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Commons Chamber

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 11 January 1990

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House Of Commons

Thursday 11 January 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

City Of London (Spitalfields Market) Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration of Lords amendments read.

To he considered on Thursday 18 January.

St George's Hill, Weybridge, Estate Bill (By Order)

Lords amendments, as amended, agreed to.

Hythe Marina Village (Southampton) Wavescreen Bill (By Order)

Isle Of Wight Bill (By Order)

Orders for consideration of Lords amendments read.

To be considered on Wednesday 17 January at Seven o'clock.

New Southgate Cemetery And Crematorium Limited Bill (By Order)

Lords amendments agreed to.

British Film Institute Southbank Bill (By Order)

Read the Third time, and passed.

Birmingham City Council (No 2) Bill (By Order)

British Railways Bill (By Order)

Redbridge London Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for consideration, as amended, read.

To he considered on Thursday 18 January.

City Of London (Various Powers) Bill (By Order)

Buckinghamshire County Council Bill Lords (By Order)

London Local Authorities Bill Lords (By Order)

Orders for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Monday 15 January.

Vale Of Glamorgan (Barry Harbour) Bill Lords (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 18 January.

Medway Tunnel Bill Lords

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Monday 15 January.

Oral Answers To Questions

Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Agricultural Income

1.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is satisfied that the current levels of agricultural income are adequate to sustain the long-term viability of the industry.

The long-term viability of the industry can best be assured by a reformed common agricultural policy that encourages farmers to compete effectively in the market place.

Does the Minister accept that during the past two years there has been a severe decline in farm incomes? In the livestock sector in Wales, the decline has been 20 per cent. Does the Minister further accept that the 4·1 per cent. increase in support prices is not enough to offset the livestock support amendments, let alone the 9 per cent. increase in inflation? Will he take positive steps to end the disparity between the green pound and the pound sterling to allow farmers to compete effectively?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that when there is a gap between the pound sterling and the green pound, British farmers are competing on an unfair basis. The Commission has made recommendations and we shall ensure, as far as possible, that we defend the interests of British farmers in the negotiations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, as we are about to enter negotiations, we cannot promise the outcome now; nor can I say how we can best achieve our end, which is to make a fairer Community for British farming.

I accept that agricultural incomes have risen marginally in the past year, although I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree that they have fallen substantially since the early 1980s. Does he also agree that the right way forward is for farmers to seek to add value to what they produce on their farms to make it more attractive to the consumer?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is much more difficult to increase one's income when there is a surplus than when there is a shortage, and all farmers must face that change. We must ensure that the battle is fair, and that Britain's farmers take more account of the need to sell their products effectively in the market place. I have tried to put that message over as widely as possible, and I thank my hon. Friend for his help.

Is the Minister aware that farmers in my constituency are worried about their long-term future because of the lack of anthrax vaccine? I raised the matter in Scottish Question Time on 20 December, and was promised a reply from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord J. Douglas-Hamilton); so far, however, I have received no such reply. Will the Minister have a word with his colleague and then provide me with some information, so that I can perhaps give some comfort to those worried farmers?

I shall be happy to take the matter up immediately with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who, I am sure, will give the hon. Gentleman the answer that he wishes.

Bearing in mind the low level of agricultural income over the past few years, will my right hon. Friend try to bring some confidence to hill farmers by assuring them that in 1991 this country will receive at least as much in hill livestock compensatory allowance as it will in the current year, and that the same will apply to the suckler cow subsidy? Both are extremely important in rural areas.

I hope to be able to make an announcement about HLCAs very soon. My hon. Friend will know that we fought very hard against the discriminatory stand taken by the European Community against our hill livestock farmers. We won a much better result than we had expected, but we nevertheless find the Community's decision entirely discriminatory, and we shall continue to fight such decisions.

Is the Minister aware that the current value of the green pound is having a serious effect on the beef sector, especially in Northern Ireland, where producers are faced with green-pound-subsidised competition from across the land frontier?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I shall go to the first round of our European Community discussions very well seized of that point as it applies not only to Northern Ireland but to the rest of the United Kingdom. British farmers can do well if they compete on equal terms and our job is to ensure that we reach our 1992 goal of a level playing field reasonably and sensibly. It will be a tough battle, because other countries do not wish even the Commission's proposals to be accepted.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the severe concern among farmers in west Wales about a green pound gap of up to 19 per cent? Can he confirm that the Government still intend to abolish monetary compensation amounts by 1992?

It is a question not of the Government's intention, but of the inevitable need for the completion of the single market. Any country that suggests that we could have a single market while maintaining a green pound system clearly does not understand what the single market is about. If one country continues to express that view, the rest of us will be forced to carry out a major conversion job very rapidly.

Food Safety Directorate

2.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the operation of his food safety directorate.

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

The food and safety directorate brings together all the divisions of my Department that have responsibilities for matters relating to the safe production and handling of foodstuffs, and other consumer protection matters concerned with food. My right hon. Friend the Minister will therefore receive official advice as Minister responsible for food, which is separate from that given to him on the economic aspects of agriculture, food production or fishing as Minister responsible for agriculture and fisheries.

When he set up the consumer panel, the Minister said that it would be an advisory forum for him. In view of the excessive secrecy that he enforces on all his other advisory committees, will he assure the House that members of the consumer panel will not be gagged, and that they will have access to all the information that they require to carry out their duties in the public interest?

The hon. Gentleman is utterly wrong to imply that excessive secrecy is imposed on all the members of the independent advisory committees who advise this Department. None of the eminent scientists who advise us would be willing to serve on such committees if they were unfairly gagged in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I can assure him that the consumers and advisers who will serve on the consumer panel will want to serve only if they have access to all the relevant information.

This is a simple question. Will my hon. Friend confirm that food safety is the priority in his Department?

Food safety always has been, always is and always will be the prime priority of this Department.

Does the Minister recall an answer that he gave me shortly before Christmas? I asked how many of the turkeys and chickens that were being sold were likely to be infected by salmonella. His answer was that the last time that an examination had been carried out on a sample of a mere 100 chickens, it was found that 64 were contaminated with salmonella. I have had no answer on the number of contaminated turkeys. The Minister also said that if cooking was carried out properly, the problem would be solved. As the last investigation was carried out two years ago, will he institute a proper investigation and give further information to the public on the correct cooking of turkeys and chickens?

I have 700 experts and scientists in my Department. Between them, they know practically all that there is to know about food safety. In view of the marvellous Christmas that we have all had, there is no question of me, or any of my experts, telling 25 million British housewives how to cook the Christmas turkey.

Does the Minister not understand that while he is slashing research into food safety, sacking scientists by the thousand and delaying the introduction of vital regulations, the general public will have little confidence in a food safety directorate within his Department that is responsible directly to him? Why does he not show that he takes the issue seriously by establishing a food standards agency, independent of the Government, as advocated by the Labour party and many other information organisations?

During the past few days we have announced a massive amount of research expenditure on bovine spongiform encephalopathy. That was followed by the announcement yesterday of further research expenditure into BSE. I was even asked on radio why we were spending so much on research. The Department is spending more money on research into essential food safety measures. All the staff who work in my Department are not paid or funded by any outside organisation—neither a trade union, nor a commercial interest, nor any other media or vested interest.

Railway Freight Trucks

3.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he has to provide for the inspection of railway freight trucks travelling to the United Kingdom from the continent after the opening of the Channel tunnel.

Our intention will be to complete inspections of incoming rail freight as quickly as is possible, consistent with the need to safeguard human, animal, plant and fish health, but the precise arrangements will depend on decisions still to be taken in the Community.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it must be in the interests of the country as a whole that there should be the speediest possible transit for freight trains to Britain? Does that not require health inspections to be carried out at several locations, just as is proposed for Customs examinations? Would it not be ridiculous if all the freight wagons had to wait at Willesden, or some other spot in London, for health examinations, which would delay transit to the north and other areas?

