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Orders Of The Day

Volume 165: debated on Wednesday 17 January 1990

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Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Considered in Committee.

Clause 1

Qualifying Conditions

7.8 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 17, leave out from 'men)' to the end of line 18 and insert

'the words "is a woman who" are hereby repealed.'.

With this we shall discuss amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 28, leave out subsection (4).

The main reason for clause 1 is that the public service pension schemes presently discriminate between the sexes in a way that, from January 1993, will no longer be permissible under the European directive on equal treatment in occupational schemes. The discrimina?tion is found in a rule that provides for pension increases to women under 55 with dependent children. Men in the same position do not qualify for pension increases unless they have retired because of ill health or, having retired on other grounds, are disabled by physical or mental infirmity.

The discrimination operates only up to the age of 55. A man whose pension starts before that age will not get increases, except on health grounds, unless he is 55. When he reaches that age, his pension is increased to the level that it would have reached if the discrimination did not exist. The loss of pension to a policeman who, for example, retires—as many do—in his 40s can be considerable. At the age of 54, he could be drawing a pension worth half or less its original value.

On Second Reading, the Minister said that if the discrimination was removed, by bringing men up to the level of entitlement that women now enjoy, about 7,000 police pensions would have to be increased and that if analogous arrangements were made for the armed forces, another 50,000 would be affected. That would be expensive, but public service pensions are not public charity: they are paid for in exactly the same way as all other occupational pensions, either by direct contributions by employees and employers or by an adjustment of salary in the case of a non-contributory scheme, such as the Civil Service scheme. Neither the employers nor the Government have a moral right to make unilateral decisions of that sort without consulting the members of the scheme and discussing the alternatives and how any additional costs might be met. No such consultations appear to have taken place.

The Minister argued that equalising in favour of men would mean increasing the pensions paid to those who retire at comparatively young ages and who can then enjoy second careers. That is an extremely worrying argument for those who are affected, such as the police, who have good historical reasons for retiring at an early age. If it is acceptable to pay a retired policemen a pension that falls in value every year because he can make up for the loss by taking another job, the implication must be that he does not need the pension at all.

How long will it be before the Government decide, in the interests of efficient targeting, that no public servant should receive a pension below the age of 55? That is the logical conclusion of the Government's decision to which clause 1 inexorably leads us. Our amendment would tackle the problem of discrimination from the other end—equalising in favour of men, rather than removing the rights enjoyed by a small number of women. The Opposition do not propose to divide the Committee at this stage, but we hope to hear a statement about the Government's views on the issue, since no such statement was forthcoming on Second Reading.

The National Union of Teachers and the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association—practically the only bodies that seem to be aware of the Bill—say that they oppose the Government's proposals. The NUT believes that there should be legislation with the opposite effect —that equality of provision should be achieved by levelling up rather than levelling down, as proposed.

The Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association is opposed to the clause as drafted and regrets the removal of an entitlement to pensions increased to female pensioners under 55 with dependants. That organisation writes:
"The removal of this benefit is wholly unnecessary as regards the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme as the scheme's fund is well able to bear the financial cost of treating men on equal terms."
While comparisons can be made with the police—a profession from which traditionally people retire at an early age—few male teachers would be caught in the net. We are told that the cost to the teachers superannuation scheme would be small.

It is worrying not to have heard a statement about the Government's thinking on the equalisation of pensions, especially as equalisation is just over the horizon, or will happen within a few years. Seven of our 12 EEC partners have already equalised their basic pensions, most of them at the age of 65, with France equalising at 60.

Perhaps more significant is what has happened recently in occupational pension schemes in Britain. With a view to equalising pensions in that sector, many have taken action and, from May to August 1988 of those occupational funds that equalised their pensions between the sexes, only 21 per cent. had equalised at age 60, while 55 per cent., by far the majority, had equalised at 65.

May we be told what plans the Government have? As I said, the amendment attempts to solve the problem of discrimination by ensuring that we level up rather than down. Although, as I said, we shall not divide the Committee on the issue, it is clear that much consultation with members of the schemes affected is necessary. We hope that that will take place.

I thank the Opposition, and in particular the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), for enabling us to take the Committee stage on the Floor of the House.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we discussed the important issue of levelling up and down on Second Reading, when he signposted the fact that he would be taking a further interest in the subject. He has deployed the same arguments at this stage, and the answer that I shall give the Committee is along the lines that I adduced on Second Reading.

Clause 1(2)(b) and subsection (4) provide for the phasing out of the payment of pensions increase paid to women below the age of 55 if they have dependent children, a point stressed by the hon. Member for Newport, West. The existing law—that is, section 3(2)(c) of the Pensions (Increase) Act 1971—discriminates against men and must be changed to comply with the United Kingdom's obligations under European Community equal treatment law, which is EC directive 86/3/78.

7.15 pm

As I explained on Second Reading, the existing provisions benefit very few women; to our knowledge, only eight women fall into this category. But extending it to men would be costly. Equal treatment can, therefore, be secured only by removing that provision. The clause does that by phasing out the provision in a way which fully protects the accrued rights of female scheme members and pensioners.

Acceptance of the amendment would mean that pensions increase would be payable from 1 January 1993 on pensions paid to men below the age of 55, provided they had dependent children, even on the parts of those pensions earned by service before that date. That, as the hon. Member for Newport, West pointed out, would be very costly indeed, and retrospective improvement to the superannuation provisions would benefit almost exclusively the younger retired members of the police, fire service and armed forces schemes at an age at which many of them can and do enjoy second careers.

I advise the Committee to reject the amendment because, as I said on Second Reading, the total cost of it would be substantial. It would be about £80 million a year at today's pension levels, rising to over £100 million a year at today's pension levels after about 20 years.

Those who have retired on ill health grounds or who are physically or mentally disabled already receive pensions increase when below the age of 55, and when other pensioners in the schemes reach 55—that is, still five years younger than the normal retirement age for most public service schemes and 10 years below the state pension age—their pensions are increased and the increase built up since they retired is paid up to then.

The Committee will agree that we could not give priority to targeting extra support on a group of public service pensioners who already enjoy some of the best pension provisions of any groups of public sector employees.

The hon. Member for Newport, West raised the issue of the equalisation of pension ages. The Government recognise the arguments for equalisation of pension age, but a great many complex issues must be considered, including demographic factors and the long-term economic and financial implications of any change for individuals, employers and the state.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of what was happening in Europe and was right to suggest that some European countries have a common pension age. The common pension age in Denmark is 67, and in Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain it is 65. 1 do not imagine that women nearing pensionable age would be delighted were the British Government to raise the pension age to 65.

Five countries have different pension ages. They are Belgium, where men retire at 65 and women at 60; Greece, where men retire at 65 and women at 60; Italy, men at 60 and women at 55—the only country with a 55 pension age for women; Portugal, men at 65 and women at 62; and the United Kingdom, men at 65 and women at 60.

I hope that, having heard my reasons why we cannot accept the amendment, plus the additional background information on the equalisation of pension ages, the hon. Member for Newport, West will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

I support the thrust of the case that has already been made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). However, I am puzzled by the size of the sum of money involved. I agree that if I was in the Minister's shoes I would not wish to spend £180 million in such a way, because there are other claims on the money that also come under the social security heading.

If I understand the situation correctly, we are talking about extending pensions, after 1 January 1993, to men under 55 with dependants, and the amendment aims to give them a larger increase than that provided for in the Bill.

Presumably we are talking about the cost over a period and not expenditure of £180 million in the year commencing 1 January 1993. Either there are more people within the category that would get the increase if the amendment were passed than I imagined, or the sums of money to be paid to them are larger than I imagined.

What I am trying to say, in a cack-handed fashion, is that either the increases are large or a huge number of people will benefit from them.

I know that this is a technical question and the Minister may not have the information immediately available to answer, but I think that the Committee would like to know why such substantial sums of money would be involved if the amendment were passed. Will a few men under the age of 55 get a substantial increase in the short term, or will thousands of new pensioners benefit from the amendment? That is an important question. Why do the Government estimate that the costs will be greater if this amendment is made?

I shall do my best to answer the understandable and legitimate question of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood).

I shall again paint some of the backcloth. As I said earlier, only eight women in the schemes for which data are available—the Civil Service, the National Health Service in Great Britain and teachers in England and Wales—currently benefit from the provisions. The cost of the pensions increase to be paid to them is approximately £3,000. Home Office estimates for the police scheme in England and Wales show that no more than 50 or 60 retired policewomen could benefit from the provision, and the actual number is thought to be somewhat less. There are no retired female firefighters or armed forces personnel who would benefit from the provision. Paying a pension increase to men under 55 with dependent children would be very costly, as some 7,000 retired policemen and firefighters would benefit—mainly policemen, as proportionately more firemen retire early on grounds of ill health and they already qualify for an increase on those grounds.

The annual cost of such a provision would be about £6 million in 1989 to 1990, at 1989 to 1990 pension levels, rising to £14 million, at 1989 to 1990 pension levels, after 25 years.

The cost of a pensions increase for some male pensioners under 55 could be met by an additional contribution of approximately one half of 1 per cent. of the payroll. The costs of increases on pensions payments in the future, in respect of the past service of current and retired employees, could not be met in that way for the police scheme, which is the main scheme to be affected, because the costs would have a capital value of approximately £120 million at 1989 pension levels.

When I first saw the figures, I was as surprised as the hon. Gentleman, but they have been worked on in detail by the Treasury and by other interested parties and, to the best of my knowledge, the figures are accurate.

The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) does not propose to phase in the provisions. If it did, the cost in 1993 would be small.

I hope that I have answered the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. If I have missed any technical matters, I shall try to answer them later.

Armed forces personnel can draw a pension from the age of 38 and the police, I think, from the age of 48.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—and I am not trouble-making, honestly. Perhaps it is because I am not a specialist in this subject, but I do not understand the £120 million capitalisation figure that the Minister mentioned. I think that it means that the Treasury, however indirectly, would have to put that sum into the schemes to meet the increments over a period of some years. If that is the case, I shall go away a relatively contented man. As a lay person, it seems to me that it is possible to phase in the cost of meeting the increase if males under 55 are to benefit from the scheme.

I remain surprised that the scheme will cost so much money. Is the simple answer that £120 million will have to come out of the Treasury's pocket to be paid into pension funds? I am still somewhat puzzled about the cost of the scheme, bearing in mind the small number of people likely to benefit from it.

As the hon. Gentleman has conceded, we are dealing with sizeable amounts of public money. Some of that money could be better spent by looking after people who are less fortunate than many of the people who subscribe to, or gain from, the schemes that we are debating.

To elaborate on the hon. Gentleman's last point, the schemes are not funded. Therefore, we are talking about the amount that we would have to put in if the payment were applied to pensions derived from service before the change was made.

I share the unhappiness of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) with the Minister's replies.

I should like to draw hon. Members' attention to the unusual nature of the work of the police and the armed services, and the fact that it is universally accepted that people in those services need to retire early.

I mentioned the teachers. Two teachers' unions have said that they would be happy to see the costs provided for in the amendment funded out of their superannuation fund. They believe that the cost would be tiny, protozoan or minute, and they would be prepared to pay that for the principle that is at stake. It is an important principle: equal treatment of the sexes represents a great international reform. We should compare that reform with others in the world. At the time of the emancipation of slaves, we did not create equality by making all working people slaves; we did not spread the misery. The Government, however, seem in this instance to wish to spread not the advantages enjoyed by either sex—sometimes men, sometimes women—but the disadvantages.

7.30 pm

On Second Reading, the Minister used the words "the ultimate cost". Ultimate" refers to a long period, and I share the cynicism that has been expressed about the arrival of the year in question. It is with some regret that we note the resistance from this regressive, backward-looking Government to the ideal being pushed by the far-sighted, progressive Europeans. Much of the contribu?tion involved should be a matter for negotiation, as the funds are provided not by a public charity but by working people, in the same way as with other occupational pensions. Surely this is a matter for those people to decide rather than a matter for Government edict.

May I repeat what I said in my opening remarks and on Second Reading? If we were to accept the amendment on the levelling-up or levelling-down principle, considerable public expenditure would be involved. Therefore, we cannot accept it.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the equalisation of pension ages. As I said in my earlier speech, equalisation of pensions in Europe is not always equalisation downwards. The majority of countries that apply such equalisations equalise up to the age of 65, while Denmark equalises up to 67. Such an arrangement in this country would make women less happy than they are with the present arrangements, which specify an age of 60.

I am advised that one problem of the amendment is that, perversely—I am sure that this was not the intention—it could discriminate against women. The children involved must be dependent children and, other things being equal, male pensioners are more likely to be regarded as heads of household than female pensioners, especially if the husbands of the female pensioners are still working.

