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Commons Chamber

Volume 126: debated on Monday 1 February 1988

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 3 February 1988

The House met at hall-past Two o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

University College London Bill Lords

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

Oral Answers To Questions

Foreign And Commonwealth Affairs

South Africa


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he next expects to meet the South African ambassador; and what subjects he expects to discuss with him.


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent communications he has had with the South African Government about the situation in that country.

I have no present plans for an early meeting with the South African ambassador. But we maintain regular contact with the South African authorities, both here and via Her Majesty's ambassador, on a wide range of issues.

Will the Secretary of State accept that it is time that further representations were made about the Sharpeville Six? The court has now stated that the Sharpeville Six were convicted on the basis, not that they had any direct connection with the deceased, but that they were in the vicinity when the crime was committed. The implications of that are pretty appalling. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that it is time to ask the Prime Minister, given the special relationship that she says she has with President Botha, to make representations on the Sharpeville Six as a matter of urgency?

The House will realise that there is a specific question on this topic on the Order Paper a little later. It is right that we have followed the case closely and with concern. Through the German presidency of the Community, on behalf of the 12 members, we appealed for clemency for the Sharpeville Six on humanitarian grounds on 4 December. On 18 December we gave our support to a statement issued on behalf of the United Nations Security Council urging the South African Government to commute the death sentences on the Six. Since then, we have directly reiterated our concern to the South African Government.

Given the appeals for clemency submitted by the United Nations Security Council and the EEC, which have been supported by hon. Members, Church organisations and anti-apartheid groups in South Africa, will the Secretary of State please urge the Prime Minister to intervene directly with President Botha to save the lives of these six young people, who seem to have been wrongly convicted?

I have seen the early-day motion relating to the subject that the hon. Gentleman raises. The representations that we have made direct to the South African Government, which the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, through the United Nations and in concert with the European Community are what we judge to be most likely to have the desired effect.

When my right hon. and learned Friend next meets the South African ambassador, will he remind him that his Government are committed to the independence of Namibia, and that some of us are becoming impatient and angry at their refusal to honour that commitment?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are also committed to the independence of Namibia, by United Nations resolution 435. We consider that it is a matter that should be put in hand urgently, and we have supported the negotiations currently being undertaken by the United States on an intermediary basis to bring it about. We shall continue to press in that direction.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend received representations from the South African Government about the so-called Birmingham Six? If he has not, does he think that we should all learn the lesson that it is high time we stayed out of each other's internal judicial affairs? If we did, the world would he a better place for it.

My hon. Friend must understand that there is a difference between the structure of countries such as ours, which are wholly democratic and subject to a universally available rule of law, and the position that prevails not just in South Africa but in other countries, where there is not complete democracy and a large part of a community is excluded from institutions on the ground of skin colour, which gives rise to a situation that has potentially wider implications. The two structures are in no way comparable.

Have there been any discussions with any other Governments, specifically the South African Government, on setting up a regional conference on security in southern Africa?

When my right hon. and learned Friend meets the high commissioner, will he raise the question of the apparently slow progress towards the consolidation of Bophuthatswana? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that until further progress is made it will be difficult for other countries to recognise Bophuthatswana's independence?

Bophuthatswana's fragmentary nature is only one reason why no country thought it right to recognise its independence. That country is financially dependent on South Africa. The very existence of Bophuthatswana is a consequence of apartheid, and I think that that is the principal reason why recognition has not been forthcoming.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and his colleagues frequently boast about our increased aid commitment to Mozambique, yet the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that much of the value of our investment there — especially in infrastructure projects—is destroyed by South African-backed terrorist organisations—Renamo, or MNR as it is known in Mozambique. What representations has the right hon. and learned Gentleman made to the South African ambassador here or to the South African Government about the effect on our aid efforts in Mozambique of the South African destabilisation policies? Will he give a commitment that the Government, directly or indirectly, will not meet the MNR representative, Mr. Alfonso Dhlakama, who is due to come to this country this month, having been invited by an organisation that includes many Conservative Members, and that the Government will in no way give any form of recognition to the MNR or to Savimbi's Unita?

Our policy toward Unita remains unchanged. There is no question of our recognising such an organisation, as the hon. Gentleman knows. There is no reason to believe that Mr. Dhlakama intends to visit Britain. On the more substantial point underlying the hon. Gentleman's question, of course we condemn cross-border violations in either direction. We have in particular urged the South Africans to exercise restraint. Time and again we have warned and urged the South Africans not to indulge in destabilising activity of the kind that concerns the hon. Gentleman.

Gaza Strip


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will consider taking a joint diplomatic initiative with the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Israel to try to reduce tension in Gaza; and if he will make a statement.

The Arab-Israel conflict and the situation in Gaza have figured prominently in our recent discussions with Egyptian and Israeli leaders. We also remain in close touch with other Governments concerned. We are ready to play a full part in efforts to reduce tension and to achieve a lasting settlement.

As America is now preoccupied with the presidential election campaign, and as the position in Gaza should not just drift along, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Egypt and Israel should meet at the highest level to try to make the Camp David accords work in relation to Gaza and, if successful, move on to negotiations on the West Bank?

I am certain that the search for progress in the peace process should not be set to one side on the ground of elections of one kind or another anywhere. We attach importance to the possibility of cooperation with the Government of Egypt. I had long talks with the President and Foreign Minister during my visit in the autumn. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State had useful discussions with the President and Foreign Minister at the end of last month. The best basis on which to carry the peace process forward remains on the footing of two principles—the right of Israel and other states in the area to a secure existence, and the Palestinian right to self-determination. We think that the best way of carrying that forward is by means of the international conference, which is now supported by many people, including President Mubarak.

I agree with what the Secretary of State has just said about the future in general, but does he not agree that the situation in Gaza is immediate? Has he given any thought to the proposal that Gaza might in some way be administered by the United Nations in the short term? If so, has he discussed that with the Israelis or the Egyptians?

I agree that what has understandably intensified world concern about the Arab-Israel dispute is the position not only in Gaza but elsewhere in the occupied territories. There can be no doubt that Israel should withdraw, as part of a comprehensive peace settlement, from the territories occupied in 1967, and that, meanwhile, she should administer the occupation of those territories in compliance with international law and human rights standards.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend stress in any initiative the enormous damage that this is doing to the state of Israel, not least by increasing awareness in the United States of the fact that Israel is an occupying power in other people's territory? Will he seek to involve the United States in any initiative in which he is able to assist?

I very much appreciate the points made by my hon. Friend. We deplore violence from any quarter in this situation, which is so fraught with conflict. We are seriously concerned about the current unrest, which has been particularly evident in Gaza. It illustrates the dangers of leaving the conflict unresolved, the urgency of the search for a peaceful settlement—and the urgency of those objectives from Israel's point of view, too. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the longer the situation continues, and the longer one finds Israeli occupation forces failing to handle disturbances in a fashion compatible with her obligations, the sharper will be the attention that is focused on the situation. We want Israel to be established within secure boundaries as a state which is not itself threatened by violence. The people of Israel want to achieve that, too. So, in their own interests, they need to address themselves to the situation of which my hon. Friend has complained.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that, in the meantime, there is a need for something to be done to ensure that Israel complies with the Geneva conventions that relate to an occupying power's role in such a situation? How did our representative vote when those resolutions came before the United Nations?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the need for effective action, so far as that is possible, in relation to non-compliance with international obligations in these territories. That is why we supported United Nations resolutions Nos. 605, 607, and 608, and the most recent one, introduced this week, by voting in support of them. Indeed, we played a prominent part in drafting this week's resolution. However, that is not all that needs to be done, but it is a mark of international concern. It is important also to do what can be done to help conditions in the territories by aid and access for trade. We have actively supported all those things.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the conditions in the camps in Gaza are no worse than those in the camps in the Lebanon and Jordan? Does he also agree that it is high time that the Arab world, which encouraged the creation of those camps 40 years ago, used some of its oil-based wealth to solve the problem that it encouraged in the first place?

I understand why my hon. Friend is anxious to be sure that the other side of the matter is represented and taken into account in the House. As I said in my original answer, it is important to recognise that we should take account not only of the right of the Palestinians to self-determination but of the right of Israel to a secure existence within secure borders. It is right also to accept that there have been some improvements since Israeli administration in some areas. However, the point does not stop there. There is a stark contrast between the conditions of those who live in refugee camps and, for example, the Israeli settlers, who live in illegal occupation of the land alongside them. The presence of Israel in such territories is contrary to international law, as resolution after resolution of the United Nations has recognised. It is on that basis that I repeat the objectives that have been common ground to all searches for peace. Above all, it is in Israel's interest to hasten forward the process of looking for a peaceful settlement along those lines.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what the Prime Minister meant by her statement yesterday? She said that the Government favour

"an international conference as a framework conference within which bilateral negotiations should take place between King Hussein of Jordan and Israel."—[Official Report, 2 February 1988; Vol. 126, c. 852.]
Although Jordan's participation is essential and indispensable, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that no conference can possibly succeed—nor will any such conference be acceptable to other parties —without the participation of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and, above all, the Palestinians, whose plight and rights will be the central core of any such conference? Therefore, will the Foreign Secretary repudiate what the Prime Minister said? If Britain is so unclear about her policy, overcoming the obstructiveness of Mr. Shamir and of the United States Government will be impossible.