I am determined to do that as quickly as possible, so long as we can also safeguard animal, plant and fish health. That has always been and it continues to be our priority. That is why we are the independent protectors of the health of our nation. No one else can be.

Will the Minister discuss the animal quarantine regulations with the National Union of Railwaymen?

I am happy to discuss the animal quarantine regulations with anyone, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that first I want to find out how we are to operate the regulations on both sides of the Channel. I need to have clear information about that before I hold wider discussions. If, however, the hon. Gentleman wishes me to look into any particular matter, I shall be happy to do so.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the methods of checking food imports proposed by the Labour party, which involve detaining the food until it goes bad, would be illegal anyway under European Community law?

It is a great sadness that in the past week the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the official spokesman for the Opposition, told people that he would have broken European Community law by holding up food coming into Britain until it had been tested. That is wholly contrary to European law and would do British farmers and the British farming industry great harm, because every other European country would treat our products in exactly the same way. The hon. Gentleman was among the first to attack the French when they attempted similar checks on sheepmeat.

Does the Minister deny that here is a clause in European legislation that allows him to prohibit contaminated food from entering Britain when public health is at risk? Does he further deny that salmonella-contaminated eggs have been coming into this country from Holland and that in the four days awaiting the test results those contaminated eggs were for sale in shops in Britain? Why should there be two standards, one for British eggs and one for foreign eggs?

Of course, British eggs are healthier because we have tougher rules here than in any other EC country. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself for misleading the British people. He knows that what he proposes would be wholly contrary to European Community law, and he should not perpetrate what is entirely wrong.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that much of the inspection of inter-European traffic is necessary because health regulations in the rest of Europe do not come up to our standards? It seems wrong that British farmers have taken such stringent measures to get rid of salmonella in eggs while Dutch and other farmers do not have the same regulations.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is why we are encouraging a campaign for all the boxes of British eggs to be marked, "British". That is why there will be notices in almost every supermarket pointing out that the eggs sold are British and that is why we remind British farmers that, instead of complaining about imports, they should be campaigning about the advantages of British eggs, which are better protected than any others in Europe. Above all, we are fighting in the European Community to bring other countries up to our standards.

Radioactivity

4.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in which areas of the United Kingdom levels of radioactivity are such as to prevent or restrict local agricultural production from being used in human consumption.

We continue to operate controls over the movement and slaughter of sheep from certain upland areas of Cumbria, Scotland, north Wales and Northern Ireland that were affected by radioactive deposition following the accident in the Soviet Union in 1986.

Would it not be fair to describe the Government's record of response to the problem as almost furtive negligence? In the nearly four years since that accident, can the Minister honestly say that his Department and the British public have been adequately informed? Did not the Swedes carry out an aerial survey within six weeks of the disaster? When will we in Britain emulate our neighbours?

I had always regarded the hon. Gentleman as fair until now. I do not recognise the description that he has given. No other country in the world acted as promptly or as comprehensively as the United Kingdom in taking action to protect all our food supplies. I invite the hon. Gentleman to go to the Library of the House of Commons, where the shelves are groaning under the weight of information that we have made available to the public and to the House about how we have protected the food supply. We have carried out an aerial survey and it has not given us any more safety information than the men on the ground looking at the soil.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that Chernobyl was a ghastly accident for the Soviet Union does not mean that our power stations are in the same category? Concordski fell out of the sky, but Concorde is still flying. We have the necessary means to monitor and to protect our people from accidents that will not occur in our power stations.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the technological failures of Socialism, just as in recent months we have seen its political failures. Shortly, we shall see its political failures in this country as well.

To be fair to the British farming industry for once, and that includes myself, does the Minister agree that British farmers are producing healthier food in the 1990s than they ever have in this century?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's statement. Characteristically, he is fair and accurate, and I am delighted to agree with him.

Fishing Quotas

6.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on European Community fishing quotas.

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

We won the best possible opportunities for British fishermen consistent with the need to conserve stocks, which is now an urgent priority.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to emphasise that the schemes for the sale and leasing of quotas, which he has been mooting in newspapers over recent days, are entirely speculative and not yet Government policy? Will he take on board the fact that any such scheme would have a devastating impact on the fishing industry in certain areas such as the north-west coast of Scotland, where it is vital to the local community's economic well-being and dominated by the small boat sector?

In the present very difficult circumstances for the fishing industry, the Government have a duty to examine all the options that could provide long-term stability. I have made it clear that we are examining that scheme, which is known as individual transferable quotas, in the light of the decision of New Zealand, parts of Canada and Iceland to adopt it. If it offers us some help, we shall discuss it with the industry. We certainly should not introduce anything without the consent of the industry and we should consult it fully. If the scheme offers nothing, we shall throw it away.

Does the Minister agree that, when fishing quotas are set, it is vital to ensure that they are within the scientific evidence available on the size of stocks? Will he not follow the lead given by certain fishing interests in Scotland, who suggest that we should overfish and thus not preserve our stocks for the future?

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. We have always been scrupulous to negotiate catching levels that are consistent with scientific advice. The alternative is to fix them on the advice of politicians, which tends to be less reliable.

Has the Minister fully considered the social and economic impact on fishing communities of the Council's decisions on quotas? Will he comment on the case of Forbes boat builders in the village of Sandhaven in my constituency, which has just laid off a quarter of its 32-strong work force? Is the Minister saying that boat-building and repairing skills, which have been present in that village for almost a century, are no longer needed? Has he ruled out any form of aid to cushion the blow on fishing communities?

As I have said many times in the House, I cannot invent fish. There is a problem with stocks; we must get our fishing effort in line with the availability of stocks. That, of course, means that there must be contraction in the fishing industry. The skills to which the hon. Gentleman referred are certainly important. I hope that by trying to secure the long-term interests of the fishing fleet, through technical, conservation and better management measures, we shall secure the future of such jobs in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

No one can deny that the fishing industry is facing one of its most severe downturns in recent years, but is that not due to appalling mismanagement over 10 years, not only by the EEC but by the Government? Is it not a fact that in the 1980s, with grants, the Government encouraged the expansion of the fishing fleet, against scientific advice? Yet they are now refusing to help to reduce the fleet with decommissioning grants. Does the Minister accept that the industry needs a strategic plan that takes into account supplies, conservation measures, technical assistance and grants? Why are the Government prepared to pay farmers not to produce crops but not prepared to help fishermen who cannot catch fish?

I have been seeking to discuss our long-term plans with the industry. That is why I have not brought forward any plans from secret committees and why I discuss our projects quite openly. If they work, we shall see whether we can adopt them and if they do not, we shall throw them away. I notice that when I start to talk a little about schemes that might be helpful, many people become alarmed.

I thank my hon. Friend for attending the North Shields fish quay last Friday. I remind him of the concern expressed to him by the industry about the serious consequences of the cuts in quotas that have been inevitable for this year. Can he confirm that there will be recompense for the quotas that the fishermen lost last year as a result of the excessive fishing by other fishermen, especially north of the border? Will he give particular consideration to the EEC laying-up scheme, which was discussed with him on Friday?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in this and he accompanied me on my visit to North Shields, which I enjoyed very much. He has raised two separate issues. When fishermen have suffered from over-fishing elsewhere, there is a mechanism by which they are compensated, and we shall ensure that that mechanism is observed. The laying-up scheme was designed by the Community to respond to specific circumstances. It does not, of course, respond to the circumstances in which one needs to achieve a significantly lower fleet and there is a long delay in payment. Were circumstances to arise in which that would be a useful instrument, we should not, of course, close any doors.

Total Allowable Catches

7.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has any proposals for a compensation and decommissioning scheme to allow the English fishing industry to adjust to reduced total allowable catches.

I do not believe that decommissioning would provide value for money. It would not achieve any worthwhile fish conservation objectives because it would not lead to a proportionate reduction in fishing effort.