In these days of equality and the spread of "house husbands", I do not think that that would pose a serious danger. In view of what the Minister has said, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Periods Of Further Service

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

May I ask again a question that I asked on Second Reading about the legal propriety of legislation to amend Acts that have been repealed? As I said then, it strikes me as absurd in the extreme and, indeed, incompetent for clause 2(5) to be included in the Bill without some discussion and some explanation of why the Treasury solicitors consider it necessary to amend the repealed Pensions (Increase) Act 1965. If it is competent to do so, I should like an explanation of why it is necessary. The Minister addressed the matter briefly on Second Reading and, as far as I can remember, said that he thought that it was necessary so that people could understand what was supposed to have been the position between 1965 and 1971. Following the coming into effect of the Pensions (Increase) Act 1971, the appropriate increases were implemented.

If the Treasury solicitors are going to make the amendment of repealed Acts a habit in the future, we shall all be led a merry dance. I could suggest a number of candidates for amendment among repealed Acts, but I think that those outside the House will not understand, and will think that we have nothing better to do with our time. I was not satisfied with the explanation that I was given on Second Reading, and I should be obliged if the Minister would have another stab at it tonight.

I will have a shot at it.

Clause 2 amends the law on two small, technical aspects of pensions increase to align it with the actual practice followed by public service schemes. There are two separate issues. First, subsections (1), (2), (3) and (5) amend the Pensions (Increase) Acts 1965 and 1971 to make the law relating to the increase of pensions of certain re-employed scheme members what it was always thought to have been. The Acts include provisions to ensure that re-employed scheme members—that is, those who have left, and rejoined with a break in service—do not have a lower pension because of the way in which the Acts would otherwise apply on their cases.

However, special provision then had to be made for the teachers' schemes because of provisions in those schemes that allowed teachers to qualify for a pension in certain types of employment or other absence from teaching which did not count towards their eventual pension. The relevant words have always been interpreted by the Departments concerned in a particular way which they believed that the Acts prescribed. The clause validates that interpretation and the practice that those schemes have followed since 1965. I should emphasise that the practice of scheme managements will not be changed, and in that sense no pensioners will be affected. No doubt you, Sir Paul, followed those remarks with particular attention in view of your previous responsibility for pension matters some years ago.

Clause 2(4) corrects an unintended anomaly in the application of the same provisions to the dependants of re-employed scheme members. As it is now worded, section 4(3) of the Pensions (Increase) Act 1971 would apply only to dependants' pensions calculated as a proportion of the scheme member's pension. It would not appply to a dependant's pension calculated directly by reference to the scheme member's salary and years of service. The practice of scheme managements has always been to apply section 4(3) where appropriate to dependants' pensions, however calculated.

The 1965 Act was repealed by the 1971 Act, but without prejudice to the operation of the repealed provisions in respect of the period ending 31 August 1971. The aim of the clause is to ensure that the provision has the effect that it should have had since 1965.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) asked why clause 2 was necessary. I think that I have explained the reason in general terms, but let me explain more specifically: if we left it out, there would be an obligation to trace all past pensioners, and to compensate any who had not benefited but should have. That would probably be impossible and certainly very costly. It would be unfair and possibly illegal not to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

No Increase For Additional Lump Sums Arisingfrom Recalculation

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill

Clause 3 removes the right to inflation proofing when a lump sum retirement benefit is reassessed to take account of a retrospective pay increase. That is a frequent occurrence in certain professions, particularly the teaching profession, as the normal retirement date is the end of August and not spread throughout the year as it is in other professions. I understand that each year about 16,000 applications for retirement are received to come into effect at the end of August. When that happens the lump sum payments are calculated before the annual pay settlement is concluded. In due course those pensioners receive an additional lump sum based on the increase in salary. That addition is increased, where appropriate, under the Pensions (Increase) Act. Under clause 3 that will no longer apply.

There seems to be only one argument in favour of clause 3 and that is that interest is not paid on salary arrears resulting from a pay rise and therefore pensioners should not be treated more favourably than employees. That argument has a familiar ring because of our discussions on clause 1, under which women are to lose their entitlement to a pension increase because men do not have the same entitlement. In clause 3 pensioners are to lose entitlement to inflation proofing of arrears because employees do not have the same entitlement. In short, the Government are saying that equality is a many?splendoured thing. They have suddenly become fanatical about being egalitarian, but only when the results of equality achieve a saving in public funds. That is a questionable devotion to the principle of equality.

Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many people would have received those increases in recent years and whether they would have been affected by clause 3. Perhaps he could give us some idea of what the average loss would have been and the total savings to be made. What consultations have taken place with the unions and other representatives of the members of the scheme? Again, clause 3 represents a small change, but a mean, penny-pinching and unnecessary one.

Clause 3 ends a provision that gives rise to extremely small one-off payments to pensioners but with a disproportionate administrative burden for the scheme managements concerned.

The problem we seek to solve is this. The Pensions (Increase) Act protects the real value of preserved lump sums awarded to "early leavers" from public service schemes. That is entirely appropriate, but, of course, it was never intended that the provisions should operate once the lump sum had been paid.

Unfortunately, they apply to lump sums that are recalculated when a retrospective pay award is made. If a scheme member retires after a retrospective pay award comes into force but before that award has been announced, his final salary for pension purposes will be increased and his pension and lump sum recalculated. An additional amount of lump sum is paid, and the Pensions (Increase) Act also requires pensions increase to be paid on that additional lump sum. However, the amount of that increase cannot be calculated and paid until the next pensions increase order is made. So the scheme management may have to make no fewer than three payments of lump sum when a scheme member retires: on the date he retires; when a retrospective pay award is announced; and when the next pensions increase order come into force.

The last payment will normally be very small, no more than a few pounds and perhaps even a few pence. Clause 3 relieves schemes of the requirement to make this third payment and of the associate administrative burden. I must stress that the entitlement under scheme rules to an additional lump sum and the recalculation of pension if a retrospective pay award is made is completely unaffected by the clause. The clause simplifies the administration of pensions increase at an insignificant cost to pensioners.

7.45 pm

It is important to establish clearly that the minor administrative simplification is made at a negligible or insignificant cost to some pensioners. It does not undermine the principle that all pension benefits are protected against inflation. Pensions increase legislation has always taken account of practical considerations and the need to avoid excessive administrative costs.

The effect on pensioners is very small. In many cases, the amount is less than £1. A hypothetical calculation based on a civil servant retiring on a salary of £25,000 after a full 40-year career might have benefited from an award six months delayed of only £11·25, or 0.03 per cent. of the total lump sum involved.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) was right to ask one particular question. The salary arrears do not attract interest. Another anomaly is that if the scheme makes a mistake no pensions increase is paid on the extra lump sum. I hope that that goes some way towards answering the hon. Gentleman's points.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Employers' Contributions Towards Cost Of Pensions Increase For Teachers And Persons Engaged In The Health Services Etc

I beg to move amendment No. 3 in page 4, line 1, leave out subsection (1)

The amendment seeks to delete subsection (1) which gives powers to make regulations placing the cost of teachers' pension increases on their employers or
"such other persons or classes of persons (apart from teachers) as the Secretary of State may consider appropriate".
Perhaps the Economic Secretary can explain who those other persons or classes of persons are.

By pressing for the removal of subsection (1), the amendment does not imply that we approve of subsection (2) which applies similar powers to Health Service staff. We want to concentrate on subsection (1) for two reasons, although we have many misgivings about the Health Service. I understand that a couple of telephone calls to health authorities revealed a sublime ignorance about the existence of the Bill.

We seek to remove subsection (1) because the teachers' unions are concerned that the Government are pre-empting the results of negotiations that have been taking place on the funding and other aspects of the teachers' superannuation scheme. Given the present state of local government finance, any threat to impose additional charges on local authorities must be a matter of deep concern. Firm assurances are needed that, if the powers are to be used, an appropriate transfer of resources will take place at the same time.

The calculation of the teachers' superannuation fund is weird and wonderful. It works in rather a similar manner to the pools panel that used to meet when we had severe winters, when experts would get together and guess the results of football matches that had not been played. Apparently a committee of experts decides what investments which would have been made, but had not been made, by the teachers' superannuation fund would have yielded. Unfortunately, the possible investments that they consider are only Government funds. No occupational pension scheme would have a portfolio which consisted only of Government funds.

There is much concern that for many years teachers' superannuation payments have been seriously understated, but I understand that the teachers' unions and the appropriate body are negotiating on that.

Clause 4 has wider implications. The principle of inflation-proofing public service pensions may be threatened if it became a matter for negotiation between occupational groups and employers rather than a nationally recognised obligation. We debated that at length on Second Reading. Clause 4 could be the first stage in the dismantling of the Pensions (Increase) Act, of which the Prime Minister strongly disapproves.

If such fundamental changes are to be made to the financing of public service pensions, it should not be done by an enabling provision such as clause 4, followed by regulations that cannot be amended. If and when the Government decide what they want to do, they should incorporate their detailed proposals in a Bill that can be properly debated and amended.

The financial memorandum to the Bill says:
"Regulations made under the amendments to the Superannuation Act 1972 made by this Bill may in future have some financial effect."
What does that mean? The Minister may say that he cannot predict what will happen in the future, but the worry is the effect that the Bill is likely to have on health authorities and, in particular, local government. We are aware of the financial problems experienced by both those bodies, but it is a particular threat to local government, because the gearing effect of the poll tax means that for every extra penny of expense shouldered by local authorities they must charge many times as much to local poll tax payers. We should like the Minister at least to tell the House what would be the maximum increased burden on employers if the total cost of pension increases were placed on local authorities and local bodies, which clearly is what the Government have in mind.

Labour Members recognise that there is merit in that proposal and that those sums should be paid by those bodies rather than by the Treasury, but the Minister must assure us that it will be fully and appropriately funded. Will he explain how employers will find the money to pay what will be required?

The Department of Education and Science has sent a letter to the National Union of Teachers. Last year, the NUT held a meeting on the root-and-branch reform of the teachers superannuation fund. It intends to reconvene that meeting, but it fears that legislation may pre-empt negotiations. The reply from the Department states that the Bill will not pre-empt future negotiations. We should like the Minister to confirm that that is not the purpose of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) mentioned the pools panel. I must reveal that I have always wanted to sit on the pools panel on a Saturday morning when matches are snowed off and to deliberate over the fortunes of Newport County, Norwich City or Ipswich Town. Alas, the pools panel has had a pretty thin time over recent seasons. I hope for its own sake that it is not paid according to the number of times that it meets.

I must reject amendment No. 3. The purpose of clause 4 is to allow the Secretaries of State responsible for the National Health Service and teachers' superannuation schemes in England, Wales and Scotland to make regulations, which would be subject to negative resolution, to permit the cost of pensions increase to be taken into account in determining employers' contributions to the schemes. At the moment, those costs are met by the Departments that administer the schemes, rather than by employing authorities.

The teachers' and National Health Service schemes are unfunded. The Government Actuary advises the Secretaries of State on the appropriate levels of employers' contributions on the basis of quinquennial valuations of the schemes' assets and liabilities. For that purpose, he makes various actuarial assumptions and works on the basis that the schemes are funded.

Union interests, particularly in teaching, have in the past argued strongly that some of the assumptions that the Government Actuary uses are unrealistic. They believe, for example, that different assumptions about investment returns would lead to a surplus on the notional funds, which might then permit lower contribution rates or improvements in benefits. I understand that employees' and employers' representatives in the teachers superannuation working party have just agreed on a report endorsing that. It will be impossible to take this further without clause 4.

The Amendment No. 3 would restrict the change made in clause 4 to the National Health Service superannuation schemes and would deny a worthwhile opportunity to take similar powers for the teachers' schemes.

Without wishing to anticipate unduly the outcome of discussions following the teachers superannuation working party report, the Government would feel able to agree to changes in such matters as the investment assumptions, which might be seen as giving greater realism in building up the assets of the schemes, only if there were a corresponding realism in treating pensions increase as a liability of the schemes. I understand that employees' and employers' representatives in the teachers' superannuation working party recognise and accept that. Clause 4 provides the necessary power.

I cannot say when regulations will be made under clause 4. There would need to be much careful consultation with all the interests concerned before a change could be made. Indeed, sections 9(5) and 10(4) of the Superannuation Act 1972 would require that, and the statutory instruments containing the regulations would be subject to negative resolution. The Government would also want to be sure, so far as possible, that the net effect of any changes was not likely to add unacceptably to the costs of employing authorities.

I hope that the recognition that I have given to the need to contain the additional costs for employing authorities and the need for full consultation before any changes are made will allay any misgivings that Labour Members, or interests with which they have been in touch, may have had.

