Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 173: debated on Thursday 24 May 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

House Of Commons

Thursday 24 May 1990

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Bill Presented


Mr. Keith Vaz presented a Bill to extend the rights of local authorities in respect of planning application appeals; to extend the powers of local authorities in respect of breaches of planning conditions; to make provision for additional planning controls upon the installation of satellite dish receivers; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 22 June and to be printed. [Bill 152.]

Housing Corporation

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

9.34 am

I am grateful that this subject has been selected for debate and for the timing of the debate. I must declare an interest because I am a partner in a firm that advises and works for housing associations. The purpose of the debate is to seek a solution or at least an easement of the cash crisis in which the Housing Corporation and housing associations now find themselves. That crisis is a consequence of the change in the way in which the Housing Corporation gives approval to spend money for housing associations whose target for starting and completing homes is 20,000 per year.

In 1989 the total production of public sector homes, which are largely to rent, was 27,000. That is disgracefully low. We are talking about virtually all public sector low-cost housing for rent since the Government massacred the local authority house building programme. The cause lies ultimately with the Government, who introduced the Housing Act 1988. The solution is also in the hands of the Government and they can provide it not by the announcement of any new unit or committee but by the announcement of a new commitment to see through the programme of 20,000 starts and 20,000 completions in the housing association sector.

It is not enough for Ministers simply to shuffle off responsibility for what has happened to the Housing Corporation or the private sector. Ministers are responsible for housing. They are not Ministers of excuses or alibis—they are here to provide houses, but they have provided only a small number. I do not want excuses—I want action.

Housing associations now provide almost all the low-cost homes for rent in Great Britain. Those homes are almost all for those who are in need and on low incomes. The associations provide much of the new housing for the homeless and also for people with acute needs such as those who have had long periods of hospitalisation, people suffering from mental or physical illness, those who need sheltered accommodation and people who need accommodation that is coupled with counselling.

There is almost no new help for such housing except that which comes from the housing associations. That is because the Government have savaged local authority programmes. Housing associations are non-profit-making bodies. Some are co-operatives and some are specialised, and all are governed by volunteers. Most of the vacancies which occur in their properties go on nomination to local authorities and the associations play a useful part in tackling the problem of homelessness.

I shall now deal with the cause of the present crisis I shall have to simplify my explanation, but my description will certainly not be inaccurate. Obviously, I cannot spend a long time going through all the causes. Before 1989 housing associations received approval for loans and subsidies. The subsidy is called HAG, which means housing association grant. They received approvals for individual schemes and the money was then paid by the Housing Corporation to acquire land, to move on to site and sign building contracts, to complete legal obligations to builders and for the completion of the site, and to pay development costs.

The system that operated before 1989 made it relatively simple, although it was not entirely without problems, to keep the flow of money from the Housing Corporation to the housing associations with public expenditure limits. In the financial year 1989–90 the system was changed. Following the passage of the 1988 Act, housing associations were invited to be more commercial, to use private finances, to take more risks and, under the assured tenancy arrangements, to charge higher rents. The larger housing associations were given the freedom to plan; it was called tariff expenditure. They relied heavily on the tariff arrangements, but unfortunately they have been torn up in the recent crisis.

Under the new system, associations could draw their allocations much more rapidly. They could then get on with the job of providing housing by accelerating the development process, which they did with great success. Indeed, it is precisely because they responded effectively to the new system that they are now being penalised and find themselves in crisis, which affects not only them but, ultimately and more importantly, their consumers. Housing associations did not overspend in 1989–90; they simply spent their money more quickly and did exactly what the Government had asked them to do—that is, to work with the private sector to achieve a rapid provision of housing. Of course, the numbers are still far too low, but within what they were allowed to do they responded with a rapid system for putting housing into use.

In 1989–90, the system took the strain of several forces. The first was the much bigger initial payments to housing associations to start schemes. That was the pattern of the new regime. The second was the speed with which housing associations started on site or bought in completed schemes. Because of the slump in house building programmes, there were more off-the-shelf schemes available. Therefore, the available money was used more quickly. The third was the encouragement to get on with new schemes because of the change in capital controls on local authorities which came into force on 1 April. Many authorities were anxious to dispose of money that they could spend only in the last financial year, or to dispose of land under the old system. The fourth—which I regard as the forgotten factor—was the remaining substantial cost of completing schemes in the pipeline from the earlier years of the old approval system.

In financial terms, the fast train of 1989 ran into the back of the slow train of 1988 and earlier years. That resulted in financial disaster and many casualties among housing associations. That is my description of events. The Housing Corporation used less florid language, but it amounted to the same thing. It said that the costs flowing from its 1989–90 programmes already approved require
"significantly more cash in 1990–91 than we had previously forecast, leaving much less cash for schemes to be approved during the year."
The £815 million budget for the Housing Corporation for 1989–90 was grossly exceeded and all sorts of devices were introduced either to cure or to disguise the problem. Of course, it is not a real problem—it is first a public expenditure accountancy problem and could be easily solved. Money was transferred from the 1990–91 programme to last year's programme, leaving much less available for this year; a 13-month year was invented; new approvals were delayed; and the tariff arrangements—which, in effect, were the long-term planning agreements for associations—were torn up and disowned.

The current year still holds commitments from the old approval system as well as the balance of commitments that were accelerated in 1989–90. I understand that the consequences are so severe that only about £70 million will be available for new starts this year as against the £450 million needed to sustain 20,000 starts a year under the new system, when much greater amounts of money are paid to housing associations once they have undertaken schemes. Because of the telescoping of previous programmes, only £70 million will be available, of which half is committed to starts on the new homeless housing programme. On the worst scenario, those figures mean that in the current financial year the number of starts will fall from 20,000 to 3,000, a cut of 85 per cent. Even on a medium scenario, with a cut of 50 per cent. to 75 per cent., it would be an appalling tragedy for the provision of housing for rent, which is the greatest unmet need in today's housing market. I cannot believe that Ministers will allow that to happen.

I wish to cite some examples of the consequences of what some call the current crisis, but which is officially called a dislocaton. The Government forced Lambeth borough council to sell a site because they said, with a little justice, that Lambeth was too slow in developing it. I asked the Minister's predecessor to ensure that the site would be sold to a housing association for rapid development to provide much needed homes for rent. I am pleased to say that he agreed to that proposition. As a result, the land was sold to a housing association so that it could get on with the job quickly. The consequence of the present crisis is that the housing association cannot develop the site because money will not be available to start during the current financial year.

A second example is of land in Kent which was acquired in phases for sensible development by a housing co-operative. It completed phase 1 and has acquired the land for phase 2. It is ready to go out to tender for the building contract. That co-operative has now been told by the Housing Corporation that the site cannot be started. Interest charges are accruing on the money paid for the site. Building costs may well rise during the next year. If the accumulated costs exceed the maximum allowable total—it is called indicative costs—the scheme may have to be abandoned. It is another example of a delay in starts this year leading eventually to a reduction in the number of completions in later years.

The third example is the number of development themes run by housing associations which may have to be disbanded. Those people are specialists who have been working together for a number of years. They have had a reasonable flow of work and they depend on development allowances to keep their teams together. Their expertise may now be lost. Associations that rely on a steady flow of development allowances could find themselves in financial difficulty with the consequent need to shed staff. At the end of the day, fewer starts this year—possibly as low as 3,000 to 4,500—must mean fewer completions in later years.

I demand that the Government act to ameliorate, or even to cure, the crisis. There are massive capital receipts in the public sector which could well be used. It is well within the Government's capability to solve the problem. As the Minister knows, there are huge accumulated capital receipts among local authorities. If a scheme could be put together with the Treasury to release that money, housing association schemes could continue without dislocation.

If the Minister acted like a Minister with responsibility for housing and used a bit of imagination, housing associations would be able to maintain a programme of 20,000 starts as well as 20,000 completions a year. That would assist the building industry, which faces a difficult time, to maintain a reasonable flow of work and would help the homeless and those in need. In addition, it would have no long-term cost implications.

If one examines the dislocation, the crisis, the delay in starts, one sees that it will have the effect in the long term of increasing rather than decreasing expenditure. The cost of keeping people in homeless accommodation is notoriously high and great savings could be made there.

What we have this morning is the chance for the Government to turn a crisis into an opportunity, to meet housing need and human need and to keep the contract that they made with housing associations. I hope that the Minister will give me a positive and constructive response this morning.

9.50 am

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) for initiating the debate and giving me the opportunity to explain the background to some adjustments that have recently become necessary to the Housing Corporation's capital programme, to correct some misapprehensions about the consequences of these adjustments, and to reaffirm our confidence both in the corporation and in the ability of the housing association movement to take the lead in the provision of low-cost homes for households in need.

I think that it is implicit in what the hon. Gentleman was saying that he recognises that the answer to today's housing problems does not lie in yesterday's massive municipal house-building programmes. Of course, there were and are plenty of good and well-run council estates, but there are also many notorious failures. Local authorities have had a near-monopoly of low-cost rented provision in their areas, and that monopoly has bred inefficiency and indifference to the customer's wants and needs. Authorities that have provided decent housing and managed it well have done so despite that monopoly, not because of it.

Housing associations have on the whole avoided the mistakes of local housing authorities. As relatively small-scale providers, they have not allowed bureaucracy or professional vested interests to get between them and their customers. On average, their tenants are better satisfied than those of local authorities. That is the main reason why over the past few years we have reversed the traditional roles and made associations, not local authorities, the lead providers of new low-cost housing. In doing so, however, we have found it necessary to recast the basis for funding their development.

Associations are private bodies, owing their foundation to volunteer effort and enterprise, yet since 1974 they had looked entirely to the public sector for their development funding. Moreover, because rent controls left associations with no means of increasing their income, that funding had to take a form that left all the risks with Government and provided no incentive to efficiency in construction and management.

Fitting associations for their new role has involved a revolution in their financing, restoring to them the freedom to set their own rents provided that they keep them within the reach of their own clients, tapping private sources of loan finance, and giving them full financial responsibility for their successes and failures.

We provided the framework for that funding revolution and the expansion of the movement in the Housing Act 1988. Most of the hard grind of devising the detail of the new grant arrangements and all the complex transitional machinery, putting the systems and people in place to run them and educating the movement about the implications and opportunities of the new regime, fell on the Housing Corporation. It had, too, to prepare itself and the housing association movement for a massive expansion in the capital programme. I pay tribute to its immense achievement in getting everything ready to roll in April 1989.

The strain on management, systems and staff throughout the organisation was enormous, and it would be altogether astonishing if everything had run with clockwork precision and smoothness from day one. If anything has gone wrong, it is that the housing association movement has mastered the new arrangements and responded to the challenges and opportunities that they offer even more quickly and impressively than we and the corporation had expected. I think that that is recognised by the hon. Gentleman. That has upset some of the key assumptions on which the corporation's plans for its capital programme in 1989–90 and 1990–91 were based.

Management of a capital programme within a strict and necessary discipline of annual cash limits—on which the Government put great emphasis—is always a complicated business. Individual schemes may take a number of years to plan, agree and execute. Decisions taken in one year will affect expenditure for several years ahead. Planning assumptions about what schemes will cost, or how long they will take to build, can be badly thrown out by events. Hitherto, in the face of all those difficulties, the corporation's record has been exemplary. The 1989–90 programme, however, posed an unprecedented problem —the introduction of a radically new grant system, the impact of which on development costs and times could only be guessed at.

A related difficulty was that evidence of the effects of the new system accumulated only very slowly during the past financial year. Associations' submissions of new schemes for grant approval tend to be heavily concentrated towards the end of the financial year, and that effect was more marked than usual in 1989–90 as associations, naturally, took a little time to familiarise themselves with the new arrangements. Initially, the corporation feared that take up of the programme was inadequate and that a significant underspend was in prospect. That shows how quickly the situation has changed.

The basis on which the corporation could have tested its planning assumptions and taken any corrective action was not available at critical times of the year, and the evidence on which the necessity of emergency action was eventually diagnosed was itself very incomplete and, as it turned out, unrepresentative.

By November last year, it became clear that action would be needed to contain expenditure for the year, and that was taken. Only at the end of December, however, did the corporation have reason to think that spending could not be constrained within the cash limit for the year, and in January my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a bringing forward of £120 million of expenditure, originally planned for 1990–91, into 1989–90 in order to avert an overspend. The corporation's outturn expenditure for the year was within the revised cash limit.

In January, on the still very limited evidence available, the corporation believed that the high rate of spend was attributable mainly to the increasing use by housing associations of procurement methods such as design and build and off-the-shelf purchase of completed dwellings, under which grant expenditure flows through very rapidly once the scheme has been approved for grant. Allowance was made for that effect in the corporation's announcement, also in January, of its plans for the 1990–91 capital programme.

By March, it had become apparent that the new grant regime was having much more widespread effects on the phasing of expenditure. A marked speeding up was observable in all types of new scheme, including those using traditional procurement techniques. Projects that would have taken four to five years to complete under the old arrangements now seem set to be finished on average within two years. That is excellent news in itself. Homes are being completed and made available for letting much faster than before. Associations have got to grips with the new grant rules and responded to the new incentives to cut costs and development times with impressive speed. but it would have been better news still had the corporation known about it before announcing its plans for 1990–91.

The position now is that the unexpectedly rapid rate of expenditure on schemes approved before the start of the year will leave much less of a margin of uncommitted expenditure for new schemes to be started in the present year.

The Minister is giving us an elegant and intricate description of a financial cock-up. Before he comes to the end of his speech, will he say that he intends to do something about it?

The purpose of the debate is to explain the background and not only the inputs but the outputs. I shall be stressing later the importance that the Government attach to output figures and I shall deal with them in some detail.

The corporation is reviewing the prospects in detail with each housing association and will then decide which new projects can be allowed to proceed during the year and which will have to be deferred until 1991–92.

What really matters is the number of new housing association homes being completed. It exceeded our plans for 1989–90 and seems set to do so again by a substantial margin in 1990–91, depending on imponderables such as the weather. The hon. Gentleman was, perhaps understandably, a little backward in paying tribute to the increased output beyond our forecast in both 1989–90 and 1990–91. Although the number of planned scheme approvals will have to be cut back sharply this year, that will have little impact on completions. There are two reasons—the large remaining pipeline of schemes originally approved under the old grant arrangments but on which work has yet to start, and the much faster rate at which schemes approved under the new regime are now likely to be completed.

Overall, we are still on course for a massive expansion of associations' output. Public expenditure provision for the corporation is set to rise from £938 million last year to £1,736 million by 1992–93, and growing use of private loan finance will further add to the programme.

That said, the adjustments now needed to the corporation's programme of approvals in 1990–91 are, of course, extremely disappointing and frustrating not only for associations but those who work with them. Many associations have geared themselves up and taken on staff to take full advantage of the opportunities opened up by the new regime, and now face delays in getting planned schemes off the ground. The hon. Gentleman referred to some of them. All the more reason for paying tribute to the calm and constructive manner in which the National Federation of Housing Associations responded to the situation, despite all the inconvenience and disappointment that its members have faced.

It rightly concluded that the best way forward is not to indulge in recriminations but rather to work closely with the corporation on the development of new programme control arrangements, which will avert any future threat to the corporation's cash limit and give associations a firm forward planning framework—while making due allowance for all the many inevitable uncertainties which lie outside the corporation's, or anybody's, control. Thanks to tremendous efforts on both sides, those new arrangements are now being put in place for the current year.

The hon. Gentleman acknowledges that the corporation has had an immense burden to carry over the last two years, and has had an immense amount of change to digest. The introduction of the new grant arrangements has involved a difficult learning process for the corporation as well as for the movement. It is easy enough now to point to one or two things that could have been done, or said, differently during that process, or to suggest that some of today's difficulties should have been predicted and action taken to pre-empt them. But it is remarkable that today's critics were so silent at a time when suggestions could have been put to good use.

Nor can the corporation be accused of any failure to consult or to take the views of outside bodies. The NFHA was closely involved in setting up the new grant regime, and management consultants were asked to undertake a review of the corporation's systems last autumn. Their report made a number of helpful recommendations on points of detail, but it did not identify a risk of cash control problems of the kind that emerged soon afterwards.

The corporation is, I know, as anxious as anyone to restore full confidence in the programme control and planning process. As I said, new cash control arrangements are already being put in place. A full financial management and policy review of the corporation was in any event due to be carried out this year, and will provide a further opportunity to establish that the programme arrangements are as soundly based as possible. More generally, I know that Sir Christopher Benson, the corporation's new chairman, and his board are giving the supervision of that area of activity a high priority. I am sure, therefore, that those temporary difficulties will soon be behind us, and that the housing association movement can look forward to many years of expansion and prosperity.

The hon. Member for Norwood asked why the Government will not do anything about local authorities' accumulated capital receipts, but he knows that it has always been necessary to control the overall amount of borrowing. Local authorities as a whole have debts of around £45 billion. We believe that if local authorities sell assets, part of the proceeds should be used to repay some of the outstanding debt. That is how the long-term, prudent financing of local authorities will be improved, rather than be undermined by substantially increased debt burdens.

What is important is the number of units being produced. Completions are expected to be largely unaffected by the problems that I described, and the corporation expects the number for 1990–91 to exceed earlier forecasts by 12 per cent. Over the next two years, it is expected that more than 50,000 new homes will be completed for occupation by people in housing need. About 41,000 units are currently in development, between approval and completion—so there is plenty of work for associations to be getting on with.

I acknowledge that the number of completions has increased, and said myself that it had accelerated. However, does not the Minister recognise that, if the number of starts falls in the next two years, that will eventually be reflected in the number of completions? Does he regard 20,000 to 30,000 new homes to rent per year as adequate, when one indicator of demand reveals a figure of more than 100,000 families in need of homes each year?

I have already dealt with the number of completions forecast and why the reduction in the number of starts this year will not necessarily lead to a fall in the number of completions in subsequent years. I explained that aspect in some detail.

As to the general issue of people in housing need, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are placing great emphasis on encouraging local authorities to make more efficient use of housing resources. The borough which contains the hon. Gentleman's constituency leaves much to be desired in that respect. About a year ago, it had about 1,000 properties squatted and another 2,000 empty. Last autumn, the Government announced a £250 million initiative to encourage better use of housing stock, which is alongside the increased amount being made available to the Housing Corporation and the housing associations.

The Government are committed to ensuring that there is increased housing output. One way of ensuring that is to attract more private finance into housing. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that an innovation once regarded with much scepticism by Opposition Members has proved to be effective in practice. We are now getting more for our money because we are attracting private sector investment.

I look forward to the future with nothing other than great confidence. I conclude by again paying tribute to the housing association movement for taking on the major responsibilities that the Government have given it.

Channel Tunnel

10.7 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this Adjournment debate. I suppose that it involves what might be called the northern factor. I was born in north-east England and I represent a north-west constituency. Therefore, the problems of the north are important to me and to my constituents.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has not long been at his new Department, but who, as Under-Secretary of State for Health, was a kind and courteous Minister. Whenever I took problems to him, he listened sympathetically and always seemed to do something to help. I hope that he will be just as helpful in his new office as he was previously at the Department of Health.

The purpose of the debate is to emphasise the importance to the north-west and to the whole of the north of the channel tunnel. Time is critical. The United Kingdom is already far behind Europe in the realignment of both road and rail links to the channel tunnel. Further delay will be harmful not only to the United Kingdom but the north-west. I hope that the Government will resist all appeals to delay matters and instead will permit Eurorail to go ahead with preparing the private Bill under which Britain's high-speed rail link can be built.

The north-west of England is the second highest regional contributor to gross domestic product. It is a great industrial area and heavily dependent on the old basic industries, and so suffered greatly during the recession. I am delighted that the north-west is recovering extremely well. Some 70 per cent. of our overseas trade is with mainland Europe, which is why the channel tunnel is of such importance to us. With the single market coming into effect in 1992, and the channel tunnel due to open in 1993, we understand its enormous importance to the economic well-being of the north-west.

Last Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) initiated a debate—he is always very diligent in putting forward the views of his constituents—to urge British Rail to consider Stratford as the terminal for the channel tunnel rail link. That was supported by several hon. Members with constituencies in south London, and I understand their reasons. They believe that such a development at Stratford would be of enormous economic advantage to south London.

A number of my hon. Friends representing constituencies in Kent also supported my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich because they are worried about the effects that the rail link will have on the environment, and I understand their worries. When my hon. Friend the Minister replied to the debate last week he said that, whether King's Cross or Stratford is used, the link will still have to go through Kent. It is important that as little environmental damage as possible is done—hon. Members representing northern constituencies are only too aware of such damage, because the scars from the industrial revolution remained for a long time in the north—and I am sure that that will be borne in mind by British Rail and the Government.

In the north, especially the north-west, we want to grasp opportunities offered by the tunnel. Therefore, improvements to the transport infrastructure are needed. The north-west is the largest single market area for international rail freight and passenger services outside the south-east of England. We stand to gain increased export and tourist opportunities.

You may be interested to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that a couple of weeks ago it was warmer and sunnier in Blackpool than on Spain's Costa del Sol. We must also remember that, although the north-west is a great industrial area, it also contains some of the most beautiful areas in the United Kingdom. Transferring more freight from road to rail would have tremendous benefits for the environment and would boost the attractiveness of the region and competitiveness in Europe for existing firms and for inward investment. Taken together, those things offer an enormous plus for the north-west, but people in the region are worried about the delay in reaching decisions on siting tracks to and from the tunnel and about the location of the new rail terminal in London.

I make no bones about it: I believe that King's Cross is the ideal choice, for a number of reasons. First, it would provide direct links to the east coast and midlands main lines and would ensure connections with the west coast main lines. Secondly, King's Cross would provide a good quality interchange for passengers, especially those from the north. Thirdly, it already has a relatively fast link—the Thameslink—to the tunnel. That will be essential until the high-speed passenger link is completed, which is not expected to happen until 1998–99. King's Cross could provide services with or without the high speed passenger link. Fourthly, the King's Cross Railways Bill was deposited by British Rail in November 1989, and any further delay should be avoided.

On the other hand, Stratford has no direct link with the three main lines to the north, it has poor interchange facilities, and no direct link to the tunnel. Therefore, it is a non-starter. King's Cross should be chosen. I understand that it has been suggested that there should be three London terminals—Victoria, King's Cross and Stratford—and that borders on the ridiculous. King's Cross, with its central position and its close proximity to Euston and St. Pancras, is the ideal location. Nowhere else in London can one find three important rail terminals in such a small area as that bounded by King's Cross, St. Pancras and Euston. Also, 66 per cent. of London underground stations on five underground lines are connected directly with King's Cross. The proposed travolator to link King's Cross with Euston will make it the hub of transport in the metropolis.

A further advantage for King's Cross is that it could use the existing route through west Hampstead and so could easily be linked to the west coast main lines. I am firmly of the opinion that British Rail's plan to use King's Cross as the London international terminal is right, and that we should proceed with it as soon as possible.

We should consider the national interest in the House today. No one disputes that the south-east is overcrowded and frustrated and that decentralisation of activities should be encouraged. No one disputes that the motorway system is already under intense pressure. If my hon. Friend the Minister cares to drive from Westminster to the north-west one Friday afternoon, he will discover how terrible the situation is as he drives up the M1 and on to the M6. It would take him a great deal of time, not because of accidents or road works, but because of the number of vehicles on the road. It is extremely frustrating for drivers and must be costly to the nation.

It makes good economic sense to move more traffic from road to rail. We are constantly being told to think about the environment and environmental issues. I understand that the Prime Minister will make a great speech on environmental issues tomorrow. The use of the railway system to haul freight whenever it is practicable has considerable advantages compared with the available alternatives.

I want the economy of the north-west to benefit as much as possible from investment in the channel tunnel. Therefore, investment in infrastructure is essential. At the moment, there is an enormous amount of investment in the Lille region in France because, rightly or wrongly, and not by accident but by design, Lille will be the junction for the London-Paris and London-Brussels rail links. Lille will be important and the French are pouring enormous amounts of money into the area. The rewards for the future growth of the economy in the Lille area are encouraging.

In the north-west, we have an efficient group called the North West Channel Tunnel Group, comprising the North West Local Authority Rail Forum, Greater Manchester Economic Development Ltd., the development corporations of Central Manchester, Merseyside and Trafford Park, Inward, English Estates (North West), all the chambers of commerce in the north-west, and the north-west Confederation of British Industry. That is a formidable team. The group has produced a booklet which I am sure the Minister has seen, called "Capitalising on the Channel Tunnel: Action for North West England". In its foreword it says:
"The North West of England is a region of great economic importance to the UK economy as a whole, and to secure future growth it must be able to compete effectively in the European Community when the Single European Market is completed by 1993.
Transport infrastructure is a key to the North West being able to achieve this, and the Channel Tunnel promises to make international rail freight and passenger services a major element of transport in the Europe of the 1990s. The North West is the region of the UK with potentially the most to gain and the most to lose from the Channel Tunnel, as the largest single market area for freight and passenger services outside the South East.
It is essential that the North West has effective international rail freight and passenger services, so that the region can take full advantage of the Single Market and the transport benefits offered by the Channel Tunnel. It is important to establish business plans from the outset which will promote economic opportunities as fully as possible.
The North West Channel Tunnel Group has considered both road and rail options for gaining access to the Channel Tunnel from the North West. In spite of road improvements planned in the Government Report 'Trunk Roads-England: Into the 1990s', road congestion is unlikely to be substantially eased. The Group's view is that the focus needs to be on rail to provide fast and reliable movement of passengers and freight to and from mainland Europe, because of advantages in cost, time and convenience.
For this reason, the North West Channel Tunnel Group has been formed from a wide range of business, economic and public sector interests in the region. Our aim is to co-ordinate North West efforts to secure fast and reliable rail access to mainland Europe, and promote the economic opportunities this will bring.
British Rail has recently published its Plan for international rail services and facilities for UK regions, but the proposals for the North West fall far short of what the region needs.
Time is a critical factor. There are less than three years to go before the Single Market is fully enacted in 1992, and only just over three years before the Channel Tunnel is planned to open in 1993. There is little time available to achieve even the most basic improvements to international rail infrastructure for the North West. The North West Channel Tunnel Group is determined to ensure that the region's transport infrastructure aspirations for 1993 and beyond are understood and achieved as soon as possible."
In not too many words, those are the basic aims that I am trying to put forward.