I am saddened by that reply. There can be only two explanations of the Government's refusal to do justice to an industry that has been brought to the brink of ruin by the failure of the EEC to provide proper policing on conservation. The first is that they are too mean to do it and the second is that they made such a cack-handed, crackpot cock-up of the compensation scheme last time that they are now anxious to redeem their own reputation at the expense of the future of the industry. Which is it?

The answer is very simple. The hon. Gentleman reaches for someone else's wallet whenever he finds himself in a difficulty. We do not believe that that is appropriate. The sensible way to approach these matters is by putting far greater emphasis on conservation. I accept that in the past, the European Community has not given sufficient priority to that area. The second method is to produce far more intelligent management measures that are designed to secure the long-term future of the industry. We are doing that and, no doubt, the hon. Gentleman supports us as we do so.

It appears that the Government have rejected decommissioning on the grounds, as the Minister says, that it does not give value for money and is interventionist. As the Government are obliged by the European Community to find some way of reducing fishing effort by the end of January, do they intend to impose a compulsory laying-up period for the fishing fleet for certain parts of the year and will that be done without compensation for the fishing industry? Is that any more acceptable, because it is still very interventionist?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to our commitment to reduce fishing effort for haddock by 30 per cent. We shall consult the industry fully on the proposals and we hope to be able to come up with a formula that the industry accepts as being intelligent and operable.

Before my hon. Friend comes up with that sensible solution, will he bear in mind that the fishing industry is extremely complicated? There are many different interests to balance and he must also balance the interests of the taxpayer. Will my hon. Friend consult widely and carefully with all the different parts of the industry before he makes a statement?

I am very aware from my visits around our ports that they do not always have the same interests. I am also very aware that Lowestoft, which my hon. Friend represents, regards itself as being a very special fishing port. We shall be certain to consult all industry interests fully.

Environmentally Sensitive Areas

8.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions there have been on the issue of access as part of the conditions for farmers receiving grants for designated evironmentally sensitive areas.

The payments are designed specifically to encourage environmentally beneficial agricultural practices and are not conditional upon permitting increased public access.

Does the Minister accept that the payments have been a fairly successful initiative? Will he also accept that there has been considerable disappointment among those who like to enjoy the countryside that they have not had better access to it and that there is now growing alarm from farmers in the areas because the Government have refused to increase the payments in line with inflation? Could not the Minister solve both those problems by putting up the payments in line with inflation on the basis of agreeing that there should be better access for those who want to go to the countryside to enjoy peace, quiet and fresh air?

The hon. Gentleman, whose interest in these matters is well known and respected, will accept that there is a problem in trying to balance the various interests in the countryside—even, for example, the difference between those who want additional access and those who are seeking primarily the conservation of flora and fauna. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to mix the two aspects.

On payments for environmentally sensitive areas, we have found that farmers are prepared to do that job at the price that we have offered, and we believe that they will continue to do so. We will, of course, keep the payments under review, as we promised.

When my right hon. Friend considers the conservation of the countryside will he bear in mind those people who, for generations, have been concerned about the countryside, such as farmers, sportsmen and others who live in it?

It seems a pity the some people still believe that there is a conflict between farming and conservation. Farmers have conserved the countryside throughout its history—in fact, in large measure, they have created the countryside. Farmers are the front line in conservation. I will not allow people to believe that they should be attacked for the job that they do.

Salmonella

9.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assessment he has made of the feasibility of completely eradicating salmonella enteritidis from the egg production process.

The Government accept that complete eradication of salmonella enteritidis is unlikely to be feasible. The measures that have been adopted are designed to reduce the level of infection to the minimum that can reasonably be achieved.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. I ask my question on behalf of the chicken farmers in my constituency who are extremely worried about Government policy on salmonella enteritidis. As we have already slaughtered over 1 million of our domestic chickens, and given that this form of salmonella is ineradicable—it is as much a part of chickens as their feathers are—when will my hon. Friend decide that enough is enough, and realise that our national flocks are threatened with total extinction and that, between Gummer and Gumbro, we will not have a chicken industry any more?

Not unnaturally, I disagree with my hon. Friend's concluding comments. I cannot tell her when the present scheme will end. We shall consider all the scientific evidence. My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for the British chicken industry. I invite her now to use her considerable presentational talents to help to market the British egg like never before and to use that wonderful slogan which the Agriculture Select Committee has given us—"British eggs are safer than imported eggs." If she turns her attention to that, I am sure that she will do a marvellous job for the British chicken industry.

Does the Minister agree that there is little value in reducing the salmonella content of British eggs if we allow salmonella to be imported wholesale? Will he confirm the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that salmonella has been found in imported Dutch eggs but that, by the time that tests reveal the presence of salmonella, the eggs have been distributed and are adorning the breakfast plates of Britain? Why does the Minister not use the available EEC regulations on contaminated food and stop the distribution of imported eggs until they arc tested and cleared?

It is nonsense for the hon. Gentleman to talk about salmonella being imported wholesale. That is an outrageous allegation. Had he bothered to read the Select Committee report on Tuesday, he would have seen that the Agriculture Select Committee has also agreed that the incidence of salmonella in foreign eggs and the risk from them is remarkably low—the same as in this country. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is dishonest to suggest that we could use powers in this country to delay for ever and a day until they are approved imports of eggs that have no salmonella. That is not the correct approach. I agree with the approach of the Agriculture Select Committee. We will intensify our efforts in the EC to get a salmonella control order across the whole of Europe, because that is the proper and sensible solution.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

10.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will review the level of compensation for farmers whose herds are infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

No, Sir. We believe that 50 per cent. of the value of the animal as if it were healthy is fair compensation for an animal which is terminally ill and therefore worthless. Compensation of 100 per cent. is paid on animals that are slaughtered and found not to be infected.

As there are similarities between neurological disease—wasting disease in the human brain—and BSE, and as we know that diseased sheep pass that disease to cows, although we do not know whether it goes to the human brain, will the Minister explain why he is not giving farmers the incentive to expose cows in the early stages of BSE so that they do not go on to the market for sale, as is happening in North Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, with the result that it is going into the food chain, with the beginnings of BSE in the system?

I can help my hon. Friend considerably. What he says is just not the case. We have so many safety belts and braces on this operation it is not true. About 99 per cent. of all animals are caught at the farm stage. We then have the offals ban, which removes all offals which could contain BSE, such as the brain, from all animals. That is the first pair of braces. We also have the state veterinary service, the members of which go to the markets, and we have meat inspectors in slaughterhouses doing spot checks. So because the offals are removed, there is no prospect of meat contaminated with BSE getting into the human food chain.

The Minister gives assurances, but I do not believe that they will reassure either producers or consumers that BSE is being prevented from getting into the human food chain. A row erupted yesterday between environmental health officers from my area and the Department. The officers believe that they are being overruled from taking the necessary action to prevent contaminated offal from getting into the human food chain through meat. I understand that, because the industry lobbied the Ministry to try to get action taken, the Ministry intervened. This is turning into a scandal.

I advise the hon. Gentleman to check his facts. I do not blame farmers for wanting to get 100 per cent. compensation for all animals, but the hon. Gentleman must not pretend that 50 per cent. compensation is somehow leading to infected animals entering the food chain. I am satisfied that my veterinary officers behaved absolutely correctly yesterday. It is irrelevant whether the animal's head was or was not cut off before it entered the slaughterhouse.

Because the relevant offals have been removed from all animals' heads. I advise the hon. Gentleman to check his facts.

I thank the Minister for his prompt and efficient efforts to deal with the problem and in particular for the increased allocation for research into BSE, which is a matter of great concern in my constituency. As and when he is considering financial assistance for farmers affected by this problem, will he also take into account the damage done to farmers affected by the other problem of contaminated meat—lead in feedstuffs that has gone to some of my farmers' cattle?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the extra money that we have made available for food research, and I hope that that will stop Opposition Members from continually suggesting that essential research for food safety has been cut, which is patently not the case.

