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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 194: debated on Monday 1 July 1991

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Transport

Vale Of Glamorgan Railway

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the reopening of the Vale of Glamorgan railway line to passenger transport.

It is for British Rail to consider the case for reopening this line to passenger use.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that many of my constituents welcomed the recent statement by the Secretary of State for Transport about the new commitment and investment in rail transport and switching transport from road to rail. Is he aware that they welcomed the statement because they have suffered over the past few years from the familiar problems of traffic congestion, noise and pollution? The reopening of the Vale of Glamorgan freight line to passengers would solve that problem and provide a very attractive tourist magnet and a vital link to Cardiff-Wales airport. We welcome the statement and we hope that the Minister will ask the chairman at least to carry out a feasibility study for opening the line. I am afraid that some of my constituents are saying that it is all very well for the Government to make a statement, but they should put their money where their mouth is.

The Government put their money where their mouth is and that is why last week my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced the increase in funds available to British Rail. We need no lectures from the Labour party about the importance of British Rail. We have presided over a net opening of stations while the previous Labour Government presided over closures.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the chances of reopening the Vale of Glamorgan railway line would be considerably enhanced by the privatisation of British Rail? In that context, can he comment on the Government's progress in considering the possibilities of privatisation?

An important part of the speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State not so long ago was our intention to end the monopoly under which British Rail runs on the railways. That will bring competition to the railways and it will be better for the future of British Rail and provide opportunities for new lines to be opened.

Freight Transport

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the implementation of his objective of transferring more freight traffic from road to rail.

I recently announced an improved environmental grant scheme to help pay for rail freight facilities that will keep lorries off unsuitable roads. I plan in due course to end British Rail's monopoly by opening up the railways to other operators who want to provide rail freight services and I am giving full support to BR's plans for channel tunnel rail freight services which will remove some 400,000 lorry journeys from our roads each year.

I am pleased today to announce that I have approved British Rail's investment in a further seven new locomotives for channel tunnel freight services, costing some £20 million.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government's objective of moving freight from road to rail will be meaningless without increased funding? Does he deplore British Rail's decision to refuse to allow a channel tunnel freight facility in the north-east of England? Will he take this opportunity publicly to express regret for the 12 years of wasted opportunity when the Government could have promoted the cause of the railways, but singularly failed to do so?

British Rail is authorising some £300 million of expenditure on freight services to service the channel tunnel. It is for BR to decide whether a particular freight terminal in the north-east is necessary. On the latter part of the hon. Lady's question, one recalls that investment in the railways fell during the previous Labour Government while it is higher today than at any time since Dr. Beeching.

While wholeheartedly welcoming the recent policy change announced by my right hon. and learned Friend and hoping that the thought is father unto the deed in respect of new investment in the railways, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to contemplate the proposition that our industrial competitors in the Community are running new stock on new railways while our investment goes into providing new stock for Victorian railways? Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore look at what the west Germans are doing, particularly the government railway commission which was set up by Chancellor Kohl, and examine infrastructure and investment so that we can begin to get a level playing field for investment in roads compared with rail?

I am most interested in what is happening elsewhere in the European Community. I was particularly delighted that, at the previous meeting of the Council of Transport Ministers, the European Community accepted a British-inspired initiative which, for the first time, will ensure the opportunity for competition in the provision of international freight services throughout the Community. For the first time in our history it will be possible for British Rail operators to provide international freight services to other countries of the Community as a matter of right. I hope that the Opposition, who until now have preserved and been enamoured of British Rail's monopoly, will realise that Europe as a whole has rejected monopoly and is welcoming competition.

How can the Secretary of State justify his recent statement about being enthusiastically and unequivocally in favour of the movement of freight from road to rail when this week he will be responsible for closing Speedlink to save £30 million, thereby putting many thousands of loads on to the roads, particularly the A1, and when he is about to spend £800 million to widen the A I to deal with extra loads?

The hon. Gentleman is characteristically wrong both in his facts and his interpretation. First, Speedlink is a decision for British Rail. Secondly, this year, it expects, on a total turnover of £45 million, a loss of about £40 million. If the hon. Gentleman would maintain a business with that sort of loss, it shows why he is unfit to he put in charge of the affairs of this country. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman seems to be completely unaware that British Rail has already negotiated for more than half its Speedlink traffic to continue to be carried by rail by other means.