The hon. Member for Newport, West asked whether the Government plan to compensate health and education authorities for the higher contributions that they will have to make to finance pension increase. They will not necessarily have to pay increased contributions; the clause confers a power on Ministers only to make at an appropriate time regulations under which employers' contributions can be set to cover the costs of pensions increase. The effect on health and education authorities' finances will be considered if the need arises.

The Minister trod on private grief when he mentioned Newport County and the pools panel. The only game that Newport County could win was when the pools panel sat, but tragically the football team no longer exists.

We take little comfort from what the Minister said. I noticed how carefully he chose his words when talking about not adding unnecessarily to the costs of local authorities.

In the past, Opposition Members have been cynical about Government legislation, and we remain a little apprehensive. I note the Minister's points. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 4 to 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

8 pm

:I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am grateful to hon. Members, particularly the hon. Members for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), for their prompt consideration of this modest, technical and useful Bill. Public service superannuation will never be the most exciting subject that hon. Members debate, but we owe an obligation to the electorate and to approximately 4 million members of public service pension schemes to give a fair hearing to Bills of this kind.

I recognise the strength of feeling on the subject of levelling up against levelling down, which we debated in Committee. I assure the House that the Government looked carefully at the issues and the merits and demerits of levelling up and levelling down before concluding that it was right to phase out a benefit which, in practice, has benefited and always will benefit a small number of women pensioners. We must do what is right for public service pensioners, what meets our European Community obligations and what is fair to the taxpayer. I am confident that the Bill strikes the proper balance.

In Committee, hon. Members noted that other measures in the Bill made small and, again, technical changes to the existing law. Opportunities to legislate on public service superannuation will always be rare events, but I am pleased that we have been able to produce a Bill to secure equal treatment in pensions increase to make such changes. I commend the Bill to the House.

8.2 pm

Opposition Members do not wish unnecessarily to delay legislation, but the Bill is proceeding at breakneck pace. It was introduced at an unusual time—a few days before the Christmas recess. The Second Reading debate was shortly before Christmas, and we are now concluding the remaining stages. Further submissions from representatives of many people affected by the Bill may be made when the Bill is in another place and when it returns to the House.

A great pensions minefield is ahead for the Government. There are many qualms about the Bill, some of which have been expressed tonight, particularly the implications for the Health Service and local government, and for equality of the sexes legislation. There will be repercussions throughout other Government pensions legislation and policies.

The fascinating history over the centuries of providing the elderly with comfort and security in retirement is continuing. It reached a high point of hope in the 1970s. The years since then have shown the growth of complexity of pension provision, without a growth in pension quality, and a certain guarantee of much future confusion. There is great indecision about the problem of equalising pension provision for men and women in the future. I am certainly not suggesting that pensions should be equalised down, but the implications are that the Government have little hope of equalising them other than by disadvantaging women. We will also see a continued undermining of the precious 10-year-old principle that pensioners should share in the country's growing prosperity.

The Bill is a product of yesterday's false, extinct ideas and, sadly, is not a product of the new hope for universal access to prosperous and fulfilling vintage years of retirement for everybody.

8.5 pm

The Bill is a useful addition to the body of statute law governing pensions. I almost stand accused of being boring about the need——

That may be true, but it is for others to judge.

I am concerned about the increasing complexity of the language used in pensions legislation. Earlier debates have suffered because of it, but the Minister coped commendably well. He should use his power to make the parliamentary draftsmen to do their best. I understand that it is a complex subject, but we are getting into the realms of the absurd in the language that is used in some statutes. That comment applies to this Bill in particular.

The Government were right on whether to level up or level down. I give the Minister clear notice that the Government must take no precedent from their judgment on the Bill. If they bring forward sex equality measures or any other legislation, they must not use this Bill as a basis on which to level down future provision. The facts and circumstances of each case must be carefully considered. On balance, the Minister was right, but he must not assume that he will have such a easy ride in the future.

Yes.

The Government must introduce legislation that takes advantage of the opportunity presented by legislation from Europe to level up social provision across the broad spectrum of social policy. He will be widely opposed if he seeks to use the Bill as a precedent for arguments in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

Civil Aviation Authority (Borrowing Powers) Bill Money

Queen's Recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Civil Aviation (Borrowing Powers) Bill, it is expedient to authorise any increase in the sums payable out of or into the National Loans Fund or charged on and issued out of or payable into the Consolidated Fund under the Civil Aviation Act 1982 which is attributable to provisions of the new Act—
  • (a) increasing the Authority's borowing limit to £500 million with power to make further increases up to £750 million by order;
  • (b) enabling the Authority to borrow sums in units of account defined by reference to more than one currency.—[Mr. Chapman.]
  • 8.8 pm

    As hon. Members know, I like to exercise some scrutiny of money resolutions, and I am delighted that several hon. Members are intent to do the same. The Bill was dealt with by a Second Reading Committee which sat for just under an hour. No doubt the Minister will be pleased to confirm that the borrowing powers in the resolution are for only £500 million, which is a great deal of money, but that any further sums up to a total of £750 million will be subject to an affirmative order of the House—that is not a great safeguard, but it is something—and that, by virtue of this money resolution, we are not handing the Minister unfettered powers.

    The borrowing powers that are authorised by the money resolution are for money that is to be used for improving air traffic control capacity. On 20 December last year the Minister stated:
    "Perhaps I could give two examples of major projects in the investment programme, which hon. Members may find of particular interest. One project is the central control function; it has been called the tunnels in the sky concept. It involves a major restructuring of the airspace over south-east England and will increase capacity in the terminal manoeuvring area over the south-east by at least 30 per cent. when it is fully in place in 1995. The project will cost about £30 million."— [Official Report, Second Reading Committee, 20 December 1989, c. 3.]
    Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the borrowings for that project will not confine the benefits to the south-east and that regional airports, such as the Leeds-Bradford airport which is operated by the Leeds-Bradford airport committee, will obtain the benefits by virtue of the fact that the delays around Heathrow and Gatwick will, I hope, be curtailed.

    As the Government are currently considering the application to extend flying hours beyond 10 pm, perhaps the Minister will bear in mind the fact that the investment which is to be authorised by the money resolution might increase the existing capacity of aircraft to enter and leave air space. Therefore, the extended flying hours at Leeds-Bradford, for which some people are pressing—but not, I hasten to add, those people who live close to the flight paths—might not be necessary.

    If the money is to be used for such a project, there will be great advantages. However, there is then the question of the other priorities. As was made clear in the debate to which I have referred, there are several other more pressing priorities. I refer, for example, to Bradford and, although this is not the Minister's responsibility, I should like to place it on the record that it would be helpful if more money could be allocated for the construction of permanent extensions to schools there, because several schools in my constituency need many millions of pounds spent on them.

    We are talking about borrowing powers. Air traffic is a growth area, and since the money that will be lent to the Civil Aviation Authority will be recouped in charges to the air traffic users, we must ask the Minister how long the borrowing period is and how soon the Government will recoup that money so that it is available for other priorities. I am not opposed to improvements in air traffic control and, of course, in safety standards. We all agree with the need and determination to maintain and improve our air safety standards. However, if the money is to be recouped, some of the other pressing priorities for expenditure can also be considered. I should like the Minister to comment on that.

    The Civil Aviation (Air Navigation Charges) Act 1989 allowed charges for landing to be made in European currency units. As a consequence, paragraph (b) of the money resolution refers to
    "enabling the Authority to borrow sums in units of account defined by reference to more than one currency."
    I take it that that wording has been chosen to embrace ecus, as they are known, which very few people on the face of our planet have ever seen or used.

    I served on the Second Reading Committee of the Civil Aviation (Air Navigation Charges) Act which, as I have said, allowed charges to be rendered in ecu. As the Minister explained in the Second Reading Committee, the extension of the use of other currencies is purely to embrace ecu. However, he could not satisfactorily explain at that stage why that would be of great advantage to the Civil Aviation Authority, except from the point of view of flexibility.

    As was pointed out to the Minister, the exchange rate in ecu, like that of any other currency, fluctuates and varies extensively. European currency units are no different. The significant difference is that the European currency unit is a medium by which the federalists inside the Common Market are devoting their attention to producing a standard European currency. The extension into ecu goes directly against the Prime Minister's vaunted wish to oppose federalism and instead merely to retain the European Economic Community as a trading organisation. Paragraph (b) of the money resolution is therefore a sign of the acceptance of and a step towards federalism, not against it.

    I hope that the Minister will be able to cite something more than "flexibility" to justify paragraph (b) because he did not provide an adequate explanation when the Bill was considered in Committee. As I have said, I hope that he can give an explanation about the money resolution because a large sum of money is involved. The total is £750 million. The borrowing limit seems to be being provided for a good and useful purpose, but the examples that the Minister gave in Committee totalled only £30 million. Perhaps he could give us a brief outline of what the other £720 million——

    I believe that in Committee I also gave the example of the en route centre, which will cost considerably more than £30 million. In fact, it will cost about £200 million. That £30 million covered just a few examples.

    I am sure that the Minister would like to fill us in with some further details and to give us a sketch of the £750 million that is likely to be involved. In fact, the money resolution covers only £500 million because any increase in the borrowing limit above £500 million will be made by order. Presumably, therefore, that part of the borrowing requirement is not yet needed. Perhaps the Minister could tell us why there is a contingency figure of £250 million, because he will have to do that when he presents the order. I look forward with eager anticipation to the Minister's detailed response.

    8.16 pm

    Before commenting on the money resolution, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to ask for clarification. As I understand it, the length of any speech made by any hon. Member is recorded. I am concerned to ensure that any speech that I make tonight will not lead to my being placed on a blacklist. When I asked Mr. Speaker a little earlier about my speeches, I learned that there were two stars against my name, which showed that I had spoken for 20 minutes or longer in the past. However, neither of those speeches was a Second Reading speech. Both were made on Report or at the request of my hon. Friends who had asked me to keep the business going. I want to make quite sure that, in future, I shall not be picked out and discriminated against because of my speech tonight. I should be most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if the Chair could give a ruling.

    These matters are clouded in mystery. However, I can advise the hon. Gentleman and the whole House that in the interests of trying to get a fair balance among those whoe are called to speak in our debates, Mr. Speaker keeps a careful note of those hon. Members who speak, of the subject on which they speak and for how long they speak.

    As that may put a somewhat different complexion on the fact that this debate can last until 10.45 pm, I hope that the length of an hon. Member's speech will not be held against him or her. Because we now have two and a half hours before the next business needs to be called, I am deliberately making the statement that, if I choose to go on until 10.45 pm or thereabouts—although I have no plans to do so at the moment—I believe that, in view of the position in the House at the moment, no hon. Member, including myself, should be compromised for choosing to speak on a money resolution which is important but which may not be the most significant matter that has come before the House.

    I declare an interest at the outset. First, I have been involved with aviation for the best part of 20 years. Before I became a Member of the House, when I practised at the Bar, I was involved in aviation law, and I have been involved in the aviation industry ever since I have been a Member of the House. I deliberately declare that interest because it has been said from the Chair that constituency interests take precedence over consultancy interests. I and many other hon. Members have both constituency and consultancy interests.

    I have a constituency interest in Plymouth airport, which is surrounded by South Hams. I also have consultancy interests in Airlines of Great Britain, of which British Midland Airways is part, and British Island Airways. As I am interested in aviation I have worked, not necessarily in a paid capacity, for several other airlines, such as Brymon Airways, which is my local airline, Britannia and other airlines.

    The House is becoming confused about interests. Simply because one is paid to do work connected with a particular interest, one should not be discouraged by one's colleagues or by organisations outside the House from speaking on the subject. It has been said that, if an hon. Member speaks on a subject as a paid consultant, the content of the speech is dismissed.

    Does my hon. Friend agree that that criticism usually comes from those who would prefer to speak on most subjects from ignorance? Provided that my hon. Friend or any other hon. Member declares that interest, and its extent, the additional knowledge that arises from it is of the greatest importance to industry and to the House.

    I am grateful for my hon. Friend's timely intervention. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was not called in a recent debate on airport security. I could have given the House inside knowledge from five airlines about the serious problems faced by the industry. As I was deprived of the opportunity to do so, the House was deprived of information direct from operators at Heathrow, Gatwick and Plymouth about the problems of airport security and safety. One reason for not calling me was that I had interests in the aviation industry. I should have thought—this is the point that my hon. Friend made—that because I had interests in aviation I could have been useful to the House and given it the benefit of my 10 years' experience in the industry.

