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Commons Chamber

Volume 163: debated on Monday 4 December 1989

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House Of Commons

Monday 4 December 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Birmingham City Council (No 2) Bill

Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Bill

Orders for consideration read.

To be considered on Thursday 7 December.

Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill Lords

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 7 December.

Seamount Ltd

Resolved,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give direction that there be laid before this House a Return of the report of Mr. Stewart Boyd QC into the affairs of Seamount Limited.—[Mr. Hurd.]

Oral Answers To Questions

Transport

Licensed Motor Vehicles

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is the number of licensed motor vehicles on the roads today; and what was the number in 1979.

A census taken at the end of September showed 24 million licensed vehicles of all classes on the roads in Great Britain. The comparable figure for 1979 was 18·6 million. This substantial increase can be attributed to the improvement in personal prosperity caused by the success of Government policies.

If there is such prosperity, why are extra motorway miles not being built to accommodate the increased traffic? Is the Minister aware that it now takes an hour longer to drive here from Bassetlaw, or Yorkshire, than it did 10 years ago? Is he further aware that some of the horrendous accidents that took place in the fog recently, were caused by dangerous overcrowding on the motorways? When will we have the kind of motorway standards and systems that are operated in France and Germany?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman supports our policy of improving and extending existing roads and building new ones. That is the policy which we intend to implement. As the hon. Gentleman will know from the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, there is to be a substantial increase in the moneys available to do the very things that he wishes. The present Government are doing that, but the Labour Government supported by the hon. Gentleman were unable to provide that sort of resource.

Given the enormous increase in traffic levels, especially in central London, will my hon. Friend examine seriously the so-called traffic management schemes which in many places—for example, the Aldwych and south of Westminster bridge—are unnecessary, counter-productive and extremely expensive? Will my hon. Friend reconsider whether the Government should not reallocate responsibility for the overall control of London's traffic to the Department of Transport?

My right hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable in these matters and I am grateful to him for his constructive approach. I assure him that I will consider the matters that he has raised as quickly as possible.

Despite the Minister's main answer, and despite his interest in the A 19 problem, there are persistent problems which need urgently to be resolved. Will the Minister tell us, perhaps not today but later, the cost of the flyover on the A1 at Middlesbrough and the number of months of work already attributed to it? How long will that project take to complete?

Secondly, will the Minister—

I am delighted to tell the House that my Department is committed to improving a number of roads, one of which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I will write to the hon. Gentleman in response to his detailed question.

My right hon. and hon. Friends must be congratulated on the enormous amount of work being undertaken, but is it not true that most of the roads in the south-west and south-east of this island are jammed most of the time, especially during peak hours? Has not the time come for a comprehensive statement on strategy, perhaps in a White Paper, setting out exactly how we are to develop high-speed links, dedicated transport, inner city restrictions, a vast increase in tunnelling and sub-service provision, and new car designs to make life possible in the next 10 years?

In a very short question, my right hon. Friend has raised enough matters of substance for a major debate. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I—indeed, all the Ministers in the Department—are spending a great deal of time and money trying to address the problems to which he refers. I hope that in due course he will be able to accord us the plaudits which his experience will allow us to receive with considerable gratitude.

Does the Minister accept that, whatever the size of the programme, his Department's projections of an increase in road traffic of between 83 and 142 per cent. in the next 25 years will result in a massive increase in emissions of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide? Will he tell us today whether he accepts the advice of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who said that

"such growth would wreck any attempt to control pollution"?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I are entirely in agreement with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that the problem of emissions must be addressed. We have already taken a number of steps, not least through our support for the Commission directive which aims to do something about catalytic converters by 1992.

I remind the hon. Lady that the figures to which she has referred are forecasts and not the Department's targets. I for one am not prepared to be a member of a Government who would not allow individuals to be free to buy the cars that they want, but apparently that does not apply to the hon. Lady.

Railways

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has for increasing spending on the railways over the next three years.

This Government are making possible investment in the future of our railways on a scale not seen for 25 years. Investment in British Rail is planned to rise to £3·7 billion over the next three years, a 75 per cent. real increase over the previous three.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is great concern in Ipswich about the service on the railway to London—both the overcrowding and the bad timekeeping? Can he assure me that a reasonable proportion of the welcome increase in spending on railways that he has announced will be devoted to improving the standard of service on the Ipswich to Liverpool Street line?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. The programme includes £60 million to be spent on improving the signalling system on that very line.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that although improved investment in British Rail is welcome, his responsibility relates to the whole country? Will he give particular attention to the electrification of the east coast line between Aberdeen and Edinburgh, especially in view of the need to develop industry and commerce because of the Channel tunnel?

Yes, I want to see that fast east coast link electrified from London straight through to Aberdeen. The electrification to Leeds has already been a great success and we wish that to be carried further.

No one with the interests of the railways at heart could do other than warmly welcome the Government's investment in the new railway, and in railway modernisation. Will my hon. Friend confirm, however, that cleanliness, punctuality, safety, the length of trains and, indeed, the overcrowding to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) referred, must all be dealt with through the public service obligation grant, which the Government have cut in half—and boast about having cut in half—since 1983? Should we not look at PSO grant and investment in new railways simultaneously?

I am sorry if my hon. Friend is going to join the Opposition in measuring the Government's commitment to the railways by the amount spent on subsidy. We believe that our objective should be to have not the most subsidised but the most efficient and modernised railways, and that is what we are seeking.

Is the Secretary of State aware that he does not know what he is talking about? He has no plans to increase spending on the railways; indeed, as his hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) has just told him, he plans to reduce the public service obligation grant—already reduced by 50 per cent.—even further in the next three years. All that he is doing is allowing the railways to borrow more money, which will have to be repaid through higher fares, more overcrowding and even wider passenger dissatisfaction. The Secretary of State should stop trying to kid his hon. Friends that anything has changed.

It is a great disappointment to the hon. Gentleman that we are making sure that our railway system is modernised. Last year more money was invested in modernising the railways than for 25 years. In the next three years we shall spend 75 per cent. more in real terms. That is bad news for the hon. Gentleman, but good news for the railways.

British Rail

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether he expects to meet the chairman of British Rail before 31 December to discuss reopening of existing lines closed to passenger traffic; and if he will make a statement.

The reopening of freight railway lines to passenger services is a matter for the British Railways Board. British Rail will generally look favourably on any opening where there is a commercial case or where others are willing to give support.

As motor traffic congestion is now so serious in the Dunstable-Luton area, with no sign of early relief, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging British Rail to reopen the Dunstable-Luton railway line to passenger traffic at the earliest opportunity?

As my hon. Friend knows, a number of proposals, ranging from a light railway system to the reopening of the line, are under consideration. I understand that a decision will be announced in January.

Will the Minister draw the attention of British Rail's chairman to the need to reopen the railway line in north Wales from Bangor to Caernarfon? Before he does that, however, will he make sure that after 11 years of Conservative rule there is enough rolling stock? In Wrexham we have buses instead of trains and more trains cancelled than ever before.

I know of no plans to reopen the line that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but if he cares to write to me I will put the matter to the chairman of British Rail. As for the hon. Gentleman's second point, at the end of the next two years more than 80 per cent. of all the rolling stock on provincial lines will be less than five years old. There is a massive programme under way to modernise all the rolling stock on the provincial lines. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is good news, as his hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) does not seem to agree.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is essential for the prosperity of the northern half of the country that there should be through freight and passenger trains from the Channel tunnel at the earliest possible time? Does he also accept that British Rail management has assured us that it is essential that the international station at King's Cross should go ahead without any delay and that initially, whatever the route through Kent and the south-east, we should use the existing lines under London?

My hon. Friend knows that the King's Cross development is a matter for this House. There is a Bill before the House, on which the House will take a decision. There is a later question on the Order Paper about the link to the Channel tunnel. We believe that it is essential for all the regions to have good access to the Channel tunnel. British Rail will be coming forward with proposals before the end of the year.

River Severn Crossing

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what date he has set for the invitation of tenders for the second crossing of the River Severn.

Tenders for the second Severn bridge were invited on 27 April and were received on 2 October. The assessment process is well under way.

I welcome the fact that at last there is to be a second crossing of the River Severn. It will get rid of the dreadful bottleneck that has strangled the Welsh economy. However, even at this late stage in the tendering process, is the Minister able to say whether the day has gone when a combination of energy generation and the road crossing would still be possible? The advantage of generating 7 per cent. of Britain's electricity combined with road crossing seems a sensible option which the Government should pursue.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that questions about energy are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. However, my Department is committed to going ahead as quickly as possible with the second crossing. My right hon. Friend and I assure him that we shall do our level best to ensure that it is brought into being as quickly as possible.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the success of the recent exhibitions in Pilning and Avonmouth in my constituency on the southern routes for the second Severn crossing? Will he do all in his power to reach a final decision on the route as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend frequently raises this matter to protect his constituents' interests and I know how deeply he feels it to be at the forefront of his political agenda. I assure the House that I shall do what I can to speed up the process.