Although I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's latter point about Speedlink, does he agree that it seems to many of us that British Rail has almost deliberately run down its freight services, particularly in areas like mine in Cornwall? Over the weekend, for example, a haulier rang me about the closure of the Speedlink depot in Truro which serves a large part of Cornwall. Is not the British Rail approach to business summed up by the train on which I travelled from the west country today? It set off from Plymouth with only eight sandwiches in the refreshment car. Is not exactly that approach being applied in some other parts of British Rail's business, not least freight?

My hon. Friend is correct in emphasising that there seem to be occasionally missed opportunities for British Rail, particularly in the west country which he represents. It is for such reasons that we are committed to ending British Rail's statutory monopoly in order that new rail operators, including Foster Yeoman in the west country, can provide the rail services, particularly rail freight services, that they believe to be necessary. It is a matter of great sadness that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and Mr. Jimmy Knapp appear to be the last two petrified fossils in Europe seeking to preserve that monopoly when all of Europe is now rejecting it.

Channel Tunnel Freight Terminal

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the case for a channel tunnel freight terminal in Greater Manchester.

British Rail plans a channel tunnel freight terminal for 1992 in Greater Manchester, either at Trafford Park or Guide Bridge. A decision will be made shortly. For the longer term, British Rail is examining the feasibility of establishing a freight terminal on a greenfield site in the north-west, with good motorway connections.

May I urge the Minister to use his offices to persuade British Rail to pick the Guide Bridge site on the edge of my constituency? It is an extremely large site and it would be very good for picking up freight in Greater Manchester and transferring it to rail to go across Europe. British Rail has examined the site, but has taken a long time to decide on it; and it is a matter of great regret that it has not announced a decision to go ahead at Guide Bridge straight away so that hauliers in Greater Manchester can start to plan for that. It will also have excellent motorway links by the time it opens.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for supporting British Rail's concept of trying to develop combined transport—freight delivered by road within a fairly narrowly defined area to a rail terminal for onward shipping to other parts of the country and through the channel tunnel. I shall pass on his concerns to British Rail and tell it of his support for the idea of a new freight terminal.

Will my hon. Friend speed up British Rail's granting of freight terminals in Greater Manchester and the rest of the north-west? Inward and various other north-west industrial organisations urged the previous Secretary of State for Transport to use his good offices to get the chairman of British Rail to make a decision. We must plan for the future; the tunnel will be open in 1993 and we have not reached the starting point for our freight. For areas on the periphery of the tunnel, connection to the continent is important so that we can deliver our exports quickly and speedily.

As my hon. Friend knows, of the nine sites for channel tunnel freight terminal business, six have already been announced and three have yet to be specified—Merseyside, Manchester and the Strathclyde-Glasgow area. I intend to visit the north-west shortly and I am confident that British Rail will have made a decision before I go.

Pedestrian Accidents

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many pedestrians are killed or injured each day; and what steps he is taking to reduce the numbers.

The provisional figures for the first three months of this year show that the average number of pedestrians killed or injured each day was 142, a reduction of about one fifth compared with the same period in 1990.

Does my hon. Friend accept that a group of pedestrians who put themselves at unnecessary risk are those who weave in and out of traffic at major crossroads plying their services as washers of windscreens? Is not there something that my hon. Friend could do to stop it?

The best solution is for drivers of vehicles to wash their windscreens before they embark on their journeys—that would put those people out of business. But there is a more serious issue to do with pedestrian safety—

The hon. Gentleman may say that, but this is indeed what free enterprise is all about. If there is no demand for a service there will be no opportunity to make money from it. I suggest that if people cleaned their windscreens before setting out on their journeys there would be no business for those who obstruct traffic in this way.

Is the Minister aware that the number of child deaths and injuries is causing great concern to many road safety organisations? Will he launch a nationwide campaign to get the figures down?

I am pleased to say that in the first three months of this year the number of child fatalities among pedestrians fell by one third. That is jolly good progress.

Will my hon. Friend hold urgent discussions with the Home Secretary about the prosecution of cyclists who cycle on pavements, especially taking into account the case of four-year-old Abbie-Gail Copley, who came out of her house last week in Chapelfields road, York, and was knocked down by a cyclist, following which she required more than 20 stitches in her face? Sad to say, North Yorkshire police have taken no action. Will my hon. Friend discuss such cases urgently with the Home Secretary so that cyclists know the state of the law?

I doubt whether there is any dispute about the state of the law. It is not ignorance of the law that is causing a number of cyclists to behave in an anti-social and dangerous manner. Enforcement of the law must be a matter for the police.