As for compensation, we believe that the measures that we have taken on BSE are absolutely fair, and that legal channels are open to those who have been affected by lead in feeding stuffs to claim compensation from the appropriate suppliers.

If what the Minister says is true, will he explain why there are regular and consistent reports from county council trading standards departments indicating the identification of BSE-infected cattle at livestock marts and abattoirs? Is it not a fact that the Tyrrell committee, the Minister's own scientific advisers, and the Government's announcement of the new research programme are clear indications that the Government recognise the real danger that exists to human health? Given that, why will the Minister not accept that the only way to prevent BSE-infected products from going into the human food chain is by offering 100 per cent. compensation, thereby stopping the entry at source?

That is absolute nonsense. Neither 100 per cent. compensation nor 50 per cent., compensation is the means to stop any infected offals entering the food chain. That is done by cutting out all the relevant offals. People wrongly call BSE "mad cow disease"; but it is a disease of the cow's brain and central nervous system. Those offals are removed from all cows whether they have BSE or not. There is, therefore, no question of meat being infected by BSE as those offals are removed.

European Commission Foodstuffs

11.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will review the distribution of free European Commission foodstuffs with a view to increasing the number of distribution centres; and if he will make a statement.

I will shortly be deciding on the arrangements for distributing surplus intervention foodstuffs to our most needy citizens.

Is the Minister aware that great difficulty was caused in the city of Bradford by the relatively small number of distribution centres and that although that caused great distress to a number of old people who had to queue for long hours, the Ministry turned down my request for extra distribution centres? Is he also aware that organisations such as the Dovesdale club in my constituency were willing and able to distribute the foodstuffs, but were turned down? The Ministry therefore contributed to the distress and difficulty caused by the distribution process. Will the Minister give me an assurance that he will consider establishing more distribution centres?

When this not very satisfactory scheme began, we took the view that distribution would be carried out by voluntary agencies. In fact, five undertake that task in Bradford. I have no intention of erecting a Government bureaucracy. Those organisations that can satisfy our requirements will, of course, be given entitlements, but the more that take part, the less each will receive and there is very little food to go around. Although I do not think it is a sensible scheme, we shall operate it as best as we can.

Prime Minister

Engagements

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 11 January.

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

Does my right hon. Friend agree that irresponsible wage claims unrelated to productivity will, if granted, lead to higher inflation, an erosion in the value of savings and the destruction of jobs?

My hon. Friend is quite right. If our wage costs rise faster than those of our competitors, our competitors will get the orders and the jobs. The movement of wage costs is disturbing. On the last available figures, for the second or third quarter of last year, United Kingdom wage costs were up by 6 per cent; those of the United States were up by 2 per cent; West Germanys were up by only 1 per cent; Japan's were down by 1 per cent; those of France were down by 3 per cent. and those of the Netherlands were down by 4 per cent. Those figures mean that all those concerned with getting orders and jobs in this country must have a careful look at keeping wage costs down.

Will the Prime Minister tell us how far she is prepared to blame herself and her Government's policies for the rate of inflation?

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, we have made it quite clear that there was too much money in the system for our output and therefore steps had to be taken to correct it—and they are being taken. I should point out that a rate of inflation of 7·6 per cent. was regarded as so low by the previous Labour Government that they had ambitions to get down to it.

But when it is the Government's deliberate policy to keep mortgage rates and interest rates very high, to increase electricity prices and fares arid shortly to impose both the business rate and the poll tax, is not the director general of the Confederation of British Industry absolutely right to say that inflation is the Government's fault?

No. Inflation happens when we have too much money in the system, which means that we are taking more out in money than we are putting in in output. That has to be corrected by two means. The first is by interest rates and the second is by keeping a tight fiscal policy. We are doing both.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the old-fashioned attitude of some trade union leaders who have not learnt lessons of the 1979–80? Will she reject the view that an increase in productivity automatically justifies a pay increase? It may be that productivity is rising in an industry but demand is falling. In those circumstances, a pay increase may not be justified.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The first rule is that wage increases must not outstrip productivity. As my right hon. Friend said, the other rule is that increased productivity comes from substantially increased investment of capital, so there must be a return on capital. Another rule should be that increased productivity should result in price reductions. The consumer is entitled to reductions if we are to remain competitive.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 11 January.

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

Can I remind the Prime Minister of the views that she expressed during a previous inustrial dispute? She said that she believed that the three emergency services—the police, the fire service and the ambulance crews—should have their pay negotiations taken out of the industrial arena and settled on the basis of a pay formula. Given the obvious merit of the ambulance crews' case, their overwhelming public support and the division in the ranks of the right hon. Lady's Government, is there any reason, other than her own love of confrontation, why there should not be a settlement of the ambulance dispute based on her own idea of a pay formula?

I do not accept the early part of the hon. Gentleman's comments. The ambulance crews' pay should be settled by reference to the NHS. The matter went before the Clegg commission, which rejected the claim that it should be settled on the same basis as the police and the firemen.

The pay claim dates back to last April. Some 84 per cent. of NHS employees settled last year's wage claims at 6·5 or 6·8 per cent. None of them were prepared to put the patients' interests at risk. It would be unfair to them to give in to those who refuse to settle through the Whitley council machinery.

My right hon. Friend may recall that at precisely this time last year I expressed my fear at the availability of crack spreading in our inner cities. One year later she will be aware of the escalation of the problem and the increased haulage of cocaine. In the light of those events, will she take the opportunity to reiterate the Government's determination to take every initiative possible to crack down on drug pushers? Does she have a message for young people who may be tempted to take drugs?

I agree that crack is a new and damaging form of cocaine. Last year Customs seized more cocaine than heroin, which shows that it is on the increase. We are co-operating, through the economic summit, to do everything possible to stop the laundering of the cash from drug trafficking. As my hon. Friend knows, we are supporting the efforts of President Barco of Colombia—[Interruption.]

Of course hon. Members cannot hear as they are making so much noise.

We are supporting those who wish to cut down the growing of and trafficking in cocaine in Latin America. There will be an international conference in London in the spring when, in conjunction with other Governments, we shall consider ways to try to cut the demand for drugs. We shall tell our young people about the dangers of taking drugs in the hope that we can prevent them from being tempted to take them.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 11 January.

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

Why is it that, according to ministerial answers, between now and the year 2013 the student loan scheme will cost the British taxpayer £2,170 million more than the present student grant scheme that it will replace?

There are obvious reasons. On a loan scheme, money is paid out for many years before money is returned. As it is returned—[Interruption.]

I should hardly have thought that the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) would need to ask the question. When the money is returned it will enable us to put more back into education.

Given my right hon. Friend's absolute determination to defeat inflation, what does she think of the idea, apparently supported by the governor, deputy governor and former deputy governor of the Bank of England, that a statutory obligation to maintain the stability of money should be placed on the Bank of England?

That obligation should remain as part of the Government's duty. As my right hon. Friend knows, there are two ways of achieving the goal. The first is by keeping money tight, which can be done only by interest rates. Secondly, it could also be achieved by tight fiscal policy—[Interruption.]

Order. I am aware that there is a problem with the microphones. It is difficult to hear.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 11 January.

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

Does not the Prime Minister understand that if her policy is to increase interest and mortgage rates it is obvious that people at work will demand higher and higher wages to pay for those higher interest rates? Is it her view that there is no alternative to that strategy—if so, it means that the wage demand escalation taking place is irreversible—or does she have some other secret policy which she is unwilling to disclose to the House; a sort of informal incomes policy based on the threat of higher and higher unemployment?

Wage costs and wage claims and their settlement are matters for industry. We hope that workers will take into account the fact that if wage costs price their products out of the market, workers price themselves out of jobs. The alternative to using the right policies to deal with inflation—interest rates and a tight fiscal policy—is to let inflation rip. That would result in far more unemployment than the steps we are presently taking, through which we have created more jobs in this country than ever before.

Q6.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 11 January.

