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Commons Chamber

Volume 201: debated on Monday 13 January 1992

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House Of Commons

Monday 13 January 1992

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Transport

London Transport

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next expects to meet the chairman of London Transport to discuss improvements to public transport in London.

I meet the chairman of London Transport regularly to discuss a variety of issues, including future improvements and standards of service.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware how welcome the prospect of bus deregulation in London is, with the likelihood of improved services and of getting more people back on buses? Will he take steps to ensure that buses have greater priority over other road users and to eliminate one of the major causes of road congestion in London—the long time that it takes to get passengers loaded on to one-man operated buses because drivers have to give change to passengers?

I welcome what my hon. Friend said. Bus deregulation in other parts of the country has led to much innovation in the bus industry and to a 19 per cent. increase in bus mileage. I agree with my hon. Friend about encouraging the quick movement of buses throughout the capital. The red route option, which we introduced, has already shown that bus services improve when comparable improvements are made to traffic management.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the start of crossrail is being delayed? As proposals for the Hackney to Chelsea tube line will not be tabled until crossrail starts, does that mean that development of the Hackney to Chelsea line will be delayed? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman discuss that issue with London Transport?

The crossrail Bill has been introduced and I have no doubt that it will be taken forward with all proper expedition. British Rail and London Transport have a massive expansion programme of new investment, which means that certain projects must be completed before others can reasonably be expected to begin. The priorities are extension of the Jubilee line, then crossrail and then development of the Chelsea to Hackney line. The safeguarding of the Chelsea to Hackney line has already been announced.

When my right hon. and learned Friend meets the chairman of London Transport to discuss improvements, will he draw to his attention the importance of providing for south-east London, which is so ill-served by the underground system, and of driving a route through Camberwell, Dulwich and onwards to Crystal Palace?

I am aware that, historically, south London has not been as well served by the underground as north London. The Jubilee line extension will be a major new additional part of the infrastructure and will serve certain parts of south London, but I take note of my hon. Friend's other comments.

When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of London Transport, will he confess that the Government are in a complete mess? Will he acknowledge, unlike the view of the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington), that there is overwhelming opposition to bus deregulation in London? Will he explain rumours of a Government U-turn on the need for a strategic authority? Will he recommend a cheap and cheerful service for the underground, or a new compensation plan of chocolates and flowers? I suggest that the Secretary of State take a little time to read our new document, "London: a strategy for transport", which might help him and his colleagues to get sorted out on the need for better transport in the capital city.

I am glad that the hon. Lady is cheering up. I must remind her that, to judge by the performance of the last Labour Government as opposed to the promises of the present Labour Opposition, Londoners can look forward only to cuts in the investment required. I remind her that the Labour Government's White Paper of 1977 said that the upsurge in the subsidy in the early years of that decade had been accompanied by sharp cuts in investment. That was our experience under the previous Labour Government and would be the experience of Londoners if there were ever to be the misfortune of another Labour Government.

Kent Rail Services

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any plans to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss commuter services in north-west Kent; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. and learned Friend and I meet the chairman of British Rail regularly to discuss all current issues. I recently travelled on the Kent rail service and visited my hon. Friend's constituency with him.

I thank my hon. Friend for the time and trouble that he took last week to visit my constituency and see at first hand the problems caused by and resulting from British Rail. Bearing in mind the fact that my constituents want a reliable and quality service, will he take steps today to confirm that the orders that are placed for the new Networker rolling stock will be supplied in the near future, for the betterment of the north-west Kent commuter?

I can confirm that 486 vehicles for new Networker trains are being manufactured at a total cost of £365 million and that the first of those trains will come into service on my hon. Friend's line in May this year. Some 63 stations have already had their platforms lengthened to take the new longer train—positive evidence of the Government's support for British Rail's expansion programme.

Will the Minister confirm that the order for the north Kent line, the Kent line, is the one that has not yet been agreed by the Treasury? Would not it be much better to pinch another of Labour's ideas and lease the 188 trains rather than provide compensation schemes, chocolates and flowers?

I have already explained to the House that 486 vehicles are being manufactured for the Kent link services, which serve Dartford, Swanley and Sevenoaks. The orders have been placed——

for the first three batches. One hundred and eighty eight of the class 465 trains have been authorised, but not yet ordered, by British Rail. We expect British Rail to give urgent consideration to the timing of the placement of that order.

Order. Normally, I do not call hon. Members after Front Benchers, but I shall make an exception today. Dame Peggy Fenner, first.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the commuters in Kent are looking for some advantages from the channel tunnel rail link. Will he please assure me that the story in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday about considering yet another line is untrue?

I can confirm that that story in The Sunday Telegraph is wrong. The Government have made their position clear on the route of the high-speed rail link and there is no reconsideration.

Will the Minister tell us whether these north Kent lines will be privatised under some new emanation of the London, Chatham and Dover railway? If they are, will they run two, three or four types of train for typists, civil servants and even, perhaps, Ministers of the Crown who might occasionally like to travel by public transport?

The House will expect me to apologise again for the remarks that I injudiciously made when I was trying to illustrate a simple point—that, with the private sector providing more rail services in future, I hope that a range of choice will be available to the travelling public in terms of price and time of day, rather like that provided by the airlines and the long-distance coach market.

On the north Kent lines, the Government want to see a modern, first-class rail system in Network SouthEast. Substantial progress has been made on, for example, the Northampton line and the Thames and Chiltern lines and will shortly be made on the Kent link lines. By the end of the decade Network SouthEast will be the best mass-transit system in the world.

Southend-On-Sea

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will pay an official visit to Southend-on-Sea travelling by public transport.

I should be happy to visit Southend-on-Sea travelling by British Rail at the earliest opportunity. The Government are well aware of the problems on the London-Tilbury and Southend line and are keen to see improvements in that service. The Government's recent increase in funding to British Rail will enable the modernisation of the line to be begun with a £50 million resignalling project.

Although the Minister's welcome acceptance of my invitation will bring confidence to the people of Southend that their serious problems with the Fenchurch street line are not being ignored, can he give some information soon about the replacement of the rolling stock, following his welcome assurance that we will have a good bit of money for the replacement of the signalling? I sincerely express the hope that when my hon. Friend visits Southend-on-Sea his train there and his train back will be on time.

I can give my hon. Friend some positive news. The Department is urgently considering British Rail's proposals to meet the need for replacement rolling stock on the London-Tilbury and Southend line by transferring relatively new class 321 and class 315 rolling stock from other lines after resignalling on the London-Tilbury and Southend line is complete.

Rail Signalling Systems

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what consultations he has had with the chairman of British Rail regarding the safety of the signalling systems in use on the Cardiff-Paddington line.

I have frequent meetings with the chairman of British Rail at which various safety-related topics are discussed.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, subsequent to the accident at the Severn tunnel on 7 December, the Government's railway inspectorate removed and confiscated a length of self-healing cable, which is suspected to be part of the cause of the signalling failures that may have led to the accident? Since then, that length of self-healing cable has been kept under lock and key at the railway inspectorate building at Reading. It has not been released for independent investigation or for investigation by BR experts, so it is not part of the evidence that is being considered at the BR internal inquiry now under way. Does the Secretary of State agree that that action demonstrates an appalling lack of trust between the Government's railway inspectorate and BR in discovering the cause of that accident?

The hon. Gentleman should not draw that type of conclusion. In addition to BR's internal inquiry, the railway inspectorate, which is totally independent, is to carry out its own examination of that accident. It is wise to allow the inspectorate to begin its inquiry. We will all look carefully at the conclusions that it draws from its work and from the evidence submitted to it.

If the Secretary of State has discussed inter-city routes with the chairman of British Rail, will he tell us what is his view, if not the view of Cabinet colleagues, on the privatisation of InterCity? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman require the guaranteeing of through routes to all parts of the United Kingdom? Is he prepared to give a subsidy to maintain those routes to guarantee private profit rather than meet public transport needs?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to certain press reports that appeared last week which referred to an alleged internal British Rail document about the implications of privatisation for InterCity. Since those reports appeared, it has become clear that that document was not a BR document, but a bogus one, which I understand the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) was involved in passing to the press. What the public would like to know is whether the Opposition, including the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North and the Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), were aware that that document was not a genuine document, but was something prepared, no doubt, for political purposes.

Rail Safety

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to improve safety on the railways.

We are committed to improving the already extremely high level of railway safety. Both British Rail and London Underground have major safety programmes under way. These include investment in new equipment, new work procedures, additional training and new safety management systems.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the number of railway accidents, which has increased recently, is in no small measure due to the under-investment in British Rail since the Tory Government placed restrictions on the railway system?

As Italy invests £63 per head, Germany £41 per head and this country only £24 per head in the railways, does not the Secretary of State have a teeny-weeny twinge of conscience when he hears of railway accidents?

I might, if the hon. Gentleman's facts were right, but they are wrong in two fundamental respects. First, safety expenditure under the Government and British Rail is higher than it has ever been in British Rail's history—it has gone up from £140 million to £200 million. Secondly, the number of significant train accidents recorded in 1990 was the lowest on record and it is expected that the final figure for 1991 will show a further decline.

I welcome the change of policy, which took place some time ago under my right hon. and learned Friend's sponsorship, of increasing investment in the railways. However, does he agree that there has been a fall of well over half in the percentage of gross domestic product invested in the railways in the past 10 years? If the public service obligation grant is substantially reduced, will not there be an inevitable increase in dissatisfaction with customer service? If my right hon. and learned Friend believes in cause and effect, will he assure the House that he has learnt a lesson from it and that not only investment in but the subsidy to British Rail will be maintained to provide the service that people expect from the railways as we approach the end of the century?

I agree with a certain amount of what my hon. Friend said. There is certainly a case for subsidy on the social railway, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with the judgment of the previous Labour Government, who said that there was no case for subsidising inter-urban services, nor was there a social case for subsidy with regard to inter-city services. As for rural railways and other parts of the subsidised railway, the Government have made it abundantly clear that investment will go ahead. Indeed, it is now higher than at any time since the early 1960s.

Is the Secretary of State aware that London Underground has stated that there is no limit to the number of people who wish to push themselves on to a London Underground train? Does he intend to take action on that official statement?

We are anxious to see an expansion in the capacity of the underground. One reason why we accepted the investment that London Underground told the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was necessary was to ensure that, in years to come, there would be the rolling stock to meet the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

My right hon. and learned Friend will recall the bomb explosion a month ago on the track in my constituency. Mercifully, it did not cause the death and destruction intended. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, although we cannot protect the entire railway track throughout the country, a useful step may be to see whether cameras can be used at strategic points, not least at the busiest rail junction in the world?

