacts on that side of the water, has the hon. Gentleman any ideas about what those difficulties might be and the way in which they might be overcome?

That is the great difficulty. The suppression of terrorism convention was passed by the Dail a year ago. It lasted throughout the year until the present extradition measures passed through the Dail. We have now been told that there will be a further review in another year's time. I do not know what that means to the lawyers or legislators in the Irish Republic, but to me it is simply a foot-dragging and time-wasting exercise all the way down the line. I fear the worst, because ultimately, with the conditions that are written into the treaty, it is for the Government of the Irish Republic to exert or relax pressure as to whether individuals should be extradited.

That is what lay behind the latter part of my question to the Prime Minister last Thursday. I said that she should reflect that that power would not be created by the Irish Government if they did not have the intention of using it.

The Prime Minister made it plain on that occasion, as she had done earlier, that she saw the changes as a step backwards that would make extradition more difficult.

I go further than that. I believe that the treaty makes extradition impossible unless we pay a constitutional price and the price of interference with the judiciary in this country. We are not and should not be prepared to pay that price. The plain truth is that, in the Irish Republic, the judges take an oath to uphold the constitution and the institutions of that state. I applaud that because it is fair, reasonable and correct that the judiciary of any state should take such an oath. The idea that, in some way or another, we can get a judge from the Irish Republic to sit in a British court when that same Irish judge, because of his support for the constitution, must support the concept of a 32-county Irish Republic, is quite mad. It should never be allowed to come to pass and should not, in any circumstances, be considered reasonable.

We in this House or in the country should not admit to anyone that individuals who appear before our courts are incapable of getting a free and fair trial. If we admit that in respect of citizens of a foreign nation, it will not be long before exactly the same charges are levelled against trials of our citizens within other boundaries. For that reason alone, we should resist it.

The whole thrust of the Republican argument is that the only answer to terrorism in Ireland is to create a 32-county Irish Republic. There is no doubt that that is a large part of the arguments about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the European convention on the suppression of terrorism, and so on. If right hon. and hon. Members refer to The Irish Times of 20 November, they will see a report of an EEC debate on the bombing in Enniskillen. According to the article, one speaker, Mr. T. J. Mahler, said that
"it was not sufficient to condemn the violence of the IRA 'as this was attacking the symptoms and not the cause'."
To him, the cause is the fact that Northern Ireland is part of this nation, rather than part of the Irish Republic. The article went on to state:
"He urged strong support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement to ensure the unification of Ireland takes place in a peaceful way."
He thereby revealed the reason he supports it.

As a result of what we have seen in the past two years, the Government's hopes in respect of the agreement are in shreds. It was hoped that the claim to Northern Ireland would be dropped. That did not happen. There has been no improvement in respect of extradition. In fact, it has got a great deal worse. Above all, there has been no improvement in security. The captured shipments of arms demonstrate to any reasonable and unbiased observer that terrorism and terrorist strength in Northern Ireland as a whole are far worse than when this Administration came to office.

We need to look seriously not only at extradition but at the whole thrust of the policy that the House has supported for nigh on 20 years. That policy brought about the events at Enniskillen. The matter went deep to the hearts of people in this country because the folk of England, Scotland and Wales were doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. If it had been another parade, I doubt whether there would have been the same outcry from the Prime Minister at a service of remembrance. Let us remember that, on that same day, there was an attempt to murder 80 children. That attempt was carried through to the extent of pushing the button, but it did not come off.

These are serious matters. They have not received the attention, time or questioning in the House that they deserve. It is wrong for us to go away for our Christmas holiday s without considering them even briefly this evening.

Order. It will be evident to the House that many hon. Members still wish to speak in the debate. It must end at 8.8 pm. Front-Bench speakers will need time to wind up the debate. I appeal to both sides of the House for briefer contributions.

7.3 pm

I shall follow your wish, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not intend to take up where the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) left off, except to say that Dublin politicians' hostility for the British is almost inexplicable. More people who were born in the Irish Republic live in the United Kingdom than in the Irish Republic. When they come to England, they find an atmosphere of toleration. I follow what the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) said. One admires the British sense of toleration. Many things about the English anger me. I am sure that the Scots and the Welsh have much the same things to say about the English, but there is a sense of toleration. I have never understood why people from the Irish Republic, who enjoy the benefits of living in this country, have not persuaded the people at home to change their attitudes toward this country. I shall not pursue that matter, much as I would like to do so.