    I declare my interests because I believe that they are good, not bad, points. My hon. Friends would prefer to hear from an hon. Member who knows about his subject rather than from one who does not. Many of my hon. Friends believe that, provided that the hon. Member gives good value for his consultancy interests, it adds another facet to debates in the House.

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) says, I have two and a quarter hours to go. I assure the House that I do not propose to speak for that long. It is important to get on with the money resolutions.

    The money resolution will give the Civil Aviation Authority a sizeable sum of money. Probably few hon. Members can comprehend the enormous sum of £750 million. The sum of £500 million went through on the nod, but the extra £250 million will have to be brought back to the House for another debate. It is strange that, the more money that we ask the Government for, the fewer hon. Members attend the debate in the House. For smaller sums, the House is packed. The large sum of money may be going for the best possible purposes. I should like the Minister to comment on the regulation and control of that money, which will go to a public body. It would be most helpful to the House to know what control there will be on the £500 million that will be spent.

    Urban development corporations were debated in the House several times and vast sums of money were spent on them. Those sums went through on the nod. When the Labour party was in government between 1974 and 1979, we constantly passed vast sums of money for the nationalised industries. Now that so many of them stand on their own feet in the private sector, there is less opportunity to pass vast sums to the public sector. I am afraid to say that the civil aviation authority is still one of those bodies.

    The House will be interested to know that 90 per cent. of the Civil Aviation Authority consists of an organisation known as the National Air Traffic Scheme. The NATS service is responsible for all that happens in our skies and 90 per cent. of the staff of the CAA are in NATS. Does the Minister believe that public money could be saved if the CAA were separated from the navigational arm, which forms the majority of it, and was either made into a public utility or privatised?

    NATS controls slots at airports. The service that it performs is marketable and could be privatised. Airlines could be charged for its services. Could some of the large sums to be voted for CAA borrowing be saved if NATS became a public utility or was privatised?

    In 1983, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry referred the running of the CAA to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and it conducted an inquiry. It is strange that, six years later, the Department of Trade and Industry has again referred the CAA to the MMC. Is that because the 1983 report was no good or are the Government running out of public bodies which the MMC can investigate? As we go through the cycle of privatisation, the CAA will probably be referred to the MMC every few months as the MMC runs out of public bodies to examine.

    We have a problem about the amount of money that is being asked for and about how NATS is run. If it were run in a slightly different way, it might not cost so much. I do not know whether my hon. Friends know that NATS is run by an air marshal for three years and by civilians for the next three years. It is rather like a biblical story, in which seven years are lean and the next seven years are fat. With NATS, the air marshal takes over the running of the air navigational system every three years and civilians do it every other three years. It is like rotation of crops. Is that the best way to run air traffic control? There is a constant change of seats. It is like musical chairs. After the third year, the air marshal has his chair removed and a civilian moves in. That does not lead to continuity and cannot be the most effective use of money.

    Conservative and Opposition Members would like more money, provided that it produces more slots in the air. Is the Minister aware that the antiquated system under which NATS is run means not only that more slots will not be produced, but that the amount of money spent will not necessarily result in better working practices?

    I wonder whether my hon. Friends are aware that at Heathrow every day at 3 o'clock the runways are changed, rather like the changing of the guard. That results in about a half-hour gap in operations as the CAA changes the runway pattern. No other airport halts all aircraft wanting to take off or land so as to change the runways, and Heathrow is one of the few airports that does not have a mixed-mode runway. Perhaps a few bob from the £500 million could be saved if Heathrow's runway configuration were not changed at the same time each day.

    Money could also be saved if NATS had better working practices. I know that the Minister will tell me that various London boroughs asked for the runways to be changed round because of noise. That request was made many years ago, but since then planes have become much quieter. It should not necessarily be advantageous to spend money on an organisation that has antiquated practices.

    The money to be loaned to the CAA will not mean that it gets NATS off its back, nor will it give NATS the opportunity to make its operations lean and more efficient. That money will compound what is going on. I accept the good work that NATS does, but I fear that the money will consolidate outdated and ineffectual working practices. When the Minister replies I hope that he will consider whether money could be saved or better value for money given were my suggestions followed.

    We are all for safety and security and we all want facilities for more capacity in terminal areas. The only snag about the money to be given to the CAA for NATS is that it may produce many more slots in the air space, but the £500 million may only keep the planes in the sky. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason), whose interest in travel is well known, will be pleased to know that. I am sure that he will share my concern, however, that although more planes will be flying around the air, it will not follow that more planes will be taking off or landing. The money will provide slots in the sky, but it will not provide more capacity in the terminal areas.

    Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem lies not with the number of slots in the sky, but with the experts who decide how many seats will be used in a plane? The problem is not the ever-growing number of people who use air travel, but the number and type of plane. A few years ago, the so-called experts advised that smaller aircraft should be used. Those aircraft have resulted in a greater number of air movements, but there has been no commensurate increase in the ability of those aircraft to carry more passengers. Exactly the same number of passengers are carried now as in the past.

    Although my hon. Friend's point does not truly relate to the borrowing powers that we are discussing, it would be discourteous if I did not respond to him briefly. The problem with the larger aircraft is that one presumes that all passengers want to travel to the same destination at precisely the same time.

    No, indeed.

    Nowadays, the travelling public want planes that will take them, on a regular basis, to smaller airfields nearer to their eventual destinations rather than larger and larger planes that go to one place. In the 1970s there was a growth in the demand for large planes, but that trend is reversing and smaller planes are being used, which has resulted in more air movements.

    More air movements do not present a problem. The trouble is that those planes must land and take off. Extra slots in the sky do not present a problem; the problem is providing adequate and sufficient controls at each airport to allow planes to take off or land. When my hon. Friend replies, I hope that he will say something about better working practices at airports such as Heathrow which will result in more movements.

    At the terminal 4 inquiry, the inspector said that the maximum number of movements that could be allowed out of Heathrow was 275,000 a year. Hon. Members are probably unaware that there are now 340,000 movements in and out of Heathrow, discounting night movements. New technology has enabled more planes to land and take off and the provision of more slots in the sky. As a result of the money to be given to the CAA and of planes becoming quieter, does the Minister intend 400,000 air movements at Heathrow? Is it his intention to increase the number of slots out of Gatwick? Unless my hon. Friend makes a statement about how the money will be used, he will find that the British Airports Authority will resist growth at Heathrow and Gatwick and will favour moving planes to Stansted, in which it has invested £300 million.

    I hope that my hon. Friend's reply will be robust and I hope that he will tell the House that Heathrow's efficiency will not be reduced because of a conflict between the CAA which, through new technology, will be able to produce more slots and more take-offs and landings, and the BAA, which wants to switch traffic to Stansted. The House is entitled to know whether the CAA will use its enormous loan clout to redirect air traffic in the London area.

    Although the sky is the limit for investment in airlines, there is little point in making provision for more air space if sufficient money is not used to provide the necessary infrastructure to deal with arrivals and departures. I touched on that when I mentioned the mixed-mode runway.

    Although I could speak for a long time, it would not be right to do so, as I know that other hon. Members want to participate. We should remember, however, that airports such as Heathrow can be competitive only if there are sufficient slots in the air space and opportunities for true competition. The House should be concerned about the new competitive blocks that are emerging at Heathrow—British Airways, Sabena and KLM and Air France and Lufthansa. Between them they could take up 60 per cent. of the slots at Heathrow and allow virtually no room for competition.

    It is important for the Minister to ensure that the major airline blocks do not take all the additional slots to be made available as a result of the additional money for the CAA. Those slots must be used for the smaller independent airlines so that they can compete on all fours with the big battalions. I hope that the Minister will tell us the Government's policy on this—[Interruption.] I do not know why the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) is getting so excited. I cannot believe that it is because of my speech.

    I have never heard a money resolution being allowed to be debated as widely as this. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has not once been brought to order or brought back to the resolution. If the Government's intention is to try to waste time tonight, we could have saved them the effort because we could have been voting from 7 o'clock on every amendment on the private Bill. We shall consider doing that the next time the Government wheel in Back-Bench Tories to waste time.

    We are discussing a money resolution, which happens to be wide. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) obviously has expertise in the matter before us and it is therefore more important for him than for other hon. Members, to speak directly to the resolution.

    I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the way in which you put that. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) for explaining his discomfort. I do not wish to detain the House because I have made many points which have been well received by Conservative Members.

    I do not wish to abuse the good will of the House. I have mentioned the points about which I am concerned. We are talking about £500 million and I want to ensure that the money will not create just more space in the sky but with no room to land. I do not want the CAA to use the words "safety and security" to obtain millions of extra pounds.

    I hope that the Minister will be circumspect in ensuring that the money is put to the best possible use in line with Government policy. The Government's policy is to encourage competition. If the Civil Aviation Authority uses the money to provide more opportunities for competition, that will fulfil the Government's commitment. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us tonight that the money will be used for the direct purpose of opening up the skies to real competition rather than giving the block cartels more opportunities, which in turn will prevent airlines from competing equally and which are against consumers' interests.

    8.42 pm

    I wish to speak on a subject on which I have given notice to the Minister and on which I checked that I would be in order. I shall refer to the letters from Mr. Karel Van Miert to Mr. Roland Dumas—page 3 on the first letter on infrastructure facilities and page 7 of the second letter on the legal framework. I should like, I hope concisely, to raise one particular issue.

    During the Consolidated Fund debate which started at 5.52 am just before Christmas, I was fortunate enough to raise the general issue of rain forest trade in animals. The debate could have been referred to any one of 10 Government Departments because the subject straddles Whitehall Departments. During the debate I raised the matter of the International Air Transport Association and it is that on which I wish to concentrate tonight.

    I brought the debate recorded in Hansard, column 564 on 20 December, to the attention of the Department of Transport. My contribution should not be interpreted as any criticism of the Department because we are dealing with difficult matters which, to my knowledge, have not been solved by any country. Of the millions of pounds that we are discussing tonight, my plea is that more money should be given to guarantee facilities at our big airports, particularly Heathrow. That is relevant to the resolution.

    At 6 am on 20 December I said that I was
    "indebted to Tony Juniper and Christoph Imboden of the International Council for Bird Preservation, which is primarily concerned with the conservation of species."
    If my information seems to come from specialist sources, I think that the Minister would agree that there is widespread concern in this country about the conditions of the import of birds, fish, animals and reptiles.

    On 20 December I continued:
    "It is therefore of great concern that they have learnt that the number of birds dying in each consignment entering Britain continually averages between 13 and 20 per cent. In answer, I think that the Minister gave a figure of 13.7 per cent. The recent consignment of birds from Tanzania en route through Heathrow to Miami is a good example of the scale of the problem."

    We are concerned not only with the importation but with the transit facilities which may be at the root of the problem. On 20 December, I said that one recent consignment
    "totalled over 8,700 birds, but over 1,200 individuals died. That is within the percentage loss that appears to be generally accepted by the authorities and importers not only in Britain but world-wide. In the United States, the figures for deaths range from 14 to 24 per cent."
    Current public feeling is considerable.
    "If it were dogs, cats or horses in trade, such figures would be totally unacceptable. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food figures"—

    Order. As usual, the hon. Gentleman has been most courteous in giving notice to the Minister of the points which he wishes to raise. The money resolution concerns not IATA but the Civil Aviation Authority and it would be helpful to the Chair if the hon. Gentleman would show how the CAA makes the rules in this case, how they are used and how finance comes into it. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but it would be enormously helpful if he would speak more directly to the money resolution.

    I think that the Minister would agree that the Civil Aviation Authority has the closest relations with IATA. Is not the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, Christopher Tugendhat, a member of the IATA governing body—so there is the closest relationship between the two?

    I shall be concise. On 20 December I said:
    "While detailed figures are available on this trade in other countries, there are no comparable figures available in this country. For example, in the United States in 1985 over 18,000 grey parrots were imported and almost 2,700 died…
    Obviously a total ban on the trade in animals for commercial trade is ideal, but the present climate would never accept such a measure. However, limiting the trade to those individuals which are captive bred will certainly reduce the trade and the mortality figures. Interim measures which could be easily implemented include a stronger resolve by Governments to get to grips with this problem and to implement the CITES checklist scheme.
    The problem experienced by the International Air Transport Association is very important. It is vital that the dialogue between the CITES secretariat, through the standing committee, and the live animals board of the Intenational Air Transport Association, the Animal Air Transport Association and the International Office of Epizootics be continued; that applicants for export permits or re-export certificates should be notified that, as a condition of issuance, they are required to prepare and ship live specimens in accordance with IATA live animals regulations for the transport of live specimens by air and the CITES guidelines for transport of live specimens for marine or terrestrial shipments; that to assist enforcement officers, CITES export permits or re-export certificates should be accompanied by a crating checklist to be signed immediately prior to shipment by a person designated by a CITES management authority, the person so designated being familiar with the live animals regulations;"—[Official Report, 20 December 1989; Vol. 164, c. 564-65.]

