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Commons Chamber

Volume 124: debated on Thursday 17 December 1987

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House Of Commons

Thursday 17 December 1987

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Message From The Queen

Comptroller And Auditor General

THE VICE-CHAMBERLAIN OF THE HOUSEHOLD reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address as follows:

I have received your Address praying that John Bryant Bourn Esquire, CB, be appointed to the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General. I will comply with your request.

Private Business

British Railways Bill

Lords amendments agreed to.

City Of Westminster Bill (By Order)

Considered; to be read the Third time.

Greater Manchester (Light Rapid Transitsystem) Bill Lords (By Order)

Greater Manchester (Light Rapid Transit System) (No 2) Bill Lords (By Order)

Orders for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered upon Thursday 14 January 1988.

London Regional Transport Bill (By Order)

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [10 December], That the Bill be now considered.

Debate further adjourned till Thursday 14 January 1988.

Teignmouth Quay Company Bill (By Order)

York City Council Bill Lords (By Order)

Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill Lords(By Order)

British Railways (London) Bill Lords(By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time upon Thursday 14 January 1988.

Oral Answers To Questions

Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Common Agricultural Policy

1.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the outcome of recent discussions in the European Community on the common agricultural policy.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reported to the House on Tuesday 8 December on the outcome of the European Council held in Copenhagen. I regret that final agreement could not be reached there on the issue of agricultural stabilisers, despite the support that had been built up for that approach in negotiations during the autumn. The main issues in these negotiations are now clear. I am, however, ready to make further efforts with my colleagues in the Agriculture Council on any issues, such as set-aside, where that Council can contribute to preparing the way for the resumed European Council on II and 12 February, and to increasing the chances of agreement there.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In view of the huge EEC mountains of beef, butter and flour, which are sold to countries outside the EEC at cheap rates or are allowed to rot, is it the intention of the Minister and the Government to see that the old and the needy in this country, and in my constituency in particular, are given free food hampers from that mountain this year?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is right to get the surpluses and mountains down. That is the purpose of the discussion on stabilisers and the current discussions, which go wider than that issue.

Agreement has been reached in the Council that individual member states can introduce a free food scheme under the regulations that have been agreed. It is a complex matter. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we introduced a free food scheme last year. There were many criticisms of that scheme. We are now holding urgent discussions with the charitable organisations which participated last year to assess the implications of the regulations that have just been agreed. We were criticised last year for some of the effects of the scheme, which resulted from the haste with which it had to be introduced. Therefore, it is important that we have discussions with the charitable organisations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is required in Europe is a balanced package involving stabilisers, set-aside and other measures, including the welcome environmental developments that my right hon. Friend has pioneered in Europe, and on which he is to be congratulated?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concluding remarks. I agree that a balance is required — a balance in stabilisers to reduce the surpluses, a balance in proposals to reduce and depreciate the shocks, and, of course, a balance in the other matters to which he referred, such as set-aside and the environmental measures. We have made a good deal of progress, especially on the set-aside scheme, with which I am very much involved. I hope that we can reach agreement on it early in the new year.

Is the Minister in a position to inform the House of the latest developments regarding the sheepmeat proposals?

The sheepmeat proposals have not been discussed since the Agriculture Council meeting prior to the European summit. At the moment, therefore, the position is twofold. First, discussions on stabilisers in relation to sheepmeat must be taken up again in the new year, and we shall have to see what happens in relation to the summit meeting on 11 and 12 February. Secondly, there is to be a wider review of the sheepmeat regime, on which we have not yet embarked, at the Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting.

I know that my right hon. Friend will agree that the main problem with the enormous cost of the CAP is the storing of surpluses. May I urge him, as others have done, to take every possible measure to reduce the enormous amount of food that is in store? If it cannot be given away to hon. Members' constituents, can my right hon. Friend think of some way of disposing of it elsewhere? Surely the object of the CAP is to maintain the rural communities, not to maintain intervention storekeepers.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the objective should be to maintain our efficient agriculture and its contribution to rural communities to ensure that we meet as many of our food requirements as possible, competitively and efficiently, without leading to the problem of surpluses. We can reduce the surpluses in a variety of ways. Indeed, I am glad to say that as a result of some of the measures that have already been taken by the Council of Ministers, the level of intervention stocks for products such as butter, cereals and skimmed-milk powder is coming down substantially. However, we need to take further measures to ensure that they continue to come down and that surpluses are not built up to replace the stocks that we are trying to get rid of.

Will the Minister confirm that under the new free food for the needy scheme the administrative costs of charities can be met out of European Commission funds? Is he really telling the House that needy people in France, Germany and Italy will receive free food, but that those in Britain will not? If that is the case, he is the No. 1 nominee for the Mr. Scrooge of this Christmas.

It is correct that some administrative costs can be met under the current regulations. However, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that last year the needy in Britain who benefited from the scheme did so to a much greater extent than those in many other European countries.

However, the problems are substantial. First, there is only about £10 million of food potentially available in this country. Therefore, there are problems in targeting and deciding who should be the beneficiaries. There are many practical problems, such as distribution. There are also problems relating to the way in which we implement the regulations, if we decide to do so. We are urgently exploring these problems with the organisations that were involved with us last time.

When my right hon. Friend is considering the European common agricultural policy with his European colleagues, will he bear in mind the representations that he has received from the National Farmers Union of Scotland, and especially those from Mr. Ian Grant, the president of the Scottish NFU? Those proposals are not only realistic, because they accept that change is essential and necessary, but seek to ensure that the United Kingdom, and especially the livestock sector in Scotland, receives fair treatment.

I had some extremely useful discussions with the president of the Scottish NFU when I was in Edinburgh recently. I see him quite regularly and I agree that he is taking a realistic and sensible approach to CAP reforms. Yes, we keep in mind the needs of our livestock sector, and that is why we have been fighting so strongly for the removal of the ceilings proposed by the Commission on headage payments on ewe premiums which would adversely affect our livestock sector in the less-favoured areas.

Dairy Industry

2.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he next hopes to meet the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board to discuss the future of the dairy industry.

My colleagues and I have regular contacts with the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board to discuss various issues affecting the dairy industry.

The Minister is aware of the concern in Wales at the sale of milk quotas, which adversely affects the balance of the industry in that area and may have an effect on some processing plants. Will the Minister consider representations to introduce regulations to restrict the sale of quota outside specified regions? Will he consider setting up a special quota bank for young entrants into the industry so that they have an opportunity to acquire a quota, which at present is denied to many of them?

I am aware of producers' concerns about quota transfers, and the position is carefully monitored. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that, to date, less than 2 per cent. of quota held by Welsh producers has been transferred out of Wales. The idea of a quota bank has been discussed on a number of occasions, but there are considerable difficulties with it. I do not deny that one of the problems about quota is new entrants into the industry. However, the suggestion of a quota bank has been opposed by most of the industry's organisations that have considered it. As regards the effects on processing plants, it is necessary, when supply and demand are being brought into balance, to realise that there must also be adjustments in the processing industry to reflect that change.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assurances he gave to the Milk Marketing Board about the future of the small dairy farmer? Will he accept that those farmers play a vital role in the rural communities of this country?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the small dairy farmer. I have had several discussions with the Milk Marketing Board, but that matter has not been a topic of recent discussion. However, I assure my hon. Friend that I agree with him on the general point.

Small dairy farmers in north-east Wales and in my constituency are worried and are facing difficulties. Those farmers, and not least my constituent Mr. George Blockley, are discontented and upset about the nature of the quota. What will the Minister do to help the small dairy farmer in Wales?

In the early stages of the quota regime a number of measures were taken to help the small dairy farmer. My clear impression is that the vast majority of dairy farmers want the quota regime to continue and certainly do not want it to be abandoned. The hon. Gentleman will know that in the past two years the incomes of dairy producers have risen quite reasonably.

Did my right hon. Friend discuss with the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board the problem that has arisen in relation to cheese making in this country? We are facing a shortage, with the result that the consumer, who is rarely considered by the agriculturist, is paying a high price for ordinary English Cheddar cheese.

I assure my hon. Friend that producers are extremely conscious of the needs of consumers and that marketing and meeting consumers' needs feature prominently in my discussions with farmers. I recognise that there were some difficulties during this year's seasonal trough period—August and September, when milk production drops for natural reasons — in meeting the requirements of cheese producers. We have been in touch with the Milk Marketing Board and the milk industry about that matter and the industry has agreed to changes in the milk supply and pricing arrangements that are aimed at avoiding similar problems next year.