As we are to some extent still a nation of shopkeepers and my right hon. Friend was born and brought up above the shop, as I was, what message does she have this week for those small businesses and shopkeepers worried about uniform business rates?

First, the amount raised from the business rate next year will be the same as this year plus inflation and, therefore, there will be no real increase in the business rate. My hon. Friend knows that there have been some changes in the business rate, one cause of which is the first rating revaluation since 1973. That has given rise to nearly three quarters of the increase in rates and would be an object lesson for anyone wanting to apply it to a domestic rating revaluation. My second point involves the way in which the business rate is collected. Because of those two factors the increases will be applied over a transitional period of at least five years so that the larger businesses do not pay more than 20 per cent. extra in real terms and the smaller ones no more than 15 per cent. in real terms each year during that period. It will be the first time that businesses have had an assurance about rates. It will be of great benefit to those manufacturing businesses and shops in the north and will help them to keep their costs down and get their jobs up.

While on the subject of shopkeepers, will the Prime Minister give her support to the "Parents Against Tobacco" campaign launched this week? Does she realise that its surveys reveal that more than 50 per cent. of shopkeepers are still prepared illegally to sell cigarettes to children under 16? What steps will she take to ensure that the law is enforced or, better still, strengthened, to provide an effective blockade between the tobacco industry and our children?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the law is enforced by the police. We have already taken some steps. For example, in conjunction with the European anti-cancer campaign, I announced a programme of £2 million for anti-smoking advertisements aimed at teenagers. That was launched on 11 December 1989. Although far too many young people between the ages of 11 and 15 still smoke, fortunately, the numbers are falling. Only about 8 per cent. smoke now, compared with 13 per cent. in 1984. We give our full support to the "Parents Against Tobacco" campaign. It will keep careful note of where cigarettes are sold to young children and give the information to the police. Knowledge of the campaign should already serve as an effective deterrent to those shopkeepers who perhaps do not take sufficient care to ensure that they do not infringe the law.

Business Of The House

3.30 pm

May I ask the Leader of the House to tell us the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Sir Geoffrey Howe)

The Business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 15 JANUARY—SeCOnd Reading of the Environmental Protection Bill.

TUESDAY 16 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Coal Industry Bill.

WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY—Until seven o'clock, there will be a debate on parliamentary pensions on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Committee and remaining stages of the Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

THURSDAY 18 JANUARY—Motions on English revenue support grant reports. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 19 JANUARY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 22 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Social Security Bill.

[Debate on Thursday 18 January 1990

Relevant documents:

Population Report (England) (HC 48);

Revenue Support Grant Report ( England) 1990–91 (HC47);

Revenue Support Grant Distribution Report (England) (HC 49);

Revenue Support Grant Transition Report (England) (HC 50);

Special Grant Report (HC 51).]

Given the continuing economic difficulties and the problems being caused to people by crisis mortgage and other interest rates and inflation, when are we likely to have the two separate debates on the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Autumn Statement and the public expenditure White Paper? I am sure that both Conservative and Opposition Members are anxious to have an opportunity to debate the continuing failure of the Government's economic policies.

Will the Leader of the House explain why, in a complete break with all precedents and practice, the revenue support grant decisions of the Secretary of State for the Environment will be announced today in a written reply? According to precedent, the Secretary of State has always come to the House to make an oral statement about rate support grant decisions affecting every local authority in England and Wales, but that will not be done on this occasion. Is that because the Government and Ministers are terrified of disclosing the implications of the poll tax and the new national business tax on constituencies, local authorities and individuals throughout Britain?

It is unacceptable for the Secretary of State for the Environment to dodge his responsibility to the House of Commons in this way. After all, his decision will have a major effect on the level of the poll tax and the business tax. The House should have the opportunity to question him on the matter, particularly as this is the first year in which we and our constituents shall have to endure the poll tax.

Since the Prime Minister has now made it clear that the Government are effectively operating a pay policy in the public sector, will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on that important matter, so that we can raise questions on behalf of our constituents who are suffering so grievously because of inflation, imminent rises in rents, the poll tax and mortgage rates? They should have a clear statement from the Secretary of State for Employment about exactly what that pay policy means.

Obviously, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise date for the debate on the Autumn Statement, but I hope that it will be possible to announce it in my next business statement. I shall also be looking for an early opportunity for a debate on the public expenditure White Paper.

On each of those occasions, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be able, willing and delighted to present to the House the economic policy that has served Britain so successfully throughout the past 10 years. He will make it entirely plain that there is no question of a prices and incomes policy of the kind so frequently beloved by Labour Governments. But he will make it equally plain that we shall continue to sustain firm monetary and fiscal policies, and that a crucial part of any sensible economic policy is restraint by those responsible for pay bargaining for the sake of the employment of their own members as well as other people. It is as a result of success in that respect that Britain has been able to achieve a faster and more prolonged reduction in unemployment than any other European country in recent years.

The orders in relation to local government will be the subject of a debate next Thursday. I shall be tabling motions which will enable the debate to run until 10 o'clock and questions on the orders to be put thereafter. The matter is being brought before the House on an entirely new basis. There is no question of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment being terrified of presenting the case to the House. He will be delighted once again to present and justify his conclusions in the debate that will take place next Thursday.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the course taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on the revenue support grant is a thoroughly sensible one and a wise change in the procedure? Hitherto, we have always had the figures flung at us, hon. Members have had no opportunity to discuss them and, in those circumstances, the exchanges have been a farce. It is far better to have the figures before us, allow a week to study them, and then have a proper debate, as we shall do.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the most sensible aspect of the arrangements that are being set in hand. In addition, the figures are now being made available promptly, with a view to a prompt debate within a week of their being published.

In the light of the statement made shortly before Christmas by the Secretary of State for Transport on the railway industry, and the speech recently delivered by Sir Robert Reid on the need for more investment in the railways, would it not be timely to have a debate on the future of our railways, particularly the ways in which Scotland, Wales and the regions of England can benefit from the Channel link?

It was clear during questions to the Prime Minister and from the question asked by the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) that there is great concern about the interest in the uniform business rate. When the legislation was going through, I and my hon. Friends warned of the damage that would be done by linking the uniform business rate with revaluation. It gives me no satisfaction to say, "I told you so," and it is even less satisfying for many small businesses that will have to pay vastly increased sums in rates. Is it not time that we had a debate?

I cannot offer any undertaking of a debate in respect of that matter, but it will certainly be noted—I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to acknowledge this—that the most significant effect of the way in which the uniform business rate will operate will be a substantial transfer of benefit to those in manufacturing industry and in the northern parts of the country principally, as has been advocated by hon. Members on both sides of the House as an entirely desirable state of affairs.

On transport, the important feature is that the recent speech made by Sir Robert Reid endorses and acknowledges the fact that British Rail investment is currently running at the highest level for 25 years and that the Government have endorsed British Rail's investment programme of £3·7 billion over the next three years. That is a 75 per cent. increase over the level of the three preceding years.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, while some right hon. and hon. Members are undoubtedly growing older and deafer, the acoustics in this Chamber are without question getting considerably worse? Consequently, Ministers have some difficulty in being heard by you. Mr. Speaker, and by other right hon. and hon. Members. As there has been a definite deterioration, will my right hon. and learned Friend refer the matter to the appropriate Committee or authority next week, or give the matter some consideration himself?

I am not sure that there has been any measurable deterioration in the acoustics of the Chamber—[HON. MEMBERS: "Pardon?"] However, a large number of right hon. and hon. Members have drawn that matter to my attention, as they drew it to your attention, Mr. Speaker, yesterday. Our advice is that any problems are due to the substantial antiquity of the existing microphones. When the televising experiment was authorised, it was agreed that the existing acoustic equipment should be used, but the Select Committee on the Televising of Proceedings of the House, over which I preside, is seized of the problem and will be studying what should be done to modernise the acoustic equipment in line with television broadcasting, whether or not that continues.