The right hon. Gentleman should not draw such dramatic conclusions from the point that he has made. The United Kingdom, together with the Twelve and most of the international community, have come out firmly in favour of an international conference. We believe that that is the right framework within which negotiations can take place. The precise method of setting that scene, of course, remains for discussion, but it is quite plain that the Palestinians and several other people will have to be participants in the discussion. I am quite certain that the right hon. Gentleman should not conclude that that is a prescription for some narrower definition of the conference that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has vigorously and energetically supported in forum after forum around the world.

My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned settlements. Does he agree that the Israeli Government have plans for further settlements and that to build settlements in such densely populated areas as Gaza is a great affront to Palestinian refugees? What action will the Government take to try to prevent the creation of further settlements at present?

My hon. Friend is right. If the existing settlements are an infringement of international law, by the same token the extension of such settlements is a still further infringement. More than that, they cannot help to advance or consolidate the cause of peace. They seek to entrench the occupation of illegally occupied territory. They act as a challenge to violence in the opposite direction, which itself poses a threat to the state and people of Israel. It is because of my passionate belief in the right of Israel and its people to exist as a state within secure borders that I urge the people of Israel and their leaders to recognise the need to turn from the path of the entrenchment of illegality and to embark upon the process of negotiation that is so important.

Hana Siniora


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has made to the Israeli Government about the harassment of the Palestinian journalist Hana Siniora by the Israeli security forces; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Siniora has not asked for our intervention, and thus we have no reason to take up his specific case, but we shall continue to follow it closely.

Although I am grateful for the wise and courageous stance that Her Majesty's Government are taking on the issue and for many statements on the subject that have been made today and of late, does the Minister agree that, more than anything else, the Israelis and Palestinians now need less war, war, and more jaw, jaw? Dialogue is impossible unless there is local leadership that has the confidence of the political leadership — the Palestine Liberation Organisation — and the local population, and is accceptable in the broader international community. Dialogue will be impossible if leaders are systematically harassed, arrested, sometimes tortured and, as increasingly of late, deported.

I was glad, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was glad, that Mr. Siniora and his colleague were able to go to the United States and talk direct to Mr. Shultz. When I was in the United States on Monday and Tuesday, I was also glad to note that the United States is re-engaged in the peace process and that further action may be anticipated from that quarter. Plainly, as the hon. Gentleman says, this is a time for serious talking to draw in the Palestinian people. Where that leaves the PLO is in the hands of the PLO members themselves. They have the opportunity to legitimate themselves if they are prepared to accept unequivocally resolutions 242 and 338 to renounce violence and accept Israel's right to exist. If they were to do that, they could be full participants in a process in future. However, I am afraid that the contrary is also the case.

In the case of Hana Siniora and thousands of other Palestinians, what explanation can my hon. and learned Friend offer to the House of the unspeakable inhumanities inflicted by the Israeli Government on the Palestinians? Does he agree that the Israelis, of all people, should really understand about the suffering of minorities?

I said my piece about conditions in the occupied territories when I was there. I believe that a reevaluation is necessary, because it was clear to me from my recent visit to the United States that the shock waves of what is happening in the occupied territories are resounding around the civilised world. Some change in tactics in the occupied territories will have to come about. The status quo in the eyes of an increasing number of sensible, mainstream people is not an option. Maintaining security in the territories at the point of a gun is not realistic and has become an increasingly inhumane process.

South Africa


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Her Majesty's Government's policy towards ending apartheid in South Africa.

Our policies are those most likely to be effective in bringing an end to apartheid. We recognise that fundamental change is very slow, but acknowledge that it must be stimulated from within South Africa.

The Minister will understand that that was no answer to the question. When will she also understand that the Government's self-proclaimed policy of hoping to end apartheid in South Africa is a fraud and a sham? When will she begin to understand that since the declaration of the state of emergency 30,000 people have been detained in South Africa, that the use of torture is widespread and that children receive the most appalling treatment? Should not the Government accept that the horrors of apartheid are increasing daily and that their abject failure to oppose it brings shame to our country throughout the world?

First, the hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I said. Secondly, our repeated objection to the state of detention and the way people and particularly children are treated in South Africa is in no doubt so far as the South African Government are concerned. They are in absolutely no doubt about that. As we take positive measures in southern Africa in general, at the same time we will take up all the representations that he and many other hon. Members wish us to take up. However, the point of the hon. Gentleman's question was how we can speedily bring an end to apartheid. The only way in which we can do that is to encourage dialogue within South Africa among all the groups in South Africa and by voicing our total objection to detention without trial and the other inhumane methods that the South African Government are using against their black people.

Will my right hon. Friend note that many hon. Members welcome the Government's resistance to the introduction of economic sanctions against South Africa? Will she note in particular that those sanctions are unproductive? For example, Barclays National bank did more than any other company in South Africa to bring on black management, which is the way to the future for a multiracial South Africa.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The point is that, as my hon. Friend said, sanctions are beginning to deny black people in work in South Africa the opportunities that were afforded prior to disinvestment. There is growing recognition within South Africa, and within the black community there, that they are being deprived of opportunities by the detachment of some companies — and indeed, some politicians across the world—from that active and concerned interest in the future of black people in South Africa. Anything that we can do to provide positive help to the black population in South Africa should be encouraged, and I hope that it will be.

In view of the communiqué from the Commonwealth Committee of Foreign Ministers on Southern Africa—I have a copy and I am sure that the Minister will also have a copy—will the Minister assure the House that the British Government will do nothing to sabotage the efforts of that committee?

There is no way in which the British Government will attempt to undermine positive work to bring an end to apartheid. I repeat that I do not believe that a study of the impact of existing sanctions and proposals for tightening those sanctions will help one iota. The restrictive measures that we implement scrupulously are a political signal, but there is widespread recognition within the Commonwealth of the value of a positive contribution. There is growing awareness and concern at the negativism of the sanctions policy that some advocate.

In making any assessment on behalf of the Government, will my right hon. Friend make quite certain that she has private discussions with black trade union leaders in South Africa, who will tell her that they are in favour of sanctions only if their own trade unions are excluded from the effect of such sanctions?

My right hon. and learned Friend and I seek to have as many discussions as we can with black South Africans, when they are here or when we meet them in other places, to bring about the dialogue that is so urgently needed. I understand exactly what my hon. Friend said, but whoever we meet we have to balance the pressures that those people may face within South Africa and ask why they make those comments. It is understandable that in calling for sanctions some people wish to be excluded. Such a policy simply would not work, any more than punitive and negative sanctions will help to bring about the end of apartheid that we seek.

Why did the Government boycott the meeting in Lusaka of the Commonwealth committee on southern Africa? This is the first time that Britain has declined to participate in an important Commonwealth committee. Could they not have sent the Minister of State, the hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), so that he could have spoken out against the way in which South Africa is oppressing its black population, in the way that he spoke out in Gaza last month? Will the Government at any rate agree to participate in the intensified arms embargo decided upon in Lusaka, or does the Government's opposition to South African apartheid amount to hypocritical words rather than positive action?

There is no question of a boycott of the meeting of eight Commonwealth Foreign Ministers. At the Vancouver summit the British Government agreed with the vast majority of policies. However, we did say that we saw no point in joining that particular committee, which is a further sub-group, but we shall continue to work with all Commonwealth countries in the constructive ways that we identified in Vancouver— in particular with aid to black South Africans and to the neighbouring countries. There is no precise information about what has been proposed by those eight Ministers who met in Lusaka. We shall, of course, consider carefully any ideas that are put forward. We continue to follow carefully the proceedings of the committee in Lusaka. We have enforced the arms embargo, and we shall continue rigorously to do so. As to sending my hon. and learned Friend there, it is easier for those who have to concentrate on one area of the world so to do. The hon. Gentleman need have no doubt that I shall be just as forthright and equally as tough on the South African Government as I was in December when I made quite clear to the Deputy Foreign Minister in Pretoria exactly what we thought of South African Government policies.

Middle East


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if, in view of recent events on the West Bank and in Gaza, he will indicate what steps Her Majesty's Government propose in order to speed up the middle east peace process.

We shall continue to work for an international conference under United Nations auspices as the framework for negotiations between the parties directly concerned.

My right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. and learned Friend have both rightly condemned Israeli repression on the West Bank and in Gaza. They have also condemned Mr. Rabin's repellent speech advocating beatings, power and might as the guidelines of Israeli policy in the area. What next? Surely this must be the time to put greater steam behind a peace initiative and to make it clear that the Palestinians must be entitled to choose their own representatives at any talks that follow.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is crucial that the concern be translated into effective action. We believe that action should proceed in two ways. First, immediate palliative action should consist, as the Secretary-General's report to the United Nations following Mr. Goulding's visit made clear, of enhancing the work of the United Nations relief organisation and continuing the pressure on the Israeli Government to mitigate the aspects of occupation that cause the gravest hardship. Those palliatives will not be enough. The second strand has to be to work for a resumption of the peace process. That should come from all who acknowledge that the status quo cannot stand. That is why I welcome very much, as my right hon. and learned Friend does, the resumption of interest in the United States in a peace process. My hon. Friend will have seen that the Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Murphy, is to visit the region following the visit earlier of the special United States emissary to Jordan. We obviously hope that that initiative will bear fruit, because clearly the United States has the prime influence on the Israelis.

Has the Minister seen the admission made this morning by Racal-Tacticom, and reported in the Daily Telegraph, that it has been supplying goods to the PLO? Does he agree with the Downing street statement this week that sections of the PLO have engaged in "appalling acts of terrorism"? In those circumstances, how can it be right that no licence is required, apparently, for sending to the PLO telecommunications equipment which presumably will not be used to convey affectionate greetings?