Food (Radioactivity)

3.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will review the arrangements for protecting the population from food contaminated with radioactivity after a nuclear accident; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) on 30 June, new national plans for dealing with the consequences of any future nuclear accident have been drawn up. My departmental responsibilities have been covered in those plans.

In relation to those new plans, what has the Minister to say about the 39 farms in Scotland which were brought into monitoring in August of this year, but which had not been subject to restrictions for the 16 months after the Chernobyl disaster? [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] The reason why I raise this matter is that that news stunned me, and I would hope that it would stun Conservative Members.

I believe that it is perfectly right that we should continue the monitoring. There will be occasions when the monitoring produces examples for which extra restrictions must be provided, but those restrictions are made extremely carefully. They are designed to ensure that the safety limits are high, and we are doing our best to make sure that there is no damage to public health. The public can be wholly reassured by the measures that we take.

Butter

4.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how much butter was in intervention stores in the United Kingdom at the latest available date.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Donald Thompson)

On 31 October 1987 accepted intervention stocks of butter totalled 184,816 tonnes. On the same date in 1986 the equivalent figure was 258,781 tonnes.

With all this butter in store, will the Minister explain the logic of why we can sell this produce to the Soviet Union at 6p a pound, when my pensioners cannot afford the market price of more than £1 a pound? The stocks sold to the Soviet Union have been subsidised by the taxpayer by 82p in the pound — that does not include storage charges. Is not this economic madness an insult to pensioners and taxpayers?

The sooner we can get rid of these huge stores of butter and other materials, the sooner pensioners will be paying less to keep these huge mountains of food in store. That will directly benefit us all.

Can my hon. Friend say whether there will be a more effective scheme for giving surplus butter to pensioners this winter? Last winter the scheme did not work very well. As we have considerable amounts in stock, will my hon. Friend try to improve the scheme so that all pensioners receive their share?

Last year this country spent most of the money that was available in Europe, and this year the limit will be £10 million. If the scheme is taken up, we shall discuss with the charities and other bodies the most cost-effective and efficient scheme by which to distribute the butter. At present, we are discussing the whole scheme.

Surplus Food

5.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the latest total volume and value in pound sterling of surplus food and drink in the EEC; and what is the cost of storage in pound sterling.

A note on levels of Community intervention stocks is deposited in the Library or the House each month. The latest estimate of the book value of these stocks is about £6·3 billion, and this year it will cost about £900 million to store them.

How can the Minister and his colleagues come to the Dispatch Box and continue to try to justify, month after month, the spending of millions of pounds of public money on the hoarding of food supplies that could be distributed to pensioners and others in need in this country, and could make a contribution to feeding starving people in the Third World? If the Common Market continues obstinately to refuse to scrap the common agricultural policy, is it not time that the British Government took unilateral action to withdraw from such an insane and immoral policy, which is making a mockery of the Christmas message of peace and good will?

Before the hon. Gentleman asks the Government to do that, he should get his own party to support that view. It does not take the view that we should withdraw from the European Community, nor do the Government. The benefits for us, for the rest of Europe and for the world are far too great to withdraw from the Community. The Government have been effective in getting, for the first time, major reductions in the amount of food going into store, especially dairy products, on which, because of actions initiated by the Government, we now have much firmer control on production. We are the leaders in Europe in getting these changes. In addition, we are great supporters of the expansion of aid to the developing world. As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, Oxfam and other charities say that the need is not for food aid but for extra technical aid and money. We have taken that view also.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the stabilisers policy which he and his colleagues are pursuing in the European Commission is the best approach to reduce the amount of food in storage? It also represents the best policy for farmers, consumers and taxpayers to get the European Community budget into balance.

I am sure that that is right, for the simple reason that every country in the developed world has a system for supporting agriculture, both to ensure continuity of food supply and to see that the land is properly looked after. Other countries have more expensive systems than we have. However, we all have the problems of adapting those systems to the new situation of surpluses. For the Opposition to cat-call when we are talking about the livelihood of many millions of our fellow Europeans shows how uninterested they are in the rural economy.

Venison

6.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will give an estimate of the amount of venison sold in the United Kingdom.

No central records are kept. However, we estimate that about 2,300 tonnes of venison are produced annually in the United Kingdom of which about 1,700 tonnes are exported.

Does the Minister agree that although only small quantities of venison are consumed in Britain, large tracts of land are designated as deer forests? Does he also agree that these large tracts of land have a deleterious effect on tourism, because access to that land is restricted, especially during the stalking season? Therefore, will he consider reducing the amount of land designated as deer forests and restricting the extent of the stalking season?

Will the Minister reconsider the answer that he has just given to my hon. Friend? Does he not recognise that as venison is a low-cholesterol red meat there would be considerable advantage to public health if his Department encouraged its production and consumption? Can he tell the House whether his Department has considered introducing support mechanisms such as those for sheep and beef production?

The first supplementary question went entirely contrary to that and suggested cutting down on the amount of venison that is available. Venison is a useful and low-cholesterol meat. A wide range of grants are available under the agricultural improvement scheme for approved investments in deer enterprises. Grants are also available for certain environmentally beneficial works. Leaflets setting out the eligibility for these grants are available from the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service.

Fish Farms

7.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions officials of his Department have recently held with local authorities and other interested parties regarding the siting and development of fish farms; and if he will make a statement.

There have been no recent discussions involving my Department about the siting of fish farms. However, my officials recently met representatives of the National Farmers Union to discuss the Government's intention to extend water abstraction licensing to all fish farms and we have regular contact with the industry and other interests about a range of issues concerning fish farming.

I am sure that the Minister and all hon. Members welcome the growth of fish farms. However, there are two areas of concern—the planning and siting of these farms in places of great scenic beauty, and the pollution of our lochs and rivers. What measures are the Government taking to deal with these matters?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we want to encourage the provision of jobs and the wealth that comes from fish farming. We are concerned to ensure that damage is not done to rivers, which will happen unless we are careful about water abstraction. We are taking such measures as are necessary to keep it under control, but we do not want to control it so strongly that we do not have the expansion that we want. The balance is about right, but we shall keep a very close eye on it.

My right hon. Friend's reply to the first question is welcome. Will he ensure that the legislation for fish farmers to have abstraction licences for the use of water in inland waterways is in place before the water authorities are privatised?

Our intention is for the legislation relating to a National Rivers Authority to cover that. I think that that will help my hon. Friend.

Does the Minister agree that the planning and leasing of fish farms around the coast of Scotland should be removed from the Crown Estate Commissioners, who are charging rates of Rachmanite proportions? Does he agree that that operation should be returned to local authorities?

I do not have any evidence whatsoever of that. It is improper for the hon. Lady to use a phrase such as that about the Crown Estate Commissioners. It is not true, and the hon. Lady's statement is wrong. I have no intention of making any such changes.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a huge demand for salmon in Europe, and that the best way to meet that demand is by salmon ranching, especially as there is widespread poaching of salmon beyond the 12-mile limit? Will he take steps to increase salmon ranching and to decrease poaching, especially by boats from the Irish Republic?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that recent legislation has had a major effect on poaching. There have been some extremely good examples of poachers who have been caught and heavily fined as a result of their activities. When we bring in the dealer licensing scheme, which is the next stage of the legislation, that will help considerably. As for further intervention in the salmon industry, I warn the hon. Gentleman that already private businesses have spent considerable sums to extend the provision of salmon and as a result the price of salmon has been remarkably stable over the years. This is one of the best ways to ensure that we get the necessary supplies. We do not want to expand the supplies so that they exceed demand.

Agricultural Stabilisers

8.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a further statement on progress made towards the implementation of agricultural stabilisers within the European Community.

As I mentioned earlier, the European Council considered the Commission's stabiliser proposals at its meeting on 4 and 5 December. Progress was made, particularly on cereals, oilseeds and protein crops, but more is needed if agreement is to be reached on all aspects of the future financing negotiations at the next meeting of the European Council on 11 and 12 February.

Can the Minister confirm that the European Commission is considering withdrawing its agricultural stabiliser proposals because of lack of progress? Does the Minister agree that unless decisions are made swiftly on curbing agricultural production, farmers and farm workers will have to operate in a climate of cruel uncertainty and the general public will believe that the problems of surpluses will never be tackled effectively?

