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Commons Chamber

Volume 205: debated on Monday 9 March 1992

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House Of Commons

Monday 9 March 1992

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions


Roads, Wiltshire


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is his current estimate of capital expenditure on roads in Wiltshire in the next three years.

Capital expenditure on trunk road schemes in Wiltshire in the next three years will be approximately £50 million.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that most helpful and encouraging answer. Can he do anything to speed up the rate at which the link between the M4 at Swindon and the M5 at Gloucester is increased to dual carriageway status throughout its length? Will my hon. Friend also consider the roads to the south of Swindon through Marlborough and Devizes to Salisbury? If he saw those for himself, I am sure that he would agree that they are of low quality, given the volume of traffic using them every day.

The roads to the south of Swindon are the responsibility of the local authority—Wiltshire county council. The roads between Swindon and Gloucester, however, are the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State.

I am pleased to say that work on the Latton bypass is due to start next year, at a cost of about £17 million, and there are five other schemes on that road, at a total cost of £100 million. My hon. Friend's constituents will recognise that it is vital for the future prosperity of Swindon that those schemes be implemented as quickly as possible. They would be delayed, if not cancelled, were the Labour party to take control.



To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any plans to accelerate the proposed work on the A 13 between the M25 and outer London.

My right hon. and learned Friend has today announced his intention that a major advanced works contract on the A13 Wennington to Mar Dyke scheme should be started in the coming financial year, subject to satisfactory completion of remaining procedures.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he take my word for it that my constituents are horrified by Labour party proposals to review the trunk road programme? That would be devastating to my part of the country—

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the meantime we could so something to improve the A13, because it carries major freight from Ford at Dagenham, from Tilbury docks and from Shell Haven, all of which involve developing industries in my part of the country?

I agree that the A 13 is of fundamental importance for the prosperity of my hon. Friend's constituents and of many others in the east Thames corridor. Apart from the Wennington to Mar Dyke scheme, I am pleased to say that about £455 million worth of improvements—dualling, flyovers and junction improvements—are planned for that section of the A13.

On major road improvements on trunk roads and motorways, what progress is my hon. Friend making in achieving lower noise levels through better surfacing? What consideration is being given to noise barriers of various kinds?

There are a number of experiments at the moment to improve the noise environment on our motorways and they include the most modern technology for noise barriers. We also have studies under way to determine whether it is possible to use a porous asphalt surface on some roads, as that would reduce noise for people living near those roads. We certainly take into account the effects on local residents of noise from roads and we are doing our best to minimise them.

Road Casualties


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what asssessment he has made of the contribution the road-building programme can make to reducing road casualties.

It is currently estimated that, for every £100 million invested in trunk road improvements, about 100 road deaths and 4,500 casualties are saved over a 30-year period. The House will be pleased to know that in 1991 there appear to have been lower fatalities on our roads than in any year since the 1940s, despite a ninefold increase in the amount of traffic.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply which shows that the programme for road improvements not only increases traffic flows and reduces congestion but makes a direct and positive contribution to the reduction of road casualties. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will know that in areas such as mine, which has the A5 running through it, the improvements have been greatly appreciated. My Conservative county council strongly supports the Government target of reducing accidents by one third by the year 2000. Has my right hon. and learned Friend any thoughts on the implications of delaying or abandoning the substantial road programme that he has proposed, such as is advocated by the Opposition?

That would indeed have a serious effect. For example, this morning we announced the spending of £760 million on road improvement projects in the forthcoming financial year. That is likely to save 700 lives and more than 30,000 casualties over the next 30 years. It is important for the Opposition to bear it in mind that their opposition to the roads programme is a recipe not only for increased congestion but for increased fatalities and casualties on our roads.