I note what my hon. Friend says. There are already a number of cameras at railway stations and other spots. The incident to which my hon. Friend refers happened on track outside the railway station. Clearly, it is not feasible to have cameras covering the whole of the track. It is for those involved in enhancing the security of the infrastructure to identify where cameras would be most useful in the battle against terrorism and vandalism.

May I ask the Secretary of State about the current safety inquiry into the accident at Newton junction in Scotland? Is it true that among the inquiry's recommendations are the provision of signalling alterations, the installation of new protective devices and changed signalling practice at that and other junctions, which may cause delays to approaching trains? Would not it be safer, cheaper and quicker to reinstate the conventional junction lay-out at that and other accident sites? Is not it beyond the realms of possibility that the Secretary of State and railway management have got it wrong on this occasion?

The inquiry's recommendations have not yet been put to Ministers. When they are, we shall consider what the independent inquiry has identified and we shall do whatever is necessary to enhance safety in the use of the railways. Fortunately, our railways remain one of the safest means of transport and I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fact that the number of significant accidents on the railways is now the lowest on record.

Roll On/Roll Off Ferries

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects the higher standards of residual stability recommended by the steering committee of the roll on/roll off ferry safety research programme to be applied to all roll on/roll off ferries using British ports.

The maritime safety committee of the International Maritime Organisation has agreed that the higher standards referred to by the hon. Gentleman should be phased in, starting in October 1994. When the matter is further considered by the committee in April, the United Kingdom will continue to press for the phasing-in period to be less than the proposed five years.

Will the Minister confirm that it is now five years since the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized, with tremendous loss of life, and two years since the committee for the research programme into the safety of roll on/roll off ferries said that something should be done about the safety of existing ferries—those built before 1990? The Minister has now said that it will be another seven years before everyone crossing the channel on holiday will be carried as safely as possible. Will he accept personal responsibility for any tragedies that occur in the meantime?

A number of recommendations following the immediate aftermath of the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy have been put into operation. Research was carried out on the stability of such ferries, which took some time. We are now trying to get agreement with the International Maritime Organisation to phase in the recommendations much more quickly, and the United Kingdom has led those calls. It would not be acceptable to anyone for ships using United Kingdom ports to be treated differently. I am not sure whether that is what the hon. Gentleman proposes. The simple fact remains that, if we cannot get agreement, we may consider taking unilateral action in the United Kingdom.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the continuing Government pressure to bring about the improvements is welcome news? Will he use the facilities of the European Community to ensure that ships that are manned and owned by France, for example, obey the new rules as quickly as possible?

Yes, indeed. That is one reason why we are trying to get agreement through the International Maritime Organisation. We see the matter not as a purely British problem but as a far more widespread problem. The best way in which to get agreement on those matters is through international agreement and international regulation.

Does the Minister agree that with ferry safety, as well as putting on pressure, the Government should act? Is not it about time for the Government to move responsibility for ferry safety away from the Department of Transport to a separate, independent body so that we can be fully assured about all aspects of ferry safety, including crewing levels? We do not want situations such as that at Commodore Shipping, where English officers and crews have been replaced by Norwegians and Poles who cannot even speak English, thus increasing the risk of severe ferry accidents.

What we see from the Opposition spokesman is more confusion in the Labour party. At one stage, Labour sheds crocodile tears for the decline in the merchant fleet, yet in the next breath, it says how much more regulation it would like to be applied to the merchant fleet. The simple fact is that we believe, as the Opposition have so far, that the best way to make movements along those lines is through international agreement and through the International Maritime Organisation. That is what we are trying to do.

If the Minister is genuinely concerned about maritime safety, he must do something about the massive proposed cuts in the coastguard service. Will he make a statement to the House about the matter and will he get rid of the unwanted and unnecessary cuts in the number of coastguards?

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that cuts mean setting up 68 new sector organisations throughout the country, I agree that there are cuts. Under the coastguard sector review, we have considered the most effective way to provide a coastguard service around the whole of the United Kingdom. That has meant that we have increased the number of sector offices throughout the United Kingdom and we have announced a large new building programme. We have increased the amount being spent on the coastguard service and a good coastguard service is available to our coastline.

Road Construction

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how much has been spent on motorway and major trunk road construction in each of the past three years at constant prices.

At constant prices, expenditure on construction of motorways and trunk roads in England was £782 million in 1988–89, £981 million in 1989–90 and £1,318 million in 1990–91.

In view of the congestion on motorways and major trunk roads, do not those figures still fall short of what is necessary and desirable, despite the improvement that has been made in the past three years?

There is much in what my hon. Friend says. That is why the Government are committed to an expanded roads programme and continuing major investment in our transport infrastructure. In that respect, the Government's policy is very different from that of the main Opposition parties, both of which are committed to reductions in real terms in expenditure on our roads.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the difficulties on the A13—one of the main trunk links out of London to Essex and East Anglia. Can he confirm that things are on course for the early completion of the Mar Dyke-Wellington link on the A13, and can he tell the House the date on which he hopes that work on that link will start?

I hope that the results of the public inquiry will be announced shortly and that the advance works on the link can be started before the end of the year, although that depends wholly on the outcome of the general election, because, as I said, the Opposition are committed to reducing expenditure on roads and vital pieces of road infrastructure such as that for which my hon. Friend rightly argues would be threatened by a Labour Government.

Rail Signalling

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will instigate an independent inquiry into the signalling system of British Rail.

British Rail investigates all cases of signal failure. Those caused by vandalism, or which result in accidents, are already investigated by independent agencies and there is therefore no need for a general inquiry into British Rail's signalling system.

The Secretary of State has said several times today how proud he is of British Rail's safety record—a pride which we all share—but that is surely no reason not to look again at the real doubts that have arisen in the past year about manning, the number of hours worked and the quality of some of the new systems of signalling that are being installed. We need to maintain that safety record, and one of the best ways to improve the traveller's commitment to BR is to ensure that the signalling system is working very efficiently indeed.

I note what the hon. Lady says. She is right to draw attention to the priorities involved in enhancing safety. We are seeking to enable British Rail to take forward its safety standards by substantially increasing the resources available—from £140 million to £200 million in the current year. That is an indication of the priority that we all attach to this important issue.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that many of the problems that British Rail experienced on the east coast line at the end of last year were due to criminal vandalism affecting the signalling system, particularly in Scotland and the north of England? What action is being taken to prevent a recurrence?

I agree that criminal vandalism is appalling: it can often lead to loss of life or the risk of serious injury. Clearly, criminal proceedings, which are a matter for others, would normally be the consequence of such action. British Rail is doing all in its power to protect its property from acts of vandalism, but, given the many thousands of miles of infrastructure, there are inevitably limits to what can be done by British Rail alone.

In assessing the safety of signalling and other safety factors, will the Secretary of State take account of the genuine concerns, based on genuine information, about the Government's plans for InterCity? In that context, will he break the habit of a lifetime and answer two questions straight? Are there any plans to downgrade the role of the ScotRail board? And is there any possibility—or is it part of current thinking—that InterCity tracks will be sold off as part of InterCity in the highly improbable event of the right hon. and learned Gentleman still being in a position to proceed with such a sale?

I note that the hon. Gentleman did not take this ideal opportunity to deny that he may have been involved in the passing to the press of a bogus document about the alleged future of InterCity. On the future of InterCity, he should await the Government's White Paper. The internal administration of British Rail is a matter for British Rail to decide.

Chelmsford-Liverpool Street Line

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next plans to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the Chelmsford-Liverpool Street line.

My right hon. and learned Friend and I regularly meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss all current issues. The Chelmsford-Liverpool Street line is being resignalled and Liverpool Street station has recently been refurbished and its layout restructured to increase flexibility and capacity.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. When he next speaks to the chairman of British Rail, will he tell him that, whereas there have been some improvements to the line in the past five years, my constituents are still extremely concerned about punctuality and the cleanliness of trains? Will he please ensure that there is no slippage whatever in the time scale for the resignalling from Bethnal Green to Chelmsford which would obviously substantially enhance the service?

My hon. Friend will understand that punctuality often depends on signalling as well as the quality of the rolling stock. I can give my hon. Friend and his constituents the assurance that he seeks. The £60 million resignalling programme for work between Liverpool Street and Southend Victoria will start this year and signalling work in the Chelmsford area will commence next year.

The Minister will be aware that that line goes through Stratford station in my constituency. Does he recall his recent visit to Stratford station, to which he was carried in his ministerial sedan chair by two sweating but cheerful typists? He rightly said that passenger facilities were absolutely appalling, especially the absence of adequate public lavatories. Is he aware that the situation remains the same, and will he tell us when something will be done about it?

Yes, I recall my visit to Stratford station with the hon. Gentleman. He will know that British Rail is considering a major remodelling of the station, in part to handle the arrival of the Jubilee line. He also knows that there are plans for a high-speed rail link to run through Stratford. With the arrival of crossrail through Stratford, Stratford is an important transport hub and will become even more important. I am sorry to hear about the lavatories. At the previous Question Time I was asked about the lavatories at Stratford station. I shall visit them.

Rail Ombudsman

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any plans to appoint a rail ombudsman to investigate customer concerns.

The transport users consultative committees already represent passenger interests and there is recourse to an independent arbitration scheme. The position of passengers will be further strengthened by the publication of passengers charters for both British Rail and London Transport.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in a variety of spheres such as banking, pensions and building societies, ombudsmen have been enormously successful? Despite the work of the transport users consultative committees, they do not have the teeth that ombudsmen would have. The travelling public and freight users are fed up with the inequality and inadequacy of British Rail. Would not the appointment of a British Rail ombudsman restore confidence to this small part of the state sector?

I note what my hon. Friend says. I hope that in the short term more attention will be paid to the availability of the independent arbitration scheme, which was set up in 1985 and which has not often been used, primarily because so few people are aware that it provides a means of getting an independent investigation of alleged grievances against British Rail and of obtaining redress and compensation where they are due. Of course the citizens charter, as it applies to British Rail's activities, will also be a means of taking forward the rights of passengers to ensure a proper response or compensation from British Rail if there is shoddy service.

Heavy Lorries

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what new initiatives he plans to reduce the damage caused by heavy lorries.

The Government have a policy of continuing to reduce the noise, pollution, vibration and road damage caused by heavy lorries.

Is the Minister aware that three annual checks by Welsh trading standards officers discovered that as many as one in five lorries on Welsh roads are overloaded, yet the chance of being checked is one in every 5,000 journeys? When will the Minister do something to reduce the damage and danger caused by heavy lorries, especially in rural areas such as my constituency and the areas of Caerleon and Marshfield? Will he promise to resist all attempts to increase the maximum permitted weights of heavy lorries?