The Government have injected more money into the north-west than any other Government. Enormous sums have been poured into the three development corporations at Trafford Park, Manchester Central and Merseyside, to say nothing of the enormous amount of money that has gone into inner-city funding. Those initiatives are paying off. Anybody can see the benefits that have accrued in the north-west since the Government took office. It would be extremely sad if those advantages were allowed to wither away because of our failure to attend to the transport infrastructure.

10.20 am

Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I endorse the powerful remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery). I underline my concern about our friends and colleagues in Kent. It would be churlish and selfish of us in the north-west to continue to endorse the benefits of the channel tunnel rail link without remembering the problems that they and their constituents face.

Clearly, much of our discussion about the benefits of the channel tunnel in the north-west would be academic without a high-quality rail link between London and the channel. I understand the pressures that my colleagues are under and I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will recognise the environmental impact of the line in Kent and perhaps find some mechanism to resolve the problem. Without the symbol of commitment—the link between London and Kent—much of the excitement of and possibilities for the channel tunnel will be lost.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and I recently attended a meeting with local authorities in the Fylde coast area and we discussed inward investment. That meeting was held with the assistance of an organisation called Inward, which has had much success in recent years in bringing Japanese and American investment to the north-west. A powerful message came from the discussions. Representatives at the meeting said, "In your discussions on the channel tunnel, don't let the impression be created that the north-west of England is cut off from that vital transport link to Europe." They pointed out that companies in Japan, America and elsewhere invest in this country because of our attitude to 1992 and the creation of the single market.

This country has much to offer, but the key to taking advantage of it is a good transport link with Europe. The tunnel is an important feature of that. Another key to taking advantage of the channel tunnel is our rail links with centres such as Manchester. There may be a debate about the correctness of the capacity of freight and passenger transport. That is something that the market will have to prove, but, in this age of the railway, we need to do all we can to encourage people to use rail as an alternative mode of transport.

I emphasise the strength of feeling in our part of Lancashire about the electrification of the line from Blackpool to Manchester. It took some time for me to prise from British Rail the actual costs involved in the project—about £30 million—but it said that, as part of its infill electrification programme, the Blackpool to Manchester line is viable and at the top of the list. The advent of direct links with the channel tunnel means that that infill project is another attractive way of persuading people to use railways to journey to Europe. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, when considering the development of the domestic rail network, to look at that perspective.

Also on passenger services, I emphasise the need for my hon. Friend, in his discussions with British Rail, to try to get it to think even more about the commercial opportunities that the channel tunnel rail link will have. British Rail seems reluctant to recognise that passengers boarding trains in the north-west will want the same baggage facilities as are provided by airlines. It is reassuring to know that if, one is flying from Manchester to London and then to Strasbourg, one's luggage will end up at the final destination. British Rail seems reluctant to move into that new era.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale talked about the advantages of King's Cross—I endorse what he said—and he underlined the importance of a travolator link. A travolator would cater for the passenger and be a powerful inducement. As one can walk to terminals 1, 2 or 3 at London airport, so would one be able to go from Euston to King's Cross and then travel to the channel tunnel. The thought of having to carry their bags could put people off. Such a facility would make all the difference to exploiting the enormous benefits of travelling by rail to continental Europe.

There appears to be indecision about where the various freightyards and co-ordinating points will be. It is important that British Rail does whatever it can to remove that indecision. I must sound a political note to my hon. Friend the Minister. There is little use in bodies such as Lancashire county council continually writing to Members of Parliament berating them on this subject. When I write to them and ask, "Where is your strategy and plan? Where would you like the freightyards?" they reply, "We are concerned about it, but we do not have any specific ideas."

There is a great danger that bodies such as Lancashire county council are trying to exploit difficult decisions simply for narrow political gain, and I object to that. Conservative Members have shown their dedication and commitment to the channel link and will fight hard for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale has pointed out, no Opposition Member from the north-west is present.

It is important that British Rail does all that it can to induce a railway culture for those who, until now, have transported freight by road. There is a generation of freight managers who might say, "Yes, we will use the channel tunnel rail link," but, at the moment, their thoughts are road-bound. Fully to exploit the potential, industry must demonstrate its positive commitment to using the rail link. That would encourage British Rail to take an even more positive attitude to this important development.

10.27 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words. I thoroughly endorse the comments by my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) and for Fylde (Mr. Jack) on this important topic. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his new role, and I urge him to persuade British Rail—I know that it has made considerable progress over the past decade—to make a new effort to improve its passenger and freight facilities to the level that we now regard as the norm in air transport. I should like the great improvements that have been made in consumer comfort and the operating procedures of air transport networks—more specifically through the privatisation of British Airways—to be applied to our ground transportation system, and to British Rail in particular, so that the customer is put at the head of the queue and is provided with the best possible transport service. That is vital for people in the north-west and for others in this country.

Great Britain is on the edge of Europe. The channel tunnel will make certain that, in terms of travel time, this country is much closer to many continental centres not only in western Europe but increasingly in eastern Europe as that part of the continent, under the light of free enterprise, moves towards a much more sophisticated and prosperous economy in the years ahead. That is even more true of the north-west. Great Britain is on the edge of Europe; clearly, we in the north-west feel that we are even further from the centres of Europe than the south-east is. In many ways, the channel tunnel is even more important to the north than it is to the south-east.

Let us consider the distances and times it takes to reach places in Europe, and the distance and time it takes to reach London. It takes the same time to travel from Newcastle to London as it does from Preston to London, although the distance from Newcastle to London is considerably greater. In terms of travel to London, let alone to the continent, the north-west is the poor relation of the north-east. For one reason or another, our rail link has been neglected in the past. It is important that it is improved, especially with the completion of the channel tunnel only two or three years away.

There are two areas for which it is important that action is taken quickly on the rail link. First, the port of Liverpool could benefit tremendously from the channel tunnel as an entrepot to Europe and as a one-stop facility for cargo coming across the Atlantic or from elsewhere. Cargo could come to Liverpool rather than to Rotterdam and containers could be taken through the channel tunnel. Liverpool can be revived provided that there is a decent rail link between that great city and the continent. It is important that British Rail appreciates that fact.

Secondly, and a little closer to home, in the Fylde we have our own little silicon valley which is rapidly building up. Its core is British Aerospace and around it are the high-tech facilities that such a core activity tends to draw together. If we are to develop that area, it is vital that the communications are there so that people who want to work and live in the Fylde area, but who need to correspond, to travel and to meet people on the continent who are involved in similar activities are given the facilities to do so. That would draw the area closer to the centre of Europe. The channel tunnel link and a faster rail link to the north-west would help to achieve that.

Nineteen ninety-two will be with us in a few years. We must take advantage of that common market and we can do so with the construction of the channel tunnel. However, in the north-west, it is increasingly being seen that the direct rail link with the tunnel will be vital for the port of Liverpool and for the area around British Aerospace, and for the whole economy of the north-west to take the best advantage of the opportunities provided by the unitary market in the coming decade.

10.32 am

I want to begin my remarks at the point where my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) finished his. Clearly, the major danger for the north-west is that we shall be on the periphery of the main activity in the economy unless we have connections to the main artery of the future and to the biggest British trade market, which is Europe. It is essential that, when the tunnel is in full operation, the north-west is not left out.

At present, the estimate for future north-west freight to Europe is 2 million tonnes a year. That means that, along with north Wales, the north-west is the biggest freight region in the country. It is bigger than the Home Counties or the south-east, so it is a market that should be considered. As my hon. Friends have said, we cannot underestimate the importance of the channel tunnel to the export markets for north-west companies. The proximity to the tunnel will determine the location of new factories and jobs, and inward investment. If we do not have those connections, we are likely to be left out.

As my hon. Friends have said, we need two essential factors in our favour. First, we must have good freight links to the tunnel; secondly, we must have good passenger links. At present, there are no final decisions on the main terminal and the fast link from London to the tunnel. The only option available to us in the north-west is King's Cross and the fast link through Kent.

The other option, of Ove Arup and Stratford, is irrelevant to us, as Stratford is too remote from the north-west main line and will slow down the passage of freight from the north-west to the tunnel. The Ove Arup proposal has not been properly costed, especially in relation to tunnelling under the Thames. Ove Arup proposes a Berne gauge from Europe which will reach us in the north-west in 2003, which is far too long to wait. The whole north-west economy could have been destroyed by the time it arrived.

There is a need for an imminent decision by British Rail about the freight terminals so that planning can go ahead. There are only three options. The first is to develop a sea port for Merseyside, at Garston or Seaforth, which is container-based; secondly, there could be a similar one at Trafford Park, which my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) has already mentioned; thirdly, there could probably be one in the centre of Lancashire at Haydock, joining up at Crewe for onward passage to the tunnel. It is important to note that freight is viable when the distance travelled is more than 200 miles, so it is a viable option for us to send freight through the tunnel from the north-west to the European markets.

British Rail's estimates for passengers are far too conservative. It proposes to order 18 trains for passenger use, of which only seven will be capable of going north of London because they will need to be divided. British Rail envisages only one train a day going beyond London, compared with the 15 trains it envisages will come from Paris and stop at London. That is not adequate. We believe that we shall be able to develop the necessary traffic that will go on to the north-west. If one is keen on skiing, for example, it would be possible to go all the way to Moutiers. We shall be able to pack those trains with north-west skiing enthusiasts through the winter months.

British Rail must start making decisions. We are three years from the opening of the channel tunnel and two years from the implementation of the single market. Not a yard of track has been laid, and final decisions have not been made on essential structural matters which are important to the north-west. If it is not to be left behind in industrial development, decisions must be made soon. I know from experience that my hon. Friend the Minister is a man of action. I look to him to speed up the process and to see that the north-west is properly catered for.

10.37 am

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) for his kind remarks at the beginning of this brief debate. I note with interest that there is strong Conservative representation from the north-west. The debate was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale and we have had excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mr. Jack), for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind). I notice also here my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler), for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), and for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) and, not least, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad). That is a truly magnificent sign that Conservative Members strongly support the best interests of business and industry in the north-west and that they want to ensure that, when the channel tunnel opens, the north-west makes immediate, active and thorough use of the enormous opportunities that it will present.

As the Minister seems to be taking a roll call, I am intervening simply to make the point that I am here. The Minister referred to the paucity of Liberal Democrat Members for the north of England. I suppose that I could be regarded as one of the Liberal Democrats with a seat nearest to the north-west, so I hope that the Minister will accept that Liberal Democrats are interested enough to listen to and participate in these debates.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman reminded me of the paucity of Liberal Democrats representing the north-west.

One of the most important responsibilities from now on is to ensure that, when the channel tunnel opens in 1993, we and British Rail have taken the necessary steps in terms of our public infrastructure—not only for passengers but for freight—to ensure that we exploit the channel tunnel and the great advantages that it offers in 1993, let alone at the turn of the century. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West that I shall concentrate not only on the grand design, but on the detail of our plans.

The debate has been most useful and has aired the north-west's wish to participate in the benefits that the channel tunnel will bring to the United Kingdom as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will be pleased to know that a major objective of Government policy is to ensure that the regions beyond the south-east can benefit as much as possible from the new direct rail link between the United Kingdom and the continental rail networks that the tunnel will provide. One of the most important benefits that the tunnel will bring to the more distant regions is the opportunity of the provision of through rail freight services. Such services will assist economic development throughout the United Kingdom and, by encouraging the transfer of freight from road to rail, will bring environmental benefits throughout the United Kingdom.

Prompted by the debate, it would be a good idea if I were to put something on my desk that would serve as a reminder that, when looking at public transport infrastructure expenditure proposals, we in the Department of Transport must always remember the need to think about the whole of Great Britain, and not just about London and the south-east, where there are great and pressing problems. I assure my hon. Friends that, when I return to the Department of Transport later this morning, I shall take steps to ensure that the first thing that I shall see on my desk when I return after the Whitsun recess is a notice to remind myself to "Think Britain". It will remind me to think about the implications for the whole of Britain when considering not only British Rail's investment, but investments in light rail schemes, buses and road programmes. I use those words advisedly.

I well understand the attitude of some—although I think that it is misguided—who fear that the north-west might be cut off from the economic developments on the mainland of Europe unless there are proper investments in the infrastructure to link us, by rail, with the rest of Europe through the tunnel. I shall explain briefly why I think those fears are misplaced. When reviewing investment propositions from British Rail, we should constantly remind ourselves of the importance of linking the regions and provinces of Britain into the tunnel and onwards into Europe.

It is important that we do not get the importance of the tunnel out of context. Although it will be extremely significant to Britain's economy, it is estimated that, when it opens in 1993, it will rank 12th or 13th in importance when set against Britain's ports. It will take only a relatively small proportion of our freight traffic. Although, as I have said, I do not underestimate its significance, we must not forget Britain's great ports, which will continue to contribute to our economic prosperity and growth.

Last December, British Rail published its plan for international services. This followed an extensive consultation exercise and the proposals represent British Rail's current view of commercially viable services using the tunnel. It has been said that these proposals are inadequate. We must remember, however, that British Rail is required by the Government—and by Parliament—to run its international services on a proper commercial basis. Section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987, which prohibits subsidy to British Rail for its international services, was widely supported at the time, despite the current claims by the Opposition that it should be repealed.

It is interesting that the Labour party's current official policy is to consider repealing section 42, and hence permit a subsidy from the taxpayer for the international services —I draw a distinction between international and provincial services, such as Network SouthEast—which would therefore permit unfair competition with the ferries and the airlines, which are not subsidised. The Labour party is going back on its previous clear commitment and clear support for section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act. The Government will not repeal or suggest the repeal of that section. It was introduced to ensure that ferries, ports and other international transport operators would not face unfair competition from a subsidised rail service. We do not believe that the situation has changed. British Rail already runs its freight and InterCity operations successfully on a commercial basis and there is no reason why its international services should not enjoy similar success.

It is perhaps worth reminding the House that British Rail's so-called "section 40" plan sets out its current view of commercially viable services. I pay tribute to those in the north-west who, in a large measure, were instrumental in encouraging the adoption of section 40 of the Channel Tunnel Act and for the document that was published in December 1989, which is headed "International Rail Services for the United Kingdom", a copy of which is in the Library. I hope that all hon. Members will have the chance to study it. I know that all my hon. Friends, with their great interest in the economic prosperity of the north-west, have already done so.

Section 40 requires British Rail to bring forward its current assessment of the passenger and freight opportunities that are presented by the channel tunnel. I repeat that the Act requires British Rail to publish the document now. It is current. We should not fall into the trap of believing that this is British Rail's last word, especially on freight traffic. British Rail must naturally be realistic, cautious and pragmatic about its present assessment of the passenger and freight opportunities that are presented by the tunnel. However, the position will change and I hope that, during the months and years before the opening of the services in 1993, my hon. Friends will not be reluctant to draw to the attention of British Rail and the Department of Transport any opportunities for passenger and freight business that they believe that British Rail is missing.

British Rail will keep its section 40 responsibilities and report under review both up to the opening of the tunnel and thereafter, as it is required to do under the Channel Tunnel Act. The plan will be modified as the developing pattern of demand and the associated commercial opportunities become clearer. I am sure that British Rail would welcome some input from local businesses and business organisations, so that it can formulate an accurate assessment of the demand for its services.

I should like to come to the north-west at an early date, not only to meet my hon. Friends again, but also to meet businesses and other organisations there to discuss their views of the opportunities that will be presented by the channel tunnel. If my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale would be kind enough to chair such a meeting, I should be delighted to attend. If they can, I hope that my other hon. Friends will participate in such a meeting so that we can demonstrate yet again both the Government's and my hon. Friends' commitment to the prosperity of the north-west.

British Rail's initial proposals for the north-west provide capacity for some 540,000 passengers per annum on the daily services to Paris and Brussels. That is about two and a half times the number of passengers who chose to fly between Manchester and those destinations in 1988. In addition, a night service from Glasgow will also call at Manchester, offering further passenger capacity. So it is not fair to castigate British Rail for providing insufficient places from the regions. One difference between the rail and air facilities is of course that, whilst one can catch a flight at various times throughout the day, one will be able to catch a train only twice a day—once during the morning and once at night—in order to reach one's destination, whether Paris or Brussels, through the tunnel.

However, each train, represents a huge investment by British Rail—it plans to invest over £1 billion to enable a full passenger and freight service to London and beyond to commence on the day that the channel tunnel opens—and British Rail must be satisfied that any further services would be commercially viable. It is not open to British Rail simply to accept statements that a market might grow up if the extra train is run; the market must be clearly demonstrable. In any event, British Rail could not match the frequency of the current high-quality InterCity services from the north-west to London that run throughout the day.

There will always be passengers who find it more convenient to use the InterCity services and change in London for services from Waterloo through the channel tunnel. The alternative would be to use the through-train services, but, as I said, they will, unavoidably and inevitably, be relatively infrequent. It is important that we should not place on British Rail any obligation to run subsidised services. My hon. Friends would not thank me for placing a burden on British Rail that worsened its financial results. British Rail must respond in a forward-looking way to commercial opportunities that are available, not only for passengers and freight. That is its best judgment at present, but undoubtedly that judgment will change as we obtain a clearer picture of the opportunities for freight and passenger traffic through the tunnel.

Some passengers will always opt for air travel because of time considerations. It is important to remember that the travelling time by rail from Manchester to the continent is likely to be between five and six hours, whereas flying time is only about one hour. I am now dealing with 1993—I shall come on to 1998, the turn of the century and the rail link in a moment. However, rail journeys will have the advantage of offering the passenger travel from city centre to city centre without having to change. I know that that is an important consideration for some people, particularly when they are on holiday. That time difference may be an important consideration for those travelling on business, although perhaps of less significance to tourists and leisure travellers.

As I said earlier, one of the major benefits to the regions of the tunnel will be the opportunity to provide through rail freight services between the United Kingdom and the Continent. British Rail has said that it expects 70 per cent. of channel tunnel freight to come from the regions. It is important, however, that the ability of rail to supplant road transport should not be exaggerated—a 50 per cent. increase in rail transport would reduce road transport by less than 5 per cent.

I take the point made by my hon. Friends about the environmental benefits of moving freight by rail as opposed to road. I am a frequent commuter on the M1 to my constituency and on up the M6 to Manchester and the north-west, where my family roots and those of my wife are. I am a frequent user of the motorways and I understand the strength of my hon. Friends' point. However, it is important to realise that the reduction of road congestion by moving a significant proportion of freight by rail is relatively limited, simply because so much greater a proportion of the movement of freight is already by road.

Nevertheless, British Rail estimates that its services will take 400,000 lorry journeys off the roads, with the environmental benefits that that will bring. BR is negotiating with the private sector for a network of regional freight terminal sites, at least one of which will serve the north-west region, and it will announce the chosen sites during this year.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde and other hon. Friends that the sooner that British Rail can announce the location of the freight depot the better. That will enable industry in the north-west to plan its affairs in a more logical and coherent way. I accept the strength of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde and I shall encourage British Rail to reach a sensible and commercial decision as quickly as possible.

There have been calls to provide further terminals in the north-west. I stress again that all British Rail's investments must be commercially viable. British Rail is currently negotiating with the road haulage operators and industry to find out what locations and facilities would meet their needs so that it can ensure that businesses have the best possible access to the rail network. British Rail is anxious to compete effectively in the international freight transport market. It intends to use new wagon technology which can provide the same loading capabilities as those in mainland Europe. It is considering the possibility of developing a fleet of "swap-body" wagons so that containers can be more easily transferred between rail and road transport.

The part played by both the proposed second international passenger station at King's Cross and the proposed dedicated rail link between the tunnel and London in relation to regional services is sometimes misunderstood. I should emphasise that neither of these initiatives is essential for commencing the running of through services in 1993 when the tunnel opens. British Rail plans to operate the services on existing lines as soon as the tunnel opens. That is not to say that the two projects would not, in due course, lead to reduced journey times and, in the case of King's Cross, provide an easier interchange to the inter-capital services for those passengers who choose to take the inter-city connections to London from the north. I should also stress that neither development would affect freight traffic, which British Rail intends to run on existing lines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale mentioned the Hampstead curve. I attach some importance to that. I understand that British Rail has a Bill before Parliament to give it power to construct that curve—the link between the west coast main line and the terminal at King's Cross. My hon. Friend and others who spoke on the subject raised the importance of further investment in the west coast main line, which was electrified 15 to 20 years ago. It needs further infrastructure investment to straighten the line and improve the speed of services from the north-west.

The Hampstead curve is important. It will enable passengers travelling down the west coast main line—an improved line in the later 1990s—to come straight into the King's Cross terminal, either for through services or for connecting services, if that is more convenient. British Rail attaches great importance to that, and so do I.

I have so far concentrated on the rail links from the north-west to the channel tunnel. The Department is also undertaking a major programme of trunk road expansion as announced in the White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" last May. Schemes which will improve links from the region to London and the tunnel include widening of the M6, M1 and M25, as well as substantial provision for trunk road improvements in Kent, which will naturally bear the brunt of the additional traffic—although, even here, the additional traffic arising from completion of the tunnel will be small compared with the overall growth of traffic.

To sum up, both the Government and British Rail fully appreciate the important opportunities that the tunnel will open up for the more distant regions of the United Kingdom as well as for the south-east. We support British Rail's strategy of providing commercially attractive services to its customers. British Rail's proposed services for the north-west form the first step in assessing the market for tunnel traffic. They will be revised if the emerging pattern of demand shows an opening for further commercial services so that the tunnel's opportunities for all regions are exploited to the full.

I look forward to coming to the north-west, as I have promised my hon. Friends. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will set up and chair a seminar or conference and that he will invite to lit commercial organisations that are interested in the future prosperity of the north-west, which has been ably represented by the ample number of hon. Members from the north-west present this morning. I look forward to discussing with him and his colleagues their views on further steps that British Rail could take to improve services, not just between now and the opening of the tunnel, but for the next decade.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to the Order [11 May].

Business Of The House

11 am

With permission, I should like to make a short business statement. I apologise to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for cutting into the time for his Adjournment debate.

The business for Wednesday 6 June will now be as follows:

Opposition day (14th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on the welfare of children on an Opposition motion followed by a motion on the Education (School Teachers' Pay and Conditions) Order 1990.

The business for the rest of the week remains as announced.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. Next Wednesday we shall seek to demonstrate the Government's betrayal of the younger generation and the lack of support for families throughout the decade of Conservative Government. We also welcome the opportunity afforded by the order to demonstrate the Government's shabby treatment of the teaching profession over the past decade, not least the removal of the basic democratic right to negotiate their own wages.

Can the Patronage Secretary tell us whether the Prime Minister has informed the deputy Prime Minister of the major change in Government policy that she will announce tomorrow on the Government's U-turn—

With the greatest respect, Mr. Speaker, this is a business statement. We have learnt only today that the Government are making a statement—

Order. I must draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to page 296 of "Erskine May". This is a Back Benchers' day and he should not ask questions that go wide of the statement.

With respect, Mr. Speaker, the Government have chosen to interrupt today's business to make a business statement. Today the Government announced from No. 10 Downing street that tomorrow the Prime Minister will make a major policy statement on global warming, but not in the House. Clearly, the Government have changed their policy. When the Government's business manager comes to the House, the Opposition are entitled to ask when the House will have an opportunity to ask the Government about their change in policy and the implications that it has for a whole range of policies.

If, as the hon. Gentleman says, he will tell the House next Wednesday about the Labour party's views on teachers' salaries, he will find the House empty, because we shall all be on holiday. Perhaps there is a slight mistake in his calendar. He is wrong to say that the order demonstrates shabby treatment of teachers by the Government. On the contrary, it gives effect to the teachers' pay settlement for 1990–91. Many authorities have not felt able to pay the new rates until the parliamentary process is finished. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is simply anxious to get the teachers' new salaries into their pockets as soon as possible and preferably in time for their July pay. That is why we are arranging for the order to be debated as soon as possible.

Particularly since the Bank of England has had the report on the House of Fraser since August 1988, and in view of the Select Committee report, is there any possibility of the House having an opportunity to find out why the Bank of England has not yet decided whether the Fayeds are fit and proper persons to hold a blanket licence?

I note my hon. Friend's remarks. As I said in my brief business statement, the business for the rest of the week when the House reassembles after the Whit recess remains unchanged. I shall certainly see that my hon. Friend's remarks are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

On 6 June, the Secretary of State for Scotland will answer Scottish questions. There is widespread anxiety at today's announcement that Nirex is planning to drill 6,000 holes in Caithness and Sutherland in its exploration to find a dump for nuclear waste. People are fed up with that part of Scotland being seen as the repository for nuclear waste, with all the dangers that it entails. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement on 6 June to give Scottish Members from all parts of Scotland and from all parties an opportunity to ask questions about this matter of great concern?

It is perhaps fortunate that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is sitting close to me on the Front Bench. He has reminded me that these are testing holes only and that Scotland is not alone in having this privilege. I understand that similar testing holes are being drilled in Cumbria. Nevertheless, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are referred to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Does my right hon. Friend share my surprise that, on 6 June, when the Opposition have a Supply day, they will not give the House a first opportunity to scrutinise the Labour party policy document issued today? Does that not show that the Labour party continues to wish to hide it from proper scrutiny by this House?