About 12 months ago, I asked the Secretary of State a question about the safety of the lighting on the M6. It appears that the lighting has not been improved and that there are black holes all the way along the M6. Two particular spots with many accidents have been highlighted lately. Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman any proposal to improve the lighting on the M6 where black holes exist?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have major proposals to widen the M6 and obviously the lighting on part of that road will be improved when the proposals are implemented. We give serious consideration to safety recommendations and, where lighting would make an important contribution to reducing casualties, it is an important factor.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Winchester bypass is one of the most dangerous pieces of road in the country? The latest figures show that the death and serious injury rate on that road is five times the national motorway average. There is widespread support for completing that road at the earliest opportunity. The proposition that it passes through one of the most beautiful parts of England is total nonsense, because it passes through what is virtually surburban Southampton. Opposition comes mainly from a handful of self-interested people and some foreign thugs. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do everything that he can to complete that road as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the serious congestion in the Winchester area. We attach importance to environmental considerations and the House will be aware that there have already been, I think, four public inquiries into the project over 20 years. It is crucial to make progress in completing the Winchester bypass as soon as possible. We are taking account of environmental considerations. There are substantial environmental benefits to be had from the proposed project because of the ability to reunite St. Catherine's hill with the town of Winchester. At the moment the two areas are divorced by a road that will revert to green fields when the project is complete.

The Secretary of State's new £750 million road electoral bribe is something old, something borrowed and something blue. The programme contains a promise to improve the M25 between junctions 15 and 16. However, Tory party central office says that the M25 will be widened to four lanes at a cost of £4 billion. Who are we to believe—the Secretary of State for Transport or Tory party central office in a different statement which was issued this afternoon?

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is holding a copy of our document headed "Labour's Threat to Road Projects". I trust that he will not only read it but absorb its implications. If he does, he will recognise the serious warning by the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors that if a Labour Government imposed a freeze on the roads programme, up to 20,000 jobs could be lost in the construction industry. I trust that he will take account of the road safety dangers that are inherent in his policy. Finally, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remind his colleagues in the shadow Cabinet, including the shadow Chancellor, that they should not advocate major road projects in their constituencies at the same time as the Labour party seeks to impede progress elsewhere in the country.

Channel Tunnel


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next plans to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss improving the rail links between the channel tunnel and north-west England.

British Rail plans to run channel tunnel freight services from terminals at Trafford Park, Manchester and Seaforth, Merseyside. British Rail has ordered channel tunnel day-and-night trains which will run on the west coast main line.

Is the Minsiter aware that most people in north-west England, including the Railway Industry Association, believe that it is economic madness to open the channel tunnel without first providing a proper linkage between the north-west and the channel tunnel? What response does the Minister have to the association's recent criticism that neither the Government nor British Rail has a strategy against which manufacturing industry can plan its future?

As regards long-term plans by British Rail for expanding services and re-equipping certain lines, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Sir Bob Reid, the chairman, published a document in the middle of last year which looked forward 10 years to railway investment. That level of investment, currently running at £1 billion a year, will be sustained by the Government over the public expenditure planning period which runs for the next three years and, I am quite confident, will run over the next 10 years.

Is my hon. Friend aware that people up in the north-west welcome the prospect of the channel tunnel being opened? Will he ensure that sufficient facilities are made available north of Manchester and Liverpool to allow people and freight to be carried on the trains? Does he agree that it ill behoves the Labour party to comment on that because Labour was against the channel tunnel at its inception?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Freight services will run through the channel tunnel from its opening. The locomotives and wagons are ordered. As for passenger services, the new Waterloo terminal is substantially complete. It will be open by summer next year. Passengers on trains running from the north-west into Euston will be able to cross London and catch a train at Waterloo and, in addition, some of the trains will run directly to Waterloo.

Does the Minister support British Rail's policy of siting freight depots only where it can find developers to put money into facilities around the depot? Does he think that that is the way that one should plan the freight movement from the north-west through the channel tunnel?

The hon. Lady is misinformed. Of the nine terminals that will be opened by the summer of next year, the majority are already owned by British Rail and will be developed for channel tunnel freight services. Some of them will be developed further with the use of private sector capital—particularly Port Wakefield if, as a result of the public inquiry to be held this month, a decision to go ahead is given. The majority of the terminals are British Rail terminals.

Given that 46 per cent. of British Rail's freight business originates in the north-west, is not it strange that British Rail has not talked to the majority of its users already about times and tariffs for the channel tunnel?

I am certain that British Rail will shortly publish its scheduled freight services from the nine terminals. It has already published a preliminary timetable and, as I understand it, preliminary tariffs. My hon. Friend will know that the Government have proposed a major new initiative in rail freight by encouraging the private sector to run additional services on British Rail track.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government were heavily involved in negotiations with British Rail to produce the passengers charter, which was condemned universally last week? During the negotiations, was the Minister a party to setting the target of acceptability for the west coast main line at 90 per cent? He will know that only 85 per cent. has been achieved and that the 15 per cent. shortfall is due to track failure and old rolling stock. Would it be better to confirm the order for the west coast main line instead of negotiating a bonus for the chairman that is worth £53,000?