I cannot add to the answer that the hon. and learned Gentleman received to a similar question that he addressed to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who answered the private notice question yesterday. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows our position on the PLO. He knows that part of our call for a sensible settlement in the middle east is that the PLO should legitimate itself in the ways that I have already set out in answer to an earlier question.

Will my hon. and learned Friend and the Foreign Secretary bear in mind that if Europe does nothing, the American Administration invariably end up doing what the Israeli Government and the Zionist pressure group tell them to do? Will he therefore assure the House that the so-called peace process will not be left to the American Government, but that Europe will play its proper part to bring it about?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. Plainly there is a role for others. That role is taken seriously within Europe. Indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend will on Monday attend a meeting of European Foreign Ministers who will be meeting King Hussein. I dare say that European interests and the European initiative will be made clear then.

As one who strenuously defended the Israelis' position in 1967—I believe that I was right to do so, unlike the right hon. Member for Chesham arid Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) — I am appalled arid horrified at the response of Israeli authorities in the occupied territories, for which there can be absolutely no justification. Would it not be right for Israelis to recognise that the Palestinians also have a right to their homeland? In 40 years they have not forgotten Palestine, any more than the Jewish people, during 2,000 years of exile and persecution, forgot for one moment their historic homeland.

That is a very brave statement, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for it. Many of us who took one view in 1967 have perhaps come to look at matters in a slightly different light today. It is plainly dangerous that the present situation should continue. The scenes that vie see nightly on our television screens are damaging to the reputation of Israel. Whatever might be the problems of the past—there have been great faults on the Arab side in relation to sustained aggression against Israel—if the people of these territories are to have any future, and if there is to be a sustained peace in the region, it can come about only because neighbours learn to co-exist rather than rely on the point of a gun to achieve lasting security. That is why we must continue to assert that middle east peace can be based only on all states in the region agreeing that each state has a right to exist behind secure boundaries and that the Palestinians have a right to self-determination. That is the only basis on which a lasting peace will be achieved.

Chinese Foreign Minister


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he next plans to meet the Chinese Foreign Minister.

As I said in the House on 20 January, I look forward to welcoming Mr. Wu Xuegian on an official visit to Britain in the spring.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many people will warmly welcome the scholarship programme, which will bring some 2,000 Chinese students to Britain, because they will presumably play their part in the modernisation of China when they return and possibly improve contacts and ties between British business and China, which would be extremely beneficial to both countries?

Yes. I agree with my hon. Friend. It is encouraging that there are 2,000 Chinese students in Britain today compared with 1,600 last year. Some 800 of the 2,000 receive funding from the Government. That itself is almost a doubling of what applied last year. It will help us to sustain the growth in exports to China, which have increased from £180 million in 1983 to £536 million in 1986. It will be part of an expanding trade relationship which will be fruitful in other ways as well.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the vile trade in endangered species between China and Hong Kong? The centres in China appear to be the Dongmen market in Canton and Shenzhen, which forms a border between China and Hong Kong. The animals are used for food—they are eaten in restaurants in Hong Kong. Will the Foreign Secretary make the strongest representations to the Chinese Foreign Minister when they meet so that such trade can be stamped out once and for all?

I am well aware of the hon. Member's interest in this important subject. It is a matter on which Hong Kong and China have strict laws presently in force. We have drawn to the attention of the Chinese authorities concerns such as those expressed by the hon. Gentleman. We have asked Hong Kong to review its efforts to see whether enforcement can be made more effective. It is already considering proposals to strengthen its arrangements.

I welcome the close relationship that has been established between the two Governments and between my right hon. and learned Friend and Mr. Wu. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the best interests of the people of Hong Kong are undoubtedly sustained by the closest possible relationship being maintained between the two Governments? Regarding the clamour from some quarters in Hong Kong for early direct elections, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it is his understanding of the Chinese Government's view that it makes sense to put the Basic Law in place before embarking on constitutional adventures?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reminder of the importance of good relations between the United Kingdom and China for the future of Hong Kong. That goes without saying. It is also right to acknowledge that the People's Republic of China has taken a more cautious view of the prospect of direct elections than has been taken in other places. Elections will be part of the constitution of the special administrative region in due course. It is on that basis that the topic was discussed in the House a week or two ago. On most issues, there was a large measure of agreement on the importance of moving to direct elections. The timing of the introduction of direct elections was the topic on which opinions still seemed to be divided.

When the Foreign Secretary meets his Chinese counterpart, will he raise the question of the continuation of the then existing legislative bodies in Hong Kong through the period of the handover? In particular, will he seek clarification of a statement made last week by Li Hou, the deputy director of the Hong Kong Office and secretary general of the Basic Law drafting committee, to the effect that the Chinese Government would not just be making a symbolic gesture in exercising its sovereignty after the handover? Many people in Hong Kong fear that this means that a new Legislative Council will be appointed on 1 July 1997. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this would not be in accordance with the smooth transition called for in the joint declaration? Does he intend to make a statement to the House after the publication of the White Paper on democracy in Hong Kong next week?

On the last point, I must point out that the House has only recently had an opportunity to debate this subject quite fully. The White Paper will be published shortly, and we shall have to see whether there is a case for a separate statement. I would have thought that it would be more likely for the House to want to have an opportunity to study the White Paper closely first. As to the statement attributed to Mr. Li Hou, I do not think that I should be required to answer for each interpretation that the hon. Gentleman chooses to put on every observation made by Chinese spokesmen. The commitment of both states in the joint declaration is to the establishment of democratic arrangements in the terms set out. The commitment is also to the highest degree of continuity through this period of changeover in 1997. That is the centrally important feature.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take the opportunity of his meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister to explore China's relations with other countries in the sensitive area around it, and in particular the question whether Chinese relations with South Korea can be put on a more positive footing, given the evidence which appears to show that North Korea has been practising institutionalised terrorism?

I take the importance of the point referred to in the last part of my hon. Friend's question. We have condemned the part played by the North Korean Government in the recent destruction of a South Korean aircraft. I have no doubt that, in the course of my discussion of international relations with the Chinese Foreign Minister, relations within the peninsular of Korea will be one of the topics on which we shall touch.

Un Under-Secretary General


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what steps he has taken in the United Nations to protest at the treatment of the United Nations Under-Secretary General by the Israeli Government during his visit to the occupied territories in January; and if he will make a statement.

None, Sir. This is a matter for the United Nations Secretary General. We called on all parties to facilitate Mr. Goulding's visit, which was mandated by United Nations Security Council resolution 605.

Was not the Under Secretary General of the United Nations treated very badly by the Israeli authorities during his visit to Israel, and did not the army go into the camps and disrupt them during his visit? Does the Minister agree with Mr. Goulding, who said that the Palestinians have every right to be angry about the conditions in which they are forced to live and that a political solution is needed? Will the Government work towards that solution under the auspices of the United Nations and start that by opening up a dialogue with the PLO?

I certainly agree with that comment of Mr. Goulding's, and I was able to tell him that personally when I saw him in New York on Friday. The key point about Mr. Goulding's visit is to try to make progress on the report that the Secretary General has issued following on it. The report makes two points clear. First, there is a need for immediate alleviation of the problems in Gaza by way of the palliative measures set out in the report — enhancing the relief organisation's work and mitigating the more oppressive aspects of the occupation. Secondly, as I have already said, there is a need to get the peace process moving again.

Would it not help our credibility with Israel in these matters, and help to solve the humanitarian problems in Gaza, if the Government stopped signing annually the United Nations resolution that calls specifically upon the state of Israel not to rehouse the refugees in Gaza in decent accommodation?

My hon. and learned Friend, for whom I have great respect, knows that it is not as simple as that. He knows that we vote as we do because of the manner in which it is sought to enforce rehousing—an element of compulsion is involved — and because afterwards adequate dwellings that are better than other dwellings in which people who cannot afford to move out of the camps live are then bulldozed down by the occupying forces. Therefore, I am afraid I cannot help but regard the argument sometimes used by the Israeli authorities to justify their position as rather flimsy.

In view of the Israeli Government's arrogant disregard of international conventions and of the appalling conduct of Israeli troops, will the hon. and learned Gentleman suggest to his right hon. and learned Friend — and my right hon. and learned Friend — the Foreign Secretary, that he should raise with his EEC colleagues the need to consider the suspension, or indeed, abrogation, of EEC trade and financial agreements with Israel?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue is to be considered again by the European Foreign Ministers at their meeting with King Hussein next week and we must await the outcome of that.

On the European Community arrangements, it is obviously desirable, so far as possible, to keep political considerations out of purely trading issues. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. and learned Friend took the lead in proposing that there should be direct access to the European Community for goods from the occupied territories, because that is a practical way of expressing our desire to see conditions in the occupied territories improve. It wilt also be known that the Commission, while negotiating the mandate for Israeli access to the Common Market, required from the Israeli authorities some undertakings on the manner in which they would carry out those access arrangements. Therefore, although we have not gone anything like all the way with the hon. Gentleman, I hope he is satisfied that there is an element of what he asks in what we are doing.



To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about his recent visit to Japan.

I believe that my visit helped to strengthen the increasingly active and productive relationship between Britain and Japan. Foreign Minister Uno and I discussed a wide range of international issues, many of which we shall need to tackle together. I urged him and other Japanese Ministers to reinforce their efforts to reduce Japan's surplus. I also pressed our case on outstanding bilateral issues.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's comments and the speech in which he pressed the Japanese to open their country to inward investment. Can he now tell us the position on the application made by Cable and Wireless for membership of a consortium to compete with KDD?