The matter I raise relates to an individual. It is the duty of Members of Parliament to protect individual rights and also deal with great national and international topics. I refer to a constituent, Mr. Jonathan Carson, who is 23 years of age. He has suffered a grave injustice at the hands of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. He was and still is a student at the university of Liverpool. He applied to the Northern Ireland Department of Education for a grant to pursue further education to achieve his master of philosophy degree at that university, but his application was turned down by the Stormont Department because he did not obtain a degree by examination. On the face of it, that seems reasonable if one has to accept the regulations. There is much in the regulations with which I disagree. There is reason for my outrage. In the short time available to me, I hope to be able to show hon. Members and the Leader of the House how a grave injustice has been done to Mr. Jonathan Carson. I hope that the Leader of the House will arrange for the Government to change their mind.

Jonathan Carson enrolled as a student in the department of French at Liverpool university. All in his department speak of his hard work and dedication to his studies. He was due to sit his degree examination in the summer term of this year. Before sitting that examination, in the first week of the summer term he went to his local hospital to give blood. The immediate floating test suggested that he might be anaemic. That suspicion was confirmed by subsequent tests that were carried out. As a result, he had further blood tests at the Royal hospital in Liverpool and a bone marrow test, all of which indicated that he had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia—a serious state. He was immediately admitted to hospital on 19 May. His condition was treated as serious and his chances of success were not regarded as too high at that time.

He stayed in hospital, and received chemotherapy treatment, which involved intravenous doses of many drugs — some orally administered drugs, some intramuscular injections and some injections into his spinal column by lumbar puncture. That treatment continued after he left hospital. In fact, he still has to attend hospital regularly.

The important point is that he could not sit his examination. He was admitted to hospital on the very day on which he was to sit the first part of his degree examination. On the day that he was to sit the second part of his degree examination—I said "day"; it probably covered many days—he was in hospital and could not do so. The Government say that he should not get a grant because he did not sit that examination. That is a grave injustice to that young man.

Many who suffer leukaemia, as Jonathan Carson does at present, would give up. But Jonathan Carson is not a quitter. He does not give way to resentment or despondency as a result of his medical condition. Instead, he fights to continue his studies. I plead with the Government to enable him to continue his studies. Last month, in a letter to me, Jonathan Carson said:
"Mentally, I have been strong since the beginning. My attitude has always been to fight, while doing exactly as I am told by the hospital.
I shall continue to fight. I am to stay in the vicinity of the hospital for at least two years.
So be it. I have not once yet said: 'Why me?' and I have no intention of saying it."
He pays tribute — unfortunately, because of the shortness of time available I cannot repeat it — to the staff, of the hospital and of the university of Liverpool, which he attended.

I have argued with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland that it should regard his as a special case and make' sure that a grant is given to Jonathan Carson to enable him to pursue his postgraduate research and take his master of philosophy degree. However, my representations were rejected by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. They were also rejected when I made a further plea directly to the Minister responsible, and, despite the fact that my constituent has shown ability, the Government still say no.

Jonathan Carson was recommended by the university for an aegrotat degree—obtained without examination. That was conferred on him on 9 July. The aegrotat recommendation by the board of examiners in French and linguistics states:
"his course work throughout his final year until the onset of the disease was consistently of a III standard in linguistics and IN in French."
In effect, he was expected to obtain overall a mid to high 2:1 joint honours degree. The acting head of the department of French at the University of Liverpool told me in a letter:
"As one of our 2 or 3 best students, he had already been selected to fill the post of lecturer at a French University next year for 1 year."
Doctor Waller emphasised:
"the case of Mr. Carson is an extraordinarily deserving one … I would hope that it is still not too late to make a further appeal in this 1987–88 Academic year. His case is so patently deserving, for both accademic and compassionate reasons, that the Northern Ireland Department of Education decision seems to me to be scandalous".
That is strong language from Dr. Waller, the acting head of the department of French. I am sure that he is not accustomed to using such language, unless he feels that he should.

I close with this further and final appeal to the Leader of the House to persuade his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to give way in this case. Jonathan Carson has been advised that he must continue his treatment at the Royal Liverpool hospital for two years at least. The course that he wishes to follow lasts for two years. He is eager to continue his research and he has shown his determination by enrolling as a part-time student at Liverpool university. His father cannot afford the substantial expenses involved in his son's staying there for two years, quite apart from all the worry that he, the mother and family have about this young man's medical future. To the credit of the academic staff of the University of Liverpool, the university has given him an interest-free loan to cover his registration fees, but more needs to be done by the Government. I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to intervene in this case and make the Department of Education in Northern Ireland change its mind to enable this young man, who has shown so much courage and strength, to pursue his academic career with dignity.

7.14 pm

I am sure that all hon. Members will accept that we must defend the rights of the individual, as expounded by the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder). To some degree I shall follow the subject that he raised, by defending the rights of the families of individals. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the respect and thanks that are due to hospital staff, and I, too, want to dwell a little on that.