British Rail

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to announce the new chairman or chairwoman of British Rail.

I expect to announce the name of the new British Rail chairman shortly.

Is not the Secretary of State at all worried about the long delay in making this announcement? The right hon. Gentleman must accept that that cannot be good for the management and future of British Rail, its workers and employees. Can he give an assurance to the House that the Department's advisers and the headhunters who are responsible for finding someone to carry out this top management task have had a trawl of the incredibly mature, experienced, good top management females in British industry and commerce, and that they are not to be excluded from consideration because it might be thought by some males that just because one woman cannot run the country a woman is not fit to run British Rail?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the person whose name I announce will be a man.

When my right hon. Friend has appointed the chairman, or preferably chairwoman, of British Rail, will he undertake to ask that person to exercise wide discretion about the restrictive compensation rules for those suffering due to the Channel tunnel rail link?

That is a matter not for the new chairman of British Rail but for the House.

Speaking as a mature woman, may I ask the Secretary of State whether in his talks with the present chairman he has been told that the constant cutting of the public service obligation grant is putting at risk the safety of the railways and that whoever is in that position must make that his or her first absolute priority?

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady about safety. There is absolutely no truth in the newspaper report yesterday that the Government were not prepared to contribute to the costs of meeting the recommendations in the Hidden report. I have not had any discussions of the kind suggested with the chairman of British Rail.

When my right hon. Friend appoints the new chairman of British Rail, will he urge the chairman to look again at the Channel tunnel rail link proposals and consider the alternatives which centre on Stratford, which provides far more direct and better access for the whole United Kingdom than King's Cross does? The Ove Arup route, in particular, envisages King's Cross as one of the London destinations.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has noticed that a recent poll shows that a substantial majority of the Members polled prefer the BR Eurorail option.

Is the Secretary of State surprised that he has had to hawk the job of chairman of British Rail around the City when accepting the job means waiting years for his Department to allow British Rail to spend its own money and when the new chairman or chairwoman will suffer constant interference in terms of how that money is spent, whether on safety, cleanliness, modernisation or punctuality? When it comes to implementing the Government's impossible rail policies, one Bob Reid will be just like another.

I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman again. He is incredibly ill-informed. We have had no shortage of candidates. In fact, I am surprised at the number of people who have written to me commending themselves. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name one."] There are too many to name, and none is in the House. I believe that we have found an excellent chairman, and I look forward to informing the House shortly of his appointment.

School Buses

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what measures are being taken to make school buses more recognisable.

We attach high priority to improving the safety of school children. Among other points, school buses should be easier to recognise. We are proposing that they should be marked with a distinctive sign and we shall shortly be consulting in the usual way. I will ensure that my hon. Friend receives a copy of that document.

That will be welcome news to many of my constituents, whose children have to travel a considerable distance on busy roads to school. What is the Government's attitude to seat belts on school buses?

We already require seat belts to be fitted to the front seats of coaches and minibuses, and we aim for that provision to be extended to all seats on minibuses and coaches. However, it is mainly a matter of education and in some ways, it is up to parents, too, to emphasise the importance of taking care when using public transport.

Will the Minister accept that it is not good enough for his Department to attempt to shuffle off safety considerations on to teachers or parents? Will he accept that there is mounting concern about the safety of children—who often pay fares on school buses—arising from the absence of supervision or seat belts? Will he announce at the earliest opportunity legislation requiring supervision and seat belts for children riding on such vehicles?

The operation of supervision on those coaches is surely a matter for local authorities, as it falls wholly within their remit. The hon. Gentleman implied that we were trying to push the subject off on to parents. It is every parent's responsibility and duty to ensure that children understand safety procedures. The Department of Transport cannot do that, so parents need to do it.

A child in my constituency named Lee Kelly died while alighting from a school bus and crossing the road. As a result, I went to see my hon. Friend the Minister and I am grateful for his speedy understanding and sensitivity. I am delighted to say that on 1 January Devon county council is to initiate a pilot scheme with clear bus signs and flashing lights to see what the effect will be on traffic. My hon. Friend will know that I have put to him a 10-point school bus safety code, which I urge all hon. Members to back and the Department to adopt.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which she led the campaign. I and the Department also congratulate Devon county council. There is nothing to stop county councils taking such imaginative intiatives as Devon has already taken and we shall watch that experiment with great interest.

Is the Minister aware that in the United States, most school buses are yellow and that there is a regulation that those buses should not be overtaken by drivers who come up behind, so that the kids can cross in safety? Having heard about the success of the experiment in Devon, will the Minister consider extending that experiment, or encouraging its extension, and will he look with an open mind at the similar scheme in the United States?

The answer to all three questions is yes. To require traffic not to overtake when a school bus is stopping would mean a major change in driver understanding of roads, but we shall look at the possibility of introducing such a measure.

Stansted Rail Link

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will investigate the adequacy of capacity on the Liverpool Street/Cambridge line before the commencement of the Stansted airport rail link.

The efficient operation of the railways is a matter for British Rail, but my hon. Friend the Minister of State has agreed to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his concerns and those of his constituents.

Will my hon. Friend in his own responsibility for aviation share the concern of our hon. Friend the Minister of State to ensure that the airport rail link gets off to a good start? Is there not some cause for worry when the resignalling of the Bethnal Green to Stansted section will not be in place by 1991 and there is no provision for any extra tracks? Is my hon. Friend aware that the service currently offered by British Rail within those constraints is not good? How can he expect it to be successful unless further action is taken?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the need to provide an efficient service from Stansted. The development there is most impressive and I congratulate the British Airports Authority on that project. I hope that my hon. Friend's points can be covered in his meeting with the Minister of State.

Before work on the Stansted rail link commences, will my hon. Friend ensure that British Rail is as receptive to proposals for rail links to regional airports?

I am sure that every case that comes before British Rail will be judged on its merits.

London Regional Transport

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport by how much spending on London Regional Transport will be increased over the next three years.

Investment by London Regional Transport is at a record level. It will rise to £2·2 billion over the next three years—up no less than 93 per cent. on the three years to April 1990.

I welcome that statement by the Secretary of State, but is he aware that it is generally felt in London that massive capital expenditure on the London Underground is required if London is not to come to a stop? Is he aware that people of all political opinions are weary of delays, breakdowns, inaudible announcements, the greatest concentration of broken-down escalators in discovered space, beggars, tramps and children selling lavender, all of which are a disgrace in a national capital?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have noted that until four years ago London Transport was controlled by the Labour-run GLC. During that time, subsidies rose to a record level, investment plummeted and the net result was a declining system in which there was inadequate investment. We have been putting that right and in the next three years massive investment will take place. The Central line will be renewed, with new trains and modernised stations. There are also plans afoot to start work on the Northern line and that work should be completed towards the middle of the next decade.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the considerable concern among London pensioners that the extent of their concessionary travel arrangements may be reduced as a result of the current negotiations with London boroughs? In view of the obvious benefits of the present scheme, not only to pensioners but to London Regional Transport, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the scheme will be continued after next April, and without damaging cuts?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point because there has been quite a lot of scaremongering about it. Negotiations are indeed taking place, but there is no question of that scheme being threatened.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people who travel on the Underground find it overcrowded, unpleasant and at times unbearable? We welcome wholeheartedly his commitment to improve the Central line and the announcement about the Jubilee line, but those who come from my part of the world hope that, in time, improvements will also be made to the District line.

I think that the whole House agrees that the London Underground system is in need of massive investment. The difference between London Underground in the past and London Underground now is that it is now receiving that investment, and the travelling public can look forward to a better service in the years ahead.

Is the Secretary of State aware that even if spending on the London Underground is at record levels, dissatisfaction with the London Underground is also at record levels? When will the Government put aside their doctrinaire aversion to investment in the public sector and spend the money that is required to give the people of London the public transport system that a capital city deserves? In particular, when will he introduce schemes for investment to make possible the Chelsea-Hackney line and the building of a tube station in my constituency—the only London constituency that lacks its own tube station?