On the Cable and Wireless question, I understand that the arrangements now in prospect meet the requirements that we have been pressing with that company and on its behalf for some time. When I was in Japan I emphasised that the United Kingdom will continue to press vigorously for the redress of any grievances in trading conditions. It is right to say that the Japanese gave me much assurance of their determination to respond effectively to such representations.

Was the Foreign Secretary able to raise with the Japanese the wholesale killing of whales in the Antarctic in breach of international agreements? Were the assurances that they gave him any more convincing than those given about the balance of trade?

Our interest in the effectiveness of the international whaling convention is a matter about which representations have been made to the Japanese Government.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be happy to know that the Scotch Whisky Bill completed its Committee stage this morning. Can he tell the House what has happened about the GATT council's decision that Japan should have a common tariff for spirits—for both imports and local manufacture—and how that will help Scotch? Have we made any progress?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the success of the Bill to which he referred. I know of his intense interest in this subject over many years. It is right to say that I do not share his general interest in the topic to quite the same extent.

I have been concerned about Japan in that context. Access for Scotch whisky was at the top of my agenda when I first went there as Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs in 1973. It has taken a long time. With the support of the European Community we had to take the matter to the GATT panel, which reported in favour of our case. In December the Japanese accepted those findings and announced that they intended to reform their liquor tax in the right direction to give effect to those findings. I impressed upon them that we expect the recommendation to be implemented in full and emphasised that we shall look carefully at the detailed proposals and at the changes that should come into effect without further delay.



To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on progress in the implementation of the agreement with Spain over Gibraltar.

The agreement was an important step' forward and it is now for the people of Gibraltar to decide when the agreement on Gibraltar airport can enter into force. Meanwhile, we are considering with the Spanish Government the practical implementation of the parallel arrangements at the land frontier and the Gibraltar-Algeciras ferry service.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the agreement represents a good deal for the people of Gibraltar, not only as a boost to their economy, but for tourism and financial services? So far as the airport is concerned, will my right hon. and learned Friend use his good offices to ensure that the people of Gibraltar see the advantage of the agreement and see it implemented as soon as possible?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the agreement. It offers the prospect of air links with the rest of Europe, the prospect of attracting more visitors and of an expansion in the tourist and financial services there, and can be a major boost to the economy. It will also bring advantages to the United Kingdom and to other European countries. I emphasise that the next steps depend on the willingness of the people of Gibraltar to make their democratic choice on the airport agreement. We have made it clear that we do not intend to impose it on them against their wishes. However, I very much hope that they will see the advantages to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

I reinforce the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern). Is it not evident that it is in the interest of the development of Gibraltar's economy that the agreement, so far as it relates to the airport, should be brought into effect as soon as possible?

That is absolutely clear. It is a matter on which I have no doubt that the democratic processes of Gibraltar will reflect carefully in the light of the observations made by my hon. Friends.



To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the United Kingdom's relations with Bermuda.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

Her Majesty's Government exercise constitutional responsibility for the dependent territory of Bermuda, and relations between the United Kingdom and Bermuda continue to be excellent.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that Bermuda is a community with good race relations, no litter, no unemployment, no illiteracy and no income tax. Does he think that we could learn something from Bermuda?

I am glad that my hon. Friend enjoyed his brief visit to Bermuda so much and that he came back with such a favourable impression of that territory. Indeed, Bermuda has a lot to be proud of, but my hon. Friend will no doubt have noted, as he has told the House, that Bermuda's prosperity is not based only on its ample sunshine but on a thriving private sector and low taxation.

Is the Minister aware that Bermuda plays a major part in Caribbean regional matters — [HON. MEMBERS: "It is not in the Caribbean."] I know where Bermuda is. I have visited there, and not on a free trip.

As Bermuda plays an important part in regional activities and has, along with many other countries, consistently expressed concern about the United States' policy in the region and towards Central America, will the Minister take this opportunity of likewise expressing his concern at the murderous policies of the Reagan Administration towards Central America and the Caribbean?

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's frustration at not getting in his normal propaganda on behalf of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. However, I am afraid that I cannot follow him along the lines that he has described.



To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what information he has about the current political unrest in Haiti; and what risks it poses to British citizens in that country.

After a prolonged period of civil unrest M. Leslie Manigat was elected President of Haiti on 17 January. The country is now calm. There is no threat at present to the United Kingdom community. We continue to keep the situation under review.

Although my hon. Friend may say that the country is calm, there has been something of a breakdown of law and order there. Is he aware that people in this country are extremely concerned that our citizens in Haiti should be protected, because the present circumstances in that country are not of their own making?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Our overriding priority in all consular matters is that we provide an efficient service for British citizens who are in genuine distress or danger through no fault of their own. I assure my hon. Friend that we are aware of the potential risks to the some 50 British citizens in Haiti.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, on a new question of parliamentary procedure.

Order. I will deal with the matter afterwards. It is not a new procedure.

Unification Church

3.30 pm

The following question stood upon the Order Paper:

To ask the Attorney-General what progress there has been in relation to the charity proceedings now pending in his name in connection with the Unification Church; and if he will make a statement.

With permission. Mr. Speaker, I will now answer question No. 89.

Proceedings were instituted in the High Court by my predecessor in December 1984 in connection with two trusts associated with the Unification Church. Those trusts were respectively known as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity and the Sun Myung Moon Foundation. Prominent among the objects of each is the promotion of the principles and teachings of Sun Myung Moon, described as the founder and world leader of the Unification Church.

In 1984 each of those trusts was, and each still remains, entered in the statutory register of charities maintained by the Charity Commissioners. That register properly comprises only those trusts whose objects are truly and exclusively charitable in English law.

The proceedings in the High Court were brought by my predecessor in the exercise on behalf of the Crown of its function as the protector of charity. He appealed against the refusal of the Charity Commissioners to accede to his request that they remove the association and the foundation from the register of charities. His grounds for that request had been that the trusts failed in particular respects to meet the requirements of English law relating to charity.

Whatever view may he taken of its tenets, the Unification Church must, as a matter of law, be regarded as a religion. In English law there is a strong presumption that any trust for the advancement of any religion, without distinction, is charitable unless the contrary is proved by evidence admissible in court proceedings. Teachings that are in their very essence contrary to morality would be an example. It is for any challenger to bring forward such evidence: the burden is on him.

The evidence available to my predecessor in 1984 properly led him, with the advice of leading counsel, to conclude that there were sufficient prospects of an appeal succeeding. That evidence included testimony of witnesses called for the successful defendants in a libel action against Associated Newspapers Group Ltd. tried in 1981. In addition, there were statements by former members of the Unification Church that had been offered when it came generally known that charity proceedings in the High Court were under consideration.

Since the proceedings were begun, the Treasury Solicitor has gone to immense lengths in seeking out additional evidence from those who have been associated with the Unification Church. Some further potential witnesses have approached him on their own initiative. Further statements have been taken from other persons, who had been closely involved in comparatively recent activities of the Unification Church in this country, and who had wanted to assist in the challenge to charitable status of the trusts.

The most careful analysis has now been made of the totality of the evidence available to me, set against the legal presumption to which I have referred. Some of it, when tested in the light of all the material now available, has proved to be insufficiently reliable. The remainder, when seen in the overall context, is shown to be of insufficient weight to rebut the legal presumption. I have now been advised by leading counsel that it is most unlikely that, if the appeal proceeded to trial, I should be able to dislodge that strong legal presumption of charitable status. After the most careful consideration, I agree with that advice.

The trial is due to start on 12 April. It would last an estimated three to six months and occasion great expense. In these circumstances, I have decided to seek the court's leave to discontinue these proceedings, and the Treasury Solicitor has this morning so informed the defendants.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his answer will come as a grave disappointment to many people, particularly to those families who have been the victims of the so-called Moonies, Scientologists, and other cults and who have experienced the ruthless methods and unacceptable behaviour of those cults! Does he agree that his answer should highlight the fact that it is time we stopped giving charitable status to such vile organisations, and that the fact that we do is an affront to natural justice and an insult to those whose lives haze been ruined and whose families have been torn apart by them?

I am naturally aware that my answer will come as a disappointment to many people. However, I hope that I have accurately and fully set out the basis on which I have felt obliged to accept the advice that I have been given. My answer is given exclusively in the exercise on behalf of the Crown of its role as the protector of charity. It is one whose content is dictated as a matter of law. It has no bearing upon the attitude of the Government towards any cult, and the question of any reform of the law on charity is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Does the Attorney-General agree with the views expressed by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), who said:

"the sinister activities of some of the groups must be exposed by every means possible and most vigorously discouraged." —[Official Report, 24 October 1984; Vol. 65, c. 708.]
Does the Attorney-General agree that it is regrettable that, nearly four years later, our charity law is wholly inadequate to deal with the Moonies? Will he now set about reforming the charity law quickly before more people are reduced to misery and destruction by the activities of the Moonies and others like them?

As I have already said, the reform of charity law is not for me but is in the first instance for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The evidence available to my predecessor in 1984 justified his decision at that time to initiate the appeal and to make the allegations that he put forward against the Unification Church. Material has come to light since 1984 as a result of the continuing inquiries of the Treasury Solicitor, the nature of which I have already described to the House. It is in the light of the totality of the evidence now available, seen against the strong legal presumption which I have mentioned, that dictates my decision.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that his statement is outrageous for large numbers of us? Will he please tell the House whether his decision owes anything to the murder in Devon in December of Sonia Martin, who was to be a key witness in the case, and to the intimidation of other people prepared to help?