First, I must report to the House with regret that I learned today of the death of four railway engineers who were working on the railway line from Leeds to Sheffield, which runs through my constituency. They were working with a gang of eight workmen, and four of them were struck by a moving train and fatally injured. I am sure that all hon. Members join me in expressing condolences to the families of those people. I mention the defence of individuals and families because I raised the matter with the Secretary of State for Transport, who later contacted me to say that there would be a public inquiry, either in a coroner's court or in some other way, into this serious matter. We must ensure that the interests of the families of those individuals are safeguarded at all times.

The point that I wanted to raise before learning of that tragic event concerns the intensive care unit at Pindersfield hospital, which is in my constituency. Admissions to the unit were stopped on 27 November. The decision was taken by the neurosurgeon and anaesthetist on call that day. It meant that patients were diverted to Leeds, or were not admitted to any intensive care unit if no beds were available. The cancellation of admissions and of the neurosurgical operation list for the Mondays of the past week and of this week is devastating for my constituents and for people served by Pindersfield hospital. Tensions have been dramatically heightened by what is happening in the area.

The cancellations are a direct result of the shortage of trained nursing staff at the Pindersfield hospital intensive care unit. The unit is allowed approximately half the number of trained nurses that are required for its seven beds. The intensive care unit should have 41 trained nurses to provide 24-hour cover on a three-shift basis. The present staffing level is 24. That is a shocking reduction in what is required to maintain the 24-hour staffing level of the unit. It means that the unit can often provide adequate nursing to cover only four or five critically ill patients. In other words, only four or five beds can be occupied by clinical patients, so there is a tremendous shortfall in provision.

The work load of the unit has dramatically and significantly risen this year because the regional health authority agreed to the appointment of an additional neurosurgeon, but no provision was made for additional beds or additional trained nurses to give the necessary back-up service. That is a significant and severe problem because, on occasions, beds in adjacent wards must be taken over to provide additional intensive care facilities.

There is a real shortage of resources at the hospital. The extension of beds so reduced the nursing care facilities available to each patient that the consultant neurosurgeons found the position so anomalous and dangerous that they could not allow matters to continue. They were rightly concerned about the decline in morale among the nursing staff on the intensive care unit, which was due to their undoubtedly heavy work load.

The fall in morale is reflected in the difficulty of filling vacancies, at least for the necessary posts at the intensive care unit. Because of the low level of trained nursing staff at that unit, in the interests of patients the consultant neurosurgeons are restricting admissions so that the level of nursing care remains adequate. The consultants have given notice that they will review on a day to day basis the number of patients and nurses in the intensive care unit and that they will restrict admissions until the situation improves.

I attended the unit yesterday morning before I came to the House. I was accompanied by the chairman and district manager of the health authority, the consultants, the director of nursing services, the ward sister and the trade union representatives. I discussed the real problem facing the unit. All the people present agreed — there was no dissension whatever—that there was a shortage of trained nurses. I noticed during the brief period that I was there the nurses at work going from patient to patient. They were performing processing care for the patients and were working to full capacity all the time that we were at that unit. It is wrong to deny those nurses the support of extra nurses to ensure that there is no distress among the nurses and patients. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security is not in her place. She should stop hiding behind statistics and should stop hiding the real facts that I have outlined about what is happening at this intensive care unit. We need additional resources, and we need them now.

Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, notice should be taken of the problems experienced by hospitals throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside region, the area from which I come. Indeed, throughout the country there is an acute shortage of trained nurses. It is not a case of a ward in a hospital closing. Intensive care units are having trouble and beds are being closed because of the lack of fully trained nurses. I hope that someone will take note of what is happening in the Pindersfield hospital, where there is a shortage of such nurses. There is a shortage of resources, and I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of that.

The people whom I met yesterday were not trade union activists who, we are often told, are the people who make statements to the press and create problems in our Health Service. As I have said, yesterday I met the chairman and the general manager of the health authority, the consultants, the director of nursing services, trade unionists and the ward sister. Everyone agreed that there was a special need for additional resources in order to maintain the service to which the patients and people in our area are entitled. The same goes for everyone in west Yorkshire. More trained nurses should be provided to safeguard the service that is necessary in our hospitals, and especially in the Pindersfield hospital.

Before the House goes into recess, I hope that hon. Members will have regard for the serious situation in my constituency. I appeal to the Minister who is responsible for providing resources to ensure that they are made available so that the patients served by the Pindersfield hospital are not denied the necessary service of the intensive care unit. I hope that some action will result from this debate and that some resources will be provided to make sure that hospitals such as Pindersfield hospital are given the necessary trained nurses that they require to maintain their services.

