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Commons Chamber

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 21 December 1989

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House Of Commons

Thursday 21 December 1989

The House met a half-past Nine o'clock>


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Bill Presented

Enterprise And New Towns (Scotland)

Mr. Secretary Rifkind, supported by Mr. Secretary Fowler, Mr. Secretary Patten, Mr. Ian Lang, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Mr. Michael Forsyth and Mr. Peter Lilley, presented a Bill to establish public bodies to be known as Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise and to make provision as to their functions; to dissolve the Scottish Development Agency and the Highlands and Islands Development Board; to make further provision as regards new towns in Scotland; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 8 January and to be printed. [Bill 36.]

Statutory Instruments, &C

With the leave of the House, I shall put together the Questions on the nine motions on statutory instruments.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.)

Rating And Valuation

That the draft Electricity Supply Industry (Rateable Values) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.

That the draft British Waterways Board (Rateable Values) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.

That the draft Railways (Rateable Values) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.

That the draft Water Undertakers (Rateble Values) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.

That the draft Docks and Harbours (Rateable Values) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.

That the draft Electricity Generators (Rateable Values) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.

That the draft Telecommunications Industry (Rateable Values) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.

That the draft British Gas plc (Rateable Values) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.

That the draft Non-Domestic Rating (Transitional Period) (Appropriate Fraction) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.— [Mr. John M. Taylor.]

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn— [Mr. John M. Taylor.]

Fire Safety (Castle Point)

9.35 am

Traditionally, the House provides opportunities to draw attention to the need to redress grievances, to right wrongs and to expose administrative blunders. Today, I wish to raise a matter of the utmost importance to the safety of my constituents. I refer to the recent proposal of Essex county council's fire and public protection committee to reduce to one the number of whole-time fire engines in Hadleigh in my constituency of Castle Point, and to relocate the hose-laying lorry to Billericay, more than 10 miles away.

There was no consultation with the district council or with me before this ill-considered proposal was made. Its significance can be grasped at once if I tell the House that in 1933 the Hadleigh fire station had two fire engines to cover 13,000 people. It now has the same number to protect 51,000 people and provides support for surrounding areas with 90,000 people. It is against that background that we must consider the proposal to reduce fire cover for my constituents.

In a report on the subject presented to the county fire and public protection committee in November, it was stated that the average annual number of calls received at Hadleigh in the years 1984 to 1988 was 337. In 1988 the station in fact responded to 796 calls, of which 367 were for the Hadleigh area itself and the rest for surrounding areas. I want to consider that figure of 796 calls last year. Significantly, the total number of calls received up to 17 December this year was 913, and we are not yet at the end of the year. That means that in the last year alone there has been an increase in calls of about 15 per cent. It is not, therefore, as though the number of calls, and, therefore, the scale of the risk, is declining.

Nor are we concerned with risks solely to residential and business property. Hadleigh fire station covers what is described as a "C" risk area, which is mainly residential with some shops. In addition, however, it is responsible for the "C" risk area of Canvey Island, which includes a major liquefied gas installation and other industrial plant classified as major industrial hazards. I should add that Hadleigh is central to an area from Leigh-on-Sea in the east, Benfleet, Thundersley and Basildon in the west, Rayleigh in the north and Canvey Island in the south. It is therefore very well placed to give support to surrounding districts.

You will know, Mr. Speaker how necessary it has become over the past 20 years for me to raise not once, but many times, the serious threat that is posed to my constituents by an excessive concentration on Canvey and in neighbouring Thurrock of stores of liquefied gas, oil and chemicals. That has led to warning after warning of the risks involved to human life and property, and to the holding of numerous and lengthy public inquiries.

One example of the problem is the huge methane gas storage plant holding tens of thousands of tonnes of liquefied gas which, if released by accident, could produce a lethal gas cloud. As the prevailing winds are south-westerly, one can see from the map that such a cloud would blow over a densely populated area where there are tens of thousands of adventitious sources of ignition. Every house has a gas pilot light, people light cigarettes and there are little fires all over the place. One can imagine what would happen if a gas cloud blew across a residential area.

Some hon. Members may recall—and my constituents certainly recall—that the matter became so serious that it drew repeated attention and comment not only in this country, but overseas. It even led to the publication of books by scientists in France and the United States. Some may even recall that in July 1974 I was obliged to raise the matter here in a speech which, I was told later, was the longest made from the Back Benches in this place for almost 150 years. So it was that at last the Government of the day took the matter seriously. Thanks to the vigilance of the newly established Health and Safety Executive and as a result of the recommendations of several lengthy public inquiries, there has been a marked improvement in safety standards and some reduction in the totality of risk.

However, risk remains, and the district council and I are determined that our defences should not be reduced. Against that background, I want to make it plain that any reduction in the fire and rescue cover for Canvey, let alone the rest of the area served by the Hadleigh fire station, is wholly unacceptable to me and to my constituents.

There are several crucial factors that the Essex fire and public protection committee appears to have ignored. Since the second world war, south-east Essex has grown faster than almost any other region. The population of Castle Point alone has leapt from 30,520 in 1950, to 79,300 in 1974, to 85,900 by 1987 and to about 87,000 now. The most vulnerable area in the district is Canvey which had a population of 10,800 in 1950, when I was first elected for the constituency, and now has a population of 36,000. The figures themselves tell the story. One reason for this growth has been the expansion of home ownership in the area. Castle Point can proudly claim to have more home owners as a proportion of its total population than any other district in Britain. Rochford, our next door district which used to be part of my constituency, comes a close second. Such phenomenal growth does not argue for a reduction in fire cover, but rather the reverse.

Any reduction in the number of fire engines at Hadleigh must inevitably mean running the risk of not being able to respond to calls as quickly as is necessary. I understand that the fire research establishment at Boreham Wood has test chambers which demonstrate how fires develop. As we know, there are many ways in which a fire can be started, can develop, and can then engulf and destroy a building if unchecked. In some cases, fumes alone can kill or disable people within a few minutes. In others the fire can be brought quickly under control provided—and only provided—that firemen receive adequate warning. What firemen can never know is just how serious a fire is until they reach it. The earliest possible warning must be given, therefore, combined with the earliest possible response. That means having available the right number of men with the right equipment. Flexibility is the key to effective action. To play around with a cost-cutting exercise against that background is irresponsible and that exercise must not be allowed to prevail.

The last word in the matter rests not with the county fire and public protection committee but with the Home Office. In this connection I draw my hon. Friend's attention to two special considerations which underline the short-sightedness of the proposal to reduce fire cover for my constituency. First, the fire service consists not only of full-time professional officers of high calibre, who are available for emergencies at all times of the day or night, but of dedicated retained personnel who are, in essence, part-time volunteers. I am told that it is increasingly difficult to secure the services of such people.

I hope that my hon. Friend has read the report of the chief fire officer, who makes the point clearly in the conclusion to his recent review of the standards of fire cover. The chief fire officer says:
"Essex is one of the largest and fastest growing counties in the country and any reduction in fire cover should be considered with extreme caution. Regrettably the reliability of Retained personnel has become increasingly unpredictable due to the dormitory nature of the County and a greater reluctance on the part of employers to release their workers for retained duties. This latter situation is due in no small part to the on-going emphasis in the industrial and commercial sectors on productivity and value for money."
No one can read that passage without realising that the chief fire officer is giving a clear warning to the fire authority.

Elsewhere in the report, the chief fire officer says:
"Financially it may seem attractive to reduce the number of appliances to the absolute minimum recommended standards, but there are occasions where peaks of operational workload occur, such as flooding, prolonged dry periods, gales, etc. which are additional to normal fire calls. At these times, the Service's resources are obviously overstretched to an extent that normal response times cannot be met. If pumps are reduced, this will decrease the resources available to deal with the extremely high demands placed on the service at these times."
Those two statements in the chief fire officer's report were ignored by the fire and public protection committee. I must ask whether the Home Office is aware of the situation regarding retained personnel. If that is the position in Essex, surely it is likely to obtain elsewhere in the country. It is a factor that surely must be taken into account before any approval is given to reducing fire cover, in the words of the chief fire officer,
"to the absolute minimum standards",
which would be involved if the proposed reduction in my constituency were ever to be implemented. I seek a firm assurance from my hon. Friend—if not today, later, and certainly before any decision is taken—that such idiocy will not be tolerated in Castle Point or elsewhere.

Secondly, Essex county council should be aware—certainly we in Castle Point are aware—of the growing congestion of our roads. With the best will in the world, that problem is unlikely to improve for some time to come. For the present and for the next two years, major roadworks at the Rayleigh Weir and on the heavily congested A 127 will create acute difficulties, especially in regard to the cover that Hadleigh is required to give to neighbouring Rayleigh, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), which I once had the honour to represent. The repercussions for Rayleigh of any decision to halve the fire and rescue cover at present provided by Hadleigh are serious. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford told me yesterday that he shares my anxiety and that he will seek to reinforce my plea early in the new year, if common sense does not prevail. The matter is serious for Rayleigh because, among the proposals, is one to close the Rochford fire station—in my hon. Friend's constituency—which also provides cover for Rayleigh.

Rayleigh, however, is covered by the Hadleigh station at all times but has only one retained fire engine. Reduce the cover, and Rayleigh is left exposed. In any emergency, it would have to await the arrival of a fire engine from Hawkwell, Leigh, Southend or Basildon but Rayleigh too, like Castle Point, has a fast-growing population. It is madness to contemplate reducing the cover that Hadleigh currently provides. I repeat, and I am measuring my words carefully, that an unnecessary delay of minutes in the arrival of a fire engine can mean the difference between getting a fire under control and a complete disaster, including loss of lives.

As for the road situation, which is crucial to effective and rapid deployment of fire fighters, I readily admit that plans are afoot for road improvement, but until they are implemented it would be foolhardy in the extreme to reduce existing fire cover and the flexibility that it provides. Canvey Island is particularly vulnerable, not only because of the hazardous installations but because it has only limited road access to the mainland. For years, the islanders have clamoured for an additional access, but we do not yet have it. As the chief fire officer has said, the fire service exists not merely to protect property from fire and to save lives but to help with other emergencies, such as serious accidents on roads, flooding and other sudden and unpredictable disasters.

My constituents remember the 1953 flood disaster, when Canvey Island was inundated and we lost more lives than any other district down the east coast and into the Thames estuary. They remember, too, the repeated warnings at public inquiries of the dangers of fire arid explosion posed by the industrial hazards with which they have to live. Essex county council may think again, but in the meantime I wish to serve warning that any reduction in the fire cover for Canvey and for Castle Point as a whole is unacceptable. Therefore, I hope that when my hon. Friend replies he will say that he and his Department are sensitive to the situation and he will be able to give me an assurance that no such reduction in cover will be approved. It is possible that Essex county council will change its mind. I hope that it will, but the ultimate responsibility rests squarely on my hon. Friend's Department. One final point: I hope that he will concede that, if the population growth in Castle Point and in Essex as a whole has warranted the recent and welcome increase in police strength, the same sensible approach should be taken towards the provision of our fire and rescue services.

9.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) both on securing the debate and on raising an important issue of crucial concern to him and his constituents—the provision of an effective fire service. I assure him that I do not underestimate the seriousness with which he speaks. I noted what he said and I am sure that his local fire authority will as well.

It may be helpful if I begin by describing where responsibilities lie in this matter. Under the relevant legislation—the Fire Services Acts 1947 and 1959—it is the duty of the fire authority for the area to secure the services of such a fire bridgade and such equipment as may be necessary to meet efficiently all normal requirements. In this case, the fire authority is the Essex county council. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Essex county council to determine the appropriate number of fire stations, fire appliances and fire fighters for its area, all of which go to make up the fire cover.

Under the legislation, the fire authority is required to make an establishment scheme, which sets out its arrangements to provide fire cover. It has to send the establishment scheme to the Home Office, but the Home Secretary's approval to the scheme is not required. The fire authority is free to increase the fire cover in its area—it does not need the Secretary of State's approval to do that—but it must seek the Secretary of State's approval if it wishes to reduce fire cover in its area. That includes varying the establishment scheme by closing a fire station or reducing the number of appliances, or full or part-time fire fighters.

In determining the fire cover for its area, the county council will, like other fire authorities, have regard to the nationally recommended standards of fire cover which have been in existence since 1936. They contain recommendations about the number of fire appliances that should be sent to fires in particular kinds of areas, and how quickly those appliances should arrive.

There are four main categories of risk. At one end of the scale, for the kind of risk to be found in many of our major city centres, known as 'A' risk, the standards recommend that two appliances should arrive within five minutes and a third within eight minutes. At the other end of the scale, known as 'D' risk and covering much of our rural areas, the standards recommend that one appliance should arrive in no more than 20 minutes.

These standards have been reviewed comparatively recently. They were reviewed by a joint committee of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Councils for England and Wales and for Scotland, called the joint committee on standards of fire cover. This joint committee included representatives from the Home Departments, the local authority associations, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers and the Fire Brigades Union, as well as other interested parties. In its report to the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, the joint committee on standards of fire cover recommended that fire authorities should review fire risk categorisation in their area, having regard to nationally recommended standards of fire cover. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary accepted the committee's recommendation and its proposals on appropriate standards of fire cover. In a circular to fire authorities issued in May 1985, the Home Office asked fire authorities to put in hand reviews of fire risk categorisation in their areas.

I understand that the chief fire officer of Essex county fire and rescue service presented his review of standards of fire cover to the fire and public protection committee of his county council in November of this year. I also understand that the report contains some 15 recommendations. The great majority of these recommendations relate to the need to keep under review the status of existing fire stations, particularly where population growth is taking place in the area, or for the relocation of existing stations. One recommendation is to the effect that the possibility of a change in manning the system should be investigated at the station concerned. Further recommendations are that a site in the Stansted area should be purchased for a fire station and that the number of pumps at the station at Dunmow should be increased from one to two. In only two cases is there a recommendation that fire cover should be reduced, but I immediately appreciate that both the stations concerned are in my right hon. Friend's constituency.

Four of the recommendations relate to stations in my right hon. Friend's constituency, at Corringham, Hadleigh, Rochford and Canvey Island—all of which he mentioned. I understand that the chief fire officer has recommended that there should not be any change in standards of fire cover at Corringham, but that its status should be reviewed regularly.

I understand that the chief fire officer has recommended closure of the part-time station at Rochford, whose area can be covered within nationally recommended standards by Southend's whole-time station or by the part-time station at Hawkwell. As to Hadleigh, I believe that the report recommends the removal of one fire appliance and the relocation of a hose-laying lorry to Billericay.

The chief fire officer's report does not propose any change in relation to fire cover in Canvey Island. It does, however, draw attention to the fact that if special risks and other industries on Canvey Island continue to decline, a move from full shift manning to day manning by one of the appliances should be considered. The second appliance is part time and no change is envisaged in the report.

I understand that the fire and public protection committee of Essex county council considered the chief fire officer's report on 16 November, when it accepted all his recommendations subject to local consultations, and he wrote to Her Majesty's inspector of fire services to advise him of that on 20 November.

It will then be a matter for the county council, as the fire authority, to consider the views of its fire and public protection committee and to decide whether to proceed with proposals to close fire stations or to reduce the number of firefighters or fire appliances.

Should the county council decide to propose the closure of fire stations, reductions in operational firefighters, or removal of fire appliances, it must first obtain the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Such approval would be given only where my right hon. and learned Friend was satisfied, on the professional advice of Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, that the county council would continue to discharge its statutory obligations to provide an effective fire service and to meet nationally recommended standards of fire cover.

For the moment, this remains a matter for the county council. It is responsible for providing fire cover in the county and it is considering the result of the recent review of fire cover. It must, for the moment, be for the county council to consider its chief fire officer's report, and it would be undesirable for me to comment more fully now on what might come before my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary as an application for his determination. But I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that should the county council seek my right hon. and learned Friend's approval to reduce fire cover in the area he will take careful note of my right hon. Friend's comments this morning.

The Government are committed to maintaining the nationally recommended standards of fire cover and to the maintenance of an effective fire service in all parts of the United Kingdom. The fire service is an organisation of which all who serve in it, at whatever level, can be justifiably proud and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is determined to keep it so. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity of saying that this morning.

Order. I take it that the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) has the leave of the House to speak again.

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to speak again. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his carefully considered answer. Reading between the lines, I think that I have the assurance that at the end, if all else fails, the Home Office will pay particular attention to what I have said this morning, which reflects the view of many of my constituents.

My hon. Friend said that initial responsibility rests with Essex county council. I know that that is the case and it is most unfortuate that, because of the failure of the fire and public protection committee to appreciate all the factors that obtain in my part of the county, let alone the rest of the county, it has come up with preposterous proposals which cannot stand.

I ask my hon. Friend and his advisers to look again carefully at the chief fire officer's report. I have great confidence, as, I think, all in Essex have, in our chief fire officer. One can see clearly from the report that he is issuing warning after warning to the local government committee which has the responsibility to which my hon. Friend refers. For example, in his introduction he says:
"Essex continues to develop"—
that is a reference to the rapid increase in population that we have sustained over many years—
"and this review aims to provide a long-term strategy designed to enable the Service to achieve and maintain maximum cost-effectiveness."
With respect, the first requirement that the public expect is maximum effectiveness in fire protection. The report goes on:
"The recommendations contained with this Report are subject to consultations with the Home Office and, in the case of any reductions of fire cover, to the approval of the Home Secretary."
That is where the buck stops. Ultimately, the Home Secretary must look at the matter and decide. Will my hon. Friend convey to the Home Secretary the fact that the proposals to which I have referred this morning are simply not acceptable on any criteria that anyone cares to advance?

I do not know what consultations have already taken place between Essex county council and the Home Office. I imagine that there have been none because the Home Office knows the overall picture. It has had to listen many times in the past to hon. Members talking in the House about the dangers to which we are exposed in south-east Essex. Successive Prime Ministers have taken a personal interest in the Canvey situation. There is no escape for the Home Secretary in regard to the decision. The sooner consultations take place and the ridiculous, damaging and irresponsible proposal is withdrawn, the better.

I take comfort from my hon. Friend's measured response. In passing, I congratulate him on his appointment. We have great faith and trust in him. I am sure that, as a result of today's debate, he will have managed to get a grip on the situation my constituency now faces. I beg him to let me know as soon as possible what steps are being taken in his Department to bring some sense into this situation.

Order. I take it that the Minister has the leave of the House to speak again.

With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly to my right hon. Friend. I understand and have noted the strength of feeling with which he speaks. My right hon. Friend mentioned the buck being passed, but it is definitely with Essex county council at the moment. Therefore, until it makes its proposals my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has no role in the matter. But when proposals are made that he has to consider, I assure my right hon. Friend that he will consider them most carefully along with any comments that have been made.

Sitting suspended at 10.7 am.

On resuming—

Puppy Farming

10.15 am

It is difficult to convince people that something as soft-sounding as puppy farming could be a screen behind which there is so much cruelty. Most members of the public associate puppy farming with the little bundle of fluff that they see in a pet shop window. They do not realise that all too often the pet shop window is the end of a callous, cruel, greed-ridden and deliberately dishonest trail that can frequently be traced back to farms in my own part of the country, Wales. However, similar problems arise in Scotland, Cornwall and other parts of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the examples to which I shall refer are in south-west Wales.

This is an appropriate time of the year to discuss the matter, although it might have been better to discuss it a week or two earlier. However, parliamentary time did not permit such a debate to take place then. Christmas is the time of peak sales of puppies, although it is becoming increasingly an all-year-round business. Even more important, it is becoming very big business. There are many caring and well-intentioned breeders and dealers, but far too many of them are neither caring nor genuine. They are out purely for maximum financial gain.

The popular myth is that most puppies are given to children, particularly at Christmas. Subsequently, however, many of them are abandoned as the children lose interest in them. The Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals and others have discovered, however, that a very large proportion of the puppy trade is dominated by people in their thirties and forties who buy puppies not for children but for elderly parents, in the hope that the puppies will provide them with comfort and even security. They do not seem to realise that the minimum part of the cost of a dog is its purchase price, even though that sometimes can be high. The RSPCA and others calculate that it costs about £4,000 to keep a dog over its average 11-year life. When one gives such a gift to a pensioner or a child, one is imposing on the family or pensioner an £8 a week cost for keeping the dog during the next decade. People ought, therefore, to consider that aspect when deciding whether to give puppies as presents.

That is not, however, the subject of the debate. I want to talk about a trade that is often sordid and cruel and, above all, is epitomised by sheer greed. I have already referred to the fact that most of my examples will come from south-west Wales. Most of them are to be found some distance to the west of my constituency, in a belt between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.

I became involved in the issue two months ago—I must admit, by accident. While I was stuck in one of London's traffic jams on 12 October, I was listening to "Face the Facts" on my car radio when I heard a John Waite report that horrified me and convinced me that if the House were aware of all the circumstances action would be taken. The programme introduced what was described as a new cash crop. I should like to read some excerpts because I do not want colleagues to think that this is just one Member's view of what this trade represents. I want them to realise when they look at the Official Report that these are the views of outsiders who had no preconceptions. On the "Face the Facts" programme, the dogs were described as
"a new and lucrative cash crop for local farmers and smallholders many of whom would rather you did not know about some of the conditions in which those thousands of cuddly little Christmas presents are being bred."
That is certainly true. Those people would far prefer that no one knew about those conditions.

Mr. Alan Coxon, who with his wife and friends set up an organisation called Puppy Watch Wales to monitor what was happening and draw attention to the scandal, said:
"when you walk round the back of what could be a pleasant farm, you find a long shed with bitches three or four to a pen in darkness all the time, horrrendous noise, horrendous stench and the poor animals know no other way of life. Once they have been used for breeding for six or seven years, twice a year producing litters and making pots and pots of money for their owners, they are simply discarded because they are no use any more and they are either shot or dumped."
The lucky ones are shot. I visited one animal sanctuary where the lady who had taken over the premises found dogs and pups in the septic tank that were surplus to needs. They had not been killed in any decent manner but had simply been dumped. Mr. Coxon and his friends presented me with a petition containing more than 5,000 signatures of people, most of whom came fom the Carmarthen area, who were protesting about the horrors on the puppy farming "industry", for it has indeed become an industry.

If anything, Mr. Coxon's description was a serious understatment of the magnitude of the problem. The "Face the Facts" team was soon shown the reality, when Inspector Anderson of the RSPCA took the team to several farms. Referring to one farm, a reporter said:
"The smallholder led us around to the back of the building where we discovered breeding was carried out in a disused and dilapidated railway goods wagon. Inside dogs shivering with cold"—
this was during one of the mildest Octobers on record, so one can imagine the conditions during the past couple of weeks—
"were living on a sparse bed of straw heavily matted with excrement and sodden with urine and rain water. Though we saw five bitches, a Shih Tzu, a poodle, and three Yorkshire Terriers and then later a heavily pregnant King Charles spaniel, the owner insisted only two were kept for breeding."
As the team went around the farm, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The team came across a terrier, and Inspector Anderson said:
"It's got a broken jaw."
The bones were sticking out, and there are more gruesome details which I will not go into. The smallholder said:
"You might be right, but she's old, isn't she?"
Inspector Anderson prevailed on the owner to allow the team to take the poor creature to a vet. The reporter said:
"We set off for Carmarthen and the vet. The forlorn creature that shared the journey huddled whimpering in the back, her useless lower jaw hanging limp. On closer inspection we saw dried food caked around and in her eyes. Evidently the bitch's only method of feeding had been to push her face in whatever food was available in the hope that some would go down her throat."
The vet put that poor creature down, which was perhaps the kindest thing that could happen. One of the anomalies of the cases which I am describing is shown by the fact that, despite the dog's condition, Inspector Anderson could take it away only with the owner's permission. He could not have done so if the owner had objected.