I am sure that it will be a matter of pleasure to the hon. Lady that, in the eight years that end next April, £8 billion will have been invested in the transport infrastructure as a whole—that is to say, in rail, underground and roads. In the next three years, more than £6 billion will be invested in the public sector alone. The investment for which the hon. Lady calls will thus be made under this Government.

A Chelsea-Hackney line is one of two lines being considered with a view to relieving congestion in central London. As I have already said, all being well, London Underground will be introducing a Bill this time next year to make possible one of the lines.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a previous chairman of London Transport described the Northern line as "an abomination" on which trains are dirty, infrequent and regularly graffiti-ridden? Will my right hon. Friend speed up investment in the Northern line so that improvements can be made before the mid-1990s?

London Transport is working hard on those plans. I have just inaugurated the modernisation of Angel station at a cost of £55 million and that work is now in hand. Plans will be introduced for the full modernisation of that entire line and I recognise that the House wants to hear about them as soon as possible.

London Underground

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on his plans to relieve current levels of congestion on London Underground.

As I have recently announced, I have already put a great deal of action in hand on the recommendations of the central and east London rail studies. With my approval London Regional Transport has just deposited a Bill for the extension of the Jubilee line; subject to the outcome of further work I expect to authorise a Bill for another major new line next year; and a good start has been made on a major upgrading programme of the existing underground network.

Has the Secretary of State forgotten that his central London rail study suggested that the extension of the Jubilee line was the least likely option to relieve congestion in central London? Surely his main tool for relieving overcrowding is the increase in fares? Will he acknowledge that his Department is predicting a 46 per cent. increase in fares on the Underground in the next 11 years? Does he agree that that will simply put people on the roads, add to road congestion and lead to further traffic accidents in our capital city?

I am not sure that the hon. Lady really meant what she said about 46 per cent. over 11 years. If that were so that percentage would represent the lowest increase ever and probably lower than that in any one year under the Labour party. During the past 10 years London Transport fares have not increased in real terms. Investment in the London Underground system is massive and we have already announced the extension of the Jubilee line. I hope that the hon. Lady, whose constituents stand to benefit from that line, will not complain about the fact that south London will get a decent Underground service in the years ahead from the Jubilee line, as will east London. We are coming forward with a proposal for another line. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but we are tackling problems which she and her friends just moan about.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there would be no extra congestion on London Underground if travel passes for the elderly, the disabled and blind were confirmed at their present level—that is, at no cost to their holders? Can he tell me when pensioners and others can expect an announcement to be made?

I cannot give the date, but I can repeat the assurance that I gave earlier—that the travel concession is not threatened. The negotiations are simply in hand between the parties. It is not the elderly or the disabled who are the cause of London's congestion—no one would suggest that. The plain fact is that, in the past five years, the number of people using the Underground has increased by 35 per cent. in the rush hour. and by 85 per cent. at off-peak times. There is a massive demand for the service that Opposition Members say that we should subsidise.

Disabled People

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to improve transport facilities for the disabled.

Our plans are set out comprehensively in the document "Transport and Disability—a Statement of Aims and Priorities".

I pay great attention to my disablement advisory committee, which represents many disabled organisations that perform excellent and independent work.

Is the Minister aware that 6 million disabled people are potential travellers on public transport and that we should do a great deal for them? No disabled person can travel across London by bus because of the steps, bars or barriers, nor can he go down to the Underground. It is absolutely appalling that no disabled person can be allowed down on the Underground because, I believe, of disasters. Is he also aware that in rural areas, as a result of deregulation, the bus services have gone for the cheapest option and, in the main, they do not cater for disabled persons? In the Minister's answer—

What immediate action will the Minister promise as a result of his answer?

As I said, my Department has a great deal of interest and concern in matters affecting the disabled. There have been many changes to benefit disabled people in all aspects of transport, but there is always room for improvement. As I said, I pay great heed to my advisory committee which is very independent. It tells me exactly what needs to be done, and I endeavour to do it.

Will the Minister conduct an inquiry into the transport of the disabled to and from day centres? The special bus that collects my constituent Mark Horrocks takes more than three and a half hours each day for a four-mile journey. Will he give guidance to local authorities about how to improve such grossly inadequate services?

I am not familiar with the details of this case. My hon. Friend is known for his concern and interest in these matters. If he will be kind enough to write to me with the details, I shall be more than happy to see what I can do to help.

When can we expect a definitive statement on the future of the orange badge scheme which grants parking concessions for disabled drivers and passengers? Is any consideration being given to increasing the penalties for abuse?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, a wide variety of topics related to this issue are being considered. We are endeavouring to prevent abuse so that those who need the orange badge scheme are able to use it, and to do so more effectively. I am considering all the points that he has raised as matters of considerable urgency and I hope to be able to report in the near future.

Attorney-General

Court Hearings

94.

To ask the Attorney-General what percentage of court hearings in 1988 were unable to proceed on the day for which they were listed as a result of (a) prisoners not delivered to the court, (b) police officers not in court to give evidence, (c) probation service reports not available and (d) Crown prosecution service delays.

The Crown prosecution service and the Home Office have carried out a number of surveys into causes of delay in the criminal justice system. While the precise statistics sought by my hon. Friend are not available, responsibility for adjournments is spread amongst a variety of agencies in the system and the Crown prosecution service is certainly not the major cause of such requests.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that there is considerable concern among lawyers and lay people at the delays taking place in hearing cases, and the fact that the administration of justice is being hindered as a result? What action are the Government taking to try to speed up hearings?

The Crown prosecution service tries to liaise with the different agencies—my hon. Friend referred to the police, the probation service and the courts—to ensure that the system speeds ahead as much as possible. Inevitably, its review duties cause some extra time, but the interests of justice make this well worth while.

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern following last Thursday's publication of a report into the operation of the duty solicitor scheme? Does he accept that the scheme's operation is just as important as the operation of the Crown prosecution service and court delays in terms of the proper administration of justice? What additional resources are the Government prepared to put into the operation of the duty solicitor scheme? Are they prepared to step back and allow the scheme to be destroyed?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is studying the report with great care. We attach great importance to the proper working of the duty solicitor scheme which, among other things, puts great pressure on solicitors. My right hon. and learned Friend will keep the matter closely under review.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware of the case of Mr. Lorrain Osman who has been awaiting extradition proceedings while in custody for the past four years? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that this is a great strain on our British justice system? Will he look into the matter with a view to involving the official solicitor so that this man may be released pending proceedings?

I have had the opportunity to look in some considerable detail at the background to Mr. Osman's case. My hon. Friend will wish to bear in mind that Mr. Osman, who is an extremely wealthy man, is entitled to exhaust every one of his legal remedies in this country before my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary can take the decision on whether to extradite him to Hong Kong. Inevitably, those legal remedies take time to pursue, but my hon. Friend should also bear in mind that the question of bail in the interim is a matter for the independent judiciary and has been before it on several occasions.

To revert to the original question, is it not false economy to leave these services under-resourced? Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that delays involve loss of time for the judiciary, the court service, defence witnesses and the other services involved? Would it not be sensible to fund a proper legal system in the first place?

It can be false economy to leave services under-resourced. The problem faced by the criminal justice system is by no means solely, if indeed largely, due to financial resources. It is also a question of human resources. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, at the moment the pool of lawyers is seriously overfished by a number of different agencies, such as the City and large firms of solicitors. As I emphasised earlier, it is important that the different agencies work carefully together to make the best use of resources and that we should seek to recruit to bring the Crown prosecution service up to strength.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the big company firms do not recruit people who are involved in criminal law? Does he accept that the Crown prosecution service is under-resourced in human and financial terms? Does he agree that it is quite unacceptable that simple shoplifting trials in Merseyside should take between six and nine months to come before the courts? That cannot be right for the law or for the people who are being charged. I am not a great public expenditure man, but it is clear to me that we have to get the proper people in the Crown prosecution service and that they must be properly rewarded and have a proper career structure in a properly funded service.

My hon. Friend has great knowledge of the scene on Merseyside. I urge him to look carefully at the statistics on who is asking for adjournments. In a significant proportion of cases it is the defence that asks for repeated adjournments.

Civil Servants (Disclosures)

95.

To ask the Attorney-General if he will make it his policy to institute criminal proceedings against any civil servant who improperly discloses the advice given by the Law Officers to the Government.

Does the Attorney-General believe Sir Leon Brittan when he asserts that Mr. Powell and Mr. Ingham quite improperly abused his letter? Why do they remain so powerful in the government of Britain unless, as probably on Rover and certainly in the dismissal of her Chancellor and the nature of the Chancellor's leaving the Government, the Prime Minister did that which if I were so indelicate as to mention it, Mr. Speaker, you would suspend me for five days?