7.24 pm

Before the House rises for the Christmas recess, I should like to deal briefly with three matters. The first is about safety. I am surprised that little has been said about the obvious danger of people riding bicycles and wearing Walkmans, but I am even more surprised that little or no mention has been made about the dangers of car phones.

I applaud the companies that are selling car phones, because they are obviously doing extremely well. At the moment there are 250,000 car phones in use, and in two years that figure will double. Daily as I drive behind people I am amazed to see that they are driving with one hand and talking into a car phone held in the other hand. On many occasions I have seen people driving round corners while using car telephones. Even more dangerous, I have seen people talking on car phones while driving on motorways. Somehow the House should try to get something done about that.

My second point is that I have the privilege to represent in the House on a voluntary basis the National Association of Hospital Broadcasting Organisations. All hon. Members will recognise and acknowledge the therapeutic value of hospital radio broadcasting to their constituents who are, unfortunately, in hospital. Such people enjoy listening to hospital radio, and there are 300 hospital radios throughout the country.

On a number of occasions in the last Parliament I made a plea for zero-rated VAT on hospital radio broadcasting equipment. Two years ago the Chancellor zero-rated talking books for the blind. Hopefully, we can look forward in the coming Budget to zero-rated VAT on equipment used for hospital radio broadcasting.

My final point is about the report that has just been released by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The report is called:
"A report into the plight of stray, tethered and abandoned horses and ponies in England and Wales".
Twice in the last Parliament I attempted to introduce the Horses and Ponies Bill which would have protected those animals from what I saw as their plight. The report from the RSPCA says:
"The only solution to the plight of thousands of tethered horses and ponies throughout the United Kingdom is a change in the law which will ban or severely restrict the practice of tethering."
The report points to three areas in which the RSPCA thinks that abuse takes place. First, the report talks about the horses and ponies that are used for the purpose of earning a livelihood. Then it talks about parents purchasing ponies and horses for their children, not realising the heavy cost involved in maintaining those horses and ponies.

Finally, and most distressing of all, the report talks about animals that are abandoned on waste ground, fattened up and ultimately sent to the knacker's yard. I wish all hon. Members a happy Christmas and I hope that when I attempt to introduce the measure in this Parliament they will support it and help to make a happy Christmas for horses, ponies and donkeys by giving them some protection in legislation.

7.29 pm

I want to comment briefly on a matter that took my attention during the time that I was away from the House. It is a matter which, in a general sense, we rarely debate: what is happening to children in our society? I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) who raised the subject of hospitals. Those who watched the programme the other night about 24 premature babies with a heart condition who died in one year because of the lack of intensive care facilities are aware of how this example can be applied to what is happening to children in our society, whether at birth or later in their lives.

When we talk about children and the improvements that have taken place, particularly since the end of the war, it is usual for us to quote statistics and to say how much healthier children are and how much better their teeth are. However, a growing number of children in our society do not share in that prosperity. As we prepare to rise for the Christmas recess, and as we feast ourselves and enjoy the festivities, we must remember that many children are suffering enormously in various ways. The House never debates the subject of children generally. We debate various issues relating to children—particularly health, education and pre-school—but we never debate what is happening to a growing minority of children in circumstances which I find frightening.

A report dealing with the illegal trafficking of children in Europe and many parts of the world will shortly be discussed by the Council of Europe. It deals particularly with illegal adoption. Some children come into this country, but particularly into other parts of Europe and America. These children have literally been bought and sold on the market and given or taken to homes that want them because, for example, there is a shortage of children to adopt or, unfortunately, for other reasons which I do not have time to go into. Some of these children are sold in circumstances which do not bear investigation and, sadly, are not investigated. When the Council of Europe considers the report, I hope that we shall get more information about what is happening.

Children throughout the world are sold into prostitution, and others drift into prostitution. When we congratulate ourselves, as we so often do, on the sort of Christmas that we shall have, we should remember that between 600 and 700 homeless, young people are going through the Centre Point refuge. Many of those homeless young people end up on our streets being involved in stealing, prostitution or many other unfortunate activities. There are 15,000 missing young people in this country today. During the Christmas period of 1986–87, twice as many children were missing as in the previous year. That figure is forecast to increase this year. The House should consider in far greater detail why this happens.