At the risk of enlarging the subject slightly, I note that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) referred to the shabby treatment shown by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in not making a policy statement to the House tomorrow, although the House is to be in recess. Indeed, my hon. Friend is right: if there is to be any policy statement in the House, it should be a Labour policy statement. We have heard a great deal about it on the news this morning and a certain amount about it from Conservative Back Benchers yesterday, but we have not heard anything about it from the Labour Front Bench.

I appreciate the Government's desire to have extra pay put in the July pay packet of teachers in England and Wales. Could such a facility be extended to Northern Ireland, and perhaps even Scotland, by an early statement to that effect?

The draft order that we shall debate on Wednesday 6 June follows a pattern similar to that of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1988. I shall certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are passed on to the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for Scotland.

My right hon. Friend will have been in the House yesterday when my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) moved the Second Reading of his excellent Bill on the roof tax. He will undoubtedly have noticed that no Labour Member voted in favour of it, although two voted against it. Will he take an opportunity to talk to his opposite number during the first week after the recess and suggest that perhaps the Labour party could use time on its Opposition day to introduce a debate on the roof tax so that the rest of us and the country can find out what it has in mind?

I thank my hon. Friend for that interesting suggestion. It is possible for the Opposition to split their Supply day on Wednesday into two halves. I note that the Opposition Chief Whip is sitting opposite. He will undoubtedly inform his colleagues of the suggestion that the Labour party might decide to debate the roof tax on the first half of Wednesday afternoon.

After we have dealt with the business proposed for the evening of Wednesday 6 June, may we have a debate on the future of the footwear industry? Yesterday it was announced in Cockermouth in my constituency that a famous footwear manufacturer was in financial difficulties, a receiver had been appointed and 400 jobs were at risk. The reason for that dreadful news is that interest rates and imports are damaging the industry severely. May we have a debate on that important matter, because I have many anxious families in that area at this time?

I am sorry, as the House will be, to hear the news about the firm in the hon. Gentleman's constituency going into receivership. I shall pass his remarks on to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to raise this in an Adjournment debate after the Whitsun recess.

Could my right hon. Friend assure me that the time allowed for debate on teachers' pay will be adequate to rebut the misleading statements we have just heard from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)? Will it also include an opportunity to review briefly the Government's new arrangements and proposals for the restitution of teachers' pay rights? Perhaps we could also discuss the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has agreed to the excellent results from the interim advisory committee on teachers' pay?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend's second point. The simple purpose of the order is to ensure that all education authorities can proceed immediately to pay the new rates of pay. Some have already done so without waiting for the outcome of the parliamentary process, and others are hesitant to do so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is anxious to get the salary increases into the pay packets as soon as possible. Given my hon. Friend's customary ingenuity, I am sure that he will find an opportunity to widen the debate slightly on that Wednesday evening.

After announcing the business for Wednesday 6 June, would the Minister be kind enough to consider having a debate on crowd safety? In June there are two major pop festivals at Glastonbury and Knebworth and at a recent concert of a group rejoicing in the name of New Kids on the Block—

which I assume from my hon. Friend's reaction is an excellent group. Nevertheless, that concert resulted in 30 people being taken to hospital and between 600 and 700 being injured. After the problems at the Donington race course concerts in the county of Leicestershire, when youngsters were killed, the time has now come for the Government not merely to ask the Health and Safety Executive to produce guidelines that no one must follow, but to take urgent action. We should have a debate on that matter swiftly.

Although I appreciate the seriousness of the subject that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised, I would again point out that Wednesday 6 June is an Opposition day. It would be possible for the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen to decide to have half a day only on the welfare of children and to devote the other half, if not to Labour's roof tax, to the subject of crowd safety. That apart, I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise this serious and important subject during an Adjournment debate.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the debate on 6 June will enable the Government to confirm that teachers' pay is 30 per cent. better in real terms than it was in 1979 when the Government came to office? There are now more teachers per pupil than ever before. Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that the Secretary of State for Education and Science is having firm negotiations with teachers unions within recent days, according to my inside knowledge—

Inside, in the sense that I have heard from the unions concerned of discussions with the Secretary of State about the restoration of their negotiating rights. That is supported by all of us.

My hon. Friend, with the precision and accuracy that befits an ex-headmaster, puts the case very well. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be pleased to confirm the precise point my hon. Friend has made about the beneficial treatment of teachers at the moment.

Does the Patronage Secretary realise that it is important that we have an urgent statement on the current report from the Select Committee on Members' Interests in which a particular lobbyist has said that he has been paying undisclosed sums to unnamed Members, but has refused to give information about that on the ground of commercial confidentiality? We need a statement as soon as we come back from the recess, as we cannot have a situation in which lobbyists use commercial confidentiality to subvert the purposes and intentions of our Register of Members' Interests.

My understanding is that the Select Committee on Members' Interests, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), is looking into the question of lobbying. It is for that reason that the evidence to which the right hon. Gentleman has just referred was given to that Select Committee. I do not believe that the Committee's report is ready yet, but it is actively looking into the subject, and I am sure it will lay a report before the House as soon as it is ready to do so.

Further to the call by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) for a debate on crowd safety, would my right hon. Friend reflect on the fact that the Opposition opposed the football safety measures we put before the House and the requirement in many local authority byelaws that adequate notice should be given of processions? Does my right hon. Friend agree that they should do a great deal more to ensure that events such as anti-poll tax protests do not get out of hand and cause not only a great threat to public safety, but a great deal of commercial damage?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The Opposition's attitude to crowd safety, particularly at football matches, is dominated by hypocrisy in their regular resistance to the positive measures that we have sought to introduce. The real worry about the anti-poll tax campaign is that, if it continues, there will be fewer and fewer Labour Members left on the Opposition Benches, as we presume that more and more of them will resign the Labour Whip because they will feel that they cannot, in all conscience, remain members of the parliamentary Labour party.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to raise an important matter with you. Yesterday the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities, in reply to a question, said that he was holding urgent investigations into allegations about the allocation of resources in the Bradford metropolitan district council. Despite the fact that the outcome of that investigation was unknown to him, he went on to urge community charge payers in those areas to examine

"whether they have some recourse under the law as it now stands."—[Official Report, 23 May 1990; Vol. 173, c. 280.]
The Minister holds quasi-judicial responsibilities in relation to local government, including my district council of Bradford. It is clear that he will also hold a pivotal position in reaching decisions about the allocation of resources to local authorities, including my own.

Is it not extraordinary for a Minister in that position to make a statement urging people in Bradford, including my constituents, to examine whether they can take legal action against an authority on matters that are still under investigation by that Minister? Obviously that will bear an important relevance to decisions he will make shortly about the distribution of resources to Bradford.

I am constantly asked to monitor answers to questions, but that is not the role of the Chair. The Minister must take responsibility for any answer he gives; it is not a matter for me.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) asked my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary about the Knebworth and Donington concerts. The implication was that the Government are doing nothing about that matter. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman misled the House, because, the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill, a private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright), which was debated in this House and is now in the House of Lords, proposed that anyone with a licence to hold an entertainment event should be fined a maximum of £20,000 or be subject to six months imprisonment if they were in breach of that licence granted by local government. The Labour party opposed that clause tooth and nail in Committee and—

Order. We must not have a debate on this; the Bill is not yet law and it has not had its Third Reading in the House.

I appreciate that, but I am making the point that, far from doing nothing about it, the Government supported that Bill and—

Order. This is a private Members' day and the hon. Member should bear in mind the fact that he is taking time from other hon. Members.

I am wondering whether you would be prepared, Mr. Speaker, to censure those hon. Members who on 12 January of this year shouted "Smear" at me when I raised the question of payments made by Mr. Greer to Members of Parliament, since what I alleged at that time has now been proved to be correct. Is it not now—

Order. The hon. Member is taking up time. That and other matters will no doubt be raised legitimately when we debate the Select Committee's report.

Primary Roads (Edinburgh)

11.21 am

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

Since time has been taken out of this debate, perhaps the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) will take 10 minutes less for his Adjournment and will split the time with the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson), who has the following Adjournment debate.

I am grateful to you for that guidance, Mr. Speaker.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss in detail the Government's proposals for primary roads south of Edinburgh. I wish to make it clear at the outset that, in my view, the consultation process in which the Government engaged, through the Scottish Office and the roads directorate, to get as open and extensive a debate as possible on the consultation document published last October was also welcome. It was a positive exercise, with the number of responses, at more than 200, providing constructive and helpful contributions. It has been a useful way to proceed when such important decisions are being taken. Therefore, I have no quibble with the process that led to the recent Government announcements and conclusions following the study.

The report having drawn extensively on responses from the general public, the Government's position has now been made clear. The purpose of this debate is to probe further the intentions of the roads directorate and Government policy in general. Clarification is needed of some of the consequences of the decisions that have been announced, and in this debate it may be helpful for me to cite some of the views of my constituents.

There were three main subject areas of the consultation process on the routes south of Edinburgh, and they are laid out in order in the Government's response. The first was the question of access to border towns; the second, the question of the future improvement of the A1 between Edinburgh and Newcastle; and the third, the new Government proposals for the M74 and M8 fast link and the prospective tolls provision for the building of that new road.

The conclusions of the report are good so far as they go, but, certainly in relation to my constituency, they do not go far enough. The provision is adequate for access to the border area but not for travellers southwards from the principal border towns. In other words, the northern section of the region will be properly served as a result of the announcements contained in the document, but not the southern half of the region.

I accept that there is never enough money, particularly for projects like roads and capital infrastructure investment. I also accept that there are equally strong competing claims from other regions, and the debate on transport in the Scottish Grand Committee illustrated that, for the Minister was bombarded on all sides by constituency claims from hon. Members.

Nor do I believe that every trunk route can be brought up to either dual carriageway or motorway standard. But there is an argument for claiming that the planning period covered by the study is extremely long. It will last for 15 or perhaps 20 years and during that time many far-reaching changes will take place in society as a whole and in the areas to be served by the new roads. For example, there are bound to be great changes in the development of tourism, which is crucial to the future of the border area.

The provision being made in the Government's plans is not adequate for the planned routes south of the border region over the time scale about which we are speaking, and there are two particularly important aspects of that in my constituency. The first is the provision being made for the A1 south of Dunbar and the second is the provision being made southwards from Hawick to Carlisle.

Concerning the A1, I pay tribute to the members of the all-party campaign, the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and in particular the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who co-ordinated the all-party campaign which produced an excellent document which argued for the upgrading of the A1. It was entitled, "The A1—A Case for the Improvement to Dual Carriageway Standard between Newcastle and Edinburgh". Those hon. Members would have been in their places today to support the case I am making had they not had other important constituency engagements.

That campaign, which also involved the Minister's opposite number south of the border, from the Department of Transport, and key officials from, and members of, the local roads authorities involved, represented a worthwhile exercise and served to inform the debate that led to the Government's conclusions. Unfortunately, not all the arguments contained in it have been adequately taken into account.

The Minister should this morning say as much as possible about future provision in prospect for the A1 south of Dunbar, and, particularly for the purpose of this debate, the provision in the county of Berwickshire. I do not have time to rehearse all the arguments that have been made for the upgrading of the A1. The accident rate on the road is much too high and is a constant source of concern in my constituency. There are limited overtaking opportunities and drivers overtake on single carriageway stretches where the provision is extremely substandard.

There is increasing worry about the high volume of heavy goods traffic using the road, and positive recognition that it is a better all-weather route, with the road being kept open during the winter months. There is a strong case to be made for improving the road to improve journey times, and there is every reason to improve it to dual carriageway standard to avoid some of the difficulties that are occurring with the mixture of local, particularly agricultural, traffic with the through trunk road traffic that also uses the road.

On page 6 of the Government response, concerning their policy for the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh, it is said that it is their
"general policy to provide sections of improved road to allow safe overtaking opportunities and to improve road safety."
What does that mean? They also say that
"dual carriageway is not ruled out in the very long term."
Local people are wondering how long the "very long" is likely to be. There is strong feeling locally that rural sections of trunk routes should not be prejudiced simply because they travel through rural areas. A trunk route is a trunk route, whether it passes through arable countryside, or passes through or bypasses towns and villages as it makes its way south or north.

I want to ask, first, what the time scale is for improvements to the dualling of the A1 road south of Dunbar.

Second, has the Scottish Development Department made plans to make the A1 road on the northern side of the English border adequate to cope with the planned dualling of the road on the south, the English, side of the border? There is much local concern that the higher grade of road on the English side of the boundary will disgorge traffic at a high rate on to an inadequate section of the A1 on the southern side of the border. That will have safety implications in the future if something is not done about it in the short term.

Finally, when can we expect details of the work of the steering committee, which I am pleased the Government readily accepted when it was suggested by the all-party group that considered the future provision for the A1? When can we expect details to be announced about when the committee will start work, and what its detailed remit and the time scale for its work will be? We in the eastern side of the county of Berwickshire look with some envy at the excellent work that has been done on the A96 Inverness to Aberdeen road, and some of the route action studies that have been so successful in improving that road. I hope that similar criteria will be applied to the A1.

Page 8 of the report gives the Government's proposals for the A7 south of Hawick. It states:
"South of Hawick, improvements to the A7 will continue to be made to achieve specific local objectives, however. These will include a programme of accident remedial schemes and smaller improvement schemes where appropriate."
Will the Minister spell out exactly what that all adds up to? As he will know, Hawick is by far the biggest border constituency, and certainly the biggest community in my constituency. The Borders and that section of the Border community relates to communities in the south just as much, if not more than, to those in the north. Work is being done to develop Carlisle, south of Hawick, as a key road and rail junction. When one considers the prospect for the new European markets that will open in 1992 and all the aspects of the Borders' commerce and industry including textiles, electronics and tourism, it is obvious that there will be greater traffic flows in the period covered by the report.

There are no alternative rail links available to us. It is 20 years since the Waveley route was withdrawn from the Borders region, and the area has been suffering severely from lack of adequate transport provision ever since. There are psychological as well as social, commercial and tourist justifications for having a proper road south of Hawick, between Hawick and Carlisle. If the Government's plans are successful—I hope that they are—in dualling the A7 to Galashiels and improving the Galashiels to Hawick link, they will provide even more traffic to be served by a totally inadequate road south from Hawick. That problem will not go away, but will get worse before it gets better. It would be helpful if we could have some idea of the Government's plans to produce an improved standard of road for that stretch in the next 10 to 15 years.

I shall concentrate on the A7 south of Hawick at four different levels. I assume that there is no question but that the maintenance and repair of that stretch of road will continue to be adequate. May we have an assurance about that? Secondly, it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify what can be achieved by route action plans. I have already referred to the significant improvements made to the A96. I accept that significant improvements can be made, but what do they add up to? I understand that, perfectly properly, the Government are trying to reduce accidents by up to a third by the year 2000, and I support that because it is welcome. I also understand that some new money—not a large amount in the global totality of capital expenditure on roads—is available. How much of that money can we expect to be devoted to the A7 south of Hawick?

Thirdly, I understand that the local authority has identified half a dozen or so proposals for improvement schemes that would all come with a price tag of less than £1 million for each individual project. If carried out over a reasonable period—put into the planning process over the next five years—they would make a significant improvement to overtaking opportunities on the A7 south of Hawick. That would be just about adequate to cope with the road's present needs.

At the higher level there are two major road work schemes that would cost more than £1 million, although not much more. The Borders roads authority has identified them on the stretch of road from Hawick to the Dumfries boundary. If they could be brought into the planning process during a five-year period, they would bring the road up to a state at which it could be argued that it was beginning to be adequate to cope with the needs of the local community.

I know that the trunk and key principal road network review that the Government are undertaking for the road network in central Scotland will compete with some of the claims and requests that I am making this morning. However, according to the study, the total motorway budget is £650 million, so the amount of money that I am asking for is not extravagant in terms of the whole budget.

There is a degree of confusion about whether the Minister is coming to see us and, if he is, who he is coming to see. He kindly wrote to me about that, and an answer will clarify some of the confusion. If he comes—I hope that he does—I hope that he will not ignore either the roads authority or me. I recognise that there is a particular head of steam among the public in the town about the state of the A7 south of Hawick. It would be good if the Minister were prepared to come and expose himself to public opinion. If he is willing to come and discuss these important matters, I am sure that he would not dream of doing so without taking the roads authority and the sitting Members of Parliament into account.

As a result of the trunk road that goes straight through the centre of Hawick, there is internal traffic chaos at present that is building up unacceptably in the town. There are now real problems. I fully understand that some are claiming that we should have a bypass, but my information is that a bypass would take only 10 per cent. of the through traffic away from the town and so it will, by itself, not be a long-term solution. The only long-term solution would be internal new traffic arrangements with single flows in both the north and south directions to separate the trunk route traffic. In addition, the River Teviot will have to be crossed again by another bridge in order to rationalise the internal traffic congestion that is building up.

I hope that the Minister will not leave the local roads authority to rely on its section 94 consent but will substantially assist it with any major capital schemes to try to resolve some of the problems in Hawick. It would be helpful if he could say something about the time scale that will be used to deal with that problem. If we could have some reaction to the work that the local authority has done on the congestion, it would go a long way to alleviating some of the evident anxieties in the town.

As one of the principal users of trunk routes south of Edinburgh is the Lowland-Scottish Bus Group and there is a great deal of expectancy, anticipation and concern about the group's disposal in the near future, I hope that the Minister, if he has time, will say when we may expect a Government decision on that important matter.

11.39 am

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

I should tell the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that the proposals for Lowland-Scottish are now being considered and we hope that a decision will soon be made. We are aware of the interest in that subject. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the consultation about routes south of Edinburgh. This is a worthwhile debate and I am keenly aware of the interest in the matter shown by the hon. Gentleman and by other hon. Members.

As I said in April, our consultation about routes south of Edinburgh was a successful exercise. There were more than 220 responses covering a wide range of interests. I announced at that time our response to the views that were presented and our decisions on the way ahead. Those will result in a package of major road improvements likely to cost upwards of £140 million which will complement and enhance the existing roads programmes.

We have set in hand the A1 past Dunglass improvement scheme which provides a bypass to Cockburnspath and quality overtaking opportunities. That work will begin in the summer. Secondly, we have announced plans and proposals for dualling sections of that route. I have announced that consultants will be appointed as soon as possible to start preparing a dualling scheme to Haddington bypassing Glasgow, and they will carry out detailed evaluation of further dualling in due course to Dunbar. It is envisaged that the dualling will initially terminate near Haddington, but that will be the subject of a feasibility study and safety will be taken into account.

A natural break point in traffic levels will be an appropriate point for the dualling to start. It is too early to comment on phasing of the further dualling past Haddington and onwards to Dunbar, but it may be possible to undertake the rolling programme for this work and it is likely that the same group of consultants will be used.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) also expressed interest in this matter, and I shall deal quickly with the points that he made about heavy commercial traffic using the route to east coast ports. Our study considered all types of traffic using the route and concluded that dualling the whole road would not attract enough traffic to justify the high cost. The joint working group will lead local authorities to monitor the situation, and we shall also press on with the dualling to Haddington and with improvements east of Haddington.

Generally, we need and are developing an improvement strategy for the more likely traffic route south of Dunbar. Detailed plans will be prepared as quickly as possible on the dualling to Haddington. Consultants will be commissioned to prepare dualling plans as far as Dunbar and will consider phasing the work. It is certainly possible that the dual bypass of Haddington could follow at a fairly early stage and perhaps as a direct follow-up to the dualling up to the town.

I was asked about the planning timetable. The economic appraisal of road schemes looks forward over 30 years. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire asked about the time scale for improvements. I am glad that he recognised that we are looking 15 to 20 years ahead and fully appreciated that there will be changes in traffic levels and society over that time. Our consultants for the main study looked at traffic levels, but the A1 steering group will continue to monitor traffic and councils, and other consultants who are looking at the A7 will also take a wide and long-term view.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the steering group. It will monitor traffic and, more immediately, will identify accident remedial and overtaking opportunity schemes. The time scale for accident remedial schemes can be rapid or immediate and there should be no delay in implementation. Other schemes may take longer to prepare, but I hope for early action in relation to overtaking.

The stretch of road which crosses the border will soon be considered by the steering group with a view to a possible joint dualling scheme in conjunction with the Department of Transport. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that there would be no sense in having a dual carriageway that suddenly stopped at what in road terms is an artificial border. He asked about A7 schemes that had been identified by regional councils. All possible schemes identified by councils or other parties will certainly be considered as part of the remit given for further study of proposals for the A7 south of Hawick. I agree that a single high quality carriageway is fully justified. The Tower to Dunbar scheme is an important step towards this, and in both England and Scotland the general policy for the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh is to provide sections of improved road to allow safe overtaking opportunities and improve road safety.

Work is now under way on the A96 Inverness to Aberdeen trunk road to develop techniques to identify effective sets of schemes which, taken together, prevent the build up of long platoons of traffic. That will be done by providing the necessary overtaking opportunities where they are needed and are most economic to provide.

It may be possible to take advantage of these new techniques to provide a similar improvement package for the A1. The hon. Gentleman is correct about that. That is why, following discussions with the hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, for East Lothian, for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), I announced that a steering group with representatives from local and central Government from north and south of the border will be formed to monitor traffic growth on the A1 and to develop a suitable programme of improvements. That has rightly been welcomed. Terms of reference are currently being drafted and will be considered at the first meeting of the group which it is expected will take place on 21 June. Invitations will shortly be sent out to the participating roads authorities.

The package of improvements that are planned for the A1 is likely to cost about £50 million and will provide substantial benefits to road users. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire will be interested to know whether the steering group will include elected members. It will primarily be a technical working group and will therefore be at official level, but I am sure that regular reports will be made to elected representatives and of course we can always have meetings with elected representatives as and when they are required.

I shall now deal with the proposals for the Borders. The most important immediate improvements will be to the A68 Dalkeith bypass for which draft orders will be published in June. More generally, traffic volumes clearly show that the greatest need for the Borders is quality access to the capital. Such access would be greatly improved by our proposal to dual the A7 between Edinburgh and Galashiels. We shall appoint consultants to investigate possible alignments for this improvement and they will take full account of the environmental issues that are involved. The consultants will also consider the scope for further improvements between Galashiels and Hawick and will define the strategic benefits of an A68-A7 link.

The Borders communities will benefit substantially from our plans for the A68-A7 which are likely to cost at least £100 million. This major improvements programme will be further augmented by the route action plan that we are commissioning for south of Hawick. I am confident that this package of measures, which was formulated in the light of responses to our consultation paper, will provide a substantial improvement to the network.

I am aware of the anxiety that the hon. Gentleman expressed in connection with a section of the A7 south of Hawick. That road is important to the local economy, especially to the tourist and textile industries. The possibility of a bypass at Hawick can certainly be considered, but I cannot give a commitment at this stage. To be economically viable, an improved A7 would have to attract traffic from the M74, and, as motorways are the safest category of road, the consultants' study predicted a reduction in road safety. Money to fund the improvements cannot be diverted from the A74 project without economic and environmental penalties.

Constructing a three-lane M74 allows Scotland's main artery, the A74, to be kept fully open during the decade of construction. It also allows much of the new road to be constructed on line, thereby reducing severance and adverse environmental impacts on local communities and the surrounding countryside. For south of Hawick, improvements to the A7 will continue to be made to achieve specific local objectives. I have announced our intention to commission regional councils to design a route action plan. That will involve accident remedial schemes and smaller improvement schemes, especially for improving overtaking opportunities as and where appropriate. Langholm bypass is already in the traffic road programme and the required preparatory work and statutory procedures are under way. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) made strong representations about the A7. He is very much involved because it runs through his constituency.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire may be assured that any proposals already identified by regional councils or others will be considered as a matter of course. I said in April that improvements from Galashiels to Hawick would together cost up to £20 million and that still more would be spent south of Hawick. That will bring substantial benefits and ensure that any traffic coming off the future dual carriageway at Galashiels will find a continuing high standard road on which it can travel safely.

The remit to the councils will also specifically include Hawick, where it is clear that some early improvements are required for trunk road traffic through the town itself. Consideration will be given to suitable traffic management measures in the town to provide more satisfactory arrangements for both through traffic and local people. The most advanced traffic signals are already located in the town of Hawick. They are the only signals of their sort currently in operation in Scotland. Our proposals for the Borders are expected to cost upwards of £100 million and will provide significant long-term benefits to the whole area. It is obviously necessary to introduce remedial action programmes for safety reasons.

It has been confirmed that the M74 fast link is a potentially useful addition to the Scottish road network. With a substantially increased public investment in motorways and trunk roads, especially in central and southern Scotland, resources for the project cannot be found in the foreseeable future without a significant impact on other schemes. It is intended further to examine the feasibility of introducing private finance. We have commissioned management consultants to hold detailed discussions with the many private sector interests that have indicated that they may wish to pursue the option of a privately funded fast link.

The proposals outlined in our route south of Edinburgh study are clear evidence of our substantial commitment to the improvement of the road network in south-east Scotland. I have already dealt with the hon. Gentleman's point about the dual carriageway stopping at the border and I have made our position clear. On the question of road improvements south of Dunbar and the costs involved, we must first assess need. The new steering group will advise us on the needs and the priorities. Of course, the Borders need access by a good A7 to the M6 and the motorway network. I agree that the A7 from Hawick to the border should be a good quality single carriageway and the remit to the consultants will reflect that. The consultants will also take full account of the need for a smooth transition over a safe, high-quality single carriageway south of Hawick.