I responded to a similar question on 8 May and on subsequent occasions, and there is nothing that I can usefully add to what I said to the hon. Gentleman then. Nothing that I can say will influence the hon. Gentleman, but I question whether there is anything to be gained by sending his pitcher to that well again.

Is it not about time that we had a statute of limitations on this question?

A statute of limitations is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, but the statute of limitations has been amended so often that it is almost incomprehensibly complicated as it is.

In terms of criminal proceedings, will the Attorney-General consider the application of the law of corruption and bribery as it may apply to the giving of concealed sweetners on the authority of an ex-Government Minister? Bearing in mind that corruption does not mean dishonesty but merely doing an act which the law forbids as tending to corrupt—including the offering of an inducement for doing or forbearing to do anything in respect of a transaction in which a public body is concerned—and that the Attorney-General's consent is necessary for a prosecution, will he refer to the Director of Public Prosecutions the involvement of any person in the giving of concealed incentives to British Aerospace to ascertain whether there is a prima facie case for prosecution?

I am sorry to disappoint the right hon. and learned Gentleman who asked such a carefully prepared and learned question, but it does not arise out of the question on the Order Paper. If it did, I should deny every one of the premises upon which it is based.

Serious Fraud

96.

To ask the Attorney-General when he next expects to meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss serious fraud; and if he will make a statement.

Matters of serious fraud are generally the responsibility of the independent serious fraud office, whose own director I frequently meet for discussions.

When the Attorney-General meets that officer, will he tell him that it is high time that the serious fraud office investigated the sweetner from the Government to British Aerospace in order to get rid of Rover? Will he also say—as the Attorney-General of this country ought to say—that he believes that the Government are guilty of fraud and that they have probably been fiddling certain tax concessions and subsidies? There should be one law which applies to the Government in the same way as it applies to an old lady in the supermarket who might get away with a tin of pilchards. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman were a real Attorney-General that is the way that he would address the Director of Public Prosecutions and the serious fraud squad instead of covering up for his friends on the Government Front Bench.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a full statement on Thursday and there is nothing that I wish to add to that. I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris)—I will not say shot his fox in his previous question—but slightly peppered it. Questions of this nature are not made any more persuasive, and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) does not make his case, by yelling.

Overseas Development

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to answer this question and question No. 113 at the end of Question Time, as you have so advised.

Third World

108.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment he has made of whether more funds could be provided to United Kingdom non-governmental organisations for work in the Third world; and whether any such increase is planned.

On 26 October I announced an increase in our joint funding scheme, under which we support non-governmental organisations' agreed long-term development projects by 25 per cent. next year to £20 million. I am also increasing support for the United Kingdom volunteer recruiting agencies—most notably the Voluntary Service Overseas—by 10 per cent. to £14·3 million. We will also consider sympathetically requests for assistance from non-governmental organisations for disaster and emergency relief measures.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those increases. Has she suggested that special attention should be paid to small projects, which in return for a modest outlay—such as the installation of water tanks—can have tremendous consequences for the welfare of women in the Third world?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are keen to use not only the joint funding scheme for the non-governmental organisations, but the heads of mission gift scheme and the heads of mission small projects scheme. Those three ways can help women in development, particularly through the provision of water storage, so saving them the awful problem of carting heavy water urns for many miles.

I recognise the important contribution of VSO. I should like to thank the Minister and ask whether she will have discussions with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to ensure that the implementation of the student loans scheme does not affect the financial ability of young people to work for at least two years in the Third world with VSO and to work when they get back?

Although the Government have a good record, does my right hon. Friend agree that more should be done to assist NGOs with population programmes? Is it not a fact that at the moment less than 1 per cent. of all aid is used on population programmes? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if that percentage were increased, the effectiveness of the rest of the programme would be greater? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if that percentage were increased the effectiveness of the rest of the programme would be greater?

I agree with my hon. Friend. At the meeting that we had with Population Concern in Harrogate on 14 November, we agreed on how valuable those contributions that we are already making, and those that we shall make, to Population Concern and other agencies concerned with population planning are in the general development of those countries.

In the league table of all 18 western aid givers, why has Britain dropped to 14th place when we were in sixth place in 1979?

The hon. Lady knows that the cuts made in the overseas aid programme under the last Labour Government had to go through. We are now increasing our aid programme and intend to go on spending it wisely and getting the best value for money out of every penny of taxpayers' money.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this welcome increase. Will she join me in paying tribute to the send-a-cow scheme? What further steps can she take to give that excellent organisation and endeavour more money?

I shall look into what my hon. Friend says. While send-a-cow is a good scheme, many other schemes deserve our support.

E1 Salvador

109.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what is the current level of United Kingdom support for El Salvador.

British bilateral aid to El Salvador is running at about £40,000 to £50,000 a year. In addition, we contribute to European Community assistance: in 1988 our share was about £240,000. We also provided £300,000 recently in emergency aid—£100,000 through the International Committee of the Red Cross and £200,000 as our share of European Community emergency aid.

In view of those contributions, have the Government responded to the El Salvadorian Government's request that they should provide a specialist commission of inquiry to consider the killings of the six Jesuits, their cook and her daughter? If that commission reaches the conclusion that the Salvadorian military was responsible for this dastardly act, will the Government influence the United States Government to stop military aid to El Salvador forthwith?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we condemned the murder of the six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter and appealed for restraint on both sides. Resolving this problem is very much a political question and one for the Government of El Salvador as well as those in America concerned with the issue.

Should not the Government be commended for giving emergency assistance to El Salvador, particularly at a time when the democratically elected Government of that country are having to cope with insurgency, which is causing considerable difficulty to the civilian population?

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. The Government's position is that the FMLN guerrillas should end their offensive and negotiate. For obvious reasons, we would not be able to add to United Kingdom personnel deployed in El Salvador, but we hope that the task that the Red Cross is undertaking will be facilitated, that the wounded will be evacuated, and that supplies to hospitals and the follow-up of those captured on both sides will now take place.

It is all very well expressing concern about the horrific murders of the six Jesuit priests, but does the Minister accept that she could have some effect by making British aid conditional on bringing the killers to justice, and on an improvement to human rights in El Salvador?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that I believe in human rights, wherever they may be at risk across the world. He will also know that humanitarian aid for those who are wounded and those who are without facilities such as medical facilities should not be conditional on such premises.

I welcome the aid that has been given to El Salvador, but should we not take into account those countries that are greater friends of the United Kingdom and especially, in west Africa, the small but very friendly country of Sierra Leone?

We send about 70 per cent. of our bilateral aid to the poorest 50 countries in the world. We help the country that my hon. Friend mentioned and we are doing better than other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development donors in that respect.

Hungary

111.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what economic aid is currently given to Hungary.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) announced assistance of £25 million over five years for Hungary in October. The programme now being planned gets under way substantively next April.

I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Does the Minister envisage neighbouring countries within the eastern bloc applying to Britain for further financial aid? What plan does she have in mind if they do?

The hon. Gentleman may be right. Countries other than Poland and Hungary may in due time want assistance from western European countries. However, it is not solely Britain which should give that assistance. Discussions with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are taking place in Washington. We are aware of the needs developing in eastern Europe as it moves towards democracy, which we hope will happen with all speed.

Horn Of Africa And Ethiopia

The following questions stood on the Order Paper:

107.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has to discuss the situation in the Horn of Africa with other Governments and non-governmental organisations.

113.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in the light of reports of famine in rebel-held areas of Ethiopia, how Her Majesty's Government will ensure that food supplies they provide will get through to those who need them.

Discussions with other Governments and non-governmental organisations are continuing. First, I will explain the actions which have already been taken.

As the House is aware, well over 3 million people are threatened by famine in northern Ethiopia. It is estimated that about 600,000 tonnes of food aid will be needed, especially in the early months of next year. The House also knows that this appalling problem is the result of crop failure, worsened by the continuing civil war.

The Overseas Development Administration constantly monitors the food situation in Ethiopia. On 31 August I discussed our deep concern with non-governmental organisation and then on 26 October with the Save the Children Fund, by which date it was clear that famine would result from the lack of September rains. I had already announced in August 6,850 tonnes of food aid for Eritrea.

A senior ODA official reported directly to me on 31 October on his return from Ethiopia. Immediately I stepped up our continuing diplomatic efforts with the United States, the Soviet Union our European Community partners, certain Arab countries, the Ethiopian Government and both the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the Tigre People's Liberation Front.

Our overriding priority is to get food to the starving. To do this we must first persuade the Ethiopian Government to allow the passage of food across the lines. Secondly, we must work for an end to the conflicts in Ethiopia.