On the last point, we are committed to minimising the impact of heavy goods vehicles on roads and we are arguing strongly in Europe for road-friendly suspension for lorries. As to the enforcement of lorry weights, we have doubled the number of inspections over the past five years. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about breaches of the law. That is why I hope that we shall be able to introduce weigh-in-motion sensors over the coming months.

Western Region Rail Services

14.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the western region.

My right hon. and learned Friend and I meet the chairman of British Rail regularly to discuss all current issues. We are concerned to maintain and improve standards on all rail services. including those in the western region.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the service beyond Reading has deteriorated badly, with large numbers of cancellations, particularly at Pangbourne, Tilehurst, Reading West and Theale stations? When will the new rolling stock arrive?

I can confirm that the new Networker turbo class 165 trains will be in service in the May timetable this year—that will bring an improvement of the service on the Thames line—and the Networker express class 166 trains will arrive next year. These improvements follow the £75 million investment in the Chiltern line, which has gone into new trains, new stations, new facilities, all of which has meant a great improvement for all the commuters on that line; those on the Thames line will benefit similarly.

The Arts

Reserve Collections

30.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what is his estimate of the number and value of reserve collections in the public sector; and if he will make a statement.

Information on reserve collections is not held centrally, but most major national and local authority-run museums and galleries hold such collections. They are of inestimable value in both financial and scholarly terms.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the collections are vast and have often been assembled at very little cost, but at the same time they are the treasures of the night watchmen? In other words, unless one is a special scholar or a night watchman, one does not see these collections. Is it not time that many of them were made available to schools, colleges, banks and building societies so that the treasure trove of Britain is available to everyone?

I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend is making and I know of his support for museums and galleries in York and in Yorkshire. One of the national museums and galleries for which I have responsibility, the Tate, is making great efforts, by setting up galleries in, for example, Liverpool and shortly in St. Ives, to make others of its collections regularly available for view in the north-west or the south-west. I hope that other galleries will take note of the good point that my hon. Friend has made.

With regard to collections in Scotland and the housing of those collections, may I point out that many of us living in the west of Scotland are opposed to the building of a national art gallery in Edinburgh? I remind the Minister that the visiting of galleries is not a pastime unique to residents of Edinburgh or visitors to that fine city. Does the Minister agree that there should not be such a gallery and that our collections should be dispersed throughout the whole of Scotland?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, responsibility for the national museums and galleries of Scotland rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, not with me. I am aware, from a number of visits to Scotland, of the fine museums and galleries in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. I am also aware of the intention to add a new wing to the national museum of Scotland. That apart, I would hesitate to enter the traditional fratricidal debate between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Is not my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory), who has done so much to encourage the arts in York, absolutely right? As museums keep asking for more public money, should they not heed public opinion, which is that works of art exist to be seen and should not be stashed away in cellars but should be got up and out and on view?

My hon. Friend has a keen interest in these matters. I should point out to him that, thanks to the generosity of the Sainsbury brothers, which has resulted in the building of the new wing of the national gallery, all the permanent collection of the national gallery is now on display to an ever-increasing part of the British public.

I am in favour of somewhat greater powers of disposal being given to some of our national museums and galleries so that if an item was clearly surplus to a collection there would be power to dispose of it, provided that the funds realised were reinvested in the acquisition of other, perhaps contemporary material. Most local authorities already have such powers.

Design Museum

32.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what support he gives or plans to give to the design museum.

I understand that the purpose of the design museum is to enhance understanding of the influence of good design. The museum is of course within the private sector, but the Department of Trade and Industry has provided pump-priming financial support over the past three years, totalling £650,000.

I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the design museum for the standard that it has set. It has been emulated in many parts of the world, including Canada and Japan. It has been able to obtain a third of the income that it needs from sponsorship, while a further third has been obtained from admission charges. A significant part of the other third of its income has come in the past from moneys from the Department of Trade and Industry. I understand that that support has averaged £250,000 over the past three years. As that support may be coming to an end, there may be a large gap. Will my right hon. Friend agree to talk to the museum to ascertain whether he can guide it in filling the gap? Otherwise, the excellent work that has been done on education and exhibitions will have to cease.

I recognise the work that has been done by the design museum in making an important contribution to the understanding of the role of design in a modern industrial society. Some of the museums that I support directly—for example, the Victoria and Albert museum and the science museum, and also the Crafts Council—often lay on extremely good displays of contemporary or past design work. Against that background, I shall certainly talk to my ministerial colleague at the Department of Trade and Industry about how his negotiations with the design museum on further funding are progressing.

I endorse the comments of the Minister and those of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) in support of the design museum, which is in Bermondsey. Will the Minister consider the wider context of the risk to arts funding in the Docklands corporation area with the withdrawal of LDDC funding, which is threatened to start from the end of March? That will affect both the design museum and other arts-funded projects throughout Docklands, north and south of the river.

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says. I was much concerned about delays in LBGC funding of arts institutions throughout Greater London last year. I took some measures through the Arts Council to help the cash flows of some of the institutions that were threatened by the delays in that funding. I understand that this year the LBGC has started making decisions much more quickly.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he was talking about the LBGC, the London Boroughs Grants Committee.

I shall certainly take up the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised about London docklands.

My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the great contest that takes place for funds in which the design museum and other bodies are involved. Does he agree that a national lottery would help considerably?

I think that without any doubt a national lottery would be of considerable assistance both to the causes of art and heritage, and to sport as well. Obviously there are some serious considerations to be resolved before such a lottery is introduced. Like my hon. Friend, I shall be following the process of the private Member's Bill this Friday, the National Lottery Bill, with considerable interest.

Opera

34.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what steps he is taking to encourage access to opera by young people and by a wider range of the public generally.

Major opera companies in receipt of public funds offer concessionary ticket prices for certain groups, including students. Each major opera company in this country has an outreach and education programme and the Arts Council's touring programme supports clients who take opera to areas of the country which would not otherwise have access to it.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I hope that he will show his belief in the importance of the process. Does he agree that extending the experience of opera and opportunities to learn of opera to those who would not normally even think of it, or think of taking advantage of such concessions, would be a good thing? Will he join me in commending the exercises undertaken by, for example, Welsh National Opera in conjunction with local organisations, including those in Grangetown, Ely and Splott? The WNO has sought to introduce young people and communities in general to opera in those locations.

Yes. I am pleased that through the good settlement that I was able to give to the Arts Council of Great Britain for the year ahead and, through it, the Welsh Arts Council, the Welsh National Opera's overall income from the two arts councils will rise by about 7 per cent. next year to a record figure of £6·1 million. That must be good for everyone living in Wales who likes opera.

The WNO already operates a community-in-education project at its ardiff base, which caters for all ages. I am delighted that it is now providing a three-day project at Sir Thomas Picton's school in Haverfordwest, around its production of Don Pasquale. It is an imaginative educational project.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the sort of project to which he just referred is another example of where a national lottery could be of great assistance? In view of his earlier encouraging remarks, will he now confirm that he intends to vote in favour of the private Member's Bill on Friday?

I have always appreciated the artfulness with which my hon. Friend asks questions. Like him, I shall be following the proceedings on Friday with great interest.

Civil Service

Civil Servants (Dress)

39.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what plans he has to introduce a dress code for civil servants in departmental Ministries in London.

Matters such as standards of dress are the responsibility of managers in Departments and agencies. The Employment Service has recently introduced guidance on standards of dress and the Benefits Agency has introduced a range of distinctive dress.

Although the majority of people would not want to revert stuffily to the strict dress code for civil servants of the 1950s, does my right hon. Friend agree that the pendulum may have swung too far the other way? Do not male civil servants now sometimes turn up at work wearing ponytails, earrings, jeans or, in the summer, even Lycra shorts?

I appreciate the high taste in satorial elegance for which my hon. Friend is well known. However, the responsibility and wish of most managers, whether in Departments or executive agencies, is simply to want those who work for them to be reasonably presentable. I must confess that I would prefer to see a pigtail with an earring rather than the traditional civil service bowler hat.

Is there a possibility that in the new-fangled classless society the Prime Minister will give special OBEs, MBEs and CBEs for the different coloured dress codes of civil servants? Is there not a rumour that if they all dress in grey and follow the Prime Minister's example, they can all ride in a special railway carriage without a typist in sight?

As the hon. Gentleman introduced the subject of colour of dress, I can only say that I have been listening to him for almost 18 years and I wish that he would sometimes change the colour of his tie. It would be nice if, just for once, he did not wear a red tie.

Permanent Secretaries

40.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service if he will introduce arrangements so that each Department of State has co-equal male and female permanent secretaries.

No. The Government have a comprehensive programme of action to promote equality of opportunity. The proportion of women in the top three grades has almost doubled in the past four years.

Pending the time when we have a balance of men and women in this Chamber—a matter on which I shall expound next Tuesday afternoon, when I hope that many of my colleagues will support the concept of more women in this House—does my right hon. Friend agree that public consciousness of the lack of female representation of women's views in our national life is now very high? Would not one way to meet the increasing demand for female representation be to have two permanent secretaries—a man and a woman—at each Department? Does he agree that any Department which adopted such a policy would have the grateful thanks of a vast number of women?

Given my hon. Friend's well-known commitment to productivity, efficiency and careful spending of money in the public sector, I am surprised by her suggestion and I do not think that it is tremendously sensible. As for my hon. Friend's other idea, I wonder whether she would enjoy having her own constituency split, with one half represented by a man called Billy and the other by a woman called Ricca.

Will the Minister persist in his rejection of that totally barmy proposal and instead direct his attention to ensuring that the many well-qualified and able women who are in the civil service get the real top jobs? Will he set an example by persuading the Prime Minister to do something about the membership of the Cabinet? Can it really be the case that there is no Conservative woman Back Bencher who could do a better job than some of the present Cabinet Ministers?

Not a better job, but certainly a very good job. I am sure that after the next general election, there will be Conservative women in the Cabinet of a Conservative Government. I am delighted to repeat that the number of women in the top grades of the civil service is improving all the time and they, of course, will be the permanent secretaries of the future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of improving the representation of women in the higher reaches of the civil service still further would be to make matters easier for them lower down the ladder? Can he give any information as to how arrangements such as job sharing have grown in the civil service to facilitate that desirable outcome?

It is now possible for women in every grade and every position in the civil service to be part-time workers. That means, by definition, that there is an opportunity in every grade for job sharing of some kind. We are considering many other aspects in order to improve the position of women in the civil service—to make it easier for them to take jobs, leave to have children, and return later. The civil service is on the right path and it often serves as a good guide and leading light to the private sector.