I have already referred to our plans for Hawick. A bypass would be unlikely to bring the town a great deal of relief from traffic, and because of the surrounding hills it would be very expensive. It is likely that we will concentrate on traffic management measures, but I shall look to the regional councils for their advice on that matter.

I have another two minutes. That is what Mr. Speaker said.

My understanding is that Mr. Speaker asked the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) to reduce his speech by 10 minutes. I have now lost 10 minutes of my speech.

That was my clear understanding of Mr. Speaker's request. I should not dream of taking a single second from the next debate.

Safety on all trunk roads is of absolute priority. We intend route action programmes for remedial schemes to be prepared as quickly as possible and to be implemented without delay. Our proposals show that we have a strong commitment.

A trunk and key principal road network review for Scotland has been going on for some time. It is essential that the increased funds that we are providing are directed to the right places. The study is expected to be completed in about a year's time and we shall examine all the relevant issues.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about a meeting with Members of Parliament and those locally elected. The chief executive has contacted Mrs. Findlay-Maxwell and an approach has been made to me on behalf of the council and the elected members and the proper procedures will be followed. I look forward to suitable arrangements being made in due course. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising these relevant and important matters.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In a speech in the House on Tuesday evening I mentioned the firm of Taylor Woodrow, with which I have a small professional interest which is registered in the Register of Members' Interests, and omitted to mention that interest before I made my speech. I am sorry about that. It was a complete oversight and I apologise.

Thank you. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but it provides an opportunity for me to remind all hon. Members that during debates it is now a rule of the House—not a convention, as was previously the case—for every hon. Member to declare any relevant pecuniary interest or benefit of whatever nature, whether direct or indirect, that he may have had, may have or may be expecting to have. It is wise for hon. Members to declare that interest at the beginning of a speech.

Kidney Patients

11.56 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate an Adjournment debate to air some of the problems facing kidney patients—that is, those suffering from end-stage renal failure who are either on dialysis or awaiting a transplant.

First, I must declare an interest: I am a kidney patient on haemo-dialysis which I receive at home, and I am president of the National Federation of Kidney Patients Associations.

Kidney disease is the fifth most prevalent and fatal illness in Britain, hut, with the advent of an ever-increasing number of haemo-dialysis machines and the introduction of continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis, it is no longer the killer disease that it once was. With successful transplantation, it is an illness which can be almost completely overcome. The United Kingdom used to lag behind many European countries in the number of patients receiving dialysis, but my most recent figure of 55 patients per million of the population receiving treatment bears favourable comparison with many of our neighbours, even if we still have a fair way to go to catch up with the Federal Republic of West Germany and Switzerland in the number of patients receiving dialysis per million of the population.

But I understand that those needing dialysis are increasing at the rate of 500 patients per year and that probably between 80 and 100 patients per million now require renal support, although, sadly, many of them do not get it. Kidney transplantation has been on a steadily rising trend since 1983 and has almost doubled during the past 10 years. All that says much for the Department of Health and the regional and district health authorities which have accepted renal replacement therapy as a form of treatment which should be available for all who need it. A dialysis machine manufacturer recently told me that demand for his equipment had fallen back to a fairly steady figure of about 300 machines a year from the time when two of three times that number were being ordered.

What matters now is to update the older machines and encourage the creation of small, more localised, minimum care dialysis units so that kidney patients will not need to be bussed long distances to a general hospital with a dialysis ward. As I suggested during the debate on the National Health Service and Community Care Bill, money going with the patient may have a beneficial effect in that direction, particularly when districts realise how much they are spending on kidney dialysis in regional hospitals.

Continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis has made huge strides and is running neck and neck with haemo-dialysis in the number of patients using it. CAPD allows the kidney patient to be free of machines and to live at home. Home-based haemodialysis machines achieve almost the same result, except that the patient must have a carer in attendance, or at least in earshot, all the time while he or she spends four to six hours hooked up to the machine. However, home-based dialysis, like CAPD, takes the pressure off hospital dialysis units and gives patients much greater freedom.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, dialysis requires the placing of two needles in one of the patient's arms, from which blood is drawn into the dialysis machine, cleaned by the dialyser, and then returned to the body. The arm being used for that purpose cannot be moved, so if the machine alarms, the helper must put matters right—as she does in linking the patient up to the machine and taking him off it.

A dialysis session lasts between four and six hours, so the attendant has to give up a fair proportion of the day to be available to the patient. All kidney patients on home dialysis receive an attendance allowance of £25. That may be enough if it is the husband or wife who helps, but not if the patient has to engage the services of a carer. My first plea to my hon. Friend the Minister is to discuss with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security whether more money can be provided. Some charitable funds are available in certain areas to help boost the money available to pay carers, but not everywhere. Few carers will work for much less than £25 per day.

When I first suffered kidney failure, I suffered—as others do—the attendant problems. In particular, I suffered from acute anaemia, as what was left of my kidneys was failing to secrete the substance that creates haemoglobin, except at a very low level—rather less than 50 per cent. of normal. I had the characteristic yellow-white face of the anaemic renal patient, and I was aware of my acute lack of energy and a loss of general well-being.

In 1988, my consultant asked whether I would be willing to be a guinea pig in clinical trials of what is in effect a wonder drug called erythropoetin, which aims to replicate the secretion missing from the kidneys of renal patients—and which could, he assured me, give me back my haemoglobin, my energy, and the colour to my cheeks. I agreed to join the programme, and today I would find it hard to be a kidney patient not in receipt of EPO, as it is known for short.

I am well aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I know that EPO is very expensive, and I know also that some regional health authorities will not allow it to be prescribed to any of their kidney patients because their budgets are already overstretched. But I cannot stay silent. Not every kidney patient needs or would benefit from erythropoetin. My consultant suggests that about 1,500 of the 8,000 patients on dialysis ought to receive it, but in Oxford where I am treated he has funds enough for only 50 per cent. of those who could benefit.

Elsewhere, the story is too often the same, yet I am told by so many, "Yes, we know that it is a wonder drug, that it can offer a dialysis patient a much-improved quality of life, and help him to return to employment—but we do not have the funds to pay for it." That is a heartbreaking message—as tough on the consultant who wants to prescribe EPO as on the patient who knows by hearsay what he or she is missing.

I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to re-examine that issue, and I ask him to consider this question: what is the point of creating wonder drugs if, when they have been developed, the medical authorities cannot afford to prescribe them? I know that I will be told that it is for regional health authorities to decide how they spend their budgets, and that it is for them to include or exclude something such as EPO—but surely the Department can earmark part of the money going to regions specifically for meeting the costs of new drugs, or hold back that money unless a region gives details of the drugs on which it is to be spent.

Something must be done as a matter of urgency—or EPO must be licensed and made available on prescription from local general practitioners, even if patients still come under hospital renal consultants. I am aware that the Department of Health quite rightly believes that successful transplantation is a better and less expensive treatment than dialysis, but it has to be accepted that not everyone can have a successful transplant. While there is a shortage of organs for transplantation, dialysis is the only remedy.

Naturally, that brings me to the subject of the transplant programme and the supply of organs. More organs are needed. We should applaud the increasing number of transplants that have taken place in the past six years, and the efforts that have been made to improve supply, but one cannot escape the ethical questions involved in transplanting pieces of the human body. Transplantation in my opinion is acceptable only when the organ is a voluntary gift from one family to another. To that extent, I am opposed to opting-out schemes, which mean that if one does not state that one's organs are not to be taken they can be plundered, whether the next of kin like it or not. However, I welcome every initiative to improve the supply of organs.

The audit carried out under the auspices of the Medical Research Council last year gave us a much clearer picture of how many potential donors arise in intensive therapy units. It came up with a figure of 1,700, which is roughly half the old estimate, and that clarifies how much more needs to be done.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman)—who was the Under-Secretary of State for Health—who organised a seminar last November, given by the Department, on the subject of the donor scheme and the constructive suggestions that came out of that meeting.

I wish to dwell on one idea—that of enhancing the kidney donor card scheme, or perhaps I should have said the organ donor card. The scheme could be more successful. The idea of a donor card is excellent. If one wants to give an organ, one carries a card to say so, and if anything happens, the card is there for the hospital staff to see and to act upon. It sounds so simple. However, the chance of the card going into the intensive therapy unit with the casualty is extremely slight, as the first thing that happens is that clothes are taken away before anyone is taken into the unit. Staff in the unit will not spend a great deal of time searching through possessions to see if the patients have a donor card, as they are concerned with saving life.

A consultant asked me to question the Department about how many times the donor card produced organs for transplantation. It was unable to give me an answer. That speaks volumes about the fact that the card is not working as we would wish.

Even if staff in the intensive therapy unit find the card, they only act upon it to the extent that they will then telephone next of kin to ask for permission to take organs. They do not only ask next of kin: they will almost certainly ask the husband or wife and other close members of the family. If anyone objects, the organs will not be taken. That seems to fly in the face of what the donor card system is meant to achieve. While there is no legal requirement for anyone to be consulted if the card is signed by the donor, I understand that the medical profession believes it has a duty to obtain family consent, or at least the consent of the next of kin, before taking organs, and I do not wish to argue with that.

That does not entirely invalidate the donor card, as it performs another important role. It encourages people to think about and to accept organ donation as part of everyday life, and it has been valuable. It is true also that too many card carriers have not told their families that they carry cards and therefore that they wish to donate their organs. I suggest to my hon. Friend the new slogan "Carry the card and tell your family."

If the card is not accepted by the medical profession as having the same legal imperative as a person's will—clearly, removing organs is of a different order from leaving goods and chattels—perhaps the solution lies in the donor card being countersigned by the next of kin. It would then be unnecessary for the transplant co-ordinator to telephone the next of kin, and it would mean an end to the emotional trauma that follows the death of a loved one, when those being asked whether organs may be taken are in the wrong frame of mind to consent. That so many people consent speaks volumes for the skill and diplomacy of transplant co-ordinators who are currently at work.

I go one stage further. I want my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the schemes in Wales and Derbyshire—Lifeline Wales and Lifeline Derbyshire; I believe that there is a similar scheme in Glasgow—whereby the names of all those carrying donor cards are stored on computers that are available to intensive therapy units. The name, address and age of a donor is placed on the computer register. Of course, if I have my way, the request to be a donor will have been made known to the next of kin. That system works in Wales. Lifeline Wales has a donation rate of 20 donors per million of population—the best in the country. There are more than 300,000 on the computer register, with a further 400 being signed up every week. The computer is connected to all intensive care units in Wales.

Lifeline Derbyshire is similar, except that it works on a computer at Manchester university, with a terminal situated in the Chesterfield royal hospital, and is connected to local hospitals in which there are intensive therapy units. Lifeline Derbyshire has produced a modified donor card, on which is added a form on which the information to be put on to the computer can be added. I understand that, like Lifeline Wales, Lifeline Derbyshire is proving to be effective.

Using either example, it is clear to me that putting the names of organ donors on computer is the way to make the donor card a real success. I have given my own opinion about the countersignature by the next of kin, because people responsible for Lifeline Wales agreed that that procedure would help. However, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister carefully to consider this procedure, even if it is only the donor's name which is put on the computer and the next of kin still telephoned.

I know that there are resource implications in the proposal but, if it was possible to put the names of people wishing to give organs—all those currently carrying donor cards; I am speaking not only about kidney donors but about all those who wish to give organs—on a national computer held by the United Kingdom transplant service or on regional computers held by the various regional health authorities connected to intensive therapy units, we might increase the number of organ donors, in line with the Welsh and Derbyshire experience. In turn, we might increase the supply of organs that are so desperately needed at this time.

I do not need to tell my hon. Friend the Minister I hat successful kidney transplants are a much more economical way of overcoming end-stage renal failure than dialysis or dialysis coupled with the use of erythropeotin. I therefore commend the idea to him.

12.14 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) on securing this debate on an issue of great importance not only to him, but to the whole community. I appreciate the irony that my arrival at the Department of Health was prompted by the departure from Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), with whom my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury and I share a link. I followed my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury as parliamentary private secretary to our right hon. Friend. My hon. Friend set a high standard which I sought to emulate—incompletely, I suspect.

It is a great pleasure to respond to the Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend. Today, as always, his speech has demonstrated the depth of his experience and his understanding of the problems associated with the treatment of kidney patients within the National Health Service.

It is important to set the issues my hon. Friend raised within the context of the NHS treatment of kidney patients, which is one of the great success stories of recent years. The increase in the number of patients whose lives have been extended by renal care since 1979 has been considerable, both for patients on various forms of dialysis and for patients who have benefited from transplants. Both groups have increased substantially. In 1979, there were just over 6,000 patients whose lives had been extended by renal care. That figure has now risen to more than 16,000 patients whose lives have been saved by the NHS because of advances in renal medicine. That is a great success story, of which everyone associated with the NHS has every reason to be proud.

It is also important to say that we are not complacent about the future development of this aspect of care within the NHS. My hon. Friend mentioned the work sponsored by the Renal Association, which shows the scale of need for renal care in the community. The study suggests that we need to increase the number of new patients coming into renal support above the level already achieved, based on epidemiological research.

The Renal Association came to see me last week to talk about that and I complimented the association on the quality of its research, which I believe to be soundly based and to be an object lesson, from which I hope that others will learn, on how the new health authorities after the Health Service reforms next April should discharge their responsibilities for seeking to measure need and to establish the level of need for different types of care in the NHS. In that way, as in many others, those involved in the care of kidney patients have led the way.

My hon. Friend began by arguing the case for an extension of local dialysis units and he suggested that it might be a more appropriate way to treat kidney dialysis patients than to encourage them to come into large centres in hospitals. Ultimately, that is a matter for each health authority to decide according to the available resources and circumstances in its own area. That issue will certainly present itself in a new and acute form after next April, when the health authorities will be established as purchasing agents on behalf of kidney patients and they will seek to ensure that the treatment available to patients is the most appropriate for those patients. It is wholly possible that that development will occur after next April.

That change will impact to a degree on my hon. Friend's first request about the extension of attendance allowance payments to those who need carers to assist in the dialysis process at home. I understand my hon. Friend's argument, but have just one reservation about it. Other issues may argue against the provision of dialysis at home for patients who, in the normal course of events, live alone. My hon. Friend may well have suggested an alternative way forward when he referred to the need for local dialysis units rather than for assistance to be given for dialysis at home in the form of more generous attendance allowance payments. I simply enter that reservation.

However, that is ultimately a matter for the Department of Social Security, which, in these new enlightened days, has been split from the Department of Health. I shall therefore communicate with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, who is just down the corridor from me, but in another Department. I shall write to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury when my hon. Friend and I have had the chance to consider his suggestion in more detail.

The second of my hon. Friend's substantial points related to the future of the wonder drug which I shall call EPO, because, unlike my hon. Friend, I have not learnt to pronounce its name in full. I am very much aware of the tremendous advance that that drug represents for renal medicine and of the need to ensure that we can find a way to make it available to kidney patients just as, over the past 15 years, we have made available to kidney patients all the other advances that have been made, many of which are much more expensive than EPO. We must find a way of making certain that the drug is available to the patients who need it. There is no division between my hon. Friend and I on that point.

However, I am afraid that I do not accept my hon. Friend's suggestion that the way to achieve that is through some form of central funding of the local authority's need for that drug. Ultimately, central funding can be achieved only by top-slicing the money—to use the jargon of the Department of Health—that is provided by us to the regions, and from the regions to the districts.

In other words, if the Department of Health funds something centrally, less money is available for the regions and the districts to spend on their own account. That happens from time to time, but in my view it should happen only for the purpose of concentrating resources in areas where there might be some regional disparities. If, as is the case for kidney patients, facilities are spread fairly evenly across the country, there seems little point in top-slicing the budget of, for example, the Northern regional health authority simply to return to that health authority a roughly equivalent amount of money that will allow it to purchase the drug or any other form of treatment.

Therefore, I do not think that top slicing and central funding, which are two sides of the same coin, would advance the argument very far. However, I undertake to seek to work with the regions and the health authorities to ensure that, as far as possible, that drug is available. Following my meeting last week with the Renal Association, I have already asked to be given the up-to-date position about the availability of the drug, region by region. It is important that each region carefully assesses the clinical need for the drug within its own facilities and makes the appropriate plans to ensure that that need is met. That is the way forward, rather than attempting to centralise control at Richmond house.

Perhaps my hon. Friend is not aware that a kidney patient who receives erythropoetin can go back to work. If a person with a manual job suffers kidney failure, he cannot normally work, but that is not the case for someone receiving erythropoetin. If the patient goes back to work, he starts to pay taxes and those taxes go into a central pool. My hon. Friend is right to talk about top-slicing that which would otherwise go to the region in total, but I am suggesting that, through erythropoetin, the Treasury might gain more money than my hon. Friend would be giving the regions. Perhaps that additional money could be considered to be part of the grant funding.

My hon. Friend, as always, advances a seductive argument. Unfortunately, it is one that he must ultimately address not to me but to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We have to work on the basis that the budget available to the NHS is fixed and is part of the public expenditure survey round. I am sure that there is no division between me and my hon. Friend about the enormous advance that EPO represents and the desirability of making it available. It is simply a question of mechanics and how that can be done. The correct way is to seek to work with the regions to eliminate any blockages in the system. I should add that that is another example of a blockage in the NHS management system. We shall seek to eliminate such blockages through the reforms that will be introduced next April.

As soon as we establish more clearly the principle that money should follow patients and that money should be directed to where patients need to be treated, problems which currently seem to represent substantial bureaucratic logjams suddenly seem simpler to resolve.

My hon. Friend's third point was about transplants. I accept the principle that he espoused, that it is preferable, both from a clinical and a financial view, to treat a patient ultimately by a transplant rather than on dialysis. I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend said against moving to a system of opting out of donorship. I do not believe that that represents the way forward.

Various options should be considered to encourage voluntary donorship of organs. I sought to do that at breakfast time this morning. I had been asked to attend the launch of a new balloon that is sponsored by two drug companies—Sandoz and Du Pont—to draw attention to the donor card system. On the way to the launch I made certain that I had my donor card with me because I was conscious that there was a risk—

I am, too. I wondered whether I would survive when the balloon collapsed on top of me. I thought that it was perhaps a new way of promoting transplants. The balloon is a serious attempt to attract media interest in the donor card system. I welcome that, and will do everything that I can to support it.

My hon. Friend correctly drew attention to the enormously valuable work of my predecessor on organ donorship. If I can do as well as he did to promote the cause, I shall be pleased.

My hon. Friend also mentioned some of the disadvantages of donor cards and suggested ways in which the system could be enhanced. In particular, he suggested that the card should be countersigned by the next of kin to avoid the problem of medical ethics that doctors are unwilling to use organs simply on the basis of a signed donor card. I should not like to become involved in medical ethics. They are not properly the province of politicians. However, I take note of my hon. Friend's point. Perhaps he would like to take up the matter with the appropriate medical authorities. When politicians start to advise doctors on ethical values, I suspect that we are getting into relatively deep water.

My hon. Friend argued the case for a central computerised register, a cause which he has espoused before and for which he is well known to be an enthusiast. We are not opposed to that idea, but, in view of the practical problems, the Government should not commit taxpayers' money to a central register unless there is clear evidence from the local schemes to which my hon. Friend referred that a register would be a cost-effective way of increasing the availability of organs for transplant. That was the conclusion reached by the working party chaired by Sir Raymond Hoffenberg which reported to us in 1987. We have implemented its main recommendations.

I am aware of the scheme in Wales to which my hon. Friend referred. I suspect that there are other factors in the Welsh experience in addition to the register which contribute to accounting for the improved donorship record there. Indeed, the previous Secretary of State for Wales may have played a part in that; I do not know. We are looking at the Welsh experience and the experience in Birmingham. Although I have not been informed that we are looking at the scheme in Derby, we shall do so.

We recognise the complexity of organ donation and accept the conclusion of the Hoffenberg working party that there is unlikely to be a simple answer to the shortage of organs. There is no panacea, but I hope that we have begun to pinpoint the real issues. As many of them are medical questions, the royal colleges have agreed to take them forward and we shall await the outcome of their deliberations with considerable interest.

Royal Assent

Before I call the next hon. Member, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified Her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

  • 1. Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1990.
  • 2. Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
  • 3. Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas Act 1990.
  • 4. Planning (Hazardous Substances) Act 1990.
  • 5. Planning (Consequential Provisions) Act 1990.
  • Telephone Tapping

    12.30 pm

    You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that in 1985 one of your predecessors announced to the House that the Queen had graciously assented to the passage of the Interception of Communications Act. It was the result of long concern in the House, among the public, and, in particular, among the personnel of British Telecommunications. I am particularly pleased that today's debate is attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), who has a long record of representing the union that organises members within British Telecommunications.

    The Act was not forced on the House by public pressure, nor by the unease of British Telecommunications' employees. It was forced on the Government by a decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the Malone judgment. The Act provides the minimum degree of protection and it is deeply flawed in several ways. First, it provides a remedy only to those who are able and choose to complain about their telephone having been tapped. That implies that the person concerned knew of the tap in the first place and of the nature of its operation. In 99 out of 100 cases there is no such knowledge. Moreover, there is no requirement in the Act to inform the subject, either subsequently or during tapping, that the tap is in place.

    An amendment moved to the Bill before it was enacted is highly relevant to this Adjournment debate. It would have provided immunity to employees of British Telecom should they choose to report what they believed to be an unauthorised and unlawful tap. The amendment was rejected by the then Government.

    Perhaps the biggest flaw of all is that the Act created an interception of communications tribunal to which an aggrieved member of the public could complain. However, the tribunal is limited to investigating only those cases where a warrant has been issued to identify whether a warrant has been properly issued. It has no authority to investigate whether a tap has been placed without a warrant. If the aggrieved complainant has a tap placed without a proper warrant, the tribunal cannot proceed further. It will not notify the aggrieved complainant that his or her telephone has been tapped without a warrant. All that happens is that the complainant receives a response from the tribunal concluding that there has been no contravention of section 5(2) of the Act.

    That information can mean one of two things: either that a warrant was properly granted and the tribunal, having examined the matter, has concluded that there was full authority and therefore no contravention of the Act, or that there was no warrant and no authority and the tap was placed unlawfully, but the person receiving that information was none the wiser and did not have the information available for further action.

    As a result of the Act at least we have an annual statement from the commissioner of the tribunal who provides a report on the scale of telephone tapping. I have with me the most recent report that provides figures for the warrants issued by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland in each year since 1985. There is an intriguing feature to those figures in each of those five years as the number of warrants issued in Scotland is far higher pro rata of population than the number issued for England by the Home Secretary. If one made a simple arithmetical calculation based on population—I appreciate that that is a crude approach to a complex subject—the number of warrants issued in Scotland is consistently 50 per cent. higher than the number issued in England. I find that puzzling as I am not aware that Scotland is facing a significantly greater terrorist or subversion threat than the metropolitan areas of England. I would appreciate some guidance from the Minister when he replies about why a consistently larger number of warrants is granted in Scotland than in England.

    The great omission from the report is that the figures provided by it relate only to the warrants issued by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland. They do not cover any warrants or authorisations issued by the Foreign Secretary. That is a critical point as there is a growing belief that most telephone tapping, given the sophisticated nature of electronic communications, is now conducted by GCHQ—not MI5 or special branch—which answers to the Foreign Secretary and therefore obtains its authorisations from the Foreign Office.

    Two weeks ago a senior official of the National Communications Union was quoted in The Guardian as saying:
    "If there was an independent investigation into the number of taps at any one time, the public would be amazed"
    Against that background I want to consider the specific case of my constituent, Mr. T. McSherry. The history of his experience can be briefly told. Mr. McSherry is the acting manager of the telephone exchange in Livingston new town, in my constituency. He experienced a pattern of interference on his home telephone line and, being a technician and the acting manager of the telephone exchange, he reasonably decided to sort out the problem himself. He climbed up a set of stairs and traced his line in the attic of the excQhange. I am sure that "attic" is not the proper term, but my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon will put me right on that.

    In a remote corner of the telephone exchange Mr. McSherry found that a device had been placed on his line, which he traced to a connection in Edinburgh. As he is a technician for British Telecom, he is capable of recognising a telephone tap. Just to be certain, however, he summoned two fellow qualified engineers in the exchange to act as witnesses to the existence of the device and to the probable explanation of the device as a tap on his home telephone line.

    British Telecom has since responded to that alarming discovery by explaining that the device was one that it had placed on a number of telephone lines at random at the request of Oftel to provide random checks on the precision of the billing mechanism of British Telecom. That device would record all the telephone numbers that were called by that line.

    There are, however, a number of problems with that explanation. First, British Telecom initially responded that it had been unaware that the line belonged to one of its employees because the line was in the name of the employee's wife. That is factually incorrect: the line is in the name of Mr. McSherry and the bill is sent to him. Secondly, it is inconceivable that any engineer intending to place such a device on a line to provide a check on the billing and pricing mechanism on that line would climb to the top of the exchange, go round the back of the display unit and place the device in a hidden corner of the exchange. Any engineer placing a number of such devices on a random basis will put them in places of the greatest convenience to him and not in places of the greatest concealment to other workers in the exchange.

    The reason why the explanation seems implausible is that Mr. McSherry is the acting manager of the telephone exchange. It seems unlikely that British Telecom has been through an exercise of placing random checks on lines in his telephone exchange without him or anyone else in the exchange being aware of it.

    I declare my interest as a Member sponsored by the National Communications Union. I have checked the matter about which my hon. Friend is speaking. The device discovered was not of the nature of a device normally used to check meters. The witnesses who checked out the existence of the tap found that it was just that—a tap.