I know that the Minister and his officials have looked at the transcript and that some of them have listened to a tape of the programme. After hearing the programme, I immediately contacted John Waite and his producer, Guy Smith. They kindly came to the House of Commons and gave me a lot of background information. They told me that, 10 months earlier, HTV had produced two programmes which went out late in the evening on the same subject. I visited them in Cardiff and they kindly provided videos of the programmes. They were still angry—so angry that, a year later, they were preparing a third programme. They were so committed that HTV had gladly said that it would waive all copyright conditions on the stills from the videos because it wanted to publicise what was happening.

I have a couple of photographs with me. They are horrible and horrifying. On several farms, I saw abandoned cars and vans that were used as pens for these poor creatures. The animals were locked in and left for long periods. The vans and cars were full of weeks of excrement in which the animals were living. There is a photograph of a Doberman that had been living in its excrement for so long that its hindquarters were so ulcerated that it could neither sit nor stand properly—it had to be put down. Up until the time of its death, it had been used for breeding.

One of the most horrible photographs was of three King Charles spaniels which had virtually no fur. The other pens were occupied and they had been left without food for so long that they had lost their coats and were sleeping on concrete. They died of hypothermia. These are the sort of conditions that exist in this kind and cuddly trade.

Most people would find it beyond belief that some people could be so stupid as well as so cruel. After all, as the pups sell for so much money, one would think that at least the owners would see the bitches as assets and take care of them, but it is cheaper for these people to replace the bitch than incur the costs of providing proper food and shelter and veterinary care. It is a measure of the inadequacy of our protection for these animals that the owner of the farm on which the Doberman and three dead animals were found was taken to court, fined and banned from breeding dogs for 10 years but on appeal had the ban lifted. She laughed all the way to Cumbria because she needed to sell only a couple of pups to cover the cost of the fine. She set up business again in Cumbria, where the RSPCA again traced her.

The reason why this problem is so widespread in this area is a quirk of economic history which, in fairness, is not within the control of the people who live there. They were the victims of the EEC change in the milk quota system. Many small farmers found that their incomes had gone. The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service told them that they should consider diversifying into such occupations as dog breeding. I have seen a letter from ADAS about a farm that I visited saying that the premises were suitable for adaptation. In fairness to ADAS, they may have been suitable for adaptation, but the farmer had no intention of paying for it. So it became a puppy farm. When I was there, dozens of the animals were in the house itself and some were in outhouses sleeping on the bare concrete. No attempt has been made to do anything to protect the animals.

As the problem is so widespread over that belt of Wales, why is it allowed to continue? After all, the RSPCA inspector, Mr. Peter Anderson, and the radio team from "Face the Facts" have investigated the matter. However, Mr. Anderson is hampered by the very law that the House introduced to protect animals—the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. Under that well-intentioned Act, anyone with more than two bitches for breeding had to register and be licensed and could be subject to inspection. The same law means that anyone not registered or licensed is free from inspection. Therefore, the environmental health departments and the RSPCA are in a Catch-22. If the farm owner says that he has only one or two dogs, they have no right of access and it is impossible to collect the information and evidence on which to prove that the farm owner is in breach of the law. Therefore, the standard reaction from the breeders is to say, "We have only one animal."

The "Face the Facts" team watched pups being loaded into the back of a van belonging to a local dealer, Mr. Yeoman. They approached eight or nine of the people producing the pups and selling them to Mr. Yeoman. Each one came up with the standard answer, "We have only one animal that we use for breeding." That ensured that they were immune from Mr. Anderson's inspection and attention.

I visited a couple of unlicensed farms in the area and saw 30, 40 or 50 bitches penned up in inadequate accommodation, sometimes even in the house. There are a range of people involved, some with just one dog and others with over 50. As one can imagine, that means that they are deriving an enormous income.

Because of my concern and because of what the programme said, I asked to see the Home Secretary. In fairness, I was seen rapidly by the previous Home Secretary—the present Foreign Secretary—and the Under-Secretary of State on 23 October. I took with me the videos and a tape. I told them on what I was basing my representations. To his credit, the Home Secretary was able to point to a transcript similar to the one that I have been using this morning. In anticipation of my visit, he had already taken the trouble to establish the nature of the case. I had a positive reception not just at that meeting but at the subsequent meeting that I had with the Under-Secretary after I had made a series of fact-finding visits to south west Wales. I want to place on record that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State recognised the genuineness of the problem.

It is clear that there is a crucial loophole in the existing law—the limitation on the right to inspect. However, one has to be realistic and recognise the problem. I am sure that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) has come across similar problems and is aware or what I am describing. Even with an increase in the right to inspect, the councils would still be hamstrung by the limitations on the manpower available to cover the whole range of activities that come within the remit of the environmental health department.

The problem is so widespread now that it is difficult to see how inspection alone will meet the need. In the belt of Wales to which I am referring, there are about 200 licensed breeders but there are probably at least as many—and possibly more—unlicensed. Increasingly, those who previously took the trouble to be licensed are no longer doing so, partly because they resent others getting away with being unlicensed, partly because they want to save costs but more importantly because they have discovered that it is a way to evade the rules.

I am convinced that the key to the problem is the dealer. The dealer is the only link between the local small distant farm and the real markets. Those markets are not just in the cities of Swansea and Cardiff—that is minimal—but in London, Birmingham, Manchester and even abroad in Common Market countries. The local markets are saturated. One cannot sell many pups there as everyone already has an ample supply and they are trying to find ways of getting rid of them. Some dealers even farm out the bitches within the area so that other people incur the cost of feeding and raising them. The dealers then collect the litters and reap the profits.

Those dealers deal not in tens or hundreds but in thousands of young pups, some of which are barely six weeks old and should not even be parted from their mother. HTV estimated that one dealer had a probable turnover of about £500,000 a year. We are talking about a substantial, highly lucrative and profitable business. How much goes through ledgers? The VAT inspectors would probably have a wonderful time in south-west Wales and they might find it a highly profitable area for investigation, as would the Revenue and the Department of Social Security.

To illustrate the international nature of the market, "Face the Facts" found that 30 crates of animals were being offloaded at Heathrow on their way to Milan. It is a big business in which the public are being ripped off by dealers who have no fear of the fines because they are derisory in relation to the profits. Their only fear would be if they were to be banned from buying from unlicensed breeders, because their livelihoods would then be at risk. They would then become self-policing and might do the things that the environmental health department is unable to do in severing the unlicensed breeders from the marketplace.

We now find that the market is becoming larger and more sophisticated. It is not just the old pet shops. Pet supermarkets are emerging and are buying thousands of pups a year. One sees advertisements, repetitive addresses and telephone numbers in magazines such as Loot—a free advertising magazine—Exchange & Mart and in the local press. Dog agencies are now emerging also and the RSPCA told me yesterday that it was looking into a case where, in response to an advertisement, a gentleman paid£175 for a Yorkshire terrier of dubious origin and another couple paid the same person £270 for two pups of equally dubious origin. The so-called pedigree would be meaningless.

"Pebble Mill" saw the dealer in the marketplace. People were rushing from their cars with pups plucked from their car boots and handing them over to him. He was stuffing bits of paper—the so-called certificates of pedigree—in his pocket. Heaven knows how he ever related them to the individual pups because when the people from "Pebble Mill" loked into the van, they estimated that there were between 70 and 80 pups already there. When they went back to the dealer's house as he was returning, the cars were lined up waiting to deliver more pups to him.

The pedigrees are virtually meaningless. A pedigree cannot be meaningful until it is registered for that pup with the Kennel Club. Most people do not realise that or do not register the pedigree for some other reason. Only people who intend to breed or show bother to register. Dealers rip off the public by charging top prices for "pedigree" pups which have no genuine pedigree.

The position has become so bad that there have been complaints not just in Britain but from overseas about the trade from south-west Wales. The Swiss received so many complaints about ill and deformed pups that they investigated the matter. In the process they found that not only were they faced with the problem of the callous dealers, but some dealers supplied dogs to the continent with false rabies certificates, with all the potential horrific repercussions of that.

There are many genuine and good breeders and dealers in the trade but far too many who deal callously and cruelly. They are utterly motivated by profit without regard for the animals. The greed is generating more and more uncaring breeders. I submit that, while the dog may be man's best friend, sadly, man is certainly not the dog's best friend.

10.41 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I am particularly pleased to respond to the concerns of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) about puppy farming. They are concerns which I share with him. As he told the House, we have had a number of meetings in which he expressed these concerns persuasively and we discussed how they might be tackled.

The right hon. Member and I stand largely on common ground. There can be no dispute that some unlicensed dog breeding establishments are horrific and a shameful example of animal neglect and selfish exploitation for, as the right hon. Gentleman referred to it, a lucrative cash crop.

From the evidence that the House has heard today, it is clear that the conditions in some of these establishments are utterly deplorable. Dogs are kept in old cars, old sheds and old vans. They often have inadequate water, light and heat. It is a miserable existence and a shameful way to treat animals. It cast a shadow over the large majority of dog breeders who, as he said, care deeply for the welfare of their animals.

The breeding of dogs is controlled by the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. In many respects, this is an effective piece of legislation. It empowers local authorities to license establishments where dogs are bred and to inspect these thoroughly to ensure that they comply and conform to a good and reasonable standard of care. It is a detailed Act, setting out at some length the considerations which should apply to the properly run breeding kennel. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that part of the legislation. Nor are we aware of any general problems in its application by local authorities, although one recognises that in remote country districts enforcement is often more difficult and there is greater scope for evasion.

However, I accept that it may well be highly desirable for local authority inspectors to be able to gain access to establishments that they have reasonable grounds for feeling were breeding dogs but had not sought a licence and so had not brought themselves under the controls of the Act. There are precedents either way for this. It is often unnecessary for such powers to exist; if, for instance, the public has a general right of access, there is no need to grant special rights to officials of one kind or another.

But, in the case of some dog breeding establishments, I accept that that can no longer be said to be the case and, providing that there are proper safeguards on the privacy of individuals and constraints on the exercise of the powers that local authority officials may have, there can be no objection to such a right of access being granted in order properly to enforce licensing requirements.

Perhaps it is worth spelling that point out a little further. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 sets out the strict conditions under which, for instance, the police can gain access in the investigation of crime. Broadly, access cannot be granted to private premises unless they are investigating a serious arrestable offence which might attract a sentence of five years or more. It is an important part of the safeguards that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides that right of access is not granted in the pursuit of less serious offences. But that is a wholly different matter from considering a right of access in order to enforce licensing requirements. Such a right is given in a number of cases and in some instances it may make nonsense of licensing requirements if they can be evaded, as the right hon. Gentleman said, simply by refusing access to enforcement officials, People may simply say that they have only one dog. That is why I have no difficulty in going along with the right hon. Gentleman. I agree that an extension of the powers currently available to local authority officials would not merely make a lot of sense, but has become a necessity.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to discuss the problems of indiscriminate breeding and controlling the sale of puppies and whether one might be able to confine such sales to registered breeders or pet shops. He has kindly raised these matters with me before and we have considered them with some care.

Again, I have no difficulty in agreeing that the idea of controlling outlets for puppies is fundamentally sensible. In particular, it would be highly desirable to be able not only to outlaw breeders who are trying to evade the controls and requirements of the law, but to close the outlets through which they trade. But I have to tell the House that I can see no way in which this could be done without wholly unacceptable side effects. It would clearly not be right to restrict the freedom of individuals to sell the offspring of their pets. It would clearly be unacceptable to require such people to be licensed by the local authority; and, possibly most persuasive of all, to seek to go down this route might divert our energies towards a system which was wholly impossible to enforce.

I regret to tell the rigth hon. Gentleman that I have, therefore, concluded that there is no future in trying to bring this about.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I am grateful for the remarks that he made in the first part of his reply. They were positive and helpful. I ask him at least to consider the second point although I know that he cannot say more today. The additional cost of licensing for anyone who wants to sell pups is relatively small, if one wishes to introduce proper controls. The advantage is that what the Minister posed as the disadvantage would be overcome. Dealers would be so restricted that they would be in a straitjacket which did not allow them to buy from people who were not licensed. They would police myriad individual breeders. They would buy only from licensed breeders and either squeeze the others out of the market or force them to come within the scope of the system and become licensed.

I sympathise with what the right hon. Gentleman wishes to do. He will recognise that the law must treat everyone equally. To apply the licensing provisions only to those who breed regularly for gain and distinguish them from those who have one dog that occasionally has a litter of pups which they wish to sell to a friend would be extremely difficult. Yet if one could not distinguish effectively one could not outlaw the unlicensed regular commercial breeder.

That is precisely my point. One must recognise that the price of achieving the sort of controls and safeguards that we want is for everyone to be treated the same. If one wants to sell pedigree pups at the premium prices which go with a pedigree, one should have to be licensed.

If the right hon. Gentleman will set out in detail how that would work, as he has done with previous arguments that he has brought to me, I shall look at it carefully. We have thought hard about how to construct an effective law. The right hon. Gentleman is saying that a law would be effective only if applied to everyone, including private individuals whose dog produces a litter, one of which is sold to an acquaintance or friend—

To dealers. These things move along. .An individual may sell a puppy to a puppy farm. I am willing to consider what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but we must ensure that any change in the law results in good, effective law that can be applied.

If one could ensure by granting increased rights of access by local authority officials that all establishments breeding dogs on a commercial scale were properly regulated and controlled, it would go a long way towards controlling the evil that the right hon. Gentleman has described today. We should be able to have confidence that that was sufficient in itself and that additional constraints on the onward sale of puppies were superfluous and unnecessary. I am willing to hear the right hon. Gentleman's detailed programme on how a law may be constructed to deal with that additional point.

I remind the House that the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 is underpinned by the Protection of Animals Act 1911. It is a major piece of legislation which has served us well and continues to do so. Anyone who is convicted of an offence under the 1911 Act can be banned from keeping animals in future. That is the greatest safeguard that animals can have. The licensing provisions of the Breeding of Dogs Act ensure that acceptable, clean and proper standards are observed in all kennels that are registered. The Protection of Animals Act ensures that, when animals are maltreated, effective sanctions are available to punish the offenders and prevent them from being able to take charge of animals again.

I welcome the opportunity that the right hon. Gentleman has given the House to discuss these issues today. I welcome the passionate restraint with which he has debated the thoroughly disgraceful conditions in which some dogs are bred and kept. I am glad to have this opportunity to confirm that we are happy to help the right hon. Gentleman a long way down the track to remedy this evil.

Sitting suspended at 10.52 am.

On resuming—

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

Student Loans

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the administration of student loans.

I reported to the House yesterday—at the earliest opportunity—the background to the decision of the participating financial institutions to withdraw from the Student Loans Company. I indicated then that I would be happy to make a statement today. The main points are as follows.

The objectives, principles and framework of the scheme as outlined in the Education (Student Loans) Bill remain completely unchanged. I regret the banks' withdrawal, but it affects neither the policy nor the Bill.

As I announced yesterday, arrangements are now being made for the Student Loans Company to pass into Government ownership. This will ensure that the preparations for the scheme can continue smoothly. A great deal of the preparatory work already undertaken is relevant to the new approach. The banks have agreed to contribute £0·5 million to these preparatory costs.

The new approach may even be a cheaper option. It has always been the case that the Government would fund the administration of the scheme as well as the loans. We were prepared to pay a fee to the financial institutions to secure the benefits of their branch networks for students.

The main result of the institutions' decision will be less easy access to loans for students. I would have preferred them to have that convenience, but the essential point is that nothing in the decision of the institutions alters either the Bill or the analysis behind it. The Bill will continue on course.

The Secretary of State says that he regrets the banks' withdrawal. So do all those who are faced with backruptcy. The Secretary of State mocks himself as well as the House if he thinks that anyone will believe his ludicrous claim that the banks' withdrawal "alters nothing". Does he not understand that the banks' administration of the scheme was absolutely central to its operation, to Government policy and to their commendation of the scheme to the House on 20 October and again on 5 December 1989? Why else did he say:

"I believe that it was right that … the administration should be handled by the financial sector"—[Official Report, 20 October 1989; Vol. 158, c. 381.]
Can the Secretary of State point to any time or occasion when he has hinted or suggested that, in place of a scheme run by the banks, there should be a scheme operated by a nationalised corporation, as it now will be?

Given the total change in the nature of the scheme since Second Reading, the Secretary of State shows contemptible disregard for the House and for the democratic process in his determination to use the wide arbitrary powers in the Bill to railroad through an entirely new scheme without proper scrutiny by Parliament and without its authority.

Will the Secretary of State say when he, the Under-Secretary and the officials in his Department first got wind that the banks might pull out of the administration of the scheme? That is absolutely critical. Was it prior knowledge that the scheme might well collapse that lay behind the Secretary of State's refusal to serve on the Standing Committee and instead to leave the Under-Secretary hanging in the wind? Can the Secretary of State explain why the Standing Committee has been left pursuing the charade of debating a scheme for a week and a half when, at some stage in the past 10 days, he certainly knew that it would not go ahead?

Will the people employed by the Student Loans Company be civil servants? What will happen to the chief executive of that company? That job was advertised at £55,000 with a car—twice the salary of a Nobel prize-winning professor at a British university.

Will the Secretary of State say categorically that the scheme will be fully in operation by September 1990?

Is the Secretary of State aware that answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on Monday of this week showed that, even before the latest debacle, the cost of this ludicrous scheme had risen to £2·17 billion over the next 20 years, over and above the cost of grants? Why will the Secretary of State not use that sum—more than £2,000 million—to improve the grant system, and really help those students who are most in need?

The student loan scheme, like the poll tax, was the invention of the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), who is now chairman of the Conservative party—a man with an unrivalled record for leaving messes for others to clear up. There will be little sympathy for the Secretary of State if he does not admit in public what we all know that he concedes in private—that this loan scheme is fundamentally flawed and has now been utterly torpedoed by the banks.

Yesterday's decision was a victory for the Labour party and the student movement. The Secretary of State should recognise defeat and withdraw the Bill now.

I shall endeavour to answer as many of the hon. Gentleman's questions as possible. He has been way off the mark on every score. He has completely misunderstood the role of the banks in relation to the Bill, and has grossly exaggerated that role. I think that I can demolish every point he has made. I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for the length of time that I may take, but I have been asked a lot of questions.

The hon. Gentleman's first point was that the banks were central to the scheme, and that I had said so in my speech on 20 October. My speech covered many columns of Hansard, and the reference to the banks took a very few lines. That shows that it was not central to the argument, and I did not say that it was. I challenge him to find that anywhere. I said that I believed that it was right that administration should be handled by the financial sector, and I gave the reasons:
"They can provide a quicker and more personal service. They have skill in handling personal loans. They have experience in advising individuals on financial matters and they have nationwide branch networks."—[Official Report, 20 October 1989; Vol. 158, c. 381.]
That is what I have said throughout the debate. To say that that is central to the scheme is utterly ludicrous.

The hon. Gentleman then said that the Student Loans Company would now become a national corporation. As he well knows, throughout the discussions on student loans it has been made absolutely clear that the Government—that is, the taxpayer—will fund the loans and the administration of the scheme. The Government were to fund the whole cost of student loans and were to pay an extra fee to the banks for the convenience of using their branch networks. That has not changed. There is no change in the funding, so it is ludicrous to describe this as a major change. [Interruption.] I wish that the hon. Gentleman would allow me to answer his questions in sequence. His argument does not run. The whole scheme is being funded by the Government. We were prepared to pay extra to the banks for the convenience of using their branch network, which was designed to be for the convenience of students to enable them to get easy acces to loans.

The hon. Gentleman said that I had shown disregard for Parliament, but I have made two major speeches in the past two months and I reported to the House yesterday the moment I knew of the banks' decision.

The hon. Gentleman knows from debates on the Bill that the powers it provides are not arbitrary. The Bill follows precisely the way in which the original student grants scheme was drawn up and legislated for. He knows that the advantage of not having all the precise details and mechanics of the scheme spelt out is that we then have the flexibility necessary to change them by secondary legislation. Nor is it true that the Bill is in any sense affected because it allows the Government to own the Student Loans Company, as is clear from paragraph 3(1) of schedule 2.

The hon. Gentleman talked of proper scrutiny of the Bill in the House. He knows that it has a lengthy schedule that covers many of the details of the scheme, the criteria and eligibility. The fact that the Opposition have tabled a rather large number of amendments, which they are perfectly entitled to do, shows that this is not a short, arbitrary Bill. Rather it shows that there is enormous scope for discussion of all the details.

The hon. Gentleman asked when I was informed that the banks had come to the view that, if Lloyds did not participate in the scheme, they would pull out. I was informed of that at lunch time on Monday and I saw the relevant people as quickly as I could. I was informed on Wednesday that that decision would be made because it was not until Wednesday that I was able to see the chairman of Lloyds. There has not been any wasting of the Committee's time. As this aspect of the scheme is not crucial to the Bill in any sense, it does not in any way affect the Committee's discussions about the Bill on Tuesday.

The hon. Gentleman talked about my refusal to serve on the Standing Committee. He must know that that is the most utter nonsense. No Labour Education Secretary served on any Standing Committee throughout the time of the last Labour Government. He knows that that was the rule throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. His is the most trivial point and shows his general approach to the Bill.

As for staff—

I was asked a great many questions and I am doing the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) the courtesy of answering them. It is obvious that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) does not want to hear the answers because he knows that they are knocking the points made by the hon. Member for Blackburn out of the window.

It is obviously intended that the Government should operate the staff of the Students Loans Company. The position of the chief executive has still to be discussed. There are a number of details here, and I suggest that we make a statement to the Standing Committe the moment they are resolved. It remains our intention for one scheme to be fully operational in the autumn of 1990.

The hon. Gentleman knows very well from debates that we have already had in the House about costs that the choice is between a mix of grants and loans during the 1990s and into the 21st century, and grants alone. The hon. Gentleman says that he will rely on grants alone. He knows that that would be a much more expensive operation for parents and taxpayers and that the loans system is a much better deal for them. It is entirely reasonable that, as happens in most other countries, students should be asked to make a modest contribution to their maintenance—only their maintenance—while they are at university because taxpayers with a lower income than students will have for most of their working lives would otherwise be asked to bear an increasing burden in the form of the cost of students maintenance. It is entirely reasonable to ask students to make a contribution. The crucial point is that the Bill has 177 lines, a lot of amendments are being tabled in Committee, but not one line is altered by the banks' decision.

In view of the scandal over the student loans scheme, would it not be the right and honourable course for the Minster with responsibility for higher education, who has been responsible for the Bill throughout, to resign?

The hon. Gentleman has clearly not listened to a word I have said. This is a very small administrative part of the total scheme. The crucial point is that we asked the banks to operate the scheme because that was better for students. Using the banks' branch network would give them immediate access on campuses. That is the only change. That is why I regret what the banks have done. It is not in the interests of students. We shall now have to consider how, operating the scheme in a somewhat different way, we can get as good access as possible, but it will not be as good as using the banks' branch network.

Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear again that the highly irresponsible action of the joint clearing banks—not co-operating with Government policy and the Government's scheme and giving way to pressure from the National Union of Students—will not be allowed to undermine Government policy? Will he also make it clear that the clearing banks' decision to give way when just one of them would not co-operate with the scheme makes them seem like a lot of lemmings running over a cliff? Will he therefore consider the possibility of ensuring that student grants should be encashable only at banks which co-operate with the Government's scheme and at which students have bank accounts? Then the lemmings might dash back up the cliff to try to co-operate with the Government.

I made it clear at column 189 of the Official Report of the Second Reading debate that we never asked the banks to express an opinion for or against the loans scheme because that was a decision for Government and Parliament. I said that I thought it right to ask the banks to assist in the administration on a contractual basis because they have a branch network and that that was for the convenience of students. It is on that basis that they came in. It is for the banks to say what made them change their minds. I regret that they have withdrawn because I do not believe that withdrawal is for the benefit of students. I can assure my hon. Friend that this decision will in no way change the policy or the Government's position on it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am a reluctant supporter of student top-up loans, agreeing with Polonius who said:

"Neither a borrower, nor a lender be"?
I have, however, to take account of a letter and a telephone call I received this morning from constituents, and other comments I have received during half term, that they have still not received their maintenance grant from Ealing council, which is Labour controlled—

They are therefore forced to borrow at high interest rates. Loans are essential for them. I therefore support my right hon. Friend's scheme. Will he seek the early privatisation of the Government loans facility that he is setting up?

I have already expressed in the House my regret that Ealing has been so slow at providing grants for students. I regret that the loan scheme will not now have the banks' branch network, which would have provided immediate access to the loans scheme. I shall devise as good an alternative as I can to ensure that what happens in Ealing does not happen with the loans scheme.

Will the Secretary of State be a bit more generous and congratulate the banks, particularly Lloyds, Clydesdale bank and the Bank of Scotland, on refusing to take part in what they have called a political act and their integrity in so doing? Will he join his Under-Secretary of State in congratulating the students on fighting an excellent campaign, using the Government's own tactics—consumer power?

Will the Secretary of State answer the question that he has not yet answered—how much taxpayers' money has so far been wasted on this futile venture? Will he now explain how a nationalised state-run loans system is compatible with Tory philosophy, how it will secure the adequate delivery of hundreds of thousands of student loans and whether it has the support of anyone but some of his Back Benchers? Will he take the advice of the chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals this morning—that the Government should have a radical rethink—and, during Christmas, reflect carefully, throw away the poisoned chalice left to him by his predecessor and announce that the Bill is dead when we come back in the new year?

Of course not. The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening. I have made it absolutely clear that this does not affect the Bill at all. I believe it is clear from responses that I have received—

—and opinion polls I have seen that there is strong support for the Bill among many parents and a lot of taxpayers. As people realise the significance of it, I believe that there will be many more supporters of it. Clearly the hon. Gentleman was not listening to me.

I answered the point about the costs, which so far amount to about £1 million. A good deal of that relates to work that is valuable and necessary for the continuation of the scheme and therefore that money is not aborted. Some of the money has been involved in the preparatory arrangements for the bank branch networks and that is why the banks have said that they will make a contribution of £500,000 which is 50 per cent. of the total cost. There has been no loss to the scheme or to the taxpayer as a result of those arrangements.

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey has completely misunderstood the scheme because he is a member of the Standing Committee. He should understand that the scheme has always been a national scheme effectively controlled by the state. The intention has always been that it should be financed in total by the taxpayer. The only aspect in which it was operating through the private sector was in the sense that we have asked the banks to assist us in the administration because of the benefits that were evident from their branch networks. We asked the banks to act as agents for one part of the administration of the scheme, and that is all. Apart from that, we are talking about a Government-financed scheme. That was always the case and will continue to be so.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is not certain that an effective mechanism, failing the use of the bank branch network, can be found to disperse and collect loans in time for implementation next summer? Would it not be better therefore to proceed with the enabling Bill but be ready to delay implementation until further thought can be given either to Government guarantees for the banks' money to be loaned or for the use of the Inland Revenue—as happens in Australia—as part of a proper Government-led system?

We have been through this and I have debated the issue with my hon. Friend on many occasions. I have drawn his attention to the difficulties in connection with using the banks' own funds for that purpose and also to what I consider to be the many serious objections to using the Inland Revenue mechanism.

When we considered the various ways in which we could operate the scheme, we gave a great deal of thought to alternatives to the bank branch network. Originally, on balance, we came to the view that it was best to use the bank branch network because of the point that I have made frequently, that it gives students easy access to the loan system. Incidentally, it also gives students the opportunity to discuss their overall financing position with branch managers. Those aspects will be lost as a result of the banks' decision.

As a result of our earlier work with regard to the preparation of the scheme, it will not require too many changes to switch over to the alternative scheme which will probably—and I use the word "probably" advisedly because we will have to take final decisions in due course—in some senses have to operate through the post. The scheme will now be like all the other northern European loans schemes which have been very successful. The administration of our scheme will operate in roughly the same way as they do.

Despite the certain amount of levity with which this matter is being treated, does the Secretary of State accept that it is really very serious? Did an administrative error or a political error in the Secretary of State's Department lead to today's decision? Is it not important that the ombudsman should consider this with the clarity that he used when considering the Barlow Clowes issue, which is, of course, a more serious matter? It is important that we know who is to blame. In previous Administrations and over a longer period, ministerial heads would have rolled for this kind of thing. It is extremely serious for the Secretary of State to make such a statement.

I hope that we will not have another statemen in a year's time telling us that the Student Loans Company has failed. It is important that the Secretary of State spells out who is responsible. Just to nationalise—to use the phrase—is not good enough. We need to know more about it. Today's statement was very serious and it has not been treated in the right manner.

I believe that the levity came entirely from Opposition Members. They were not prepared to listen to my replies, which are very clear in terms of the points raised by the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and in terms of their perspective.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's point about background and responsibility, my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), told the House on 19 June:
"I am glad to be able to tell the House that, following discussions with representatives of the Committee of London and Scottish Bankers, a scheme has been designed which is agreed to be a cost-effective and feasible means of introducing top-up loans in September 1990 as planned."—[Official Report, 19 June 1989; Vol. 155, c. 21.]
Since then, we have held discussions with the banks to draw up the details of the scheme. In November we signed a memorandum of understanding with the banks on the preparatory work and 10 banks came into that. That was clearly the next and very important stage in developments. All the preparatory work has taken place on that basis. The banks have now gone back on that memorandum of understanding and it is for them to say why they have withdrawn.

The Government's position has been entirely clear. All the main arrangements in relation to the student loans scheme, all the principles and key ingredients, have been debated in the House on many occasions. They are contained in the Bill and are being debated in Standing Committee. They are not affected by the banks' decision. The banks have decided that they cannot act as agents for the Government in the way that we had hoped that they would. We have lost the branch network, but nothing else has changed. The Student Loans Company has been set up and we shall now have to run it. We were going to finance it anyway. The main difference is that the students now lose the benefit of the branch network. That is all, and that was the decision of the banks, not the Government's.

Order. I remind the House that we have a series of debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House today. I will allow questions to continue for another five minutes which will include both Front-Bench Members and then we must move back to the main debates —[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is all very well, but hon. Members have taken part in the ballot to speak today and have earned a place.

We have heard reference to the experience in other countries. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accept that Conservative Members can see the advantages, both administratively and otherwise, of a Government-led scheme? Does he accept that the decision that was announced this morning has no bearing on the case for the student loans scheme? In the Standing Committee, the Opposition have totally failed to make any good case against a scheme which will be to the long-term benefit of students in this country and of their parents.

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and that is why Opposition Members have had difficulty in attacking the principles and overall objectives of the scheme. They are trying to make something out of an administrative aspect which is way out of perspective. My hon. Friend was also right about support on the Government Benches for the scheme, as was shown by the fact that the Bill received its Second Reading by a majority of 81.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that this is a great day for students and for higher education? No one believes that the Secretary of State's statement does not severely undermine the loans scheme—no one, that is, except a few right hon. and hon. ostriches on the Conservative Benches. The ability of the Government to offer sweeteners to private organisations is now on the record. However, they have clearly failed to sweeten the banks. Why is that?

The hon. Gentleman has got it completely wrong. There was no question of sweeteners. We offered to pay a fee to the banks for administering—as our agents—one part of the scheme because of the benefit of the bank branch networks. That was all. It was entirely reasonable to pay the banks a fee for doing that because a cost to the banks was involved. I repeat that the Government were to finance the whole scheme and they will continue to do that. There is no major material change of any kind. The hon. Gentleman's remarks were ludicrously out of perspective.

If 20 people leave an average school, why should the 10 who leave early, perhaps to become plumbers or electricians, have to pay the taxes of the 10 who want to go on to university? Why should the Opposition want to perpetuate such privileges?

My hon. Friend is right. Many of the people to whom he referred and the vast bulk of taxpayers will earn a good deal less throughout their working lives than students who get the benefit of higher education. All we are asking students to do is to pay a part of their maintenance through a loan scheme while at university, bearing in mind that the vast majority of them will gain substantial benefits and income thereafter as a result of the investment in their higher education. For those who do not take jobs and for those who have lower incomes than 85 per cent. of the average, we have introduced generous repayment terms. They will not have to repay during those periods, which is more generous than loan schemes in any other country.

In view of the Secretary of State's total failure to answer the questions put to him by Opposition Members, will he confirm the written answers that were given to me by the Under-Secretary of State that the scheme will cost the taxpayer £2·17 billion over and above the cost of grants over the next two decades? First, should that money not be put into grants to improve the grant system and opportunities in education instead of being wasted on this fatally flawed scheme?

Secondly, what mechanisms is the Secretary of State considering for forwarding students' applications to the loans adminstrator? Did I correctly understand him to say that it will probably be through the post? Thirdly, will he answer the question by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson)? The right hon. Gentleman now faces a desperately tight timescale to try to get the scheme up and running. If he will not dump it altogether, will he seriously consider deferring it for at least a year? Should he not drop the scheme altogether? It is an utter shambles and a farce, which shows great contempt for the House and a lack of concern for higher education.

The hon. Gentleman uses extravagant language. He is making such trivial points that it is a way of hiding their triviality. I have answered all hon. Members' questions, and I will answer the hon. Gentleman's three questions.

Hon. Members have debated the funding point at length both in the Chamber and in Committee. The crucial comparison is between the overall costs, by the end of the decade, of the Government's combination of grants and loans and the Opposition's approach to tackle it through grants alone. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that would be much more expensive to the taxpayer and would be paid for by people whose incomes will often be lower than those of the students when they get jobs. [Interruption.] Of course that is true, because loan repayments will be coming in.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I obviously wish to make the means of access for students as satisfactory as I can. I had hoped that it would be done through branch networks. One possibility is that it may have to be done through the post. I will seek ways of making that better, because I want to retain as many benefits as possible that we would have got from the branch networks.

Finally, I did respond to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson).

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seeking to prolong discussion on the statement. It is a private Members' day.

You, Mr. Speaker, preside over the Second Reading of Bills and the money resolutions. A money resolution must be in order and in accordance with the Bill as presented. From what the Minister said, it is clear that the scheme may be cheaper or it may be dearer. If it is dearer, I ask your Office to check whether the money resolution that was presented on Second Reading is now in order and can incorporate the changes that have been announced by the Secretary of State today.

I clearly heard the Secretary of State say that no amendment will be necessary.

We now return to the Adjournment debate. I must say to the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) and for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) that they should divide the next hour between them—about 28 minutes each.


Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

11.34 am

I am grateful for this opportunity to refer to COCOM and, in particular, to draw the attention of the House to the recommendations of my report to the Western European Union, which were unanimously endorsed by the parliamentary assembly in Paris earlier this month. As the House will be aware, COCOM stands for the Co-ordinating Committee for Multi-lateral Export Controls. It is the means by which for the past 40 years the western Alliance has prevented what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently described as

"our most cherished scientific achievements"
from falling into the hands of the Soviet bloc. Matters in which the West is understood to have superiority include micro-electronics, optics, super-conductivity, passive sensors, phased array radars, lightweight composite materials, and air-breathing propulsions. In general, it is believed that we have a 10-year lead in technology over the East, with the Soviet bloc, for example, being eight years behind in semi-conductors, five to seven years behind in computers, and a decade behind in machine tools. When applied to western defence, that superiority in strategic technology has ensured peace and is contributing to the end of the cold war.

I accept that there remains a continuing need to protect those technologies through COCOM until arms control negotiations and reductions and confidence-building over a reasonable period justify a review of that need. However, my report to the Western European Union suggests that the western Alliance should now accept a number of realities in the light of current events in eastern Europe which have immediate consequences for the COCOM rules that control the trade in technology. It suggests that, in the light of performance, the enforcement of those rules needs to be critically examined. It suggests that the basis of those rules—the state of Soviet technology—needs to be reassessed. It suggests also that opportunities for trade in technology between East and West should be discussed more openly than ever before in a forum that already exists—the conference on security and co-operation in Europe —while still accepting that both sides have secrets to protect in the interests of their own security.

Despite our success in establishing the technology lead that I have mentioned, it is relevant to remind the House that COCOM's rules and controls have failed to prevent a serious transfer of technology to the Soviet bloc at the expense of our own security. The list of COCOM violations reads like a horror story. Illegal exports of American precision ballbearing grinding machines now enable the Soviet Union to manufacture more accurate guidance systems for missiles trained on western targets. Western technology, which manufactures drill bits for the Soviet oil industry, enables the Soviets to produce new armour-piercing projectiles. Western oceanograph technology enables the Soviet Union to locate our submarines with greater accuracy.

Probably the most publicised recent violation was the illegal sale of lathes and numerically controlled machine tools to the Soviet Union, for which Toshiba is paying a considerable price in being outlawed from United States markets. The theft from last year's Farnborough air show of the technology behind the Agile Eye helmet, which allows fighter pilots to aim missiles at targets simply by looking at them, should remind us that there is no let-up —what the Soviet Union cannot obtain by fair means it will seek to obtain by espionage, subterfuge and outright theft.

It is understood that the foreign intelligence section of the KGB and the GRU Soviet military intelligence remain as strong and as committed as ever to engaging their officers in missions of scientific and technological espionage, which is why, for as long as the Soviet Union undertakes such operations, it must always expect its spies to be expelled when they are found out. It cannot have it both ways—glasnost and espionage. That is why my report urges controls and enforcement procedures that are more effective, more efficient and common to all COCOM member states. Clearly they have not satisfied those criteria in the past.

Ideally, it must surely be sensible to seek national legislation based on an agreed control list that is commom to all COCOM member states. That, in itself, would do much to dispel the widespread resentment of many western companies that complain that the United States can control the exports of other COCOM states through its extra-territoriality claims yet appears to turn a blind eye when its own companies are selling banned items. The continued charge of double dealing and cheating is threatening to discredit COCOM—in particular, United States participation in it.

The United States attempted to embargo British and other western equipment for the construction of the Siberian pipeline but we subsequently found that it was supplying much of the equipment. On a much smaller scale, there appears to be a growing number of cases of European business men who dare not set foot in the United States because they have been put on a CIA blacklist simply for selling to eastern Europe without licence technology that is clearly obsolete. Others have found that they have been set up and entrapped by over-zealous United States customs officials on the pretext of breaches of the COCOM rules. A constituent of mine, Mr. Andrew Kuzan, obtained an American licence to export a second-hand obsolete test head to Hungary. The licence was withdrawn at the last minute without explanation. He was arrested for attempting to export sensitive technology illegally, and he has just spent two years in an American gaol. It was particularly galling for him and his family to find that only a few miles away from their home in Bournemouth there is an American enterprise that has won a Russian order to supply more advanced versions of the test equipment that he had been convicted of selling illegally. I drew my constituent's case to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement nearly two years ago when he was Minister of Trade.

My second recommendation concerns the assumption of the current state of Soviet technology that is the basis of the COCOM rules. There is a growing amount of evidence to suggest that the COCOM rules are being inappropriately applied because our assessment of the state of Soviet technology does not stand up to analysis. For example, it was understood that the Soviets were well ahead in ground-based laser technology to knock out satellites and incoming missiles. But when American Congressmen visited the Soviet facility at Sary-Shagan this July, it was concluded that the Americans' own technology, being developed at White Sands, was further advanced and greatly superior and that the Pentagon had presented a worst-case assessment to boost the strategic defence initiative and advance COCOM. That is not the only example.

Last month, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee accused the United States Government of defence statements that are
"out-dated at best and absolutely false at worst."
To the United States' credit, on that country's initiative, COCOM members have recently established security and technology meetings—STEM—to assess the state of technology for both East and West, but those assessments are not being reported to COCOM and are being left to national Governments to interpret for themselves. Nor have they said much about the state of Soviet technology. I urge a fundamental reassessment of the current state of Soviet technology and a complete review of the COCOM list in the light of the reassessment.

When President Gorbachev addressed the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe at Strasbourg in July, he said of COCOM that, even if one could justify such practices at the peak of the cold war, today many of its restrictions seem utterly ridiculous. He suggested that experts and representatives of respective Goverments could get together and break down the cold war logjams to bring secrecy down to the reasonable limits that are still required for security and to give the green light to normal trade in scientific knowledge and technology. Since then we have been told that such a transfer of technology would not be a one-way process and that there are benefits to us in the West to share.

Last month the Soviet deputy premier, Dr. Abalkin, urged in Brussels that there should be more technological co-operation between his country and the European Community:
"The Soviet Union has something it can offer, several lines of technology that have not yet been developed in the West. This has become clear since we lifted the lid of secrecy from our defence and space programmes. We want to act as partners on the basis of equality."
I believe that the time is now ripe to respond positively to President Gorbachev's appeal for western technology to support the restructuring of his economy for the betterment of his people, and for the sharing of technology between East and West for mutual benefit.

My report to the Western European Union suggests how we might achieve that. First, where on-site verification procedures for the transfer of sensitive technologies would be appropriate and would satisfy COCOM member states, let the list be liberalised accordingly. Secondly, as there is already an opportunity forthcoming for Europewide economic co-operation to be discussed, let it be used to discuss trade in technology. That opportunity will come as soon as next March in Bonn with the conference on economic co-operation in Europe as part of the CSCE process. That provides exactly the right forum for trade in technology to be discussed because it involves all COCOM member states—and all the states that it prescribes—that belong to Europe. It will also be underpinned by the Helsinki principles of security co-operation, human rights and confidence-building so recently reinforced by the Vienna concluding document.

There is already an impressive list of possible collaborative projects, most notably in space, which the strict application of COCOM rules, as they stand today, would prevent. If that happened, Europe would be the loser. Those projects range from the technologies of manufacturing and distribution, which can transform the standard of living of the people of eastern Europe, to participation in the Eureka project, shared research in nuclear technologies and the joint Anglo-American and Soviet project for a supersonic business jet.

Is there not scope for the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Germany and the Soviet Union to combine their resources and technology to produce that "space plane" known as the Orient Express, Hermes, Hotol and Sanger in the West, which it is the ambition of each country to build? That would be a symbolic end to the scandal of costly competition and duplication in space. I recommend that, should there remain areas of mutual suspicion and mistrust based on a false assessment of the state of each side's technology, a committee of experts should be established within the CSCE framework to make recommendations for the way forward in the sharing of technologies between East and West. That will clarify the no-go areas for each side and will confirm the areas that are ripe for mutual and maximum co-operation and on which future binding commitments can be entered into with confidence by both sides.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that my recommendations for the future of COCOM are responsible and realistic, and reflect the mood of these historic times. We are now, at last, moving forward to a new world in which man can share and pool his vast technological achievements for the benefit of all without fear that he is abandoning his own security. It is, of course, essential that whatever changes we propose, we carry our ally the United States with us. It has, after all, produced most, although not all, of that technological superiority under whose protection we have enjoyed unparalleled peace and prosperity. There is now evidence that the United States is responding. President Bush, after the Malta summit, said that President Gorbachev's approach
"now absolutely mandates new thinking on the part of America."
I hope that it will be accepted that the COCOM rules can be revised without abandoning our secrets, our advantage or our security and that the part of our technology that it is now prudent to share should be used to support reform, to enhance civilisation and to encourage perestroika in the Soviet Union, on the understanding that a stable, country and a happier Russian people are also in the interests of a stable, happier and peaceful world.

11.49 am

The House owes a considerable debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for giving us the opportunity to discuss COCOM. It is not an organisation which frequently sees the light of day or is frequently the subject of great public discussion and scrutiny.

My hon. Friend is right when he says that the times through which we are living—times of great change, excitement, hope and opportunity in eastern Europe and in the Soviet bloc—throw into sharp relief the issues that the COCOM organisation and the COCOM principles embody. He has done a considerable service to the House in enabling the matter to be debated at this time.

However much COCOM may be reformed and retargeted, the fundamental point remains that it has a vital role in protecting our security interests through protecting our strategic technology. Running through my hon. Friend's speech was a recognition that that was the case. COCOM is not an economic embargo or a mechanism for applying sanctions. It is not a form of political leverage on the "proscribed destinations", which are principally the countries of the Warsaw pact and China. It is not a mechanism to ensure and preserve a technological gap between West and East for economic and commercial reasons.

Mr. Gorbachev, speaking to the Council of Europe in July, said:
"East-West relations have of late been bled white by COCOM."
That is a gross overstatement and it is wrong on two counts. Our exporting potential and performance have not been bled white; nor is the crippling economic mess in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union a result of our strategic export controls. It is true that COCOM has had success in denying the Warsaw pact access to critical technology, but that has had virtually no impact on the eastern European civilian consumer. The impact has fallen on the military consumers, which is, of course, the purpose of COCOM. That is the real cause for the Warsaw pact's complaints about COCOM.

It is undeniable that COCOM controls have borne directly on some industrial sectors, but the real stranglehold on eastern European economic development has been caused not by controls on the top slice of western technology, but rather by the chronic economic, industrial and infrastructure inefficiencies stemming from a system of centralised planning. The current problems are due not to technology starvation, but to starvation of rational economic management and the West is already beginning to help the East to remedy this.

As my hon. Friend has stressed, Europe is experiencing a wind of change the like of which it has, perhaps, never experienced before. A vivid demonstration of this was provided recently in the halls of NATO where a Soviet Foreign Secretary criticised the Romanian regime, an ally in the Warsaw pact. However, we need to be assured of two points: that sensitive technology can be put to effective civil use, and that it will not instead be diverted to military use.

The West can gradually help to encourage the conditions for the former and, in the meantime, COCOM helps to prevent the latter. The movement in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union towards greater democracy and freedom in economic and political behaviour is vital. And I do not believe COCOM can or will stand in the way of this. Although it is an institution which was created at the time of Stalin, COCOM is not somehow a counterpart to Stalinism. We welcome the Soviet, Polish, Hungarian, Czech and East German debunking of Stalinism. However, the fact that that is happening, encouraging though it is, does not mean we can now debunk COCOM. Great expectations have rightly been aroused by developments east of the iron curtain. We shall do what we can to help to bring those expectations to fulfilment. However, to flood those reforming countries with high technology cannot be the answer.