As usual, the Minister makes a lot of statements but gives no real facts, It would be useful if he followed the Prime Minister's example and supported the concept of targets for the number of women that he expects to see in grades 1 to 5 of the civil service in one, two and five years' time. As the Minister does not deny that there are enough women from which to choose, would not a little concentration on that issue, and the provision of targets so that we can all see what is going on, be very welcome?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman gives credit to what is being done by civil service departments and executive agencies. The setting of targets would be wrong because it would mean exercising positive discrimination, whereby not necessarily all jobs would go to those with the right and proper talents to do them. Our principle in the civil service is that all jobs should be available to everyone—irrespective of sex, race, creed or religion. That should be the guiding principle, together with good guidelines to managers as to how to operate within that broad principle.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing is more insulting to women—whether it is said by women or men—than talk of setting targets for the number of women to be in top posts? Has it not been proved in the House that a woman can get to the top job in the land? Whether that is achieved by a woman on this side or the other side of the House, to talk of women gaining promotion as part of a target number is one of the most stupid and fatuous things that anyone could suggest.

My wife would certainly agree with my hon. Friend's remarks, as would most right hon. and hon. Members.

The Arts

Opera And Poetry

36.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what percentage of his budget he intends to spend in the current year and next year on (a) opera and (b) poetry.

I estimate that in the current financial year about £1·5 million will be spent on poetry and £30 million on opera. That represents about 0·77 per cent. and 15 per cent. respectively of the Government's 1991–92 grant in aid of £194·2 million to the Arts Council. Figures for 1992–93 are not yet available.

Given that for every person who attends live opera, at least 1,000 more buy and enjoy reading poetry, will the Minister change his priorities and become the first legislator to acknowledge the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Why does he persist in being munificent to Mozart and bounteous to Beethoven, but a Scrooge to Hughes and a meanie to Heaney?

Having just bought Seamus Heaney's latest book for Christmas, I can at least deny that I myself have been mean to Heaney over the festive season.

I think that the hon. Gentleman forgets that a good many operas are based on poetry—for instance, "Gawain", "Orpheus and Euridice" and "Dido and Aeneas". There has been a close connection between opera and poetry over the years; given the interchange of thinking between the two subjects. I do not think that the problem mentioned by the hon. Gentleman exists.

Arts Facilities For Children

37.

To ask the Minister for the Arts what discussions he has had with London arts organisations about provision of arts facilities and entertainments for children; and if he will make a statement.

The London arts board is primarily responsible for funding arts for children and young people in London. I have not myself had discussions with individual arts organisations. Together with the London boroughs, the LAB attaches a high priority to helping to nurture the audiences, performers and producers of the future through its support for the arts in schools and for organisations which work for young people.

Will my right hon. Friend see what he can do to help some children in my constituency, who came to me saying that they would like access to present-day artists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Cliff Richard and Jason Donovan and other, younger stars? How can my right hon. Friend help to allow my younger constituents personal access to such people, so that they can talk over with them the art forms that they are seeking to promote?

My hon. Friend presents an interesting challenge. I suggest that he and his friends in Ealing, North—which he has represented so well for so many years—put together a festival that would be of interest to young people, and also to the important artists whom he mentioned. My hon. Friend should then invite the artists to the festival. If it would help, I would attend and be the festival's patron.

Ravenscraig

3.31 pm

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the consequences for the economy of Lanarkshire and Scotland of the announcement of the closure of Ravenscraig.

May I repeat the Government's deep disappointment at British Steel's decision, because of market conditions, to close Ravenscraig. I do not for one moment underestimate the distress that will be felt by the work force, their families and the local communities concerned. I believe that British Steel owes it to its employees to explain and justify the decision.

The Government's responsibility is to seek to create economic conditions in which new industry will be encouraged to develop in Lanarkshire, replacing the jobs lost. That is a task on which we embarked some time ago. I believe that the action that we have already taken in Lanarkshire, and the proposal that we are now making for an enterprise zone, mean that we can take a positive view of the economic future for Motherwell and north Lanarkshire.

The closure, when it happens later this year, will mean the loss of 1,220 direct jobs. We estimate the loss of a similar number of indirect jobs in the Lanarkshire travel-to-work area, making a total of more than 2,400. This could result in an increase in unemployment in the area of just under one percentage point. Other job losses elsewhere in Scotland resulting from the closure could take the total figure to more than 3,000.

The economy of Lanarkshire does not, however, depend on steel. It is already much diversified. Indeed, steel's contribution to Scottish gross domestic product is less than 1 per cent. Nevertheless, a closure of this size will cause difficulties for the local economy. That is why, to supplement other measures already in hand, we have accepted the case put forward by the Lanarkshire working group for an enterprise zone to be created.

When British Steel announced, in 1990, the closure of the Ravenscraig hot strip mill and the Clydesdale tubeworks, I convened the Lanarkshire working group. That group's report—published in June last year—took account of speculation that there would be further steel job losses. It recommended a detailed early-action programme aimed at providing attractive serviced sites which would bring private sector investment to Lanarkshire. I accepted its findings, and many of its proposals are now being implemented. Some £120 million-worth of infrastructural investment is under way in Lanarkshire in the current year.

Those measures are already bearing fruit. The Lanarkshire development agency is leading regeneration efforts, with ready co-operation from the other bodies represented on the working group. Funding for 13 of the industrial sites identified is going ahead this year. There is now a wealth of development activity in the area, geared to replacing lost steel jobs with a range of companies which should give Lanarkshire greater economic security than a declining steel industry has been able to provide.

Further public expenditure of some £50 million in the enterprise zone, if approved by the European Commission, is expected to lever private sector investment of £250 million into north Lanarkshire and to secure 7,500 net additional jobs. That project would come on top of the successes that our earlier initiatives have already achieved. In the past four years, unemployment in Lanarkshire travel-to-work area, although still too high, has fallen by almost 9,000. That is evidence of the area's underlying strength.

I am confident that the enterprise of the people of Lanarkshire, supported by the initiatives that the Government are taking, will enable the area to surmount its present difficulties and to develop new economic strengths. I am determined to help it to do so.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that in Scotland there is an almost universal view that, in respect of Ravenscraig, the Government have promised much but done nothing? The widely held feeling is that, for far too long, the right hon. Gentleman and his immediate predecessors have paid lip service to the campaign to save Ravenscraig, but have not lifted a finger to help. The right hon. Gentleman's estimate of the number of jobs likely to be lost as a result of the final closure of the plant is insultingly complacent.

While recognising that, after the demolition job done by British Steel, the appearance of a buyer is very much a long shot, may I ask the Secretary of State whether the Government will do everything they can to keep that option open? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that, if interest is shown by any party, the Government, for once, will provide whole-hearted support?

Does the Secretary of State recognise the need to explore the possibilities of new technology—in particular, thin slab casting? He will recall that this was identified in the Arthur D. Little report as an option worth considering, and I know that Scottish Enterprise has been doing some work on it. If a practical proposal does emerge—I stress the word "if"—will he be prepared to concede direct Government involvement in the form of a joint venture?

Will the Secretary of State remember that jobs at Hunterston are also at risk? Is he prepared to make the necessary resources available and to commission Scottish Enterprise specifically to look at the potential of Hunterston as a deep-water port?

If a buyer cannot be found and closure therefore goes ahead, will the Secretary of State enforce the principle that the polluter pays? Is he aware that Lanarkshire development agency estimates indicate that it may cost about £200 million to reinstate the sites abandoned by British Steel? Does he accept that it would be a defeat for justice, an offence to good sense and a further humiliation of the Government if British Steel were able to walk away from the damage that it has done?

Does the Secretary of State accept that his claim that the Government have already contributed £120 million to fund the regeneration of Lanarkshire has little or no credibility? That figure relies heavily on existing budgets and simply does not measure up to the scale of the crisis. The Wishaw general hospital was the subject of an existing proposal, and the budgets of the Lanarkshire development agency and of the East Kilbride development corporation were already in place. The new money is simply inadequate.

Why has it taken so long to reach a decision about enterprise zone status for Lanarkshire? As he himself pointed out, that step was recommended by his own working party as long ago as June 1991. Is it correct to say that Treasury resistance was overcome only as a result of the disaster of the closure announcement? Does the Secretary of State expect any difficulty over European Commission approval, and when does he expect a decision on the matter to be reached?

In a letter dated 5 February 1991 to my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), the Prime Minister recognised explicitly the difficulties facing Lanarkshire and promised that there was
"no intention of neglecting these problems."
Eleven months later, there has not even been preliminary contact with Brussels about one of the central provisions that the Secretary of State alleges that he has accepted. We believe not only that enterprise zone status must be secured, but that British Steel must meet the cost of site reclamation, that the break-up of the East Kilbride development corporation must be stopped, that there must be a much more determined commitment to investment in training and education, and that there must be an end to the nonsense of the proposed privatisation of British Rail, which would have disastrous consequences for the infrastructure strategy for Lanarkshire.

Will the Minister seriously reconsider his half-hearted response to the working party's proposals? Does he not recognise that the depressing history of indecision and delay just will not do? False optimism about the economy, and sympathy easily given, will do nothing for the workers at Ravenscraig and Hun terston. If the right hon. Gentleman will not give commitment and drive to the fight for economic recovery, the electorate will look to others who will.

The hon. Gentleman accused me of doing nothing, yet we have heard nothing from the Opposition as to what they would do. Perhaps in the course of questions, he or others in his party will tell us what they would do. All that we know so far is that the Labour party has abandoned the commitment given by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) in February 1988 to renationalise the steel industry. Plainly, nationalisation is now recognised by the Opposition as a course of disaster.

On the question of a buyer for Ravenscraig, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) knows, the prospectus included an undertaking that any commercial offer would be considered when Ravenscraig was no longer needed by British Steel for steel-making. I put it to Sir Robert Scholey that that undertaking would be triggered, and he confirmed that that was the case.

The hon. Member for Garscadden asked me about thin slab casting. That was considered in the Arthur D. Little consultants' report in July last year, which identified considerable difficulties but recognised that it was a possible development. However, no interest has been expressed in it. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would contemplate a joint venture. First, that suggests that the Government are the organisation which should be managing the steel industry, and I totally disagree. Secondly, it suggests that someone else might come forward for a joint venture. So far, no one has come forward.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about Hunterston. I confirm that I intend to commission a consultants' study as a basis for determining future planning policy there. He asked me about cleaning up the environmental consequences of steel making. That is certainly something that we shall seek to investigate further with British Steel, which has already undertaken to clear the site down to ground level and to leave it in a tidy condition—further than the legal requirement.