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with great technical qualification. We have, then, a situation in which three employees of British Telecom, all skilled and qualified personnel, recognise a tap placed on a line of an employee of BT.

    I have had two full discussions with my constituent seeking to identify whether there is any basis for Mr. McSherry becoming a legitimate target for surveillance, and I must report that I am baffled. Mr. McSherry has no criminal record, he has not the remotest link with any terrorist organisation, he has not been particularly active in his union, and he is not a member of any political organisation or has any history of political activity. I do not, in saying that, concede that had he been a trade union activist or a member of a political party he would have been a legitimate target for suspicion. I merely report that he was not, which makes it even more baffling to understand why anyone in the security services should have regarded him as a legitimate target for surveillance or why he should have become subject to a telephone tap.

    I also report—I do so without necessarily endorsing it—that there is a suspicion in some quarters that, as Mr. McSherry at the time was the acting manager of the exchange, there may have been a desire on the part of people in higher quarters of BT to assure themselves of Mr. McSherry's loyalty and soundness before making his appointment and promotion permanent. I am not in a position to take a view on that. But if it is indeed the case that the tap was not placed by the security services nor by BT acting for them, but that BT so acted without warrant, then BT committed a criminal offence, and we should view that with gravity.

    I wrote to the Secretary of State—as I am sure the Minister will have been briefed—drawing attention to the situation, and I can report satisfaction to the extent that, within days, the tap was removed from the line. I have subsequently received a reply from the Secretary of State providing me with a leaflet about the interception of communications tribunal, but not much else. I wish to share with the House this critical passage in that letter:
    "If Mr. McSherry believes that his telephone is being unlawfully intercepted, he should report his suspicions to the police. The police cannot, however, investigate questions relating to any interception which may have been authorised by the Secretary of State under section 2 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985. This is a matter for the Interception of Communications Tribunal."
    There followed a passage saying that I was being sent a leaflet about that tribunal.

    The problem with that response is that at present neither my constituent nor I knows, nor are we informed by the letter, whether the interception was authorised. Moreover, the House will recall from my opening remarks that should we complain to the interception of communications tribunal and it finds that it was not properly authorised, it will not tell us. The tribunal will merely report that it has not found a contravention of section 2 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985.

    That begs an interesting problem for my constituent and I. We have evidence that there was a tap, that that tap was witnessed by three people each of whom was qualified to recognise a tap and that there is patent evidence on which one could go to the police and say that an interception took place and that it should be investigated to identify whether there had been a criminal offence. But to go to the police we are first required to know whether the tap was authorised, because, if it was, the police have no role in the matter.

    I have sought to raise this matter before in circumstances in which a Minister must reply, and the critical question for which one looks to the Minister for guidance is whether we should properly complain to the police because the tapping was not authorised or properly complain to the tribunal because it was authorised. Even in terms of the Secretary of State's reply, we are entitled to that guidance to know which authority to place our complaint before.

    I raise the case partly because I have constituents, both Mr. McSherry and his wife, who have been much distressed by the experience and believe that they have a legitimate grievance. I also have constituents who are fellow employees of Mr. McSherry in the telephone exchange and feel a degree of stress because when one of their colleagues comes under surveillance it brings into question their own relationship with British Telecom. However, it is not just to ventilate the grievances of those constituents that I use the procedure of the Adjournment debate. I do so also to raise the wider issues that arise out of my constituents' history.

    If a telephone exchange manager is not safe from being tapped, which member of the public is? If the manager of a telephone exchange, owned and run by British Telecom, cannot obtain satisfactory replies to his inquiries and representations at British Telecom, which member of the public or British Telecom client can? That is why I have raised the matter in the House. I hope that the Minister, who has 15 minutes in which to respond, will be more forthcoming than the Secretary of State has been by letter or British Telecom has been to its employee.

    12.46 pm

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

    In the course of his remarks the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) asked about the number of Scottish warrants. I cannot comment on the number of Scottish as opposed to English warrants, but the commissioner has attested in his annual report to the fact that all Scottish warrants have been properly issued for the correct purposes.

    I listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman said about the alleged tapping of his constituent's telephone line. I can confirm that the hon. Gentleman wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on 3 April this year and received from him a letter outlining the action open to his constituent if he believed that his telephone calls were being unlawfully intercepted.

    It has been the convention of successive Governments not to discuss individual cases of alleged interception. I have no intention of departing from that practice today. Therefore, I have no comment on the allegation made by Mr. McSherry, which, in the first instance, is a matter for British Telecom. Thereafter, Mr. McSherry may wish to take account of the advice in the letter of my right hon. and learned Friend to the hon. Member for Livingston to the effect that, if Mr. McSherry believed that his telephone calls were being unlawfully intercepted, he should report his suspicions to the police. The letter of my right hon. and learned Friend also informed the hon. Gentleman that questions relating to any interception that may have been authorised by a Secretary of State under section 2 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 are matters for the interception of communications tribunal. Therefore, it may be helpful to the House if I explain the provisions of the Act and the protection it affords the individual who believes that he may be the subject of unlawful interception.

    It was a Conservative Government who introduced the Interception of Communications Act 1985, which put on a statutory basis for the first time the framework and procedures for the lawful interception of communications. One of the most important aspects of the Act, and one to which Parliament gave particularly close attention, was the need to provide protection for the individual by making unlawful interception a criminal offence. The Act also sought to provide an effective means of redress for any individual in respect of whom a warrant had been improperly issued. I shall deal in more detail with those important points in due course.

    The Government believe that the properly controlled interception of communication for certain limited but important purposes is not only justified but essential in the public interest. For example, major criminals, or those engaged in subversive terrorist or espionage activity, should not be free to make use of the postal or telecommunications systems to further their activities with immunity from protection.

    If normal methods of investigation are not available, it is right that the means should exist to obtain information about such activities through the interception of communications, as long as this is carried out under clear safeguards and strict controls. Interception has made possible the prevention and detection of serious crime, including major robberies, crimes of violence and, increasingly, drug offences, and has led to the prosecution of those responsible. It has also been vital in the prevention of terrorism and for safeguarding the security of the nation.

    The Interception of Communications Act 1985 empowers Secretaries of State to issue warrants for the interception of communications. The postal and telecommunication companies to whom the warrants are addressed are obliged to disclose the contents of the communications covered by the warrants. My right hon. and learned Friend signs warrants in respect of Scotland at the request of the police and Customs and Excise for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime and at the request of the police in certain counter terrorist cases. The circumstances in which warrants can be issued, the criteria applied and those to whom the intercepted material can be disclosed are set out in section 2 of the Act.

    In relation to warrants that are issued by my right hon. and learned Friend in respect of serious crime, I should perhaps explain that section 10(3) of the Act defines serious crime as conduct which, being an offence, involves the use of violence, or results in substantial financial gain or is conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common criminal purpose, or is an offence for which a person of 21 years or more without previous convictions could reasonably be expected to receive a term of imprisonment of three years or more. For warrants issued in respect of counter terrorism, my right hon. and learned Friend must be satisfied that there is terrorist activity likely to injure the interests of national security. Section 2 of the Act also provides that my right hon. and learned Friend would not consider a warrant necessary unless the information required could not reasonably be obtained by other means.

    As I have already said, the Interception of Communications Act provides very clear safeguards and controls and it is important that I should remind the House of these. Under section 1 of the Act it is a criminal offence for any interception of communications in the public telephone and postal systems to take place outside those statutorily provided for by warrant signed by a Secretary of State. This is a key protection for private communications. The interception of communications is a most serious matter and having committed their communications to the public systems members of the public are entitled to expected confidentiality. The improper use of information gained from unlawful interception could have very serious consequences for individuals personally, for their businesses or in other ways. The seriousness of the offence of unlawful interception is reflected in the maximum penalties available. On conviction on indictment an accused could face imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both.

    I do not think that any of us takes issue with interception of communications in the context of the crimes that the Minister mentions. In 1983 the Government had a chance to make interception of communications lawful for such crimes but they voted down my amendments to the Telecommunications Bill. Those amendments gave proper redress to citizens who thought that they might be unlawfully tapped. At the present time citizens have no redress.

    I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman tabled amendments when the Telecommunications Bill was being debated. However, in this debate the principle is absolutely clear. It is the normal practice of Ministers neither to confirm nor to deny suggestions that interception has taken place. The courses of action open to people who believe that their telephones have been intercepted are evident. They may either approach the police or complain to the interception of communications tribunal.

    I should like to pursue that specific point. The Minister is right to say that the Secretary of State has pointed to those two alternatives which are available to my constituent. The problem for my constituent and me is that the police cannot investigate tapping if it was authorised and the tribunal cannot investigate it if it was not. Before we can follow the Secretary of State's advice, we need to know whether the tap was authorised because, without that information, we do not know to whom we should take our complaint.

    The hon. Gentleman answered his own question in his letter of 3 April, when he wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland as follows:

    "I would myself of course like to know whether a warrant has been issued in this case, but appreciate that you may not be able to confirm or deny the existence of such a warrant."
    Questions of interception under the Act involve matters of national security or serious crime. To discuss publicly details of any individual case would risk compromising that system, which I am not prepared to do. However, during the debate I hope that I shall succeed in explaining the safeguards and controls in the system.

    The police have a role in investigating complaints made to them about unlawful interception. They cannot, however, investigate questions relating to the propriety of any interceptions that have been authorised by a Secretary of State under section 2 of the Act. For that purpose, the 1985 Act established an independent tribunal to investigate complaints about the improper use of the power of the Secretary of State to issue, renew, modify or cancel warrants. The tribunal president is Mr. Justice Macpherson of Cluny and the other members of the tribunal are senior figures in the legal profession. The tribunal is quite independent of Government. It acts only on receipt of an application and it determines whether there has been a warrant associated with the applicant in the manner specified in the Act, and for that purpose it has full powers to call on any official documents or information that it may need.

    If a warrant exists, the tribunal investigates whether there has been any contravention of the Act in relation to it, applying for that purpose the principles of judicial review. If it concludes that there has been a contravention, it must give notice to the applicant of its conclusion and it is required to report its findings to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I should, however, make it clear that only if it concludes that there has been a contravention does it inform the applicant of the existence of a warrant. The tribunal can also take a number of other steps if it concludes that a contravention has taken place. It can quash the relevant warrant or order the destruction of material intercepted under it and award compensation to the applicant. There is no appeal against the tribunal's decisions.

    The Act also provides for the appointment of a commissioner to keep under review the carrying out by the Secretaries of State of their functions under the Act. The Act requires that the commissioner shall be a person who holds or has held high judicial office, and since the commencement of the Act in 1986 that task has been carried out by Lord Justice Lloyd. The commissioner has the task of reviewing the system of authorised interception and has access to those who are engaged in it in order to establish whether the system is being properly conducted.

    The commissioner is concerned with both statutory requirements and administrative procedures. He also has a duty to give the tribunal all the assistance it may require. He is therefore able to advise the tribunal, as it may see fit to ask him, on any matters falling within his knowledge that are relevant to the tribunal's functions under the Act. In turn, the tribunal is required to send the commissioner a copy of every report it makes to the Prime Minister in any case where there has been a contravention of the provisions of the legislation falling within his jurisdiction. The Act also requires the commissioner to make ad hoc reports to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister if at any time it appears to him that there has been a contravention of those sections of the Act empowering Secretaries of State to issue warrants which have not been the subject of a report by the tribunal. In addition, the commission is required under the Act to make an annual report to the Prime Minister, as soon as practicable after the end of each calendar year, on the carrying out of his functions. The Prime Minister is required to lay before Parliament a copy of every annual report submitted by the commissioner.

    I hope that that explanation demonstrates the seriousness with which the question of interception is dealt with, the explicit safeguards against unlawful interception that are provided for by the 1985 Act and also the remedies for unlawful interception that are available. Hon. Members who wish to assess in detail the operation of the Act may care to refer to Lord Justice Lloyd's annual reports—as indeed, the hon. Gentleman did. I appreciate that this is a sensitive and controversial matter, but the Interception of Communications Act 1985 provides a very tightly controlled framework within which Secretaries of State must operate. I hope the whole House will be reassured in the light of what I have said that matters relating to interception of communications are given very careful attention and are fully subject to the controls provided for in the Act.

    Mr And Mrs F Howard

    12.59 pm

    I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for coming to the House to deal with an important point affecting two of my constituents. She has had to reschedule an important meeting with the National Association of Probation Officers, but I know that, just as it deals with the welfare of individuals, so must Back Benchers and Ministers deal with individuals as individuals when the need arises, and this is one such instance.

    My hon. Friend will know from having seen the correspondence in respect of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Howard of 5 Kentchurch close, Hereford, that we have been in correspondence on the matter for some two years now. That is not to say that the problem arose two years ago. It started in 1978 and came to a head in 1983. It was as a consequence of a festering sense of grievance that Mr. Howard first came to see me in 1988. Since then we have been running the issue and, accordingly, I felt it appropriate to explore it on the Floor of the House.

    My hon. Friend will know that Mrs. Howard reached retirement age on 10 May 1977 and on 31 May 1978 decided to draw the graduated retirement benefit to which she had contributed. My hon. Friend will be aware of the defects of the old graduated retirement pension scheme, and the amount involved was a matter of coppers. On that basis, not unnaturally, Mrs. Howard did not bother to tell Mr. Howard that she had taken that course of action. To Mrs. Howard it was a matter of peanuts; and to Mr. Howard, it was, in his phrase, "a few coppers" and irrelevant.

    At that time, the receipt of graduated pension did not debar a wife from reaping the benefits of the husband working beyond retirement age to enhance their pension entitlement—to achieve the increments to her basic retirement pension as well as his. Here we reach the start of the area of confusion.

    My hon. Friend will know that the regulations changed on 5 April 1979. Since Mrs. Howard retired before that change in 1979, the question of any problem arising as a consequence could not occur. Therefore, Mrs. Howard could not be aware of any difficulties that might come about as a result of continuing to draw her graduated pension when her husband reached retirement age in October 1980 after the change in regulations.

    When, perfectly properly, the Department of Health and Social Security, as it then was, sent Mr. Howard form BR1 asking whether he intended to retire or to continue working, he completed it to the best of his ability with the knowledge that he had. This was a personal matter. He discussed with his wife whether he should continue working if the opportunity arose, but he completed it in June 1980 still unaware that his wife was drawing the graduated retirement benefit. I emphasise that he answered "No" in good faith to the question in section 5 asking whether he was aware of his spouse being in receipt of graduated pension or of any other benefit of that nature.

    Having examined the form myself, I may say that that question is not designed to ring alarm bells. To those in the know and who work on such matters all the time, the words "graduated retirement benefit" mean something. The ordinary person in the street may understand the meaning of "graduated retirement pension" and of "graduated retirement contributions", but not of "graduated retirement benefit". There is a failure to match the two. It certainly did not ring any alarm bells for Mr. Howard.

    Because of Mr. Howard's negative response to that question, when the form arrived back at the DSS office, it did not ring any alarm bells there either. There was a misfit. There was not the facility for the office to tell Mr. Howard, "Because you answered yes to that question, a different set of circumstances apply." Because the question was answered in the negative, the office went along the path that told it there was nothing to worry about and that no problems would arise.

    I take this opportunity to pay fulsome tribute to DSS officials in Hereford. They have been very helpful to Mr. Howard in trying to research his difficulties and to put their fingers on where the problems lay. Not unnaturally, Mr. Howard spent some time consulting those officers before coming to see me, and they were extraordinarily helpful. Perhaps I ought not to use the word "extraordinarily", because I find the DSS people in Hereford to be always very good. I count myself very fortunate in that regard. Nevertheless, the officers there were unable to throw much light on the saga, except to emphasise that there appeared to be an element of confusion.

    Mr. Howard decided to accept his firm's invitation to continue working beyond retirement age, in the belief that by so doing he would enhance the retirement pension for both himself and his wife. Because he and the DSS were unaware of his wife's receipt of a graduated retirement pension, the office did not, and could not, advise him of the option that became available after the change in regulations, for a wife to withdraw from receipt of her graduated pension, so as to be able to enjoy increments in basic pension in due course. So the problem ground on.

    After working for an additional three years and four months, Mr. and Mrs. Howard—Mr. Howard especially—were devastated to discover that their income was not to be as they had anticipated. When that first came to light, the shortfall was £5·11 a week, and the discrepancy has now increased to £7·05 a week. That is no small amount to someone whose sole income is a state retirement pension. Having worked beyond retirement age, the Howards find that being £7·05 a week out of pocket puts a different complexion on matters and on how they view their retirement.

    In the correspondence that has been exchanged, the question arose whether Mrs. Howard was at any time informed of the situation. On the face of it, the mechanism for doing so is comprehensive. Lord Henley, who is my hon. Friend's colleague as Under-Secretary for Social Security in the other place, pointed out to me in his letter of 8 January 1990 that the Department's practice is to keep a record of forms issued and the relevant dates. According to the DSS, Mrs. Howard's pension papers are clearly marked as BR2101 and were issued on 28 July 1980.

    BR2101, which has undergone a number of revisions since it was first published in 1979, would have set out for Mrs. Howard, had she received it, the current position and the way in which any changes could affect her. If Mrs. Howard had received it, it would have set out the position on her graduated pension.

    Two issues result from that. First, it is obvious that there was some confusion when the regulations changed. The wording of the forms advising people of their options is now far better than it was in 1979–80. When the regulations changed, it was not clear that some confusion could arise, and when it did, the forms were improved. It would be difficult now for people to fall into the trap that Mr. and Mrs. Howard find themselves in. Secondly, Mrs. Howard keeps personal papers meticulously, and it is clear that she did not receive the form BR2101, and as she did not know that she should have received it—why should she?; we only retire once—she did not look for it.

    As far as I am aware, DSS papers are not normally sent by recorded delivery. In my experience, the Post Office is usually reliable, and special precautions are not required. However, I am disclosing a chapter in which one disaster followed another. I sometimes console myself with the saying that, if something starts to go wrong it will go right royally wrong. Macpherson's law of cussedness comes into play. It is not unknown for the occasional letter to go astray. All of us have experience of that happening. Although it is not a regular occurrence, it often happens to important papers with infuriating predictability.

    I have much sympathy with Mr. Howard, or I should not have pursued the matter for the past two years. He has a genuine grievance—the knowledge that, if his wife had never worked and had not contributed in her own right, the extra time that he spent working would have resulted in an increased basic retirement pension for her at the full level, not the reduced level that she now receives. His extra three years and four months of work would have resulted in an enhanced pension for both of them.

    In his letter to me on 22 August 1988, the then Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Social Security, the noble Lord Skelmersdale, pointed out that, until the April 1979 change, ability to receive full basic increments and graduated retirement benefit was an anomaly. I am not convinced of that. The anomaly is the reverse. Perhaps there was not much understanding of graduated retirement benefit, but it was perceived to be different from normal national insurance contributions. The contributions were put into two different columns on the payslip. The anomaly is the reverse because Mrs. Howard made graduated pension contributions—as did many other people—for no return.

    I have a two-part solution to suggest to my hon. Friend because, in the Howard case, a genuine grievance needs to be redressed and we must consider how the problem should be addressed in future.

    Surely, in a genuine difficulty of this kind, the first possible solution is that Mrs. Howard should be topped up to the extent of an additional £7·05 a week, as that would properly reflect the extra contribution that was made by Mr. Howard in his extra working time, without sacrificing the basic principle of having no duplication of benefit. The taxpayer is in exactly the same position. Mr. Howard is in exactly the same position as he would have been if he had tackled the matter the other way around, and Mrs. Howard would be in receipt of the £7·05. That is not unreasonable, because that is what the taxpayer would have expected to pay out had there not been a "misfit" of paper work.

    The second possible solution is that arrangements be made for Mrs. Howard now to discontinue the receipt of graduated pension and therefore to qualify to receive the retirement pension increment of £7·05. That would roughly equate to the same position.

    Those are the two ways in which I should like the difficulty to be resolved. My hon. Friend the Minister may have reasons why they will not be practicable, and I should like to hear them. It has been agreed by all that graduated pensions were a con and were understood by all too few. They needed scrapping, and they were scrapped. There is obviously still scope for confusion and injustice.

    I should like my hon. Friend to tell me that she will review all the arrangements relating to the hangover of graduated pension and will look carefully again at the regulations to see how such nonsense can be ameloriated. There is a great danger that the state will be seen to be mean when genuine people are caught up through circumstances that may or may not have been in their control but in which they acted in good faith at all times.

    1.16 pm

    The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security
    (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

    I should like to begin by echoing the sentiment of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) regarding the circumstances of Mr. and Mrs. Howard's case. It is always unfortunate when individuals feel aggrieved by what they perceive to be unfair treatment by a Government Department. I knew that my hon. Friend has pursued this matter mast diligently with my Department on behalf of his constituents over a considerable period. I must congratulate him on his determined advocacy—as patient and courteous as always—and on the elequence of his speech. I thank him for his generous tribute to Department of Social Security staff in Hereford.

    I shall address the points that my hon. Friend raised. However, he will understand that, as is often the case in social security matters, this case raises a number of complex and interrelated issues—first, the continued payment of graduated retirement pension; secondly, the position of individuals who decide not to claim their pension and earn increments to it; thirdly, the question of a woman's pension based on her husband's contributions; fourthly, the effect of claiming one benefit on another; and, fifthly, the responsibilities of the Department and the claimant. I should like to refer first to the graduated retirement pension.

    As my hon. Friend is aware, between 1961 and 1975 a graduated pension was introduced as part of the state scheme. Its aim was to relate a person's retirement income to his or her pre-retirement income by way of an earnings-related element payable in addition to the basic pension. Payment of graduated contributions based upon one's level of earnings built up units of entitlement to graduated pension, and the size of graduated pension was determined by the number of units earned. My horn. Friend mentioned the change in legislation, and it is the case that the retirements of Mr. and Mrs. Howard spanned the change in legislation, but of course the point at issue is the choice that they made when Mr. Howard decided to retire. I shall refer to that point, of course.

    The change in legislation was the Social Security Pensions Act 1975, which replaced the graduated pension scheme with the state earnings-related pension scheme. However, there are still many individuals with an entitlement to graduated pension on the basis of their contributions between 1961 and 1975—indeed, I am one of them. I should not wish to insult my hon. Friend by suggesting that he is as well.

    The Social Security Pensions Act 1975, as amended by the Social Security Act 1989, provides that a person on reaching pensionable age may choose not to claim state retirement pension and may earn extra pension—known as increments—for five further years. The practical effect of this is that an individual can increase the value of his or her pension by 7·4 per cent. per annum—37 per cent. over the five years.

    Many individuals choose to do that and for many different reasons. For example, they may choose to do so for tax reasons or because they have a younger spouse and wish to retire at the same time. Many wish to continue in work beyond pensionable age and prefer to increase their pension by not claiming it until they either cease work or reach the age of 65 for women, or 70 for men, whichever comes first.

    The concept underlying the policy of pension increments is to increase the pension of individuals who, by choice, forgo claiming any part of their pension entitlement from the state. It is not uncommon, as indeed was the case for Mr. and Mrs. Howard, for a woman to reach retirement age before her husband, at which stage she has the right to claim and receive any retirement pension she has earned on her own contributions during her working life. Her husband will continue to pay national insurance contributions in respect of his future state pension. As my hon. Friend will be aware, under pensions legislation, a man's contributions also provide his wife with an entitlement to state pension.

    Again, it is not uncommon for a husband whose wife has already reached pensionable age on reaching pension age to continue in work or, for whatever reason, to choose to defer claiming his state pension entitlement. Should he do so, he will earn extra pension increments as long as he chooses not to claim his pension, up to a maximum of five years. His decision will also affect his wife, in that she likewise will not receive her pension derived from his contributions. In those circumstances, she too will earn increments, but only if she is not receiving any part of her own pension entitlement, including graduated retirement pension. I stress that point, as that is the case with my hon. Friend's constituents.

    Central to a contributory benefits policy is the effect of the receipt of one social security benefit on the receipt of another. The arrangements affecting graduated pension and pension increments are consistent with that policy and are supported by logical argument. I remarked earlier that the underlying concept of pension increments is to recognise the situation of individuals who choose not to draw on their entitlement to contributory benefits. It follows that, if any claim to those benefits is made, no extra pension may be earned. As I will now explain more fully, those are the circumstances in which Mr. and Mrs. Howard found themselves.

    I hope that hon. Members will not consider it inappropriate if I repeat some of the points made by my hon. Friend in describing the action taken by my Department in Mr. and Mrs. Howard's case. So that the House can fully consider Mrs. Howard's case, it may be useful to outline the circumstances surrounding her claim. Mrs. Howard reached 60 years of age in May 1978. She claimed her entitlement to state pension and was awarded graduated retirement benefit of, as my hon. Friend said, a matter of pence per week to commence on 1 June 1978. Mrs. Howard chose, as many people do in that situation, to receive her payments of graduated pension annually.

    Mr. Howard reached 65 years of age on 13 October 1980. In June of that year, my Department issued Mr. Howard with the necessary claims package to enable him to claim, or not claim if he so chose, his state pension. In reply, Mr. Howard said that he wished not to claim his pension from October, but would continue in work beyond pensionable age.

    Subsequently, on 28 July 1980, my Department sent a provisional entitlement notice to him. The form contained information about the effect of deferring retirement upon one's pension and also pointed out the effect of a spouse receiving any part of her own pension during the period of deferment. The form included a specific reference to graduated retirement pension.

    From correspondence and from what my hon. Friend has said, I am aware that his constituents contest that they received the form BR2101, which contains the information regarding deferment and pension increments. We have of course looked into this carefully and our records confirm that both Mr. and Mrs. Howard were separately sent the relevant documents. Had they not received the forms, they would not know the outcome of the pension application which Mr. Howard had made in June. Routinely, both of them were sent a form, and the issue of those forms was recorded by the Department.