I would advise the hon. Gentleman not to believe what he reads in the newspapers about the bonus for British Rail's chairman. There is no truth in those articles.

British Rail has not yet put an investment proposition to the Department for the west coast main line. It will be for expenditure in the mid-1990s. It is an extremely important investment project.

The passengers charter has been warmly welcomed by many of my Back-Bench colleagues—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—many of whom are sitting behind me. The Government had the initiative to work with British Rail to introduce it. The hon. Gentleman has no proposals whatsoever.

During the discussions that will range from the channel tunnel to the north-west of England, will my hon. Friend remember that he will have to cross north-west Kent? Will he take note of the campaign to sink the link, as the channel tunnel rail link passes Gravesend and Northfleet? We do not see why we should pay the environmental price for manifest improvements for the people of north-west England.

My hon. Friend refers to the proposals for a new high-speed rail link from Folkestone to King's Cross. I can give him the assurance that both he and the local authority in his constituency will have ample opportunity to express their views on how best to design the line to reduce the environmental impact.



To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will review the regulations covering safety and roadworthiness of buses.

Regulations covering the safety and roadworthiness of buses are kept under continuous review. However, buses are the safest form of road transport in this country and the Government strongly support the growth of bus services, especially in urban areas.

Is the Minister aware that in my constituency people refer to buses these days, following deregulation, as bananas because they tend to arrive in bunches? [Laughter.] One Conservative Member has a sense of humour. Is the Minister further aware that there has been an enormous erosion of confidence in the reliability and roadworthiness of buses since deregulation, especially in south Wales during a period in which monopolies have been created as stronger firms capture weaker ones and cowboy fleets undercut the operations of firms that are much more conscientious and safety conscious?

The bunching of buses occurs largely because of congestion in urban areas. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have recently announced a £10 million programme to provide grants to local authorities to enable them to give priority to buses through the construction of bus lanes and by giving priority to buses at traffic lights. That initiative has been widely welcomed.

There is no statistical evidence to support the contention that deregulation has led to a decline in the quality and roadworthiness of buses. Passenger casualty rates have fallen by 30 per cent. in the past five years. There has been a fall in the proportion of buses that have been taken off the roads because of serious defects found during the vehicle inspectorate's examination.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that safety regulations for buses remain the same whether the services are deregulated or regulated? Will he confirm also that the regulations are entirely independent of the industry?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has reminded me of what I should have said in my supplementary answer to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there is no difference in the standards applied to the initial test or spot checks on the roadside, whether the buses are in a regulated or deregulated environment.

Is the Minister aware that one third of the country's bus fleet is now more than 12 years old, which is double the proportion before deregulation? Does he realise that, given the present replacement rate, the average bus will be on the road for 30 years? Surely that can only mean the collapse of the bus industry, less safe services and less access for people with disabilities. Why does not the hon. Gentleman admit that bus deregulation has been a disaster? Why does not he direct more of his roads bribes money towards the provision of better buses?

As it so happens, on Thursday I had the opportunity to visit Derby, together with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), whose constituency is there. I met the management of Trent Buses, which operates in a very competitive, deregulated environment, and I am glad to say that its investment programme over the past five years has been impressive.

M25 Traffic Flow


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether the proposed improvements to traffic flows on the M25 in Surrey will take account of environmental considerations.

All motorway and major trunk road schemes are subject to rigorous environmental assessment.

Although I accept the necessity to improve traffic flows and safety on the M25, may I ask my hon. Friend to take into account environmental considerations such as the need to keep noise down to a minimum? In particular, will he ensure that any widening is within the existing boundaries of the M25 and that the lighting, which is there to help motorists, does not infringe on the villages and the countryside of Surrey?

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. The M25 is being lit in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents, to enhance driver comfort and to increase the security of motorists whose vehicles have broken down. I assure my hon. Friend that lighting schemes will be designed to minimise visual intrusion into neighbouring property. Much use will be made of the full-cut-off lanterns, which reduce the minimum spill of light outside the highway boundaries. I confirm that it is not our intention to widen the M25 outside its present curtilage.