On the question of the £120 million of economic infrastructural investment, the hon. Gentleman complains that that is in existing budgets. Of course it is. We put it into the existing budgets with precisely this situation in mind. Incidentally, it does not include the Wishaw hospital. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If Opposition Members had no perception that there might be job losses in the steel industry in Lanarkshire, if they were not thinking ahead and contemplating further measures which might be needed, they must be out of touch with reality.

As for the enterprise zone, the recommendation from the working party came to me last June. Since then a detailed proposal has been worked up and negotiations have continued within Government. As a result of the initiatives that I embarked upon during the Christmas recess, approval has been achieved within Government for submission of an application to the European Community. I hope that that will achieve European approval in April, but it is a matter for the Commission and not for me.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Government's response to the working group report was half-hearted. We have accepted the vast majority of the working group's proposals and a considerable number of them are already under way, including the development of 13 industrial sites in Lanarkshire to help to prepare it for inward investment.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the announcement has been long expected and long feared in Motherwell? Over the years and over the generations, so much effort has been put in to the building, strengthening and operating of the steel industry that there is incomprehension and a great sense of sadness and loss in Motherwell today. The campaign waged by the steel workers has been recognised and supported by the people of Scotland and far beyond. It has been recognised but not supported by Ministers, who have approached the whole exercise with total blindness and naivety since the privatisation announcement, which dismisses them for the lightweights they are.

As the decision has been expected for so long, people are baffled by the bungling and prevarification shown by the Government over the enterprise zone. The Secretary of State was wrong. He has submitted not one enterprise zone proposal but two. The Treasury estimated that the first proposal would cost £100 million, and it was knocked back. After the closure of Ravenscraig, the Secretary of State makes a second proposal at half the cost estimated in the original proposal.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Lanarkshire development agency is not able to pay for the training of sub-contractors at Ravenscraig, which is to close within six months, because of petty Government regulations excluding it from paying people who are already in employment?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Prime Minister asked the Under-Secretary of State to look into the new motorway link between the M8 and M74? The Under-Secretary of State has written to me saying that that is a matter for Strathclyde regional council.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, having razed Ravenscraig to the ground, acccording to consultants appointed at the prompting of the Secretary of State, there is a £200 million bill to be met for clearance of the site? The Government have not a clue how to approach that problem.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the various Government agencies involved—the Warren Spring laboratory, Ianarkshire development agency, and the national engineering laboratory—have not been consulted or introduced to each other or asked to consider the problems, although Ministers are responsible?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government have left little time between the last date for the general election, which could be as late as July, and the closure date of September, when British Steel may consider that its obligation to offer for sale has expired? Will the Secretary of State therefore offer the Opposition full access to Scottish Enterprise, to public agencies and to all concerned so that we can properly examine the options that an incoming Government will face?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the people of Lanarkshire, of Motherwell and of Scotland are fully prepared? We are getting on with the process of redevelopment. All we want to be rid of is this traitorous Government.

I quite understand that the hon. Gentleman, as a Member of Parliament for the area, feels very strongly. I understand the feeling of sadness and loss in the area and I share the huge disappointment of the people of Motherwell and of north Lanarkshire at British Steel's decision. When the hon. Gentleman talks about naivety, he must recognise that British Steel operates in international trading conditions that are fiercely competitive. It operates in a market where, to use its own words, there is "a deep global recession". Its profits and interim results are down from £307 million to £19 million. It is naive not to recognise international trading conditions and the need for companies such as British Steel to adapt to them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned training. We are extensively committed to training and retraining in the area. About 6,000 people are on youth and adult training schemes in the area, and the Government expect to spend some £40 million through the iron and steel readaption benefit scheme for retraining.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned roads. We are already studying closely the possible fast link between the M8 and the M74 and the junctions between the A8 and M8.

The Government are investing enormous effort and resources in redeveloping the infrastructure of Lanarkshire, not as some short-term, temporary or Johnny-come-lately measure but building on what we have been doing throughout our period in government. As I said in my response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Garscadden, unemployment in Lanarkshire has fallen by 9,000 in the past four years. How many parts of the rest of the United Kingdom can say that against a background of general recession?

The Secretary of State and his crony, who earlier was sneering at some of the answers, have presided over the most odious industrial betrayal in modern Scottish history. Is he proud of the fact that he has complied with and connived in every stage of the closure of the Ravenscraig works, from Gartcosh through privatisation to the hot strip mill? Is he proud of the fact that, having told the Lanarkshire Labour Members for two years that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Employment have no role to play in intervening, today of all days a Department of Employment press release should announce proudly that it is dispatching, for planning purposes, Government officials and experts

"to ensure the availability of good quality, relevant training for the thousands likely to lose their jobs through the decline of the steel industry in Poland"?
Does it not speak volumes that Departments could not intervene to assist in Scotland but can dispatch people to Cracow rather than to Motherwell? Does it not show that the contempt in which the Minister is held by the people of Motherwell is almost exceeded by the contempt in which he is held by Government Departments and his own political party?

Should not the Secretary of State today pledge that Ravenscraig will remain for sale up to and including the date of the general election and that he will insist on that, that the Government resources of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Employment will be used to assist not only Poland, but the sale of the Ravenscraig plant worldwide, and, more importantly, that the Government will actively intervene to investigate and financially assist the development of new technology in thin slab casting production, which is perfectly legitimate for financial aid under the European Economic Community? Is not the fact that the Minister cannot announce that today, when the Government can announce initiatives in far-off Europe, a reflection to the people of Motherwell and Scotland of his total failure and inability?

It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman thinks it more appropriate to indulge in sterile invective than to seek positive ways forward. On the availability of Ravenscraig for sale, I have already made it clear that the chairman of British Steel still considers that the undertaking included in the prospectus is triggered by the announcement of intended closure. Thin slab steel is a matter for British Steel. If it viewed that as a potentially commercially attractive proposition, it would embark on that. That is certainly not something on which the Government should appropriately embark.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, although the news about the Ravenscraig closure is depressing, alarming and sad, it is nothing more than sickening hypocrisy for the Labour party and the Scottish National party to complain as they have unless they can make a specific proposal that Ravenscraig—including the strip mill and not without it—is for sale and they have the agreement of the European Commission for such a sale to go ahead, particularly bearing in mind what Bob Scholey said to the Select Committee?

Does the Secretary of State further agree that it is political rubbish for Opposition Members to talk about enterprise zones when they know, because of the way they voted and the views of their leaders, that there is absolutely nothing that the Government can do about an enterprise zone without first having the approval of Brussels?

I accept that the Secretary of State is doing a fine job fighting for Scotland, but will he have the courage to tell the Opposition the facts of life and stop them exploiting the misery of the people of Lanarkshire for purely political purposes?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. For the past five years I have been trying to tell the Labour party the facts of life, both as Minister with responsibility for industry and as Secretary of State. Sadly, Labour Members prefer to live in the past and talk Scotland down rather than look to the future and help to build Scotland up.

Will the Secretary of State now accept that he and his Government are substantially responsible for last week's announcement of the closure of Ravenscraig? To step back in time, before privatisation he refused to promote a company based on the assets of Scottish Steel, which could have provided competition to British Steel and the necessary investment, and he has pursued economic policies that have deepened the recession to the point that Ravenscraig has been closed two years earlier than provided in the worthless assurances given to the Government by Sir Bob Scholey.

Will the Secretary of State accept that there is little confidence in his parroting Bob Scholey as the source of authority for any future investment or the sale of any plant in Scotland? Will he accept that not only Ravenscraig but all the remaining steel assets in Scotland, including Hunterston, should be made available for sale to ensure that next century, when a new deep-water steel facility is required in Scotland, it will have behind it a body that has shown commitment to Scotland, which British Steel has not?

Finally——

will the Secretary of State ensure that the development capabilities of the Scottish new towns are used in the development promotion of Lanarkshire and that their expertise is used to attract the necessary inward investment to replace at least some of the jobs that he and his Government have so disastrously destroyed?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not hear me say that unemployment in the Lanarkshire travel-to-work area had fallen by 9.000 in the past four years. Part of the reason for that is the inward investment that the Government have attracted to East Kilbride in Lanarkshire.

On the global recession in steel products, if the hon. Gentleman does not believe British Steel, he should look at the other major steel producers in Europe to see how they are faring.

At the time of privatisation, the separate privatisation of the Scottish steel industry was considered extensively. The advice of the Government's advisers and the Government's own conclusion was that that could not be done viably. When the steel industry was nationalised by the Labour party, it scrambled and destroyed the individual identities of the previous free-standing Scottish companies, took control to London and changed the company into a product division structure so that the Scottish plants became the end of a branch line. It therefore became impossible to privatise the steel industry on a Scottish basis separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. I looked at that proposal sympathetically but, sadly, too much damage had been done under nationalised ownership.

Is the Secretary of State prepared to accept any level of responsibility for his policy paralysis as the crisis in Scottish steel has deepened, or indeed for the actions of his predecessor who sent Ravenscraig unprotected into the hands of a hostile private monopoly? Has he seen the positive proposals released this afternoon from the shop stewards of the Dalzell plate mill? They argue that, for a total investment of under £200 million—less than the clean-up costs of the Ravenscraig site—a world-class pipe and plate mill could be established, which would require increased production through the Ravenscraig plant services. That steel complex would be well able to compete effectively in the lucrative offshore markets round the coast of Scotland. For that or any other positive proposal to come to fruition, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the first thing that must be done is to take the entire assets of British Steel in Scotland into public ownership?

The hon. Gentleman knows that my Department prepared a detailed report on Dalzell, which we submitted to British Steel, arguing the case for maintaining it and establishing the single plate strategy based upon it. British Steel has rejected that: on the other hand, Dalzell remains in operation and remains unaffected by the decisions to close Ravenscraig. I hope that, as a result of recent trading conditions, the prospects for Dalzell are lengthening rather than shortening.

If the hon. Gentleman believes that nationalisation is the solution to the problems of the steel industry, he should have a word with the Labour party, which committed itself to the renationalisation of that industry—it would have been the third time it had been renationalised—but even the Labour party has now realised that renationalisation is a dead end.

Would it not be more sensible to look to the future than to the past? In that context, I am glad to see that the shadow Secretary of State for Wales is in his place, because I remember when, 10 years ago or more, he and I. and others, argued the case for the Sommers works at Shotton vis-à-vis Ravenscraig. We suggested that it might be better to keep the north Wales steel-making capacity there rather than in Scotland.