    This will all cost money and require facilities. That is why I am particularly grateful that the Minister said that he would do his best to comment on this contribution.

    I admit that being a party to the convention and providing animal holding facilities can be extremely expensive. Facilities should be open to inspection, with the concurrence of the transport company—in this case the airlines—by CITES-designated enforcement personnel or designated observers; and any documented information should be made available to the appropriate authorities and to the transport companies.

    This is a complex matter to which there is no easy answer; it requires money and an understanding that other countries are involved in the trade, and that it is no good exporting or re-exporting animals from this country and finding that a significant percentage of them die on the way to their final destination.

    One of the advantages of the Consolidated Fund debate is that one can quietly put a case to the House. That is what I should like to do on this, similar, occasion, in the expectation that the Department of Transport is doing its best and will tell us what it is doing about an appalling problem. It is, of course, true that humans are more important than animals, but the civilised world can do a great deal about the problem.

    8.52 pm

    I have the honour to have been selected to serve on the Standing Committee scrutinising this Bill and I am extremely worried about much of the way in which the money is to be spent.

    The key to the Bill and this resolution is the overcrowded skies of the south-east, a problem which has arisen time and again. Experts have been consistently wrong, and I should like to be reassured that the money will be spent in ways that will reduce the burden on air traffic controllers. As far as I can tell, that is not what will happen.

    Some of the money will be spent on buying a new green field site of about 30 acres in Fareham to move the air traffic centre from West Drayton. I cannot say that I am enthusiastic about that. I understand also that some of the extra borrowed money will go to a national radar network. Anyone who has studied the radar system—especially the defence system—of this country will know that it has been a shambles since the late 1940s. I hope that some of the money will be spent integrating the military and civil systems.

    Similarly, a great deal could be achieved by spending the money sensibly to remove the pressure on the south-east. When this issue reached crisis proportions last year, serious consideration was given to opening up two major international airports, not in the south-east but serving the major catchment area of the west midlands and the south-west.

    We have two huge airports that are hardly used. One is Greenham Common which was, but is no longer, a cruise missile site. It is conveniently close to the M4. Brize Norton is a major international airport used only by the military. No civilian personnel pass through it, but Customs and immigration officials are there. For my constituents in the south-west it would be extremely useful not to have to trek the whole way to the M25 and around it to Gatwick to make their connections. It would greatly help them if they could go up the M5, on to the M4 and pop into Brize Norton or Greenham Common, both of which are greatly underused. If these two sites were developed there would be no necessity to move from West Drayton and despoil a green field site in Fareham, and that is the core of my proposition.

    My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) described the resolution as concentrating on safety and security; I cannot say that I share his view. Safety is extremely important, but I understand from the Civil Aviation Authority that much of the money will be spent on training an additional number of air traffic controllers, which is to be welcomed if they are really needed. The irony is that study of the figures shows that the trainees are being streamlined—Civil Service jargon for saving money and reducing the time spent on training. The time from the moment someone is recruited to the time he is popped into the control centre will be 18 months. I am a little concerned about that and about the time that will be spent in on-site training in a control tower——

    I want to correct a misapprehension on the part of my hon. Friend. I said that the amount of money that could be spent on security or safety was limitless. Merely mentioning them necessitates an open cheque, so using any of the £500 million for security or safety does not necessarily mean that procedures would be any more secure or safe.

    My hon. Friend is absolutely correct as usual. His knowledge of the subject is considerable, and it is a great disappointment that he was not called in the debate on airport security. It is astonishing that the most modern airport in Europe, terminal 4 at Gatwick, is probably illegal, in the sense that it is the only airport with no segregation of incoming and outgoing passengers. That should be against the law; it is likely to be against European law in the not-too-distant future.

    This most modern of terminals was obviously built and designed by people who had never had to walk through an airport building. When the Queen went to open terminal 4 she was horrified by what she saw and remarked that she could not understand—

    Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that he should not bring in the monarch to assist debate.

    I beg your forgiveness, Madam Deputy Speaker, for my brief lapse. All I can say is that a personage who opened terminal 4 asked how her subjects would be able to push their trolleys from the point of luggage collection at the carousel to the railway station, a journey which would necessitate no fewer than four on-and-off loadings of the trolleys, because the geniuses who invented the little shuttle train that moves between the terminal buildings designed it not to be able to carry luggage carts.

    That annoys many of the passengers who go through most of our larger airports.

    Order. We are departing from the resolution. Airport buildings are not necessarily the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority.

    While I agree that the railways inspector is directly responsible for banning the luggage carts on the Gatwick shuttle, the CAA has overall responsibility to police such matters. The CAA plans for expenditure clearly show that little is to be spent to improve security. It is curious that in Canada, the security and intelligence service spends the majority of its vetting time dealing with applicants and candidates from airports. Every airside member of staff has to be positively vetted in Canada. In this country the Security Service is regarded as far too secret to have to dirty its hands protecting the public.

    I am not convinced that this increase in the borrowing powers of the CAA from £200 million to £500 million in ecu, dollars or pounds will be sensibly spent. I look forward to the Minister giving us a detailed analysis of exactly what will be spent, and I hope that he will assure us that the site in Fareham will not be a complete white elephant.

    9 pm

    The Bill is essentially simple, although the debate may have raised it above that level. It is an important measure to increase the borrowing limit of the CAA. It also makes clear the existing power of the CAA to borrow in foreign currencies and also to borrow in units of account such as ecu. I shall try to cover as many as possible of the points that were raised in debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) will accept that I shall try to cover concisely matters raised not only by my hon. Friends but by Opposition Members.

    I can tell the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that any extension over the £500 million would require an affirmative order and would be subject to the possibility of another debate. The hon. Gentleman slightly confused me when he talked about the need for regional airports. I was not sure whether he meant that they ought to develop or whether he wanted to see some restriction on the opening hours at Leeds-Bradford airport.

    I suggested that the Minister's explanation in Committee was an illustration of increasing air traffic capacity through investment of the money that would be subject to the money resolution. If that is the case, it would obviously increase the capacity of airports such as Leeds-Bradford which are not congested in the same way as Heathrow. That might lead to the conclusion that it would not be necessary to extend the opening hours at Leeds-Bradford airport, and that would satisfy many people who live under the flight path.

    I follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. One of the great dilemmas when talking about the necessity to increase airport capacity is balancing environmental questions against the convenience of people in the Leeds-Bradford area travelling from their own airport and not having to travel long distances to other airports. The Government place great emphasis on the role of regional airports in serving their localities. It seems nonsense that people have to travel from Leeds, Bradford or Derbyshire to London to get the flight that they require. The Government would like to see regional airports take up as many opportunities as possible. There are many flourishing regional airports such as Birmingham, Manchester, East Midlands and to some extent Leeds-Bradford, which I have not yet visited but hope to visit in the near future.

    The hon. Member for Bradford, South asked why the CAA should be allowed to borrow in units of account such as ecu. The CAA already has power to borrow in foreign currencies with the approval of the Secretary of State. The legislation merely extends that power, including the consent provision. The Secretary of State and the Treasury have to be satisfied that each tranche is required. As units of account are not currencies in every sense of the word, the Bill merely explains that the term "currency other than Sterling", in section 10 of the 1982 Act, includes units of account defined by reference to more than one currency.

    It is wise to allow the CAA to borrow in units of account, because charges collected from airlines by Eurocontrol for air navigation services provided by the CAA from 1 January this year will be paid to the CAA in European currency units and not United States dollars. That provision has been introduced to provide greater flexibility. The money is required for not only the £30 million tunnel in the sky concept that I mentioned earlier but the new en route system, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) referred, and to which I shall return.

    My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), who has a great knowledge of aviation, made a number of serious points. I was sorry that he was unable to catch the eye of Mr. Speaker during our debates on the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill. On Monday he made an important point concerning slot allocations and the necessity—although this may go wider than the issue of the CAA's borrowing powers—to ensure that fair competition is allowed, the consumer has a right of choice, and smaller airlines are not stifled and put out of business.

    My hon. Friend asked about the possibility of splitting national air traffic control services. That interesting idea was also contained in a recommendation of the Select Committee on Transport, which we are currently considering. We shall respond in due course, and I trust that my hon. Friend will not expect me to comment further now.

    My hon. Friend asked also about a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. That is not the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport but for the Director-General of Fair Trading. Any public body must be open to detailed scrutiny of the kind that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission can undertake, and I hope that the CAA comes out of its investigation very well. However, I cannot comment on the likely outcome of the MMC's report.

    My hon. Friend gave me some of the answers to his own questions concerning mixed mode operations at Heathrow. That aspect is new to me, but it is also a question of getting the balance right between noise and maximising the capabilities of our airports, which is of fundamental importance.

    Objections to noise are too often made without being counteracted by the argument that there is virtually no unemployment in the vicinity of airports. The people who work at airports want to live near them, so complaints about noise are often a red herring.

    My hon. Friend is welcome to make that point, but it is not one which right hon. and hon. Members representing areas close to airports would promote. I have to take very seriously the views of local residents. I repeat that it is a matter of achieving a balance between providing the required service and the environmental impact in a particular area. That balance is not easy to achieve, but we must aim at striking it as often as we can.

    I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for his usual courtesy in notifying my office that he would be raising certain points. I understand that his remarks were in order because the CAA is responsible for safety matters. Most of the responsibility for regulating the carriage of livestock is primarily with Departments other than my own. Shortly before tonight's debate, the hon. Member informed me that his contribution to the Consolidated Fund Bill just before the Christmas Recess could have brought responses from 10 different Departments.

    Responsibility for livestock lies mainly with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment. For carriage by air, the air operators themselves have drawn up, through the International Air Transport Association, regulations with which all United Kingdom operators should comply. In licensing a United Kingdom operator wishing to carry cargo, including livestock, the Civil Aviation Authority will satisfy itself that an operator is competent to comply with the association's rules. The policing of such carriage lies principally with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and with local authorities in which the point of entry or departure is located. However, the CAA flight operations inspectors also run checks on air operators to ensure that they comply with the association's regulations in the holding and transit of livestock.

    The hon. Gentleman drew attention to serious incidents. I assure him that I shall draw attention to the chairman of the CAA. If I can go further, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman later. Indeed, we gave him an undertaking when he managed to get in at the end of the debate on the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill.

    The Department of Transport can make sure that the checks are carried out systematically. The difficulty is that MAFF says that it is the responsibility of the Department of Transport. It is not as simple as buck-passing all the way round. The difficulty in the British system is that anything that straddles more than two Government Departments, let alone 10, becomes the responsibility of someone else if it is awkward. That is why I suggested in the Adjournment debate that there should be an overall committee representing all Departments to consider an issue that concerns a great many people who are horrified, particularly at the pictures of gross cruelty to animals and often gross and needless incompetence.

    We have had a warning. If there is one thing for which the hon. Gentleman is known, it is his persistence. If the problem is not sorted out, we can expect to hear more from him on it. I undertake that we shall try to produce clear guidelines to cover some of the important points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay wondered whether the money was necessary. There is no doubt that some of the new equipment that the CAA needs is very expensive. We do not want to hold the CAA back. The argument is sometimes put that there has been under-investment. We want to make sure that adequate investment is available to the CAA. It is not a matter of trying to create more slots. Some would argue that Heathrow and Gatwick are almost at capacity. We are awaiting advice from the CAA on that. It should be published nearer the summer.

    The Bill is important and deserves the approval of the House; I hope that it will get that approval.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Resolved,

    That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Civil Aviation (Borrowing Powers) Bill, it is expedient to authorise any increase in the sums payable out of or into the National Loans Fund or charged on and issued out of or payable into the Consolidated Fund under the Civil Aviation Act 1982 which is attributable to provisions of the new Act—
  • (a) increasing the Authority's borrowing limit to £500 million with power to make further increases up to £750 million by order;
  • (b) enabling the Authority to borrow sums in units of account defined by reference to more than one currency.
  • European Community Documents

    Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(5) (Standing Committees on European Community documents).

    Air Transport

    That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 8520/89 relating to the application of the competition rules to air transport, and 8521/89 relating to the development of civil aviation in the Community; and endorses the Government's objectives in the first case of improving procedural certainty in aviation operations, and in the second of providing the fullest degree of liberalisation within the Community subject to suitable safeguards against anti-competitive behaviour.— [Mr. John M. Taylor.]

    Question agreed to.

    Telephone Premium Services

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

    9.13 pm

    I did not think that I would be called, because of all the shenanigans on the Conservative side. However, I am on my feet and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise again the issue of telephone premium services. I fear that I am in danger of being politically typecast, so I shall have to be careful.