No, I do not think that the proposals on stabilisers will be withdrawn. I think that it is important to build on the progress already made. I entirely agree with the point raised by the hon. Lady on the uncertainty that this creates for farmers and farm workers, which is why I am so keen to reach agreement on stabilisers, not only to remove the uncertainty, but to get the surplus production and the associated subsidies that go with them cleared from the system, so that agriculture can have a more stable future.

Will my right hon. Friend exert pressure on the Commission to ensure that no proposals for farm price increases are brought forward in the absence of an agreement on future financing and stabilisers at the European Council?

We shall have to look at the price review in the normal way, and the Commission will bring forward its proposals for that, as is necessary each year. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to reach agreement on the stabilisers as quickly as possible, because without them there is a risk of continually increasing surpluses and subsidies, which cannot be in the interests of agriculture. Without that progress, what happens in price reviews is much less important than getting agreement on the new reform.

Milk Quotas

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's response to the European Commission's report on the operation of milk quotas.

The Commission's report on the operation of milk quotas is still under discussion. In the present circumstances, however, it is realistic to continue with the quota system.

When the Minister is trying to reduce the surpluses, will he remember that in the less-favoured areas of Scotland, such as Argyll and Bute, milk producers are not contributing to the surpluses or butter mountains, because all milk is used for liquid consumption and making cheese? Does he agree that the loss of creameries that produce Scottish Cheddar would cause a great deal of unemployment?

I would welcome any creameries producing cheese, but I would not welcome creameries producing butter which then went into intervention to add to the mountains. It is with some disappointment that we notice that butter production has increased this year in Scotland. The creameries are an important part of the countryside, and I am sure that both the Scottish and the English Milk Marketing Boards have them in mind.

Will my hon. Friend include in his response about the operation of milk quotas the fact that milk quotas have made a considerable difference to the dairy industry, in providing security, and have done much to help to establish a secure market for the small dairy farms, which are so vital to the British countryside?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Milk quotas have given to that section of the industry the security for which most other sectors of the industry are looking. The number of people leaving the milk industry has fallen from 2,500 a year before 1983 to 1,300 a year now.

To judge from the Minister's stately girth, he has obviously been doing his best to reduce butter mountains on his own. Would he like a bit of assistance? Would he welcome help from some of the pensioners of Newham, for example, if they were allowed to get at the butter mountains that exist in my contituency in Stratford? Does he accept that because of the price of butter, beef and other foods in intervention stores, there is no question of the people who get that food for free going out to buy more? Therefore, it is no argument for the Government to say that giving food away will only cause more food to go into intervention.

It was shown last year when we distributed £60 million worth of free food that it did make a difference in retail outlets. However, I know that the hon. Gentleman's constituents in Newham appreciate the fact that food price inflation is less than inflation generally and has continued to be so. The range of food available to people makes it possible for them to enjoy a balanced diet at a very reasonable price.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the three diversification grant schemes to be introduced next year will do a great deal to reduce surpluses in this country? Will he consider issuing a statement on the ability of farmers to apply for more than one diversification scheme or to switch between them?

I am sure that farmers and farmers' organisations will be adroit and acute enough to consider all the schemes that they may apply for.

Sheepmeat

10.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if, following the latest meeting of the Council of Ministers, he will make a statement as to his policy on sheepmeat.

My aim in these complex discussions is to avoid discrimination against United Kingdom interests, to achieve fair and affordable support to the sector, including a budgetary stabiliser, and so enable the United Kingdom to capitalise on its natural advantages.

Does the Minister recognise that if the Commission's proposals were implemented they would have a devastating effect on the incomes, particularly, of upland farmers in my constituency and elsewhere in the country? Will he therefore give the House a categorical assurance that he will not support any of the proposals put forward by the Commission on the sheepmeat regime?

That is a very wide-ranging question. We might well want to support some of the Commission's proposals. I believe that the hon. Lady has in mind proposals that are particularly discriminatory against the United Kingdom, and we are fighting against them. I have already said that we are endeavouring to remove the proposal for a ceiling on headage limits in the less-favoured areas, which would be discriminatory against some of the farmers about whom she is concerned. We have had some success so far in that. We shall continue to ensure that we receive an outcome to the wider sheepmeat regime that is totally fair to United Kingdom interests.

Will the Minister acknowledge the importance of the sheepmeat regime to the rural economy, especially in Scotland and in my constituency in the Borders? Will he also acknowledge that it would be helpful if he could give some idea — I know that there are difficulties about this — of the timetable for the budgetary stabilisers to which he referred and the wider review of the sheepmeat regime, so that there can be some stability and framework in the market for the coming months and years?

I acknowledge that the sheepmeat regime has been helpful, although we also have to acknowledge that its costs are now projected to rise at more than 1 million ecu next year. That is why we have to accept budgetary stabilisers. The stabiliser mechanism for sheepmeat will have to be dealt with on the same timetable as stabilisers as a whole. We shall have to await the outcome of the meeting on 11 and 12 February. A broader review is likely to be discussed later in 1988, so there is a problem about the start of the marketing year. It is clear that those changes cannot now take place before the start of the marketing year.

Fishing Industry

11.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what meetings he has recently had with representatives of the fishing industry; and what subjects were discussed.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I, since the beginning of September, have had several meetings with representatives of the fishing industry, including earlier this week at the Council of Fisheries Ministers in Brussels, the outcome of which I reported to the House yesterday in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell).

Has the Minister ever heard of a company called The Barclay Sound Shipping Company, which was awarded a licence to fish in Falklands waters, following the announcement in Parliament in November last year? Is he aware that that company, at the time of that announcement, had never fished anywhere in the world and had no ships at all when it obtained that particularly remunerative licence? Will the Minister find out how it was able to secure that licence to fish in the Falklands exclusion zone?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the management of the Falklands fisheries is the responsibility of the Falkland Islands Government and is not a subject that I discuss with our fishing industry.

At the meeting in Brussels, did my right hon. Friend raise with his Spanish counterpart the disgraceful situation in which Spanish boats which are on our register, have used up a large part of our quota for certain species, so preventing, or casting doubt on the ability of Cornish fishermen, to catch those species?

I recall that my hon. Friend raised this issue in our debate on fisheries. I raised the matter with the Spanish Government and with the whole Council at the recent meeting, and protested at the way in which the control and reporting of some of these fish landings take place. I agree that it is intolerable for the management of our fisheries. I am glad to say that I was supported by a number of other member states and the Commission, and I hope that there will soon be progress on the matter.

When my right hon. Friend meets representatives from the fishing industry, will he reassure them that, next year, quotas for fishing, particularly to the west of Scotland, will be smoothed out, and that there will not be a repeat of this year's situation, when quotas were drastically cut in the latter part of the year, causing distress to many fishermen, especially at ports such as Fleetwood?

The United Kingdom had a very satisfactory outcome from the Fisheries Council, which helped us in a number of respects. With regard to the management of quotas throughout the year, we try to operate a system which enables fishing to be carried out fairly throughout the year. It depends to a considerable degree on the extent to which fishermen do not overfish at various times of the year.

Can the Minister expand on his comments in today's Official Report concerning the 4 deg west line for mackeral quota and the lack of flexibility around it? Why is the Minister so encouraged by the results of the Council of Ministers meeting, when the report contains only a postponement until the end of May?

I was encouraged because we are making progress. We have made it clear that we think it is important to have that flexibility, which was agreed in the Norwegian agreement. We do not think that undermines the common fisheries policy in any way, but ensures that it is implemented as it was intended. After prolonged negotiations we managed to persuade the Council that this should be the subject of a report by the Commission, and we are committed to taking decisions by the end of May. The hon. Gentleman will know that the problem arises only in the last three months of the year. That gives us time to sort it out.

In his meeting with the industry, did my right hon. Friend discuss the possibility that, in future allocations of North Sea cod quota, special provisions should be made for ports that are primarily dependent on that one species, such as my constituency of Bridlington?

That did not arise in the Council discussions. It was not part of the new package, but I did manage to obtain an assurance from the Commission that if the scientific assessment changed during the year in relation to cod it would be prepared to look at that and come to the Council with proposals.