    Obviously the Department has a responsibility in administering social security benefits to ensure that information is made available to help customers to make informed decisions—I believe that the Department does everything possible to discharge that responsibility.

    My hon. Friend correctly noted that there are provisions which allow my Department to consider making ex gratia payments to compensate for any loss of income. The criteria for making such payments are clear: the onus of proof lies with the claimant to prove that he or she has been misled or misinformed by an official of the Department and, because of this, has suffered a loss of income. If we receive representation that this is the case, as with the case of my hon. Friend's constituents, we examine the circumstances carefully and sympathetically to establish whether there are grounds for considering an ex gratia payment. There are occasions on which the Department has considered itself at fault in cases and has taken the necessary steps to make compensatory ex gratia payments.

    We have, of course, given this consideration to the Howards' case. Indeed their case would have been considered each time my hon. Friend sent in the next instalment of the story. However, I am satisfied that, as I have outlined, there are no grounds to support making such a payment. I do not believe that the Department misled or misinformed Mr. and Mrs. Howard. Indeed, according to the Department's records, Mr. and Mrs. Howard were sent notices of entitlement, which informed them of the effect of Mrs. Howard continuing to claim her graduated pension.

    My hon. Friend feels that it is unfortunate that an individual who has worked and earned an entitlement to a small sum of graduated pension ends up receiving less than someone who has no entitlement to a pension based upon his or her own contributions. Perhaps it will help the House if I comment briefly on the national insurance fund and graduated contributions.

    Although graduated contributions were calculated separately from flat rate contributions, it is a mistake to think that they were reserved exclusively for the payment of graduated pensions. Together with flat rate contributions and the Exchequer supplement, they were paid into the national insurance fund from which the full cost of all contributory benefits is met. An individuals' contributions are not invested for his or her own future use or that of their dependants. I know that my hon. Friend understands that the scheme is by its nature redistributive and operates on a "pay-as-you-go" basis, with today's benefits being paid for by today's contributors, who will in turn be supported by the next generation of contributors.

    I am also aware that my hon. Friend believes that this case should be resolved so as to leave Mrs. Howard no worse off than she would have been had she not received her graduated pension. As I have already explained, the only mechanism open to the Department is that of ex gratia payments, and I have already explained why that mechanism would be extremely difficult in this case. In any case, I do not believe that such payments would be appropriate where a claimant represents that he or she wishes to reconsider a decision that was made many years earlier.

    I reassure my hon. Friend that we have examined every aspect of this case most carefully—again and again. I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful to him today. I also assure him that the good faith of Mr. and Mrs. Howard is not in question; nor has it been questioned at any stage in correspondence between my hon. Friend and the Department. I congratulate him again on the way in which he presented his case. He has allowed the House to discuss the important issues raised.

    I regret any case in which individuals feel that they have been unfairly treated. I sympathise with any such individuals, but I am satisfied that, in this case, the Department has acted fairly and impartially in applying the law as it relates to the circumstances of Mr. and Mrs. Howard.

    Will my hon. Friend examine the regulations to see whether any improvements can be made, as I requested?

    I reassure my hon. Friend that the Department continually reviews and monitors the performance of all its benefits.

    Health Service (Gwynedd)

    1.30 pm

    Debates on the financial crisis in Gwynedd health authority seem to have become a regular feature in the Chamber. We had one in June 1988 and another in March last year. The Minister of State has good reason to remember the latter debate because on that occasion, as on this, he had to stand in for his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who was then, as now, indisposed. We send him our best wishes for a speedy recovery.

    The Minister also deserves our commiserations because once again he has picked up a poisoned chalice. He needs no reminding about the financial crisis and cuts in the Health Service in Gwynedd. For example, the closure of services at Llandudno general hospital has been a matter for public outcry in his constituency. Whatever brief he may have today, the Minister knows in his heart of hearts that the present situation cannot continue. There must be a resolution of the perpetual state of crisis in the Health Service in Gwynedd.

    The present position goes back to three years ago when a team of consultants published a damning indictment of the lack of budgetary control in Gwynedd health authority. The authority then had a cash shortfall of £1·3 million. A desperate programme of action was drawn up to bring the authority back into balance, supposedly by March 1990. The consultants said that the plan was feasible but to my mind it was entirely and hopelessly unrealistic.

    The programme was based on closing six valuable community hospitals. The consultants thought that that could be achieved within 12 months. How on earth the Welsh Office allowed such a palpably unrealistic time scale to be adopted defies credulity when it was clear that five of the six proposals would be fiercely opposed by the communities affected. The closures also showed a cavalier contempt for the Welsh Office planning paper SPP5 representing a complete departure from its procedures. Even if the five hospitals had been closed 18 months ago as the consultants assumed, the claimed saving would have amounted to about £1 million a year. The shortfall now facing the authority is £4 million a year. So let us have no excuses that the delay in the closures caused the present crisis.

    While I am referring to hospital closures, I again protest that Porthmadog, in my constituency, will be left without a single hospital as a result of the changes. It will be dependent on a converted workhouse in a nearby village. I also protest at the way in which Caernarfon has been treated and the closure of the cottage hospital there. It is a much-loved hospital which has served the town well. I know that because it was at that hospital that our two sons died. I remain committed to turn every stone possible to ensure that the health authority and the Welsh Office are not allowed to get away with robbing the town of such vital services.

    I ask the Minister to look again at the way in which Caernarfon is being left with no casualty cover whatever following the cottage hospital closure. Will he review the lack of information given to the public about alternative provision? In particular, will he undertake to review the working of the alternative arrangements that the health authority is preparing in the context of long-term plans for the health services in the Caernarfon area, about which the Secretary of State wrote to the authority on 20 April.

    Will he also review the provision of GP beds in Caernarfon to see whether it is possible to replace the lost 14 beds at the cottage hospital by using the empty fourth ward in Eryri hospital in Caernarfon for that purpose?

    Can the Minister clarify what will be the position when the cottage hospital building is disposed of by the authority? It was built largely by voluntary subscription in the town. If a use for that building can be found that is compatible with the original purposes—perhaps in the context of developing care-in-the-community proposals in the wake of the NHS Bill—could the authority be prevailed on to regard such a proposal sympathetically? Can the Minister guarantee that any funds obtained from the sale of the hospital will be available to improve the Health Service provisions in the Caernarfon area?

    The crisis facing Gwynedd health authority is infinitely worse. I understand that Deloittes, the consultants, are again investigating the position. Can the Minister tell the House when we can expect their findings?

    The extent and depth of the crisis was brought home graphically to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) and me last month when we met some 200 employees of the health authority. They poured out their souls to us, describing their despair at the way in which cuts were hitting services. It was not in any way a politically motivated gathering. It was a cross-section of professional health care workers, from ancillary to consultant level, who told us of the extent of the rundown.

    We heard of wards being left empty, posts frozen and nurses who worked all day, going home at six o'clock only to return at 10 pm to work a night shift because of the lack of cover caused by frozen jobs. I was told of stroke victims unable to get physiotherapy or speech therapy because of staff shortages. We heard of services, such as the child development unit, in danger of being closed and of cuts in the family planning service. The staff spoke of the breakdown of trust between the top administration and those delivering the services. They felt that they were being asked to shoulder an ever-increasing workload with inadequate staff resources.

    An example of how this continuing crisis has affected one department can be seen from the case of radiology. In 1983, in the old hospitals, about 1,200 cases were being treated a month by 28 radiographers. Initially after opening ysbyty Gwynedd, the number of radiographers increased to 32, but it quickly dropped back to 28. In 1990, the same complement of staff is having to deal with 5,000 cases a month. Because of the freeze on heads, there are only 24 radiographers in situ. Over the summer, with the holiday period at hand and any further freezing of jobs, the number could be down to 15. Clearly, that is inadequate. A year ago the waiting list was only three weeks, but now it is up to 20 weeks and it is likely to worsen this summer to about 30 weeks. Those who are caught by such a waiting time include patients possibly suffering from cancer of the colon. One member of staff has even suggested that the policy of freezing radiography posts is deliberately undertaken to reduce the number of cases that have to be treated, thereby avoiding expenditure on patients. The situation is grotesque.

    During the past three weeks there was a strike by senior secretaries—mercifully it was settled this week—who since last November have been trying to negotiate a settlement, but they have found nothing but prevarication.

    All that has had a traumatic effect on staff morale. There seems to be a breakdown of confidence between senior managers and those who provide the services. One specialist told me that he had not seen a senior administrator for six months or a member of the authority, other than the chair, for six years. No wonder morale is at rock bottom.

    If asked, the health authority attributes the cause of the dilemma to three factors. The first is underfunding by the Welsh Office. Provision is too low to cover wage settlements and inflation. The allegation was supported by the Deloittes report of 1987, which stated that that had
    "contributed significantly to the deterioration of the financial position."
    Since 1987 that has cumulatively worsened.

    Secondly, the health authority says that the capital allocation, based by the Welsh Office on a formula which is unfair, gives Gwynedd, which has more than 80 per cent. of the population of Wales, a capital allocation of under 4 per cent. I understand that the Welsh Office is undertaking a review of the capital allocation methods. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when that will be completed.

    The third bone of contention is the revenue allocation formula which is used by the Welsh Office. The health authority feels that the use of an element called the standardised mortality ratio is unfair because the authority is penalised for keeping people alive. If more people died, it would get more money. Clearly that is ridiculous. I understand that in England the weighting given to the ratio is being halved. Will the Minister undertake to make a similar change for Wales?

    The health authority contends that it is the most efficient in Wales and it has used Welsh Office figures to show that the cost per standard unit of work at ysbyty Gwynedd is the lowest in Wales. In 1988 it was £713 per unit compared with the Welsh average of £864. However, because that authority is strapped for cash by the Welsh Office, it is having to shut hospitals, close wards, reduce services and worsen the health care available to the people of Gwynedd. The irony is that, once the authority closes the community hospitals, it will not be able to move patients out of ysbyty Gwynedd to those hospitals and that will have a significant effect on their efficiency. A study by Kernick and Davies showed that, if a community hospital is not available, it is likely that half of the patients will need to be admitted to a general hospital.

    The important message that emerges from the reasons given by the health authority for its overspend is that, in each instance, it claims that it is the Welsh Office's fault. Time after time health authority people have gone on record to say that. That allegation is not made by a so-called loony-left authority, nor by a politically motivated cabal putting out anti-Government propaganda. The Gwynedd health authority is controlled by hand-picked people; they have been picked by the Welsh Office to do the job asked of them. They are the people, however, who are now telling the Welsh Office that they cannot maintain standards of service because they have not been given the necessary resources.

    As I understand it, the Welsh Office has replied by saying that Gwynedd health authority has been given quite enough cash, that it is one of the best-funded health authorities in Wales, and that it should get on with the job and stop squealing. Both claims cannot be right. If the authority has adequate resources, it is obviously using them wrongly by spending too much on bureaucracy and working inefficiently. If that is the case, how much longer is the Welsh Office prepared to tolerate such an inadequate performance? The final responsibility for the health authority rests fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Secretary of State. If it is doing a hopeless job, he should be aware of that and do something about it.

    Alternatively, perhaps the health authority is not as ineffective and incompetent as Ministers would have us believe. Perhaps health care in Gwynedd is underfunded, which is a direct cause of the crisis. If that is so, the blame again rests entirely on the shoulders of the Welsh Office. After successive years of alleged underfunding, we are now faced with a mega-crisis.

    In my opinion, for what it is worth, Gwynedd health authority has not been very clever in its financial control, nor in its ability to justify capital expenditure projects. Gwynedd has been desperately underfunded in terms of capital, possibly because of its inability to present persuasive evidence to the Government. If Gwynedd had received the average capital allocation per head of population for Wales, it would have received an extra £14 million in the past five years. Current expenditure in Gwynedd on health has been 9 per cent. lower than the Welsh average for the past five years. If that expenditure had been in line with the Welsh average, we would have had between an extra £4 million and £5 million per annum and there would have been no crisis.

    The leadership of the health authority seems incapable of getting the message across or compiling a coherent strategy to give the Government the confidence to back its judgment with the necessary cash.

    Is the Minister satisfied with the performance of the health authority in the past three years? Does he believe that it is putting forward an adequate case for capital investment? Does he believe that the health authority membership understands the strength of feeling in places such as Porthmadog, Caernarfon, Llangefni and Llandudno and taken it sufficiently into account? Are monitoring systems available to the Welsh Office to scrutinise the performance of Welsh authorities adequate? Is he happy that Gwynedd health authority has a coherent, strategic plan to which it is working? In the light of experience in Gwynedd, can he seriously claim that the Health Service is safe in Conservative hands?

    The previous Secretary of State for Wales had no interest in the Health Service and during his term of office the situation got out of hand. One way or another, the Welsh Office must bear responsibility if there is a health authority in Wales that it regards as inadequate and in which it has lost confidence. The Welsh Office should sack that authority and start again. On reflection, however, if the Welsh Office finds that it has been underfunding the authority, particularly on the capital side, now is the time to be honest, admit the mistake and give the health authority the money it needs at least to sustain basic services rather than totter from crisis to crisis.

    The choice for the Minister is simple: either he backs the authority with more cash, or sacks it for incompetence. The one thing the Welsh Office cannot do is continue to ignore the problem in the hope that it will go away. The need for leadership and positive action is great, and now is the time for it.

    1.45 pm

    Order. Does the hon. Member have the consent of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and of the Minister to speak?

    Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

    The Minister will be aware of the Welsh proverb, dyfal donc a dyr y garreg. He will agree that, on this issue, each donc has been very dyfal indeed.

    It gives neither my colleagues nor I any pleasure constantly to highlight the financial crisis which faces Gwynedd health authority. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said, this is the third time in 14 months that we have taken part in a debate of this nature.

    The authority has been facing recurrent cash crises for a number of years. We are told by the Minister and others that the authority has plans in hand to deal with its financial problems, yet we find ourselves in a real mess. When will the buck-passing stop?

    The Secretary of State carries the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the delivery of a comprehensive health care service in Wales. That is made clear in the legislation that established the service and has been repeated in amending legislation ever since. While the Secretary of State delegates responsibility for the day-to-day provision of health care in Wales to area health authorities, if an authority fails to discharge its responsibility to provide a comprehensive service, the Secretary of State has a duty to intervene.

    How can Gwynedd health authority provide that level of service if it closes small hospitals without replacing them with decent community provision, if it closes wards, cancels operations, prepares to sack up to 200 of its staff, faces a massive loss of confidence by consultants and other medical staff and has its management team severely criticised by consultants sent in by the Welsh Office?

    Any further delay by the Welsh Office in tackling this problem will be a massive dereliction of duty. The Minister must assure us that he has a plan of action to solve the crisis. If that plan is positive and imaginative, he will have our full support.

    1.47 pm

    The provision of health services in Gwynedd has always been a problem, and I speak as a Gwynedd Member of 20 years' standing. Llandudno hospital, for example, in my constituency has been under some kind of threat throughout most of those years, and even before I became a Member it was threatened.

    The problems of Gwynedd health authority are particularly acute at this time because the authority has, properly, tried to put through a rationalisation scheme which would enable it to stay within budget in future years. The rationalisation scheme has meant taking painful decisions about closures of local hospitals which are very dear to the hearts of local people because of the great service that they have rendered in the past.

    All of that might be bearable if the prospect of better services in future was bright and clear but, sad to relate, it is not so; and the authority's present problems are exacerbated by its current deficit which it is trying to eliminate by a variety of measures involving a curtailment of services. That—very much in outline—is the background against which this debate is taking place.

    The crucial questions are, as hon. Members have noted, whether the authority is adequately financed currently and to achieve better levels of service which are its aim for the future. I say in parenthesis that I have yet to meet an authority that, however generous its allocation, could not do with more money. The demand for finance is endless in the NHS. No authority relishes the prospect of a closure. It knows only too well of the popular outcry that ensues.

    The authority claims to be underfunded, so I will make clear Gwynedd health authority's position. The authority's revenue funding this year, taking account of the funding for the review bodies' pay awards, is £69·6 million, an increase of £4·7 million, or 7·2 per cent., in cash terms over last year's allocation.

    The authority is forecasting a likely overspend of about £4 million this year. Its problems result from the burden of overspending which built up in previous financial years and which it has not yet successfully tackled. It is, with the help of management consultants, currently working to retrieve the situation and to identify further remedial measures which will allow it to achieve financial balance.

    The authority has a statutory obligation to plan its expenditure within its notified allocations, and this is what it is in the process of doing. So long as it can demonstrate that it has a sound strategy for achieving financial balance, it will continue to receive sympathetic consideration from the Welsh Office as regards any reasonable request for temporary financial assistance.

    We dispute the authority's claim to be under-resourced. The authority is in fact shown by both the capital and revenue formulae used to assess the relative funding position of Welsh health authorities to be one of the best resourced authorities in Wales.

    Gwynedd health authority has questioned the validity of the formulae assessments, and last year commissioned a firm of management consultants to review the formulae. This was subsequently considered by the joint NHS-Welsh Office resource allocation working group which was conducting its own review of the formulae. RAWG recommended, and following consultation with other health authorities my right hon. Friend accepted, that there should be no major changes to the revenue formula and that various changes proposed in respect of the capital formula should be deferred, pending further consideration of the impact of the White Paper "Working for Patients" on allocation arrangements generally. I shall return to funding issues later, but I want to be absolutely sure that I deal as adequately as I can with Caernarfon cottage hospital, which featured prominently in the speech of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) for understandable reasons.

    Gwynedd health authority's proposals for Caernarfon cottage hospital entailed the closure of 14 GP beds and the minor casualty service. It suggested that the physiotherapy service planned for the hospital would not be started, the dental service currently provided at the hospital would be reprovided elsewhere, and the speech therapy offices would be relocated in alternative accommodation.

    The hon. Member referred in particular to the loss of the minor casualty unit at the Cottage hospital. The writ provided treatment only for minor casualty cases and major accident victims were, and will continue to be, treated at ysbyty Gwynedd. When he considered the authority's proposals, my right hon. Friend was of the view that during GP surgery hours minor casualty cases would be likely to be treated at local GP surgeries, but he accepted that such cases seeking treatment outside those hours would be likely to have to travel to ysbyty Gwynedd, some seven miles away. Gwynedd health authority has given its assurance that ysbyty Gwynedd will be able to deal with the additional demand on its accident and emergency unit as a result of the closure of the minor casualty service at Caernarfon.

    I understand that a notice has been placed at the cottage hospital redirecting casualty patients to ysbyty Gwynedd and that public notices of the closure of the unit are appearing in various local papers during the course of this week. The health authority accepts that ideally it should have advertised its alternative arrangements earlier.

    The consideration of future minor casualty provision in Caernarfon is for the health authority to decide, but I am certain that it will take into account the hon. Gentleman's useful suggestions in any plans that it may bring forward.

    Turning to the hon. Member's discussion of possibilities of reproviding the GP medical beds formerly at the cottage hospital, let me say that their reprovision was not a proposal put to my right hon. Friend by the health authority, which made it clear that it needed to make the revenue savings associated with their use. Approval was therefore given to their closure on that basis.

    Whether any GP medical beds might be provided elsewhere, such as at Eryri hospital, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, is a matter for the health authority and the decision letter made it clear that my right hon. Friend expected the health authority to keep health service provision in the Caernarfon area in the long term under review and to publish its updated plans.

    Following my right hon. Friend's approval of the closure proposal, disposal of the cottage hospital building is a matter for the health authority once it has complied with the conditions set down in the decision letter for full closure. The authority will be entitled to retain the capital receipts in order to augment the resources available for its capital programme. Should a voluntary organisation or the social services department make an acceptable offer to purchase the building, I am sure that the health authority would give it serious consideration.

    Much has been said about revenue and capital funding, and I shall deal with those issues as far as I can. In terms of revenue funding, the White Paper changes require health authorities to be funded in line with their weighted population share rather than, as now, in terms of the catchment areas that they serve. Therefore, that formula disregards cross-boundary flows of patients but will otherwise be like the present formula in so far as it will reflect the size and age structure of each authority's population and will take account of other factors, such as morbidity, that reflect differences in relative needs. Proposals for the new formula are being developed in consultation with RAWG and will be subject to further consultation with the service as a whole later this year. It is, of course, important that the formula is generally acceptable to the service.

    At present, capital allocations are based on the well-known capital formula. White Paper changes, particularly in relation to the new roles of health authorities and hospitals, mean that the formula approach needs to be recommended. RAWG has been consulted on the options for allocating future capital in the light of the new arrangements and a consultation paper will be issued to the service early in the summer.

    I am aware of the constraints that Gwynedd health authority feels that the existing capital formula shares approach places it under. I am aware of its desire to see changes in the revenue and capital formula. I remind the House that the existing formulae are accepted by the other authorities in Wales as reasonably fair. The capital formula was unanimously supported by health authority chairmen when it was introduced in 1984.

    The new capital formula will be introduced after 1991–92 because, in order to allow stability for planning purposes, health authorities have been advised that capital allocations in that year will be based on the present formula. The exact timing of the introduction of the new capital funding arrangements has yet to be determined. It will depend on the outcome of the consultation process and, as with revenue, there will need to be a transitional period for phasing in the changes.

    I hope that what I have said makes it clear that we are developing an approach to the future of revenue and capital funding of authorities in Wales in consultation with the service. However, until the details have been settled it will not be possible to be specific about the effect of changes and the time scale in which they can be achieved.

    In terms of the future, hon. Members will know that Gwynedd health authority has engaged management consultants, Coopers and Lybrand, Deloitte, to assist with a review of its finances and services. I stress that the management consultants have not been appointed by the Welsh Office or to dictate to the authority the way forward. The authority is being assisted by the management consultants in looking at the current position and possible options for the future. In June, which is when we expect the consultants' report, authority members are due to consider a report from its officers, drawn up with the assistance of the management consultants. It is likely that the report will set out options for the future which will have to be considered and decided upon by the authority members. Any substantial changes in the service considered necessary in the future will be subject to consultation before they can be implemented.

    I would not wish to disguise my or my colleagues' disappointment at the continuing problems of financial control in Gwynedd health authority. None the less, there is evidence that the authority is addressing both these problems and the opportunity represented by the NHS reforms.

    I am grateful to the Minister for his response to some of the issues that I raised. Does he recall that we were in exactly this position about two years ago, in 1987? At that time there were commitments, and the authorities still blame the Welsh Office for not having enough cash. How long do we have to go along this road before some positive action, some leadership, is taken by the Welsh Office to find more cash or to sort out the authority?

    Positive action has already been taken in the NHS White Paper and in the legislation. I assure hon. Members that my colleagues and I are determined that the health authority is placed on a sound footing so that it can offer its residents the quality service to which they are entitled.

    Community Care (Mentally Handicapped)

    2 pm

    I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his appointment. I owe him a double debt of gratitude because not only is he responding to this debate, but he visited Bolton earlier this week when he had only just taken on his new responsibilities. It was his first regional ministerial visit, and it was most helpful and useful.

    I am sure that my hon. Friend will recall that he visited the Heywood pilot project for day therapy services and met some of those suffering from profound physical and mental handicaps and also their families. Those people benefit from the much-needed services provided by that pilot project. Later that day, my hon. Friend visited the health authority headquarters for a unique meeting with people in the area responsible for community care. Six groups were represented: the parents handicap action group; the social services, through its newly appointed chairman and the director of social services; the North Western regional health authority; Bolton health authority; the community health council and the Brookvale voluntary centre at Prestwich, which sent two directors. That centre provides a service that does not really fit the North Western regional health authority model. However, it provides a high quality of service at a relatively low cost, and it has a long waiting list of parents who want their children to go there. The meeting was remarkable, because it enabled many people to get together who otherwise would not often have the opportunity to talk about the need for services.

    I wish to concentrate on those who suffer from profound mental and physical handicaps, as they have the greatest priority need. The meeting discussed the need for a centre of excellence in Bolton to provide a service for those people. We discussed the need for both capital and revenue funding and also the need for both the centre itself and the provision of a network of homes. We must not think that we can rely simply on a dispersed network of homes to provide all the necessary facilities and services.

    Bolton faces a crisis of need for severely handicapped people with challenging behaviour. There is a chronic shortage of day care therapy, respite care and residential care. The causes of the crisis are numerous, but, in particular, handicapped people are now living much longer because of the better care available. There is a crisis in the immediate locality because of the stop placed on admissions to long-stay mental institutions such as Brockhall and Calderstones. Bolton has a particular problem because of the excess cost of the network homes, which has resulted in a shortfall of provision. There is also a shortfall in the provision of other domiciliary services for those who are still at home. There is a complete inadequacy of domiciliary therapy services for the profoundly multiple handicapped who are at home.

    The result of all that is a major problem. There are children who, after they reach the age of 19, are regressing because of the lack of suitable services. Parents are at breaking point. If my hon. Friend the Minister had spent longer in Bolton, he could have met parents such as Mrs. Hargreaves. She has often written to me saying that she does not know how she can continue to look after her son.

    Because of the lack of facilities in Bolton, people are being sent elsewhere, and that is the complete opposite of what I understand by community care. In addition, because wards at Brockhall are being closed, people are being moved from pillar to post, from ward to ward, because there is no alternative provision for them in Bolton. As the chairman of the social services committee said, we now have a two-tier service in Bolton. For some there are the neighbourhood network homes, and for others, who are still in the family home, there is a most inadequate service.

    The solution that I put forward at the meeting and which I press again now is that we should build and staff a centre of excellence in Bolton which will provide day therapy services for 20 or 25 people each day, and a respite care service with some 12 beds. That would provide a support and advice service for some 80 families and, possibly, a service to other areas—a mini Peto centre in Bolton.