    Telephone premium services were introduced in January 1986. They caused immediate controversy. There were large bills and children were being corrupted. In one case, three young children in the London area were abducted through a liaison made with an older person who was keying in to the telephone services and having conversations with young people.

    Those embarrassing events led the industry to respond in what I regard to be a timid way. In August 1986, it created an organisation called the independent committee for the supervision of standards of telephone information services—ICSTIS. It was funded—and still is—by British Telecom, the main recipient of the profits from those services. Various trade organisations were set up and various codes of practice were published. Throughout 1986 and 1987, the embarrassing and controversial cases still appeared in the newspapers and on television. There was a great response, throughout the country to the interest that I took in the matter.

    The Director General of Oftel, whose remit from the House under the Telecommunications Act 1984 is to represent the consumer interest, was very much involved. I shall later discuss the various cases in greater detail.

    The Director General of Oftel, under considerable pressure and clearly within the remit given by the House, finally made a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in July 1988, and its report was published in January 1989. There then followed considerable consultations with interested parties, but the interests of the consumer and those who have fallen victim to the services during the preceding three and a half years were not sufficiently taken into account. I gave evidence to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, had several meetings with the Director General of Oftel and had considerable correspondence, but not one of my recommendations was adopted. I do not take that as a personal insult.

    I am sure that the Minister will agree that all the matters that we discussed recently in a television debate were conceived by the industry. The cornerstone of the new licence amendment is a code of practice that will be supervised by the ICSTIS. It is a new code but, in effect, it is only the old code in a new wrapping. The first code has gone by the board. There have been three codes in three years and we are told that this one will solve all the problems. It seeks to provide monitoring of the multiline chatlines, when up to a dozen people engage in what is mostly banal conversation, but which can be dangerous. It envisages age control, where young people below a certain age will be barred from using the service. It also envisages compensation for high bills.

    I shall first deal with monitoring. In 1987 there was a chatline called Talk about, which was owned by British Telecom. It was taken out of service after a great deal of controversy and after much heartache for many families. When the controversy was at its height, the Liverpool city council trading standards office made a fetish of monitoring—almost 24 hours a day.

    British Telecom was persuaded to carry out an almost one-to-one monitoring exercise. It is nonsense to suggest that monitoring can solve the problems about which I am speaking. I shall show how many people have become involved in monitoring. It will then become clear that it is nonsense to suggest that monitoring can solve the problem.

    It is suggested that age control will help. How in goodness can a telephone monitor judge that a girl is younger than 14, 15, 16 or 17? Publicans cannot do it. Sophisticated as some youngsters are, it will be virtually impossible to do it on the telephone. In other words, age control is another nonsense which has been dreamt up by the industry to protect its profits.

    The most ludicrous proposal is the so-called compensation scheme. That idea came from the industry when families were driven into debt with telephone bills of £4,000, £5,000 and a record £7,000 because youngsters had used the telephone without consent. If a compensation scheme could overcome that, I would be the first to say that it should be given a try.

    If a product or service, before being delivered into the market place, needs a compensation scheme to underpin it or to make it legitimate, the service or goods in question cannot be worth a candle. Again, the industry creating protection for itself dreamed that idea up and it was taken on board by the Director General of Oftel.

    The market about which I am speaking is so defective that it must be addressed not by the Director General of Oftel but by Parliament. It is defective to the extent that the market can survive only if people steal calls on the telephone at home or at their workplace.

    My next remarks will interest the Minister because I have with me a cutting from a newspaper which this morning said that a business in the Minister's constituency had been landed with a telephone bill for £19,000 because of an employee's obsession with chatlines.

    About two years ago I began to appreciate, as households were being driven into debt, how small businesses could find themselves faced with huge charges as young employees, ill-supervised—particularly where it was not possible for small firms to provide call-barring equipment—ran up huge telephone bills.

    I have done a great deal of research into the whole issue. I would not care to think how much it has cost me in telephone calls to funny and seedy chatlines in recent years. Indeed, economy has had to be introduced into my parliamentary office and we have had to do less telephoning.

    So concerned was I about the possible plight of small businesses that I wrote to about 600 chambers of commerce, one of which was in the Minister's constituency, where the company to which I referred has been saddled with a telephone bill for £19,000, a reasonable irony for tonight's debate.

    Why am I so bitterly opposed to telephone message services, and why have I put so much time into the argument, and run the risk of being typecast? It is because of the experiences that I have outlined tonight, and the research that I have carried out.

    Multiline chatlines are one of the specific problems that I have come across. I know of a case where three children aged 13, 14 and 15, tried to commit suicide when huge bills of between £3,000 and £5,000 dropped on to the doormat. I know from correspondence from people throughout Britain that families are still struggling with the debts that have been run up in such a way.

    I anticipated the possibility of fraud, and I alerted the Director General of Oftel a long time ago to the fact that unscrupulous chatline companies, once they get a line from British Telecom, are divorced from scrutiny and supervision. I thought that people might be encouraged to break into other people's homes and businesses, use the chatline, leave the phone hanging there for hours on end, and the chatline proprietor would split the difference with the perpetrator of the crime.

    I am sad to say that that has happened on a number of occasions. Several cases are now going through the courts, and two court cases have been concluded in the past three weeks. We should not clutter up the courts with a new crime—telephone chatline stealing.

    The other game that I detest and find despicable is the so-called interactive game in which the caller can be kept on the line for a long time, sent from one part of the game to another. The games are designed to keep the caller on the line and the caller is usually not the person who has to pay the bill.

    Tape messages are another problem. One usually sees offensive adverts for them. Out of respect for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and because it would probably be an affront to the House, I shall not read out the offensive adverts that appear in The Sport today—they need to be seen to be believed, they are so bad.

    The worst problem is with one-to-one calls—usually a girl talking to a man. One finds them in the poorest parts of city centres throughout Britain, but Manchester seems to be the capital. A young woman is employed to speak, typically to a male caller, at all hours of the day or night and the conversation has to be about sex.

    I have brought to the attention of the House on a number of occasions the different problems associated with such lines. They are corruptive of women and, in my view, there is a correlation between the institution of those lines during the past four years and the number of crimes that are perpetrated against women on the streets. Some people think that they are useful and they argue that they are a safety valve. They say that sexual inadequates use the lines to blow off steam and that they are no problem to anyone else.

    Interviews that I have conducted in my office with young women who have worked on chatlines suggest that the opposite is the case: those women feel corrupted and dirty, and a number have said that they felt like "verbal prostitutes". No doubt someone will now say, "They do not have to do it."

    The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs
    (Mr. Eric Forth)

    They do not have to do it

    The Minister is not strapped economically; like most hon. Members, he is all right, thank you very much. Outside the House, however, are one-parent families—women who work at night when the kids have been put to bed. There are people out there who have not a hope in hell of getting a reasonable job. People in economic difficulties will do many things to earn a crust; women have been known to walk the streets because they have been dragged into economic difficulties.

    I hope that the Minister will take that aspect rather more seriously. Women are being corrupted. Let me appeal to the Minister in his capacity as a family man who, I believe, has two daughters of his own, rather than as a desiccated Minister who is far above these matters.

    During the campaign led by newspapers and television producers, we have from time to time been able to infiltrate some of the one-to-one chatline companies with women journalists. On the most recent occasion, a woman who engaged in such work for two and a half days told me—10 days after the experience—that she felt damaged by it. She could not talk about it to anyone for a long time. She confirmed what others have told me many times when I have spoken to them in my office or in their own homes. What they have to listen to, and the memories that they go away with, have no place in a civilised society.

    As has been said before in the House, typically the man who telephones must hear a female voice, and while he is talking to that voice—often in a public phone box—he is usually masturbating. Such men describe how they are going to go away and abuse their own children, and even their domestic pets. All this stems from the legalisation and legitimisation of the involvement of a great British corporation—indeed, an international corporation—in improper activities. The House of Commons should do something about it, and it is the Government's responsibility to help us to do something.

    Where do I stand? If he is consistent, the Minister will probably say that I am denying people choice, but, on the contrary, I am arguing for choice. I am saying that the subscriber should be able to choose whether his or her telephone is used for these awful services. That would kill them stone dead overnight. Consumers, most of whom have a good deal of sense, do not want to spend their money on the tripe and garbage that we are discussing.

    I want the introduction of a contracting-in system. I want subscribers to be able to sign a piece of paper telling British Telecom, Mercury or Racal that they actually want their telephone receivers to bring them such services. That would solve the problem. There should be free itemised billing. The quarterly bill should include a list of the calls that have been made so that they can be challenged and so that any calls that have not been authorised by the subscriber are immediately apparent.

    There should be a total ban on the one-to-ones and the multilines, I have heard on the multilines drug dealing, racialist comments that made my hair stand on end, and young girls making liaisons with older men. Those services have no right to survive.

    There should also be a ban on the lurid advertisements. The advertisements in certain newspapers cause deep offence to many people and need to be cleaned up. A statutory body should be set up, independent of the industry, created by Parliament and funded by Government to supervise what remains of those services.

    I take some comfort from the fact that one or two unexpected allies have rallied to my cause. Not least is the chairman of British Telecom, Iain Vallance, who described the services as a blight on the industry. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. As the chairman of British Telecom has said that it is a blight on the industry, we should jolly well do something to assist him in removing it.

    Another ally is the Director General of Oftel. I understand that many of the complaints that he has received since 8 December resulted in his staff replying in writing and sometimes by telephone. In at least two of those telephone calls, members of the public have been told to contact their Members of Parliament as there is a need for a change in the legislation.

    But that is where I came in. I said four years ago that there needs to be a change in the legislation. I have said it in the House, outside and in every television studio in the land. It is a simple matter to look at the problems that I have outlined and the case that I have proved and that other people have proved and change the legislation.

    I said earlier that it was imposible for ICSTIS as presently constituted to monitor the volume of calls. We are talking about millions of calls per year. The supervisory committee consists of the princely number of eight staff—one secretary and seven administrative workers. It does not envisage employing more people until the end of the year when they will increase to 10. What chance has such a minuscule organisation of policing the matters that I have been talking about tonight and for a considerable time?

    I hope that the Minister has changed his mind since 6 o'clock this evening and has been convinced that something needs to be done not by the industry or by the Director General of Oftel but by the House of Commons. I am supported in that by organisations such as the Conservative Family Concern organisation and many others. Many individual members of the Conservative party have written to me.

    Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's policy of allowing the marketplace to dominate and providing only a weak and ineffective code of practice has been found to be completely ineffective? This evil traffic will be controlled only by legislation. The Minister should recognise that my hon. Friend has yet again brought to the fore one of the unacceptable faces of the enterprise culture.

    I am convinced of that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

    Over the past four years, I have been extremely careful to argue on moral and practical grounds that the case is unanswerable. Any reasonable person, whether it be a Minister or member of any political party, must see the wisdom of the argument that these services are a facet of the free market and that the problem should be strenuously tackled. Ministers must begin to tackle the problem. There is no chance of its going away, because there is no chance of the present controls working. The industry knows that they will not work, and the greedy people who benefit from these awful services, which are harming innocent people, will flourish as long as Ministers ignore the problems that I have highlighted. I hope to hear something more positive from the Minister.

    9.41 pm

    I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) on raising the subject of telephone message services.

    I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman said. He was right to warn the House about the danger of such services. I wonder why Oftel and the independent committee for the supervision of standards allow British Telecom to make telephone numbers available to companies that pour out sexually suggestive, if not sexually arousing, tapes which anyone of any age can telephone.

    As the hon. Member for Worsley said, advertisements for those services are not restricted to pornographic magazines but regularly appear in some Sunday and daily newspapers and, as a constituent of mine recently pointed out, even in that all-purpose publication Exchange and Mart. I have some of those advertisements here if the Minister would care to see them.

    The telephone advertisements always feature some form of sexual pursuit in their titles that appeal across the range of human desires. Some call themselves "teledates" and others call themselves "contact lines." An advertisement in the Exchange and Mart says:
    "Men 4 Men. Ring and listen to other gay men looking for someone special".
    The advertisement next to that says "Data-Mate." One can ring either for a woman or a man on "Gay Lines" or on a "Lesbian Line." In other words, they pander to the lowest of human desires.

    As I said, those advertisements in Exchange and Mart were brought to my attention by a constituent who had bought that magazine, as tens of thousands of people do, for advertisements for household goods, cars, motor bikes, houses and a range of the essentials of life. To his great surprise, he found page after page of those advertisements under the title "Adult interests."