Although I welcome the reduction in the number of pedestrian deaths, does the Minister accept that many of these deaths are due to fast driving, particularly in built-up city areas? Does he also accept that something more should be done to reduce the speed of cars in our inner cities and, where drivers are going faster than they should, to ensure that they are prosecuted so that elderly people in particular are able to walk about, feeling safe on the pavements?

There is much sense in what the hon. Lady says. The Government are in favour of traffic-calming measures in urban areas and we have introduced a power for local authorities to impose 20 mph zones. All that is lacking is the will on the part of some local authorities to take the necessary action.

Humber Bridge

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is the latest estimate he has as to the current level of debt being carried by the Humber bridge board.

The debt on the Humber bridge at 31 March this year was just over £400 million. Since 1986, we have accepted that the bridge is an exceptional case. My right hon. and learned Friend is writing to the chairman of the bridge board to propose a package for writing off and suspending those parts of the debt that cannot be financed from toll charges. Some debt will remain to be serviced from toll revenues. I shall introduce at an early opportunity the necessary legislative measures to give effect to the arrangements.

Has not this saga gone on long enough? As my hon. Friend has admitted that this is a special case, will he be reasonably clear about when the Government will make an announcement about a partial debt write-off? I say that reluctantly, but I have had to reach that conclusion because my hon. Friend knows as well as I do that the income from the bridge does not even meet the interest payments, let alone the amount necessary to write off capital.

I accept that that is the problem and that is why I have just made my announcement. I cannot be more specific until we know exactly when we can bring in the legislative measures. It will then be necessary to calculate what amount of debt has to be written off to make sure that the toll charges are bearable.

High-Speed Rail Link

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on British Rail's proposals for a high-speed rail link through Kent.

The Government are considering British Rail's report on the options for the rail link.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that four of the proposed routes for the high-speed rail link go across my constituency. For three years, local residents have had to put up with agony and anxiety as British Rail has blundered forward with its plans. In coming to a conclusion, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the fact that we in north-west Kent have nothing to gain in transport terms from a high-speed rail link and everything to lose in terms of our environment?

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns and they will be taken into account in considering the recommendations of British Rail which I received just over four weeks ago. I emphasise that not only has British Rail already commissioned considerable environmental assessment studies of the various route options, but that whichever option might be chosen as the preferred route will be subject to a full environmental impact assessment with the proper opportunity for public consultation and comment.

As the Secretary of State is aware, the London channel tunnel group, which wishes to pressure him to make a decision, is here to lobby Parliament. Therefore, will he tell us whether he will make a statement before the House rises for the summer recess? Will the Secretary of State make a decision on the Government's view before the full environmental assessment study on one or both routes?

I cannot give the precise timing of any Government decision on the preferred route. British Rail has asked us to say whether we can agree what the preferred route should be, so that it can go ahead with a full environmental impact assessment of whichever route might be chosen. That is the basis on which we are approaching these matters.

My right hon. and learned Friend said that he received the report four weeks ago, but he answered the question to the effect that he received it on 3 May, nearly two months ago. [Interruption.] That is what he said in reply to the question. Does he appreciate that although he said that early publication would cause blight to properties along the route, such blight has existed for some years and continues? Bearing in mind the fact that, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said, the London channel tunnel group is here lobbying the House today, urging for publication of the proposals so as to remove uncertainty, speculation and rumours, will he seriously consider publishing the proposals? My right hon. and learned Friend has already said that he will not show a preference, but only publish them. Will he please do it so that we all know where we stand?

I shall clarify the position to ensure that my hon. Friend is not misled. If we were to publish all four routes now that would cause considerable unnecessary concern to many people. The preferable course of action is for the Government to consider the recommendations that British Rail has put to us and to come to a judgment on the preferred route—the route on which a proper environmental impact assessment should take place. That is what we are working on at the moment and I intend to report to the House on those matters as soon as I can.

Fishing Vessels (Safety)

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any plans to meet representatives of the catching sector of the fishing industry in order to discuss matters relating to the occupational safety of the crews of United Kingdom-registered fishing vessels; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. and learned Friend met representatives of the Scottish fishing industry on 24 April. There is a regular dialogue with the fishing industry on all aspects of safety, including the occupational safety of crews, at the twice-yearly meetings of the fishing industry safety group.

The circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Antares aroused deep distress and considerable anger throughout Scotland's fishing communities. I believe that the Minister is aware that the Royal Navy has published its report into the sinking of that vessel. When will his Department publish its report? Has the Minister received any suggestion from the Lord Advocate's office that a fatal accident inquiry will be held? Does he agree that the families of the four men who were drowned in that tragic collision between the submarine and the fishing boat deserve substantial compensation? Presumably that compensation will not be paid until his Department has published its report and a fatal accident inquiry has been held. Has the Minister any information about that inquiry?

As the hon. Gentleman said, the question whether there should be a fatal accident inquiry is a matter for the Lord Advocate and specific questions about establishing such an inquiry should properly be directed to him.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, last week my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced a major extension of the monitoring scheme, operated through the coastguard, which records where submarines are operating. That extension was warmly welcomed by the fishing industry. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must do all that we can to ensure that accidents such as that involving the Antares do not happen again.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is considerable relief in the United Kingdom fishing community at the retention of the Decca navigation system? That community would have faced substantially increased costs had the Loran C system been adopted in place of the Decca system.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right that strong representations were made by the Scottish fishing industry to my right hon. and learned Friend at the meeting to which I referred. We took account of those representations as well as of the fact that, in the end, we received a far better offer from Decca which made us able to switch back to that system. It is worth pointing out that it is only in the United Kingdom where the user pays. It is important that, when we agree on negotiations, the user pays as little as possible, but gets a good system.

Is the Minister also aware that there is widespread growing alarm at the number of tragic accidents involving the loss of fishing vessels and their crew? I am talking particularly about the Pescado and the Wilhelmina J. When will the Minister give me a full answer to my letter to him of 30 April? When will he give us the real details that were exposed in an article in the Daily Mirror last Thursday? The Minister must tell the House when we can expect the full Department of Transport report into the Wilhelmina J tragedy to be made public. Why will not the Minister agree to our demand for a public inquiry about shipping safety and for tougher safety regulations to cover flag of convenience shipping?

It seems that in response to the hon. Lady's supplementary question we must go over ground that has been trodden in the past. Losses of fishing vessels between 1975 and 1979 were far in excess of the losses of the past five years. I am sure that no one in this place disagrees that safety is extremely important. The sinking of the Wilhelmina J is still being considered by the Department's legal advisers. I should like to be able publicly to issue a bulletin, but I am unable to do so because an injunction has been served against the Department. The document was given to various relatives and others involved and it has now fallen into the hands of the press. The situation is not acceptable and I am considering the way in which the regulations are framed to ascertain whether an amendment is necessary to enable me to publish the document.

Given the important responsibilities of the Department of Transport to ensure the safety of fishermen, has the Department undertaken any review of its system of discussing with the Department of Energy and the Ministry of Defence such matters as the Antares disaster and the difficulties that fishermen face as a result of debris being left in the North sea by those engaged in the oil industry? Is any specific mechanism being established, or does the Department of Transport just wait for other Departments to initiate discussions?

Not at all. There are regular discussions between all Departments on matters that concern fishermen. Today my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced an increase in the area that is covered by the submarine notice. I think that that announcement was warmly welcomed by the fishing industry in Scotland.

Freight Transport

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will take steps to ensure that plans for freight movement on the channel tunnel rail link will be on United Kingdom wagons which are compatible with the gauge of continental tracks.

British Rail plans to use freight wagons on channel tunnel services which will be compatible with both United Kingdom and continental loading gauges.

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the alternative proposals to that of British Rail is to make provision for a dedicated freight route with a track and wagon gauge that would be fully compatible with European gauges, which I think British Rail's are not?

My hon. Friend is well aware that the Ove Arup proposal includes some facility for freight to pass along its railway lines. I can assure my hon. Friend that in deciding upon a preferred route and then making an announcement on the route for the new rail link, both British Rail and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will consider whether the existing arrangements—small-wheeled bogies, special wagons and the use of the existing railway lines—are consistent with a proper international freight service by the end of the decade.

Will the Minister pay careful attention to what the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) said, which was absolutely right? No amount of waffle from the Government Front Bench will compensate for what the Government are not doing for the railway system. If the Minister wants freight to be moved on our railways instead of on our roads, he should announce that continental loading gauges and freight wagons will be able to come into the United Kingdom on a dedicated track from Folkestone to Dover and then up to the midlands and on to the north-east and the north-west. Anything less from the Minister will not do.