Is the Leader of the House aware that, earlier today, the Secretary of State for Health stated that he did not propose giving any further money to Tranx, which is the major national agency for helping people who are addicted to tranquillisers, saying that he will finance only local groups? As no local groups exist in many areas of Britain, where Tranx has filled those gaps, many thousands of people who are desperately addicted to tranquillisers will receive no help in future. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman arrange a debate on that matter next week?

I am not familiar with that particular aspect of the subject, but I shall certainly bring it to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health, for him to consider.

Bearing in mind the fact that car workers in Britain are not fully subject to market forces because of the effect of the so-called gentlemen's agreement to limit certain car imports, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that now would be a good time to debate that agreement, with a view to abandoning that pernicious and damaging piece of protectionism?

My hon. Friend is undoubtedly right in identifying that agreement as one that has some protectionist effect on conditions in the car industry. I cannot yet say whether or not we shall have a debate on that matter in the near future.

Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that he will stop disrupting the proceedings and business of the House by bringing forward unannounced motions giving draconian powers to Committee Chairs? The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have noted the considerable concern expressed by many right hon. and hon. Members on that matter on Tuesday. I wish that they had expressed similar concern when the matter was before the House last year. Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that, if such motions are to be brought forward, adequate notice will be provided so that they can be properly debated?

Such motions must be brought forward without notice, as they have been in the past, in response to hooliganism of which no notice whatsoever is given. That is the reason for the procedure that was adopted early last year. You, Mr. Speaker, voiced some sympathy with the view expressed in the House on Tuesday that the Procedure Committee should consider whether powers ought to be given to the Chairmen of Standing Committees to take action, rather than interrupting the proceedings of the House. I entirely sympathise with that view, and I hope that the Procedure Committee will consider that matter.

Will my right hon. arid learned Friend find time for an early debate on privilege and the proceedings of this House, particularly in the light of the exhibition by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) on Tuesday? It would seem that we can either retain our existing privileges or live transmission of the proceedings of this House, but not both.

I am sure that the whole House will, or should, support my hon. Friend's view that the privileges of the House are not to be abused as he complains that they have been. It is my expectation still that the availability of television is more likely to expose irresponsibility and hooliganism and lead to public criticism of them than to do the reverse.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman reconsider the reply that he gave to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) about a debate on railways? In particular, may we have a debate on the future of the Channel tunnel? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that five workers on the British side and one on the French side have already been killed in the construction work? It is clear that, with the new financial arrangements that have just been made, there will be cost-cutting on a huge scale, which could mean greater danger for the workers involved. There could be a slippage of safety and health regulations as they relate to those workers. Is it not important that we should concern ourselves with the health and safety of workers building the tunnel, and should we not have an early debate on the subject?

I am not sure that that subject would itself justify an early debate, given the timetable of the House in general, but the whole House will agree with the hon. Gentleman that the necessary expeditious completion of work on the Channel tunnel must at all times be accompanied by proper and continuing attention to the health and safety of the workers involved.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this month we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill? Do the Government have any plans to mark the occasion? Would it not be an admirable idea to rename Parliament square "Churchill square" in his honour?

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the importance of that anniversary and he has made a characteristically attractive suggestion, although I am not sure that it would command long-term universal assent.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the deep concern—indeed, revulsion —both in the House and outside it, at the continued slaughter—

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I am finding this rather difficult because of this bit actor on my left.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the revulsion at the continued slaughter by the Japanese of minke whales in the Antarctic and will he arrange for an early debate on the subject? If he cannot do that, will he tell the Prime Minister of the deep concern in the House and elsewhere and ask her to ensure that the Prime Minister of Japan is left in no uncertain mind as to how we feel?

Will the Leader of the House also ensure that, when the Foreign Secretary goes to Hong Kong at the weekend, he will not enter a reservation on behalf of Hong Kong allowing 670 tonnes of elephant ivory to be put on the world market? These are important matters which the House ought to have a chance to debate.

The hon. Gentleman is by no means the only hon. Member to have expressed continuing concern about both these matters, and I fully understand why. I cannot now, however, make any kind of undertaking on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary concerning the position that he will adopt on ivory when he visits Hong Kong in the days ahead. No doubt the matter can be discussed in the House at a later opportunity. I join the hon. Gentleman in regretting the decision of Japan to continue catching whales. He will know that we co-sponsored a resolution at the meeting in June last year calling on Japan to reconsider its original proposal to take 400 minke whales this season. We share the hon. Gentleman's regret that Japan decided to proceed, albeit with a lower catch.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for the House to discuss the appalling burden that the Labour group on Lancashire county council proposes to impose on the citizens of Lancashire so that Lancashire Members may point out to their colleagues that the predicted increases in spending since last September alone amount to 15·6 per cent., and that reserves have been reduced almost to zero?

Although I cannot promise to offer the opportunity of a debate in the House, I understand why my hon. Friend thinks it right to draw that serious matter to our attention.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the poll tax to enable the Government to confirm that they propose to exempt young people aged between 18 and 20 who are at school or in further education? The Government could even do something popular for a change by exempting all students in higher and further education from the poll tax, now more widely known as the Tory tax.

The community charge will be the subject of debate next Thursday, as I have already announced. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise that matter, he may have the opportunity then.

I am sure you will agree, Mr. Speaker, that my right hon. and learned Friend is a splendid democrat—one of the best. He is well aware of the fact that there is deep unease among the public about the Government's proposal to allow mass immigration from Hong Kong. I ask him to postpone bringing the measure before the House. Will he join me in asking all members of the public who are concerned about the issue to write to their Member of Parliament so that the House will be promptly aware of public concern? My constituents—

Order. Questions must be about a debate next week, not about letters to us.

I ask my right hon. and learned Friend if we can have a debate on that proposal next week.

The amount of mail that we receive from our constituents is the subject of continuous private debate in the House.

May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary, prior to any further involuntary repatriation of the Vietnamese boat people, on the legal advice that is available to them when they represent their cases before they are repatriated? May we also have a statement on the situation in Hong Kong, where the Government appear to be setting up concentration camps to avoid the vigilance of the media?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's perception of the matter is far adrift from the facts. The only way to deal with the large number of people who have come into Hong Kong from Vietnam in the past few years is by accommodating them in camps that are as comfortable as they can be in the circumstances. Further measures for handling those people will be considered at the third meeting of the international conference's steering committee when it resumes on 18 and 19 January. We are seeking an international agreement on the implementation of the principle that all non-refugees should return to Vietnam. There is some encouraging evidence, which is important, that the United States is beginning to show a greater understanding of our position.

While my right hon. and learned Friend has been reacting sympathetically towards debates on domestic issues, will he not lose sight of the fact that a lot is happening in the rest of the world? The praiseworthy tendency to have more foreign affairs debates in good time ought to be continued enthusiastically in the coming months.

My hon. and learned Friend has been a consistent advocate of that understandably attractive course. The fact that I have been able to implement it thus far does not necessarily mean that I shall be able to keep up the same tempo, but I shall bear his interest in mind.

Can we please have a debate on the situation of the Vietnamese boat people while they await whatever fate it may be? The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that people are being kept in conditions that are as comfortable as possible. I visited the camps two weeks ago, as I have done on other occasions, and I was shocked. They are not concentration camps in the sense that people are hungry or cold, but they are places where people are kept behind barbed wire, living on shelves four or five high, up to the ceiling, with open sewers. Surely at least the sewers should be closed off.

Order. Since this is an Opposition day, I would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman not to go into detail, but to ask for a debate.

May we please have a debate on the details the camps in which people are being kept, as they are not comfortable, not clean, not pleasant and not human, and it is not right for us to have any part of them?

The hon. and learned Gentleman compactly and eloquently expresses precisely the case for trying to ensure that the number of people in the camps does not increase, and that is an ample justification for the Government's policy.