All partners in COCOM recognise the need to control only those items of genuine strategic significance. With them, we are urgently considering ways in which COC'OM can respond both prudently and imaginatively to recent events. Media headlines of a move, especially from the United States, towards wholesale liberalisation are misleading. President Bush at a news conference on 16 December said on the need for reviewing COCOM:
"there are certainly still legitimate national security interests that must be preserved … But I think it is timely that we take a new look at some of the commercial constraints."
There is nothing here with which we or, I believe, our partners in COCOM would disagree. The question is how to turn agreement on the need for a measured yet flexible approach into practice.

Many ideas are already under discussion in COCOM and more widely. Let me set out a few of these. The first is streamlining—the process of continuously reviewing the COCOM control lists to ensure that they apply only to genuinely critical items. This process must and will continue.

Secondly, there is verification. Poland and Hungary have offered guarantees against diversion from civil to military end use. Those are welcome, but guarantees alone, as my hon. Friend will accept, are not enough. The verification of certain exports is already a part of COCOM procedure, but verification cannot unlock the door to a flow of high technology across the iron curtain. We shall use this method to the fullest practical extent, but we should not fool ourselves by believing that we shall be able adequately to police every sensitive export for the duration of its strategic life.

In principle, of course, it would be ideal if we had a totally detailed knowledge of the extent of Soviet technological capability, but this is impossible to measure accurately even if we could be granted access to every Soviet office, factory or laboratory. I remain to be convinced by the suggestion that the Bonn economic meeting of the CSCE should provide a forum for the detailed discussion of eastern technological capabilities. I doubt whether that meeting would have the necessary levels of expertise, but of course we can raise this with partners. It may offer a way forward in some respects.

All these ideas and others now need vigorous discussion between COCOM partners. Following the high level meeting in October, senior officials will again meet in Paris, probably in February. Their aim will be to draw conclusions and policy decisions from the present mix of ideas. It is too early to predict what policy lines will merge, but we shall be arguing that COCOM's response to reforms in eastern Europe should be developed in a considered and co-ordinated manner. As my hon. Friend has observed, COCOM countries have two alternatives, both of which involve taking risks, and they should take the more imaginative of the two paths.

I can assure the House that, subject to the continuing need to protect our vital security interests, COCOM will not be, must not be, an impediment to reform in eastern Europe. We can both assist the East and keep up our own insurance. COCOM need not, I believe, be inimical to these twin objectives.

Rates (Scotland)

11.58 am

I regret that at this festive time of year I have to raise the unhappy topic of the implementation of the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987. No single item of legislation in the past Thatcher decade better illustrates the Government's philosophy than that legislation, which the Prime Minister has called her flagship.

The theory underlying the legislation is that consumers of local government services should pay for them and that those who administer the services should be accountable to the electorate for their provision. Therefore, we have the concept of the community charge, which is in reality a tax, based on the view that it is possible to make people pay a flat-rate charge for local services. Conservative Members have argued that people should pay a flat-rate charge in the same way that they do for a television licence. But a moment's examination shows how absurd that is. If one could afford it, one could have three, four or even five televisions in the house, but pay for only one licence. Therefore, the consumption of the service is not related to the charge.

Originally, the view on the community charge—more appropriately called a poll tax—was that, if implemented, it should be as a supplement to and not a replacement of the rates. It has been well documented that the panic measure was introduced in the House because of the revaluation in Scotland in 1985. The Government sought a cheap and effective way of replacing the rates, initially in Scotland, and they introduced the legislation just before the 1987 general election.

It is valid to examine the legislation because when it was introduced it applied to no section of the United Kingdom other than Scotland. Even now, there is no poll tax legislation for Northern Ireland. We are a United Kingdom Parliament and theoretically we are all subject to similar, if not the same, levels of taxation, but there are differences and distinctions.

At the time of the 1987 general election, no other piece of legislation, passed by the House, was subjected to the direct examination of a part of the United Kingdom. The Government argue that they are accountable to the people for legislation which affects local authorities, but when we examine what happened in Scotland at the general election we find that the Tories were almost wiped out. No one can say, with any measure of truth, that the poll tax legislation was not the subject of intense debate at that time. Scotland, the specific subject of the poll tax legislation, overwhelmingly rejected that legislation, yet we still got it. So much for electoral and democratic accountability.

I do not know how any Scottish Minister, knowing that he owes his place at the Dispatch Box to the electorate, can say at the next general election that, even if the Government's record is rejected, they will continue with their policies because they have a majority in the United Kingdom Parliament.

This legislation, the Government's flagship, places an enormous strain on the Union. Those who persist in neglecting the democratic views of the Scottish people and at the same time mouthing unionism in terms of the United Kingdom are verging on being hypocritical. They are endangering the Union. The Government cannot say that people have a vote which counts, which has to be related to a specific piece of legislation, and yet, when the electorate affected by that legislation rejects it, continue to force that legislation down their throats.

Unfortunately, memories are short when it comes to the implementation of the legislation. One of the most invidious features of the legislation is the infringement, and continued infringement, of individual liberty. The poll tax registration officers seek personal information to find out where a person is living and whether they should be subject to the poll tax. They even get hold of unlisted telephone numbers.

A student was living with one of my constituents. His telephone number was unlisted, but, somehow or another, the poll tax registration officer in Fife managed to get hold of it. That is the extent to which he was prepared to go to get hold of information. He is responsible to no one—neither to the Secretary of State nor to the regional councils in Scotland. No democratic control is exercised over poll tax registration officers.

The poll tax bears no relation to ability to pay. It is a flat-rate tax. The Government argue that its effect is modified by a complicated rebate system. However, the tax burden will be shifted from the backs of those who have sufficient resources to the backs of those who have not. It is a highly regressive and painful tax. That pain is inflicted in various obnoxious ways. In order to secure the payment of the poll tax, certain sanctions are imposed. We know about the sanctions relating to income tax and rates.

As for the cost of administering the poll tax, yesterday the Under-Secretary of State gave what I consider to be a wholly bogus figure when he said:
"The cost to local authorities of collecting the community charge in 1988–89 is estimated by authorities at £31·8 million."
That is well over £14 million more than the cost of collectting rates. I believe the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which says that the true cost of collecing the community charge will probably be £50 million. The Under-Secretary's figure does not include indirect charges. The poll tax costs more to collect and employs 2,000 additional people. Scotland has lost jobs in shipbuilding, steel and coal mining, but those losses are compensated for, theoretically, by the creation of 2,000 additional jobs. So much for keeping control over local authority manpower.

When the local authorities considered how much the poll tax would yield, they believed initially that there would be a downturn in the yield of about 6 per cent. There ought to be about 4 million people on the register. I ask the House to bear that figure in mind.

If the tax is to work, the penalties must be severe, and the Government know that. It is one thing to try to enforce penalties in relation to a tax that people have accepted as fair but another to have similarly severe penalties in relation to a tax that people do not accept and have voted against and that is manifestly unfair. The penalties for non-payment include arrestment of wages or salaries, arrestment of bank accounts and such things as income support and the poinding of one's goods and, eventually, one's savings.

I want the House to realise how obnoxious the warrant sale procedure can be. I do not think that this has been shown before. One of my constituents, Mr. Terence Donnelly, received a letter dated 14 December from H. M. Love and Partners, 8 Abbey Park place, Dunfermline. Representatives of that firm called at Mr. Donnelly's house while he was working. The letter stated:
"We refer to the Summary Warrant granted at Dunfermline Sheriff Court in connection with arrears of Community Charge for the year 1989/90.
As payment has not been made, our Officer has called today with instructions to carry through a Poinding of your household effects. As no one was in attendance, you are hereby notified that unless payment, as detailed below, is made to our office immediately, our Officer may be instructed to return to your premises.
It should be noted that the warrant carries authority to open and shut lockfast places."
If the householder is absent, the sheriff officers or the messenger-at-arms can break in. That is the sanction which the Government are willing to impose to collect this regressive tax. The Minister must respond to that point in relation to the sanguine speech that the Secretary of State made in Edinburgh on 4 December and the figures that were repeated yesterday. The Secretary of State said that 70,000 warrants were being issued in Strathclyde, but only a minute number of warrant sales are being effected.

All Scottish local authorities have avoided the imposition of warrant sales. I am told that Strathclyde has not had a warrant sale in 14 years. Depending on how the figures are calculated, nine months into the financial year between 500,000 and 750,000 Scots have not paid the poll tax. If the Government want to impose the full rigour of the law, they will have to stand back—they will say that this is not their responsibility but that of the local authorities—and watch those authorities get themselves into extreme financial difficulties. They may say, "It is your responsibility to collect these sums." To put it crudely, Scottish Labour local authorities will have to do the Tories' dirty work.

Scottish local authorities have assured-warrant sales for the rates. I shall repeat Strathclyde's record because it is worth repeating: it has had no warrant sales in 14 years. However, the local authority is to issue about 300,000 letters through the sheriff officers saying that people are in debt. I do not see how warrant sales can be avoided if the full rigour of the law is enforced. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will explain his proposals and how local authorities can avoid that.

In addition to those complications, we have the pressure applied by English Back Benchers to alter the scheme halfway through. The Opposition have arguied that people with Alzheimer's disease should be totally exempt but the Minister said no.

:Warrant sales would be required for large amounts of money if we are talking about a year's poll tax. The furniture collected and sold secondhand and the costs involved with that mean that a person's house will be virtually stripped bare and still the money would not be raised to pay the poll tax and the debt would be outstanding. That is a horrendous device.

I accept that point.

I return to the subject of altering the rules of the game—with some justification—halfway through, and the complexity involved for Scottish local authorities. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said that the stumbling block over transitional relief is the Government's desire to see the recalculation of rebate for any qualifiers who are currently in receipt of such benefit. COSLA says that it cannot administer this along the lines that the Government suggest and that the cost will be enormous. The Government are now suggesting that COSLA employs a firm of consultants to investigate the cost.

One of the forms of arrestment was to go to the bank. In a letter of 22 November the Scottish clearing banks said that the cost to the banks of trawling through their accounts would be considerable. A paragraph that was not entirely accurate in terms of total numbers but which illustrates the point said:
"Press reports suggest that there are now 450,000 non-payers which could result in an inordinate cost being placed on the banks if a corresponding number of arrestments were to be served on them. Should even 100,000 arrestments be served on a bank, the cost for that bank would run into several millions. If these costs are multiplied across all four banks, the costs could exceed £20 million."
What is the Government's reply about the cost effectiveness of the collection of taxes?

Round one of safety-netting transferred resources from the rural regions to the more urban regions. Next time the Government will finance part of it and the charges to Strathclyde and Glasgow will rise to an estimated £20 million. So the poll tax will soar.

I know that time is short. As it is the season of good will 1 will not he unduly offensive to my absent friends in the Labour party although I have given notice that I intend to refer to them. The Government are in a dilemma and so is the Labour party—theoretically the party of conscience. At a rally a few weeks ago the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) paraded themselves in front of a banner saying, "No warrant sales." Does the Labour party mean it? If it does, how will it present itself at the next regional elections? Will it say, "If you elect a Labour regional councillor there will be no warrant sales"? That is difficult to do. Will it say, "If you elect us, wait until the next Labour Government in order to get the poll tax repealed"?

If we raise that level of expectation and Labour is elected on a Thursday, by Monday nobody in Scotland will be paying the poll tax. The depth of hatred for the tax is not seen in the south-east of England. If that level of expectation is raised, nobody in Scotland will wait a year or 18 months for a Bill to go through the legislative process.

We are in the season of good will. To put it in biblical terms, if Mary and Joseph had gone to Bethlehem to pay their poll tax, they might have had to pay the standard charge for the stable and when they returned to Nazareth they might have found their furniture poinded and subject to a warrant sale.

The Bill is the Government's flagship. It epitomises a policy of making the poor pay. My party was created, in effect, to defend the poorer sections of the population. That is our raison d'etre. I am sad that my party says that it is opposed to warrant sales and poinding furniture but at the same time tells people that they must obey the law and pay the poll tax. To propose that people should obey the law is to imply that the law is just. But the law should have a democratic sanction behind it. This law does not have that sanction in Scotland. The Minister knows that, and knows that if the Conservative Government and the Conservative party continue to behave in the manner that they have, come the next election there will be no Conservative Members in Scotland. What will the Government do then? If there is a Labour Government there will be a dilemma, and if there is a Conservative Government those who persist in stuffing this type of legislation down the throats of the Scottish people will be responsible for splitting the Union.

12.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland
(Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

In the limited time available I shall seek to answer as many as possible of the points that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) raised.

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues prophesied great difficulty in introducing this form of local authority tax. In fact, 99 per cent. registered and those who said that they would not pay failed in practice. I stress that we said consistently that over 1 million people in Scotland would receive rebates. It is now clear that that is indeed the case. Those on income support had their benefit increased to take account of the 20 per cent. of the poll tax that they would have to pay. They are exempted from paying the other 80 per cent.

The principle behind the community charge is that it introduces far more accountablity. We are convinced that it is an incomparably fairer system than the previous rating system under which only about 40 per cent. paid rates, although more contributed to them. Accountability is the principle.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the use of telephone numbers. I cannot comment on the circumstances of the case that he mentioned without further information. I suggest that it is reasonable that people who are liable for the community charge should be registered so that they pay their fair share towards the cost of local authority services.

The figures for the cost of implementing the poll tax are as given in the parliamentary reply to the hon. Gentleman. One of the common threads running through our debates on the community charge is that the Opposition have never presented a clear view of their position on the community charge. As the hon. Gentleman says, the official position is that people should pay. The hon. Gentleman represents a minority view in his party.

The number of people who have made some payment of community charge throughout the regions is largely within the range of 85 to 95 per cent. of those liable to pay. In one region 98 per cent. of people were recorded as having paid something. I acknowledge that those figures do not take account of people who are in arrears. As I said to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West, the figures are not available from local authorities. The figures for the total number of people in arrears would be misleading. The legislation allows people to be up to two instalments in arrears before they risk losing their right to pay by instalments. Many people take account of that in their payment pattern, just as they did under the domestic rating system.

Even the figures for summary warrants do not provide a particularly accurate guide to the number of people in arrears. Those figures simply show the number of people who failed to clear their arrears at particular dates at which local authorities decided to proceed with the next stage of their arrears collection process. The ideal course is for everybody to pay on time, but I have yet to hear of any tax at any time for which that happens.

The collection procedures are no different from those used under domestic rates. They were agreed by the House of Commons as recently as the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987. We have heard a great deal about the numbers of people that local authorities are pursuing for arrears. It is the last hope of those campaigning for non-payment that these procedures will prove ineffective. However, there are already signs that people are responding to the notifications that they have received about summary warrants and are paying up or entering into a payment arrangement with their local authority. All the evidence suggests that that pattern will be repeated across Scotland. All that people who have received a summary warrant will have gained is a 10 per cent. surcharge.

Much has been made of the numbers of warrants so far and those likely to come next year. One non-payer per local authority is one too many because that person is consuming services without paying for them—simply getting a free ride at the expense of the rest of the community. Nevertheless, realistically a certain level of non-payment must be expected and authorities have budgeted for that.

Inevitably, comparisons are sought to be made with the rating system. They are difficult because many aspects of the two systems are different. The figures emerging from local authorities are broadly in line with what we expected at this stage from the evidence of what happened under the rating system.

I have only four more minutes and I should like to deal with the hon. Gentleman's questions on warrant sales.

Recently there have been reports that the local authority power to arrest bank accounts might prove unworkable. As with so much else, the reports were misleading. I understand that in recent meetings between local authorities and representatives of the banks many of the banks' initial fears were allayed. Moreover, bank account arrestment is only one of several diligences available to local authorities.

The ultimate sanction is the warrant sale. It is fair to say that nobody wants any case to reach that stage, but it is only right that the process should be available to local authorities as a weapon of last resort. It is important not to get this aspect of debt collection out of perspective. It is not the case that almost everyone in arrears will face a warrant sale. First, other means of collecting debt are available to authorities, such as the arrestment of bank accounts or earnings. Secondly, almost all people either pay their debts in full or reach an agreement with the authority before a sale is reached.

I have been informed that last year in Strathclyde the number of warrant sales in respect of rates arrears could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The hon. Gentleman claimed that there were none. Whatever the case, it shows the scale on which warrant sales were carried out.

The Scottish Law Commission found similar arrangements existed in every other western country. After looking thoroughly at the whole question, it concluded that the procedure should be retained in Scots law. However, it recommended that some of the more resented aspects of warrant sales, such as the advertisement of sale showing the debtors' name and address, the requirement to hold the sale in the debtors' house and the inclusion of most household effects in the goods to be sold, should be changed. They were changed in the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 and it is noteworth that when the Bill went through the House the Labour party did not vote against it in principle. Before a sale is reached, the person in question will have been given every opportunity to settle his debt by other means.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is recommending non-payment of the community charge. Few of us like paying taxes, but it is wholly irresponsible for a Member of Parliament to adopt that attitude, not only because Members of Parliament should be setting an example and not encouraging law breaking, but because they are wealthy members of the community who can well afford to pay. It is unfair for a Member of Parliament to refuse to pay and, by his actions, put a burden on the less well-off members of the community that he represents. In the circumstances, it is right that the local authority should have the power to enforce payments. If non-payers were allowed to get away with it, authorities would have to cut back on essential services or on the number of employees, or they would have to require more people who pay the charge to subsidise those who do not. I believe that that would be unfair.

The hon. Member mentioned the transitional—

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified Her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

  • Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Act 1989.
  • South Yorkshire Light Rail Transit Act 1989.
  • Scottish Episcopal Clergy Widows' and Orphans' Fund Order Confirmation Act 1989.

Chatham Dockyard

12.30 pm

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the important matter of the historic dockyard in Chatham.

In June 1985, the Secretary of State for Defence announced the closure of one of our royal dockyarcls— Chatham. That was a trauma for the people of the Medway towns, and particularly for the people of Chatham. For centuries the names of the Royal Navy and Chatham have been synonymous. Many people in Medway towns worked in the dockyards, as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them. It was urgent that the Government should ensure that the valuable riverside site in Chatham should not become a derelict eyesore but should be redeveloped to maintain and improve the quality of the environment in the Medway towns and to provide job opportunities to replace some of those lost by the closure of the dockyard.

The Government also faced the problem that one fifth of the acreage of the dockyard is the great historical section of the famous yard. That is in my constituency. When one walks through the famous gate, one is confronted by the most complete Georgian dockyard in Britain. Nelson joined the Navy there, and his flagship Victory was built there around 1760 and rebuilt there between 1803 and 1804.

The dockyard comprises some 100 buildings, and 47 of them are the greatest concentration of scheduled ancient monuments in one place in Britain. To preserve that great heritage, the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust was set up in 1984 as a company limited by guarantee. Its objectives were prepared by the Government and they were, first,
"to secure for the public benefit preservation and use of the historic dockyard in Chatham in a manner appropriate to its archaeological, historical and architectural importance"; and, secondly,
"to promote and foster for the public benefit a wide knowledge and understanding of the archaeological, historical and architectural significance of the Historic Dockyard".
The Government gave the trust the freehold of the site so that it could pursue those objectives and meet the criteria. They also gave the trust £.11,350,000—they did not say how they arrived at that figure—and a number of large industrial artefacts which were extremely expensive to move and set out for display.

The Government also gave the trust the responsibility to honour a contract, which had already been embarked on, for repairs to the ropery. Those who are not familiar with Chatham dockyard should be made aware that the ropery is a brick building some quarter of a mile long with a roof to match which the House may be interested to know supports one mile of guttering. The contract that was embarked upon was for £2,650,000, but turned out to cost £3,023,000, which had to be deducted from the original £11·5 million.

The public had previously been allowed in to the dockyard on Navy days, but in July 1984 the visitor centre and the whole historic dockyard was opened to them for the first time. There is now a living, working museum. Ropes are being made in the ropery and sold; flags are being made in the flag loft and sold. An historic ship is being repaired and restored and there are five museum galleries. The wooden ships gallery has recently been completed and the trust now wants to embark on an iron-clad gallery. There are facilities for temporary and visiting exhibitions, a steam centre and an extensive education programme which encourages schools and school parties to visit and make the most of the educational and historical opportunities there.

There is a seasonal theatre company, a range of annual special events, concerts and theme weeks. Visitor numbers have gradually increased as the museum has developed. This financial year, they numbered 95,000, which was a 43 per cent. increase on the previous year. The all-party heritage group, the chairman of which is my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), were recent, distinguished visitors. My hon. Friend hoped that he might return to the Chamber in time to speak in this debate, but he has sent me a letter saying that the group was extremely impressed with the progress being made and the quality and excitement of what is on offer at the dockyard, and that I should convey to the House its strong support for the plea that I am making.

The trust's strategy can be encapsulated quite briefly. The museum's theme is principally to tell the story of the building of British warships and the life of dockyard workers. It is to develop housing in the dockyard. There is a magnificent terrace of 12 Georgian buildings there. To bring people to live in the dockyard again, a high-quality scheme has been prepared which we hope will be completed in 1992–93 and enable 82 families to return to the dockyard. The scheme provides facilities for maritime and craft-related tenants. So far, we have more than 50 tenants, two thirds of whom meet those strict criteria. By about 1993 the trust hopes to have developed residential courses in maritime-related skills and crafts on offer to the general public.

To the initial endowment, the trust has attracted, generated and earned through the gate donations and grants nearly £1·1 million. It also has £500,000 in loans, making a total of £12,453,000. The trust appointed a full-time fund raising officer in October 1988 further to develop and increase the fund-raising activities. The number of visitors has increased and a charge is made on them. That income has risen to £107,000 in the financial year that has just ended. Income from the 50 commercial tenants has risen dramatically to £195,000 in line with the growing rents on commercial property in the Medway towns.

The trust has doubled its original money by wise investment and income generation. A simple summary of the trust's current position is as follows. Capital receipts and commitments to date total £12·5 million. The reduction for the restoration liability—which was very heavy as it involved a concentration of 47 scheduled buildings—has declined from £22 million to £15 million and the total expenditure to date has been £13·5 million. At the end of the current financial year, the total remaining funds are a little less than £8·5 million.

I bring this case before the House in prudence before the trust's funds reach a lower level. The management team has recently completed a draft budget for 1990–93 because it wants to look ahead at the level of expenditure on further restoration and development of the museum facilities. The trust is committed to further restoration as the buildings concerned are scheduled buildings. The trust is committed to their restoration because the Government have scheduled them as a precious part of the nation's heritage and that restoration will cost a further £15 million. The development of the museum that is outstanding, including the iron-clad gallery, amounts to £5 million and a sum of £4 million is required to fund the budget deficit. In total that is just over £24 million.

I have already placed this matter before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I know that the all-party heritage group has visited the museum and has listened to the facts. It fully supports my comments today. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State my wish to see his commitment to our national heritage and his reassurance to the trust which is caring for it.

The museum site is unique in Britain's history. The work on the site to date has been carried out expertly by the trust which has some very devoted trustees under the chairmanship of the chairman and chief executive, General Sir Steuart Pringle, former commandant general of the Royal Marines. Their work is of high quality. They have mapped out the path ahead, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will express a further commitment to that work and match it with the necessary funding.

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) on securing this debate and raising the important matter of the future of Chatham's historic dockyard. The dockyard is widely recognised as one of the nation's most important heritage assets. Indeed, it is probably the most complete Georgian dockyard in existence. Chatham was once the country's premier fleet base and, later, a most important repair and building yard. It is a memorial and a testament to British sea power. My hon. Friend has described its importance.