To convert British Rail's tracks to continental gauge throughout the country would cost many billions of pounds, and there is no prospect of that happening. From 1993, when the channel tunnel opens, onwards, British Rail and the other railway operators are planning to use special wagons—low-wheeled bogied wagons—that will be able to travel on both European and British gauges. That will provide a freight service that will meet demand from 1993 onwards. In the longer term, as I made clear in answer to the supplementary question by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), we shall consider whether these arrangements are adequate for the services needed for international freight at the end of the decade.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that long-term planning features in the decision that is made on both freight and passenger traffic? Is my hon. Friend aware that if Britain's system is not compatible with the European system, we shall put ourselves at a long-term disadvantage in both the passenger and freight sectors? Does he further agree that there is a danger even now of Britain being described, sometimes in despair, by SNCF people as "branch-line" Britain? That we cannot have.

This Conservative Government believe strongly in long-term planning—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) may laugh, but he conveniently forgets that we have a 15-year, long-term construction programme for London Underground and a road building programme stretching over a comparable period.

Following a statement that my right hon. and learned Friend hopes to make in due course about a rail link, we will have a railway building programme that will provide a long-term plan for Britain's railway system. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) is right to say that we need a first-class freight system to take freight between this country and the continent, and we shall have it.

Can the Minister confirm that the Ove Arup proposal studied by British Rail and W. S. Atkins was for a two-tier railway that could be used for both passengers and freight, and which would be built to the higher European standard gauge? Does he accept that the public are aware of the routes that are being considered? As his right hon. and learned Friend refuses to say that he will make up his mind before the summer recess, will the Government acknowledge the public interest in this matter and publish the reports at the end of this parliamentary Session?

Not only is there great public interest in a new rail link, but my right hon. and learned Friend and the Government are paying a great deal of attention to what is a most important project. We need a new rail link between Dover and London primarily to cope with passengers. We must deal with the increase in the expected number of international passengers and the growth in commuter service demand in the south-east. Freight is important, but in the short term, from 1993, it will travel on existing lines and with the new technology, to which I referred earlier.

When considering freight movement following the building of the channel tunnel, will my hon. Friend and British Rail reconsider the possibility of a freight terminal at Reading? I assure him that there is a great deal of support for that.

I shall certainly convey my hon. Friend's view to British Rail. It is for BR, rather than for Ministers, to decide where freight terminals should be located. Ministers' responsibility is to ensure that British Rail has a policy and gets on with it.

West Yorkshire Rail Electrification

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement concerning the future of the West Yorkshire rail electrification scheme.

As I said in my reply to the hon. Member on 18 June, credit approvals are reserved for the infrastructure costs of the West Yorkshire rail electrification scheme. We shall consider resources for rolling stock as a matter of urgency when decisions are taken on the allocation of credit approvals for 1992–93.

Will the Minister confirm that his Department remains committed to the electrification scheme and recognises the importance of retaining Bradford as part of the InterCity network, the need to encourage more people to use local trains, and the importance of electrification to jobs and the expansion of the local economy? It will be very much regretted that he has been unable today to confirm that the scheme—all parts of it—will proceed immediately. We recognise the dead hand of the Treasury behind the dither and delay. Will the Minister give an early sign that a green light will be given to the scheme so that it can go ahead without any further delay?

Unlike the Opposition, the Government have to find the money that they commit themselves to spending. However, I hope that the electrification project can go ahead next year.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the considerable significance that people, not only in Bradford but Airedale and Wharfedale, attach to that scheme, which would more than better the 8 per cent. return on capital that the Treasury requires? Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that unless West Yorkshire passenger transport executive can order soon the rolling stock to run on its splendid new electrified lines, its price may rise—which might place that 8 per cent. return in jeopardy?

I am well aware of that problem, and I stand by my statement that I hope that the project can get the go-ahead next year.

New Railways

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to permit new railway operations.

As my right hon. and learned Friend said earlier, we propose to give private-sector operators a right of access to British Rail's track. We are considering the details of how to do that, but legislation will be needed.

The north-west rail users' group believes that the Liverpool to north Wales line could be a commercial proposition, but apparently British Rail does not share that view. Will my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals allow a commercial operator to prove British Rail wrong?

The answer is yes. Meanwhile, before primary legislation can be presented to the House to permit such a commercial venture, all propositions involving private sector finance are welcome, and British Rail and my right hon. and learned Friend will study any such proposals.

The Arts

New Opera House

27.

To ask the Minister for the Arts if he will consider funding the building of a new opera house in London.

London already has two large-scale opera houses and an increasing range of other places in which opera is performed. Much as I might personally welcome it, I see no need for a further opera house.