Pursuant to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that there is as much time as possible during next Thursday's debate for Back-Bench contributions from Lancashire so that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell), my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and I may draw the scrutiny of the House to Lancashire county council's proposal to increase spending to a degree equivalent to a 31·4 per cent. increase on the rates?

If my hon. Friends who represent Lancashire constituencies get their case across next Thursday as well as they have this Thursday, they will have done very well.

When the Government presented their proposals on community care and then combined them with others to produce the National Health Service and Community Care Bill, they failed to provide a braille version. Given the Government's repeated undertakings in the House on their commitment to the disabled, will the Leader of the House make a statement next week confirming that, in future, all Government publications will be produced simultaneously in braille, so that disabled people can gain some knowledge of legislation that affects their lives?

Of course the whole House sympathises with people who are afflicted in a way that requires them to use braille as a means of obtaining access to information. I cannot give the undertaking for which the hon. Lady asks in precisely the form that she requires, but I shall draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) about the renewed attacks on minke whales in the Antarctic by the Japanese Government, and thank he Leader of the House for his sympathetic answer to the hon. Gentleman. As he did not concede the necessity for an early debate, however, will he think about the matter once more? The Japanese Prime Minister is currently visiting London, will see our Prime Minister tomorrow and would, I am sure, be impressed—along with his nation—by the condemnation that the whole House would certainly express.

My hon. Friend will, I think, appreciate that I cannot arrange a debate before tomorrow's Japanese visit, but I can reaffirm what I said in answer to the earlier question: the view of Her Majesty's Government—widely supported, I am sure, on both sides of the House—is that the resumption of fishing for the minke whale is supremely to be regretted.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the chairman of British Telecom has pronounced publicly that the sleazy telephone service that the Director General of Oftel has so patently failed to control is a "blight on the industry". Is it not time that the matter was brought back to the House, so that we can legislate to deal with it? That is what the chairman of British Telecom wants, what the Director General of Oft el wants and what respectable people in the industry want; why do the Government not want it?

I do not wish to anticipate to any extent the reply that the hon. Gentleman is likely to receive to the Adjournment debate on the subject that he has been fortunate enough to secure for next week.

Although the introduction of credit controls would be impracticable arid almost certainly counter-productive, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the widespread concern on both sides of the House about the highly irresponsible attitude of all the clearing banks, and many other financial institutions, that have solicited business—quite unnecessarily—from our constituents, often young people? We are anxious to arrange a debate so that we can make it clear to the banks that their attitude is discreditable and should cease forthwith.

I know that my hon. Friend is not alone in his view, which has been expressed in the House on other occasions. He may have an opportunity to express it more fully in the economic debates that we hope to have in the weeks ahead.

Before we discuss the next Social Security Bill, will the Leader of the House make time for us to discuss the effects of the regulation introduced on 10 December? In practical terms, that regulation means that any short-time worker earning £43 a week or more is no longer entitled to unemployment benefit. Is the Leader of the House aware that more than 9,000 textile and clothing workers are now on short time, and that their incomes have, at best, been effectively halved?

I cannot comment on the detail of the hon. Lady's question, but, as she implies, it may be possible for her to raise the matter in the debate on the forthcoming Social Security Bill.

My right hon. and learned Friend knows of the anxiety on both sides of the House about the scrutiny of European legislation. Will he be good enough to arrange for a debate to be held as soon as possible on the Procedure Committee's report on the subject? It would allay many concerns as we move towards the intergovernmental conference and all that goes with it.

I know of my hon. Friend's continuing interest in the subject. It was the subject of an important report from the Procedure Committee. We shall want to have a debate upon it, in one form or another, before too long.

To revert to the question of audibility, of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be aware, is it not clear that more and more hon. Members are finding it difficult to follow the proceedings? That is not primarily due to the noisy brigade, led by—oh, he has absented himself; he usually sits on my right. Is it not an odd coincidence that this should have arisen after the introduction of all the technical equipment for television transmissions? Is it not more important that hon. Members should be able to hear what is going on in the Chamber rather than that television companies should be allowed to exclude extraneous sounds picked up on these mikes, which is what has happened?

I understand, and the whole House understands, that we want to achieve both things.

But he speaks on that matter only for himself at the moment. In so far as the House wishes to have now, or on a continuing basis in the future, television coverage of the House, we want it to be effective. We also want to have the effective transmission of sound to each other—

—as well as to the outside world. The Broadcasting Committee is well aware of both those matters. Our awareness will be fortified by the hon. Gentleman's continuing interest in the subject.

My right hon. and learned Friend has placed on the Order Paper four motions that constitute a major erosion of Back-Bench rights. In particular, he has decided that ten-minute Bills—the only means available to Back Benchers through initiative rather than lottery—should become the subject of the lottery. He has also proposed to curtail certain Back-Bench activities on Friday mornings and the subjects that Back Benchers can raise on Friday mornings by means of private Members' motions. What consultations has my right hon. and learned Friend held with Back Benchers? Is he aware of the substantial feeling about these motions in all quarters of the House? Before they come formally before the House, will he please consult Back Benchers, who hold strong feelings about the issue?

Obviously, these motions have not appeared on the Order Paper without consideration and discussion. Some of them have been considered by the Procedure Committee. However, in deciding how best to handle these matters in future, I shall take account of my hon. Friend's points.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread concern about the decline of the British merchant fleet? It appears to most people that the Government are constantly fudging the issue. There is recent evidence that certain companies have had to use vessels that are unsuitable for the trade because of the paucity of British merchant ships. Is it not time that the Government took this matter on board and held a debate—if not next week, as soon as possible?

The subject has been a matter of concern to successive Governments, not only in this country but in other countries, for a number of years, and has led to a series of investigations and reports. I shall take account of the fact that the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to it today and will bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Given that we should practise what we preach, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a short debate on the way in which paper is used and abused in the Chamber, both from the point of view of the litter that is left around at the end of the day, which must look terrible to television viewers, and because we are making no effort to use recycled paper? Most of our scribbling is done on the most expensive quality paper. Most civil servants' letters drag on to two sheets of paper, but the second page could easily by typed on the back of the first. Could we have a short debate on the subject, so as to bring it home to all of us?

My hon. Friend raises a matter which is of increasingly widespread interest among hon. Members. A number of hon. Members have raised the matter with me in different forms. I shall take account of my hon. Friend's enthusiasm.

If the Leader of the House is to ask the Procedure Committee to look at the powers of Chairmen of Standing Committees, can we be assured that he will ask members of the Chairmen's Panel for their views, as I can assure him that at least one member is not happy about that power being granted to him in the Chair?

I take note of the point raised by the hon. Gentleman. I doubt whether there is likely to be unanimity, as there are not many matters that command unanimity, but I shall certainly bring it to the attention of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give deep and serious consideration to an early debate on the powers of Chairmen of Standing Committees, in view of events this week after my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) had made a personal statement on 19 December? "Erskine May" makes it quite clear on page 389 that,

"Where one Member makes an allegation against another Member, he is required to do so in writing to the Registrar, who refers the allegation to the Committee and informs the Member concerned."
My right hon. and learned Friend will realise that all the problems in the House and in Committee were the result of the failure to comply with "Erskine May". We now require an early opportunity to do something about it. If we cannot have a debate, can the matter be referred to the Procedure Committee as soon as possible?

I understand the points raised by my hon. Friend and I have no doubt that they will be considered by the Procedure Committee when it considers the proposals that result from the conduct about which he understandably complains.

Now that there will be a further rapid rundown of the mining industry, will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate to enable us to discuss Government policy to enable mining communities to attract alternative employment for young miners?

I take note of the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, but the Coal Industry Bill is currently before the House.

Following the overwhelming vote at the end of the debate on war crimes, can my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House when he anticipates the publication of a Bill based on the Hetherington report?

The Government are currently considering the form that legislation might take, in the light of the views expressed in both Houses. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary hopes to make an announcement before too long.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the question asked by the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) about the need for mature consideration when we have been deluged with statistics? I make no complaint about that, but surely the House should have the opportunity before next Thursday's debate, having given mature consideration to the statistics published today, to question the Secretary of State in the Chamber so that the debate makes sense.