North Wales, in the end having accepted reality, has got more industry and diverse industry. Corby has got more industry as well as more diverse industry. The coal industry of south Wales, having declined, has got more industry and more diverse industry. The north-east shipyards have got more industry and more diverse industry. So far as the Opposition are concerned, to try to revive a cause is beyond me. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Let us look to the future, not to the past.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The House is also indebted to him for reminding us that the problems of steel closures is not confined to Scotland. Many towns in England and in Wales have experienced substantial job losses as a result of steel closures. In Corby, unemployment, at its height, reached 35 per cent., but as a result of the type of measures that we are taking in Lanarkshire, unemployment there fell to as low as 4 per cent. last year. In the early 1980s in Scunthorpe, unemployment was at 20 per cent., but it is now down to around 10 per cent. I believe that the measures that we are taking in Lanarkshire will create the same long-term beneficial effect in that region and will not only bring down unemployment, but broaden and diversify the Lanarkshire economic base, making it more secure for the future.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State realises that his answers have been so complacent that they have come across as a further betrayal of the Scottish people? His speech reminded me forcefully of an inept bereavement counsellor who persuades a bereaved person that bereavement is not such a bad thing and that everyone should experience one. One of the Secretary of State's greatest failures is that he did not even stand up to some of his own Back Benchers, who called the Scottish steel workers "subsidy junkies" and claimed that they were unproductive. He totally failed to answer that. Finally, did the Secretary of State know that the Secretary of State for Employment was providing training for Polish steel workers? If so, why did he not at least demand the same for the people of Lanarkshire?

I do not think that provision of advice on training matters to other countries precludes the necessary provision of training advice and financial assistance within the United Kingdom. In that context, my responsibility is to Lanarkshire. I am confident that the training measures, like the other infrastructural measures that we are providing, are relevant and will meet the needs of the area in preparing for the future.

The hon. Lady talked of betrayal. Betrayal was to pour some £14 billion into the steel industry to prop up uncompetitive and overmanned plants and to fail to modernise them, embrace new technology or help them prepare for the future. Belatedly, reality dawned on the industry and it began to make headway and became profitable. We must now consider the need to find a diversification of Lanarkshire's economy to attract new companies. I hope that, when we attract new companies to Lanarkshire, the Labour party will prevail upon its trade union friends to treat them sensibly, rather than the way they treated Ford in Dundee.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the real issue is the fact that, in view of the international recession, British Steel is fighting for its life? If we stop British Steel taking the commercial decisions necessary for its survival in the world as it is at the moment, we shall end up with no steel industry. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that some good could come out of the disaster in Lanarkshire if all resources are brought in, as happened in Corby and other steel closure towns? Will he assure the House that he will give maximum support to British Steel Industries, which helped the regeneration of former steel sites, and that he will fight hard in Europe to ensure that that enterprise zone is created? The House of Commons will be angry if that proposal is spiked by the European Commission.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for injecting a sense of commercial realism into the debate. British Steel Industries have already set up workshops in Coatbridge and Clydesdale, where 25 new small businesses have been attracted employing some 140 people, and they now plan to build a 50.000 sq ft workshop in the Strathclyde business park. and a youth enterprise centre. Those realistic and sensible proposals will help the general effort toward strengthening the Lanarkshire economy.

Does the Secretary of State not feel ashamed to come to the Dispatch Box with not one Tory Scottish Back Bencher sitting behind him? Just a week after the closure decision, is he not ashamed to bleat plaintively that British Steel has not yet put forward an official spokesman to explain why all those jobs will be destroyed? Why does the Secretary of State cling on, almost innocently and certainly naively, to the figure of some 2,200 jobs being affected, when everyone in Scotland knows and all authoritative experts have said that the number is closer to 7,000? A much greater number will probably be affected. If Lanarkshire is to be able to look forward to the new industries which we hope will replace the jobs lost through the damage to the steel industry, we must at least hear the truth about the scale of what is needed and what the Government intend to supply.

Two of my, hon. Friends are ill and are therefore unable to be here today. The figure for job losses which I gave was not 2,200, but more than 3,000, taking account of indirect jobs across Scotland. The figures for Lanarkshire which my Department has produced equate almost exactly with the figures from the Fraser of Allander Institute, which also took account of the closure of the hot strip mill and of Clydesdale last year, and of the indirect jobs related thereto.

Order. This is a private notice question. However, I fully understand its importance for hon. Members with Scottish constituencies and. indeed, for the whole of the United Kingdom. I will call two more from each side and those whom I have not been able to call—[HON. MEMBERS: "Each side?"] Order.

Order. I will look with consideration on those whom I have not been able to call today when we come to DTI questions on Wednesday.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party knows perfectly well that the decision at Ravenscraig, however regrettable, was entirely inevitable? Will he assure the House that, in the best tradition of Conservative duty towards those unfortunate people, he will see to it that every effort that the Government put into recreating jobs and into bringing new jobs to Ravenscraig will be properly co-ordinated, and that he will ensure that the European Community is revved up in the matter?

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend on that. There are no fewer than 60 projects already in hand this year on infrastructural, environmental and training initiatives in the area.

Has the Secretary of State read the article by Mr. Alf Young in today's Glasgow Herald? Does he agree with Mr. Young's analysis of the future of the British steel industry and the future of Scottish sunrise industries? If so. does he accept that we need a far-reaching reappraisal of Scottish economic policy, rather than policy made on the hoof, which is what we have had from the Secretary of State throughout the period? Will he now give an undertaking that there will be a long, hard look at what needs to be done to ensure the maintenance of Scotland as a major manufacturing nation?

I always read Mr. Alf Young's articles with enthusiastic interest, although I do not always find myself in total agreement with all his conclusions. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether we would take a long, hard look. We have been taking a long, hard look for some time at the economic problems of Scotland and of Lanarkshire. It is as a result of the initiatives that we have developed that unemployment in Lanarkshire has been falling over the past four years and is 9,000 lower than it was four years ago.

So that we are left in no doubt, will my right hon. Friend once again ask the Labour party to make it clear whether it would reopen Ravenscraig?

That is not a question for me, but it is a well-judged question because we have heard nothing constructive or positive from the Labour party, and no suggestions of any initiatives that could be taken other than those that we are already taking.

When did the Secretary of State last have words with Sir Leon Brittan about the possibility of an enterprise zone in north Lanarkshire? The Commissioner's statement is not in line with the Government's statement. What assurances can we have that the enterprise zone—if the Commission agrees to it—will include the whole of north Lanarkshire?

I was last in touch with Sir Leon Brittan when I wrote to him on 7 January. I am sure that he and his directorate will give positive, fair-minded and sensible consideration to the application for an enterprise zone. I hope that that will lead to a conclusion in favour, and that we shall then be able to get that initiative under way on top of all the other initiatives. I anticipate that the real advantage of the enterprise zone will be the generation of substantial private sector investment, because ultimately it is private sector investment that will stimulate the renewal of Lanarkshire.

Local Government Finance (Wales)

4.9 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement setting out my decisions on local government finance in Wales for 1992–93.

The three reports that set out the final terms of the settlement will be laid before the House on Monday 20 January. I have today placed details of the settlement in the Library and have arranged for essential data to be sent to every local authority in Wales.

When I announced my provisional settlement proposals to the House in July, I referred to the need to adjust the provisional total standard spending figure of £2,639 million to reflect the funding requirements of the Polytechnic of Wales and the five other major higher education colleges in Wales that are to leave the local authority sector on 1 April 1992. In my statement on 23 July, I announced a provisional figure of £34·6 million to meet that need. After further consultation with the Assembly of Welsh Counties, I have decided that that figure represents an appropriate level of funding for the establishments in 1992–93. The settlement has been adjusted accordingly and allows for a level of total standard spending by Welsh authorities of £2,604·4 million. That is an increase of 8·5 per cent. on the comparable figure for last year and an increase of 5·1 per cent. on the level of budgets set by Welsh authorities in 1991–91.

Aggregate external finance in support of that level of spending will be £2,348·4 million—an increase of more than £147 million or 6·7 per cent. on the comparable level of support for 1991–92, taking into account the additional central Government support provided through the £140 general reduction in the community charge for the current financial year and the appropriate adjustment in respect of the higher education establishments. Within the aggregate external finance total, the revenue support grant for 1992–93 is £1,617·1 million, the distributable amount for the non-domestic rating account is £536 million and the total allocated for revenue specific grants is £195·3 million.

The increased support provided to local government in Wales in 1991–92 through the £140 general reduction raised the level of central Government support for local authorities' revenue spending from 79 per cent. to nearly 92 per cent. I will continue this higher level of support in 1992–93 by enhancing the level of aggregate external finance. As a result, the AEF figure for the coming year is £445 million more than the equivalent AEF figure for 1991–92 before implementation of the general reduction—an increase of more than 23 per cent.

The settlement gives local authorities in Wales a realistic framework for developing new services in 1992–93 and maintaining existing ones, particularly in the light of the reduced inflationary pressures that will bear on local authorities in the coming year and the continuing scope for efficiency savings. In that context, I should like to pay special tribute to local government in Wales for the vigorous and collaborative way in which it is pursuing efficiency initiatives. I look forward to meeting both the Assembly of Welsh Counties and the Council of Welsh Districts in the near future to discuss their latest proposals.

If authorities spend in line with these plans, the average community charge in Wales for 1992–93 should not exceed £118—before relief and benefits are taken into account. That is less than half the equivalent figure for English authorities and £3 less than the average charge of £121 actually set by Welsh authorities for 1991–92.

I have already announced my proposals that the non-domestic rate poundage for 1992–93 should be 42·5 p. That represents an increase of just 4·1 per cent. on the rate poundage of 40·8p for the current year. That is a dramatic illustration of the benefit for businesses of our success in bringing down the rate of inflation.

In addition to the financial support through AEF to which I have already referred, I am providing £6 million grant in 1992–93 to Welsh charging authorities to offset the revenue costs of preparing for the new council tax. This represents 75 per cent. of the £8 million revenue cost of implementation estimated in an independent study undertaken by CSL Management Group, which looked at a representative sample of charging authorities in Wales. I recognise that that represents a change of view from my original position that I would expect local authorities to find these costs from within their own resources.

In addition, I have announced that credit approvals will be available to local authorities to cover the full £1·24 million capital cost of preparation estimated by CSL. That is a generous contribution towards overall preparation costs, particularly as the savings to Welsh authorities in administering the council tax when compared with the poll tax—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"]—will outweigh the preparation costs. In due course I shall seek the approval of the House for the council tax preparation grant scheme in Wales.