On 14 November, in Rome, I discussed our assessment of need with representatives of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the world food programme, and received their latest estimates from the early warning system of the likely severity of the famine.

On 21 November in Brussels I underlined to our Community partners the severity and urgency of the situation, and on 27 November at the Foreign Affairs Council the Commission and our partners agreed to my request to reinforce our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. The £2 million of relief aid that I announced last week brings to nearly £13 million Britain's help for those in need in Ethiopia this year.

The aid that we continue to make available will meet real humanitarian need, but there can be no lasting relief to suffering in Ethiopia unless there is an end to the civil conflict. This requires a negotiated solution involving all parties. We have been, and will continue to be, very active in every possible forum to bring that about. I shall be raising the whole issue at the OECD in Paris tomorrow and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will also be doing so with the EC presidency.

Let the House and the nation be in no doubt that we are doing all that we reasonably can to get food to the starving and to bring peace to the people of Ethiopia.

I am sure that the Whole House welcomes my right hon. Friend's statement. I hope that, as a result of it, there will be great relief over the long term for the people of the Horn of Africa, and of Ethiopia in particular. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that she has recently attended talks in Washington on this subject? Can she give us some detail of what was discussed there?

Last week I met the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs and the acting Director of United States Aid for International Development, to discuss the problems in Ethiopia. I sought their assistance on contacts with the Soviet Union and anyone else who can bring the right sort of influence to bear on the Ethiopian Government and the rebel movements so that we may get the food supplies which are being donated to the people who need them so urgently. I cannot say that we have yet received the responses we want, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are in constant touch with all those who might be able to bring about a free passage of the food to the people who really need it.

Does my right hon. Friend think that there is any hope of establishing a food corridor through which this food can be transported to those who need it?

I would love to be able to give my hon. Friend a positive response to that question. The difficulty is that the Ethiopian Government have refused to discuss the free access of food. To get a corridor such as we all want will obviously take much more diplomatic discussion, in which we are fully engaged.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the most appalling thing in Ethiopia is the continuing conflict? Would it not be helpful if all of those who supply arms to either side in the dispute were persuaded to stop doing that? What steps are the Government taking to bring pressure to bear on those who supply arms? Is it not appalling that we should be sending arms while humanitarian aid is desperately needed to save lives?

Those who supply arms know that that can only prolong the conflict. I have no doubt that all the representations being made at a variety of levels across many Governments are to the effect that we need peace in Ethiopia before there can be any long-term solution for the starving people there.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the £2 million that was allocated, or so-called allocated, last week is geared towards the open-roads policy, which the Minister herself says is extremely hard to establish? Does she agree that the Government simply ran a high-profile public relations exercise last week, although they have been told about the problem repeatedly this year and have repeatedly refused to go to the Soviet Union, who are the only people capable of moving the Ethiopian Government?

I do not think that the hon. Member can have listened to a word of my statement, It is difficult, and it will be difficult, to establish an open-roads policy. The most efficient and direct route to take to provide food for the people of Tigré and Eritrea would be through the established channels of distribution from the Government-held ports, but that will happen only when the Ethiopian Government listen to all those to whom we have made representations, not just in the past week but during the past months. We shall go on making representations. Whether it be to the Soviet Union, the United States or any of our European partners, I hope that the Ethiopian Government will respond so that starvation can be stopped.

In contradistinction to what the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said, is it not true that my right hon. Friend has taken very early action to try to provide food for the millions of people who are in danger of starvation in Ethiopia, and that she has made real contact with the Soviet Union, which has a great deal of influence in Ethiopia? I am sure that the whole House and the nation join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend on the actions that she has taken.

Has the European Economic Community, which supplied much of the food aid when there was last starvation in Ethiopia, taken adequate and good action to provide food? Is there any chance of getting the Ethiopian Government to agree to open one of the two ports, without which we shall have great difficulty feeding people in the Asmara-Wello corridor?

My hon. Friend is right. We shall be extremely grateful for the efforts of all our Community partners and, indeed, the European Commission to get food to the people of Ethiopia. So far we have not persuaded the Ethiopian Government to open either of the ports but it is an urgent matter on which we are working.

Given that the overriding priority is to get food to the starving, and in view of the intransigence of the Ethiopian Government, would it not be best to send food by the overland route through the Sudan and to provide aid to the NGOs capable of using that route? Is that not the key?

I am sure that the best way to send food to the people who need it is through the NGOs. They have good experience and seem to be the best channel. Resources sent through them and other international agencies seem to assist people. We are working on that.

As an hon. Member who represented you, Mr. Speaker, at the opening session of the national assembly in Addis Ababa, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no hope for Ethiopia unless and until the wretched civil war is brought to an end? Will she give an assurance that the Goverment will continue to play their part along with other powers to bring about a settlement and, in particular, to pursuade Russia, which probably holds the key, to bring the utmost pressure to bear on the Mengistu regime?

We are already doing that. We shall continue to do everything necessary through every channel open to us to persuade the parties to the conflict to end it.

I agree with the Minister that the war is causing starvation. If the war ceased, we could get food to millions of dying people. Some children in Ethiopia die even before they reach the age of one. Something must be done. Does the Minister agree that, even though an open-roads policy is not possible at present because of the fighting, we must continue to seek such a policy so that even if the war continues we can get food to the people? Has she considered the supply and use of lorries? Is she aware that Tigré is short of lorries to take food from A to B? Will she consider whether aid is needed to help provide lorries?

It is likely that the additional £2 million that I announced last week, bringing our total aid this year to £13 million, will be used for urgent transport requirements. As the hon. Gentleman knows well, one has only to hold in one's arms a small child who is just skin and bone to know how bad the position is.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that 60 per cent. of the fertile land in Ethiopia is not under production and that the gross domestic product of all the sub-Saharan African countries is equivalent only to that of Belgium? Does she agree that we must for ever continue to try to help the unfortunate people in those countries and not seek the immediate solutions that some Opposition Members believe exist?

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the need for sustainable development. We must put in place agricultural schemes that can produce food for the future on a long-term basis. Until the conflict is brought to an end we have little chance of moving ahead with any agricultural scheme in Ethiopia. Only in countries which are prepared to undertake considerable agricultural production can we povercome future famine.

Does the Minister know whether President Bush discussed this matter with President Gorbachev last weekend?

I regret that I do not know, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I raised the matter with two Assistant Secretaries of State in the State Department in Washington on Thursday before they left, together with the President, for Malta. I believe that the message may well have got through.

As former chairman of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, may I tell my right hon. Friend that no one who has any knowledge of Ethiopia could dissent from her analysis? May I support the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and others who have said that there are two tragedies in Ethiopia the famine and the civil war? Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to support the NGOs' efforts to get food aid to the various areas of Ethiopia in the knowledge that it is not only the Ethiopian Government but others who have used food aid as a political and military weapon in the past? May I inform my right hon. Friend how sad some of us were that some NGOs were taking her to task? In fairness, in recent months she and the Government have been making considerable efforts to help Ethiopia.

Food aid should never be used as a weapon of war. Regrettably it often is. It is remarkable that we saw a letter from Save The Children Fund last week when the discussion which led to a whole series of new actions took place in the office of the director of Save The Children Fund in October.

May I say how pleased I am that the Minister is back, as the whole of last week I was trying to get a Government statement on this important issue?

Does the Minister accept that as we speak people are dying in Ethiopia? Will she explain why, despite being repeatedly warned by the aid agencies of this potential danger back in July, it took last week's dramatic television pictures to propel the Government into giving a paltry £2 million in food aid, which is only 1 per cent. of the total food aid required? While we accept that it must be right to attempt through international pressure to persuade the Ethiopian Government to open up roads to rebel-held areas, does the right hon. Lady accept that meantime, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said, there must be co-operation with the two local organisations that can effectively and quickly distribute the food to the people in need?

If I had not been in Washington last week for talks with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the State Department, I would not have got through to a number of people whom the hon. Lady's hon. Friends keep asking me to contact. We are concerned that people, especially small children, are dying. It was not in July that we started action. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), worked continually when he was at the ODA to get the right preparations taken should the crops fail, as they were known to have failed after the September rains were known to have failed. It did not take a Michael Buerk film to bring the Department into action. I have been in action since the first day I arrived at the ODA and my right hon. Friend before me.

The hon. Lady may think that £2 million is paltry. I made it clear that that was on top of nearly £11 million which we have already given this year. Since the beginning of 1987 we have spent some £54 million and since the beginning of 1984 £139 million in direct aid to Ethiopia. We shall ensure that assistance in this terrible disaster goes through the NGOs and that the food and transport that are required will be available to the people who need it so badly.