I believe that we should have a Royal Commission to consider all matters affecting children. That belief was strengthened when I was away from the House and had time to consider what was happening to abused children and to other children in trouble and in need. The problem of gambling among young children is growing. Children who hang around leisure centres and arcades are involved in gambling, and the European report suggests that many of them are picked up and involved in prostitution or end up in need of care and protection.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) mentioned the minority of people—in some areas, a large minority—whose housing conditions are appalling. For example, young children are brought up in bed-andbreakfast accommodation, 30 per cent. of which, according to the magazine Health Visitor, does not meet local authority standards for sanitary accommodation and general amenities. Many such properties are fire risks. Young children are confined to one room, without any play facilities, in which the whole family eats, sleeps and cooks. The fire risk is very high. This Christmas, those children will sit and watch their television sets—if they have them. Perhaps they are lucky not to have them. Otherwise they would see expensive toys and luxuries advertised that other children will be able to have and that they know will never come their way.

About 1·25 million children live in families in which one or both parents are unemployed. A recent DHSS study published by the policy studies unit last year explained that the standard of living for many of those children was deplorable. Many of those children had only one pair of shoes, and many of those families in which the main breadwinner was unemployed ran out of food and money before the week was out. Babies, especially those born in winter, were kept indoors and failed to thrive as a result of vitamin deficiencies, especially deficiencies of vitamins A and D. The mental and physical growth of those children is adversely affected, as we can well imagine.

Reported cases of child abuse are increasing, although I would not like to say whether the actual cases are increasing. That abuse is not just sexual, but physical and emotional. The abuse appears to be increasing. I believe it is important that the Government should recognise that many people working in connection with child abuse, child poverty and child neglect believe that the Government have done nothing like enough to try to mitigate the worst effects of the children's circumstances.

I am aware — and I am certain that all hon. Members, if they are honest, are aware—that while we express great sympathy for children who suffer from abuse, neglect and battering—not all of the children are poor; many are, but this is not simply a crime of poverty — and while we condemn those who ill-treat children, when those children grow up and repeat the pattern that they have learnt, the condemnation of those children, with whom we once sympathised, because they are now maladjusted adults, knows no bounds. We are building up enormous problems for our society if we constantly state how much better conditions are now for many children and overlook the fact that a large minority of children are deprived, ill-clad, ill-housed, ill-fed and neglected.

When we talk about the Christmas festivities and enjoying ourselves— I am sure that all hon. Members will enjoy themselves — it is important, as we avail ourselves of the better side of society, to remember that many children will not enjoy such a Christmas. Conservative Members refer to "talking the country down" and failing to recognise the amazing achievements in this country, but they should remember that we sell those children short if we do not have the guts to stand up and say that this will be a very poor Christmas for many of them. It is about time that the House recognised its duty to improve things.

7.38 pm

Because of the number of speakers on the health argument in recent weeks, there can be little doubt that that is a matter of great importance both inside and outside the Chamber. My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) expressed the concern in Shropshire. I do not apologise for returning to the plight of hospitals in Shropshire, because that is of major concern to those of us who live in the county.

There can be little doubt that a degree of party politicking is going on in this respect. I can understand the motivations of Labour and Liberal politicians and trade union leaders in the county who try to mislead those who are ill-informed on these matters and to frighten the elderly about the future of the Health Service. That is perhaps what we would expect of the Opposition, and I duly criticise them for that. They know that it is too simple just to claim that it is all the Government's fault.

I shall tonight point the blame where I believe it lies. One of the problems in Shropshire is that the West Midlands regional health authority, within whose boundary we regrettably lie, is 10 per cent. under-funding the county of Shropshire according to the RAWP scale, which is the Government's method of assessing National Health Service need.

The headlines in the media always cry "Cuts". That is simple to print and difficult to explain. However, revenue spending in Shropshire on the hospital service increased from £29·1 million in 1978–79 under the previous Labour Government to £61·3 million in 1985–86, the last available figures under this Government. The capital spending of the county of Shropshire has risen from £1 million in 1978–79 under the previous Labour Government to £10·3 million in 1985–86. That is hardly a cut, and, even allowing for the special rate of inflation that applies to Health Service spending, the income of the West Midlands region from this Government is 19 per cent. ahead of inflation. Talk about cuts is simply an easy media and politicking ploy. It has no substance in fact.

There is, however, a problem in the county of Shropshire and its health service. On 29 June I brought the problem to the notice of the House in an Adjournment debate. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security replied to the debate, but sadly stuck rigidly to her brief on the regional authority and did not cover the problems in Shropshire, which was the purpose of the debate.

We constantly hear about the regional situation. Shropshire is a rural county, with half its population— 220,000 people—living in the rural part of the county. There are 11 market towns, 17 villages with more than 1,000 people and 374 villages with fewer than 100. There are 5,000 farms scattered across the county, which means that it is a large and principally rural-based county. I represent the county town of Shrewsbury and several villages around it. The ever-growing new town of Telford in the constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) is also in the county.