    I want to link such a centre of excellence with the need for a medium secure unit, as has been accepted in many of the reports that have been available in recent years which suggest that a unit with two times 12 beds should be considered for Bolton. I press my hon. Friend to investigate the need for such a service in Bolton and to question the North Western regional health authority on its attitude to the provision of funds for such a centre, asking it to explain further its preoccupation with looking only at the provision of neighbourhood network homes on a dowry basis for those coming out of the long-stay institutions.

    I mentioned to my hon. Friend the other day that a former permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security said that, if one is not confused about community care, one is not thinking clearly. I have found this a difficult subject to think clearly about, but it is much simpler to understand the issues if one considers where the greatest priority lies. I have no doubt that the greatest priority is those people who suffer from profound mental and physical handicaps and who present challenging behaviour. According to the Department of Health's 1989 report entitled, "Needs and Responses", they present
    "One of the most serious challenges to care in the community".
    In a recent letter to me, Mencap said that its research into the needs of that group shows
    "an abysmal lack of appropriate help, support and relief for these families".
    Therefore, in this short debate, I want to concentrate on the needs of that group as the greatest area of priority.

    There is no doubt that in Bolton that group experiences the greatest shortfall, and I am sure that that is the case nationally as well. The people we are talking about are not only mentally handicapped; many of them are blind and/or deaf and/or paralysed. It is difficult to think of people with greater needs. We must bear in mind the suffering of those people, the massive burden of care on their relatives and the great love that those relatives give their children, but also the great sacrifices involved.

    If it is possible to prove blame in a court of law, damages in excess of £1 million can be assessed for people with such severe handicaps. Various figures have been given, but in a letter that I received yesterday Mencap estimates that there are about 32,000 such people nationally, approximately 50 per 100,000 of the population—a higher figure than some of the estimates that I have seen. If we multiply the 32,000 people by £1 million as the value of the damages that would be assessed if it were possible to prove some blame, we would be looking at a problem which nationally has a value of £32 billion. That is the size of the problem that we are addressing in this short debate.

    The problem has been dumped largely on the shoulders of loving carers such as Mrs. Cummings, whom my hon. Friend met. She did not volunteer for the task, but she has taken it on magnificently, and we owe every possible help to such people. In many cases, the problems are too great for parents to cope. We know from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys that 5,500 severely handicapped children are in institutional care because their parents cannot cope with the severity of their handicaps.

    It is totally wrong for such children to be living in institutions of that kind. They need the loving care of a family even more than ordinary children. During the debate, I shall refer briefly to the work of Peggy Jay and Exodus, which has campaigned for years for children to leave long-stay hospitals for the mentally handicapped. The figure has fallen from 4,000 many years ago to about 500 currently, but Peggy Jay is concerned that 12,000 children are still admitted annually for short stays in such hospitals.

    When I met Peggy Jay yesterday, I noted some of the points that she made. She said that it was a long-standing problem. From the days of the Curtiss committee in 1946, when mentally handicapped children in residential long-stay mental hospitals were described as the most deprived group in the community, they have consistently been overlooked by successive Governments. In 1981, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, my noble Friend Lord Jenkin, said that long-stay hospitals were no place for children. The present Government, says Peggy Jay, are to be congratulated on reducing the number to 500—but at 12,000, the number of short-stay admissions is far too high.

    Until the Government decree that no child should be admitted to long-stay mental institutions, local authorities will continue to fail to provide proper alternatives for respite care, including properly developed fostering and adoption services. I may add that anyone who has visited the Sunflower ward at Brockhall knows how unsuitable those facilities are not only for the children but for adults who are there. I return to last Monday's meeting in Bolton. It is ironic that the problem should have reached crisis proportions in Bolton, because it pioneered the establishment of community care network homes. What has gone so wrong in Bolton? The Parents Handicapped Action Group voices the massive concerns of parents, and the national development team's report published in March 1987 included a lengthy catalogue of failures in Bolton, despite the spending of massive sums on network care homes. At one stage, £1·7 million was provided over three years for the largest pilot scheme in the country. I contend that the bureaucrats failed to identify and serve the real needs of the population.

    I quote briefly from the team's report. Paragraph 9 says that joint groups
    "have failed in their major objective … of service provision as a whole"
    Paragraph 43 says:
    "A network to be truly effective needs to offer a comprehensive locally-based service. Bolton Neighbourhood Network Scheme does not as yet offer such a service to clients with special needs … Unless access is obtained to additional resources, wide gaps in the service seem likely to remain."
    Paragraph 93 says:
    "All efforts should be made to extend the availability of short-term care for adults with mental handicaps. This should include those with special needs and profoundly handicapped people. There is clearly a great deal of unmet need in this respect within Bolton."
    Paragraph 140 says:
    "Adult residential provision is sadly lacking in quality and quantity and adult special needs provision requires considerable development in terms of day care, residential care and domiciliary support. It is understandable but inexcusable that the most needy individuals should be given the lowest priority in the development of community services."
    Paragraph 144 says:
    "Short-term care is desperately lacking, in particular for special needs adults."
    Paragraph 145 says:
    "A separate unit is urgently needed for this handful of individuals, staffed and equipped for this difficult task."
    Paragraph 146 says:
    "The neighbourhood networks offer an exciting variety of types of accommodation for adults but parents are adamant that there is a place for imaginative accommodation for larger groups which offer more protection and local social stimulation than that which is currently fashionable. Eager young administrators and care workers ignore parents' views at their peril on this matter. Current philosophies may fade as their shortcomings are revealed. We ask that any plan be judged in terms of the quality of life it promises rather than conforming to contemporary and possibly temporary theoretical notions."
    That is the very point on which I should like my hon. Friend to question the North Western regional health authority most closely. I asked the North Western regional health authority to carry out a survey of unmet needs in all its areas. I was somewhat surprised to find that it received responses from only two thirds of the areas, but hopefully we will get responses from all of them. However, the responses received show that there is a high level of unmet need.

    In a note dated 2 February, Bolton said:
    "A major initiative is required if a service crisis is to be avoided … people with profound handicaps, and challenging behaviour … are finding that services are grossly inadequate … Suitably skilled staff must be recruited so that we do not end up with an army of community carers unable to provide the skilled input required."
    Bolton community health council sent me a copy of a letter addressed to my hon. Friend the Minister in which the same problem is pointed out:
    "there is a major shortfall of accommodation for people who have never been in long-stay hospital. It is estimated that a further 200 residential places are needed right now. … The day service in Bolton is full. … Often people with the greatest need seem to get the least."
    What is to be done? The 1989 report by the Department of Health on needs and responses discussed the pros and cons of specialist units versus community placement and gives one of the disadvantages of a specialist unit as "staff burn-out". I have not shown that report to my wife, but I think that she will feel that that is not just a problem for specialists but one that is faced by all those who care for the severely disadvantaged groups that I am concentrating on in this debate.

    There is no time to discuss the need for a centre of excellence in detail. The plan has been costed at £1 million a year. I do not know whether all that is totally necessary, but it shows the level that Bolton health authority is considering. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will question the North Western regional health authority about its rigid adherence to a model. I do not believe that any other regional health authority is insisting on such rigid adherence. I ask the Minister to press the regional health authority to look sympathetically at the need to fund a centre of excellence. When he considers the problem nationwide, I ask him to consider whether he can direct more resources towards the care of the profoundly mentally handicapped.

    2.16 pm

    I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) on his choice of subject for this debate, as it is one of substantial importance to a great many people, and to no one more than to him. I am not referring solely to those who suffer from a mental handicap. Equally important, the issue is of concern to parents, to relatives and to friends of people with mental handicap including those, like my hon. Friend, who have adopted mentally handicapped children.

    My hon. Friend has raised an important issue about services in the north-west region. I will respond specifically to that issue in a moment, but I would like first to set out the national situation, as we see it, as the context for the regional issues that he raised.

    Historically, the place for mentally handicapped people, particularly the severely handicapped, has been seen to be the hospital, under the care of consultants, and particularly of mental handicap nurses. Over recent years, however, it has become increasingly recognised that mentally handicapped people's needs are largely for what we now call social care—accommodation, social support, day services and assistance with using the general facilities of the community such as sports and leisure facilities.

    Of course mentally handicapped people need health care, but much of that can be provided through the general services of the National Health Service and does not need to be provided specifically in mental handicap hospitals. Thus, over the past 20 years or more, we have seen a shift away from the residential placement of severely mentally handicapped people in hospital towards caring for them in a variety of community facilities. In parallel with that there has been growing recognition that the lead responsibility for services for people with a mental handicap lies with local authority social services departments rather than with district health authorities.

    The Government's decisions on the Griffiths report, set out in our White Paper "Caring for People", emphasise the role of local authority social services departments in providing social care. As such, our proposals go "with the grain" of the way services for people with a mental handicap have been developing in recent years.

    But the Government are far from believing that the introduction of the proposals in our White Paper and in the National Health Service and Community Care Bill will address all the issues of importance to people with a mental handicap. It is for that reason that my predecessor, now the Minister for Public Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), set in hand a linked series of initiatives which officials in the Department, in collaboration with people from health and social services and the voluntary sector, are currently taking forward. I should like to set those out, partly because this is my first opportunity as Minister to do so, to emphasise that I am keen that the work should go ahead.

    First, we are having a look at the whole question of the residential needs of people with a mental handicap, particularly those with a severe handicap. On the one hand, there are people who take the view that the only form of acceptable provision is community-based living in ordinary houses with just three or four mentally handicapped people supported by professional staff. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the security, companionship and skilled nursing support available in mental handicap hospitals offers an important model that should not be allowed to wither away.

    My officials have been engaging in a series of visits to a variety of types of residential service in Holland and in this country, and have just completed a series of three full-day seminars to explore the findings of those visits with a much wider range of interests concerned with such services. They have been looking at the underlying values of different sorts of residential service, the practical advantages and disadvantages and, necessarily, costs.

    Secondly, in parallel with this review of residential care, the social services inspectorate has carried out a study of day services provided by local authority social services departments. Its report was published last year under the title "Individuals, Programmes and Plans". The Department is now exploring the findings of the series of inspections with a view to seeing what implications there are for current national policy and for the possible issue of guidance to social services authorities.

    Thirdly, we are undertaking a fundamental rethink of the continuing role of the National Health Service in relation to people with a mental handicap. As I have already said, the role of the specialist mental handicap hospital in the range of services for people with a mental handicap seems to be in decline. There is certainly a growing recognition that many of the health needs of people with a mental handicap can be met through the ordinary services for people provided by the National Health Service, and that no segregated provision is necessary.

    On the other hand, there is recognition that people with a mental handicap have some health problems that need specialist services, and there is concern that, as the move to community-based services develops, the necessary specialist health care will cease to be available. Earlier in the year, the Department established a working party of health and social service managers and professional staff to examine those issues. The working party has already met three times, and it is due to report before the summer holidays.

    I now refer to the issue that my hon. Friend referred to as the greatest priority: how to provide services for people with a mental handicap who show severely disturbed behaviour—often called challenging behaviour. Last year, we issued a document called "Needs and Responses", which was a distillation of the best practices that the Department had been able to identify. This year, we aim to set up a series of workshops to explore the views about "Needs and Responses" of professionals and others concerned with providing services for this small but very important group. The workshops will aim to identify whether the Department should undertake any further initiatives in this matter. Again, I hope that those workshops will be held well before the end of the year.

    My predecessor's aim in initiating the separate streams of activity was to focus on what he and the Department believed to be four key issues for the development of services for people with a mental handicap, given the general trend of the past 20 years towards community-based services. I cannot, of course, anticipate the outcome of those initiatives, but our hope is to have something substantial to say to health and social service authorities about the development of future services by around the turn of this year.

    I have set out the national perspective in some detail because we are aware that some people believe that services for people with a mental handicap are being neglected relative, for example, to the services provided for people with a mental illness. It is certainly the case that, over the past year or two, the Government have had to respond to a range of problems arising from the implementation of the 1975 White Paper, "Better Services for the Mentally Ill" and this has led to the introduction of the care programme approach and the proposed mental illness specific, grant. Both are important advances in the provision for the mentally ill. We have certainly not been overlooking the needs of people with a mental handicap. On the contrary, as I have sought to show, we have initiated a major review of the key policy issues in the area, which I intend will give renewed impetus to the development of appropriate services for the mentally handicapped.

    I would now like to turn specifically to the problems that my hon. Friend identified in relation to the services for the mentally handicapped in North Western regional health authority. I was pleased, on my first ministerial visit, to be able to go to my hon. Friend's constituency this Monday and to see for myself some of the services for the mentally handicapped provided in his city of Bolton. Regrettably, as time was short, I could not see as much as I should have liked. In particular, I wish that I had had time to visit some mentally handicaped people who had been resettled into ordinary homes in the Bolton area.

    My hon. Friend referred specifically to the concerns of Exodus about the number of children with a mental handicap who are still in hospital. Many of them were admitted to hospital for conditions unconnected with their handicap and should be in hospital for no longer than necessary. Planned admissions for treatment, assessment, therapy or short-term care should normally lead to a special children's unit in or near the neighbouring community. There will often be a managerial part for the children's department of a mental handicap hospital.

    I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the issues related to the number of children in mental handicap hospitals will be part of the wider review of residential care, which was one of the four elements I described as being under way at present.

    Will my hon. Friend consider visiting the Wessex region? In the past few weeks, respite care has been highlighted, because the local health authority has contemplated making cuts in the number of houses available for mentally handicapped people. The problem is that people who use respite care are often on the edge of viability for looking after severely mentally handicapped people and only the fact that respite care is available enables them to continue. I ask my hon. Friend to visit the Wessex region soon and to see the position of respite care in the Wansdyke area.

    I will look at the position of respite care in Wansdyke, to which my hon. Friend referred, and I will write to him specifically on that issue. I look forward to the opportunity, which I am sure will occur sooner rather than later, to travel to my hon. Friend's part of the world.

    When I was in Bolton this week, I was interested to hear different views expressed by the various groups in the area on a range of subjects. It is clear that there is a fund of good will to succeed with resettlement and community services such as therapy and respite care. However, I detected a certain frustration, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East referred, that the regional health authority appears to be rigid in its interpretation of care in the community and that this is having two effects. First, it is preventing a full range of residential arrangements from being developed; secondly, in directing funds exclusively to the arrangements pioneered by the Bolton neighbourhood network scheme, it is likely to slow down the rate of resettlement out of the hospitals. This arises because that scheme puts a premium upon community support services which are extremely demanding of professional staff time. These are, of course., potentially serious disadvantages, if they are justified. because they stem directly from an explicit agreed policy of the regional health and social services departments.

    We are not yet ready to give further guidance on the range of residential care to suit all degrees of mental handicap, because that is part of the process of the policy study, but in view of the feelings I heard expressed in Bolton this week, which my hon. Friend repeated, I shall ask the regional chairman of North Western region to see whether the time has come to begin discussions with all interested parties to see whether a less rigid approach to resettlement funds is required. It may be that the rigidity is seen by some simply because a particular scheme has not succeeded in the past, but the best way to clarify the matter is to ask the regional health authority chairman to pursue it, and I intend to do that. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that I have responded at least in part to his concerns on that issue.

    Finally, I thank my hon. Friend for his hospitality when I visited Bolton earlier this week. I frankly acknowledge that there are some worries about current provisions and that these issues will need to be addressed as our current initiatives in this field are fully developed. In the meantime, I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome my proposal to ask North Western region to consider whether it should be more flexible in the future than it has been in the past.

    Industrial Tribunals

    2.30 pm

    I am grateful for this opportunity of raising the case of Mr. Tobitt, a constituent, who has suffered considerable grievances over several years. I recognise that the House might not be able to redress those grievances, but I hope that this debate will make industrial tribunals and employers think carefully before they handle cases in future in the way in which this case was handled.

    The appalling sequence of events followed a minor and largely unrelated disciplinary offence at Mr. Tobitt's work. Mr. Tobitt had worked for the Financial Times for six years—from 1982 until his dismissal on 19 May 1988. He was a satisfactory employee, but unfortunately his good record did not stand him in any stead in the events that then unfolded.

    The facts, which are not disputed, are that Mr. Tobitt was arrested at work on 3 May 1988 for an alleged offence not connected with his later dismissal. It was alleged that he attacked a woman with acid and stole her handbag. The attack took place in Walthamstow at 7 am when Mr. Tobitt was at home in Hammersmith. The police alleged that his car was in the vicinity of the attack. Mr. Tobitt thinks that the police linked him to the attack because the lady was his ex-girlfriend. The police searched his car and found four copies of pornographic photographs, which had been reproduced on a Financial Times machine. Although the Financial Times was not part of the alibi, it was informed about the photographs by the police because—the police said—the photographs might have been used in court. The Financial Times then decided to suspend Mr. Tobitt for
    "damaging the reputation of the company".
    In dealing briefly with the court case, I hope that I shall not underestimate its importance and its effect on both Mr. Tobitt and the later handling of the case. The court case took place between 14 and 16 November 1988 at Snaresbrook Crown court. A witness stated that the attacker—the person who threw the acid in the face of the lady—was white. Mr. Tobitt is black. The case should have been dismissed. As was later acknowledged, the evidence did not stand up. At this stage—amazingly—the judge said that, although Mr. Tobitt was not the attacker, he could have been aiding and abetting, and he was therefore found guilty of that and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

    An appeal was lodged by Mr. Tobitt's solicitors, which he then won, but not before he had spent a month in prison for an offence that everybody agrees, and that the court made clear, and not only on technical or legal grounds, he could not possibly have committed or been connected with in any way. In other words, Mr. Tobitt left the appeal court with a clean reputation. The appeal court said that it was obvious that only one person was present at the attack.

    It is important to note that the judge has ruled that the photographs, which were brought to the attention of the Financial Times by the police, should not have been used in court. That is an important point because of the issue of the reputation of the Financial Times.

    On 16 May 1988 the first disciplinary hearing took place. There were two charges. The first was that Mr. Tobitt had been using the company's materials to produce the photographs. The second charge was that he was bringing the company into disrepute. The Financial Times had made it clear that the first charge—using the materials—was not sufficient ground to warrant dismissal. Indeed, that was stated several times, not least in a letter dated 19 May 1988 from the Financial Times to Mr. Tobitt which said that the use of the materials was not
    "in itself sufficient grounds for dismissing you."
    The Financial Times seemed to believe that if the material was used in court its reputation might be besmirched. That is pretty incredible. It is hypersensitive and absurd beyond reason. If many of us were in that position, we would think first and foremost that a person in this country was innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, we should not assume that what is produced and used in court is necessarily used in the appropriate way. The judge later ruled that the photographs should not and could not form part of the evidence. Again, that is important and it is a point that was overlooked.

    Even if the Financial Times thought that the case would besmirch it, why did it not wait until after the court case? I draw attention to another quotation from the letter. It said:
    "Four of the photographs still have the Financial Times name on them and are now in the possession of the police. It is highly likely that these photographs will be used in evidence in open court."
    The Financial Times was wrong: it was not likely. In my judgment and that of the solicitor, it was highly unlikely. Nevertheless, that was the conclusion of the Financial Times. I shall return to that later.

    When Mr. Tobitt appealed against the dismissal, the case seemed to centre more on the use of the photographs and of the machine than the reputation of the company. In any event, the tribunal decided against him. I should add that the tribunal hearing took place only a few days after Mr. Tobitt's release from prison. That is not exactly the best time for a hearing for someone who has had that experience for an offence that he did not commit. He had to go through a tribunal hearing at which no one represented him. That is one of the main points of the case, as the Minister will appreciate, and I shall return to it.

    The Financial Times' thinking—inasmuch as it was thinking—seemed to be out of touch with reality and out of all proportion to the incident. It was entirely insensitive to the suffering that Mr. Tobitt had been through.

    In the letter to Mr. Tobitt dated 11 May the Financial Times said:
    "Your letter makes the point that the photographs you had produced on the company's equipment were not, in the end, used in open court"—
    this was after the case—
    "and therefore did not cause the company any embarrassment. This does not detract from the fact that at the time the decision was taken to dismiss you, it was highly likely that information about them and the circumstances surrounding their production would have become public knowledge. In the industrial tribunal's words the photographs were what the ordinary reasonable person would describe as pornographic".
    I shall come back to that point, too. The letter continued:
    "Therefore, any publicity about them linked to the Financial Times' name was likely to bring the reputation of the Financial Times into disrepute. In the end, although no publicity was received in open court, there was some publicity in the press … However, Mr. Gilbert"
    one of the managers who judged the dismissal—
    "had to consider whether your return to work, having been charged with such an offence, would have had an effect on the rest of the St. Clements press employees."
    St. Clements press is the company under which the Financial Times operates. The letter goes on:
    "I understand that Mr. Gilbert decided this was not relevant."
    I should hope so. Who on earth even put that thought in the management's mind, given that Mr. Tobitt was found not guilty?

    The case goes from bad to worse. The evidence is overwhelming that the Financial Times assumed that the photographs would be used in court. Indeed, it said so. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the Financial Times assumed that Mr. Tobitt was guilty. It took no account of his defence.

    The report of the disciplinary hearing states of the police:
    "We were interested that they had inferred that the photographs could be exhibited in court. That's why I asked if you had anything else to say. Don't want to go into your case. But the pictures are an integral part of the case."
    That was the view of the Financial Times and the police. It was not anyone else's view.

    It is acknowledged that Mr. Tobitt produced the photographs at the request of the girl who wanted them done for a portfolio. The company, thinking that its image had been damaged, stated:
    "Therefore, we have decided to summarily dismiss you for gross misconduct on the grounds that you have conducted yourself in a manner which has, and will, damage the reputation of the Company. The reputation of the Financial Times is of crucial importance."
    The way in which the FT handled the case is damaging to it. It should be thoroughly ashamed of itself.

    At the appeal hearing against dismissal two of Mr. Tobitt's representatives, who are trade union representatives, were absent. His other representatives said at the hearing that his side of the case was disadvantaged because it lacked full representation. Nevertheless, the hearing went ahead. The case shows the mess and panic that the FT got itself into. I have great respect for it as an economic and political journal, but its handling of the case was disgraceful. A short clip about the case appeared in The Sun and Daily Mirror. An FT manager, speaking at the appeal tribunal, said:
    "I know that the Sun claim a circulation of four million readers and a readership of twelve million. The reason I make this comment is that the Financial Times is a paper with a unique reputation."
    Why on earth is a strong and, presumably, responsible paper like the Financial Times panicking about a short piece appearing in The Sun and the Daily Mirror and fearing that it might damage its reputation? I am not sure that the FT knows anything about the readership of The Sun or the Daily Mirror. I would not think that the readership would be completely surprised that some people in the printing industry occasionally use machines to print pictures that should not be printed. One must be fairly out of touch with reality and, indeed, the reality of the print industry not to know that. Nevertheless, that does not justify its handling of the case.

    Mr. Tobitt fully accepts that he should never have got involved in producing the material. He makes no issue about that, and the FT accepted that he agreed that he should never have done it. It is worth putting on the record why he did it. At the hearing he was asked:
    "Why did your girlfriend want these photos reproduced?"
    He said:
    "She's a difficult girl and doesn't take a lot exactly. When she has had a few drinks, says she hated that sort of thing and said she did not know where to go, what to do. I suggested that she got a better job. She calmed down. Later, this was the first time the photos came up. She said, 'I know what you can do for me'. She works in a nightclub. She is always being asked out. Then she said she could make a book. I know how the actual thing came about. Her idea was to make a book with the photos. The idea was just to look at them, not create a sophisticated item. I suggested I would take them. I knew what she wanted to do. I wanted to keep control of them. I did not want to get mixed up but felt I could wean her off the idea of the photos. My idea was to drag it out."
    It is worth pointing out that Mr. Tobitt was also helping the girl in other ways, including paying some of her bills because he found that when she was under less stress she could break away from some of the situations that she was getting herself into. One might say that he was doing a good voluntary service job, but I would not expect the FT', the police or anyone else to accept that.

    The FT had counsel at the industrial tribunal, but the essential issue in this case is that Mr. Tobitt had no one at the tribunal and had just come out of prison. He could not afford a lawyer and his trade union felt that the tribunal, rightly or wrongly, was not the best machinery to deal with the case. Thus, Mr. Tobitt, just out of prison, was totally unrepresented at the tribunal. Surely in hearings linked to a court case a person should be offered legal aid. Mr. Tobitt's case was linked to a serious charge, which was later found to be utterly unfounded.