The Government's recognition of the historic importance of the dockyard was clearly reflected in our commitment to assist its preservation when the royal naval dockyard was closed in 1983. That commitment was delivered by the establishment of the Historic Dockyard Trust in 1984, together with an endowment of £11·35 million. That money went towards the cost of preserving and maintaining the built heritage assets. We have also given added legislative protection to many of the buildings and sites within the dockyard—50 are scheduled ancient monuments, and 13 of them are also listed.

The Government accepted, on the trust's inception, that the costs of maintaining the buildings and developing the site into a "living dockyard" through a mix of visitor facilities, light industry and housing would probably exceed £11 million. However, it was rightly felt at the time that, with a vigorous development and marketing strategy, the new trust would be able to supplement its endowment with private sector investment. So it was made clear to the original members of the trust that the £11 million was for the preservation and maintenance of the site and was not primarily intended to finance the developments that were necessary to establish the site as a heritage and tourist attraction.

We did not, and do not, underestimate the difficulty of attracting such private funding and, so far, the trust has not been as successful in attracting private support as it had hoped. Nevertheless there has been considerable additional finance from the public purse since 1984. English Heritage has provided about £420,000, the National Heritage Memorial Fund has provided £130,000, the English tourist board has offered a £200,000 repayable grant, Kent county council has contributed £360,000 with the prospect of more by way of a loan, and Rochester upon Medway city council has contributed £50,000.

I pay tribute to the considerable achievements of Lieutenant General Sir Steuart Pringle, his fellow board members and the staff at the trust over the past five years, particularly for bringing back into imaginative use a number of the historic buildings.

My hon. Friend has well described some of those activities and new facilities. The initiatives have attracted more than 50 commercial tenants, and developed the heritage assets of the dockyard for thousands of visitors to enjoy each year. We also welcome Sir Steuart's continuing commitment and enthusiasm to build on these achievements.

Despite the indisputable historical importance of the dockyard, however, I do not think that the House could readily or easily agree to the allocation of further public money at this stage—certainly not to the £24 million that Sir Steuart is seeking. But I recognise the Government's obligation to the funding of heritage projects—indeed, our overall budget next year will be about £150 million, compared with Government expenditure of only £37 million in 1979. Within this large national sum the grant-in-aid to English Heritage is nearly £80 million, of which it aims to spend about £30 million on repair grants to historic buildings throughout the country.

Despite the significant overall budget for heritage and the increase over the past 10 years, we must be cautious about spending large sums on any one site which would prevent money from being spent elsewhere. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Medway knows that there are many pressing candidates for additional spending in other parts of the United Kingdom.

There are, indeed, many worthy causes for public and private patrons. To see and understand the very best of objects and buildings from the past is important to our national way of life. It helps us to define who we are as a people. It helps us to form roots and it is an important component of education. The country's rich and valued heritage—of historic towns and villages, great houses and early industrial and military sites such as Chatham —has also provided a base for our growing tourist industry.

Against that background, I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government remain keen and concerned to identify a way forward for Chatham which is acceptable to all concerned and which secures the long-term future of the dockyard. The task is by no means easy; we do not dispute that the trust has a particularly difficult job on its hands. But, as my hon. Friend knows, we are undertaking detailed discussions with Sir Steuart to identify options for the future.

Senior officials from the Department will be meeting Sir Steuart again early in the new year; I think that the date is set as 10 January. That follows visits to the dockyard in October and November by my hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage matters, and my noble Friend Lord Arran on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. I am pleased to note that the chairman of the all-party heritage group also visited the site and I shall take careful note of his comments—in particular, of his message of support to my hon. Friend for today's debate. We shall pursue with the trust the feasibility of its current development strategy and its plans for attracting private investment and looking for new and increased commercial opportunities.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is extremely difficult to get private patronage or support for maintaining the fabric of many historical buildings?

I acknowledge that. That is why, when the trust was set up in 1984, the £11 million endownment was primarily designed to be spent on the repair and maintenance aspects of the site. In addition, we recognised that development expenditure would be required, and that should be funded, at least in part, from private sources. I have emphasised throughout that we understand the difficulties of attracting such funding. I am pleased to note that a fund-raising officer was appointed in October 1988. That is a welcome development and we look forward to learning about what the trust plans to achieve through that appointment.

We all admire the vision of Sir Steuart and his colleagues, but we must be wary of counsels of perfection, even in the context of a unique asset such as the historic dockyard. A Rolls-Royce development plan would require massive short and long-term public investment, and that may not be realistic or feasible. However, I hope that a sensible compromise can be identified. I will convey these thoughts and the views of my hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as she has asked. I hope that we can find a way to enable the trust to meet its original objectives—albeit over a longer time than it might have wished—and to secure the effective preservation of this historic dockyard.

Education (Cornwall)

12.55 pm

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate and I thank the Minister for staying on as we are just about to break for Christmas. I know that the Minister visited Cornwall not long ago and that the county's problems have already been brought to her attention. I requested a debate on the funding of the education service in Cornwall because there is no more important investment than the investment that we make in the future of our children. However, the disparity between what needs to be spent on education in Cornwall and what the Government are willing to spend —or, more accurately, will allow to be spent—is widening to an ever more worrying extent.

There are changing financial arrangements. Our schools have been under-resourced for far too long, but the introduction of the poll tax and the associated changes will make matters worse. Cornwall could reasonably expect its prudent management in the past to be recognised in the level of Government financial support that it is to receive, yet Cornwall, which is underspending by £4 million on the Government's current assessment of its spending need on education, is overnight to be turned into a so-called "overspender" when measured against the new standard spending assessment. That is absurd to anyone who looks at the figures and it arises for a number of reasons which are, by and large, unconnected with any assessment of the needs of the education service in Cornwall.

The Government's financial support includes wholly inadequate provision for the effects of inflation on local authority spending. It is inadequate in terms that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would accept, although it has not been changed in terms of local government funding. Apart from being a real cut because of the effects of inflation, it takes no account of the need to increase spending to meet the increased pressure that schools face in implementing recent legislation.

To compound all that, the method that has been adopted for calculating Cornwall's education standard spending assessment takes further resources away from Cornwall. Under this element, the county has lost grant equivalent to £11 per adult. To make matters worse, resources have been moved from poor counties, such as Cornwall, to support richer counties around London. The area cost adjustment has lost Cornwall a further £7 an adult and is another example of the problems that will arise from the introduction of the poll tax. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is unfair that people in Cornwall, where wages are 20 per cent. below the national average, should have to subsidise counties around London, where incomes are substantially higher than the average. Even if Cornwall spends at the Government's standard level for education need as now defined, despite higher inflation, my constituents will contribute 40 per cent. more than they do this year.

Against that background of more financial constraints, there is a huge demand for resources for buildings, maintenance, books, equipment, in-service training for teachers and training for governors. However, the capital budget is of particular concern in Cornwall because we have so many Victorian primary schools and nine split-site secondary schools which need urgent attention. Over 50 primary schools have outdoor toilets and over 80 are without a hall. The county tells me—and I am sure that it is right—that it has no hope of meeting the regulations on the standard of premises by the deadline of 1991. In other words, the Government have set standards but are not allowing the money to meet them.

I visited Mevagissey school in my constituency recently. Huge problems arise there as a result of overcrowding. The school hall has to be used on the same day as a gym, a meeting place and a classroom, but the school has been taken off the lists of schools urgently needing new buildings. It was on the council's priority list last year, but this year it has been replaced by another school equally, or more, deserving. It is a vivid illustration of the merry-go-round of hopelessness in trying to meet £100 million worth of need with £7 million or £8 million worth of spending.

I heard this morning devastating news about the capital building programme for next year. The council asked for permission to spend £18 million, including ongoing commitments from this year to £10 million. The Minister discussed those needs with those councillors during her visit and they made strong representations to her. However, the announcement just made is that the figure allowed by the Government for 1990–91 will be only £6·522 million, against a need of approaching £100 million, of spending to meet targets that are meant to be met by 1991. This means that the LEA will need £3·5 million from further savings or sales of assets just to keep up with the projects already in progress, let alone any projects that county councillors and others from all parts of the county might wish to have for next year. Many planned projects will not now be able to go ahead.

The situation regarding building is nearing disaster again and no one in the county, of whatever political persuasion, can understand why the Government will not allow the county council to act. Teachers, governors, parents and children will be stunned by the sad news that they have just had, and people will be justifiably angry. I hope that the Minister will now agree, as at least one concrete measure arising from this debate, to meet a delegation from the county to press this concern. I am sure that the county will be seeking such a meeting.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks), in an Ajournment debate in July 1988, also raised the problem of bringing school buildings up to standard —that emphasises the all-party nature of this concern—but, despite his efforts, today's announcement will leave the situation worse than it has ever been. It is about time that Ministers recognised the difficulities in which they are putting Cornish schools.

Major investment is needed to ease the growing problem of teacher morale, and a greater Government appreciation of the valuable job that teachers do would be welcome. That arises, in part, from the difficulties that they face working in schools, but also from the frustration that they have in implementing the changes that the Government are introducing. The falling morale among teachers particularly saddens me, but the Government ignore the difficulties that teachers are facing, and just heap more and more work on them.

Already, there are chronic teacher shortages in many parts of Cornwall and difficulties in getting teachers with the skills required for teaching maths and sciences, and the situation is worsening. In letters to the Secretary of State for Education and Science—which have been copied to me —from head teachers, they raise many deep concerns about the situation in schools. Rather than try to express their frustration in my words, it would be best to quote some of the letters, because they speak powerfully about this crisis of morale.

One head teacher wrote:
"The workload is becoming almost insurmountable for all of us—we will work for the sake of our pupils but these excessive demands, lack of time and preparation to complete everything within Government issued deadlines will result in the continued erosion of the teaching profession, and you will find that existing expertise, dedication and professionalism will recede."
Another teacher, with 30 years' experience, said to the Secretary of State:
"Please, please wake up to the fact that it is now our caring, dedicated staff who are desperate to leave teaching. We are continually being encouraged to be 'positive'. I and many other teachers never found this a problem until recently. There is more to 'job satisfaction' than salary. Top of my list comes inner satisfaction that I am giving of my best to my class—this is becoming increasingly difficult."
A young head teacher only recently appointed wrote:
"I do not have enough books or books of the right quality. We are short of basic equipment and expensive equipment needed for science…I am tired, under extreme stress and have lost a great deal of enthusiasm. I have been offered three jobs in industry at twice the salary I am getting at present and it is likely that I will accept the next job offered to me."
Another teacher said:
"I have a good many years left to give to education but my enthusiasm for teaching cannot go on indefinitely unless the Government provide significant additional resources to enable us to implement the National Curriculum in a professional manner."
Finally, another teacher wrote:
"Morale in my school is at an all time low and deteriorating. I no longer have the time or reason to motivate staff. I shall be seeking early retirement myself at the earliest possible time, if the stress does not kill me first."
I emphasise that those letters come from head teachers in schools of acknowledged high quality. There is no argument about the results that we get from the county. But to tackle the problems we need to have proper recognition of the problems that teachers face and pay must be part of that priority.

I should like a commitment from the Minister that the £600 million limit on the amount to fund the teachers' pay increase next year will be increased. That limit represents an increase across the board of only 7·4 per cent. In view of the present level of inflation, that will make financial hardship for teachers worse rather than better. I implore the Department of Education and Science to start talking again to teachers through a proper negotiating structure. That can only be fair, especially in view of the extra demands being placed on teachers.

I should also like to see the Government invest in much higher profile recruitment for properly qualified teachers to ensure that the maths and science teacher shortages in the county, which are even greater in other parts of the country, are addressed.

I must also make it clear that none of the letters that I have received makes the problem of pay the priority. They refer to something much more basic—training, books, the most basic materials for making the most of the brief, unrepeatable time that we have to give our children their education.

Ministers may not like the issues that I raise. They mainly concern funding and the Government are averse to that, because they have to go to the Treasury to ask for funds, and I understand the difficulties in doing that. But the Government must face the fact that more money is desperately needed, not least in our county.

The announcement that we have heard today is inadequate. Teachers' morale is undeniably low. The teachers whom I have quoted today are talking of resignation. We hear the Government talk about new schemes and CTCs which will never be seen in my county, but schools for the vast majority of children in the county are running out of the basic resources that they need to give children the fundamental and best education that they need.

Teachers in my county are struggling against many odds and achieving good results. They do not have the best of teaching facilities, not through any fault of the Government but because they are old schools, and that needs to be changed. The teaching that is provided in the county is excellent, with excellent results. Cornwall is pressing ahead with implementing the Education Reform Act 1988. Despite the problems and under-resourcing that Cornish schools face, the results are good at GCSE and A-level, as is the staying on rate post-16. We pride ourselves on the efficiency and value for money that is achieved by our education service. But the problems that I have been addressing today are real and immediate and cannot be wished away. The money will have to be spent sooner or later. The present spiral that we are entering is one of decline, and I hope that the Minister will accept that that needs to be reversed.

As I said earlier, I hope that the Minister will agree to meet a delegation from the county, no doubt with other hon. Members who represent Cornwall, which will seek to press the immediate problems of the announcement on capital spending.

1.8 pm

I welcome the debate, and I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few words. I should be glad to join any delegation that my hon. Friend the Minister of State might care to receive. I very much hope that a delegation will come to London to see her and talk about Cornwall's problems. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) has outlined some of them. He was right to emphasise Cornwall's legacy of outdated Victorian schools, particularly in the villages.

The problem cannot be laid entirely at the Government's door.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me about that. It arises, in part, because of Cornwall's previous priorities. It used most of its building resources on secondary education, with the result that some village schools have been neglected.

The hon. Member for Truro referred to the pressure on the school hall in Mevagissey. There are several village schools in my constituency that do not have school halls. I am thinking in particular of Breage school near Porthleven. That school faced closure a few years ago. It is now flourishing, thanks to the head teacher's inspired leadership and the backing of the staff. The school is literally bulging at the seams in an old building that has not been modernised this century.

A delegation ought to come to see the Minister about Cornwall's capital building programme. I share the hon. Gentleman's disappointment that it did not feature more prominently in yesterday's announcement. He referred to the education authority's request that the capital building programme should be increased to £18 million, but the county council knows perfectly well that that is an unrealistic hid; it would be horrified if it were given permission to spend £18 million. It could not finance it. Therefore, it submitted a high figure in the hope of attracting a realistic increase. I hope that it will be allowed to spend more than the £6·5 million increase that has been allocated to it.

There is a tendency in this place and throughout the country to say that underfunding is the Government's fault. All of us would like more money to be spent on education. The hon. Member for Truro will join me in another debate to argue for more spending on Cornwall's health services. We are both fighting the case for the air ambulance, for example. One has to apreciate the Government's problems over managing the national budget. There is also a local problem over managing Cornwall's education budget.

I am told that during the last three years Cornwall education authority has overspent its budget. According to reliable information, I also understand that this year it is likely to overspend by £1·5 million. Consequently, it is now having to make cuts. It has cut £500,000 on the repair and maintenance of the kind of schools to which the hon. Gentleman and I have referred. It has also cut £450,000 from the school transport budget. That creates problems in rural areas such as those that the hon. Gentleman and I represent.

We should consider the reasons for overspending. I am told that the overspend on education officers' car allowances is about £136,000. That is nothing to do with the Government; it is Cornwall education authority's problem. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's general case, but I do not believe that all the blame should be laid at the Government's door. Cornwall education authority, at county hall, must, where this is needed, put its house in order.

1.14 pm

I have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). It is important to start by saying that any delegation that asks to see a Minister normally receives a courteous reply and an answer to that request in the affirmative.

It is right to remind the House that the level of education spending in any local education authority, whether for recurrent or for capital expenditure, is not directly under the Government's control, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said. Local authorities decide their own priorities and direct their budgets accordingly. It is therefore the Cornwall local education authority, and ultimately the voters of Cornwall, to whom the hon. Member for Truro needs to direct most of his animus.

Recurrent funding accounts for teachers' salaries and other running costs for schools will be delegated to most schools under the local management of schools provision in the Education Reform Act 1988. I am delighted to hear that Cornwall is pressing ahead in implementing reforms under that Act. I am sure that many of the points made by the hon. Member for Truro on the funding of individual schools and the pressures placed on teachers, especially head teachers, will be alleviated by the introduction of the local management of schools provision. That has proved to be the case in pilot schemes. We are convinced that there will be more effective spending and that, therefore, available funds will go further and buy more.

The critical issue for Cornwall's funding, as for all other authorities, is the level of its education standard spending assessment. As I am sure the hon. Member for Truro knows, the SSA takes the place in the new finance system that was occupied by the grant-related expenditure assessment in the old system: it is the figure at which the Government consider that an appropriate and standard level of service could be provided by the authority. The total of all SSAs for all local authority services is the level at which the charging authority will be able to levy the community charge for standard spending—£278 before contribution to or receipt from the transitional safety net. The SSA takes account of the numbers of pupils, students, adults and children under five deemed to be in receipt of the authority's services. It also gives weight to the particular circumstances of each authority. In Cornwall's case, that is important because the SSA places more emphasis on the costs of providing education services in sparse areas than the GRE did. Cornwall has the fifth highest sparsity index in the country and is therefore a beneficiary of this change.

In 1990–91, Cornwall's education SSA will be 8 per cent. above its education GRE for 1989–90—a rise broadly in line with the change for most LEAs. However, the SSA will also be 16 per cent. above Cornwall's education budget for 1989–90, as reported on the form RER—the report that comes back to the Department of Education and Science from the local authority—and this means that the authority should find no difficulty in coping with the new finance system, at least through its recurrent education expenditure. This is a reflection—the hon. Member for Truro drew attention to this point—of the authority's past prudence and efficiency. I hope that the local authority, despite the view of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives on part of its expenditure, will continue to look carefully at how it budgets.

On the more general question of capital resources for schools, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State secured a substantial increase for local authority capital and for grants to voluntary-aided and grant-maintained schools in the current year's public expenditure round. Details for individual LEAs were announced yesterday, and I shall come to Cornwall's position in a moment. I should like first to make some general points on the Government's approach to work on school buildings.

The big increase in funds available will allow local education authorities and governing bodies to continue their programme of improvements to schools, including preparation for the national curriculum and following the guidelines of the 1981 regulations that are currently being looked at. We are making available for new improvement work alone a four-and-a-half-times increase in the equivalent sum made available last year. That amply demonstrates the importance we attach to capital spending on schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives is right in saying that if by any chance the sums of money put in by the local education authorities for capital spending had been allocated, they would have found considerable difficulty in managing to achieve spending on that level.

I understand the Minister's point. However, there is a degree of cynicism in the local education authorities since we have received approximately two thirds of what we asked for, and so has the average authority nationally. There is a suspicion that more attention has been paid to cutting the bid down by two thirds than to what is required by any individual authority.

I must quickly dispel that misapprehension. A careful study of the capital allocations throughout the country will reveal that it is by no means the case that local authorities have received two thirds of what they bid for. Would that it were so in my local authority's case.

I should not give the impression that everything necessary can be done at once, or that what we are making available will meet all the spending needs identified by all local education authorities. A great deal needs to be done to the fabric of schools all over the country to bring them up to scratch and to make them fit for the delivery of the high standards of education to which parents and teachers alike aspire, which our children deserve, and which we believe that our education reforms will achieve. Local education authorities have in recent years added to that substantially from receipts generated by sale of education assets—typically school sites sold as part of reorganization—by the use of revenue funds, and grant from the Department in the case of voluntary-aided schools. Of course, there is never enough to satisfy the full needs that people put forward.

It is important to remind the House that the numbers of pupils, and thus of schools, have been falling for the past 10 years. Capital spending per pupil has nevertheless increased by 10 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years. We recognise that more needs to be done, and it is against that background that we have announced the big increase in annual capital guidelines and grant to governors of voluntary-aided schools.

As in recent years, priority has been given first to meeting committed expenditure on projects outstanding from previous years. This year we have uprated these sums by a realistic figure to allow for inflation, which should go a long way to meet complaints from LEAs that inflation has been insufficiently allowed for. Priority is next given to meeting the cost of new school places in areas of population growth. There must be places in schools for all children who require them. Priority is then given to projects designed to remove surplus places. That is because more efficient use of buildings releases resources which can be recycled for the benefit of the rest of the education system in the local authority concerned. Funds are then allocated, by means of an objective formula, for school improvements, and it is in this area that we have been able to distribute a four-and-a-half-fold increase compared with last year.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again. She is aware that the amount needed to bring us up to the Government's target levels for 1991 is many times greater than that allocated to the county council and well below what it could usefully spend, whatever the arguments about the hid put in. We will not meet those targets. How does the Minister answer parents and teachers on that point?

Those guidelines were laid down in regulations in 1981. It is clearly recognised that in past years requirements to be met under those regulations have changed. It is in light of that that we are currently reviewing those regulations to see whether we can ease the requirements for local authorities.

As I understand it, the Minister is saying that because the money is not being made available to meet the targets they will reduce the targets.

That is not what I am saying. We are reviewing the needs as we perceive them now. They are generated by a different set of circumstances, principally the Education Reform Act 1988. We are considering the guidelines to see how schools, particularly small schools, can be accommodated within the terms of the 1981 guidelines.

We have talked about the overall total guideline for Cornwall, which is £6·522 million, of which the apportionment is £5·557 million for schools and £965,000 for further education. That represents some 35 per cent. of the authority's total bid and this proportion, I should emphasise, is exactly the national average for all LEAs in this exercise. But the settlement for Cornwall fits the national pattern not only in terms of arithmetical proportion, but in the more general sense that, while it does not meet all the authority's objectives—I am clear about that—it will allow for significant progress to continue in the improvement and adaptation of its schools and colleges.

I have already mentioned that the guidelines should not be seen as the sum total of what is available to authorities for capital expenditure on education; they are more a catalyst to which can be added other resources such as capital receipts, and other sums made available by virement from other resources at the disposal of county councils. I am glad to see, from an observation of the educational spending patterns of recent years, that Cornwall makes significant use of those flexibilities.

In the voluntary-aided sector, we have met in full the considerable bid for committed expenditure of over £1 million. The authority's bid for new works was entirely in respect of minor works, and here we have made available a sum of £90,000, which should enable the authority, at its discretion and, no doubt, in consultation with the dioceses concerned, to start a number of planned works at primary schools in the coming year. I hope that that news is welcomed by hon. Members. In further education, the authority received an allocation for its sole bid for a new major building project.

The other subject that the hon. Gentleman raised was teachers' morale. I am familiar with the contents of the letter that he has received from the National Association of Head Teachers and other organisations. We recognise the extremely hard work put in by teachers throughout the country. We welcome their devotion to their work and acknowledge a debt of gratitude to them especially as they have undertaken the introduction of the Education Reform Act 1988. The implementation of the national curriculum and other new provisions place a great demand on teachers.

We have been at pains to make it clear that teachers deserve both recognition and respect for their professionalism and commitment. Teaching is an attractive career. Some 25,000 people enter or re-enter the profession each year. Applications for primary initial teacher training are up by 15 per cent. The proportion of teachers leaving teaching for other paid employment is less than 1 per cent. each year.