Although one would not expect a Tory Government to emulate a French socialist President, will the Minister confirm that Covent Garden's subsidy averages about £40 per seat per performance? Nevertheless, when great stars appear at Covent Garden, few ordinary people can see their performances because of business subscriptions and the prior claim to seats that many other people have. Does the Minister agree that there is a case to be made for staging productions with world-famous stars at a much bigger auditorium, so that the benefits of subsidy can be enjoyed by a much larger number of people?

Despite the fact that the French have just built a new opera house, there are many more opera performances in London than in Paris. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a need to present opera to a wider audience, which is why I am happy that a number of groups, such as Opera 80, Opera Factory, and Mecklenburgh Opera, perform in small theatres throughout London. The Royal Opera house has reduced the proportion of its income that is derived from subsidy from 53 per cent. five years ago to 37 per cent. now. It also plans to stage at Kenwood and in the piazza outside Covent Garden popular productions that will be seen by many thousands of people.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that as no one would attend the opera unless it was subsidised from the public purse, even contemplating the building of a new opera house would place another millstone around the taxpayers' neck?

I am bound to remind my hon. Friend that when the Royal Opera house stages and records "Carmen" in the open air in the piazza, there will be no direct cost to the taxpayer. I hope that my hon. Friend himself will take the opportunity to sample the delights of "Carmen".

Most right hon. and hon. Members, although perhaps not all, will have been disappointed by the Minister's reply to the original question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). Will the Minister consider two related points? First, English National Opera's lease on the London Coliseum expires in 1996, when it will be the only national company without a permanent home. Secondly, the London Coliseum and other great cultural buildings incur high maintenance costs. The Minister will know that the Tate, for example, has holes in its roof and needs to spend £27 million, and that the national gallery, where the new Sainsbury wing is to open tomorrow, needs £20 million spent on it. Is not that an appalling indictment of 12 years of Government incompetence and neglect? Does the Minister have a policy, and what does he intend to do about the English National Opera's lease and our great cultural buildings?

I am well aware that English National Opera's lease expires in 1996. The Arts Council, others and I are in negotiation with the owners of the lease to find out on what terms it might he continued so that ENO can continue the great run of successes that it has had at the Coliseum. As regards the wider question raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) Labour's arts policy on such difficult issues has the size and originality of a postage stamp. I wrote an article in Saturday's The Daily Telegraph about encouraging business sponsorship of the arts. What do I find? Most of my arguments were repeated by the hon. Gentleman in The Mail on Sunday yesterday, bringing to mind the old saying of Tom Lehrer,

"Plagiarise, plagiarise, let nothing evade your eyes."

Symphony Concerts

28.

To ask the Minister for the Arts how many symphony concerts by symphony orchestras or sinfoniettas receiving publicly funded support took place in London in June.

I do not have information on the number of concerts funded by local government, but I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that 46 concerts were given by symphony orchestras, sinfonietta and chamber orchestras in London in June with Arts Council support.

Does not that excellent figure of 46 reflect a superb range of concerts of great breadth and diversity and, as the BBC Promenade concert season is about to begin, reinforce London as the music capital of the world? Is not the figure noticeably better than that for Paris where there are larger subsidies?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, as I am sure does the whole House. He makes his point—dare I say it—on a high note. I congratulate him on behalf of the whole House on the fact that he has just been appointed to the Council of the Association of British Orchestras. There he will doubtless continue clearly to make his point about the success of London as a centre for music.

Regional Arts Boards

29.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what progress has been made in setting up the new regional arts boards.

I am delighted to report that good progress has been made. Eight chairmen and one chairwoman have been appointed to nine of the 10 new boards, and the remaining board members have been, or are, in the process of being appointed.

All the new boards now have chief executives, and a start has been made on recruiting other members of staff. The new boards are, therefore, firmly on target to be fully operational by 1 October this year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, which shows great progress towards the establishment of a more cost-effective form of administrating the arts. Would he care to tell the House about the sort of savings that he might envisage as a result of doing away with a centralised bureaucratic structure and replacing it with a more clearly identifiable regional structure?

Yes, I am hoping that in the first stage of reorganisation there will be savings by 1993 on an annual basis of at least £1 million. All that money will then be available to go to arts companies, rather than to be spent on administration. That is a significant amount and I shall look for further savings once the new regional arts boards are fully in place and we can tell how the integrated structure between them and the Arts Council at the centre works out.

Can the Minister say how near he is to knowing which clients are to be retained by the Arts Council and which are to go to the regional arts boards? When does he expect that to be sorted out?