Does the Minister agree that there are some rough edges to the deal? Given that cod is fetching between £900 and £1,000 per tonne, the cut in the cod quota will harm some of our east coast fishermen. Therefore, will the Minister seek to change that decision, and the Clyde herring decision, in 1988? Are we not to have a regional withdrawal price scheme for herring? On the flexibility agreement for mackeral, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that British fishermen do not lose out to the Danes and others?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that we must take account of the scientific advice on cod. The agreed quota has gone up from the proposal of 148,000 tonnes to 160,000 tonnes, and it is important that we have that in mind for the future conservation of the fishery. However, as I said earlier, we have reached an agreement that the Commission will come forward with further proposals if the scientific assessment in May proves favourable so that that particular TAC can be raised. In view of the time, perhaps I may correspond with the hon. Gentleman on the other matters.

Prime Minister

Cabinet (Collective Responsibility)

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if she has any plans to change the operation of Cabinet collective responsibility; and if she will make a statement.

Since not even one member of the Cabinet will oppose the Prime Minister on her heartless policies towards the National Health Service, and nor will one stand up and fight for Britain on the flat rate poll tax, now appropriately christened the "Tory tax" — [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]

Order. This is the last Prime Minister's Question Time before the recess, so it is precious time.

As the right hon. Lady says, hon. Members do not like it, do they?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that this is the most gutless, sycophantic Cabinet in which she has ever served?

The hon. Gentleman will find that collective responsibility is vital to produce a prosperous Britain, a good Health Service—[Interruption.]—and to be returned for a second, third, fourth and fifth term. [Interruption.]

Order. I ask the House to pursue this Question Time in silence and with mutual tolerance.

In commending the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility, particularly when tackling inner-city problems, can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that there is a Minister with overall responsibility for that and there is not interdepartmental squabbling, so that the Government's commitment and resolve to urban regeneration are in no way diminished, and may I wish her the compliments of the season?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I reciprocate his good wishes. Our inner-cities policy is one of collective responsibility. It concerns a considerable number of Departments and we meet regularly to coordinate policies. The inner-cities policy is doing well.

Engagements

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

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

Given her actions in this period of goodwill and charity, will the Prime Minister keep in mind the many hundreds in my constituency who are living on an income of £2,000 a year or less? While the giving of gifts is in the right hon. Lady's mind, does she not consider it obscene that she and the rest of her Cabinet will be awarding themselves gifts — in her case, about £2,000 tax-free? When we talked about charity at home, we were not thinking of Dulwich.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will extend what he has said to the whole House, as I recollect.

Given the excellent unemployment figures announced today, and the continuing trend towards more employment, will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing appreciation to the job club and to all who have worked in my constituency to help lower the figures in what was once one of the worst unemployment black spots in the United Kingdom, but where, since 1 January, there has been a 15 per cent. fall in the figures?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. Unemployment has now fallen for 17 successive months. Over the past year all regions have shared in that fall, and unemployment has fallen faster in Britain than in any other major industrial country. We should congratulate all who work in industry and commerce on their enterprise, because it is they who are providing the jobs that are extending all over the country.

Will the Prime Minister give attention to the plight of junior hospital doctors and their patients? Doctors have to work intolerable hours without breaks or sleep, causing danger to patients and harm to themselves. How will the latest health money assist those doctors, if at all? Will the right hon. Lady bear in mind that they are unwilling to complain because there are not enough consultancies, and they are afraid for their futures in a deteriorating service?

The number of hospital doctors and dentists has risen by some 6,200 in the hospital and community services, and by some 7,000 in the family practitioner service. There are, therefore, more highly skilled doctors, and increasing resources have been made available over the past eight years. The Health Service is operating more efficiently and treating more patients, for which we should say thank you to the doctors and nurses.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave some moments ago.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is the first time in this Parliament, or the last, that I have tabled one of these rather odd questions? Will she ponder, during the course of her busy day, that, despite all the gloomy verbosity from the Opposition, in the famous Addenbrooke's hospital in my constituency so many young people are seeking to train as nurses that the hospital is unable to take any more until the end of next year?

It is good to know that a considerable number of young people are coming forward to train as nurses. My hon. Friend will be aware that there are some 64,500 more nurses than there were eight years ago. Their pay is very much better, and their standard working week is down from 40 to 37½ hours. The basic rate of tax that they have to pay is also very much lower.

Yesterday's announcement on National Health Service funding was very welcome. In the spirit — [Interruption.]

In the spirit of Christmas, will the Prime Minister convey the congratulations of the whole House to her monitors for their perspicacity in spotting the crisis only nine months into the financial year? Have her monitors told her that the supplementary sums allocated yesterday will ensure that during the remainder of this financial year no more beds will be lost, no more wards closed and no more operating theatres left unused, and that there will be no more shortages of nurses? Have they told her that the crisis is now over?

The announced increases for this year and the allocations for considerable increases next year have been widely welcomed. My advisers tell me that this year, taking into account my right hon. Friend's announcement yesterday, National Health Service spending will be £843 million more than last year. Contrast that with 10 years ago when the Labour party was in power, when National Health Service spending was being cut by £400 million.

As the season of good will is nigh, is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us are recalling her remarkable achievements of the past year in enhancing the international standing of our country, and that we wish her a restful Christmas and a fabulous new year?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. May I warmly reciprocate his comments, and extend them to all people of good will in this House.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

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

Is the Prime Minister aware that the much-needed new maternity and gynaecology unit at Chesterfield hospital has been placed in mothballs because Trent regional health authority is skint? Has the Prime Minister a message of good will for my constituents, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)— who no doubt would like to take part in this Question Time — telling of an improvement in matters there? Has she a message of good will for the 15,000 people in the area of Trent regional health authority—the worst-funded health authority in this country—who have been on waiting lists for over one year?

I understand that for the year 1987–88 the Trent regional health authority, has been allocated £989 million— [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] I am not merely reading it out; the taxpayers had to provide it. What is more, the share of the extra money announced yesterday that will go to Trent is £5·8 million. Contrast that with 10 years ago.

In this great period of the year between the feast of St. Andrew and the feast of St. Nicholas, will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of the people of Scotland for what she has put in their stocking this year: 40 per cent. of regional grant for one eleventh of the population; £127 per head for every £100 spent on an Englishman and £80 per head spent on a Northumbrian; the announcement of an increase of £7·6 million for our hospitals and health services, which is a vast increase in our budget one last year; and for taking Scotland's industrial wage from the bottom of the league to the top not only of this kingdom, but of Europe? May we say that Scrooge Socialism is not something that we want?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. I could not have put it better myself, and I am sure that Scotland is quietly very pleased with these results.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

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

Will there not be record levels of homelessness in London this Christmas because of the Government's policies? Will not the bed-and-breakfast hostels he full? Is that the Government's contribution to the Christmas story—no room at the inn?

The number of homes is far greater now than it was at the beginning of this eight-year period. There have been many Government steps to tackle homelessness, and young people can benefit, particularly from our hostels initiative. We have made it easier for council tenants to sublet. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, in London there are nearly 27,000 empty homes, and 10,000 of them have been empty for more than a year. Three boroughs — Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets — have more than 5½ per cent. of their stock vacant.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the increase in manufacturing output of 6½ per cent. in the past 12 months announced earlier this week holds out good prospects that the encouraging downward trend in unemployment, confirmed by the figures published today, will continue?

Yes, manufacturing has had a very good year—it is now 6½ per cent. over and above what it was a year ago—and so have other industries such as the construction industry, coal, oil and commerce in general. They are earning for this country a record standard of living and a record standard of care in pensions and social services.

Business Of The House

3.30 pm

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for the first week after the recess?

The business for the first week after the Christmas Adjournment will be as follows:

MONDAY 11 JANUARY — Second Reading of the Housing (Scotland) Bill.

TUESDAY 12 JANUARY—Progress on remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

Motion on the Industrial Training Levy (Construction Board) (No. 2) Order.

WEDNESDAY 13 JANUARY—Completion of remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

Second Reading of the Income and Corporation Taxes Bill [Lords] which is a consolidation measure.

Motion relating to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee.

THURSDAY 14 JANUARY—There will be a debate on a motion to approve the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Autumn Statement.

FRIDAY 15 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

Will the Leader of the House give us a firm indication today of when in the new year we can expect to debate the televising of the proceedings of the House of Commons?

Could the right hon. Gentleman ensure a further statement on the implications for benefit payments of the error in the retail prices index calculations?

Last week I asked the right hon. Gentleman about consultation with hon. Members about the new immigration rules. Could he now ensure an early debate and give us some idea of when it will be?