Shropshire health authority proposed to build a second district general hospital in the constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin. We all have our views on whether that decision was taken because of health needs or because the constituency is politically marginal. I am quite clear about my views on that. I took a delegation to visit the former Minister for Health when the proposal was first brought forward. The consultants in the delegation and I warned him that the consultant cover for the country would not increase as a result of the creation of a second giant hospital within the rural county. It would simply mean that the consultants would spend more time in their motorcars travelling between the two hospitals. Undoubtedly the cost of the hospital would have an effect on the county of Shropshire as a whole.

I welcome this opportunity to put on the record and say to the people of Shropshire that I do not disagree for a moment that Telford needs a hospital. However, I argue with the Government whether it needs one on the scale and size of a district general hospital. A deal was struck that Shropshire would receive an extra £4 million funding from the region when the Telford hospital opened. If the newspapers in particular had read closely the proposal put forward by the health authority, they would have discovered that not only would the building result in the closure of 10 cottage hospitals in the county, but that there was a rather vicious sentence hidden in the first paragraph of the proposals, which states:
"The remaining sum required to run the hospital would be obtained by rationalising services."
The people of Shropshire have not been told by the health authority, which theoretically represents Shropshire, and which is ducking its responsibilities right, left and centre, exactly what the rationalisation proposal would be. Once the 10 cottage hospitals are closed, what will he left? There will be a new giant hospital in Telford and a large district general hospital in Shrewsbury. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North that perhaps our internationally acclaimed orthopaedic hospital might be next on the hit list. The health authority unquestionably thrust the hospital into the centre of the county, and the authority is now ducking its responsibilities. Shropshire needs its RAWP allocation to be scaled with its underfunding. That will happen only if Telford hospital is scaled down and the cottage hospitals saved. Let the blame be put where the blame lies.

7.44 pm

On these occasions it is customary for us to speak against adjourning for Christmas. I shall not indulge in that hypocrisy. As my hon. Friends have made most effective and succinct cases, I do not propose to comment on what they said, as comment would be superfluous. On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) who has taken Trappist vows for the evening, I can say that the case of the two other hon. Members from Shropshire can be put exceedingly succinctly. Health care in Shropshire will reach the level that the people of Shropshire deserve, only if more money is provided for the health authority. It is a bit potty for the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) to suggest that the only way to protect health care in Shrewsbury is insufficiently to improve health care in Telford, a little further across the county.

I shall concentrate my speech on a major issue which has been before the House for the past few days. This debate has been used, quite rightly, by Mr. Speaker as his reason for rejecting a number of applications under Standing Order No. 20 for a debate on the gagging by the Government of the BBC. It is worth putting it on record, that the Government — or the Tory party, the Government in their other manifestation—have brought forward a series of measures in an effort to gag the BBC to such an extent that, if it were happening in a foreign country, the BBC overseas service would start referring to itself as the state broadcasting corporation.

Mr. Stuart Young was appointed chairman of the governors of the BBC. There was not much coverage of the fact that he was the brother of Lord Young, a Cabinet Minister. Since his death, the chairmanship has been taken on by a Mr. Marmaduke Hussey who is also related to a member of the Government, this time by marriage, and who was a former leading light in the Murdoch operations and the move to Wapping, which is not normally regarded as an indication of any independence of thought or anything else. Mr. Howell James was appointed to a senior post in the corporate affairs department of the BBC. The Young family strikes again, because that man used to work in the private office of Lord Young, advising him on this, that and the other.

There has been public pressure from the former chairman of the Tory party, the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). No one could have brought greater public pressure to bear on the editorial independence of the BBC. We understand from journalists in this place and outside that they have been told by their management that they should go easy when they interview Tory Ministers because of the pressures that they face from the Government. That was followed by the Zircon affair, when the Government carried out an extraordinary police raid on the BBC in Glasgow, taking away crates of material which they eventually had to return, admitting that they had not found a shred of evidence to justify their original action. They also obtained the injunction which they used to stifle the showing of the Zircon film on these premises.

Finally — I doubt whether it is final; the Government's attempts to gag the BBC and fair comment are growing, so this is their latest attempt, not their last —they have obtained an injunction following the intention of the BBC to broadcast the radio programme, "My Country, Right or Wrong."

We were led to believe by a preposterous statement from the Attorney-General last week that the Government knew not a thing about the programme until it was mentioned in the "Peterborough" column of The Daily Telegraph. Admirable newspaper though it is, I cannot believe that the Government, and in particular the security services, did not know before they read it in The Daily Telegraph that somebody was making a programme about the security services and was interviewing existing and former members — particularly as we know from the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) that one of them had written to the boss of the Security Service to point out that he was to take part in an interview. Yet, for no apparent reason, the Government did not know a thing about it and suddenly said, "Deane me, there is an article in The Daily Telegraph and something must be done about it."