An initial list of delegated clients—as the phrase is—was announced by the Arts Council with my agreement a month or two ago. There will be no further delegations until the autumn of next year. Then, when the new national arts strategy has been delivered to me by the Arts Council, I shall take further decisions about the delegation of those companies that remain with the Arts Council.

Amateur Theatre

30.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what measures he intends to take to promote amateur theatre in the regions.

Amateur theatre is traditionally self-reliant. In the past 25 years or so there has been a sustained growth in amateur theatre, which has been encouraged by the regional arts association network and local authorities.

Will my right hon. Friend have a word with North West Arts to find out whether it can get together with Warrington borough council to find a new home for the Centenary theatre group in Warrington which has been displaced out of Crosfields?

I am sorry to hear of that difficulty. Amateur theatre and the arts generally play a vital role in arts provision in all areas, including places with limited access to professional work. I have already taken up with the Arts Council the question of that little company and I am glad to say that the Arts Board: North West will be writing to my hon. Friend today to tell him what steps it proposes to take.

Grants (North-West)

31.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what proportion of the Arts Council grant in 1991–92 has been allocated to the north-west of England; and if he will make a statement.

The Arts Council grant to Merseyside Arts and North West Arts and its own estimated direct spending in the region amount to nearly £9·5 million. This represents 4·9 per cent. of the total Arts Council grant.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of the Arts Council grant to many of the cultural activities of the north-west. It is especially important to our orchestras, such as the Hallé and the Royal Liverpool philharmonic. Has my right hon. Friend any plans to assist the Royal Liverpool philharmonic with its ambitious project to expand and with its original costs, incurred by its taking over a new building in the centre of Liverpool?

I have met the chairman of the Hallé, and I know about its ambition to have its own concern hall in Manchester. That will require a good deal of money, but I hope that it will manage to raise considerable sponsorship, together with some support from the Arts Council. The appeal for the Royal Liverpool philharmonic is going well. I was delighted to be able to launch it some months ago. I hope that the Royal Liverpool philharmonic will soon have a redecorated home, and that the Hallé will have a new one.

Poetry

32.

To ask the Minister for the Arts if he will meet the chairman of the Arts Council to discuss support for poetry.

I meet the chairman of the Arts Council regularly for discussions on a range of subjects.

When the Minister next meets the Arts Council chairman, will he discuss with him the threat to the existence of the magazine Aquarius, which is published by Mr. Eddie Linden? This small poetry magazine requires very little financial support, although it has been a breeding ground for many a poet who has proceeded to become eminent and successful. Will the Minister arrange with the Arts Council chairman for an application for support to be made?

I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman's interest in this subject and in the literary magazine in question. I assure him that the Arts Council provides help for literary magazines—usually as a one-off, as it prefers to avoid long-term commitments. I understand that no approach has yet been made to the Arts Council about Aquarius, but, if such an approach is made, the Arts Council will certainly consider whether it can give the magazine reasonable assistance.

Civil Service

Book Manuscripts (Vetting)

36.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service how many manuscripts of books have been submitted for vetting by the head of the civil service in the last two years; and if he will list the authors.

In the past two years 10 authors have submitted manuscripts to the head of the home civil service under the guidelines of the Radcliffe report. Those whose books have so far been published include the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey); my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie); my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler); Lord Young of Graffham; Sir Alec Cairncross; Sir Bernard Ingham and Mr. Edmund Dell. Three others have submitted manuscripts but have not yet had their books published.

There are quite a few literary gems there.

Is not the vetting procedure a bit of a nonsense? It has far more to do with preventing potential Government embarrassment than with protecting national security. Most ministerial memoirs—although not, of course, the book by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)—are selective, impenetrable and tedious.

Would it not be far better if we scrapped the whole procedure and adopted a free system, so that everyone could be given the truth? I doubt whether, when the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) writes her memoirs—no doubt they will be called "We Did It Our Way", or something of the kind—we shall read the truth about the Belgrano or Westland. Why do we not get away from all this rubbish? Ministers rarely tell us the truth in retrospect.

I am sure that the whole House will await the memoirs of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) with eager interest. I hope, however, that he will show rather more loyalty to his Front-Bench colleagues than did Barbara Castle. According to her memoirs, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was ticked off by Lord Callaghan for serving the Prime Minister and not the whole Cabinet. Apparently, Lord Callaghan said:

"Another of Harold's failures is that he has done nothing to reform the Civil Service, and merely comforted himself by surrounding himself with comics like Gerald Kaufman."
I assume that, whether or not he submits his memoirs to the Radcliffe committee rules, the hon. Gentleman will be rather more loyal to the shadow Foreign Secretary.