Following last night's approval of an increase in office costs allowance for my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), will the Leader of the House accept that my hon. Friend and all who want proper provision for disabled people so that they can enjoy the full rights of citizenship are grateful for what he has done? However, will he confirm that this is an interim arrangement and that further special provision to help my hon. Friend will be made when the full extent of his special needs have been quantified and when a statement can be made to the House?

The Leader of the House knows that there is considerable concern about the way in which the Government are using and misusing prior restraint, prepublication censorship and the laws of confidentiality to constrict the rights of reporting and broadcasting to an extent not really justifiable on grounds of national security. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us a guarantee that soon after we return in the new year he will give a day of Government time to a debate on these matters so that we at least can exercise complete freedom of speech?

Finally, I wish the right hon. Gentleman the compliments of the season.

I shall start with the last point and reciprocate warmly by giving my best wishes to everybody in the House for Christmas and the new year.

I cannot announce a date for a debate on the televising of Parliament. I have indicated that I hope that the debate will take place about the end of January, and I hope that I shall be able to be very clear about that in the first business statement when we return after Christmas.

On the matter of the retail prices index my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and the Disabled will make a statement in the House tomorrow before we rise for the Christmas recess.

On the matter of the immigration rules, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Opposition have prayed against the statement of changes in the rules. I shall certainly look for an opportunity for an early debate in the new year.

The Government motion passed last night on the matter of additional assistance to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in his office costs allowance was an interim measure. The Services Committee is looking into the case for a higher figure and, if necessary, the House will be asked to reconsider it in the new year.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of broadcasting and related matters. I understand that the High Court this morning rejected the BBC's application for a discharge of the injunction. Therefore, the matter remains sub judice. We can consider the possibility of a debate once the matter has been settled.

As one who has been reasonably in favour of making progress in the matter of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind the report of the Chairman of the Committee of Selection and perhaps in future leave it to the House to decide what steps to take?

I shall table a motion after the recess to which amendments can be tabled. My hon. Friend is right in saying that it will be a matter for the House to decide.

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to look at early-day motion 415 regarding the effect of electricity price increases on those in poverty, particularly the elderly?

[That this House condemns the proposed 9 per cent. increase in prices in electricity; notes that this increase is more than twice the rate of inflation; regrets the example set by the previous Labour Government of increasing electricity prices by 30 per cent. more than inflation; calls on the Government to recognise that the people affected by this increase will be the old and the cold, the poor and the sick, the 1,200 who die as a result of energy poverty each year and the 90,000 who have their electricity supplies cut each year; and further calls on this Government to implement a proper conservation programme in order to conserve our natural resources for future generations.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) there has already been an anomaly under the new severe weather payments in which neighbouring communities have qualified in one case but not in another? Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether, after the recess, there will be an opportunity for a debate on fuel poverty and that, if further anomalies arise out of the new regulations for severe weather payments, the Secretary of State for Social Services, who we hope will be restored to full health by then, will come to the House and make a statement on needed changes?

I cannot promise an early debate on the matter, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has already made a full statement on electricity prices. Even following the price increases in April next year, industrial and domestic electricity prices will be lower in real terms than they were six years ago.

Will the Leader of the House provide time as soon as possible after the recess for a debate on the crisis in the National Health Service in Northern Ireland where, despite the emergency payment of £2·1 million to meet the present shortfall, the health boards face the prospect of closing hospital wards and lengthening waiting lists for operations? That is a grim situation which is made even worse by the fact that discrimination is practised by the Government against Northern Ireland in that Northern Ireland will receive 1 per cent. less for the next financial year.

Northern Ireland certainly received a share of the increased resources announced yesterday by my hon. Friend the Minister for Health. However, I shall certaiely refer the hon. Gentleman's comments to my right hon. Priend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the treatment by the pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, of people in Britain who have been damaged by the drug Opren has been disgraceful? After paying American claimants, it has forced British claimants to go through our legal system. Many of those claimants are old and gravely disabled. The consequence has been a lawyers' paradise in which the claimants receive less than the lawyers representing them and the claimants are gagged for life. May we have a debate on improving the system for the payment of compensation to people damaged by drugs?

I recognise the concern and interest that the right hon. Gentleman takes in these matters. I cannot promise an early debate, and I do not think that it would be right for me to comment on the substance of what he has said, but I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

While wishing my right hon. Friend a happy, successful and trouble-free new year, may I express the hope that there is no truth whatsoever in the rumours that certain private Members' Bills will be the subject of three-line whips?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his good wishes, particularly the wish for a trouble-free new year, which I reciprocate strongly. However, as he knows, matters of whipping are not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary.

What plans has the right hon. Gentleman for the important subject of speech therapy provision in our schools? Does he agree with me that many parents throughout the country, including in my constituency, are very distressed and worried because schools do not have sufficient staff to help their children with speech defects? Is it not tragic that these youngsters will not have the expert attention that they need while they are at school when the problem could be solved? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to help us?

The matter does not fall within my responsibility directly, but it is an important issue. I cannot promise time for an early debate on the subject, hut I shall certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request.

Given that there are 80 people who wish to speak in today's debate on the rates reform Bill, will my right hon. Friend consider bringing back the ten-minute rule which was so successfully run in the last Session of Parliament and enabled many more hon. Members on both sides of the House to contribute to important debates?

I recognise that there is a wish to do this in a number of quarters of the House, but, when we tried before, there was a degree of controversy. We shall see whether we can make progress in the new year.

May I draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to early-day motion 461 which deals with the threatened closure of Newbattle Abbey college?

[That this House condemns in the strongest possible terms the announcement by the Secretary of State for Scotland to withdraw Government funding for Newbattle Abbey College, Dalkeith, thereby effectively bringing about the closure of the college; notes that the decision has been taken without any consultation whatsoever and without any regard to the outstanding contribution made by the college over many years to adult education; and urges the Secretary of State immediately to enter into discussions with the college authorities with a view to reversing his damaging decision.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that this is a national matter in Scotland because it is the only adult college of that type in Scotland? Will he convey to the Secretary of State for Scotland and his staff the fact that great discourtesy seems to permeate the Scottish Office., as it announced the withdrawal of funding for that college and never even had the courtesy to notify the local Member of Parliament—myself—about that decision?

I apologise if there has been any discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman; I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would not have intended it. I shall look into the matter for the hon. Gentleman.

Government grants for Newbattle Abbey college will be withdrawn from the end of the 1988–89 academic year. Continued support can no longer be justified, given the great increase in opportunities for mature students to enter further and higher education since Government support was introduced. Funds released by the withdrawal of support from Newbattle Abbey college will be devoted to encouraging wider access to further and higher education in Scotland in ways more relevant to current needs.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, towards the end of the last Parliament, we had an excellent general debate on agriculture and countryside problems, after a good deal of nagging from the Conservative Benches? As debates on agriculture now tend to get stuck in the ploughed field of EEC documents, will he consider having another general debate on the subject?

I remember the nagging, the debate, and my hon. Friend's contribution to it. I shall certainly bear in mind what he says, but I cannot promise a debate in the immediate future.

May I bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the fact that our right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is now in Brussels negotiating the quotas for the steel industry in this country and for Europe in general, and that that discussion is taking place without a debate having first taken place in the House? Our right hon. and learned Friend is therefore unaware of the opinions of those hon. Members with steel-producing constituencies and wider interests affected by steel quotas. He has had a recommendation from the Select Committee on European Legislation for such a debate in good time, and a debate could have been held so that he could have had those views in front of him. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that this does not happen again and that we shall have a debate as soon as we return from the recess?

I cannot promise a debate as soon as we come back. I have a feeling that my right hon. and learned Friend is well informed about the views of most hon. Members. If my hon. Friend wants to make sure that he is, there will be Question Time on the Wednesday after we return.

Will the Leader of the House, as a matter of urgency, arrange for a debate on the old and the cold? People are adopting a cynical attitude towards Members of Parliament who, year after year, shed crocodile tears about the plight of the old and the cold, yet every winter we are faced with the same problem and no solution. It is a matter of absolute urgency that the House should debate the matter while winter is with us and find not a short-term solution but a long-term solution to the plight of the old and the cold.

I do not know about crocodile tears. I cannot find time for a debate, but I should welcome one. We on the Government side could show a substantially better record than that of the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported.