I should also like to give the House details of my decision on funding the community charge reduction scheme—CCRS—in 1992–93. In my statement on my provisional settlement proposals in July, I confirmed that the scheme would continue in the final year of the poll tax, notwithstanding the considerable increase in central Government support for local authority spending.

Although the overall burden on community charge payers in Wales is very much lower as a result of the increased support that I am providing, I have decided that it would be appropriate to continue to fund a reduction scheme for the final year of the poll tax. I therefore intend to make £40 million available in 1992–93. This will provide substantial assistance to charge payers who most need the relief and is double the amount that was available to charge payers in 1990–91 under the transitional relief scheme when the community charge for standard spending in Wales was £173. The scheme will provide relief direct to specified communities by reference to the actual community charge—or poll tax—set in 1990–91. I expect that more than 50 per cent. of charge payers in over 500 communities in Wales will continue to benefit from the reduction scheme. The average charge in Wales after these reductions should be about £100. Community charge benefit will provide further assistance above that to those charge payers on the lowest incomes.

This is a good settlement for Welsh local government, community charge payers and non-domestic ratepayers alike. The resources that I am providing through AEF and the special grant for council tax preparation, taken together, give local authorities a level of support which is 7 per cent. up on 1991–92. If authorities budget reasonably, charging authorities in Wales should, on average, set community charges that are lower in cash terms than those set in 1991–92. The increase in the non-domestic rate poundage for 1992–93 has been limited to just 4·1 per cent. I expect local government in Wales to rise to the challenge. Charge payers in Wales will expect no less. I have written to every local authority leader in Wales making it clear that, if necessary, I will use my charge-capping powers to curb any authority that I consider sets an unreasonable budget for 1992–93.

I commend the settlement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement—"the gospel according to Dai Poll Tax"—which reminds us that the poll tax continues under the Conservatives.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he faces the prospect of a general election campaign in Wales with the poll tax firmly in place and the poll tax bills hitting the doormats, and is able to offer only a council tax banding alternative that is designed to help the richest, living in the best areas?

Will the right hon. Gentleman, once and for all, recognise that, if the Government had taken up the offer of the Labour party's offer of co-operation on a Bill to abolish the poll tax, we would now be considering the implementation of a fairer, property-based system of local taxation?

Why will not the Secretary of State recognise that his prediction for the average poll tax is way wide of the mark? At best, this settlement is only half of what Welsh districts calculate that they need for next year. Has not the right hon. Gentleman got it wrong? His statement fails to take account of the full effects of inflation, the increased resources needed to fund community care and the new statutory responsibilities introduced by the Children Act 1989. There is also implementation of the national curriculum and of the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to be considered.

The Secretary of State's average poll tax prediction is unrealistic. The increase in total spending is nothing like enough. Instead of just over 5 per cent., 10 per cent. is needed for new duties and inflation. The figures that I have given are the key figures, not the inflated figures with which the right hon. Gentleman is playing.

The poll tax nightmare continues. Why did not the right hon. Gentleman admit that the unfair 20 per cent. rule is still in place? Why does it remain, despite the fact that it means that local authorities will have to continue to collect from students and the poor a sum that is often less than the cost of collection itself? Why does the poll tax continue when the Prime Minister has described it as an "uncollectable" tax? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that councils in Wales are being asked to engage in the biggest debt collection exercise in the history of Wales? After 400.000 summonses, £17 million in uncollected poll tax and £100 million wasted on implementing the poll tax in Wales alone, why does he not admit that the poll tax was and is a total disaster, under him?

I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman left the prospect of capping wide open. How can he use the rhetoric of partnership on the one hand and threaten local councils with the big stick of capping on the other? How can he justify charge capping, in view of the restrained spending record of Welsh councils? They are loyal, co-operative and helpful. The Secretary of State for the Environment would give his right hand to deal with councillors as good as these.

Does the Secretary of State for Wales accept that this settlement is inadequate against a background of deepening recession, escalating homelessness and growing concern over educational standards? Why does he not immediately begin the phased release of capital receipts—the moneys held by local councils and realised from the sale of council houses? Would not that begin to meet the desperate housing needs of Wales, caused by the cut in the number of affordable homes to rent and the mortgage repossession crisis? Would it not also be a powerful boost to our struggling construction industry and help to kick start the Welsh economy out of its recession?

Thirteen years of Conservative Government are coming to an end. Is it not the case that in those years we have seen £100 billion of oil revenues squandered, standards of local services decline and local democracy undermined and belittled by a centralising, arrogant London-based Conservative Government, who have not listened and who do not care about Wales? I tell the right hon. Gentleman that in Wales his party will be swept into oblivion when the general election takes place.

The hon. Gentleman raised eight points. First, he criticised the council tax alternative but failed to mention his solution, which is to return to rates and then to have a revaluation. That revaluation would be based on so many different criteria that even the Labour party cannot begin to work out what it would mean. It does not know whether it would be based on the number of windows in a property, the area of the floor or capital value. Still the Labour party has not worked it out.

I remind the hon. Gentleman again—I shall repeat this again and again because it is exactly what his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said—that going back to rates would be to return to the most unjust of all taxes.

As for consultations, I remind the hon. Gentleman that there was an empty chair in my office which was never filled by the Labour party. The Liberal Democrats came and made their suggestions in a constructive and sensible atmosphere.

I cannot give way when I am responding to questions.

Members of Plaid Cymru came and put their point of view in a sensible and constructive manner. My right hon. and hon. Friends did likewise. The Labour party never came.

The third point is that the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) says that there are additional inflationary pressures. I remind him that inflation is now down to 4·3 per cent., and that the settlement that I have announced is considerably in excess of that.

The fourth point is the claim that this is an unrealistic settlement. I merely say to the hon. Gentleman that it allows for local authorities to spend £1,193 for every man, woman and child in Wales, towards which they will be receiving external financing of £1,075. That is a pretty good deal by any stretch of assessment.

The hon. Gentleman says that it is nothing like enough, but what is he really saying? I notice that there are certain key Opposition Front-Bench Members absent—[Laughter.] wait for it. I do not see—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has proved my point. There are certain noticeable absentees—the shadow Treasury Front-Bench team. Where is the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith)? The hon. Gentleman misses the point.

The Secretary of State is supposed to be replying to questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones). Surely it is not fair for him to take this opportunity to criticise Labour Members for their absence.

The hon. Member is strictly correct, but I have a suspicion that this frequently happens shortly before a general election.

If the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside will listen to the conclusion of the sentence, he will understand.

I do not criticise the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East or the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) for being absent. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would say what he has just said if the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Lady were present. He has said that the proposed spending is nothing like enough. I want to know whether he says that with the authority—[Interruption.] Not from the districts. He has said from the Opposition Front bench that this—[Interruption.] Do not point at me with some press release.

I shall be brief, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State cannot even read from his prepared notes. He is not even attributing the right figures to the district councils, which sent out a well distributed press release. The right hon. Gentleman can rule in Wales only by press release and hype, and today we are seeing him at his worst.

Order. I am not qualified to judge the figures. Let us return to the main subject. We have a heavy day ahead, and a number of hon. Members want to ask questions on this statement.

It was the hon. Gentleman who flashed the press release at me. He should not refer to a press release. What he said in this Chamber, to which I am replying——

I am answering the hon. Gentleman's point. He said that the spending allocation that I announced was nothing like enough. Did he say that with the authority of his shadow Cabinet colleagues? If he believes that that spending allocation is nothing like enough, how much does he think local authorities should spend? From where is the money to come? Will it come from the community charge payers, by increasing poll tax—community charge—demands, or will it come from the taxpayer? He cannot simply say that the spending allocation is nothing like enough; he must spell out what that means.

Fifthly, on debt collection, the hon. Gentleman needs reminding that local authorities in Wales have done extremely well. They have collected 100 per cent. of what they budgeted to collect in the last financial year, and it appears that they are doing just as well in the current financial year.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would release capital receipts on a phased basis. I must tell him that the net position is one of substantial local authority debt. The latest figures that I have for all-services local authority debt is £2·917 billion, which is more than £1,000 local authority debt per man, woman and child in Wales.

So there are no net receipts as such to distribute. There is local authority debt of more than £1,000 per man, woman and child in Wales.

Seventhly, on capping, presumably there would be no limits under the Labour party. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman could confirm that. Not only is the spending allocation not enough, but the message from the Labour party is, "Spend, spend, spend; tax, tax, tax."

On the hon. Gentleman's final point, I remind him that Wales has been transformed under the Conservatives during the 1980s and has become the land of opportunity for the 1990s. At the next general election, the people of Wales will have to decide whether to return to the bad old days of the Labour and Liberal parties or to move forward under the Conservative party.

My right hon. Friend may or may not be aware that the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), in a now justly celebrated sermon from the pulpit of St. Asaph's cathedral, promised unlimited support for the arts under a Labour Administration—and that is in addition to the considerable commitments that evidently he has urged this afternoon.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that local authorities in my area regard him as a Minister who is prepared to listen and to help, and that they deeply appreciate that? Is he further aware that the people of Wales will recognise what an excellent deal his announcement is for them? It is very much better than is available for England. There is also particular gratitude for the trouble that he has taken to ease the transition from the community charge to the new council tax.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting the points that he did, which I hope Opposition Members will answer at some stage. It is all well and good to go around Wales promising more spending—spend, spend, spend. However, someone will have to pick up the bill, and undoubtedly that will be the people of Wales. When the people of Wales realise that the settlement allows for spending of £1,193 for every man, woman and child in Wales—towards which there will be external finance of more than 90 per cent. of that figure—they will appreciate that it is a very good settlement.

The Secretary of State is the person who set the poll tax on the track, only to see it later plunge into the political abyss. That cost Welsh taxpayers a great deal of money. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why he regards it as still right that Welsh poll tax payers should pay any part of the transition to council tax? Surely it is most unfair for them to face that expenditure.

Why has the Secretary of State not given an additional amount toward the peripherality factor, which still disadvantages rural areas in Wales? They find it difficult to meet necessary revenue expenditure, such as the cost of road repairs and the much increased cost of social services in the light of the care in the community policy.

On peripherality and the whole standard spending assessment question, I have a distribution sub-group of the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance, which allows district and county representatives to meet my officials to talk through the factors that should govern the distribution of standard spending assessments. The outcome is heavily dependent on the data that are fed in by local authorities, which change from time to time.

That sub-group seeks to balance the needs of rural and deprived areas and those of more urban areas. On balance, local authorities agree with the way in which standard spending assessments are currently worked out. That matter is obviously one that we consider from time to time, in great detail.