Will my right hon. Friend be candid enough to admit that the vetting procedure is becoming a charade, partly because civil service vetters are incapable of distinguishing between security and embarrassment and partly because there are no sanctions against those who defy the suggestions of the vetting office? Is he aware that at least one ministerial author, whose memoirs will be published shortly, has taken no notice of the cuts that were suggested? Will he be taken off to the Tower of London when the book is published?

My hon. Friend well knows that there are no sanctions, but I must disagree with him: the system, which is voluntary, has worked well. Sir Bernard Ingham submitted his memoirs to the Cabinet Secretary and made all the changes that the Radcliffe rules require. It is better to have a voluntary system than a compulsory one, and by and large it works reasonably well.

Is the Minister aware that the Prime Minister has prohibited the publication of the evidence that I submitted to the Select Committee on Members' Interests, which contained the instructions that Mr. Callaghan gave Ministers about private financial interests? I have heard today from the Chairman of the Select Committee that, for that reason, he will not publish my evidence. Is he aware that, in the circumstances, I intend to publish it myself?

I am interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that. Whether his decision is right, and whether he can justify it to himself, it follows in the tradition that he has followed in the past. In his memoirs Against the Tide", he said:

"when my civil servants turn up with a letter to undermine another Minister, I tear it up‖That's more than can be said of other Ministers."
I think that he is probably following the same path of slightly idiosyncratic rebellion that he followed when he was a Minister in the Labour Cabinet.

Next Steps Agencies

37.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what improvements in customer service have been brought about by the creation of next steps agencies.

Improving the quality of customer service is one of the prime aims of next steps, and agencies are given targets for that. To quote but two of the many examples, the Meteorological Office's "Weather Initiative" provided umbrella retailers and manufacturers with advance information on the likelihood of last week's rain so that they could plan their production and distribution accordingly. The Driver Standards Agency has reduced waiting times for driving tests, and in order to promote road safety, examiners will now explain faults made by learners.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's reply. Does he agree that the next steps agencies will help to improve service to all consumers?

I have no doubt that one of the main purposes of the next steps agencies is to give greater customer satisfaction, which will be achieved only by providing better service.

Does the Minister believe that one of the improvements in customer services as a result of setting up the agencies should be that applicants for income support should automatically be assessed for any other grant or benefit that may be available to them?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been over this before. As I said, it is for the Secretary of State involved and the agency's chief executive to set the performance targets that he expects the chief executive to meet. If the hon. Gentleman would like to take this matter up with the Secretary of State for Social Security and the chief executive of the agency, I am sure that they will carefully consider his suggestion.

European Community Institutions

38.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what steps he is taking to increase the number of United Kingdom secondees to European Community institutions.

My Department has been spearheading a drive to increase the number of United Kingdom secondees to the European Community institutions. Since April 1990, the number of United Kingdom secondees has increased from 63 to more than 100.

That increase is highly welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of secondees and their seniority play a vital role in ensuring that the United Kingdom's interests are well represented at the formulation of policy in EC institutions?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. Secondments to the EC are an effective way of increasing our influence in the institutions. When secondees return to Whitehall, they bring back valuable experience which will be helpful in their Departments' dealings with the EC.

Disabled People

39.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service when he last met representatives of the civil service trade unions to discuss opportunities for people with disabilities.

I meet representatives of the civil service trade unions from time to time to discuss a variety of issues. They have not raised opportunities for people with disabilities with me, but my staff have regular meetings with them on this issue and keep me informed of progress.

Does the Minister agree that people with disabilities have a great deal to offer in many places, including the civil service? Many have acquired considerable skills in tackling their disabilities, which means that they would be of great benefit operating fully in the civil service. If there is anywhere that should provide open access and should not be biased against disabled people, it is the civil service.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will be pleased to know that my staff have, for example, arranged exhibitions of special equipment in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff that will help employ those with disabilities. The civil service employs 7,900 disabled staff —a slightly higher percentage of registered disabled people than in the work force generally.

Press Secretaries

40.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what is the number of press secretaries currently working for Her Majesty's Government.

There are only two posts in Whitehall which carry the title press secretary. These are in the Prime Minister's Office and the Treasury. In addition, there are eight with the title director of information, one chief of public relations and 10 heads of information in other Whitehall Departments.

In view of the challenge of explaining Majorism to the multitude, does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is enough?

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be able to explain his policies to the admiring British public without the need for any press secretary.