Will the Leader of the House explain why, as yet, the House has had no opportunity to debate the Government's attitude to their golden shareholding in Britoil? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, under the provisions of Britoil's articles of association, there need only to be "reasonable grounds" for supposing that a bid for control is taking place? Does he consider that, with BP now owning 25 per cent. of Britoil, and Arco holding a further 15 per cent, such reasonable grounds exist? Will he explain why the Government are hiding from the House of Commons on this issue? Bearing in mind the commitments that were made in the 1982 debate about Britoil's independence, will he guarantee that the Government will hold their golden share until the House of Commons has had an opportunity to discuss the issue?

The decision that was taken by BP in that case was a commercial one. It was taken by BP itself. No proposals have been put to the Government for moving further to a takeover bid. If any bid were made, the Government would consider the circumstances and whether to use the powers of the special share.

Given my right hon. Friend's responsibility for the allocation of funds through the House to political parties, and given that my right hon. Friend is well aware that civil war has broken out between the rump of the Labour party and the Trots in Watford, and, doubtless, in other parts of the country as well, will my right hon. Friend say what action he intends to take in that regard?

I am conducting a review of the matter, and any evidence or information that my hon. Friend wants to give me will be considered.

Is the Leader of the House aware that next year will be the 40th anniversary of the National Health Service? Therefore, will he reconsider the answer that he gave about the need for an urgent debate when we come back? We could then try to ensure that the National Health Service is kept in being beyond its anniversary date in July. There is obvious uncertainty on Government Benches. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister said that the National Health Service has enough money, on Wednesday the Minister for Health said that it is £95 million short, and most people in the country believe that it is £2 billion to £3 billion short.

If they listen to the hon. Gentleman, I am not surprised. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman does not understand the figures or whether he does not like them, but the Government's record on the Health Service is extremely good, and is a lot better than that of the Government he supported.

The decision of the European Court of Justice on whether British industry and commerce should be obliged to pay VAT on gas, electricity, water and sewerage and on all new industrial and commercial buildings will be published in mid-January. It is likely that it will be the first time in the history of our Parliament that a foreign court will have instructed a British Government on what taxes they should levy. Will the Leader of the House promise us that, if the case goes wrong, we shall have a debate on the burden on industry and on what will be a massive new loss of sovereignty for Parliament?

I recognise my hon. Friend's continuing concern in these matters. I honestly do not believe that it would be right for me to anticipate any decision that any court might make next year.

It would be helpful if we could have a debate on the care of the elderly. Late last week, one of my constituents, an elderly person, left his home to get a newspaper. When he went back, he found that the electricity board had gained entry to his house, cut off the electricity supply, and put a padlock on his door. The poor man was so confused that he wandered the streets for hours and was admitted to the local hospital until the matter was sorted out by his social worker. Surely, the House should not tolerate such highhanded manners from an electricity board. We should discuss the matter because it is shameful that our elderly people are treated like that in the winter.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that high-handed action by anybody is not tolerable. I cannot promise an early debate, but if he will write to me I shall ensure that his letter is passed to the appropriate person.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a lot of time in the House is spent on the affairs of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but that it has been a long time since a debate was held on the northern region? Will he bear in mind that there are 30 hon. Members, from different parties, representing over 3 million people, who would very much welcome a debate on the north-east?

When I became a Member of the House, I thought that we spent rather a lot of time on Scotland and Wales. It has ever been thus, and I guess that it always will be. However, the northern region should certainly not be neglected. I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Is the Leader of the House aware of repeated allegations about mistreatment of and cruelty to elderly and confused people in Kent? Is he further aware that, although Kent county council has met and discussed the matter, it has not taken any initiatives and is ducking the issue? I have called for a public inquiry into this by the Department of Health and Social Security. Will the right hon. Gentleman press that Department because up to now it has refused to institute an inquiry? What will happen to those people? Are they to be neglected?

I am sure that Kent county council is well able to discharge its duties and responsibilities in this matter. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence to support his allegations, no doubt he will ensure that that is passed to the appropriate body.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was wrong the last time that he made that allegation and he is totally wrong to repeat it. I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend that the hon. Gentleman should be asked to produce the evidence on which he is making the assertion that Kent county council has done nothing whatsoever about the allegations. Most of the problems were put right before the programme was shown by the television company, which did not even bother to consult the social services department before finding out whether it was telling the truth. However, if we are to discuss the matter more fully, perhaps we should have a debate on it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as I am sure that the House is, for his comments. However, I cannot promise an early debate.

Does the Leader of the House remember our exchange last Thursday on early-day motion 429?

[That this House calls for the profits made by the House of Commons Refreshment Department, including the Kiosk, during the week 14 December to 18 December inclusive, to be donated to the Ethiopian Famine Appeal.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of any decisions or recommendations having been made by the appropriate Committees? Is he aware of the importance of an announcement being made before the appeal closes at the end of this week? I should like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your sympathetic interest in this matter.

The Government have made their concern clear about the suffering in Ethiopia. However, there is nothing further than I can add to what I said to the hon. Gentleman last week.

Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on the wider issues of the organisation and structure of the National Health Service, not so much on the narrow point raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but on the whole issue of the way in which it should be financed, organised and be made accountable?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in saying that we shall want to return to those issues. Although I cannot promise an early debate, I believe that it is an important subject.

Given the promise of a debate on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, we are left to assume that a deal has been cobbled up through the usual channels. Would it not be an absolute scandal if English Conservative Members, who gained no votes in Scotland, were press-ganged on to the Committee when Scottish National party Members, who have votes in Scotland, are deliberately excluded? Would not such a deal also represent a betrayal of the Scottish electorate by the Labour party?

If a deal has been cobbled up between the usual channels, I hope that somebody will tell me about it. So far as I am concerned, it is a matter for the House to decide, and that is what will happen.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 350?

[That this House extends its best wishes to President Mangope and to the people of Bophuthatswana on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of their Independence; applauds their successful efforts to establish a non-racial, democratic, free-enterprise society; and looks forward to the day when their achievements receive greater international recognition.]

It congratulates President Mangope and the people of Bophuthatswana on the 10th anniversary of its independence from the Republic of South Africa. The motion now carries 110 signatures and there are 22 signatures from Opposition Members to an amendment that is not altogether unsympathetic towards that country. May I also draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a leaflet published this week by the Foreign Office entitled "British Aid to Southern Africa"? Will he provide time early in the new year for a debate on southern Africa, with particular reference to the British Government's policy towards the front-line states?

I cannot promise an early debate on that subject. In fact, the British Government, in common with the rest of the international community—with the exception of South Africa — do not recognise that country as an independent state.

Given that the major national issue for the past two or three months, if not longer, has been the Health Service, does the Leader of the House accept that it is unsatisfactory that the only time we have had to debate that subject has been on an Opposition day? Will he reconsider the various requests that have been made for a debate? Will he also bear in mind that, even if £6·7 million is given to the West Midlands regional health authority, Shropshire alone needs £1 million to prevent massive hospital closures, yet it has no chance of receiving that money from the sums allocated. Will the right hon. Gentleman accede to the national concern, if not the concern in this House, and provide time to debate the issue?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Health made a statement yesterday, and I believe that it was well received. The comments that I have read in the national press and others suggest that he responded well to the concern and difficulties about the Health Service. I cannot promise an early debate on the subject.

May I pick up the theme of freedom of speech mentioned by the Leader of the Opposition and ask for an early debate to investigate the circumstances in which, two days ago, the Strangers Gallery came to be full of homosexuals and lesbians during the debate on the Local Government Bill? It should be noted that those people tried to suppress contributions from Conservative Members and to support and cheer loudly the contributions from Labour and Liberal Members. May we have an inquiry into how they came to be in the Gallery in such numbers and why they were allowed to continue to attempt to interfere so vociferously with the proceedings of the House?

I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend has said, and will write to him. I understand from the Serjeant at Arms that there appeared to be a large number of members of the public in the Gallery whose interest in the debate on Tuesday night was such that they tried to interrupt it. I congratulate the Doorkeepers on their action in containing the disturbance.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motions 264 and 333?

[That this House pays tribute to the staff of BBC Radio London for their invaluable contribution to the cultural life of London over many years; views with considerable concern reports that Radio London faces closure; and calls upon the BBC to make a clear statement of intent to maintain Radio London with the necessary resources to enable the station to enhance its coverage of activities in the capital city.]