Points Of Order

3.48 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Those of us who were here on Friday and listened to an interesting debate on eastern Europe are rather surprised to see that the Official Report has missed out from the report at least three speeches. One was an interesting speech by the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) in praise of Leon Trotsky. Is there a Stalinist in the Hansard office who has declared the hon. Gentleman a non-person?

I have received an apology from the Editor of Hansard to say that a technical malfunction of Hansard Press resulted in most of the speech of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) all the speeches of the hon. Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and the beginning of the speech of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas) being omitted. A correction will be made in the text of Hansard today. The Editor expresses his regret.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Saturday morning, Radio 4 referred to my speech as odd. I thought that I had given an even-handed description of both Stalinism and capitalism. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether my speech exists—I understand that all our speeches, interventions and even interjections are reported in Hansard. If my speech does not exist, is there a technical case for saying that Radio 4 is in breach of privilege?

The hon. Gentleman's speech exists. Hansard Press made a mistake. I am glad to know that the hon. Gentleman's speech was referred to on the radio.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a speech was reported in Hansard in my name although it was made by another hon. Member, can you advise me what to do when in the second paragraph I am supposed to have waxed eloquent on Balkanisation? Far worse than that, I am supposed to have said:

"It is wonderful to be able to quote a statement from the present political leader of Bulgaria."—[Official Report, 1 December 1989; Vol. 162, c. 977.]
What can I do to safeguard my reputation, Mr. Speaker?

I am sorry that the mistake was made. New technology in Hansard caused the malfunction. I think that the hon. Gentleman has now put the record straight.

On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not related directly to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—it is more general than that—but earlier this afternoon, in a question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, the hon. Gentleman referred to a loyal and devoted civil servant. It was one of the seemingly endless occasions on which he has done so on the Floor of the House on an issue which surely has had its day. Is it correct, and if it is not, what can be done about it, for the names of senior civil servants to be mentioned in this way? Would it be possible for the House to examine whether there is a better way of handling these matters?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely it would be wrong for anyone to stop my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), or anyone else, raising important matters in the House merely because a long time has passed since the issue arose. We all remember the case of the Guildford Four and the 15 years which followed, during which hon. Members asked questions about the case. Tory Members could have said that that should stop. It is a good thing that it did not stop. Another example is the Rover sweetner. The questions about that will run on and on and on.

Order. I hope that these points of order will not run on and on and on. There is an important debate to follow.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could not the matter which I raised be brought quickly to an end and cleared up if the deputy Prime Minister were to tell us from the Dispatch Box whether he believes that Sir Leon Brittan, his friend and protegé, was right or not right in saying that Mr. Charles Powell and Mr. Ingham quite improperly approved the disclosure—

Order. That is a matter for the Government Front Bench and not for me. I say in answer to the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) that we must all calculate the use of names of those who are not Members of this place and the impact on them when mentioning them. However, hon. Members have freedom of speech in the Chamber, and that cannot be rationed.

Statutory Instruments, &C

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

Ordered,

That the draft Census Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Human Organ Transplants (Unrelated Persons) Regulations 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Patnick.]

European Community Documents

Ordered,

That European Community Documents Nos. 8520/89 and 8521/89 on Air Transport be referred to a Standing Committee on European Community Documents.—[Mr. Patnick.]

Orders Of The Day

Coal Industry Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Before I call the Secretary of State for Energy to move the Second Reading of the Bill, may I say that once again there is a great demand to take part in the debate, and I therefore propose to place a 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 pm and 9 pm. I hope, however, that hon. Members called before that time will bear the limit in mind in the interests of others.

3.55 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill is of major importance, not just to the coal industry but to the framework of our energy policy over the next five years. It may be helpful, therefore, if I set it in perspective before going on to introduce its detailed provisions.

The coal industry's performance over the past five years has been remarkable by any standards. British Coal has done well to maintain its United Kingdom sales. Between 1983–84 and last year, in spite of the damage done to customer confidence by the strike and in spite of large falls in the price of competing fuels—particularly imported coal and oil—British Coal lost only 4 per cent. of its business. It was able to fend off the competition only because of very large gains in productivity and improvements in cost.

Since before the strike, productivity has risen by over 75 per cent. and operating costs have fallen in real terms by 30 per cent. That is a success story that outstrips even the large gains in productivity seen elsewhere in industry during the past 10 years.

In the past four and a half years, more than 90 pits have closed. The number of employees has more than halved, from some 220,000 to a current total of fewer than 90,000. There has been virtually no recruitment from among communities that hitherto, to a greater or lesser extent, depended on mining, and I for one do not wish to play down the human consequences of those changes.

Each pit that has closed, however, has been subject to a detailed review procedure like that of no other industry, and each man who has left has done so voluntarily. British Coal has been able to offer alternative jobs to any men who wanted to remain in the industry; for those who wished to go, substantial amounts of redundancy pay have been made available, as well as counselling and retraining. To help bring alternative jobs to mining communities, British Coal set up British Coal Enterprise. I know that many hon. Members will have seen the exhibition that BCE set up last month nearby, and I for one have been most impressed by its contribution to the creation of new employment where mines have closed.

I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman so early in his speech. He said that miners had been able to exercise their rights under the colliery review procedures. In the summer, men at the Merthyr Vale colliery and pit in Aberfan wanted to exercise those rights, but were told that unless they agreed to the closure by the following Saturday they would lose every redundancy payment. They were therefore unable to exercise any rights under those procedures to assess what they considered to be an act of vandalism by British Coal.

I have heard about that. The detailed operation of the scheme is, of course, a matter for British Coal and not one for me.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is probably better for me to deal with one intervention before I start giving way to others.

I am trying to answer the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), but the hon. Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) have risen to their feet. In a minute I shall have to ask the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney to repeat his question, because I will have forgotten what it was.

Our policies—voluntary redundancy, the colliery review procedure and job creation through British Coal Enterprise—amount to a package that is unrivalled in any other industry. By and large, these policies are working extremely well, but I recognise the strength of the point made by the hon. Member for Methyr Tydfil and Rhymney. As circumstances change the policies will have to evolve, but they are widely recognised as being a fair and effective mix. We shall encourage British Coal to continue to pursue them.

Does not the Secretary of State condemn British Coal's attempt to influence events in a dishonourable, outrageous way by casting aspersions on or writing critical letters to the review panel because it had the audacity to appear to criticise British Coal for its rather doubtful approach to redundancies?

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's question meets the circumstances of the case. Some views have been expressed by British Coal and by the chairman who presided over the independent reviews, but it is not for me to comment on them at this stage.

A mine in my constituency closed two years ago. The case went through the review procedure and the colliery won. However, on Coal Board instructions, the colliery was closed.

Implementation of decisions is not a matter for me; nor was it a matter for my predecessors. I cannot defend every single action by management; it will have to defend its own actions. However, the Government have played their part by providing additional resources and a system that is generally acceptable and working very well.

Within the 100 million tonnes a year of sales, the bulk goes to power stations. For the past four years, British Coal has had a joint understanding with the Central Electricity Generating Board under which it has supplied around 75 million tonnes a year at a price which fell year by year, in real terms, and which since November 1987 has in fact been frozen in nominal terms. Negotiations have been going on between British Coal and National Power and PowerGen on the terms of the contracts that will replace the joint understanding from vesting day at the end of March 1990.

As some hon. Members may have heard, British Coal has today announced that it has successfully reached agreement with each generator on the outline terms of interim three-year contracts.

For the first two years of the new contracts, British Coal will supply an aggregate of 70 million tonnes a year. In the third year it will supply 65 million tonnes. Prices will continue to fall each year in real terms. There is nothing in the contracts which prevents British Coal from bidding to sell additional spot tonnages where that makes financial sense.

These are, I emphasise, interim settlements. Negotiations will continue with a view to reaching longer-term agreements covering the period beyond the next three years. At the same time, the two sides will be working to flesh out the details of the three-year agreements.

If the agreement is allowed to continue on that depreciating scale, does the Minister not realise that Britain will have to import more coal? It may cost less now, but who knows what its future price will be? With a £20 billion balance of payments deficit, does the Minister not understand that it is economic lunacy to import more coal and thereby to add to the balance of payments deficit? The answer is to keep pits open and to use British coal. The Government ought to pay attention to our long-term energy needs.