The Government obtained an injunction against the BBC. I understand from legal advice I have received that, if the BBC were to report proceedings in Parliament during which hon. Members referred to the names of serving or retired members of the security services, the BBC could potentially be in breach of the injunction.

It goes further than that, because of another Court of Appeal ruling which suggests that the court is falling down on its duty to preserve freedom of speech. The Court of Appeal held that an injunction against one newspaper might in certain circumstances be held to cover other newspapers, so the ruling that the Government have obtained against the BBC may very well apply to other news media, including newspapers which attempt to report the House.

We have the ridiculous situation where members or former members of the security services might be mentioned in the House and, if that were reported by the BBC or a newspaper, they might be held to be in contempt. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have to issue you with a warning: were you to call the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), who it is well known is a former member of the security service, and the BBC reported it, it could be held in contempt of court. It might be a bit hard on the hon. Member for Woking — not being reported and his constituents not finding out what he had been talking about. The idea that somebody in the House is bleeped out because they mention a former member of the security services is absolutely ludricrous. Does it mean, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if I mention the words "Graham Greene" or "Malcolm Muggeridge", both acknowledged former members of the security services, those words will be bleeped out for fear that the BBC is held in contempt of court?

If the Government are trying to stop people mentioning the name of Mr. Peter Wright, a contemporary spycatcher, is it the case — this is how the instrument that the Government put before the court was drawn— that we cannot mention Oliver Cromwell's spycatcher, Thurloe, because he was a former member of the security services? We are reaching an absurd situation.

I understand from people who were Ministers at the time that the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) had a hush-hush job in the Foreign Office which might be regarded as part of the security services. Does that mean that we cannot mention him and have his name reported outside the House?

BBC Radio Essex, which proposed to review a play featuring acknowledged former members of the security services, Messrs Philby, Burgess and Maclean, was advised that they could not carry that item, except at risk of an action for contempt of court. Does it mean that Kim Philby could appear live on Soviet television last week or the week before, but cannot be mentioned live or otherwise on BBC television or radio? This is the absurd situation into which the ridiculous Government have brought us.

The matter is not just ludicrously silly and funny ha-ha: it is funny dangerous, because it shows that the Government are trying to gag the BBC and other newspapers in pursuit of a newly invented principle that people who have worked for the Crown have an absolute duty of lifelong confidentiality. No such duty can be as absolute as that because it would mean, if we take it seriously, that a servant of the Crown who knew of murder, rape or major fraud that no one else was going to talk about, would be under a duty for ever to keep silent about murder, rape or major fraud. That is obviously nonsense.

A servant of the Crown, such as Wright, who claims that there was an attempt to overthrow the elected Government of the country, has a duty to speak the truth about that, if it is true— and I hold no brief for Mr. Wright, who is obviously a rather dubious character. I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he has a greater duty to blow the whistle on people attempting to overthrow an elected Government than any duty of confidentiality that the Government may have just invented.

It was established—I do not want to carry this to a great extreme—in the principles enunciated in the trials of war criminals at Nuremburg at the end of the second world war, that obeying orders and statutes was not the final defence; there were duties over and above that. We are now saying that those duties still apply. If members of the security services believe that other parts of the security services were attempting to overthrow an elected Government, they have a duty to disclose it, not an absolute duty to keep quiet about it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I ask you to raise with Mr. Speaker the points raised by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Thanet, South and me, because we are still concerned about the extent to which the Government's ludicrous efforts in the courts are stifling the BBC and seeking to stifle the free reporting of free debate in the House, about which we should all be concerned, no matter on which side of the House we sit or work. It is vital to the liberty of the country that we be allowed to talk about what we like and that we should be freely reported by a free press when we do so.

7.57 pm

These regular Adjournment debates are a valuable opportunity for hon. Members to draw attention to matters of personal and constituency concern. It is interesting to refer tonight to the matters that have not been raised—unemployment, inflation, our handling of the economy and industrial action. That is a clear indication that the House is confident of the Government's approach to those matters.

In the little time that is left I shall do my best to reply to the points that have been raised.

I shall not give way to anybody. I shall go straight through. I hope to deal with the hon. Lady's speech if I have time. I shall go as fast as I can through the points that have been raised, because I believe that is what I am supposed to do.

The former Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), and my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) raised concerns about the 10 cottage hospitals in their constituency. I shall refer to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services the points that have been raised, and I give my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the assurances that they are seeking. The consultation arrangements will not be a formality. Full account will be taken of what they have said and the processes will be carried through properly and efficiently.