[That this House views with concern the reported plans of the BBC management to abandon their Radio London Service; notes that Radio London has a quarter of a million listeners a day in Greater London, and another quarter of a million in the home counties and runs on a tiny budget compared with the other two London radio stations, and yet during some parts of the day attracts a larger audience; further notes that it has programmes directed towards the blind, the elderly, the Jewish, black and Asian Communities; further notes that since 1982, 10,000 people have found work through Radio London Job Search, more than 10,000 blood donors have been recruited through Radio London Bloodline, and that last year Radio London raised more than any other local radio station for Children in Need: (170,000; and calls upon the Home Secretary to make it clear to the BBC that if Radio London were scrapped, London would no longer be receiving a proper service from the BBC.]

There are many rumours that Radio London will be closed down. One of the early-day motions is signed by Labour Members and the other by Conservative Members. No one on the Opposition Benches, and, I hope, no one on the Conservative Benches, although there are a few, would wish to interfere editorially in the affairs of the BBC. However, as a public corporation, surely the public of London should be consulted about the future of an extremely popular radio station. In view of the threat not only to Radio London, but to local radio generally, may we have an early debate so that at least the BBC board of management knows what public representatives are saying about some of its decisions regarding the future of local radio?

The Government's Green Paper "Radio: Choices and Opportunity" explains the Government's view. There continues to be a case for BBC local radio which provides a distinct service alongside the major developments proposed for independent radio. However, the Green Paper made clear that it is and must remain for the BBC to decide, within the financial limits and other resources available to it, how best to carry out its obligations under the charter.

Will my right hon. Friend take time to look at Monday's Order Paper and note the motion in my name to discuss the Peak Park planning board? Is he aware that, of the 23 people appointed to the board by councils, only three live in the area, which is a disgrace? Will he find time to have a debate, or go one better and promise me time to examine a Government Bill to put right this outrage?

This is an important matter. Perhaps my hon. Friend will try his luck with an Adjournment debate, but I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

In view of the long-standing and continuing discrimination in Northern Ireland in employment, will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the recent SACOHR report and the Government's response to it?

I recognise that there are particular problems in Northern Ireland, but I certainly do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question. However, I shall refer it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I cannot promise an early debate.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that for decades the defence of our country has depended crucially upon a deterrent system that has allowed for no winners? Does he also accept that one of the side effects of the INF agreement is to create the expectation that that may be replaced by a system that would allow the temptation of winning? Is not that such a crucial fact that it is deserving of a major debate in the House, rather than merely an Adjournment debate?

It is certainly an important subject, and we shall find time to debate it in the new year, but I cannot promise an early debate.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me in my usual spot.

I was giving you a compliment, Mr. Speaker, as I know at what time I shall be called.

Will the Leader of the House reflect on the fact that record numbers of people are living without a decent roof over their heads and sleeping on the streets of every major city? Many families are forced to spend five years or more in bed and breakfast accommodation, with all the attendant dangers for their children and the difficulties of bringing them up in such circumstances. There are also record low levels of building for rent—only building for sale is going on now. In the light of that, and instead of ignoring the problem, will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on this crucial issue as soon as we return in the new year so that we, as a society, may consider housing as a right and not as a privilege for those who can afford it?

The Government's Housing Bill, which is at present before the House, directly addresses some of these issues. The speedy implementation of a number of its provisions will help immeasurably in this area.

Tullyally Estate, Londonderry (Bombing)

4.4 pm

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

"the bombing of the predominantly Protestant Tullyally housing estate by Republicans in Londonderry last night, resulting in the death of one Roman Catholic, the extensive damage of 50 homes and the injury of 15 persons, including a child of three years of age."
In the Republican Bogside, a taxi was hijacked. Later, it was returned to its owner. It drove to the Tullyally estate and three bombs were planted indiscriminately in that estate. A wake was being held in one of the houses, and that house was blasted. The mourners were showered with glass and had to be taken to hospital for treatment. There are three Roman Catholics in the estate, and one of them was killed. One child of three was also injured.

At this time of the year, when we are thinking of goodwill and peace, surely the House should consider the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Northern Ireland, and should take time to discuss a matter of vital importance that affects both parts of our community.

The hon. Gentleman asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"last night's bomb outrage in Londonderry".
I have listened with concern as, I am sure, has the whole House, to what the hon. Gentleman has said about this matter, but he knows that the decision that I must take in granting a Standing Order No. 20 debate is whether to give it precedence over the business set down for the day. I regret that the hon. Gentleman's application does not meet with the criteria for Standing Order No. 20 debates, and, therefore, I cannot submit his application to the House.

Bill Presented

Firearms (Amendment)

Mr. Secretary Hurd, supported by The Prime Minister, Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, Mr. Secretary Walker, Mr. Secretary King, Mr. Kenneth Clarke, Mr. John MacGregor, Mr. Secretary Mr. Richard Luce and Mr. Douglas Hogg, presented a Bill to amend the Firearms Act 1986 and to make further provision for regulating the possession of, and transactions relating to, firearms and ammunition: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 75.]

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1957, that the Queen has signified Her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

  • 1. Scottish Development Agency Act 1987.
  • 2. Urban Development Corporations (Financial Limits) Act 1987.
  • 3. British Waterways Act 1987.
  • 4. British Railways Act 1987.
  • Local Government Finance Bill

    Order read for resuming adjourned debate on amendment to Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time— [16 December]—to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

    `this House declines to give a second reading to the Local Government Finance Bill because of the absence of any grading in the rate of community charge in proportion to the ability to pay and because of the absence of a comprehensive rebate scheme which would also take account of ability to pay.'.

    Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

    Before we resume the debate, may I remind the House that I have a very long list of right hon. and hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate? The hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) drew attention to the fact that at the moment there is no limit on speeches, but it would help enormously, and would be to the great comfort and general convenience of the House, if speeches were limited to about 10 minutes. In that way, a large number of hon. Members could be called, as well as Privy Councillors.

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does the Chair intend to have regard to those hon. Members who were here yesterday, and not only to those who have turned up today?

    Those who sat through yesterday will certainly have some precedence in the debate today.

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether it would be helpful to the House if the occupant of the Chair could inform a right hon. Member or an hon. Member who is speaking when he has reached 10 minutes? It is sometimes difficult when speaking to know how long one has taken.

    The Chair has no authority to do that. There is no limit on speeches without the authority of the House. Until the motion has been put down and agreed, the occupant of the Chair cannot do as the hon. Gentleman requests.

    4.9 pm

    The Bill extends to England and Wales, but provides for separate operations in the two countries. There are a number of important differences in the way in which the legislation will operate in Wales, which will reflect the particular needs and circumstances of Wales, and which I hope will be welcomed by Welsh Members on both sides of the House.

    I have been impressed by the good working relationship between central and local government in Wales. I have had a large number of meetings, both formal and informal, with representatives of local authorities at all levels. I know that they have views which are sometimes obviously in conflict with those of the Government, and these present proposals are no exception. But, despite differing views, there exists a constructive dialogue on the problems of Wales and ways in which they can be overcome. There is a readiness on the part of local authorities to approach problems in a constructive way. In the same way, they know that there is a readiness on my part to have meaningful consultations and to listen attentively to the points that they have to put across.

    Wales has had a separate rate support grant system since 1980, and I do not think that anyone involved in political life in the Principality would dissent from the view that that has been of enormous benefit to local government services and to the people of Wales. The Bill presently under consideration gives an even greater independence to Wales in local government finance, but I and my predecessor have already made it clear that no resources will be lost to Wales as a result of this legislation.

    The Bill provides for a separate and completely insulated system to operate in Wales. All the receipts of the community charge will stay in Wales and there will be an entirely separate grant system based on assessments of needs fully discussed with the local authorities. All the non-domestic rates will go into a separate Welsh pool to be redistributed to Welsh local authorities. The benefits that Wales enjoys from having its own separate system and separate consultations will be carried over into these new arrangements. I hope that the House and the people of Wales will recognise what a small proportion of local government expenditure in Wales will come from the community charge.

    Will my right hon. Friend cover a point that was raised yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)? It is about the effect of the community charge in giving an incentive to people to put their grandmothers out to grass, to make them go into retirement. We have far too many retirement homes already.

    I disagree with that analysis. One of the important points about the community charge is that many single elderly people, such as widows and pensioners living alone, will benefit from the legislation and will not be handicapped by it. I shall deal with that later.