The contracts which are freely entered into by British Coal and the generating companies are very good for both. The hon. Gentleman may cast doubts on this, but, according to Sir Robert Haslam's statement today,

"The new contracts are a firm rebuff for the Jeremiahs and their gloomy forecasts for the future of coal. It is evident that the 'scare stories' of further massive contraction of the industry have been seriously overstated."
It is good news for the coal industry, and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who seeks to represent it in the House, should take credit for his industry when the opportunity presents itself.

Is it right for the Secretary of State to shield himself behind British Coal? Nuclear power is up to three times as expensive as coal, and the Government have supported it. Opencast mining is desperately damaging to the environment, and the Government have supported it. The importation of coal, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referred, deepens the balance of payments deficit. Those are Government decisions. They are not matters on which the Minister can shield himself behind the chairman of British Coal.

The Government have provided very large resources for British Coal and, by and large, in recent years British Coal has taken great advantage from that and has substantially improved its position. I paid proper credit to that at the beginning of my speech. The right hon. Gentleman is deluding himself and the House if he believes that the coal industry can be protected by Government intervention to stop, for example, coal imports. The competition that British Coal must face—it will face it successfully—is from competing fuels—for example, natural gas and oil, both of which are available in this country. Unless British Coal can compete against those fuels—I believe that it can—the future will be bleak. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman's analysis or his remedy are right.

I must not stand here and answer questions. My task is to make my speech in support of the Second Reading of the Bill. I have given way many times, and I may well give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have made progress.

Those agreements are important steps forward for both industries. They will allow the contracts between generators and distributors to be put in place according to the planned timetable. The prospect of further reductions in real terms in the cost of coal in each of the next three years is good news for the electricity consumer.

The contracts are also good news for the coal industry. They remove much of the uncertainty that has overhung the industry in recent months. They give British Coal a large tonnage to go for and time in which to adjust its capacity and costs. But British Coal's ability to retain this business in the longer term will depend upon its own efforts to get its costs down even further over the intervening period. The remarkable productivity trend over the past few years must continue, and I believe that there exists within the industry the will and the technical skill to achieve it.

I represent part of Sunderland, where 1,700 people are employed in the Wearmouth pit. One of the most disastrous things to happen is that, through our port and others along the coast, large quantities of coal are imported from cheap labour economies, including South Africa, Colombia and places with which no level of productivity can ever permit our miners to compete. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that that is disastrous for the 1,700 men at Wearmouth pit and that, if it continues, it will lead to the closure of that industry, which is one of the largest remaining industries in Sunderland?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it has not been the policy of this Government or of the Government whom he would support to restrict the import of coal into this country. Levels of coal imports have not substantially altered in recent years. British Coal is capable of meeting a substantial portion of the needs of the British generating industry for a long time to come.

I thank the Secretary of State, who has been generous in giving way. He has informed the House about increased productivity and the agreement that has been reached today. He has confessed that he will not be opposed to the import of coal and he has announced that gas will be a great competitor. Is he aware that an energy group of hon. Members had a lecture by the chief executive of British Gas and that he told his assembled audience that British Gas expects to have between 2 GW and 7 GW of gas-fired power stations in 10 years' time? Will the Secretary of State concede that he is misleading the House to some extent about the long-term prospects for coal if the policy of the importation of coal goes ahead and if gas-fired power stations become the order of the day?

I cannot be certain about the future pattern of fuels for generating, but I know that a substantial number of power stations will be gas fired, as is right and proper. That will add to the diversity of fuel and we know that gas is an environmentally satisfactory fuel. I must add that I was not one of those who were most anxious that the flotation of the nuclear industry should not proceed, but I made a statement to the House when I felt that it was the right course of action. Ten GW of electrical generation capacity were going to be filled by nuclear power, about which there is now considerable doubt, so there will be plenty of markets for which British Coal can aim, if it is competitive and able to seize those markets. I am doing all that I can to enable it to achieve that.

The Government's view is that there should be a diversity of sources of fuel. We should like to maintain our level of nuclear power, but nothing that I have done in my time as Secretary of State has damaged the prospects of British Coalrather the opposite.

No, as I have given way considerably. If I make progress, the hon. Gentleman is next in line and I shall keep him in a corner of my mind. If he sits nicely and quietly, I may be able to give way to him a little later. I have much more to say, so if I give way again hon. Members will complain that I have gone on for too long.

Clause 1 provides for a new deficiency grant which will enable me to reduce or extinguish British Coal's accumulated losses as at the end of this financial year. It differs from the deficit grant, which was available to British Coal until 1987, in two respects. Whereas deficit grant was paid out in respect of each year's losses, the new deficiency grant relates to the accumulated losses in the corporation's balance sheet, rather than to the results of any one year. The second difference is that deficit grant was an ongoing grant and a continuing subsidy. The new grant deals with the overhang of the past, but it is not available to cover any losses that British Coal may incur beyond March 1990.

Apart from restructuring grant, to which I shall return in a moment, we do not envisage offering any grant subsidy to British Coal for the period beyond March 1990, for the simple reason that, taking the next three years as a whole, we expect British Coal to make a profit. As Sir Robert Haslam told the Select Committee on Energy last month, British Coal does not want a subsidy and it does not need a subsidy.

However, it is essential and urgent that we address the massive distortions that are now appearing in British Coal's balance sheet. That is because, on the basis of the balance sheet that we expect to see by March, there would be no prospect of British Coal being able to service and repay its debt. In those circumstances, it would be neither proper nor legal for me to continue to lend money to the corporation and the corporation would no longer be in a position to discharge its statutory functions. Let me spell out what those distortions are.

First, until this year, British Coal's borrowings, at around £4 billion, were broadly in line with the value of the fixed assets shown in the balance sheet. But the growth in borrowings this year will lift the corporation's debt to nearly £5 billion. Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that pressure on British Coal's margins has left its fixed assets substantially overvalued in terms of their true earning potential. I cannot at this stage tell the House the extent of the write-down that may be necessary. That will depend upon a detailed review of the industry's prospects, and I shall naturally wish to satisfy myself that they are based on demanding output and productivity targets.

Secondly, under a new accounting standard applicable this year, British Coal is expected to provide in its accounts for its concessionary coal liabilities—primarily to ex-employees—instead of charging them on a pay-as-you-go basis. The corporation also has potential liabilities in respect of ex-employees' industrial deafness claims. Over the past four months I have learnt just how painful such long-term provisions in the energy sector can be, and I am afraid that these are no exceptions. The concessionary coal provisions are likely to amount to nearly £2 billion at today's prices and the industrial deafness provision is around £0·5 billion.

Finally, there are the bottom line losses that British Coal has recorded over the past three years, including £200 million last year and perhaps double that sum this year. British Coal's balance sheet has no reserves against which those losses can be offset.

Altogether, the losses over the past three years, the provisions in respect of concessionary coal and industrial deafness, and the write-down of colliery assets could amount go more than £5 billion; they represent the accumulated deficiency with which I propose to seek powers to deal by means of deficiency grant. I foresee a substantial part of such grant being paid immediately on Royal Assent, provided that the Bill receives Royal Assent before the end of the financial year. That will allow British Coal to repay an equivalent amount of its borrowings so that its debt can be brought into closer alignment with the true value of its colliery assets. The remainder of the deficiency grant will be paid over time as British Coal's longer-term liabilities fall due.

Clause 2 raises the ceiling on restructuring grant from £750 million to £1,250 million, increasable by order to £1,500 million, and extends its availability by one year to March 1993.

The increase in the ceiling is urgently required because the existing £750 million has been fully committed. Indeed, there are unreimbursed costs outstanding at present as a result of this year's redundancies. I appreciate the concern felt on both sides of the House about what is implied in terms of further manpower rundown. The proposed increase in the ceiling is a broad-brush figure and is not based on a specific view of what the manpower rundown will be.

I think that it is generally recognised that the number of jobs will continue to fall as collieries exhaust their economic reserves and as manpower-saving investment comes to fruition, but I shall certainly not predict the outcome of individual colliery reviews or whether individual mineworkers will wish to remain in the industry or take voluntary redundancy. Similarly, I am not in a position to judge whether British Coal will find it profitable to sell more than the minimum contract tonnages to the power stations or to develop alternative profitable markets for its coal.

However, I am not disguising the hard truth that the industry will have to reduce its manpower costs further over the next three years, and the grant is vital if British Coal is to be able to afford appropriate redundancy terms.

Clause 3 makes a technical amendment dealing with loans to British Coal. Its purpose is to enable me to take temporary deposits from British Coal so that I can offer revolving credit facilities as well as term loans.