I have seen no evidence that witnesses or potential witnesses have been intimidated. I am aware that a witness who had sworn an affidavit in support of my appeal, Sonia Martin, was found dead in Devon last December. I understand that the inquest into the cause of her death presently stands adjourned and will be resumed on a date to be fixed.

What was the parliamentary precedent for the Attorney-General coming to the House and answering orally a written question? If we are to have this, would it not have been better for him to turn his attention to written question 119 and to tell us whether the head of the security services, the Prime Minister, knew about what Mr. Stalker was writing and the shoot-to-kill policy?

Order. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, but there are precedents for this.

It seemed to me that it was a convenient and, I understand, a precedented means, well within the rules of order of the House, to tell the House orally and permit oral questions about a matter that could properly have been dealt with by written question.

Although I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's decision in this matter, will the Government urgently consider amendments to charity law to ensure that such undersirable organisations as the Unification Church do not have charitable status? Is my right hon. and learned Friend further aware that, over the years, several hon. Members have been approached with offers of huge value in terms of free travel to foreign places?

The hon. Gentleman says, "Name them." I was one of those invited, but I declined the invitation.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend put other hon. Members on their guard against accepting hospitality from such organisations?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's opening remarks. I undertake to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the great and genuine concern felt about this organisation and about the reform of charity law.

As to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, the House will have heard what he had to say.

Does this mean that the Government have been forced to give in to the Moonies as a result of a shortage of money in the litigation fund because it has all been spent pursuing "Spycatcher"? If so, would it not be worth while for the Attorney-General to examine the huge fees demanded by lawyers, which cause the expenses of these court cases, or does he feel sufficiently objective to be able to conduct such an investigation?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman expects an affirmative answer to the first part of his question. Anybody holding my present office has a duty to assess the likelihood of success for any proceedings in train. In the case of the "Spycatcher" litigation, the advice that I have received and accepted warrants the continuation of proceedings both here and overseas.

In the case of my predecessor's appeal against the decision of the Charity Commissioners, I have explained to the House as clearly as possible the reasons that have led leading counsel to advise me, and I accept the advice that there are not sufficient prospects of that appeal succeeding. That is why I have taken this step.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, whatever the legal position—I do not challenge his interpretation—there is absolutely nothing in the activities of this obnoxious and appalling group of people that qualifies them for the title "charitable" in the accepted sense of that word?

I well understand the anxiety that is genuinely and widely felt about the Unification Church. Equally, I have to apply the law of this country in respect of charitable status. Whether that law deserves review or reform is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and not for me.

Can we be assured that the Moonies have not got at the Treasury Solicitor or the Attorney-General himself, in view of this disappointing statement? Will the Attorney-General tell the House why he thought it necessary to answer in this way, by making a statement from the Dispatch Box? Could not some other device have been used?

I hoped that the wide concern expressed in this House over a number of years about the Unification Church would be its own justification for my coming to the Dispatch Box. I took the view that the matter did not merit a full-blown statement, of which many people believe there are too many. On the other hand, I felt that it was only fair to the House to give people, including the hon. Gentleman, the opportunity to ask a question about it.

As to my having been got at, I have been subjected to many more ferocious and effective assaults than anything that the Unification Church might feel disposed to launch against me. As for the Treasury Solicitor, I think that he is quite immune to any such assault.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that our inability to proceed against the Moonies will cause widespread dismay, not least among legitimate charities, whose work is of such great benefit? Is he further aware that the circumstances that he described underline the urgent need for the review which the Home Office is carrying out following the publication last year of the Woodfield report, to include consideration of strengthening the Charity Commissioners' powers to prevent organisations whose objectives and tactics are clearly not regarded as charitable by the majority of British people from continuing to enjoy charitable status? If the law is preventing us from taking action against the Moonies, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it should be reviewed?

I understand, as I have made clear and readily repeat, that there will be much disappointment about the statement that I have made today. Equally, it will be understood that it would not be right for me to continue with proceedings that would lead to a three to six-month trial at enormous expense in the face of the strong advice that I have received from highly experienced leading counsel.

As to the reform of charity law, I understand what my hon. Friend has said. I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear that the decision that he has announced should in no way be seen as providing carte blanche to the Unification Church to continue its exploitation of the young and vulnerable in this country? Will he make it quite clear that its activities are still being closely watched by many hon. Members in the House?

The action that I thought it right to take constitutes no more than the withdrawal of the appeal initiated by my predecessor against the refusal of the Charity Commissioners to remove these two trusts from the register of charities. Neither I nor anyone else can give carte blanche to any organisation. Certainly no carte blanche has been given to the Unification Church. I am certain that the remainder of my hon. Friend's question will be noted.

On any reasonable view, is not the announcement that the Attorney-General has had to make extraordinary, particularly as it comes at a time when the Government are campaigning for tax-free gifts to charities from people's payrolls?

Is the Attorney-General aware that many deserving causes find it difficult to get through the rather slow and cumbrous procedures of the Charity Commission. It is difficult to understand their predicament, given the Moonie immunity that has been announced.

Is it not the essence of the law that a religious charity should direct itself to the benefit of the public and not engage in positive harm or Right-wing political activity, which has taken in a few Conservative Members?

Given the extraordinary width of the definition of a religious charity implied in the Attorney-General's answer, will the Government announce that they will set up an immediate and urgent review charity law to put an end to the rampant abuse that has been practised by the Unification Church and the farcical nature of the decision that the Attorney-General has been forced to announce? Nothing less than an immediate review will satisfy the House.

The hon. Gentleman says that I have been obliged or forced to make a statement. Of course I have not. I chose to do so for the reasons that I have explained. However, I well note the hon. Gentleman's concern about the principles of law that govern charitable status in this country.

The proceedings which my predecessor began made certain specific allegations against the Unification Church, which the evidence then available to him entirely justified. If those allegations could be substantiated, they would, in my view and that of my predecessor, have warranted his appeal being allowed. As I have endeavoured to explain, the totality of evidence now available to me is insufficient to enable me to substantiate any of those particular allegations to the extent needed to rebut the strong legal presumption of charitable status that English law gives to any religion.

It is not for me to express either regret or any other response. It is my duty to the House to announce the conclusion that I have felt obliged to reach. I note, as all will do, what the hon. Gentleman said at the conclusion of his question and will draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Crown Suppliers

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Christopher Chope)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future of the Crown Suppliers.

The Crown Suppliers are a self-financing business within the Department of the Environment. They sell furniture, and other equipment and services to the public sector. They have operated as a Government trading fund since 1976, and under the title of the Crown Suppliers since 1984.

As direct suppliers to Government Departments, the Crown Suppliers have achieved considerable success in the design and procurement of their own-brand furniture, the procurement and supply of a wide range of equipment, and the provision of fuel and transport. I have, however, considered the role and status of the Crown Suppliers in the light of untying Departments from the compulsory use of purchasing agencies.

I have had the benefit of two recent reports by consultants and have discussed a summary of those reports with staff representatives. It is clear that the Crown Suppliers must reduce their overheads substantially to reflect new working practices and purchasing policies in Government Departments.

Many of the activities of the Crown Suppliers are, however, of a commercial nature, and there is little doubt that they could be carried out more efficiently in the private sector. The question therefore is whether the Crown Suppliers should be given full freedom to compete in both public and private sectors, which would entail transfer to the private sector.

I am convinced that privatisation provides the brightest future for the Crown Suppliers, as well as a continued source of competitive supplies for the public sector. It will also allow the Crown Suppliers to have access to a wider market. It is the Government's view that the private sector should be invited to bid for those of the Crown Suppliers' businesses which can be undertaken on a normal commercial basis. Some activities will have to remain in the public sector, for security or other reasons.

The Government intend therefore to seek further advice from a financial institution on the best method of effecting the sale of the Crown Suppliers. The businesses available for sale will include the provision of furniture, furnishings and other equipment on an untied basis for the public sector, and the transport hire business. In evaluating offers received, I shall pay particular attention to proposals for the involvement of the staff in the success of the enterprise.

I also intend to bring forward legislation to effect the transfer at an early opportunity.

The Minister's statement on the privatisation of the Crown Suppliers is scandalous. It reflects the Government's narrow political dogma at its worst. It not only is an enormous threat to the jobs of those 1,486 people employed by the Crown Suppliers but will inevitably lead to bankruptcies and redundancies in many small, specialised firms throughout the United Kingdom, many in areas of high unemployment.

Has the Minister given the trade unions any assurance that the staff will be given the choice to remain in the Civil Service if they wish, even if this means a certain amount of regrading and retraining? Will the Minister confirm that in the past three years the Government have commissioned four reviews into the operation of the Crown Suppliers, at great cost to the taxpayer? Two of them — the Turton report of 1985 and the central unit of purchasing review 1986 — acknowledged that privatisation of the Crown Suppliers was feasible but would not be in the public interest. The two most recent reviews, undertaken by Coopers and Lybrand/Samuel Montagu and Dewi Jones, were not even required to consider the public interest in their brief—it is obviously no longer a consideration for the Government.

Does the Minister agree that the Crown Suppliers exist for two reasons? First, they exist to supply the Government and the public sector with the most economic furnishing, fuel and transport. All relevant Government statistical indices demonstrate that the Crown Suppliers fulfil that task to consistent standards of excellence. Secondly, they exist to increase the competitiveness and profitability of British industry. Ninety-six per cent. of their £240 million turnover comes from British firms, one third of which have 100 workers or fewer, many of them in sheltered workshops supporting an important social service.

The Crown Suppliers have pioneered numerous designs in furnishing, including flame-retardant mattresses and materials that are sold all over the world. The CBI has applauded the Crown Suppliers' priority sourcing scheme, which guarantees business and encourages investment in plant and machinery in designated development areas.