    On present spending and grant patterns, the community charge would account for only 14 per cent. of local government expenditure in Wales; 19 per cent. would come from the non-domestic sector and 67 per cent. would come in the form of grants. Put another way, total local government expenditure per household in Wales comes to £35 per week. Of this, the Government will put up £24. The business sector contributes £6 and that leaves only £5 to find from the community charge. That is the amount that we are talking about today—not the £35 per household that goes out every week on local services in the Principality.

    However, many people would not even pay the small contribution that the community charge makes towards the funding of local government. The Government have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that those on low incomes will be protected.

    I am trying to follow my right hon. Friend's argument and the Government's argument about accountability. We are told that the Bill will make local government more accountable to the voters. How will it be more accountable if only £5 out of £35 comes via any local charge? The Government will have at least 75 per cent. control over the money coming in. How will that make local government more accountable?

    One of the ways in which it will be made more accountable is that more people than ever before will be paying this smaller contribution. At present, many people in Wales do not make any direct contribution to the local authority. Many people will not even have to pay the small contribution that the community charge makes to the funding of local government. As I have said, the Government have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that people on low incomes will be protected.

    A great deal has been said about the impact on the very poor in the inner cities and elsewhere. There is no doubt that in Wales many people depend upon social security payments and other state benefits. However, it must be clearly stated that these people will be paying the average of £5 per week per household and will benefit from very substantial rebates. At the moment, people on the lowest incomes qualify for 100 per cent. rate rebates. Almost all these people will qualify for income support under the new system. This means that they will get an automatic 80 per cent. rebate on their community charge. Therefore, instead of the average of £5 per week, they will pay £1 per week per household. In addition to the rebate, their income support levels will have been uprated by an amount to reflect the average minimum community charge payment for Great Britain.

    I recognise some of the points that the right hon. Gentleman is making. How can he possibly justify a tax under which people on his income and people who have far more than the right hon. Gentleman will pay precisely the same as people on modest incomes, who will receive no rebate? Can he explain why the Tory Reform Group, of which he is very much a patron, has been so highly critical of the poll tax?

    I have had the privilege to be a patron of the Tory Reform Group for many years. One of the privileges that I have had in that capacity is that I have never been consulted on any publication. I have not read the publication to which the hon. Gentleman alludes. The hon. Gentleman has taken a rather bad example, because three of my children are teenagers and are likely to continue to live at home for some time. It may be that under this system I shall pay more, rather than less.

    It is entirely appropriate to use Great Britain averages of the minimum community charge payment for the upgrading of the allowances. One of the fundamental principles of the social security system is that it should apply equally across the country. The effects of compensation on this basis will be that people in Wales in receipt of income support are likely to receive entirely adequate support towards the amount of the community charge that they will be called upon to pay.

    Even the 20 per cent. that has to be found will be based on what happens locally. We are being told about the national average, but the people of Wales may well have to find more than the increase in the income support grant. How can that be fair?

    The hon. Gentleman has chosen a bad example. It will almost certainly be the other way round. The rebate to those people will be rather higher, and that is likely to be beneficial to the people of Wales. Welsh Members will be pleased at that.

    My right hon. Friend has described the rate rebate scheme that will be available to people on benefit. In the past the Government have described a system of rebates for people on moderate incomes that are just above benefit level. We have not heard anything about that rebate system, and I should like to know what plans the Governent have to help my constituents who do not enjoy benefit and who are on modest incomes. Many of them are pensioners.

    A whole range of people such as those described by my hon. Friend will benefit under the rebate system. As my hon. Friend knows, many of the people in the category that my hon. Friend describes have a hard time under the present rating system. While there will undoubtedly be people who will have difficulties with the community charge or the present rating system, I do not think that the change in the system will make a great deal of difference to the people that my hon. Friend has described.

    I have given way several times, and in view of Mr. Speaker's request for speeches to be brief f should like to continue with my speech.

    In Wales the average community charge will be £5 per week per household in return for £35 per week per household of local government expenditure, and there will be a substantial rebate and increased allowance scheme in operation. In those circumstances, it is difficult to see how the Opposition can maintain that the Government are not protecting people in Wales who are on very low incomes.

    In the light of the Secretary of State's claim about quite exceptional generosity in the treatment of low-income or no-income people in Wales, will he comment on the statement a month ago by the chief executive of Cardiff city council in his capacity as the electoral registration officer for Cardiff? He said that he was already perceiving through his clerks who a re collecting the electoral registration forms an incentive for people, and especially young people, in the inner-city areas, not to register. Can the Secretary of State say whether he thinks that there is now an inducement for people not to take part in the democracy of Britain because of fears about the poll tax even three years before its introduction?

    There is no such inducement whatever. I certainly do not think that the pronouncement by one official in Cardiff proves a particular case in one direction or another.

    Concern has been expressed about the practicalities of collecting the charge. We have not tried to pretend that it would not be more expensive than the present system. In Wales we have just begun discussions with the local authority associations about the mechanics of implementing the new system and the inevitable costs that they will incur in working up to it. When I listened to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) last night, I was surprised at his exaggerated account of the terrible difficulties that would be encountered in preparing the list.

    Far from being deterred by the task of collecting the community charge, the right hon. Member should be aware that there has been a major disagreement between the local authority associations in Wales. That disagreement is about who should have this responsibility. The disagreement is not about their not wanting it — they both want it. This is hardly an indication that the practitioners see major problems ahead. I have decided that it would be most appropriate for the districts to retain this function, but it was made quite clear to me that each tier was confident of its ability to make the new system work.

    Part III and schedules 3 to 6 deal with non-domestic rating. At the moment, formal responsibility for rating policy in England and Wales lies with the Secretary of State for the Environment, who makes all the relevant orders, which apply to both countries. It is anomalous that this sector of responsibility for local government finance does not at present lie with the Welsh Office. From 1990 responsibility for non-domestic rating in Wales will be transferred to the Secretary of State for Wales. I have no present plans to operate the rating system as it will apply to non-domestic properties in any way that is different from the proposed by my right hon. Friend, but the power will be there to enable me to make adjustments for particular circumstances in Wales should the situation arise.

    More fundamentally, this part of the Bill establishes a separate non-domestic rating pool for Wales. A separate poundage will be set for Wales, on the same basis as that proposed for England, but which will give a yield equivalent to the resources raised in Wales alone. Non-domestic poundages in Wales at the moment do not differ very greatly. There are unlikely to be major upheavals for business as a result of this change. The maximum increase, again on 1987–88 figures, would be 12 per cent. which would be in Cardiff. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West will wish to know that the business sector in Swansea will gain the most from the proposals, with a decrease of 12 per cent.

    The overall contribution made by businesses in Wales to local authority spending will not change, and the move to a national poundage uplifted in line with inflation will be fairer to businesses and give them greater certainty about their future bills. No longer will they be subject to the turbulence and uncertainty that they have faced from the authorities' decisions. No longer will business in South Glamorgan be faced with a massive 24 per cent. increase at a time when inflation was running at around 3 per cent. No longer will business in Dyfed be faced with increases more than three times the rate of inflation. The revaluation will also result in a more equitable and up-to-date distribution of the rates burden.

    Taking those two measures together, it is likely that industry will gain in those areas most in need of economic regeneration. The revaluation should benefit older industrial premises, which are a feature of areas such as Mid Glamorgan. This will give a direct and significant boost to the economic regeneration of the valleys and boost employment opportunities. The move to a national poundage will reduce rate bills by 9 per cent. in Mid Glamorgan and reduce the burden on businesses in the valleys by £7 million a year.

    As in England, the resources from the non-domestic rating pool will be redistributed to local authorities as an amount per adult. The provisions for this are dealt with in schedule 5. However, separate provision for Wales is made in paragraphs 11 to 14 of that schedule. Unlike England, where the receipts will go into the collection fund, the proceeds of the pool will be paid separately to district and county councils. That part of schedule 5 therefore provides a mechanism for splitting the receipts between the two tiers before they are distributed on a per head basis. We propose to do so in the same way as grant is split, that is, on the basis of relative shares of expenditure. The reason for this different approach is to be consistent with the arrangements that I am making for the payment of grant.

    Part 4, which deals with residual rating, will not apply at all to Wales.

    I said on the last intervention that that was the last time I would give way. This is the last time.

    Mr. Rogers