    As a result of my constituent's letter, I wrote to Sir Bryan Carsberg, who is Director General of Oftel, asking why Oftel allowed such advertisements to appear. I should like to quote his reply:
    "I do not have any formal powers that would enable me to exercise direct control over these advertisements. However, when I first became aware of the general problems associated with this kind of service, I encouraged British Telecom to take steps to establish a system of voluntary regulations. As a result of that, British Telecom appointed an independent committee, chaired by Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper and chosen to be broadly representative of public opinion, to draw up a code of practice relating to these services. British Telecom made compliance with the code of practice a condition of its contracts and the committee considered complaints.
    The code deals with both the content of messages and advertising. Some services have already been suspended as a result of breaches of the code. However, the committee has not so far taken a strong line on advertising, preferring the view that this was primarily a matter for the Advertising Standards Authority.
    Some complaints about the advertisements for these services were considered by the Authority but it declined to criticise them. As a result of recent escalation of concern with recorded message services, the committee is now determined to take a stronger line and I believe that it sees advertising, as you do, as a significant part of the problem. It proposes to issue a revised and strengthened code later this month"—
    he wrote in March 1989—
    "and it expects this to provide a basis for action in relation to advertising.
    I think that the best way forward is to try to make the committee's procedures effective and I believe that there is a good chance these procedures will now work well."

    He then advised me to write to Mr. David Wiseman, the Secretary of ICSTIS, which is what I did. In his somewhat anodyne reply, Mr. Wiseman enclosed two copies of ICSTIS leaflets. One is headed "Premium Rate Telephone Information and Entertainment Services", and states:
    "What is ICSTIS?
    The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services…is an independent watchdog which supervises premium rate telephone information and entertainment services.
    Premium rate services cost more than an ordinary telephone call.
    Currently, calls cost 25p per minute cheap rate and 38p per minute at all other times of the day. Of course, these rates will be higher for calls made from telephone boxes, hotels, etc.
    These services provide both information and entertainment (such as weather forecasts, financial information, sports results, games, and stories) over the telephone. Most of these services consist of recorded messages provided by private companies called Service Providers, each of whom is responsible for the content of the message or service as well as any associated promotional material.
    The independent committee, ICSTIS, has produced a Code of Practice that sets the standards which the Service Providers must observe. If they break the Code, their service can be removed from the telephone network."

    From that leaflet and from Sir Bryan Carsberg's letter, one would have thought that, 10 months later, I would not be supporting the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), who has powerfully made out the case against these message services. He will probably agree that there has been no appreciable change and that, if anything, such services have proliferated.

    If one chooses to buy soft porn magazines one can see literally hundreds of these advertisements in a single column. That shows that these services are profitable both to the providers of the tapes and, sadly, to British Telecom. I must declare an interest, for I have a small shareholding in British Telecom. It gives me no pleasure to be a shareholder in a company that is making money out of such a grubby business.

    One must ask what can be done. Some advertisements at least trade on what can only be described as obscene titles, but, as is often the case with that sort of material, they end up as a rip-off in every sense. The actual message will probably be fairly innocuous and, I suspect, carefully produced to be just within whatever the lawyers who advise the companies believe allow them to claim that they are not obscene. If the titles are obscene, the companies will no doubt claim that the content of the tapes is not obscene. It must be on those grounds and on those alone—what other reason could there be?—that ICSTIS does not seem able to put into effect the code of practice, the details of which I have already given to the House.

    However, whether these "services" are rip-offs or not, and whether or not they are verbal prostitution—or, as I would prefer to put it, a verbal form of striptease—the fact is that they pander to the lowest tastes in human beings. They do nothing for the reputation of British Telecom and they make me wonder why neither Oftel nor ICSTIS has yet been able to produce the necessary procedures to prevent the trade from continuing.

    I recognise that when a company initially asks British Telecom for a telephone number with which to provide a service, British Telecom cannot know exactly what is involved. However, I no longer believe that British Telecom, Oftel or ICSTIS can have avoided noticing the advertisements that appear not only in pornographic magazines but, as both myself and the hon. Member for Worsley have already said, in daily and Sunday newspapers and in other publications as widely read as Exchange and Mart. It is no good those organisations putting their heads in the sand and saying, "We had no idea that this was going on," because it is their telephone lines that are being used. They are profiting from the services. It is high time that they took their duties more responsibly.

    The advertisements and the services that they present to the public can do nothing for the reputation of British Telecom or persuade any of us that privatising British Telecom has enhanced the reputation of our national telephone service. By the same token, while the advertisements continue unabated, there must be a question mark over the effectiveness of Oftel and its Director General. Why has he not been given the formal powers, which in his letter to me he said that he did not have?

    Is my hon. Friend the Minister satisfied that we can continue without bringing forward such formal powers for the Director General and without asking ICSTIS to look again at its code of practice with a view, not to offering slaps on the wrist, but to giving the sort of teeth that will banish these advertisements from our daily and Sunday newspapers and from publications that lie about the house and can be seen by people of all ages and both sexes? That should not happen. I believe that we have it in our power to prevent it from happening.

    9.52 pm

    It is a sad sign of the times that we must have this debate, but it is also sad that we are seeing the true face of the Minister and his party, with a few honourable exceptions. There is no doubt in my mind that Alexander Graham Bell would turn in his grave at the knowledge that his wonderful invention was being used widely for such a perverted purpose. It is a sad sign of the times that so many people are using such services for misguided or perverted reasons, and it is also sad that once-responsible businesses are choosing to boost their profits by providing these revolting services.

    It is not that the services pander to healthy appetites—whatever that may mean—because today's newspapers carry a selection of advertisements from one company, Leeds Communications, which offers no fewer than 19 lines, including "Rubber Lust", "Wet 'n' Wild", "Ready and Willing", and "Out of Control". Another company encourages men to fantasise about girls at school with its "Gymslip" line. Another offers girl lovers.

    The Minister is well known for his support for private enterprise, but I should have thought that even he would draw the line at some of those advertisements. Apparently not. The Minister supports the independent committee for the supervision of standards of telephone information services, the regulatory body charged with vetting obscene calls on chatlines and associated premium rate lines. Each year, an estimated 45 million calls are made on sex lines. The watchdog body has one person permanently monitoring the lines with back-up from eight people who can be called in from other duties. Those were the figures that it gave to me today. There is one person to monitor every 5 million potentially obscene calls. If someone is caught making an obscene call, the penalty under section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 is £400.

    The profits from porn lines are enormous. Over a dozen chat lines and phone line firms have revenues in excess of £1 million. The penalties are puny. Not one prosecution has been brought against a company in four years. The chatline industry is laughing all the way to the bank. One paper today even flaunts that fact in an advert. It is called "Dial if you Dare". It dares people not only to take the risk of being caught, but to risk being prosecuted. Another advert calls its British Telecom number "Banned Lines".

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) said, the effect on women can be devastating. Parents cannot stop their child or a young teenager from ringing the phone lines. Firms cannot stop unscrupulous or irresponsible people from running up massive bills.

    The hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) concluded by putting a list of questions to the Minister. I, too, have a list of questions. Why has it taken him four years to produce a code of conduct that will control sex lines? The third code is claimed to be effective, but we know that it will not be. Why does the Minister rule out legislation when the code of practice is patently ineffective? Why does he not provide tough laws to control chatlines when the watchdog body appears to be toothless? Why does he refuse even to meet the Director General of Oftel to discuss the need to protect the public?

    Why is the Minister taking no action to prevent British Telecom from giving detailed technical advice on how to set up filth lines? Why are the people who run chatlines not vetted to screen out the paedophiles and perverts? Is he satisfied that nine staff can monitor 45 million sex line calls? Does he believe that a £400 fine for chatline obscenities deters firms which make millions of pounds?

    British Telecom claims that sex lines are a blight on the industry. The advice of the Director General of Oftel to my constituents and others is to contact their Member of Parliament to lobby on this matter.

    The Minister must know that British Telecom will not tackle the problems. The business generates multi-million pound profits for it. The Minister has a choice. He can endorse market sleaze or accept the four-point plan proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley. It is time for the Minister to stand up and protect consumers throughout Britain from this obscenity.

    9.58 pm

    I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) on obtaining it. The interest which the subject arouses is amply demonstrated by the number of hon. Members present for this Adjournment debate.

    I am sorry that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) should have attempted to introduce party politics. It degraded what has been an entirely serious debate. If he wishes to conduct the debate on that level, however, I must say that I see little mileage in a party that opposed clause 28 of the Local Government Bill in 1988 and opposed the prevention of the promotion of perversion in schools lecturing us on morality. I would rather get back to the major substance of the debate.

    The hon. Member for Worsley said that chatlines were driving many people into debt, but they also drive people into crime. In my constituency, one young man has become so addicted to the obscene lines and the obscene services that he breaks into shops to use telephone points.

    It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

    Motion made, and Question propose, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Patnick.]

    I agree that the obscene services thus provided can be described as prostitution. The consequence must be that those who make profits from such services are living upon immoral earnings. I was under the impression that that was a crime. I would like the Home Office to be involved with this matter as well as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs.

    I, too, welcome profits, but the profits that are made from the innocence and irresponsibility of children are immoral. It is totally unrealistic to expect a young person, particularly a child, to understand that a telephone is not a free instrument and to understand that calls cost a great deal of money, which mounts up. In every home, agitated parents say to teenagers in the normal course of events that they spend too much time on the telephone.

    In the abnormal course of events, of which we have heard tonight, problems often occur in families in economically straitened circumstances. In those cases, the mother of the family is often economically constrained to go out to work. She is not at home to exercise control over the use of the telephone and is unaware of what is going on. She is simply unable to exercise parental responsibility, and by the time she realises what has happened it is much too late. In my constituency, telephone bills of four figures have been reported fairly regularly, so much so that a local priest, the Rev. Tony Faulkner, has taken up this issue. He has tried to inject local responsibility into this matter so that parents are more aware of what is going on.

    I second what the hon. Member for Worsley said about the effect of such services on women. All of us who have received obscene calls and who have managed to put the telephone down in 10 seconds flat, still know that one can feel extremely shaken up after the event, no matter how tough or self-reliant one may be. Therefore, the effect on women can be extremely damaging.

    I appreciate that the Minister will say that it is up to women to decide whether they participate in such calls. That is not true of young girls who ring up such lines for a bit of a giggle and who suddenly realise exactly what is on offer. Obviously, there is also the danger of liaisons being formed and young girls being lured to meet men—there is evidence that that has happened.

    I am all for wholly responsible profit-making and initiative in the sort of chatlines that are produced. I see nothing to suggest that the problem is restricted to private enterprise. British Telecom was privatised fairly recently, but the lines that we are discussing have been going for some time.

    I am all for responsible commercial enterprise, but we are talking about completely irresponsible commercial enterprise. That enterprise represents immorality and prostitution and those behind it are living off immoral earnings. Even when no obscenity is involved, such enterprises live off the irresponsible exploitation of the young. A little bit of will would stop it. We have heard various suggestions as to how it could be stopped. The hon. Member for Worsley suggested the opting-out method whereby it could be indicated that certain telephone lines were not to be used for such services. We should tackle what will become a growing social evil. It involves the worry of parents who cannot meet their bills, the steady corruption of children, the degradation of women and the promotion of an ugly face of private enterprise which I do not like any more than the hon. Member for Worsley does.

    10.4 pm

    I shall not keep the House long, but I should like to join in the congratulations of hon. Members from both sides of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), not just for winning tonight's Adjournment debate and choosing such an admirable subject, but for the campaign that he has conducted for some time.

    I feel strongly about the subject, largely due to an experience I had which sums up some of the issues involved. I held a surgery just before Christmas and a mother came to see me who was quite upset and distraught. She had discovered that her son was addicted to the disgraceful and pornographic telephone lines provided by British Telecom. Sadly, she actually believed for some time that British Telecom had confused her account with somebody else's because she was receiving such astronomical bills. She thought that they had lined her into a local company. She discovered quite by accident, through the recording mechanism on the telephone, which records the previous number called, that her adolescent son was using these services.

    I said that I would take up the case. I was not then familiar with the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley with British Telecom and Oftel. Quite frankly, I could not believe that we had no power, and the firms had no power, to do anything about this disgraceful and expanding practice.

    Sadly, I have to disagree with the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), although I accept that many of her colleagues have supported my hon. Friend's campaign and disagreed with their Front-Bench spokes-men on the matter. I am afraid that this is a party-political problem. The solution is simple and anybody with a modicum of common sense can see what it is: with just minor legislative changes we could prevent this disgraceful activity.