In the private sector, British Telecom, British Gas, British Rail and most recently British Aerospace all choose to use the Crown Suppliers because they judge them to offer best value in terms of cost, quality and reliability of service.

Finally, will the Minister explain precisely what parts of the Crown Suppliers he intends to privatise? Is it not ironic that, as a result of this privatisation, it is the taxpayer, whom the Government pray in aid for many of their policies, who will lose most? Clearly, the proper place for the Crown Suppliers is in the public sector.

That was a typically negative response from the Opposition. I am surprised that the Opposition do not favour the plan to extend the opportunities of the Crown Suppliers so that they can compete in a wider market. The Crown Suppliers' present share of the contract furniture and furnishings market is 8 to 9 per cent. I look forward to the time when they will be able to go out and expand their involvement in the private market.

As far as the transfer of staff is concerned, staff will be affected by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (Amendment) Regulations 1987, and terms and conditions broadly comparable with those prevailing in their present employment will be available for them in the private sector.

It is the Government's policy to free Departments to make their own purchasing decisions using their own resources and to use public sector purchasing power in the widest interests of British industry. It is not a mandatory "Buy British Only" policy, which is illegal under the treaty of Rome and the GATT. It is right that the Crown Suppliers should use firms registered in the United Kingdom, because evaluation of competitive offers shows that to be the best value for money. The same principles would apply whether the Crown Suppliers were in the public or the private sector. The same principles would also apply for the use of small firms and firms in development agencies.

No change is proposed in relation to the Government priority suppliers' purchasing arrangements. The hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that the status quo is one on which the Crown Suppliers can rest. The more enlightened members of staff of the Crown Suppliers realise that they must change with the times.

Is my hon. Friend aware that his decision will be warmly welcomed by Conservative Members and by many employees in the Crown Suppliers, who will welcome the freedom that it will give them to compete where they cannot now compete — in the private sector? Far from resulting in less employment in the Crown Suppliers or less work for the small firms that supply them, this decision could result in more employment and more work for those firms.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's typically positive response. I know that, when he had responsibility in government for the Crown Suppliers, he took a keen interest in their work, and it is a tremendous endorsement of today's announcement that my hon. Friend thinks that it is in the best interest of the Crown Suppliers.

When the hon. Gentleman considers the tenders for this business, will he seek an undertaking that there will be no further job losses on Merseyside?

I cannot give guarantees about job losses on Merseyside. As the hon. Gentleman may know, one of the reports that we commissioned referred to the possibility of reducing the overheads of the Crown Suppliers within the Government sector. One of the proposals put forward was that one of the two procurement offices — there are two: one in Liverpool and the other in London—should be closed. I can understand that staff in Liverpool would be extremely concerned if there were no such proposal as I have put to the House today. If either the London or the Liverpool office had to be closed, they certainly might fear that there would be job losses in Liverpool. I look forward to better employment opportunities in the Crown Suppliers, and that includes employment in Liverpool.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, generally, the decision must be a good step for the Government? What percentage of the Crown Suppliers' business is with overseas Governments and other Commonwealth nations, who have looked to such business because it was backed by the United Kingdom Government? Will he make it quite clear that whoever takes over the Crown Suppliers will operate with the same integrity as that which can be expected from Her Majesty's Government? Will he further confirm that opportunities will still be open on the security aspects, which the Government will contain, from which Commonwealth countries will be able to benefit if they so require?

My hon. Friend referred to overseas and Commonwealth countries. At present, the Crown Suppliers have little overseas business. I hope that they will get more overseas business as a result of privatisation.

Are there not some inconsistencies in the Government's policy? On the one hand, they say that the Crown Suppliers have done a good job, that 85 per cent. of their costs are better than in any other sector, and that 60 per cent. of their work is already contracted by the private sector, but, on the other hand, they say that it should be privatised. The Treasury says that it is not in the public interest for them to be privatised, yet the Department of the Environment says that it is.

What report has the Minister received that states that the proposal will have a cost benefit for the taxpayer? Is not the reality that no report comes to that conclusion? The Minister's political view, rather than any objective criterion, is prevailing. There will not only be job losses in places such as mine in south London, but increases in other Government Departments. Is not the whole matter a triumph of dogma over logic? Should not the Minister take it away and re-examine the proposal?

The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. The decision has the full support o f the Government and the enthusiastic support of the Treasury. One matter that has concerned the Treasury is the level of the Crown Suppliers' overheads. If the Crown Suppliers stay within the public sector, action will have to be taken to deal with their overheads. The alternative of opening wider outside markets is preferable.

Will my hon. Friend accept that his decision will be warmly welcomed, not least by the furniture industry? Having listened to the eulogy given by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), the Crown Suppliers would seem to have little going for them. They should not be afraid of private industry, and the furniture industry in particular, which will welcome the decision and the additional competition that it will provide — all to the benefit of the Government and the people.

What activities will remain in the public sector?

Certainly the activities that have security implications—and there may be one or two beyond that—will remain in the public sector.

Is my hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be welcomed? Has he considered the possibility of offering the Crown Suppliers on a management buy-out basis to people who have an esprit de corps, some of whom are my constituents and have written to me? Will he regard it as a forerunner of doing exactly the same to the Property Services Agency?

There has been an expression of interest by some members of the management in purchasing part of the Crown Suppliers. Their applications will certainly be considered along with the others. On the wider issue of the Property Services Agency, as my hon. Friend knows, we are moving to commercial accounts, with a view to a trading fund in the future.

Will the Minister be more specific about what will be left in the public sector? Will he spell it out? Does he say that he will hand the Crown Suppliers to the furniture industry, with its recent health and safety record? How will the national interest be served by doing that? Will such things as Ministers' cars be included? Will we see them driving Toyotas? What protection will there be for contracts, 95 per cent. of which are in this country at the moment and one third of which are placed with small firms, which the Government are supposed to uphold? Will that percentage remain in the future? Will the Minister be honest with the House and say that the matter bears the stamp of his political prejudice and hatred of the public sector, however successful it may be?

Certainly the decision bears the stamp of the Government's commitment to privatisation and to the benefits of a competitive environment. I have already answered points about effects on Government purchasing policy. There is no reason to suppose that the proportion of British goods will be reduced. Indeed, I look forward to the time when, instead of the proportion being 95 per cent., 100 per cent. of goods are British-made. I visited the "Better Made in Britain" exhibition, which was designed to try to encourage British firms to make products that are not yet available on the home market.

As my hon. Friend knows, there is a substantial Crown Suppliers facility in my constituency. Although I accept the challenge of privatisation, I ask him to be more specific about the time scale of the sale. As he knows, for many months, staff have been extremely worried about their future. They are highly skilled men and women, who deserve more recognition than merely being told that we are calling in more consultants to advise on the time scale. My hon. Friend knows full well my concern about the way in which leaks about the decision came out of the Department over a prolonged period. Parliament should be the first to be told.

On the last point, I certainly share my hon. Friend's concern 100 per cent. I appreciate his expression of interest in the matter. In Hastings, there are about 1,200 employees of the Property Services Agency, just over 100 of whom are employed by the Crown Suppliers. The timetable will depend upon the legislative programme. As knowledge about the announcement is becoming known, certain private firms are coming forward to express an interest in purchase.

Does the Minister recall the critical part that was played by the Crown Suppliers in changing the Government's mind about furniture foam and getting them to introduce tough new regulations? Is he aware that the main company behind the Government's original flawed proposals on furniture foam, Hillsdown Holdings, is likely to be one of the main bidders for the Crown Suppliers? Therefore, will he deal specifically with my question? Is one of the aspects of the Crown Suppliers that is to be left in the public sector its safety role in providing objective advice to the Government to ensure that the public interest is not sacrificed for the commercial interests of the privatised company?

The Department of Trade and Industry deals with the safety role. It seeks the views of organisations in the public and private sectors. That has happened in the case of furniture foam. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman seems to think that it would be advantageous for the Crown Suppliers to stay in the public sector. If they had been in the private sector and had been consulted about their views on furniture foam, they would have been able to publicise their announcement when they made it in September last year.

Although I welcome my hon. Friend's excellent, if overdue, statement, will he persevere in doing good? Will he shortly bring forward his proposals for the total privatisation of the Property Services Agency?

I heard what my hon. Friend said. As I have already said, we are moving to commercial accounts in the Property Services Agency, with a view to establishing a trading fund.

Having accepted that the Crown Suppliers are a successful public sector enterprise, why do the Government inhibit or prevent them from competing with the private sector, then use that inhibition as a justification for selling them off? Is it because the savings for taxpayers and ratepayers and the profits that are being made for the public are required to be handed over to the Tory party's friends in the private sector?

Not at all. The Government take the view that commercial enterprises are better run in the private sector. The essence of the Crown Suppliers' activities is commercial.

Will my hon. Friend give a rather more convincing reply to the questions that were asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) and for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) about the Property Services Agency? Surely the logic that has quite rightly drawn him—

The logic that has drawn my hon. Friend to the right decision about the Crown Suppliers applies with equal force to the Property Services Agency. Surely there is no argument of principle or practice for retaining the PSA in the public sector.

There is a distinction between the Crown Suppliers and the Property Services Agency. The Crown Suppliers have been a trading fund for many years, but the PSA does not yet have proper commerical accounts, let alone a trading fund.

Order. I remind the House that legislation will be introduced. Will hon. Members ensure that their questions relate only to the Crown Suppliers?