My right hon. Friend's excellent statement will be warmly welcomed in Wales. Is he aware that many people in Wales are concerned about media claims that Welsh local councils are hellbent on setting the community charge at about £300? Is not my right hon. Friend's announcement today a complete rejection of such claims? Thanks to this Government, surely not even the most malicious left-wing council could set a community charge of about £300 and impose it on its local electors. However, does not such a threat emphasise the need for my right hon. Friend to keep his capping powers?

I believe that my hon. Friend refers to national press stories that were echoed in the Liverpool Daily Post, which suggested that community charge levels were to reach £300. Those reports, of course, referred to the level in England, of a community charge for standard spending of £257. My hon. Friend is right to say that there were many telephone calls to the Welsh Office from people asking what on earth was happening. In fact, the position remains unchanged. Our community charge for standard spending is £118, as opposed to £257 for England. Today's announcement means—even before community charge benefit is taken into account—that the community charge in Wales next year should be around £100.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the deplorable state of our roads and pavements, and the fact that significant parts of our street lighting system are out of action as a result of disrepair, when all the evidence is that effective street lighting helps to combat crime? Given the huge backlog of disrepair, has the right hon. Gentleman provided any special factor for dealing with such genuine, local, and fundamental problems that all of us face from day to day and from week to week?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we do not deal in Wales through hypothecated or specific grants for the totality of local government expenditure, but reach an overall figure for total standard spending—which is more than £2,600 million. It is for local authorities to set their own priorities within that expenditure. I have no doubt that we could point to certain local authorities that do not exercise their priorities correctly, but it is for local authorities to determine their own priorities within the overall settlement.

Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that in no year in which he has given the average figure for the poll tax base for Wales has that figure been achieved? When local authorities assess settlements such as the one that he has announced today in relation to what they received in the previous year, they never seem quite so generous.

Will the right hon. Gentleman respond to the genuine concern felt by Welsh local authorities about the additional expenditure imposed on them as a result of Government legislation—especially that caused by the plans for community care and the implementation of the Children Act 1989? Will he assure us that any shortfall in training programmes connected with such changes will be made up this year?

The hon. Gentleman is right to stress that it is up to local authorities not only to set their own priorities—I made that point to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands)—but to work out the level of community charge that should be set locally. I have never suggested that I would do other than emphasise to local authorities that they must budget sensibly. I have also said that I would prefer that to be done by means of self-restraint, but it is important to have that ultimate power to protect charge payers in Wales. I am not sure about the policies of Plaid Cymru; I do not know whether it would provide for such a power to restrain excessive spending. Labour, however, has said that it would introduce no such power.

I have made clear my determination to ensure that local authority expenditure is kept to a reasonable level in the coming year. That is why I shall not hesitate to exercise my charge-capping powers should it become necessary to do so.

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that, despite his palliatives and protestations, he will find it very difficult to live down his close association with the poll tax? May I also draw to his attention the deteriorating housing situation in Wales? It is developing into a scandal, mostly because our local authorities are not allowed to spend the receipts from the sale of council houses.

Why did the right hon. Gentleman dodge the request for him to give a clear and specific reply on that subject to my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) this afternoon? Our local authorities Wales are fed up with the repression imposed on them by the present Government.

To some extent, Opposition Members give the impression that those capital receipts have vanished, blown away by the winds of faith. That is not so; they have been used, very sensibly, to pay off their debts that were incurred when the houses involved were built. As I have already told the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), the amount of local authority debt in Wales is more than £1,000 for every man, woman and child.

Government support for local authority capital expenditure next year has increased by 24 per cent. over the current year, rising to £536 million. The lion's share is earmarked for housing—in particular for the home improvements and renovation scheme, which I believe is going extremely well in Wales.

Is the Secretary of State aware, first, of the growing housing problem; secondly, of the increasing difficulties experienced by local authorities in putting central heating systems into houses when requests for them have been made on medical grounds; and, thirdly, of the lengthening waiting lists for adaptations to houses that are needed by, for instance, disabled people?

May I plead with the right hon. Gentleman to think again about a phased release of capital receipts? Much good could be done for people throughout Wales through the expenditure of relatively little money. Will the right hon. Gentleman give a pledge to re-examine the matter, and to do something about it?

I am not too sure that the hon. Gentleman listened to the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes). As I said then, local authority capital has been increased by some 24 per cent., to £536 million. I have also been able to persuade my Government colleagues to increase the provision of mandatory home renovation grant by £80 million, bringing next year's total provision to £143 million. That will greatly assist us in improving existing housing stock. As for the provision of new houses, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Housing for Wales allocation is now at record levels.

The cost of setting up the poll tax, administering it and then bailing it out has amounted to £1 billion in Wales alone, according to the Local Government Information Unit. Is it not time that the Secretary of State apologised to the House for a wanton misuse of £1 billion of other people's money that makes even Robert Maxwell look like a saint?

The hon. Gentleman is a master of hyperbole and the single entendre. I do not know where he found that £1 billion figure, but his mathematics presumably included the transitional relief scheme and various other grants.

I make no apology for having abolishing the iniquitous domestic rating scheme. What saddens me is the fact that the hon. Gentleman's party proposes to return to it.

Will the Secretary of State list all the recommendations made by the Liberal Democrats that he has incorporated in the council tax proposals?

The Secretary of State has always shown great enthusiasm for the poll tax in general, and he now shows great enthusiasm for this settlement. As he is so enthusiastic, may I invite him to make the poll tax a battleground in the approaching general election, and to urge every Welsh local authority to ensure that it issues the demands that the system will involve before the election takes place?

Although I do not know when the election will be, I should be delighted if the people of Wales made up their minds about clearly expressed alternatives. Under the present Government's spending plans, which include a special Welsh grant advantage, more than 90 per cent. of local spending will be met by external finance; less than 10 per cent. will be met by the local charge payer.

I should like the people to decide between the present Government, who are abolishing the poll tax or community charge and replacing it with a fairer council tax, and the Labour party, which promises a return to the system of taxation that its own leader has described as the most unjust of all—the iniquitous, hated domestic rating system.

May I point out that the distribution of grant is grossly unfair? Authorities such as Rhymney Valley—which, on every objective index, can be described as socially deprived, receive less than the average increase that is available to Wales as a whole.

Does not the Secretary of State realise that, given the enormous housing and unemployment problems that we have in the valleys, his standard spending assessment model is grossly unfair and needs re-examination? If local authorities in the position that I have described find that they are forced to raise poll tax levels by more than the right hon. Gentleman recommends, and if he is minded to use his reserve capping powers, will he now undertake to consult those authorities before taking such draconian action?

No. The local authorities know my position, which I have made absolutely clear. In regard to spending generally, I have been asked various questions by hon. Members on both sides of the House about whether certain kinds of spending have been taken into account—for instance, spending on community care. I have considered the entire range of local authority services, and I believe that, against that background, the settlement is fair and just.

As for standard spending assessments, as I told the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), we examine them constantly. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) has any specific proposals, I shall be pleased to hear from him; but we consider SSAs carefully, within the overall total of standard spending, and our proposals struck me as a reasonable compromise between the various interests involved.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we recognise the importance and significance of the valleys. That is demonstrated by the valleys programme, which was launched by the present Government.

The leader of my council tells me that its capital receipts from the sale of council houses is about £12 million. He tells me also that the council is not allowed to spend that money. If it were able to do so, more houses could be built, with no additional burden on taxpayers or poll tax payers. Why is the Secretary of State so pathologically blind—because of his Tory dogma—to the real needs of the helpless and the homeless who desperately need homes but are denied them by his policy?

May I explain again that we are dealing with a very substantial local authority debt burden—the figure approaching £3 billion, which represents more than £1,000 for every man, woman and child in Wales. I have already decided—I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes my decision—to increase local authority capital provision next year by 24 per cent. Most of that will go into the provision of housing. In addition, of course, the resources earmarked for the provision of housing in Wales is at a record level. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has published an extremely good agenda for action on housing. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we take very seriously indeed our responsibilities for housing in Wales.

About six times this afternoon, Opposition Members have asked the Secretary of State about the impact of his settlement on the ability of local authorities to implement the Government's proposal to transfer to the local authorities responsibilities in respect of care in the community and the Children Act 1989. Each time that the Secretary of State has had an opportunity to comment on that matter, he has refused to do so. What does he expect will be the impact on the ability of local authorities progressively to take on the burden, from 1 April, of looking after the services currently provided by the health authorities with direct Government finance?

I thought that I had just said in reply to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), but I say again, that I have looked at the whole range of services. In respect of community care, we in Wales are extremely well on course towards implementing the new system on 1 April 1993. Included in this settlement are specific grants for training, and various other spending responsibilities have been taken into account.

Is not the Secretary of State's great problem the fact that he simply does not listen to people in Wales? If he had listened to the people of Wales, he would not have been burdened by the tragedy of the poll tax. If he had listened to local government leaders in Wales, we should not have a system of poll tax relief that is so inane that it goes not to individuals but to communities. If he had listened to my hon. Friends about the question of housing, and had released the capital receipts that are locked away in the coffers of local authorities, tens of thousands of people in Wales would have houses. Cannot he see that, for these and other reasons, the next time a Secretary of State for Wales comes to the Dispatch Box to announce a rate support grant settlement, it will be a Labour Secretary of State?

I would listen more willingly to the hon. Gentleman if he were to get his facts right. He says that, if I had listened to local authorities in Wales, I would not have produced this transitional relief scheme. [Interruption.] He says that they have changed their view. In fact, he has changed his position. A few moments ago, he said that, if local authorities had been listened to, we would not have introduced the scheme. But we introduced the scheme in response to a request from local authorities.

It is a very simple and effective scheme. We are now in the final year of the poll tax or community charge system, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would have expected us to produce an alternative system based on individual need and requiring everybody to apply. Does he really think we ought to have done that?

I believe that this is a very fair settlement. The average community charge in Wales, even before taking community charge benefit into account, will be about £100. The only people in this House that I fear are my English colleagues—they having heard that the community charge in Wales will be about £100. The key question—to which we have never had a response—is whether the shadow Secretary of State will continue the special Welsh revenue support grant advantage that has been secured under the present Government. From the Labour party there is a deafening silence as to whether it would continue to fund local government services to the extent of more than 90 per cent. from aggregate external finance.

The fact is that, under a Labour Government—for the sake of the people of Wales, I very much hope that that will never come about—the policy on local authorities would be "spend, spend, spend", and the bills would have to be met by the people of Wales.

Bcci

4.55 pm

Mr. Keith Vaz
(Leicester, East)