Clearly, pay is important. Teachers' pay has risen by 40 per cent. overall since March 1986. This year we have given the interim advisory committee a remit to examine, in particular, the pay of head and deputy head teachers. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the total sum given to the interim advisory committee is twice that given last year. It is important to recognise that the Government have taken steps to make teachers' pay a high priority.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the new pay machinery. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had a constructive round of meetings with the teachers' unions and employers a short while ago. He is now considering the points made to him and he aims to put in place machinery for the 1991 settlement. He is pursuing the matter vigorously, but he does not underestimate the difficulties that remain. I hope that I have managed to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government take schools, education, capital and teachers seriously.

Housing (North Yorkshire)

1.29 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the problems of housing in North Yorkshire. It is a broad topic and could cover a multitude of subjects, but as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State knows—I am delighted to see him here to reply to the debate—I wish to raise the specific problems experienced by my mainly rural constituents of finding suitable accommodation to buy or rent locally.

The problem has been aired in the House before, particularly in the last Session during the passage of the Local Government and Housing Bill. Yet it merits further attention because it is the single most pressing social problem for my constituents and has a particular impact on rural communities.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be aware of the nature of the problems in North Yorkshire. They are nothing new. There have always been population movements into particular areas. Once it was into the cities, then into the suburbs and now it is back into the countryside. Such movements have always created pressure on housing stock and difficulties for those who were living in the areas concerned to begin with. The problem has always been with us and will probably always be with us.

What is new, however, is the intensity of pressure on housing in areas such as the one I represent. In the 1980s the demand for homes in the environmentally attractive area of North Yorkshire soared. Greater wealth and improved transport allowed many people to move into the area, some for retirement, some for a second home and some for work. In addition, many cottages were turned into holiday homes.

In February when I was canvassing in the Richmond by-election I saw how whole villages closed down for the winter, with a large proportion of the housing stock unoccupied for many months of the year. It is principally the natural attractiveness of the dales and moors which has spurred this great demand for housing. Ironically, that natural attractiveness makes it impossible adequately to expand the supply.

Planning controls, particularly in the national parks which cover half of my constituency, are tight and have been tightened. Many local people have the money to build a house and even the land to build it on, but not the planning permission to do so. I would not argue for any general relaxation of planning controls. It is in the interests of the whole nation that our most attractive natural areas are preserved for future generations, but it is important for the nation to acknowledge the price paid and the trouble taken by the local residents. They want to make a living and bring up a family, and they love their surroundings, but they often ruefully reflect that a beautiful view does not pay bills. The price to be paid threatens to be high.

Lancashire polytechnic recently highlighted the scale of the problem in my constituency in a comprehensive survey of all households in Wensleydale. The work was carried out on behalf of the Wensleydale housing forum, to which I pay tribute. The survey confirmed what we already knew. Many people are moving into the Dales. Indeed, in the past 10 years one in three households has moved in. At the same time, local young people cannot find anywhere to live. Forty per cent. of households are of pensionable age and fewer than 20 per cent. include anybody between 16 and 25. The consequences of such changes can be both great and serious.

The effects on schools and public transport are predictable, as is the strain on health care. There is also the sometimes forgotten impact on the environment. The natural environment that people find so pleasant and attractive depends on the maintenance of upland farming. If the next generation of farming families cannot find anywhere to live, the impact on the environment will be serious.

I do not criticise anyone for wanting to live in or move into the area. Many of those who move in become among the most active local citizens. I should like the strains which have arisen to be recognised. Some people in my constituency have said that 95 per cent. of the local population cannot afford the average price of a small house in the Dales. That may be an exaggeration, but I do not think that it is a wild exaggeration.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree with me when I say that it is a distressing experience for people who were born in the area, brought up there, and who feel that they belong there, as they have friends and family in the area, to find that they are unable to get any accommodation there.

Many married couples in my constituency have to live in caravans on the premises or in the gardens of relatives. In far-flung rural areas people are not able to go to live in the town down the road instead of in a village or in the countryside. There is no town down the road. People who work in rural areas in many parts of my constituency could not commute from nearby towns because the towns do not exist.

One may say that there have always been problems, but when a whole generation faces the same difficulty throughout the country, the problem merits considerable attention. Some people may say, "So what? Populations shift, communities come and go. Industrial and urban communities have experienced great and traumatic changes in the past, so why do any special favours for rural areas?" My answer is that no one wants any special favours. My constituents are the last people to expect the Government to bail them out on any occasion.

Given the tight constraints imposed on the supply of local housing, people are entitled to seek ways to redress the balance in their favour. It is ridiculous to say that we have a free market in housing when the supply is so restricted. My constituents are entitled to ask whether we can interfere in the market to help rather than to hinder local people who understandably desire to live in their home area.

There are powerful moral, environmental and social reasons for active Government assistance to help to alleviate the problems. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister, does not need persuading that there are such reasons but it is worth placing them on record in the House.

It is all the more important for the Government to tackle the problem successfully because if they do not the Opposition will come up with silly, unworkable plans such as their scheme to require planning permission for the ownership of second homes. I warn the Opposition that with that scheme they risk enmeshing themselves in a bureaucratic tangle that has considerable implications for basic civil liberties. The Government bear a heavy responsibility to get things right so that the Opposition do not get the opportunity to wreak havoc.

To be fair, my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment in the past year have shown a refreshing awareness of the scale and the urgency of the problem. The noises that have emerged from the Government on rural housing have been positive I congratulate the Minister on the announcement last February about village sites for low-cost housing, on the great increase in funding for housing associations, on the constructive nature of the recently issued planning guidelines, and because they have generally recognised the existence of the problem. However, I think that the Minister will accept that the initiatives taken so far will take time to bear fruit, and the results may be limited in relation to the scale of the problem.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning yesterday gave a written answer on Housing Corporation funding and activity which was impressive. The Government are providing the means for a huge increase in the activities of housing associations. However, when the money has been shared out by region, county and district, the effects on the ground over the next few years could be small. I have been told by Hambleton district council, one of two districts in my constituency, that one £4 million scheme for 28 dwellings would take up its total share of housing association funding for two years.

Will my hon. Friend impress upon his colleagues at the Department of the Environment and at the Treasury that there is a need for continued increases in Housing Corporation funding as a high priority? He should consider carefully whether rural areas receive as much funding as the seriousness of their problems warrants.

The work of the housing associations is welcome, but inevitably, local authorities are still in the front line of dealing with the rural housing shortage. As planning authorities they unfortunately bear the brunt of local dissatisfaction with planning constraints. Responsible local authorities, such as those in my constituency, and throughout the rural areas of North Yorkshire, feel harshly constrained when they try to help to tackle the problems that I have described.

I am aware that, when I raise the subject of local authorities' role in housing provision, I am entering a political minefield. Their creation of great municipal estates was a disaster for Britain and must never happen again, but local authorities in North Yorkshire have a much more distinguished record on housing provision, to say nothing of many other things, and it seems to me that there are three ways in which they can help to tackle the local housing problem. In all of them, there is scope for the Government to be helpful to local authorities without unleashing a spending spree by the less responsible of them.

First, local authorities can seek restrictive agreements on the sale of properties to put people who already live locally at an advantage in the housing market. The Yorkshire Dales national park is making a major effort, which I warmly applaud, to place as many newly constructed properties as possible under section 52 agreements, which restrict subsequent sales. I know that the Government have encouraged the use of such agreements in certain circumstances and places. Such a policy must be applied sensitively, and sometimes flexibly, but it is a genuine and constructive attempt to help.

There is much confusion and concern about whether such agreements can be made to stick in planning appeals or in subsequent tests in the courts. Clearer guidance from the Government on this matter would be welcome, although I recognise that it is a complex topic and my hon. Friend the Minister might not be able to give a full and definitive answer today.

Secondly, there is potential for local authorities to provide land or low-cost developments by housing associations or other bodies. At the moment, local authorities are sometimes boxed in by restrictions and penalties if they try to help in that way, and some housing associations are worried that local authority assistance with many possible low-cost developments will never happen. I know that the Government have recently tried to help in this respect and that there is always a danger when local authorities are given financial freedom that that freedom will be abused by a minority of them. I should welcome clarification of the Government's stance and any additional leeway that can be given to local authorities with suitable land or available funding that could be used for rural development.

Thirdly, local authorities still have a limited role in providing housing directly. Forthcoming restrictions on the use of capital receipts are likely to reduce the scope of their activity. If so, that will not help the rural housing situation. Local authorities in my area have never been extravagant. They have never incurred huge debts, but their ability to use money to help the local community with its most pressing problem may be curtailed.

I know that this is another difficult area for Ministers, mainly because some local authorities have behaved very differently from those in my constituency, but can the Government study how changes in local authority regulations will affect rural housing, and will they try to find ways in which to replace the much-needed funding that may be lost? There may be other ways in which to assist with rural housing through changes in the planning process. I wonder whether the planning system could be reformed to encourage the private sector to think ahead about the provision of low-cost, local-need housing. Within the framework of a county structure plan, district councils could put forward bids looking, say, five years ahead, specifying how many of the planning permissions they grant should be reserved for local need or be part of low-cost schemes. Such provision would then be built more into the expectations of developers and the plans of housing associations.

There may be other ways in which to assist. It may be possible for the Government to give local authorities more advice about opportunities already available to them so that they take advantage of initiatives that the Government have already provided, which they may not do at the moment. Whichever of these suggestions turn out to be practical, I think that my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise that there is a strong feeling in North Yorkshire and many other rural areas that more must be done and that pressure must be maintained on this subject.

This is a most pressing social and economic problem, although none of us is so naive to think that it will ever be solved to universal satisfaction. We can no more stop the high demand for homes in the most attractive parts of the country than we can stop the tide coming in. However, we can help those people who wish only for relatively modest accommodation in their own home areas and who want to see suitable sites and local money put to the best use in providing that accommodation. No one is asking for special favours. I ask only that people are given a fair chance instead of facing a planning system and housing market that are stacked permanently against them.

1.45 pm

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

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for choosing to use this short debate to raise an important subject. As he does so often, he spoke eloquently and persuasively today. Like my hon. Friend, the Government are concerned to maintain the viability of rural communities and we recognise that ensuring that there is affordable housing for local people to rent or buy has a key part to play in that.

Unlike some Opposition Members, we believe that people must be free to choose where they live. That means that we have no intention of forbidding long-distance commuters and second-home owners moving into rural areas. We recognise that it is important for the health of rural communities that they do not become merely dormitory villages for commuters or twilight homes for the elderly. It is crucial that affordable housing is available for those who live and work in rural areas, including people with limited incomes.

We are, indeed, the first Government to recognise the distinctly rural angle to public housing policy. In July 1988, we announced our rural housing initiative which for the first time set out a specific policy on low-cost housing in smaller villages. Since then we have been steadily putting in place a package of measures designed to tackle the problem.

We are increasing the level of investment in rural areas through housing associations, which have a major role to play in providing affordable housing both for rent and for low-cost sale, in particular shared ownership. We have significantly increased the public funding of the National Agricultural Centre Rural Trust to support its work in providing start-up funds for rurally based housing associations. We have greatly increased the public funds available to the Housing Corporation, so enabling it to establish a special rural programme aimed at villages with a population of under 1,000. The Housing Corporation has recently brought forward increased targets under this programme which should be providing 1,500 homes a year for rent in small villages by 1992–93. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the enormous additional assistance that we are giving to housing associations in our programme over the coming years.

Most people in rural as in urban areas, including those on modest incomes, want to buy rather than rent a home. We are anxious to stimulate provision for low-cost home ownership, and have taken a series of measures to stimulate this under both housing and planning powers. Particularly important is the encouragement of shared ownership schemes, which enable people to part-rent part-buy, thus reducing the initial cost of purchase and thereby lowering the barriers of entry to owner-occupation. Most are offered by housing associations, some with public subsidy, others without, but there is no reason why commercial developers should not run similar schemes, and we are beginning to see signs of interest in that.

As my hon. Friend reminded the House, there was considerable debate during the passage of last Session's Local Government and Housing Bill about whether shared owners should be prohibited from "staircasing" to full ownership. I hope that we have now settled that debate. We entirely agree that shared ownership housing should be retained for local people in rural areas, but not by denying people the opportunity to become full owners of their homes. We are introducing a scheme whereby housing associations in certain rural areas will have a pre-emption right to repurchase former shared-ownership dwellings when the occupier moves on, thus ensuring their retention as low-cost housing. The Housing Corporation will guarantee to make the necessary funds available without reducing its rural rented or shared ownership programmes.

The corporation has also been invited to identify separately for the first time a rural element within its low-cost home ownership programme, to allow 250 approvals next year rising to 350 by 1992–93, a trebling of the present level. Of course, the figures are still small, but in a small village even one or two houses can make a substantial difference. We shall keep progress under close review in consultation with the Housing Corporation.

We have been encouraging local authorities to see their housing role as more of an enabling one, working with housing associations and the private sector to increase the supply of low-cost housing rather than developing new housing for rent or sale themselves. They can sponsor housing association schemes from their own resources to top up Housing Corporation provision, and if they choose, they can pay subsidies to private landlords. Next year's local authority housing investment programme allocations were announced earlier today. The average allocation is twice that for 1989–90 because of the better targeting that our new system permits. That is possible only because we still maintain some control over the amount of capital receipts that local authorities are able to spend. If we did not have that control, we would not be able to target our resources in the way that we intend next year. I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that Richmond has been allocated 230 per cent. of its 1989–90 figure, and Hambleton has been allocated 203 per cent. They have done very well out of today's housing investment programme allocations.

We recognise that there is still a role for direct local authority provision, but we hope that authorities will operate through housing associations where possible. If a local authority gives land to a housing association for low-cost housing development, without retaining nomination rights, there would not normally be any consideration and, therefore, no requirement to set money aside to redeem debt. If it retains nomination rights, there is a non-monetary consideration; but my noble Friend the Paymaster General announced in another place on 24 October that we would provide in subordinate legislation that, in those cases, no debt redemption would be required. So, effectively, there is no deterrent to authorities making land available freely or cheaply for low-cost housing.

There is also no reason why low-cost rural housing should not be provided by private developers, whether alone or in conjunction with housing associations or local authorities, and whether for rent, shared ownership or direct sale, and we are starting to see signs of that happening.

We are taking steps to encourage landowners and developers to help in providing affordable housing for local people. As my hon. Friend said, in February 1989 we announced changes to planning rules, whereby local planning authorities may exceptionally release small pockets of land, not previously designated for housing, for low-cost schemes. The key point is that if the land does not have development value, because planning permission for general purpose housing would be refused, the houses can be let or sold at well below the market price, subject to conditions that ensure that they remain available to local people.

We would expect to see appropriate covenants between the landowner and the developer to ensure that the additional housing remains available for local needs, normally backed up by an agreement with the planning authority under section 52. It is very important that those guarantees are carefully worked out, but I do not share my hon. Friend's doubts about whether they are workable. Many authorities are already working with them very satisfactorily.

My hon. Friend mentioned that there are some local doubts about the legal basis on which low-cost housing would be reserved for local needs. From a planning point of view, it is important that authorities set out clear policies for low-cost housing in their local plans to provide a framework for individual decisions. My hon. Friend referred to a programme for the next five years. Such a programme can be contained within a local development plan produced by the local authority. That would help to reduce any risk of challenge on appeal. I shall give one example, although it is not in my hon. Friend's constituency, but it is nearby. The North Yorkshire authority, Ryedale, has already adopted such a policy on an interim basis, pending revision of its statutory local plan. The policy is very much along the lines that we want to see, and I hope that other authorities will follow their lead. We published guidance on local needs policies in our recent draft planning policy guidance note on housing, and we shall be issuing the final version of that guidance early in the new year.

If there are uncertainties about the legal mechanisms, I suggest that authorities contact the National Agricultural Centre Rural Trust. It has been instrumental in promoting village housing schemes; it has produced an admirable guide to village housing; and it can point to cases where legal arrangements have been made to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned. I hope that, if my hon. Friend's local council has not contacted that organisation, our debate today will encourage it to do so.

The trust sees signs of widespread interest among private landowners in making small sites available for low-cost housing. A growing number of schemes are already under way. For instance, in Gloucestershire, an area of very high prices—probably even higher than in my hon. Friend's constituency and with equally strong pressures from outsiders—the Gloucestershire housing society has two shared ownership schemes under way on low-cost sites made available by private landowners, and several more in prospect. That illustrates what can be achieved by using the opportunities that the recent policy initiative has made available.

In giving new priority to low-cost rural housing, we are not in any way abandoning our concern to protect the rural environment. We are not abandoning our planning policies or our concern for countryside protection. But it is important to remember that not many new houses are needed in a village—just enough to ensure that children brought up in the village can set up house there if they want to. Many villages have small sites that could be used for two or three houses without any damage to the environment. Most rural district councils are concerned to protect the beauties of their landscape, and I am sure that they will go on being scrupulous about inappropriate development. But that does not mean that there should be no development whatever. It is especially important in rural areas that developers should pay close attention to the environmental aspects of what they plan to build.

The Government have thus responded to the growing concern about the lack of affordable housing in rural areas. Inevitably, our initiatives will take some time to have their full effect, but we have put in place the mechanism to deal with the problem, and that, coupled with increased public and private funding, should provide a significant boost to the output of low-cost housing.

Of course, it can always be argued that more needs to be done, but in the two years since we introduced the rural dimension to housing policy, we have made real progress, and I am encouraged by the reports that I am receiving of innovative housing schemes in a variety of rural areas. Needless to say, we shall be watching developments closely and considering whether further steps are necessary. If more resources are called for, we shall do our best to provide them, although we have to balance rural against urban needs. We are also working on research proposals to assess the effectiveness of our initiatives.

We have recognised a problem which previously went unacknowledged. We have put in place a policy for dealing with it and we have made significant additional resources available to back up that policy. There may be further to go, but I hope that my hon. Friend and the House acknowledge how far we have already come.

Our approach is a positive approach to get more houses built for those in rural areas who need them without imposing restrictions on other people's freedom to own what property they choose. We have spelt out clear and coherent policies that work within the framework of a planning system that protects the countryside without imposing planning controls where they are not justified. As usual, the Labour party is running to try to catch up with us.


1.57 pm

Let me begin, Madam Deputy Speaker, by wishing you and everyone else a happy Christmas and a merry new year. In a few hours' time, this place will be closed. The heat of battle will be over and tranquility will have returned to our land. Before that happens, I should like to give the Law Officers a chance to lift the veils that shroud our system of judicial appointments—veils which make that system a complete mystery to the public. I should also like to give the Law Officers a chance to explain why the system is sexist and racist as well as being based on snobbery and class.

As a barrister, I know only too well that the secrecy that surrounds the appointment of judges is almost masonic. Judges are drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of barristers, and most of them are appointed by the Lord Chancellor, in consultation with other judges. The result of that system is that judges recruit other judges to the Bench in their own image—their own sex, colour, class and prejudices. This system produces an elite—a self-perpetuating oligarchy. It creates a judiciary which in my view is composed of the least forward-looking, least radical and most hidebound body of our citizenry.

Justice at the highest levels has become the preserve of cloistered, geriatric, white men. Is it any wonder that we have judges asking in court, "Who is Mick Jagger?" Is it any wonder that judges have to ask barristers to explain what "bonking" means? If I said to the Law Officers, "Bonking is good for you", they would know what I meant and would not need an interpreter or a barrister to demonstrate it for them.

More seriously, the character of these cloistered, geriatric, white men can explain some of the tragic mistakes that the Court of Appeal made in the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Perhaps the character of these geriatric, cloistered, white men can also help to explain the reaction of judges to the Lord Chancellor's proposals to get rid of the restrictive practices of barristers and solicitors.

That brings me to the question of how the Lord Chief Justice is appointed. Can the Minister describe the system under which the current Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Lane, will be replaced when he resigns? Which Ministers will be consulted? Presumably the Lord Chancellor will consult the Prime Minister, but what about the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General? Which senior judges will be consulted? The Law Officers may say that this is all hypothetical and that they do not know that the Lord Chief Justice will resign, but they should remember that the Lord Chief Justice described the proposals to get rid of the restrictive practices of barristers and solicitors, which were brought forward by the Lord Chancellor, as "sinister". He said two days ago in the House of Lords:
"the interests of justice have gone."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 December 1989; Vol. 514, c. 146.]
It is inconceivable that the Lord Chief Justice could preside over a system that he believes to be sinister and could continue to preside over a system from which he believes that the interests of justice have gone. It is not tenable that the Lord Chief Justice should be engaged in a running battle with the Lord Chancellor. Although I am sure that the Lord Chief Justice would prefer that the reforms were withdrawn and that the Lord Chancellor resigned, that will not happen. Many of us at the Bar believe that the Lord Chief Justice is honour bound to resign and we want to know the system by which he will be replaced.

There is racism and sexism in the system of the appointment of judges. We know that over 50 per cent. of the population of this country is composed of women, yet out of 10 Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, there are no women. Out of 27 Lord Justices of Appeal, only one is female. Out of 81 High Court judges, only one is female. Out of 422 circuit judges, only 17 are female, which is 4 per cent. Out of 703 recorders, only 25 are female, which is 3·6 per cent. I should have thought that by any standards that was a disgraceful state of affairs and that it shows that women are shunned, scorned and rejected in recruitment by myopic male judges.

I am convinced that it is no use for the Attorney-General to say, as he has in a parliamentary answer, that we must simply encourage more women to come to the Bar and to put themselves forward as judges. The system must discriminate positively in favour of women as judges. We also need positive discrimination by chambers to ensure that the number of women practising at the Bar increases and thus that more women can come forward as potential judges. How many chambers have a quota for women barristers? In the medical profession, over 50 per cent. of those putting themselves forward to become doctors are women, but I am certain that nothing like 50 per cent. of those coming to the Bar are women. What are chambers, the Bar Council, judges and the Lord Chancellor doing to ensure that more women come forward?

How many chambers where groups of barristers meet have a creche? How many chambers or groups of chambers have a workplace nursery to help women barristers? How many courts have a creche or workplace nursery to help women barristers and solicitors? Is it any wonder that both the Bar and judges exude sexism? Ironically, sometimes this works in favour of women. Judges tend to see the women before them not as intelligent, rational beings but, bringing with them the prejudices of a thousand years of male chauvinism, as pretty little things, full of feelings and sentiment, but lacking in logic and reason. One strange result of that is that women in the criminal courts may get lower sentences than men who have committed the same crimes.

In the civil courts, we have judges such as Mr. Justice Bernard Caulfield fantasising over women. He described one witness as fragrant, radiant and elegant. I shall not be a chauvinist and comment on whether Mrs. Mary Archer is radiant and elegant. However, some women have asked me how the hell the judge knew that she was fragrant. What scent was this woman using that was so powerful that she could deceive this besotted judge? "I say, it is Chanel No. 5, old man." "Sorry, mind, it is Poison by Dior." That is a strange way to approach women in the witness box, and it is strange to use such phrases in summing up.

What about black people? The last census showed, the proportion of black people in the population as 3 per cent. but I should not be surprised if, when the 1990 census comes out, the proportion is more like 5 per cent. Out of 10 Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, none is black. Out of 27 Lord Justices of Appeal, none is black. Out of 81 High Court judges, none is black. Out of 422 circuit judges, only one is black—one fifth of 1 per cent. of the total. Out of 703 recorders, only five are black—0·7 per cent. of the total. That does not mean that judges are racist, but it reflects the institutionalised racism of the judiciary. It suggests a shocking lack of concern on the part of judges about the future of black people.