Does the Minister recall that on 9 December he answered a question from me about the Crown Suppliers by saying that he was considering the Coopers and Lybrand and the Dewi Jones reports? Does he accept that the main part of the Dewi Jones report stated that priority should be given to the introduction of improved working practices? What are his answers to the Dewi Jones conclusions? Is it true, as we read in the press, that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is extremely sceptical about this privatisation on a falling stock market? What will happen to expert units such as those that look after Hampton Court and the Palace of Westminster? Will they be broken up and their expertise scattered?

It is not true that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was against this or had reservations about it. Indeed, this matter was not his departmental responsibility. That proves that the purported leaks to the press suggesting that my right hon. Friend was against the privatisation were up the tree. I note what the hon. Gentleman says about the specialist work at Hampton Court and the Palace of Westminster. We shall consider whether that work should be part of the privatisation package.

Does my hon. Friend recall that, every time a Minister has come to the House to announce a privatisation measure, there have been whingeing voices, yet every time the measure has received the approval of Parliament it has been an enormous success? My hon. Friend's proposal today will be no less a success. The proposal will be welcomed not least in the less highly populated urban areas, such as Shrewsbury, where many local traders have not been able to come to terms with the preferred trading status of the organisation. Therefore, my hon. Friend's statement this afternoon will be very welcome in the more rural parts of the country.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The recent results of the National Freight Corporation are a further reminder of the success of privatisation.

As it has already been stated and accepted that the Crown Suppliers buy 95 per cent. British products, what guarantees will the Minister write into the legislation to ensure that that continues in future? Can he be absolutely sure that overseas predators will not take a leaf out of the book of the Kuwaiti Investment Office and seek to take full advantage of the opportunities when privatisation arises? Will he also guarantee that no Tory Member of Parliament, either in the Government or outside, will be given the opportunity to become a director of any of the privatised companies that may emerge?

It is not possible for members of the Government to hold directorships in companies. All the interest that has so far been expressed in purchasing the Crown Suppliers has come from British firms.

Will my hon. Friend agree that, in delivering services to the public, the Government must always have regard to the fact that they have no funds other than those provided by the taxpayer? Therefore, in their capacity as trustees of the taxpayers' money, the Government must consider how to deliver those services most cost-effectively. If those services can be delivered most cost-effectively in the private sector, it must be common sense and morally right to do that.

I agree 100 per cent. That is why the Government's policy is to allow Departments to make their own purchasing decisions using their own resources, so that they can shop around. Firms will win Government business only if they are competitive.

Will the Minister guarantee that, if the Crown Suppliers are to be privatised, they will not follow the same path as Coventry Climax, which has suffered an 80 per cent. loss of jobs in five years? Will he guarantee that by saying that he will monitor what happens to the company after privatisation? The Department of Trade and Industry has always refused to do that. Making a last attempt, will he explain precisely which elements of the Crown Suppliers are supposed to remain in public ownership for security reasons? Is he not aware which elements are to remain, or is it a secret?

It is not a secret. Those aspects of the Crown Suppliers' activities that have security implications will remain—

I can name one—the secure car service. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is appropriate that that should stay in the public sector. I am afraid that I cannot remember the hon. Gentleman's other questions, he asked so many.

With regard to job losses, I should have thought that Opposition Members would look more positively at the proposal. Sussessful privatisations have often involved an expansion of the labour force. I hope that the Crown Suppliers will be equally successful.

Will the Minister accept that this is unacceptable? He has come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement, but he has not answered specific questions put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) who asked him to tell us exactly what services and functions will remain with the Crown Suppliers. He should give us a list. It would appear that ministerial cars are involved. At the moment, it costs the taxpayer £2·5 million a year to provide him and his right hon. Friends with cars so that they can waltz around London and not experience the real traffic problems that the rest of us have to put up with.

I will take note of what the hon. Gentleman is saying if he is arguing for the privatisation of the ministerial car service.

Will my hon. Friend make sure that, by inadvertence, he does not achieve something different from what he wishes? Would he in any such regulations or instructions use the word "United Kingdom" rather than "British" so that he does not exclude products from Northern Ireland?

We must insist that the Minister answers the questions posed by myself, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). The Minister told my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South that there are one or two bits beyond security. Will he define exactly what they are? Will he assure us that he intends to publish the Coopers and Lybrand and Dewi Jones reports?

Summaries of the Dewi Jones and Coopers and Lybrand reports have been prepared and copies have been placed in the Library. We do not propose to publish them in full because they contain commercially confidential information. Certainly some aspects of the Crown Suppliers activities will not be up for sale.

The details will become apparent after we have made progress and engaged a financial consultant to look at the matter in detail.

Anglo-Irish Relations

4.18 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 conclusions reached at the meeting between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Ministers of the Irish Government yesterday."
It is regrettable that I have to make this application as a matter of urgency and importance. The Government should have made a statement. They have been dodging it since we were promised an early statement on these matters 10 days ago by the Attorney-General.

The matter is urgent and important because this Government and the Irish Government have referred to the constraints and strains that have now been placed on Anglo-Irish relationships and the difficulties that have been raised about confidence in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The level of public confidence in the RUC is now as low as it was at the time of bloody Sunday and the hunger strikes. While it is true for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to say that he was not in office while the shoot-to-kill policy took place, he was in office when Stalker was obstructed in his inquiries into that policy.

We are entitled to have in the House the list of areas of concern and proposals for improvement that the Irish Government are said to have given to the Secretary of State for discussion by the Cabinet. We are entitled to know why the Irish Government felt it necessary to go to the Cabinet. Was it because they did not trust the Secretary of State? Was it because the Prime Minister had authorised the Attorney-General's statement a week ago last Monday? All that is happening against a background of a Greek chorus of the regular Stalker revelations that seem to contradict every item that the Attorney-General told the House about last Monday.

The replies to the Stalker revelations from the Secretary of State, the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General and the RUC have been deafening in their silence. The dogs have not been barking. They are hoping that the matter will go away. We are determined that it shall not go away. The House has a right to discuss such matters urgently in Government time, and that is what should be done.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) seeks leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the conclusions reached at the meeting between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Ministers of the Irish Government yesterday."
I have listened with care to what the hon. Member has said. He knows that when considering an application under Standing Order No. 20 I must have regard for the criteria laid down in the Standing Order. I regret that I do not consider that the matter he has raised as being appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20. I therefore cannot submit his application to the House.

Nhs (Industrial Action)

4.22 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,

"Today's industrial action in the Health Service"
Quite candidly, there can be few applications under Standing Order No. 20 as clear-cut as this one. I have three minutes to convince you, Mr. Speaker, to make a simple decision. Which is more urgent and important—today's debate on the Licensing Bill, which will allow pubs to open for a couple of hours longer, or the reasons why tens of thousands of health workers in London, Coventry and throughout the country are on strike today?

The background to this escalating dispute is the massive £1,500 million of cumulative underfunding of the Health Service. The Chancellor would prefer that money to be used for tax cuts to the rich instead of providing guarantees of heart operations for the 100 bairns in the west midlands who are desperately waiting for them. It could be used for providing equipment that is now bought through raffles and jumble sales, or to give health workers a wage on which they can live, instead of the contemptuous 3 per cent. that the Government believe they can get away with, or to reopen wards and hospitals that have been closed by a Cabinet that has no idea about the NHS. Even the Secretary of State for Social Services went into a private hospital at £1,000 a week.

The Secretary of State this morning attended a conference in the Connaught rooms but paused for a few seconds inside the opulent entrance hall sharply to criticise the nurses in front of television cameras. However, he refused my request to meet nurses in uniform from Guy's hospital who were waiting outside and say the same things to their faces that he was prepared to say about them to the media.

In contrast, Opposition Members have spent most of the past eight hours visiting hospitals and talking to health workers. It is clear that it will not be long before the anger of working people boils over. The Daily Telegraph today reveals that 79 per cent. of voters support today's strike. When asked about the Prime Minister's statement that nurses were deliberately hitting at patients, 67 per cent. of Tory voters sided with the nurses and not with the Prime Minister. Workers throughout the country know that petitions, lobbies and arguments have never impressed the Cabinet. The only answer is action. In growing numbers, they realise that it is not the responsibility of health workers to take action to defend our NHS. It is the responsibility of all workers. That is why there are increasing calls on the TUC to turn Budget day into a one-day general strike to defend the Health Service.

If the House does not debate this crucial issue but instead spends the rest of the afternoon discussing pub opening hours, Parliament will be seen to be increasingly irrelevant and the support for national industrial action will grow. I urge you, Mr. Speaker, to accept this application.

The hon. Member for Coventry, Soul h-East (Mr. Nellist) seeks to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter, that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"today's industrial action in the National Health service."
Again, I have listened with great care to what the hon. Member has said, but I must have regard to the criteria of the Standing Order. I regret that I do not consider the matter that he has raised as being appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20. I cannot therefore submit his application to the House.

Crown Suppliers

4.26 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 future of the Crown Suppliers."
My interest in this matter did not begin this afternoon; it is of long standing. On 9 December 1987, I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he had to privatise the Crown Suppliers; and if he would make a statement.

The Minister replied:
"I am considering various possibilities for the future of the Crown Suppliers, following two reports by consultants, one of which concerned the feasibility of privatisation."
It was within your hearing, Mr. Speaker, this afternoon that the Minister was asked questions upon the Coopers and Lybrand report. Those questions were not answered. He was then asked questions about the Dewi Jones report, which were not answered. I do not know whether those reports are in the Library, but I asked for all information and I received a precis saying that Dewi Jones' general conclusion was
"that parts of TCS could be privatised, but that priority should be given to the introduction of a number of improved working practices."
Parliament needs to know a great deal more about that.