    I am obliged to ask why we are not taking such steps and why the Government are not taking action. It may be a lesson to some Conservative Members to know that it is because the Government have gone so far that they do not know where to draw the line and stop. They adopt such doctrinaire attitudes towards privatisation, free markets and enterprise that they cannot see the damage that is being done. That is why I shall listen with great interest to the Minister's response.

    10.8 pm

    The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs
    (Mr. Eric Forth)

    I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) on having secured the debate and pay tribute to him for the dedication with which he has pursued the cause over a long period. That has been mentioned during the debate and I want to pay tribute to him for having pursued the matter with great sincerity and dedication. This Adjournment debate is an important occasion in the course of his pursuit. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) referred to the amount of support in the House this evening, it is worth recording that although there is an unusually large number of Members here for the Adjournment debate, it is not exactly an overwhelming presence.

    Many hon. Members have contributed to the debate—my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson), for Maidstone and for Pendle (Mr. Lee) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). Also present are my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and the hon. Members for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) and for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley). My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) is also here. It is worth recording the names of the hon. Members who have taken the trouble to be here at this relatively late hour to participate in the debate.

    I am glad that I shall have a little longer than usual to reply to the many important points that have been made during the debate. I want to reply to them reasonably fully.

    First, I want to set in their proper context the difficulties to which all hon. Members have referred. Consumers generally, and particularly consumers of telephone services, benefit enormously from the widely available and openly accessible public telecommunications systems that are provided principally, but not exclusively, by British Telecom.

    The availability and accessibility of these systems are at the heart of any public system of telecommunications and these rights are recognised in the duties placed on the Secretary of State and on the Director General of Oftel by section 3 of the Telecommunications Act 1984
    "to secure that there are provided throughout the United Kingdom, save in so far as the provision thereof is impracticable or not reasonably practicable, such telecommunications services as satisfy all reasonable demands for them".

    It may be that the burden of this debate will revolve round the interpretation of the word "reasonable". That may be the word on which we agree to differ, but in any case this is the basis of the provision of telecommunications services, and these duties are reflected in the licences granted to British Telecom and other national network operators—Mercury Communications, Racal-Vodafone and Cellnet.

    However, just as consumers have a right to telephone services, so too do premium-rate service providers. If we qualify such a right we must be sure that we do not undermine that main objective or access to the system.

    I also stress that under the terms of the Telecommunications Act 1984 and the licences issued under it the regulation of premium-rate services is the responsibility—rightly—of the Director General of Oftel, Sir Bryan Carsberg, whom hon. Members have mentioned several times in the debate. I make it absolutely clear that Sir Bryan has my fullest support, and that of the Secretary of State, in his work. We believe that he discharges his duties with great responsibility.

    The hon. Member for Worsley knows that I am obliged—I take the obligation seriously—to maintain a close interest in the issues raised tonight and I shall ensure that Sir Bryan receives a report of our debate.

    It is worth recalling that the services to which the hon. Member for Worsley refers have a common feature, in that they are all charged at premium rate directly to the subscriber's bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to that, but it is worth emphasising that these sorts of services fall into three categories: recorded message services on which the caller listens to a tape recording which could, for example, be a weather forecast or many other sorts of service; multiline or chatline services, which have caused some anxiety and on which the caller has the opportunity of talking to a group of between two and 11 other callers; and one-to-one services, those which perhaps cause the most concern, on which the caller has a conversation with an operator on a subject of his choice, or on one of the subjects in the advertisements to which hon. Members have referred.

    It is worth recalling briefly the history that has led to the present controls. In response to public concern—like that expressed by the hon. Member for Worsley—over many years about these premium-rate services and about their cost, advertising methods and contents, Sir Bryan decided that regulatory action was necessary. He first tried to persuade British Telecom to agree voluntarily to new measures that gave control over access to these services to the person paying the bill. When this failed, he referred the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Its report was published last year.

    The MMC concluded that the services operate or may be expected to operate against the public interest. It specified the effects that were adverse to the public interest by saying:
    "Due to the ease of access to the services, and the terms of contract between BT and its customers, the customer has inadequate control over the types of service which can be accessed and over the costs or charges that may be incurred for use of the services, which significantly impairs the value and quality of the telephone service to the customer".

    The MMC advised that until the modernisation of the network provided technology to remedy the main adverse effects of these services, they could be remedied or prevented by licence amendments and the MMC specified licence amendments which it believed to be appropriate. The MMC also stated that it did
    "not believe that the adverse effects of chatline services are sufficient to justify the virtual cessation of the services".

    That is an important statement because the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is independent of Government, as is Oftel. That statement is the backdrop to what I am about to say. It is clear that the MMC did not share in any full sense the points made by the hon. Member for Worsley.

    Does the Minister agree that following the taking of evidence by the MMC, worse cases of chatline girls and of chatline services such as those we have been discussing appeared in the media? Because of that, Sir Bryan Carsberg took a stronger line than he would otherwise have taken.

    Does the Minister further agree that the Director General of Oftel could make licence amendments without strict reference to the MMC recommendations? He may take them into account, but in the light of new evidence he could have acted differently, and I do not think that he has done so. As I said in my speech, one of the great difficulties is that the Director General of Oftel seems to have taken more account of the industry's views than he has taken of consumers' views.

    The hon. Gentleman is entitled to put that interpretation on Sir Bryan's conclusions, but I repeat—it is important to remember—that I and Sir Bryan have to pay due regard to what the legislation specifies and what an independent body such as the MMC says. The Government also have to pay due regard to what Sir Bryan and Oftel say. That is the way that the thing works. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that in many ways it is preferable for such matters to be dealt with by bodies that are independent of Government rather than to have a political overlay. I regard that as a virtue, not a shortcoming. In many other cases the hon. Gentleman might agree with me, and if he reflects on the matter I think that he will agree in this case, too.

    It is incorrect to suggest that to legislate in this matter would be relatively simple and straightforward. The hon. Gentleman has not faced the difficulties that Ministers have to face when legislating. First, there is the difficulty of getting a priority place in the legislative programme and secondly, there is the extent of commitment to legislative change. There are no wands to be waved in such matters even if the wish were there. I do not regard legislation as appropriate in this case and I shall explain why.

    Following the MMC report and having closed its own chatline service, British Telecom withdrew services from chatline operators. That decision is still the subject of legal action and I cannot comment further upon it.

    That brings me to the present measures. In the light of the MMC report and following the appropriate consultation, Sir Bryan has introduced new controls which give strong protection to the consumer by making amendments to the network operators' licences. They may now provide the facilities needed by premium chatline and one-to-one services only if the director general has approved a code of practice which regulates the provision of the services and, most important, sets up a fund to compensate customers with excessive bills arising from unauthorised access to the services.

    As recently as 7 December, Oftel approved two such codes of practice—one for multiline chatline services and another for one-to-one services. Both are administered by the independent committee for the supervision of standards of telephone information services. I stress the word "independent". I make it clear that a body that is chaired by as eminent an individual as Louis Blom-Cooper can hardly be regarded as in the pocket of either British Telecom or the service providers. I am sure that anyone who casts an eye over the committee's other members will be satisfied of their probity, integrity and independence. I resent the suggestion that they are in any way in the pocket of British Telecom or of the service providers. They are sturdily independent people of great reputation and probity. The House should know and understand that, and acknowledge it.

    Public perception outside this House is as important as the Minister's regard for the members of the committee. I have no criticism of them as individuals, but the committee is funded by British Telecom and the other network providers, who appointed its members in the first place. That body includes an individual who is himself a chatline provider, albeit at the respectable end of the business. However, no consumer interest is represented on the committee. If it was broadly based and totally independent of the networkers, it would be more acceptable.

    Nor is the committee wide-ranging in social or geographical terms. Its members all come from a narrow social background and work or live in London. There are other parts of this great country of ours than London.

    I do not dissent strongly from some of the hon. Gentleman's points, which will be considered when reviewing the future membership of the committee. However, given that its members include a consultant physician, a head teacher, and someone who calls himself a consumer policy adviser, I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's main criticism. I do not want to get unnecessarily bogged down in the composition of the committee, and hope that I have said enough to convince the House that its members are highly qualified and independent.

    If an operator fails to comply with one of the codes of practice approved by Oftel, ICSTIS can make a recommendation to Oftel, which can in turn authorise British Telecom to disconnect the service. As right hon. and hon. Members must be aware, one such disconnection has already taken place and another service has been withdrawn voluntarily. Evidence of failure to comply with the codes can come either from monitoring of the services by ICSTIS or from a complaint. I hope that any right hon. or hon. Member who has grounds for complaint will use the machinery available under ICSTIS to initiate the complaints procedure.

    The codes of practice, copies of which have been in the Library for some time, provide strong consumer protection. They require service providers to contribute to a fund sufficient to compensate any subscribers who face large bills as a result of unauthorised access to their services. One of the terms of the compensation fund—claims to which will be considered by an adjudicator, Sir John Bailey—is that where the adjudicator is unable to identify any firm evidence to support either acceptance or rejection of a claim, the benefit of the doubt shall normally be given to the customer, which is an important protection.

    The Minister said that he does not believe that new legislation is necessary. I am not a great believer in censorship, but a whole village in my constituency is served by a telephone exchange having the STD prefix 08993. I am having problems because people using digital telephones just have to add another "9" and my constituents find themselves being asked for cricket scores or weather forecasts, which is not too bad, but for other services such as "Kinky dreams", "Naughty nymphette", "Rubber bust", Waiting for it" and "Wet 'n' wild".

    My constituents are harassed by these calls. People have to be protected. I am talking about a rural area with a substantially elderly community. I am pressed by people who are getting obscene calls. We are the legislators and we must do something about it. That is where democracy is. We have to protect people from harassment and perversion. I hope that the Minister will explain clearly why he will not introduce legislation to save people from harassment.

    In the five minutes that are left I shall attempt to give a clear explanation. I hope that I shall be allowed to press on. I accept absolutely the validity of the hon. Gentleman's point. If he has not done so, I hope that he will approach British Telecom to discuss the problem. If he has any difficulty about that, I hope that he will come to me.

    I have raised the point with British Telecom, and we had a heated exchange. British Telecom more or less said, "Sorry, it is not our problem. It would cost us too much to change STD numbers." I was more or less told to go forth and multiply.

    I hope that the heated exchanges will be limited to the House and will not spread to British Telecom, where they could be disastrous. I hope to answer the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

    Under the terms of the code of practice, ICSTIS has the right to visit the premises of operators without notice, to require that reasonable information and co-operation be provided, including written records in the case of one-to-one services and tape recordings in the case of chatlines, which must be retained for a period of six months.

    Service providers are required to do everything practicable to prevent access to the services by those under 18 years of age. In saying that, I recognise the difficulties with that provision. Even now there is an argument about the sale of cigarettes to under-16s by tobacconists. There is a continuing argument about the sale of alcohol in pubs to under-18s. I emphasise the general point that the new provisions have been in place just over a month. We have not yet had time to see how effective the codes of practice, the compensation fund, and the other provisions that ICSTIS has in its power will be.

    I hope that all hon. Members and the public will take the fullest opportunity to use the mechanisms that are available to find out whether they are adequate to cover the requirements raised in the debate. I believe that they should be. Equally, I can see that they may not be. If so, we will have to consider the matter again. Oftel will, as will others. The reason why I resist further legislation is that I believe that the mechanisms that we have provided, which are much more flexible than anything provided under legislation, should be adequate. If they are not, it is to them that we should look.

    I must hurry in the two minutes remaining to me to say a word about the content and advertising of the services—another matter raised in the debate. I understand the concern of hon. Members. I looked at some of the advertisements earlier this evening to check on their nature.

    The codes of practice incorporate the British code of advertising practice and the British code of sales promotion practice, as well as other provisions requiring disclosure of the cost of the services, and details of the service provider and restrictions on aiming the services at young people. ICSTIS has written to the National Press Association and the Association of Free Newspapers informing them of the existence of the new codes of practice.

    It has begun an investigation into the advertising and promotion of adult services, examining ways to improve the standards of advertising and restrict the placement of advertisements, particularly in publications readily accessible to children. The investigation will involve service providers, network operators, the Advertising Standards Authority and relevant newspaper publishers associations and European and international authorities. ICSTIS is also taking action to make the general public more aware of its role, to look into European experience with premium rate services and to see what more can he done.

    I ask hon. Members to give the measures that we have put in place the fullest opportunity to work and to use the complaints services and the existing mechanisms. We will reconsider the matter when they have had a chance to operate to see whether they have had the effect that I expect and hope they will. If not, I will expect Oftel and the MMC to return to the matter, and I shall do so as well. I hope that over the next few weeks and months we will see a dramatic change and the improvements that all hon. Members have urged upon us. I expect that to be the case, but we will watch the position closely.

    The motion having been made Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

    Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.