Because of the weakness of its balance sheet, British Coal has had access over the past two years only to short-term loans, and this has meant a great deal of volatility in the interest rate it faces. Once its balance sheet has been strengthened, I intend to consider how the maturity of its borrowings could be adjusted to a more conventional medium-term structure. There will, however, still be a need for temporary loan facilities, and clause 3 will allow a more straightforward way of providing those.

Finally, the Bill provides for an increase in the limits on licensed mining and other consequential changes.

I must outline what the Bill contains, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman if I have time after I have given way to his hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay).

I have not given way to any of my hon. Friends and, in fairness, I shall do so when I have concluded the point about licences.

Private sector coal mining under licence from British Coal, which owns all coal reserves in Britain, produces between 2 and 3 per cent. of our total output. Those mines are limited in size, under legislation from the 1940s and 1950s which has never been revised, to 30 underground employees in the case of underground mines and 25,000 tonnes in the case of surface—that is, opencast—mines.

I am sure that many of my hon. Friends will welcome the relaxation of the artificial and outdated restrictions on private mining. Will my right hon. Friend accept, however, that there will not be fair competition unless he alters the licensing system? It should be taken from the patronage of British Coal and transferred to the Department of Energy so that, in common with oil and gas licensing, it is open to tender. In that way, genuine private enterprise competition would be achieved.

I note what my hon. Friend says. I suspect that improvements could be made to the licensing system, but they must wait, I fear, until a major Bill to privatise British Coal is introduced. That will not happen until the next Parliament. In the meantime, I thought it right to introduce the modest proposals I have outlined to assist, but they are not a substitute for the more fundamental review that my hon. Friend would like.

The Secretary of State has said that manpower in the small mines will increase from 30 to 150. I hope that he will consider carefully the question of health and safety, especially when the rules and regulations are altered. There is a difference between a private mine that employs 30 men and one that employs 150, as such a work force means that the mine is fairly large.

One of the purposes of the changes is to improve safety in private mines. With the present number of 30 employees, it is difficult to use modern technology and equipment, but the safe operation of mines largely depends on using modern equipment. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that safety is an important consideration.

I must make some progress.

It is important to put our proposals for increasing the size of opencast mines into perspective. The smallest British Coal mine has about 250 underground employees; and while there are a few British Coal opencast mines with tonnages of less than 250,000 tonnes, they account for a tiny fraction only of the corporation's output.

We have made it clear that we would seek a mandate in the next general election to hive off British Coal's operations from its licensing functions and to privatise them once they have become fully competitive. The decision when and in what form the coal industry will be privatised is one for the next Parliament, and we do not want to pre-empt this decision by major changes now in the statutory framework.

When we have such extended opencast mine facilities, will my right hon. Friend please ensure that they are not concentrated in one area as they are in my constituency? We have to suffer opencast mining on top of opencast mining. Will consider the local people so that only one opencast mine at a time is operated and no more?

I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend, but I am not the planning authority which settles these matters. No doubt those with the authority will take note of what my hon. Friend said.

If my right hon. Friend is saying that at this stage it is not reasonable to transfer licensing arrangements from British Coal to the Department of Energy, will he at least give the House an assurance that he will look carefully at the royalty paid by private mining operators to British Coal? It seems to many Conservative Members that an £11 per tonne advantage in what is supposed to be a free and fair competitive market is not reasonable in the private sector.

I have no plans for doing that, but my hon. Friend has asked a question and I shall certainly look at the matter. However, I do not give an undertaking that he will necessarily have a favourable reply.

I had better make a bit more progress. I have given way a great deal and I merely wanted to redress the balance.

Order. A number of the hon. Members now seeking to intervene have also stated that they wish to participate in the debate and their interventions take up time.

We see merit in raising the licensing limits to take account of developments in mining techniques since the 1940s, to allow the working of deposits which are too small for British Coal to consider but too large to be worked by licensees under the present limit. Some of these deposits are of special qualities such as anthracite where British Coal's own local output may be insufficient to meet demand and the market would otherwise be supplied by imports. The increase will therefore open up the possibility of increasing employment and investment in the small mines sector.

I am aware of the concern felt in the House about the safety record of small mines. I am glad that the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay), who raised this issue, is still in the Chamber. However, the overall accident rate in licensed mines has in fact fallen in each of the last three years. I accept that it is higher than in British Coal's mines, but we are dealing with a small statistical population. My worry is that the existing limits condemn licensed mines to work with the equipment and techniques of the 1940s.

Investment in safer and more efficient equipment and techniques is likely to be forthcoming only if the mines can be worked more intensively, which means increasing the manpower ceiling. Indeed, contrary to claims by some Opposition Members, the measure is designed to offer the prospect of greater, rather than less, safety in licensed operations. In the opencast sector, the higher limit now proposed will greatly reduce the piecemeal working of small opencast deposits, and encourage investment in larger and more efficient machinery. Licensed workings will continue to be subject to planning approval and proper conditions of operation and land restoration.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way on the important issue of the safety of the mines and the individuals who work in them. The increase in miners is not great, but it is more than 500 per cent.; therefore, percentagewise it is large. There will be a tenfold increase—which is large—in the opencast extraction from the pit top. How many more safety inspectors will be employed in the industry to ensure that the extra miners working in the pits are well looked after and their safety, which is supreme and should come before any production, given top priority, with production coming second?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should ensure that we have the right number of inspectors, as we have. They are up to establishment levels, although there are fewer inspectors now than there used to be. But there are substantially fewer miners than there used to be and the ratio of inspectors to miners has risen substantially. When we came to power in 1979, there was one mine inspector for every 3,185 miners employed by British Coal. The ratio is now one inspector to every 1,998 miners. That is an improvement of 52 per cent. The hon. Gentleman is right: that aspect of matters should not be a subject of controversy between us.

Much has been accomplished over the last five years since the miners' strike. That was a watershed in the industry's history. The Bill, together with the agreement reached with the generators, marks a further crucial landmark for the industry as it adjusts to a changing environment in which its two main customers for power station coal move into the private sector.

By addressing the losses and liabilities of the past, and by recognising the true value of its assets, we are providing the industry with the opportunity to compete in the market place of the future. The Bill is the measure of the Government's support for the industry, and I commend it to the House.

4.30 pm

The Opposition welcome those parts of the Bill that are intended to improve the financial position of British Coal. However, we are opposed to the Bill as a whole, especially because it permits more people to go underground in private pits whose safety record, whatever the Secretary of State may say, is quite deplorable.

The main financial provision of the Bill is to write off the debts of British Coal. We welcome that decision. The Government are doing the right thing but for the wrong reason. It is being done only as part 1 of the Government's usual three-stage procedure for privatisation which can be summarised as write-off, sell-off, and rip-off. That is what the Government intend.

Another clause increases the Government grant towards the cost of redundancies in the coal industry. If there are to be job losses, generous severance payments should be made, but it would be better still if we did not have all the pit closures that will lead to redundancies on the scale that is indicated in the Bill. As I have said, we are totally opposed to the proposal to permit more people to work underground in private mines. The safety record in private mines is dreadful, with fatal accidents running at between two and four times the rate in the pits run by British Coal. With that sort of record, we should be exposing fewer people to that sort of danger and not more, and we shall vote against the Bill for that reason.

We are also opposed to the tenfold increase in the size of private opencast workings. The record of private operators is bad enough already, as communities living near them can confirm. They do not take enough care, they do not try to protect local communities, and some of them have failed to restore old workings to agricultural use. The Government should have used the Bill to honour their undertaking to improve the arrangements for compensation for damage caused by mining subsidence. They said that they would do that as soon as there was a legislative opportunity. This is that legislative opportunity, and we shall press for the inclusion of that in the Bill.

We cannot look at the Bill in isolation. We need to look at the current position of British Coal and its financial situation. We need to look at its past, present and future relations with its major customer, the electricity supply industry. We also need to look at it in the context of the Government's general policies on energy, the environment and privatisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has said, we need to look carefully at the Bill's likely impact on our ever worsening trade deficit.

The Government have many questions to answer. How does the Bill tie in with the coal contract that was announced today? What will it do to electricity prices? Will it promote energy efficiency and conservation? Will its effects on the environment be good or bad? What future does it offer the coal industry? Will it make mining safer or more dangerous? How will it affect communities living near mines and opencast workings? What has the Bill to do with the proposed privatisation of the coal industry and how is it tied up with the privatisation of the electricity industry?—[Interruption.] We have had some instant answers from Conservative Members, but I am afraid that I cannot claim to have their intellectual grasp. Time does not permit me to deal with all those questions as swiftly as they do. However. I am sure that those questions will be seriously pursued by my hon. Friends, unlike the hon. Member for A