Motorway Service Areas


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what response he has received from organisations concerned with the countryside about his ideas for extra motorway service areas.

We issued a consultation document on the provision of motorway services on 10 February. Copies were sent to a number of organisations with countryside interests. The Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland has responded. It was concerned that proposed new arrangements should not lead to undue development in sensitive areas and it favoured a degree of continuing Government control over minimum standards at motorway service areas.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is still time for various groups, whether environmental or road safety, to respond to the Government's proposals? Does he understand that planning permission was initially gained, with difficulty, for the building of motorways through areas of outstanding natural beauty and great environmental sensitivity, so many people would not be keen to see developers spending hundreds of thousands —if not millions—of pounds fighting in a long succession of inquiries so that they can build not just motorway service areas—possibly excluding the disabled and lorries —but hotels and other facilities that would never have received permission when the original planning consent was granted?

I confirm that there is still time for organisations to respond to our proposals and we expect more representations during the consultation period. My hon. Friend raised matters that we will want to consider carefully. However, most people would welcome a greater availability of motorway service stations. A number of people have expressed their concern that there are almost 200 miles of motorway without one. The proposals in the consultation document will go a long way towards improving the facilities and the standards that drivers expect from motorway service areas.

When the Minister consults the countryside organisations about motorway service stations, will he also discuss the wider environmental implications of the Government's transport policy? Has he seen the report published today by the Council for the Protection of Rural England? If, over the next decade, there is to be a 50 per cent. rise in traffic demand, is not it about time that his Department stopped being a Department only for roads and instead sought to introduce a proper, integrated transport system that takes real account of environmental considerations?

Well, there we have it. That sums up the Labour party's attitude, which is against a roads policy. The Opposition should go to a number of towns where bypasses have been built, which have been warmly welcomed. I assure my hon. Friends that we will continue to provide those bypasses where schemes are put forward. They are environmentally friendly and they lead to less congestion. That helps the environment; it does not damage it.

Will my hon. Friend take into account motorway service areas of the kind found in France—which do not have restaurants, hotels or facilities of that kind, but offer lavatories, running water and parking places, so that the motorist can stretch his legs and rest before continuing his journey? Such stopping places are cheap and good, and we need them in this country.

I hope that the consultation document will prompt a number of proposals of the kind that my hon. Friend makes, and we will certainly consider them.

Second Severn Crossing


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will visit the site of the second Severn crossing at Caldicot, Gwent.

If the Secretary of State were to visit Caldicot, the people there would quickly remind him that Wales is in a state of deep repression—I mean, depression. They see no sense in imposing tolls on the existing bridge of £2·80 for a motor car, £5·60 for a minibus, and £8·40 for a lorry. Have not the Government given the French-backed consortium a licence to print money?

I am disappointed at the hon. Gentleman's negative attitude to a £300 million-plus investment in a second crossing of the Severn, which will improve enormously communications for the people of Wales. There is considerable confusion among Labour Members over whether their party supports continued tolling. We heard only last week from Labour's deputy leader that his party would abandon tolling in Scotland. If that policy were applied throughout Britain, as was also said by the right hon. Gentleman, it would cost £1·2 billion—an additional cost to the taxpayer which could only mean less investment in roads. The Opposition's policy is confused—and I do not agree that the people of Wales are repressed.

Is it not clear that the substantial staged increases in respect of the existing bridge are being imposed simply to provide money for the second, privatised bridge? Did the Welsh Office, because of the enormous blows to the location policy in Wales, bother to make representations against them?

The Government are united in their commitment to improving road communications in Wales. Labour was the first party to introduce the idea of a Severn crossing—and of a tolled crossing, at that. Labour does not have a clear policy on whether it believes in a second and tolled crossing, or wants just one very congested bridge—which would be very bad news for Wales.

A12 Chelmsford Bypass


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects work to commence on upgrading the A12 Chelmsford bypass from a two-lane to a three-lane road.

Consultants are working on possible route options, and we plan to publish them in the summer of next year.

Is my hon. Friend aware that prior to the opening of the A12 Chelmsford bypass in 1986, the Army and Navy roundabout in Chelmsford was the most heavily congested traffic blackspot in the country? After that bypass opened, congestion was greatly reduced—but it is beginning to increase again because of the greater use of the A12 as a route into the hinterland of East Anglia, to the ports of Ipswich, Harwich and Felixstowe. Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that the sooner a third lane is constructed to alleviate Chelmsford traffic, the happier will be my constituents?