The Minister's answer continued:
"I have recently received detailed and comprehensive comments from representatives of the staff of the Crown Suppliers, and I do not propose to announce a decision until these have been fully considered." —[Official Report, 9 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 176.]
This afternoon we heard nothing about the full consideration of the views of the staff. I understand that 1,900 jobs will disappear and that there will be a loss of expert advice; 500 new jobs may be created, but that is far from clear.

Part of the trouble is that the Crown Suppliers dared to criticise the DTI and angered the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. They have also said that small businesses may be harmed. The press reports may not be far wrong about the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. However, the Minister must explain why that privatisation is to go ahead on a falling stock market and the consequences to the taxpayer.

There are urgent questions that are local to the House about the future expertise in the House of Commons. We are all concerned about matters that affect us, but there is an even greater problem in regard to the reconstruction of furniture in Hampton Court. It is an absolute traduction of the House of Commons for the Minister to make such a statement and hope to get away with it. The sooner that we have a debate on the issue the better.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) seeks leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the future of the Crown Suppliers."
I have listened with care to what the hon. Member has said. I was in the Chair when the Minister made his statement. I regret that I cannot rule that this matter is appropriate to be discussed under Standing Order No. 20. I therefore cannot submit his application to the House. I am sure that the hon. Member will have opportunities, and certainly when the Bill is debated, to bring his points to the Floor of the House.

Points Of Order

4.28 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that we are not allowed to challenge your judgment on individual matters relating to Standing Order No. 20. All hon. Members accept that. We have spent 20 minutes discussing the Moonies on a day when, for the first time in history, nurses in Britain have been driven by desperation to industrial action. It is possible, with great regret, to challenge the Speaker on a substantive motion. I say that because I am probably the only Member of the House who has moved a motion of censure on the Speaker. That was in relation to the refusal of an emergency debate that I sought to raise on the bombing of Oman about 30 years ago.

I beg you, Mr. Speaker, to reconsider the criteria of urgency. When the National Health Service is so poorly funded that nurses are out on strike, it must take precedence over the Moonies and the Licensing Bill. I ask you to reconsider the criteria.

If the points of order are concerned with the same subject, I will take them together.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely on a day when the two main issues are the day of action in the National Health Service and a report from the Government on the Anglo-Irish discussions, it is astonishing that the Government should use an unusual parliamentary procedure to initiate a long discussion on the Moonies and to have a half-baked statement from a half-briefed Minister on the flogging off of the Crown Suppliers. Is it not also astonishing that it was two of my hon. Friends who had to make applications under Standing Order No. 20 for debates on the National Health Service and on the Anglo-Irish talks?

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to review your decision. Surely the selection of the question to facilitate the statement on the Moonies was done only with your permission. If that was not the case, the Select Committee on Procedure should consider the matter because surely it gives enormous power to the Executive if it can choose an obscure written question on which to make a major statement on a day when applications from the Opposition show that the overriding preoccupation of hon. Members is with the day of action in the National Health Service and with the Anglo-Irish talks.

Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I ask you to reconsider the applications that were put to you. If it is to be relevant to the public, the House must reflect the preoccupations and concerns of the people. Today those preoccupations are not with the Moonies, and they are certainly not with the flogging off of the Crown Suppliers.

Order. I will deal with this matter straight away. When it was put to me that a written question should be answered in the House, the procedure was new to me. However, the hon. Gentleman will find that "Erskine May", on page 332, states:

"on a request by a Minister being made a question upon the paper for written answer has been answered orally at half-past three."
It is a rare occurrence, but it has happened before.

I have to have regard always—I said this yesterday and I do reflect every day with great care— to the criteria laid down under Standing Order No. 20: that is to say, whether to give precedence over the Orders of the Day for that day or for the succeeding day for an emergency debate. I also have to have regard to the other opportunities that exist—that is specifically laid down in the Standing Order—and not to give my reasons for so doing. It is a difficult judgment to make every day.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to investigate the circulation of the Order Paper and of Hansard? Last week, during an important Adjournment debate on the Health Service, not one Member of the Opposition was present. Therefore, their anger today must be totally synthetic.

Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), Mr. Speaker. An enormous number of people throughout the country are expressing reasonable and legitimate concerns about the Health Service. I think that you would be the first to wish that Parliament was able — [HON. MEMBERS: "Where were you last week?"]— to reflect their anger and that Members of Parliament were able to represent their constituents. My point of order is that this afternoon a large number of Health Service workers, mainly nurses, went to Trafalgar square from the hospitals where they had been working or picketing. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is the point of order?"] It is an important matter—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am raising an important matter. It is a question of the access of people to Parliament to lobby Members of Parliament. When the group of nurses sought to leave Trafalgar square and walk, not in procession but as normal citizens, down Whitehall to Parliament, in order to enter the building and lobby Members of Parliament, they were prevented from doing so by a cordon of police across the road. So the nurses were unable to move freely to Parliament to lobby their elected representatives. I understand that some of the nurses have now managed to reach the House and will be lobbying Members of Parliament. Presumably Conservative Members will wish to hear their points of view since they are not prepared to go to the hospitals to listen to them. [Interruption.]

The Minister has a nerve to sit there pontificating.

Order. The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) must contain himself.

Order. How can I hear what the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) is saying if the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, who is sitting next to him, persists in shouting into the same microphone?

I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, to rule that in accordance with the Sessional Orders that were passed by the House at the start of the session and of the new Parliament, the streets leading to Westminster are kept free and there is no let or hindrance to any person who wishes to come to the House to lobby a Member of Parliament. It is clear that the police action was in breach of the Sessional Orders. I should be grateful if you would confirm that the Sessional Orders were approved, and communicate that fact to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police so that he can ensure that they are carried out.

The Sessional Orders are concerned with the rights of Members of Parliament to come to this place. I will look into the matter that the hon. Member has raised. I had no notification of a lobby of the House today. I normally get such notification on the day when a lobby is taking place.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware that there has been a great deal of obstruction and intimidation of hon. Members in getting to the House today to attend Parliament? Hon. Members have been obstructed by a flag-waving group of militants and Socialist Workers party supporters, with very few nurses among them, which prevented some of us from attending Question Time and part of the proceedings of the House today.

Will you please send a message to the police controlling that crowd that they should permit the access of hon. Members of Parliament to the House freely so that, having been elected, we can carry out our democratic job of trying to ensure through democratic means that the nurses and the National Health Service are properly looked after by Parliament? Does the attempt to disrupt Parliament by force not prove that the nurses are being cynically and politically exploited by the Opposition and by their supporting unions, COHSE and NUPE, and that this has nothing to do with the care of patients?

I have already said that I will look into the question of any obstruction that has been caused, and certainly of obstruction caused to hon. Members. That would be contrary to the Sessional Order.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You called my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) to order. I am not saying that you did so wrongly, but I should like to put it to you that my hon. Friend made his interjection because of the loud-mouthed comments from the hon. Lady who is supposed to be a Minister and who has consistently tried to intimidate Opposition Members and who, incidentally, is an absolute disgrace to the city of Liverpool.

One of the problems that I face in the Chamber is that I hear what goes on through a microphone positioned above the hon. Member who is speaking, which is channelled to an amplifier in the wings of the Chair. I am afraid that I did not hear anything else.

Further to the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), Mr. Speaker. You will recall that in 1976 the Labour Government announced cuts of 30 per cent. in the hospital building programme. Over five years, the pay of nurses decreased in real terms.

Did the right hon. Member for Chesterfield ever make an application under Standing Order No. 20 during those five years?

You have quite properly said, Mr. Speaker, that you are guided by criteria that have been used by your predecessors. We did a little research a short while ago on what were Standing Order No. 9 applications — now Standing Order No. 20 applications—to see when they were granted. We found that, in the run-up to the so-called winter of discontent in 1978–79, when there was a Labour Government, many applications for debates under Standing Order No. 9 were made.

I do not know whether the criteria for accepting such debates were marginally different or whether Mr. Speaker looked at them differently, but our research in the Library shows that five applications were made by Tory Members—many of them to do with the NHS—and they were granted. I remember sitting over there, where Conservative Members now sit, watching them make their applications.

All I am asking is whether you will have a look at the criteria used then and see whether they have changed and whether the climate now is just as important, and to consider the environment outside this place as compared with our discussions about the Moonies and pub opening hours. Will you consider whether it is important to discuss what is after all, an historic event—thousands of nurses and other health workers going out on strike? Will you consider whether that meets the criteria for an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 20?

I shall certainly look up what happened, but the criteria have not changed. I have a clear memory of what happened at that time—it was a very different situation.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. While you are looking at the criteria, will you examine the criteria by which the Opposition are able to use Supply days and the criteria by which they can put down censure motions? Is it not a fact that what we have witnessed today is the possible leadership bid of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), as all the complaints have come from Back-Bench Labour Members? None have come from the Labour Front Bench.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) has blundered onto an important aspect of the problem. Never during the time to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referred, which I admit was a period of crisis, did nurses come out on strike. Nevertheless, applications under Standing Order No. 9 were granted, as were private notice questions. I respectfully submit that it is important to consider what happened during that time and to compare it with what is happening now. The situation now is much worse and ought therefore to be treated in a much more considerate manner.

Order. We have a heavy day ahead of us—we have two major Bills to debate. I shall consider all the points tht have been put to me. I have no doubt that the House will wish to return to this matter during Social Services questions on Tuesday.

If I may by the way respond to Conservative Members who are suggesting that I have been smoked out—