How can black people trust the system of justice when all they ever see before them are these cloistered, geriatric white men?

Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman a great deal of leeway, but I hope that he will not reflect in that manner on the judiciary. As he well knows, to do such a thing, he would need to table a substantive motion.

I am not criticising them. "Cloistered" means that they come from a narrow social background. That is a matter of fact, because they basically come from public schools and universities. "Geriatric" was a phrase used by Lord Scarman. He gave me the idea to raise this debate. I heard him on the radio talking about the response of black people to our legal system and he explained that there were not enough black policemen and was asked, "What about the number of black judges?" He became so embarrassed that I started to table questions and find out what went on. "Geriatric"—at the highest level, although not at the level of the recorders or circuit judges—is a description of the age group of these people. "White" is a description of their colour. No criticism is intended. It is a plain, straightforward statement of fact.

How can black people feel confidence in the system? What will the Law Officers and the Lord Chancellor do about it? Again, positive discrimination is one of the answers, but I have one or two new proposals. We need a fundamental review of how judges are trained and appointed. We need a review that will open out access to the judiciary and get rid of the virtual monopoly of the Bar.

It is clear to me that being an advocate is not the same thing as being a judge. Yet nearly all the judges are appointed from advocates, from members of the Bar and mainly from people who have become Queen's counsel at the Bar, but they do not have the same function.

Of course it is clear that judges need to know how the courts work. They need to know what counsel for the prosecution and for the defence, for the plaintiff and for the respondent, get up to. But it does not follow that a judge must have been a barrister, and that is not the case in some countries.

All solicitors should be eligible for appointment as judges. Academic lawyers should be eligible for appointment as judges, as should other people who have had distinguished careers in entirely different areas. The Lord Chancellor should look to headhunting when he wants to appoint judges, and that may involve something which is distasteful to the Bar, although perhaps not so distasteful to the Lord Chancellor who is more radical than some of his predecessors. I have great sympathy for the Lord Chancellor and the battle that he is having with the judges in his attempt to reform the legal system. If I can catch Mr. Speaker's eye on another occasion, I shall be saying words in his favour on that matter. Such an approach may involve not only headhunting but advertising.

That is a wide issue which we do not have time to go into in this debate. The fusion of solicitors and barristers would help to widen the arena from which judges could be drawn. Fusion is a contentious issue. There are arguments for and against, and it is not solely concerned with the appointment of judges but with the whole system of justice. But for other reasons as well, fusion would widen the area from which judges could be drawn.

We should set up a judicial commission along the lines of the Civil Service Commission to look at the recruiting and training of judges. That judicial commission should contain not only some judges—I accept that there would have to be some judges—but distinguished lay people who have been successful in other spheres of life. That commission should look at the issue and make recommendations that would widen the character and nature of those who make up the Bench.

Justice is a precious thing and it should not only be for all the people, it should be seen to be for all the people. Therefore, I hope that the Solicitor-General will come forward with some new and constructive ideas so that we can go into the 1990s improving our system of justice.

2.7 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) on initiating the debate. He masquerades most convincingly before you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a respectable, suited, balding white man, as I do myself.

The debate provides an opportunity to explain briefly the way in which judges are appointed. It also provides an opportunity to dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings that prevail when the subject is discussed.

It will surely be common ground that it is essential to the fair and proper working of Britain's system of justice that those appointed to the judiciary should be of the highest quality, in terms of intellect, character and experience, and of the highest integrity.

It should come as no surprise that successive Lord Chancellors have testified that they regard the appointment of judges as among their most important duties. The number and range of the modern judiciary make that task more difficult than it has ever been. I will briefly outline its extent.

First, the Lord Chancellor is responsible for advising the Prime Minister on the appointment of the most senior judges of all, the Lords of Appeal, the heads of the four divisions of the High Court and the Lords Justices of Appeal. He is also responsible for making recommendations on the appointment of High Court judges, circuit judges and Queen's counsel. Those appointments are all Crown appointments and the Lord Chancellor's function is to provide advice to the Prime Minister who, in turn, advises the Queen.

The Lord Chancellor is also responsible for appointing judicial officers, such as masters of the Supreme Court and registrars of the High Court and county court, stipendiary magistrates and many tribunal chairmen. He is also responsible for appointing, or advising on the appointment of, a wide range of part-time judges and judicial officers, including recorders and assistant recorders with similar jurisdiction to the full-time office holders whom I have already mentioned. Finally, he is responsible for appointing all the lay magistrates in England and Wales, except in the Duchy of Lancaster. They number over 28,000. As the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch accepts, there is a very high, and growing, proportion of magistrates from the ethnic minorities, for the reason that the pool from which they can be appointed is already much wider and more easily available.

To assist the Lord Chancellor in making the main judicial appointments, he looks for the great bulk of his advice to the senior judiciary: to the judges and leaders of the legal profession. To help him in the task of gathering and recording their views, interviewing actual and potential candidates for many of the appointments and summarising and correlating the large amount of information gained, the Lord Chancellor has appointed a small team of officials within his Department, but he personally takes all the important decisions—in particular, on every full-time appointment and all the senior part-time appointments.

Eligibility for judicial appointment is regulated in the first instance by statute. At present, a Lord Justice or above is required to be a barrister of at least 15 years' standing, a High Court judge to be a barrister of 10 years' standing and a circuit judge to be a barrister or solicitor of 10 years' standing, provided, if he or she be a solicitor, that they have served as a recorder for at least three years. There is no statutory requirement for Queen's counsel. These eligibility requirements will be changed if the proposals in the Courts and Legal Services Bill become law in due course. The main change, in terms of judicial appointments, is that solicitors with appropriate advocacy qualifications will be eligible for appointment to the High Court and above.

Progression to the most senior ranks in the judiciary depends primarily on experience and performance in previous appointments. In modern times, the Law Lords have been drawn almost exclusively from the Court of Appeal, and Lords Justices almost exclusively from the High Court. High Court judges are appointed from those members of the senior Bar who are recognised as being at the head of the profession, augmented by some promotions from the circuit bench. The circuit judges are chosen on application from the relatively small number of recorders of sufficient seniority and standing who are recognised as suitable for full-time appointments at this level. At any one time, therefore, although the overall numbers in the profession—6,000 barristers and nearly 50,000 solicitors—may seem large, the pool of real candidates for a particular appointment never looks very extensive.

The fundamental principle applied by successive Lord Chancellors is to appoint to each judicial post the candidate who appears to him to be the best qualified to fit it and to perform its duties, without regard to sex, religion, ethnic origin or any perceived political opinion. Professional ability, experience, standing, character and integrity are the criteria, coupled with the requirement that the candidate must be physically capable of carrying out the often quite tiring duties of the post.

The hon. Member asked whether the Lord Chancellor has appointed sufficient women judges, or sufficient judges from the ethnic minorities. He has argued that the judges are drawn from a narrow class and that they are insufficiently representative of the population as a whole. The Lord Chancellor would certainly not reject out of hand the notion that in a diverse society those with the responsibility of appointing or recommending appointment to positions of influence and responsibility should be astute, where they can, to make appointments that command the confidence of, and thus where appropriate reflect, the composition of society as a whole. He would therefore readily accept the desirability, where suitable candidates presented themselves, of seeking to make more such appointments, but I do not understand the hon. Gentleman to be arguing—even if he were, I should not be able to agree with him—that this should be the primary criterion.

The prime consideration at every level must be that the judiciary should be appointed from among those best qualified to do the job in question—to carry out judicial tasks. For this, the first requirement, supplemented and combined, of course, with the necessary qualities of character, standing and integrity, must be tried and tested knowledge and experience of the law and practice of our judicial system.

Most of our courts, unlike those on the continent, operate by means of the adversarial system. The judges must, therefore, have the qualities of a skilled umpire between contesting parties, but he or she must have more than that: the judge must have both the detailed knowledge of the law and the necessary analytical faculties to identify and isolate, whether for himself or for a jury, the essential features of a case. He or she must have a knowledge of the rules of evidence and understanding of proper practice, the facility of courteous explanation and the power of judgment—qualities which can normally be gained only by long and dedicated experience as an advocate in the courts. These qualities are not called for as mere artificial barriers or disguised exclusions based on prejudice. They are genuine requirements. In a criminal case, to allow one inadmissible question can abort a trial.

The prime requirement for our judges, therefore, is the ability to manage trials skilfully, to preside effectively without intervening too much and to produce sensible, just and legally valid decisions. To do this requires long years of experience in successful practice as an advocate—normally at least 10 years is appropriate and, for the more senior and taxing appointments, even longer is desirable. Without such a background, the judge will simply not have the experience to do the job properly and he or she will not command the respect and confidence either of the advocates or of the litigants who appear before him or her.

This need for essential experience has a number of important implications for judicial appointments. It means primarily that the composition of the Bench at any one time is to a great extent dependent on the composition of the legal profession in the age groups from which appointments can reasonably be drawn. I cannot help observing that if the ethnic minorities have increased from 3 to 5 per cent. in the 10 years since the previous census, that increase of 2 per cent. must be composed to a considerable extent of people under the age of 10—a little early, I think, for judicial appointment!

That is the principal reason why, at the moment, more women or more members of the ethnic minorities have not already been appointed to the Bench. The Lord Chancellor has stressed time and again, and I am happy to repeat it today, that he is personally anxious to see more women and more members of ethnic minorities appointed to the Bench. But he cannot properly appoint to positions of such responsibility people who do not have the necessary qualities to do the job; and it is a simple fact that, at present, there are not enough women or ethnic minority candidates in the legal profession in the appropriate age groups and with the right experience for him to be able to make many such appointments. Nothing would be worse for the reputation of the judiciary—nor would it be fair either to women advocates or to advocates from the ethnic minorities—than for the Lord Chancellor to lower the standards for appointment to the judiciary simply to ensure a different racial or sexual mix. The Bench in 10 or 20 years' time is likely to look very different in terms of racial and sexual composition from the way it looks today.

I revert therefore to the way in which the Lord Chancellor makes his decisions. His aim is to do so on the basis of the widest and fullest possible consultation with the senior judiciary and leaders of the Bar. The purpose is to obtain the verdict of the professional community on each candidate, in so far as there is one. The main method of consultation is by organised rounds of regular consultations with all Supreme Court judges and Law Lords and by annual meetings with a broad cross-section of the circuit bench, including all the resident and designated judges, and with the leaders of the circuits and the Bar as a whole. Particular efforts are now made to seek out views on solicitor candidates for appointment. That can sometimes be difficult, as they may not be seen so frequently in court, but the Lord Chancellor makes appropriate allowances for that when reaching his decisions. It is perhaps worth stressing what, again, the Lord Chancellor has said on many occasions: he is anxious to encourage more solicitors to put themselves forward for judicial appointment when they have reached the appropriate age and standing.

The breadth of the Lord Chancellor's consultations enables him to apply another important principle in the modern system. As far as possible, he avoids making final decisions about a candidate on the basis of the advice of any one person, however senior. That is a safeguard against both favouritism and personal prejudice.

As a result of those continuing consultations, the Lord Chancellor's Department holds a large and growing body of information and opinions about several thousand lawyers and judges. In so far as the material consists of facts about them, they are treated as entitled to be told what it consists of and, if necessary, to correct it. If the material consists of expressions of opinions—as much of it does—about a candidate's work and his suitability for appointment, it is treated as confidential.

In addition to the regular and extensive process of consultation, the Lord Chancellor regards certain senior judges as having a special voice as his advisers on certain appointments. In particular, the Lord Chief Justice and the other heads of division have that position in relation to appointments to the High Court, and the presiding judges of each circuit have it in relation to the appointment of recorders and circuit judges. However, in the end, the responsibility for all those appointments is the Lord Chancellor's alone, and he alone makes the decisions on whom to recommend for each of them.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested—it is by no means a new suggestion—that some sort of commission should be appointed to replace the Lord Chancellor's role in advising on judicial appointments. But how will a commission be in a better position to appoint women or members of the ethnic minorities to the judiciary? At the end of the day, a judicial appointments commission will be working with the same raw material in terms of candidates for appointment that the Lord Chancellor is now and, unless the hon. Gentleman is seriously arguing that judges should not be appointed on merit but on the basis of some artificial quota, a judicial appointments commission will not be able to make any significant difference to the number of such candidates who can be appointed.

The position is, however, improving, or perhaps one should say developing, as the House would hope, as both women and ethnic minority members become more established and senior in the profession. Over the past 10 years, the proportion of women called to the Bar has risen from 24 per cent. in 1977–78 to 37 per cent. in 1987–88. Among solicitors, the proportion of women admitted has likewise risen over the same period from 26 per cent. to 45 per cent. and it may already this year have reached 50 per cent. There are no comparable statistics for the ethnic minorities, although the numbers are increasing. In the past two years, the Lord Chancellor has recommended the appointment of two black silks in each year. As their seniority progresses, we can look forward to women practitioners and practitioners from the ethnic minorities playing an increasing and valuable role in the ranks of the judiciary.

Ambulance Dispute (Protest)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At the beginning of each Session we pass an order to protect people's rights of access to the House. I seek your assurance that that will be guaranteed for those who are outside now. There is currently a protest in Parliament square by ambulance personnel. The protest is on the move, but it has not interrupted the traffic and it is not meeting any public opposition. I want an assurance that they will be allowed to continue, provided that they keep moving, that they will not be moved away and that the police will not over-react. While the House is still sitting it is important that we have a clear ruling that they are within the law and can make a peaceful protest. It must be stated that, provided that they are not stationary and do not block the traffic, they are within their rights to carry on that protest for as long as they reasonably wish to do so.

The hon. Member is a man of honour so, of course, I accept what he says. I am not there to see the demonstration. I shall have the matter looked into. I am sure that what the hon. Member says is correct.

Planning Applications

2.30 pm

At this time of Christmas, it would be churlish of me to introduce a note of discord into the House. However, it is right to ask what is the point of passing laws in the House or in the other place if the House is unable to enforce them. I refer in particular to the planning legislation. It illustrates my point well. We pass more and more laws here and find it increasingly difficult to have them enforced.

Much of our time in the House is spent debating in detail, for many hours, points of law that we believe will be enforced in the highest courts of the land once we have passed them. I am afraid that I must tell the House that that is not the case with our planning legislation.

What could be a more sensitive issue in this small island than the ability to control land use? That has been recognised by successive Acts of Parliament and town and country planning legislation. It is true that there are armouries of controls. We have statistics and population forecasts. We have structure plans and local plans. We have Government planning inspectors, applications guidelines and procedures. We have planning committees throughout the length and breadth of the country. Planners form an enormous profession. There are planning advisers—usually local government planners who have retired. There are degrees in planning laws. There is a huge industry to control and manage planning.

I wish to speak about what happens if one cocks a snook, to coin a phrase, at the planning system. If one decides to go ahead regardless of all the planning regulations, laws and procedures, what will happen? My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) would have been here if he had not had to chair a meeting on urban problems. His interest in planning and environment is well known. When asked what would happen if one defied the planning system in his constituency, he said that very little would happen and there was not even a planning enforcement officer in Acton. He wondered why some developer with a little speculation had not built a skyscraper in his constituency. He doubted very much that anyone would have stopped him because there is no one to enforce the law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) would also have been here but for the pressure of business in his constituency. He echoes the same complaint—that enforcement in his constituency is not effective. I am sure that the Minister recognises that the law is not working. Members of the public do not seek planning permission but go ahead and find little opposition.

In my constituency in south Devon, in the area of South Hams, houses and extensions have been built without planning permission. Barns have been converted and factories and shops built but not in accordance with the detailed plans and regulations. Recreation and leisure facilities have been built, seemingly without anyone knowing that planning permission had not been obtained. Raw sewage has been discharged into our beautiful rivers without planning consent.

I am sure that the nation is under the mistaken illusion that when such things happen the whole planning contraption springs into action and the local authority, poised like a greyhound, chases out those who defy the law. That is not the case. As my hon. Friend the Minister would expect of me, I have gone into great detail on what happens at the rock face when planning laws are defied.

South Hams council has a department specifically geared to deal with people who defy the law. That does it great credit. It has all the machinery ready to pounce. But does the House realise exactly what takes place? I have a letter from David Incoll, solicitor to the council, who says:
"It is a legal requirement that"
to stop somebody doing something which he should not do and for which he needs planning permission
"an Enforcement Notice is served upon everyone with a legal interest in the property or land."
That means not only the owner of the land, but everyone with an interest, however remote, in that land. The enforcement notice must be served on all those with any legal interest.

The first action of the South Hams district council or any other council which has enforcement officers and a legal department is to serve a requisition for information notice on people with a legal interest in the land. The problem is that the council faces great problems in having that notice for information served. It must be served by recorded delivery and its service can be avoided, as Mr. Incoll says,
"by not accepting or collecting the letter."
Therefore, the initial inquiry can be prevented by the person who is addressed refusing to accept the letter which is only a request for information about who has an interest in the land.

As the Minister will know, many councils, including South Hams, have dramatically cut back staff and expenditure to keep to the Government's guidelines on local government expenditure. South Hams planners have kept as far as possible a powerful department, but many local authorities do not have one. Even before an enforcement notice is delivered or sent, the council must send out staff to find out who has an interest in the land.

After 21 days and no reply to the request for information, council staff go out and find out who has an interest in the land. The enforcement notice must then be served on everyone with an interest in the land, not just the owner. It may take many months to serve the enforcement order and, what is worse, many months for it to be enforced. Even then the presumed owner may deny any interest, thus necessitating further inquiries.

Mr. Incoll gives as an example a current case in which he received instructions in November 1988 but has yet to ascertain the ownership, despite the use of private investigators. The Minister will appreciate that the cost in terms of staff time and money on that particular case is considerable and that there are hundreds of other such cases.

I need not trouble the House now about various legal requirements, but if the enforcement notice is not served on everyone with a legal interest the High Court can negative the enforcement notice and charge the local authority with costs for proceeding with it without serving it on all those who should have been served with it.

I have got only halfway through the procedure and the House will appreciate how complicated it is. I should pursue this because Hansard should have on record how complicated these matters are. Moreover, if the Minister is not fully briefed, he can be briefed now.

Once the legal interest has been ascertained the enforcement notice can be served and will come into effect in not less than 28 days. A notice has to set out a period for compliance. However, if an appeal is made to the Department of the Environment, the effect of the notice is suspended.

Let me give an example. If someone starts to build a factory or a bungalow without planning consent, notices must be served on all the people who have an interest in the land to tell them to stop building. If one cannot find out who they are, one cannot serve an enforcement notice. If one finds them and serves notice, that may take many months, and in the meantime the builders go on building. The council can attempt to serve a stop notice on the builders, but if the builder appeals to the High Court the notice is cast aside, and the builder can go on building. That has been happening throughout the country.

As Mr. Incoll says, the risks involved in serving a stop notice is that compensation is payable if the notice is successfully challenged on appeal for any reason other than that planning permission should have been granted.

I hope that I have given sufficient details to show how complicated the procedure is. Very few people understand it—I am sure that the Minister is one of those who do—and, as a result, it does not work.

To enforce the present procedure one needs a vast battery of staff, and one has to rely on the good will and good sense of the British people not to build on our green fields without planning consent, but, if they choose to do so the Minister could and would do little to stop them. Local authorities cannot do what the public want, and the law has become an ass when it tries to enforce stop notices and the planning regulations.

The public criticise the planners every week, local newpapers carry articles chastising the planners for failing to stop schemes, and local politicians are heavily criticised and lose their credibility. Confidence in the planning regime is being destroyed.

Fortunately, Mr. Carnwath QC has come to the rescue like a knight on a white charger and has produced a report in which he said that things are as bad as I say they are, and that the Government must take action. Surprise, surprise, the Government have done nothing. That is odd because one would have thought that they would put something in the Environment Protection Bill that they have just published. Of course we need to do something about dogs mess and litter. That is important, but what about the land? Why are there no enforcement clauses in the new Bill? Unless the Minister puts one in or introduces other legislation by the end of the Session, I warn him that the planning group which consists of some 90 Back-Bench Conservative Members mostly from the south of the country has agreed to put an amendment in the Bill on Report. That will help the Government to do something about a problem that the Minister says needs to be tackled.

It is all very well to clear up litter and dog mess, but it is more important not to have our green and pleasant land covered with unauthorised developments.

The problem has been caused in this place, because we have not passed legislation that is effective and efficient. A clumsy, inefficient and protracted state of affairs exists.

The public have a right to expect something from the Government, and if the Minister will not commit himself today a question mark will be raised over the Government's green policy and programme. There is no point in dealing with trivia if the major problem is not tackled.

The Government have robustly stated the importance of local plans. They confirm that the boundaries laid down in them are near sacrosanct. Successive Secretaries of State have said that they must not be breached on appeal by planning inspectors. Only 10 per cent. of the nation has properly consitituted local plans. I am glad to say that South Hams district council, as one would expect, has properly constituted plans. They are current, excellent, well prepared, there has been adequate local consultation on them and they are in place. The problem is that developers are waiting like sharks for one Government inspector to breach the boundary of the development area. South Hams is in great danger. We have more areas of outstanding natural beauty, of great landscape value, protected coastline, heritage coastline, conservation areas and national park than any other area. We could not have more designation designed to protect the environment from development outside the local plan, but we have a problem with twin tracking.

Twin tracking is nothing to do with British Rail having a second line or being privatised. It is a way in which developers may bounce the system by putting in two identical planning applications at the same time. One runs through to the local authority which should have come to a decision within eight weeks. Often, however, the application is too complicated to decide on quickly, so the details have to be discussed with the developer. After eight weeks, the second application jumps straight to the planning inspector. The developers try to bounce the local planning committee and get the Government to decide something which should be a local authority planning matter.

We should also consider the time and cost to which the local authority is put when it has to deal with two planning applications, one for its own planning committee and one for the Minister. The Minister should deal with this matter seriously. He probably knows of a written answer I received on 5 December which said that planning appeals rose from 19,856 in 1986–87 to 22,482 in 1987–88 and to 28,659 in 1988–89, representing increases over the previous year of 11.3, 13.2 and 27.4 per cent. respectively. Planning appeals have increased by 40 per cent. during the past three years. Why? Because of twin tracking. Regardless of cost, big developers will try to speed things up and put pressure on the Government and local authorities to make a decision that they might not want to make.

I shall give my hon. Friend an example of what I mean. It is unfortunate that large developers such as George Wimpey should try to buck the system. Two applications for major developments in South Hams are pending. One is in Wembury, which is an area of great landscape value, outstanding natural beauty and a conservation area. That company has put in an application to build 16 detached bungalows right outside the development area. I hope that my hon. Friend will say that he will robustly encourage inspectors not to breach local plans and the development area. In a letter, the chairman of George Wimpey told me:
"Whilst I appreciate the concerns expressed in your letter it is the opinion of the management within Wimpey Homes and their planning advisers that the site in question will make a sensible rounding off of the present village envelope and that the proposed development would not detract from the high quality environment."
As if that was not enough, George Wimpey put in an application on 20 December to build 193 houses in the South Brent area, which is on the edge of the Dartmoor national park.

My hon. Friend the Minister should say something about the importance of local plans, how they are sacrosanct and how he would, through his planning inspectors, resist any attempt to breach them as George Wimpey would wish him to do.