The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) raised certain matters, but, obviously, I am under some restraint as to what I can say. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman recognised that fact. I can only say that the use of the Official Secrets Act 1911, which the right hon. Gentleman questioned, is a matter for the Attorney-General. The Government recognise that section 2 of that Act is unsatisfactory and no one disputes the fact that reform is desirable. However, so far there has been little agreement on the nature of that reform.

In 1979, when we first took office, we introduced a Bill that would have significantly narrowed the scope of section 2 of the Act, but that Bill did not find favour in Parliament or outside. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General have told the House that we have had work in hand for some time to find effective, enforceable and reasonable provisions to replace section 2. If, in the light of that work, we decide to bring forward further proposals for reform, we shall announce our intentions to the House.

Discussions on those matters have been confused with a second issue—the injunctions. In spite of what some hon. Members have said, the Government's view—we have been very clear on this — is that members and former members of the Security Service are under a lifelong duty of confidentiality to the Crown in relation to information deriving from their employment. In the interests of the country, the Government attach great importance to protecting that confidentiality.

In response to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) may I say that the BBC is still refusing to provide information that will enable the Government to consider whether the three programmes in the series "My Country, Right or Wrong" contain any material in breach of the duty of confidentiality. I do not believe that I should say anything more on that subject tonight.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) spoke about housing. The Government recognise that we have not achieved everything that everyone wants with regard to housing. There is general concern about homelessness, and that is why we are taking positive action to revitalise the private rented sector and increase the choice of rented accommodation in other ways. Many of use believe that those measures will help. The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of capital receipts — many of my hon. Friends have also raised that matter with me — and I understand that the total accummulation of capital receipts in the country is £8 billion. Clearly the Government must be concerned about the control and rate of reinvestment of those sums—we must keep that process under control.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) had to leave because his wife is unwell, and I hope that she will soon recover. I thought that his speech was a breath of fresh air in the proceedings today and I enjoyed it a great deal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) discussed taxation, and I take on board the points that he made. I was also interested to hear what he had to say about drink and driving. As the chairman of the ministerial group on alcohol misuse, I listened with care to his speech. From my experience, I believe that if we were able to enforce the existing laws on drink and driving, we would go a considerable way towards dealing with some of the worst of the problems. My hon. Friend made a number of suggestions—I am aware that some of them did not find favour with some of our hon. Friends—and I shall consider them carefully to see whether some of them require further consideration.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) raised the question of the extradition arrangements. I understand the concern that is felt. Indeed, certain personal experience enables me to recognise that concern. We welcome the Irish Government's decision to ratify the European convention on the suppression of terrorism. 'We note that they have now introduced further procedural steps regarding the backing of the warrant process. We are naturally concerned that those measures should not impede extradition arrangements within these islands. We shall keep the operation of the new Irish requirements under close scrutiny, and we welcome the commitment of the Taoiseach to review those requirements if they do not work satisfactorily.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) raised the case of his constituent, Mr. Carson. Obviously I cannot answer that case, but I shall refer it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, if we cannot do something to help that gentleman it will not be due to the lack of advocacy on the part of my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) spoke of the death of the four railway workers in his constituency today. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the whole House would wish to send condolences in those sad circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the lack of intensive care nurses at the hospital in his constituency, but obviously at this stage I cannot comment on the detail of his speech. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members is that they might care to read the figures in the editorial in The Guardian today. I shall not embarrass them by quoting them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) raised three important points in rapid time. He raised the question of car telephones. The Department of Transport strongly advises that drivers should not use hand-held car telephones when driving. Indeed, we believe that, in certain circumstances, such drivers may he committing the offence of driving without due care and attention.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of VAT and hospital radio. The Government appreciate the valuable service provided by hospital broadcasting organisations. However, there are serious difficulties in extending VAT relief in the way suggested by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend also asked for action concerning the report of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on the tethering of horses. The Government will consider that report, but I should like to point out that it is already an offence under the Protection of Animals Act 1911 to tether animals in such a way that they are denied access to food and water or in a way that might lead to injury.

The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) gave us a timely reminder that there are many children in various parts of world, unfortunately including this country, who are suffering and will be suffering at Christmas. I accept the hon. Lady's point. I shall be sharing the joy of Christmas with three sons at home, which is one more than I had last year — [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear".] I cannot guarantee that that rate of increase will continue.

All in all, the House can adjourn for Christmas knowing that this country is now going from strength to strength with a Government who pursue policies of sound money, low inflation and prudent finance, and who encourages enterprise. The House can adjourn for Christmas in the knowledge that Britain is eager and waiting to tackle the challenges of 1988, ever stronger and fitter and ever more determined—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question pursuant to Standing Order No. 22 (Periodic adjournments).

Question agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House at its rising on Friday 18th December do adjourn until Monday 11th January, and that the House shall not adjourn on Friday 18th December until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.