    The FT argued that the reason for dismissal was that Mr. Tobitt had brought the paper into disrepute; he was not dismissed for printing the pictures. Curiously, the industrial tribunal said:
    "The respondents"—
    the FT—
    "said that had the matter merely been that the applicant had used the respondents' equipment for the production of the photographs for his own purposes it is unlikely that dismissal would have resulted. It was more probable in those circumstances that the applicant would have been warned as to his future conduct. They based their decision to dismiss on the nature of the photographs themselves; the fact that on one set of photographs there appeared the 'Financial Times' logo".
    Everyone agrees, however, that that logo was to be cut off before the photographs were used. The tribunal went on to say that the police told the FT
    "it was probable that the photographs would be used at the applicant's trial for the purpose of attempting to establish where the applicant might have been at particular times and that consequently by his actions the applicant knew or ought to have known that he was bringing the respondents' names and or the name of the 'Financial Times' into disrepute, in that the facts would indicate that the specialist equipment at the 'Financial Times' was being used for the production of pornographic photographs, thus indicating either that the management connived in such activities by the staff or that the management was so lax that the staff were able to carry out this type of activity."
    I do not reach that conclusion. From time to time such things happen. We all agree that they should not, but one would not necessarily conclude that the management was lax or bad or colluded with such activity. It is clear that the industrial tribunal was already moving away from deciding whether Mr. Tobitt had brought the paper into disrepute and was considering the fact that he had produced the documents. The tribunal also stated:
    "We do not here think that the test is, are these photographs pornographic or obscene in contravention of any statute but what would be the reaction of a reasonable person looking at these photographs and what would he think of them. Would he consider that they are simply the ordinary sort of photographs which one can see in many newspapers these days or do they go beyond this into the realms of what might be described by the ordinary person as pornography? We are unanimously of the opinion that the ordinary person would describe these photographs as pornographic."
    I have not seen all the photgraphs, but Mr. Tobitt accepts that one could interpret them as pornographic to some extent. One concerns a spanking scene, but I do not believe that a court of law would necessarily define spanking as pornographic. The case in the industrial tribunal, however, was that the pornographic content of the photographs was the reason for dismissal. The Minister will be aware that, in law, pornography is a much more difficult case to prove. The industrial tribunal wanted to assume that the photographs were pornographic on the basis of reasonable assessment. I cannot say for sure, but I do not believe that that would stand up in a court of law.

    The FT and the industrial tribunal assumed that the police case was correct, including the use of the photographs. That assumption is one of my serious criticisms of the case. The industrial tribunal said:
    "We think that the test is what would a reasonable person in the position of Messrs Gilbert and Rhodes"—
    the two managers who dismissed Mr. Tobitt—
    "have thought of the information which was given to them by the Sergeant in charge of the case at Walthamstow police station?"
    So the industrial tribunal is saying that the information given by the prosecution mattered. At no time was any check made with the defence. In other words, the case was assumed to be proven even after it had been dismissed. That cannot be right.

    Why on earth is an industrial tribunal—let alone what happened at the first hearing—and the management of the Financial Times asking for only the prosecution side? Does it not have a duty to ask for the defence side? Did it not have a duty to ask the solicitor and not just Mr. Tobitt, who all along was making the points that I have been making? It cannot be right to assume guilt.

    To summarise my points, the Financial Times has brought itself into disrepute by the handling of this case. It was a disgraceful overreaction by what is, by any standard, a good newspaper. It should never have got itself into that position. It was a pathetic display of almost paranoid fear of what might be said in papers such as The Sun and the Daily Mirror. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I would not even be here if we had such fears. Indeed, it might be said that we might be brought into disrepute if the House of Commons reacted in such a way.

    An industrial tribunal must be weak in a situation in which a case is closely linked to a court case and the only contact is with the prosecution side. That is an important part of my case. It cannot be right for an industrial tribunal, a disciplinary hearing and all involved from that point of view to communicate with the prosecution but not with the defence lawyer, who deals with the case but who cannot represent the client at the tribunal because the client does not have any money.

    The reason for dismissal by the industrial tribunal related only marginally to the reasons given by the Financial Times. It seems that the tribunal assumed, as did the Financial Times, that Mr. Tobitt was guilty. That was a disgraceful slur on the reputation of a man who had already suffered far more than any of us will suffer in that way in our lives. It should never be allowed to happen again.

    2.51 pm

    The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will appreciate that I know much more now about his concerns, having heard his speech, than I could have known beforehand. Inevitably, in the nature of these matters, the titles of debates do not always yield up their secrets as well as they might.

    The hon. Gentleman will accept that I cannot pass comment on the criminal court case to which he referred. Nor can I speak about the quality of the judgment made by the industrial tribunal. He would be the first to complain, and rightly so, if he felt that in any sense Ministers reserved unto themselves the right or privilege to go through findings made by an industrial tribunal and comment on them.

    Having said that, I will respond to some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman voiced, and it might help if I began by setting out the sequence of events as I understand them to have occurred. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the arrest and what followed. A search was made of the effects, which led the police to find the photographs in the boot of the car, and they obviously saw that some of them bore the Financial Times logo. Some of them had been trimmed and others had not.

    At that stage, the police asked officials of the Financial Times to examine the photographs and, on the basis of that examination, formed the conclusion that the photographs were pornographic. Obviously, an explanation was called for from Mr. Tobitt. The police felt that an explanation was called for because it appeared that one set of photographs at least had been printed on Financial Times specialist equipment. That was clearly the case because they bore the FT logo.

    I understand that at that stage the senior industrial relations executive and the production manager interviewed Mr. Tobitt and that, while mentioning his arrest, he did not refer to the photographs. They did not take any immediate action at that stage but told him to report for work as usual. They then themselves examined the photographs, which were still held by the police. They had a further interview with Mr. Tobitt, who at that stage was represented by his union representative, and again he did not mention the photographs.

    At that stage, the FT executive and manager themselves raised the subject and, after a short adjournment, declared that they would be considering disciplinary charges, and I believe I am correct in saying that Mr. Tobbit was suspended on full pay pending a disciplinary hearing. That was conducted some days later, in accordance with the disciplinary procedures, after a full letter had been sent to Mr. Tobbit detailing the charges against him. At the disciplinary hearing, Mr. Tobitt was represented by his union. Matters were thoroughly gone into and it was decided that he should be dismissed.

    I understand—this is clear from what the hon. Member for Hammersmith said—that none of those facts is in dispute. But subsequently a case for unfair dismissal was brought before the industrial tribunal on the ground that it was reasonable to dismiss him merely for producing the photographs. The respondents in the case argued that they had based their decision to dismiss him on the nature of the photographs, the fact that the Financial Times logo appeared on one set, their likely use in the police proceedings and the fact that the applicant knew, or ought to have known, that his actions could bring the name of the Financial Times into disrepute.

    I understand that the industrial tribunal agreed that the employers' action was reasonable in the circumstances and was unanimous in dismissing the applicant's case of unfair dismissal. That decision was sent to both parties on 25 January last year. As I understand it, Mr. Tobitt made no attempt after that to appeal to the employment appeal tribunal.

    I should emphasise, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept, that industrial tribunals are independent judicial organisations, responsible for reaching their own decisions without interference from Government. It would clearly be quite wrong for Ministers to attempt to become involved in particular cases or to try to get decisions changed.

    It is not my Ministry's normal practice to comment on the merits or demerits of particular decisions. However, the hon. Gentleman was particularly concerned that the lack of representation at the hearing might have meant that Mr. Tobitt was treated unfairly. I have been through the tribunal's findings, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, because he has quoted from them. He will have formed his own views, but it seems to me that the tribunal was in no doubt about the decision it should make. It did not seem to dispute any of the facts as given by Mr. Tobitt, and obviously its members had to form a view.

    I should emphasise two points. First, the tribunal said:
    "We do not here think that the test is, are these photographs pornographic or obscene in contravention of any statute, but what would be the reaction of a reasonable person looking at these photographs and what would he think of them. Would he consider that they are simply the ordinary sort of photographs which one can see in many newspapers these days or do they go beyond this into the realms of what might be described by the ordinary person as pornography?
    We are unanimously of the opinion that the ordinary person would describe these photographs as pornographic. We were originally shown only the photographs which bore the Financial Times logo but later at the request of the applicant we saw the whole set of photographs and we have no hesitation in saying that the ordinary reasonable person would describe these photographs as pornographic or, as Mr. Gilbert put it, going over the line."
    Perhaps most importantly for the hon. Gentleman, the tribunal said:
    "For these reasons therefore we are unanimously of the opinion that to dismiss the applicant not for the use for private purposes of the 'Financial Times' equipment but for the use for private purposes for producing pornographic photographs was a reasonable action taken by the employers and consequently the applicant's claim of unfair dismissal is dismissed."
    It is not my responsibility to double-guess the decision made by the industrial tribunal. I merely say in passing that, having read the transcript, I feel that it is one of the more clear-cut cases that come before industrial tribunals. I merely hold an opinion—if the hon. Gentleman disagrees, I accept that there may be two views on it—but I believe that a common-sense view would be that using an employer's equipment to produce pornographic photographs is not the sort of action that is normally thought to be compatible with normal harmonious relationships between employers and employees.

    The hon. Gentleman perfectly properly raised the issue of whether legal aid should be available in industrial tribunal cases. The hon. Gentleman knows that the idea behind industrial tribunals is that, as far as possible, they should be a quick and informal way for people to obtain redress. The Government have always felt that it is inappropriate to extend legal aid to unfair dismissal cases for precisely that reason. I might have a professional interest in this as a lawyer, but there are times when it is a good idea not to have the system gummed up by lawyers. Having realised that difficulty, the hon. Gentleman said that that should not be so where an unfair dismissal is connected with other cases, in this instance, a criminal one.

    I accept—and I am sure that it will have been perfectly obvious to the House from the way the hon. Gentleman presented his constituent's case—that he knows his constituent and has talked to him. Clearly Mr. Tobitt feels badly about it, as does the hon. Gentleman. It seems clear from the tribunal's decision that it did not take into account, in a pejorative or beneficial way, the fact that there was another case pending. As I understand it, from what the hon. Gentleman said, when talking about the admissibility of the photographs the judge was referring to the earlier hearing. Even on the basis of what the hon. Gentleman says, the photographs would clearly be irrelevant to that.

    The hon. Gentleman clearly feels strongly about this matter on behalf of his constituent. However, at the end of the day the industrial tribunal considered the matter, which clearly was well canvassed. The tribunal reached its decision having heard the evidence, and, however strongly the hon. Gentleman feels, it would not be appropriate for me to say whether the tribunal should have reached that decision. The tribunal took a certain view, and I do not feel that I can double-guess it.

    Heliport (Cannon Street Station)

    2.59 pm

    I am grateful for the opportunity to mention the fact that a consortium of business companies wants to construct a heliport in the very heart of London—on a platform over the River Thames next to Cannon street station, halfway between St. Paul's and Southwark cathedrals, both of which ought to be havens of peace and quiet. The provost of Southwark cathedral wrote to me yesterday to say that Southwark cathedral is bang opposite the proposed site. Bang is the word. He says that his daily programme of services, concerts and conferences would be severely damaged by the noise.

    Noise is the central issue. The applicants want permission at the outset for 25,000 flights per year, which is an average of over 70 per day. Twin-engined helicopters would be used, which produce more noise than single-engined helicopters, but it is not just a matter of volume measured in decibels—the character of the sound is also important. The rotor blades of helicopters make a most unpleasant high-pitched whirring sound, so that for any given volume, in both pitch and tone there is a type of vibration which is different from the noise made by winged aircraft. That noise can penetrate walls and air conditioning systems as well as windows, so double glazing is not the entire answer. It will disturb and reduce the efficiency of people working in offices. It will spoil their enjoyment of the Thames and its walkways when they are on their lunch breaks and it will affect the views of St. Paul's cathedral. The proposal is an utter disgrace to the otherwise normal and sensible people who are promoting it. It is uncivilised and wrong. It should be shot down hard, and shot down quickly.

    I am concerned not only about my constituents who work in the City but because some of the helicopters might overfly Twickenham, Teddington, the Hamptons and Whitton on their way to Heathrow. That would destroy people's quiet enjoyment of their homes and gardens.

    I have campaigned for years against aircraft noise and am well aware of the Government's record in this field. No Minister has done more about aircraft noise in relation to the environment than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, first as Secretary of State for Transport and later as Secretary of State for the Environment. Following strong representations from hon. Members affected by Heathrow, he refused planning permission for the fifth terminal there, stopped the Heathrow to Gatwick helicopter link and curtailed the number of night flights allowed at Heathrow—a decision subsequently endorsed by subsequent Secretaries of State for Transport, my right hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson).

    I hope that my hon. Friend the Under Secretary of State for the Environment, who is to reply to the debate, can confirm that the present Secretary of State for the Environment will be just as robust in protecting my constituents and people who work in central London from the consequences of unpleasant noise as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he held that post. If so, he should prove it when he decides on the application for the heliport in question. He will have to take the decision because he has now called it in.

    I remind my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport that in 1984 the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell), said in a debate on civil aviation:
    "Noise can be a potent destroyer of the quality of life. The Government care about the environment … Helicopters seem to have a special pitch of vibrating noise … in the light of the environmental disturbance caused by the service"—
    he was talking about the Heathrow-Gatwick helicopter service—
    "we could not justify allowing it to continue in operation … we must give due weight to environmental considerations in dealing with such cases."—[Official Report, 22 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 655.]
    Of course, that followed the completion of the M25 motorway, which linked Heathrow and Gatwick. Now that a fast train is to run from Heathrow to Paddington, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm—I gave him notice of this question—that it remains Government policy to uphold the principles set out by the former Minister in 1984.

    The decision is to be made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Because of my right hon. Friend's quasi-judicial responsibilities, I realise that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on the planning merits as that would anticipate any decision that my right hon. Friend might take. However, I ask him to confirm that he will take note of all the points raised in the debate, not only because they will come out at the public inquiry, but because there is considerable parliamentary opinion on this matter. That is not surprising as the Select and Standing Committee Rooms of both Houses face the Thames and risk being disturbed by the noise of helicopters flying along the river to a heliport in the Pool of London.

    I draw my hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 753, which has been signed by 23 right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House. Although, in essence, it asked for the decision on the planning application to be called in, which has since happened, it also expressed views and attitudes on the planning merits, such as the environment, the noise, the views of St. Paul's, public transport safety on the adjacent railway at Cannon street station and safety on the river and for residents throughout London. There is thus considerable parliamentary opinion, which I hope the Department will take into account when weighing up the relevant planning aspects as on planning grounds it is obliged to do.

    The site for the heliport falls within the constituency of the City of London and Westminster, South, which is represented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is precluded from speaking in the debate because if he did he would be deemed to be giving advice to another Minister on a departmental matter falling within the ambit of that second Minister. However, I am aware that he has visited the site and it is open to him to put the various views of his constituents to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

    The site is on the edge of the City of London. Although the Secretary of State's decision to call in the planning decision means that the Government will make the final decision, the Corporation of London will still have an important role in the forthcoming planning inquiry. I understand that members of the corporation are likely to be divided on the matter, both in the planning committee and in the full corporation. If so, I hope that any division will be reported to the inquiry and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The Corporation of London will not be taking an executive decision as a planning authority—it will merely advise, and if that advice is divided, it makes sense for that fact to be conveyed to those making the decision.

    The application is opposed by the following boroughs: Southwark, which faces the site, Richmond upon Thames, which includes my constituency, Wandsworth, Tower Hamlets and the City of Westminster. I hope that my hon. Friend will note that those five local authorities have different political complexions.

    The application is also opposed by six City livery companies, numerous residents' associations and several important companies which have offices in the vicinity where many people do important work. For example, British Telecom has its international nerve centre nearby. It would be a great pity if its work were jeopardised either by noise or by the risk of a crash. Barclays de Zoete Wedd would also be affected. Here I must declare an interest as I am on the list of the shareholders of Barclays bank, although my interest is not beneficial but as a trustee of a trust. It has many people who do important and useful work. Speyhawk could also be affected. That company is well known to me because 15 years ago its headquarters were in Twickenham and the quality of its work enjoys tremendous respect. It would be shocking if what it is doing to develop Cannon street were marred by thousands of helicopters flying over Cannon street station. Today I received a message from the chairman of Speyhawk, Mr. Trevor Osborne, who said:
    "A heliport in this location would be environmentally damaging and contrary to the tremendous improvements to the character of this riverside location which have taken place in recent years and are taking place even now."
    He went on to say:
    "The area around the proposed site has rapidly become a financial centre of considerable commercial importance which could be spoilt by the nuisance of an inappropriate development".
    The site is next to Cannon street station and I must draw attention to the safety risks. Helicopters are becoming less safe. A report in Flight International for the week 7–13 February 1990 quotes the Civil Aviation Authority as saying:
    "The encouraging [helicopter-safety] trend of the past couple of years has now been reversed."
    The number of helicopter crashes is unfortunately tending to increase and it would be batty to have a heliport next to a main commuter railway station where a crashing helicopter might derail a train or even drop on a platform crowded with commuters.

    It would be bad to set a precedent to build out into the River Thames. English Heritage and the Services Committee of the House had some strong words to say on a recent planning application for some floating pontoons with shops alongside Westminster pier, jutting out just to the north of Westminster bridge and facing County Hall. Their advice was taken by the Secretary of State for the Environment following the planning inquiry and planning permission was refused. Platforms and other works jutting out into the Thames would create a bad precedent. Furthermore, it would be bad for the work of the House to have large numbers of helicopters going by.

    There are only two arguments in favour of the proposal—the usual commercial one, and the fact that each trip would save a few business tycoons about half an hour.

    I hope that the public inquiry will scrutinise with the utmost scepticism the argument that a heliport would benefit the City of London as a financial centre. The noise would cut the efficiency of people working in offices nearby. No other European city has a central heliport—unless one counts the heliport at Issy, which is as far from the commercial centre of Paris as the existing Battersea heliport is from the City of London.

    I happen to know a number of successful business men as well as some who are unsuccessful. Some dash about to offices and plants in different places, while others are the quiet type of millionaires who work from one point. Most tend to be sensible and reasonable people who take carefully measured decisions. That is especially true of the more successful among them. In general, they do not need or want to disturb thousands of people on the ground just to save themselves half-an-hour's travelling time. It is the second-rate businesss men—the grade 2 and grade 3 busines men—who are much more likely to rush about like scalded rabbits and would want to brag to their children, or possibly to their girl friends, that they have been up in a helicopter. The demand may be there, but the need is not.

    It is for the Government to decide what is right. Usually, the Secretary of State for the Environment can accept the advice of his planning inspectors, but sometimes he does not. If my hon. Friend the Minister has time, perhaps he will tell me the percentage of cases falling into each of those categories. I can give three prominent examples of an Environment Secretary refusing to accept the advice of inspectors following planning inquiries.

    The first concerns the fifth terminal at Heathrow, where a public inquiry lasted two years. The inspector—a distinguished barrister—recommended that a fifth terminal be constructed. I am glad that the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), chose to heed the advice of Members of Parliament representing constituencies in the Heathrow area rather than that of the inspector, and refused permission for the scheme to go ahead. My right hon. Friend made that decision on planning grounds, giving different weights to the various arguments from those assigned by the inspector.

    The second case was the extension to the National gallery. After the Prince of Wales had described the proposed scheme as
    "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend",
    the then Secretary of State refused planning consent.

    The third case was the reverse. The planning inspector had recommended refusal, as had Richmond borough council, of the scheme to construct a Sainsbury superstore which is to open to the public on Tuesday 29 May. That planning decision placed in the hands of a local charity, Hampton Fuel Allotments Trust, the sum of £21 million for the land, so what had been a relatively small village charity suddenly has an income of £1·5 million per year for the benefit of my constituents. I believe that most of my constituents are glad about that decision, just as they are about those relating to Heathrow and the National gallery.

    Very often, when a Secretary of State for the Environment refuses the advice of planning inspectors, his decision is right not only politically but in terms of value judgments and planning considerations. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has in the forefront of his mind the fact that, whatever a planning inspector recommends, he is no more than an adviser—albeit a distinguished adviser. Ultimately it is for the Secretary of State to reach a judgment, and it would be wrong for him ever to sacrifice his judgment to that of a planning inspector.

    I hope that when the planning inquiry takes place it will not be too long before the inspector reports to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who will consider the matter carefully, and that he will refuse planning permisson for this frightful application.

    3.19 pm

    The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
    (Mr. Colin Moynihan)

    I can respond immediately to the last matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) brought to my attention. I have the details that he requested. The chief inspector's report for the year ending March 1989 shows that the Secretary of State did not accept the inspector's recommendations in nine cases out of 100. My hon. Friend was therefore accurate when he mentioned the principle that the honorary advice received from inspectors following inquiries is further considered by the Secretary of State, who has to determine the outcome of any such appeal and does not need to accept that advice automatically. Nevertheless, the inspectorate is of first-rate quality and we are fortunate to have people with such first-rate minds applying themselves to problems which are often complex.

    I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham on winning his place in the ballot. As he said, the planning application for a heliport alongside Cannon street railway bridge was called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 22 March, and a public inquiry is to be held before one of his inspectors, starting on 2 October.

    The City of London Heliport Ltd. (CLH), a consortium which includes BAA, Hanson, Midland bank, Trafalgar House and the Carroll group of companies, submitted a planning application to the City of London on 12 December for a heliport. The proposal is to locate the heliport on the north bank of the Thames between London bridge and Cannon street railway bridge. The heliport would be cantilevered out over the river, and the deck would be slightly above the level of London and Cannon street bridges. The application provides for a maximum of 25,000 movements per annum, equating to approximately 91 a day. The application is accompanied by an environmental impact assessment, which covers such issues as noise, safety, water quality and cultural heritage.

    The proposed heliport would be restricted to certain twin-engined helicopters, as my hon. Friend has pointed out. That is to ensure that, should a helicopter suffer an engine failure, it will be more able to land safely. That is required to satisfy the requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority in respect of an elevated heliport such as CLH.

    Does that not imply that there is a conflict between safety and noise abatement? To make the heliport safer, helicopters will have to have an extra engine which will make them more noisy. One way or another, the public will suffer—either from more noise or from less safety.

    I make no qualitative judgment—it is for the inspector to consider noise and the important issue of safety.

    At present the Department has received 223 representations, including 10 from local authorities. They are split fairly evenly between those in favour and those against. It appears that the arguments have fined down to the important questions that my hon. Friend has raised—noise and safety, versus need for the heliport. That is borne out by the representations received so far.

    In the first instance, the application was made to the corporation of the City. The Government's policy is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of the local planning authority unless it is necessary to do so, to be very selective about calling in cases for the Secretary of State to decide, and generally to call in applications only if planning issues of more than local importance are involved—for example, those which in the Department's opinion could have side effects beyond their immediate locality, could give rise to substantial regional or national controversy, might conflict with national policy on important matters, or could involve interests of national security or of foreign Governments.

    My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided that this was such a case, and that he should take the decision himself after a public inquiry. He will consider all planning aspects of the proposed development, and he has said that on the information so far available the following matters appear likely to be relevant to his consideration of the application: first, the provisions of the local plan adopted on 12 January 1989 so far as material to the application; secondly, the effects of noise and pollution arising from the proposed development; thirdly, the suitability of the site for the proposed development; fourthly, the effect of the development on the character of the area; and, fifthly, the likely effect of the development on traffic movement in nearby streets. Clearly, the important issue of safety is relevant to some of those considerations.

    The inquiry will be held at the City of London Corporation Guildhall at 10 am on Tuesday 2 October 1990. The inspector will be Mr. Brundel. The inquiry will provide the opportunity for all those concerned to put their views to the inspector, and the best course is to attend or to be represented there. Interested persons may give evidence at the discretion of the inspector. Those wishing to give evidence are advised to attend on the first morning of the inquiry to assist the inspector in determining the order of appearance.

    A pre-inquiry meeting is to be held at the same venue at 10 am on Tuesday 31 July. The purpose of the meeting is to help the parties prepare for the actual inquiry and so enable the proceedings to be conducted as smoothly and efficiently as possible. It will also help the parties to concentrate on the main issues in dispute, saving time and expense for all concerned. It is not for the purpose of hearing evidence, which is for the inquiry itself.

    The Government recognise the need to balance environmental concerns with aviation interests.

    My hon. Friend appreciates that I cannot comment on the merits of the case. As he rightly stated, that might prejudice my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial role. However, on the most important point I can say that his views will be carefully noted by both my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport.

    Does the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) have the consent of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel)?

    If there is time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have further points to put to my hon. Friend the Minister.

    Is the hon. Member for Twickenham objecting to the hon. Member for Chichester?

    My hon. Friend the Minister has not so far had time to answer one of the points that I put to him. I should be grateful if he would find the time to do so, as we have approximately three and three quarter minutes left.

    I gave my hon. Friend the Minister notice of this matter by telephoning his private secretary or another official in the Department of the Environment who was in touch with his private secretary this morning. I refer to an extract from the debate on civil aviation as reported in the Official Report of 22 June 1984. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) was the then Minister who replied to the debate. As I said 20 minutes ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West said:
    "Noise can be a potent destroyer of the quality of life. The Government care about the environment … Helicopters seem to have a special pitch of vibrating noise … In the light of the environmental disturbance caused by the service we could not justify allowing it to continue in operation … we must give due weight to environmental considerations in dealing with such cases.—[Official Report, 22 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 655.]
    The official to whom I spoke assured me that it would be possible for the Department of the Environment to locate a copy of the Official Report of 22 June 1984 and place it before my hon. Friend the Minister. I do not know whether that happened. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say whether the sentiments in the speech by the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West, remain Government policy? It is crucial to this matter. The Minister can comment without prejudicing the Secretary of State's decision at the public inquiry. It is merely an expression of Government policy, but it is important for me to know. I feel that I have the right, on behalf of my constituents, to ask whether the notion of not allowing the Heathrow to Gatwick helicopter link to continue because of the exceptional environmental disturbance of helicopter noise remains Government policy.

    I have not seen that speech, but I will respond to my hon. Friend and ensure that he has a detailed answer in writing. If it is not directly relevant in terms of pre-empting or prejudging the specific issue to be considered by the inquiry, the reply will made available to him in the usual manner through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

    3.30 pm

    In the dying moments of the debate, may I, with the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), say a few words in favour of the proposals? I should regret it if the opinion were to be put about that the House was universally against them. There are strong arguments why a heliport is essential for the City of London to retain its pre-eminent position as a financial centre, and I hope that British Telecom—

    Order, Before I put the question, I express the hope that all hon. Members and those who serve us will have an enjoyable and relaxing recess.

    It being half-past Three o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Order [ 11 May] and the Resolution [23 May] till Tuesday 5 June.