I have spoken for 20 minutes about two aspects of the planning laws that are in disarray. We need to hear from the Minister today that the Government will be robust. Whenever I see my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, I am encouraged because I know that he is a man after my own heart. He will agree that preserving and keeping the environment is uppermost in our minds. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

2.49 pm

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

As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) for his contribution to the debate about planning. He has made his contribution with his customary vigour and he was as persuasive as ever.

I must state at the outset that while last year I had more specific responsibilities for planning, my responsibilities this year have more to do with housing and local government finance. However, that does not mean that I have not had the opportunity to discuss these isues with my hon. Friend as frequently as I did—

In one sense perhaps the wrong Minister is present. I am here because the Minister with specific responsibility for these matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan), has a problem with his teeth. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams will excuse his absence from the Chamber today. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East will read the report of our debate with interest. Needless to say, I have been well briefed to respond to my hon. Friend's concerns.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the difficulties experienced by his local planning authority—South Hams district council—particularly in connection with enforcement. The Government recognise that there are difficulties with enforcement and that those difficulties are not unique to south Devon, the area which my hon. Friend has the good fortune to represent.

I want to refer briefly to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams about the problems in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). Planning enforcement is a responsibility for local authorities. If they choose not to employ anyone to carry out that planning enforcement, local citizens should look to the local authority because that is where the blame lies. In May 1990 the citizens of Ealing will have an opportunity to express their views through the ballot box.

I emphasise that, much criticised though they are, the present enforcement powers in part V of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, are not so defective in practice as some critics would have us believe. Indeed, one of the unfortunate results of the repeated criticism of the present powers is that those responsible in planning authorities for using them sometimes too readily assume—and say publicly—that nothing can be done. That becomes a self-defeating attitude because it encourages some of the least law-abiding developers—who are a fairly small minority in any area—to defy the planning laws.

The experience of some planning authorities is that, despite certain shortcomings, the present enforcement provisions can be made to operate to good effect, provided that the planning authority is determined in its approach to dealing with breaches of planning control and is seen —especially by those who may be tempted to carry out unlawful development—to move quickly into action when it is essential to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams referred to a report prepared by Robert Carnwath QC. When my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was Secretary of State for the Environment, he commissioned the Carnwath report because of the Government's concern about certain shortcomings on the enforcement side of planning. As my hon. Friend is aware, Robert Carnwath is a highly respected barrister with a thorough knowledge of planning law. His report was published last April and it has been generally welcomed during the consultation exercise which my Department set in hand immediately following the report's publication.

The Government very warmly welcome the recommendations in that report. Some of the Carnwath recommendations deal with the precise concerns expressed by my hon. Friend. For example, there are recommendations that stop notices should be allowed to have immediate effect in special cases, by which Mr. Carnwath means cases in which serious harm to the local environment is occurring.

Mr. Carnwath also recommends that stop notices should in future be able to prohibit the unlawful stationing of a caravan on land that is being used for residential purposes. Because many planning authorities still fear the potential compensation liability if they serve a stop notice and the accompanying enforcement notice is later quashed on appeal, on "legal grounds", there is a recommendation that the extent of the compensation liability be made more precise, and be strictly limited when the developer fails to provide adequate information about his activities on land on which a breach of planning control is occurring.

Among other helpful recommendations, perhaps the most important to my hon. Friend is Mr. Carnwath's suggestion that the planning authority should be able to obtain an injunction to restrain a threatened as well as an actual breach of planning control. That is really a further extension of authorities' existing powers in section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972, but it is the application of the power to a threatened breach which is vital in the context of some of the problems to which my hon. Friend has referred.

My hon. Friend referred also to problems with serving enforcement notices. He will know that on page 75 of the Carnwath report there is a recommendation to amend the law dealing with that problem. The recommendations have been made, and the Government accept them. The remaining issue is when legislation can be brought before the House. My hon. Friend referred to the Environment Protection Bill. That is not a planning Bill. The Government hoped that it would be possible to bring forward a planning Bill this Session, but it so happened that there was insufficient parliamentary time for that to happen. I hope that we shall be able to bring forward a planning Bill next Session and that my hon. Friend's concerns can be dealt with in that legislation. On amendments to the Environment Protection Bill, my hon. Friend will need to consider that matter in the light of the basis of the Bill. I would not seek to advise him about that. However, I will report his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend also mentioned his concern about the difficulties caused by the submission of dual planning applications. I certainly understand that concern. Among other things, the practice is wasteful of local authorities' time and potentially confusing for members of the public who are interested in the proposed development.

Many developers submit duplicate applications for the same proposal so that if the local planning authority fails to reach a decision within the statutory period, they can appeal in respect of one application while continuing to negotiate on the other. It appears that the purpose of that "twin tracking" is to spur the local planning authority to make a decision on the second application before the first has been decided on appeal, in which case the appeal can be withdrawn.

Developers have been encouraged to submit dual applications by the fact that once a case has gone to appeal under section 37 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 because the local planning authority has not determined it within the statutory period, the authority ceases to have any jurisdiction over the application. That problem would largely disappear if all local planning authorities were to meet the Government's target of deciding 80 per cent. of their applications within eight weeks. However, we must obviously address the fact that, unfortunately, many authorities fail to perform as well as that. My hon. Friend's own district council of South Hams is still falling well short of that target.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government have also been failing? Only 50·8 per cent. of all cases on appeal have been fulfilled within the period set down by the town and country planning inquiries procedure rules? The Government are only 50 per cent. as good as they should be.

I would be the first to accept that there have been shortages of resources on both sides. My hon. Friend has referred to the dramatic increase in the volume of planning appeals, partly engendered as a result of the slowness of local authorities and the number of appeals that have come forward through non-determination. We have put substantial additional resources into the appeals system. For example, we have appointed many new inspectors. I hope that that will result in improved performance in the coming months. We are not complacent about that, and I am prepared to accept my hon. Friend's criticism.

In the time available it is not possible to examine in detail all the cases to which my hon. Friend referred. In any event, he will probably recognise the formula that, because my right hon. Friend sits in a quasi-judicial capacity as an appellate authority, it is not possible for him to comment on individual cases.

My hon. Friend said that he would like to say a little about local plans. The Government have encouraged local authorities to develop local plans and I am delighted that my hon. Friend's own authority has been quick to come forward with a clear local plan. The effect of that should be that there is a greater awareness locally of the developments that are likely to be acceptable and the developments that are not. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that, as a result of having a local plan, South Hams has a lower percentage appeals success rate. That means that fewer people are appealing successfully against my hon. Friend's local authority because it has a local plan. That should be an example to other authorities who complain about the volume of appeals. If they introduce a local plan, fewer appeals should be made against them in future.

Bus Routes (London)

3 pm

I was intending to start by saying that it falls to me to make the last Back-Bench speech not only of 1989 but of the decade. It will not be the speech of the decade, but I had thought that it would give me a minor place in history at least. Selfless as I am, however, I have given that honour to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). This will be a double act on behalf of Newham, and my hon. Friend will have the last word unless my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) rushes in with a last-minute point of order. If he does, Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will show him no mercy whatever.

The decade has not been a good one for London. I am afraid that during the past 10 years homelessness and poverty in the capital city have doubled so that cardboard boxes and begging have become very much the symbols of Thatcherism in London. With the abolition of the GLC, London became the only capital city in Europe without a citywide local authority and, whatever the Minister and Conservative Members may say, that shows in the largely unco-ordinated planning that we now have in London. Many of our roads resemble ploughed fields and traffic congestion is appalling. Recently the Government announced their proposals for red routes. What we need in London is a bit of red terror to go with those red routes. The extent to which people park on double yellow lines and at bus stops is appalling. It is anarchy, in traffic terms, out on the streets of London, and parking laws are largely unenforced.

This may be the time of good will, and the spirit of Christmas may be all around us, but I have no good will whatever towards selfish parkers in London. Rather than having their cars clamped, I should be in favour of having their cars towed away to the car crusher straight away and sending them the bill afterwards. That is how strongly I feel about selfish parkers.

I want to discuss transport in London. The policies pursued by the Government during the past decade have resulted in London's having probably the most understaffed, unreliable, overcrowded, dirty and inefficient transport system in Europe, and certainly the worst that London has had. London seems to many of us to be going backwards from developed status towards less-developed status.

Earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Transport announced the phasing out of revenue subsidies for British Rail's Network SouthEast. It is ridiculous that whereas the French, German, Belgian and Dutch Governments are all giving more subsidies to their urban transport system, the British Government are taking away revenue support. They talk about capital investment in transport in London and elsewhere, but most of that capital investment comes from internally generated sources within British Rail and co-operative schemes with private enterprise.

If we had a beter transport system than the Belgians, the Dutch or the French, the Government might have a case to argue for their policy. But we do not. We obviously —manifestly—have a far worse transport system in London and elsewhere than any of those countries, and everyone knows it.

Only today, I noticed in the newspapers that London Regional Transport, in response to excess demand, has announced that there will be fare increases each year for the next five years at least above the rate of inflation to
"deter passengers because soaring numbers cannot safely be accommodated."
What sort of system is that? If one had a restaurant where people wanted more tables, or if one were selling things from a market stall and there was great demand, one would not try to kill off that demand, but to expand the capacity and produce more goods, and so continue to increase revenue. One would not try to kill off revenue, but that is what LRT will do by imposing increases to deter passengers. That is absurd. What sane commercial undertaking would pursue such a course? The Government are not fit to run a market stall despite the spiv-like tendency of a number of Conservative Members. I exonerate from that accusation, of course, the young and handsome Minister for Public Transport, who will reply from the Dispatch Box.

London, and especially London transport, have become a sick joke. Passengers are treated as if they were an inconvenience getting in the way of running an efficient transport system. The blame for that attitude lies wholly with the Government and their inefficient and purblind transport policies. A classic example of the chaotic nature of London transport may be seen in the system of tendering for bus routes currently being operated by LRT, at the insistence of the Government themselves. Tendering has been taking place since 1985. The system is designed to try to cut the cost of bus operations by inviting various companies to undercut each other in a bid to win contracts.

For the workers, tendering means lower wages, worse conditions and longer hours. The passengers do not benefit from lower fares because the same fares apply on the tendered routes as on the routes operated by London Buses. Passengers will notice that the service is far less efficient in many cases than on the routes operated by London Buses. Many of the companies use older vehicles to save money which leads to more breakdowns and unreliability. Low wages mean staff shortages, the cancellation of buses and longer waits for passengers at bus stops. Safety standards are also much reduced. Private bus companies simply do not demand the same level of safety as does London Buses and they do not carry out the same medical checks on staff. London Buses has a good reputation for ensuring that the most rigorous health checks are carried out on its drivers. Some people who have previously been rejected by LRT or who have been discharged by LRT as being unfit to drive end up as bus drivers on some of the tendered routes. That cannot be good for the safety of passengers in London.

Tendering is not full privatisation, but it is a form of sub-contracting. I find it especially objectionable that London ratepayers and passengers have to pay the bills. All London Regional Transport has done is to say that it will give companies a certain amount of money to operate bus routes. London ratepayers and the London travelling public have to pay the full cost.

The tenders are decided in secret and we do not know how the system operates or what is taken into account. It is said that no one is entitled to know that because of commercial confidentiality. When the Greater London council used to run the London transport system, we would not have been able to get away with that. There were part 2s on our agendas so that matters of commercial consideration would be respected by members, but members would know about them and would be accountable for what they did. There is no accountability now, which is one of the most objectionable aspects of tendering for bus routes that I have discovered so far.

I shall take us on a little trip around some of the routes in London that have been put out to tender, so that we can see what has happened to them. On route 317, from Enfield to Upshire the tender was awarded to Samson Coaches. Unfortunately, because of its policy of low wages and the use of old buses, it simply could not get the staff, and after one year, LRT was forced to take back the route.

Route 250, which runs from Romford to Hornchurch, was awarded to Front Runner. The company had to bus its drivers down from the midlands to drive in London because the low wages and poor conditions that it offered did not attract drivers from London. The knowledge that such drivers had of the routes in London was not as good as that of native Londoners, but that is not a matter of any consideration for LRT and the Department of Transport. That route was taken back from Front Runner and awarded to Ensign Bus Company. Let us hope that it is slightly more successful.

Route 200 runs from Kingston to Streatham and route 196 runs from Crystal Palace to Brixton. They were awarded to a company called Cityrama on a three-year contract basis. Route 200 was taken back after two years by LRT and handed back to London Buses. Route 196 was taken back in October this year and awarded to a company called London and Country Buses.

Route 403, from Coulsdon to Epsom, and route 197 and 197A, from Caterham to Croydon, were also awarded to that company, but, because of staff shortages brought about through poor pay and long hours, the service was appalling. Many complaints were received not only by LRT but by Members of Parliament representing Croydon. In August this year, LRT asked Croydon garage to provide evening and Saturday services for those routes. On 26 October, it was asked to take over the routes completely.

On the same day, London and Country Buses was asked to take over the 196 route. That is madness. Here is a company that is manifestly incapable of running an efficient bus service for the people of south London, particularly the people of Croydon, with whom you have more than a passing acquaintance, Mr Speaker. Having failed to run that service, it was still offered another service by LRT and a service that had been taken away from another inefficient private company. Is this the way to run a bus service in London? The question is rhetorical, because no one who uses London buses would say that it was the right way. Dogma cannot drive buses, but that is what the Government, through LRT, are attempting to do.

I would give a great deal to inspect the finances behind the No. 24 route. This is a prestigious route, which stands alone in comparison with the other tendered-out routes. That route is important, and goes right by the House of Commons. Many distinguished Members of Parliament use it. That route is a fiddle—I am convinced of that. Something has happened between LRT, the company that runs it—Grey-Green—and the Department of Transport. I hope that the Minister will say that he is prepared to let me go over the books so that I can see how the tender was awarded.

London buses are in a mess. I know that the Minister will say that bus miles are at an all-time record. I do not know how often he uses buses, but those bus miles are being kept up in several ways. The first is by the use of the small feeder buses—hoppers. One cannot make a comparison between those buses and enormous double-decker buses. Secondly, because many double-decker buses run into congestion problems on the streets of London they are being told to run empty with "Special" in the destination window. They go past bus stops with passengers waiting for them. Many passengers say that they wish that they could live in a place called "Special service" because there seem to be so many buses on their way to it. That is nonsense and it goes back to the point that I made earlier. We now have an organisation running London's transport which thinks that passengers get in the way of the operation of an efficient transport system. That is the madness that the decade has brought us to on the buses and in London's transport generally.

London used to have one of the best bus systems in the world, but it is now reduced to an overpriced slow and unreliable patchwork quilt of a service. After a decade of authoritarian second-rate government, the Government cannot even share the boast of a previous dictator, in justification for what he was doing, that the trains have been made to run on time.

I cannot allow my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South to intervene without wishing you and your family, Mr. Speaker, the happiest Christmas and, on behalf of my colleagues on the packed Benches on both sides of the House, I offer our thanks to all the staff of the House of Commons who have worked so hard over the year and over the decade to provide us with the sort of service that we have come to expect. We may have a rotten bus service out there, but we have high standards in here. We make sure of that. I should like to see the standards that we operate here operating on London buses as well. On behalf of all my colleagues, I thank them for all the services that they have given us.

I can now wish you, Mr. Speaker, a happy decade to come. I hope that that decade will see the restoration of a Labour Government; Labour Members translated to the Government Benches. Who knows, I and my hon. Friends may be making a speech from the Dispatch Box at the last knockings of another decade. There would certainly be a better country and a better capital city in which to live because we would restore Londonwide government to London.

I hope also that we shall be able to say that as the 1990s draw to a close we have an efficient, properly run and comfortable transport system in London, which is something that Londoners want and deserve.

3.17 pm

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and the staff of the House who have served us so well a happy Christmas and new year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me a few minutes in which to contribute to the debate. We in east London are particularly dependent on public transport.

Car ownership is our area is, understandably, rather lower than elsewhere and that has the advantage of not adding to congestion.

My hon. Friend referred to the great London transport system of the 1930s which was brought about by the London Passenger Transport Act 1933—a bipartisan measure. That organisation became the envy of the world. The former boroughs of East Ham and West Ham and the former London county council willingly gave up their tramway services, locally controlled to help local people, in order to provide that very service.

Now we find the reverse tendency. My hon. Friend referred to the red buses. Alas, there are now 11 companies ready to be split up and no doubt privatised if the Government so wish. The ability to do that is contained in legislation. Some of the minibuses to which my hon. Friend referred belong to London Buses Ltd. and some are organised by private contractors, not even subject to London Regional Transport which has a statutory duty to co-ordinate transport. They are clearly designed to undercut the existing comprehensive service, in 11 parts though it be, and it is no doubt the Government's ultimate intention to have a sort of Hong Kong situation, a territory in which they are rather interested at the moment.

In Newham there have been bus route changes without effective consultation with the council, leading to many problems for elderly people, particularly going to the Canning Town shopping centre. The zones, which are very useful for persons with through tickets, have been changed. If people want to go to the Asda supermarket, they now have to cross a zone boundary within the borough. I took up the matter with London Buses. I was told that this was to protect revenue. That sort of nonsense is spreading like wildfire throughout the city.

The Routemaster buses are coming towards the end of their useful life. It is a reflection on this Government's priorities, in terms of production as against services, that London Regional Transport contemplates obtaining engines for the buses—which were made entirely in London at Park Royal—from Poland, Italy and, believe it or not, from India. That is the state to which the Government have brought the country's manufacturing capability. We know what they have done to public services. There was an earlier debate about ambulances. The Government have destroyed the concept of public service.

The Prime Minister was right when she said that the House should call the Administration to account over legislation and taxation. However, her policies are wrong. I believe that the verdict on the Thatcher decade will be that the Government's social and economic policies have been disastrous.

3.20 pm

I thank the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for what has turned out to be a historic debate. I had not fully appreciated its significance. I feel sorry for anyone who switched on their television set at 3·15, hoping to see the Prime Minister, and ended up watching me. However, anyone who switched on their set because they wanted to see the Leader of the Opposition but saw instead the hon. Members for Newham, North-West, and for Newham, South will have been delighted by the substitution. Their remarks provide me with an opportunity to extend good wishes for Christmas to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the Officers of the House.

The hon. Member for Newham, South is concerned about transport in east London. If he were to be entirely fair, I think that he would be willing to admit that I have given a great deal of personal attention to transport in east London. I am very concerned about it. The Jubilee line extension to docklands and to the east end of London, including the constituencies of the hon. Members for Newham, North-West and for Newham, South was approved by the Government. We look forward to that extension becoming a reality. They also know that the east-west cross rail, which will he of particular benefit to Stratford, is being urgently considered by the Government and may be the line for which a Bill is introduced next year.

A number of privately operated minibuses are now used in dock lands. They benefit the constituents of both hon. Gentlemen. They could not have been provided without the liberalisation of transport under this Government. The main theme of the debate is about bus services that have gone out to tender, but it would be wrong not to say a word or two about the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West concerning revenue support and investment. As a former chairman of the Greater London council, he is in a very good position to appreciate the greatly increased investment in London Regional Transport and in the railways. It is much higher today than it was when the GLC had control of London Regional Transport. Today's investment in London Regional Transport is about double what it was under the GLC.

We propose to reduce Network SouthEast's subsidy from £100 million today to zero in about 1992. The network agrees that that is an objective which can be achieved. However, the £100 million reduction in subsidy has to be compared with the £5 billion investment programme in the network over the coming year. There is no comparison between a £100 million loss of subsidy and £5 billion of investment. Investment leads to the railway of tomorrow, new rolling stock and the better stations that many people in the south-east are now beginning to enjoy.

That investment will require a partnership between the taxpayer on the one hand and the farepayer on the other, or taxpayers—many of them from outside London—would have to bear the full brunt of British Rail's future investment in the London area.

I want to concentrate on tendering. Tendering of London bus services has led to increased reliability. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West was rather anecdotal, so I shall give some figures. Tendering has led to an increase in the number of bus miles run, a decrease in the costs of the services and meant, therefore—

But, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West pointed out, the fares are the same whether on a tendered service or on a normal service. The costs that have been saved have been ploughed back into better service.

I dispute the idea that there has been a compromise on safety. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West said that standards in the private sector were lower than in the public sector. All these services are subject to the public service vehicle operation conditions which are laid down by the Department of Transport. Those are the minimum conditions and all the people who run bus services are required to meet those standards, whether they are in the private or public sector. If the hon. Gentleman knows of instances of bus drivers operating below those nationally set standards or of operators disobeying the law, he would draw that to my attention, because we would certainly want to know all about it.

Accessibility for the disabled and the elderly has been greatly improved under the tendered services. During bus strikes, the tendered services in London have continued to run. That gravely undermines any case that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West might care to make about wages being in some way unsatisfactory in the private sector on tendered services. The evidence shows that industrial relations have been better in that sector and that in those tendered services the public have been able to rely on a service when the rest of the network has been shut down.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West was trying to have it both ways. He said that the services tended to run old, unreliable buses. When he came across a service where that was palpably not true—the No. 24, with new buses and where the public enjoy a good service—the only response he could make was that in some way it was a fiddle. That suggestion was not worthy of the hon. Gentleman. As for whether these matters are investigated, all the tendering processes are subject to strict audit. I receive many complaints from private sector companies saying that they believe that the system is tilted in favour of London Buses Ltd. They may have some justification on the face of it in that 103 of the 176 routes put out to tender so far—58 per cent.—have been won by subsidiaries of London Buses Ltd.

The Government strongly believe in the fairness of the system. Our auditors tell us that it works fairly. We are satisfied that even where London Buses Ltd. wins a tender in fair competition, it tends to act more competitively and show more respect and concern for the customer than before. The figures showing much better reliability of bus services apply not only to tenders that have been won by the private sector but to those won by London Buses Ltd. Operating in that more competitive environment, even London Buses Ltd. appears to wish to raise the standard of its services in order to compete.

LRT, which is responsible for judging the tenders, wishes to be sure that the record of the operator that is applying for the tender does not disqualify it from the competition, so it obviously takes account of previous performance. LRT wants to ensure also that the wages offered are set on a realistic basis and are likely to enable the tenderer to operate a reliable service with a reasonably contented staff. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and these services have continued to run when non-tendered services have been out on strike. The tender documents specify that the buses should be seven years old or less, so it is likely that these services will run by newer, better buses than traditionally run on other services.

There have been great benefits to the travelling public. There have been shorter waiting times for buses and the public have been able to rely more on buses turning up. The fact that the buses used by the tendering companies generally conform to the standards laid down by my Department's advisory committee on disabled passengers means that there is a better prospect that the steps and handrails will be designed to help the elderly or disabled passenger.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West was right on one point—this is only a halfway stage. It will be right in due course to press on to the privatisation of London's buses and full deregulation in London so that these great services, which are restricted at present, can be enjoyed by all.

Before adjourning the House after the last debate of this decade, I should like to thank the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), the Minister and the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville)—who has been faithfully in his place on the Treasury Bench—and echo the comment of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West about the staff of the House. We are deeply grateful to the staff for the service that they give us throughout the year. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West also mentioned the high standards that we have—I think that he meant standards of service from the staff. I echo his points. We have a reputation for other high standards—high standards of behaviour in the House, which I am sure we shall see in the new decade.

Question put and agreed to.

It being half-past Three o'clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Order [8 December] and the Resolution yesterday till Monday 8 January.