We were told during the passage of the poll tax Bill that there would be no diminution of information and opportunities available to the House to hold Ministers to account. We will have lost that if we lose the oral statement, which could easily be made on Monday after the weekend, when we have had a chance to look at the figures, and the ability to make use of it in the debate.

The fact that Birmingham's poll tax will be more than £400 is a direct result of the operation of the revenue support grant and the unified business rate. We need answers to questions before we can make a valid argument for our constituents in the short time available in next Thursday's debate. Can we please have that statement on Monday?

The point that the hon. Gentleman raises and the needs of local authorities, among other things, are intended to be met by the fact that we have an early debate, no more than a week, away of the matters that have been laid before the House today.

May I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe)? It is in the nature of politicians that they are often bursting to say something, but it is equally the nature of an assembly composed of 650 professional and semi-professional politicians that it is often difficult to find the opportunity to say what one has to say. The ten-minute Bill has been the opportunity where, by sheer force of will—I have twice queued all night—if one really wants to say something, one can make the effort, queue all night and get 10 minutes of prime time. It would be reprehensible if that traditional system were replaced by a balloted system, and I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to reconsider.

I understand my hon. Friend's point, but of course there are opposing arguments to be put, which led to the motion being tabled.

In view of the continuing concern about the substantial outside financial interests of Members of Parliament, would it be possible for the Leader of the House to arrange a debate in the near future? Does he agree that it is highly undesirable that a number of companies use and pay Members of Parliament for their commercial interests, but Members do not necessarily have to declare an interest, certainly not at Question Time? These are matters of public concern, about which there should be a debate as soon as possible.

The matter has been considered and debated a number of times in the context of hon. Members' interests generally, and the Register is available to deal with it. The matter raised by the hon. Gentleman can be considered further in due course.

In view of the importance of next Thursday's debate, will my right hon. and learned Friend resist any temptation from the organisers of Government business, or from any other source, to put a statement in front of the debate, particularly since, as I understand it, he is refusing the House the opportunity sought by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) to have a statement some time in the week before the debate?

Yes, I certainly take account of my hon. Friend's point. It is a matter which I try to take into account more generally, but it is not always possible to do so. I shall certainly keep it in mind for that day.

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the seemingly shortened lead-in time between the time when legislation is enacted and when its provisions come into force? Specifically, I think that it is entirely unsatisfactory that there should be provisions in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 for changing the sliding scale for, and means-testing of, home improvements grants for thousands of people. It is still the case today that neither the Secretary of State for the Environment nor the Secretary of State for Wales has seen fit to lay before the House the regulations necessary for local authorities and people who have major problems of house disrepair to know where they stand. Will he please look into that and arrange for it to be done as soon as possible, so that people are certain what the Government will introduce?

In the context of all legislation coming before the House, legislation under consideration by it or by Committee, attention should be, and is, focused on the relationship between the commencement date of an Act and its provisions; it is entirely right that that should be so. I cannot answer the particular point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Wales.

Order. I will call the three hon. Members who have been rising, but this is an Opposition day. I ask hon. Members to keep their questions brief.

Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the future funding of the national museums in the light of yesterday's report by the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, which recommended, most regrettably, compulsory admission charges? Such a debate would give the Government the opportunity to account to the House for their neglect and underfunding of national museums over the past 10 years and to explain why they are abandoning the long-standing tradition of free access to our national museums.

I cannot offer any undertaking of such a debate, but no doubt the House will wish to consider the report of the Select Committee at an appropriate stage.

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the reply that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) regarding the need for a statement on the Government's new pay policy which has developed over the past few weeks? Is he aware that we should like to question the Chancellor of the Exchequer about who is in the pay policy, what is the hidden agenda, what is the pay norm and why company directors received 28 per cent. last year without the Government taking a blind bit of notice, yet when ambulance crews are offered 6·5 per cent. and then try to fight for more, the Government introduce a pay policy to stop them and other low-paid workers of a similar kind?

It is high time that the Government took the wraps off and told the nation the truth—that after 10 years their economic policy is in ruins, and that they have now resorted to putting a curb on free collective bargaining for low-paid workers, especially those ambulance workers who are fighting at this time.

That is in no sense an appropriate question on the business of the House. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a speech, he should try to find the opportunity in the course of the two economic debates which I foreshadowed in my earlier answers.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) to make a full personal statement to the Commons to answer the single question that I have asked him in Committee on many occasions and on the Floor of the House of Commons? The question has been asked repeatedly in the Scottish media: by newspapers, by radio and by television interviewers. The question is whether, when he is no longer a Minister, he intends to return to the firm of Michael Forsyth Ltd. When that question is answered, the matter will be finished.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) has behaved in respect of these matters with complete propriety and he has done his best to answer as he should the allegations made by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) under the cover of parliamentary privilege. If the matter is as important as the hon. Gentleman has said, he might take the opportunity of raising it outside that cover.

Points Of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I raise this point of order immediately following the point made by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). This morning, in Standing Committee E, he attempted once again to raise the allegations that he made on 19 December and on Tuesday, and he was ruled out of order by the Chairman of the Committee.

I want to raise two points for your consideration, Mr. Speaker, on which you can, perhaps, make a ruling at a later date. First, if an hon. Member, having made an allegation in Committee, has had those allegations refuted by the hon. Member about whom the allegations have been made, is it in order for the hon. Member on subsequent occasions, in Committee or in the House, to make the same allegations that have been refuted? That is tantamount to declaring that the other hon. Member is a liar and that one does not believe what he has said.

My second point relates to page 389 of "Erskine May", which says:
"Where one Member makes an allegation against another Member"—
in talking about a Member's interests—
"he is required to do so in writing to the Registrar, who refers the allegation to the Committee and informs the Member concerned."
That has not been done in this case, so may we have your ruling on both points of principle?

First of all, unhappily, it is not possible for me to comment in the House on what happens in Standing Committees. I hope that what the hon. Gentleman has said this afternoon is not true, in view of the solemn undertaking by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), which the whole House heard. It was the reason why the Leader of the House withdrew his motion on Tuesday, so I hope that what has been said is not the truth.

On the second point, there is a distinction between the private interests of Members of Parliament and ministerial interests, which come under different rules. I hope that we shall always deal with each other in this place in total fairness, and as men and women of honour across the Chamber. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should persist in this conduct.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you confirm that one of the problems with the present Register of Members' Interests is that it records what has happened and what is happening now, but not what may happen in the future? That is the nub of the complaint of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). The wider issue is to ensure that people do not do things now as a Minister or as a Member of Parliament that might bring them further financial reward. Until that issue is resolved, there will continue to he disquiet in the House.

I think that the whole House will agree that it would he marvellous if we could tell what would happen in future, but if the hon. Gentleman wants the rules to be changed, he must approach the Select Committee. This is not a point of order for me.

I attended Standing Committee E for its entire sitting on Tuesday morning and this morning. I also attended our sitting on Tuesday afternoon. From the Committee's discussions, it was my understanding that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), through the shadow Leader of the House, had given an undertaking that he would not return to these issues. He now says that he only gave an undertaking not to disrupt the Committee. On Tuesday morning, by his repetition of his allegations, despite the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes), the Chairman, to stop him doing so, he disrupted the Committee. May we have a clear ruling that the hon. Gentleman will not use the privilege of the House to indulge in McCarthyite smears of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, when my hon. Friend has given the clearest assurances that there is nothing in such smears?

Again, I have to say, that I do not have direct knowledge of what goes on in Committee. However, in the light of what happened last Tuesday, I have looked at the Committee Hansard. I understand that the Minister concerned made a declaration and an open expression of what his interests were. I hope that the hon. Member for Workington and the whole House will accept that undertaking.

Mr. Harry Ewing
(Falkirk, East)