My hon. Friend gives a timely reminder of the benefits of investment in our roads infrastructure. I am grateful for his congratulations to the Government on the completion of the Chelmsford bypass. We are committed to improving it further as a result of increased traffic, which is largely a consequence of the success of the east coast ports.

As this might be my last opportunity to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the topic of the proposed M12 between Chelmsford and the M25, I seek his assurance that when he receives alternative proposals for that motorway's line of route, he will take into account that such a motorway may not be required. That is the overwhelming response that I have received, and I suspect that the same is true of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). Rather than presume that a motorway is required, will my hon. Friend the Minister acknowledge that there is at least one other option—to leave things as they are?

Certainly the Government will take into account all the views expressed during the consultation period.

My hon. Friend's successor will have a hard act to follow: the diligence and commitment that my hon. Friend has given to his constituents have been exemplary.

Roads, West Midlands


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the programme of road building in the west midlands.

We are pressing ahead with the Birmingham northern relief road and western orbital route. The A5-A49 Telford-Shrewsbury improvements and two other bypasses are opening this year, and we are also supporting a £446 million local roads programme.

My right hon. and learned Friend will understand that the west midlands conurbation, lying as it does in a landlocked area, is responsible for the bulk of the country's manufacturing industry, and that it depends on adequate and improving road conditions. Does he accept that there is widespread support from industry and the community generally for the Government's roads programme? Without it, the whole area would be economically strangulated; but that is not the view of the Opposition, whose transport spokesman—the organ grinder—has now left the Chamber, but who would condemn every aspect of our road building programme.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the vital contribution that our roads programme will make to the west midlands economy, and to contrast that with the appalling implications of Labour's proposals. I note that, in addition to the party's moratorium on the roads programme, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport has imposed a moratorium on his own presence in the Chamber.

This electioneering is an expensive business, Mr. Speaker.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of his Department's projected minimum increase of 80 per cent. in road traffic will be absorbed by this latest pre-election bribe? Will he also tell us why he has refused to adopt the alternative package approach, involving a mixture of public transport and road schemes, that has been advocated by local authorities in the west midlands? Finally, does the Secretary of State accept that, no matter how much money he tries to throw around now, he will not save his hon. Friends' necks?

We are delighted to hear from the shadow to the shadow Secretary of State. He must appreciate that we do have a mixed public-transport and roads programme. In the autumn statement, we announced major increases in rail expenditure in particular. Labour's proposed attempt to finance improvements in our rail expenditure, at the expense of our roads programme, would result in massive unemployment in the construction industry, along with an increase in the number of casualties on our roads. It would also bring deep depression to many members of communities who are looking forward to the bypasses that the present Government have promised. That promise would not be implemented if the Opposition ever came to power.

Motorway Repairs


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received about the speed with which motorway repairs are undertaken.

The most recent representation has concerned the removal of the Ingst bridge on the M4.

Does my hon. Friend believe that the public are satisfied that motorway repairs are being undertaken in the shortest possible time? There has been some improvement in recent years, but are not further measures needed to speed up the process?

It is because of the concern expressed by my hon. Friend and others that the Government are committed to a further increase in the use of the "lane rental" method of procurement of motorway repairs. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that, in a recent study on maintenance techniques across the world, the World bank has confirmed that the United Kingdom carries out such work faster than any other country.

I shall wait to see what happens about the speed of motorway repairs. While the Secretary of State is looking at that, however, will he also take a look at the idiots who race through these roadworks? They have flipping telephones as well. It is time that the Secretary of State did something about that.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not speed through road works, and I hope that he will set a good example, which others will follow.

Fenchurch Street Line


To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received on the Fenchurch Street line.

I have received a number of representations recently about the Fenchurch Street line. The Government appreciate that that line does not provide the quality of service which passengers can reasonably expect. British Rail will, however, shortly be letting a contract to renew the signalling at a total cost of £50 million. That should help to improve services.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Mr. Martyn Rands, chairman of Basildon commuters' club—and to his hard-working committee—who met my hon. Friend this morning and presented him with a petition, signed by 5,000 people in my constituency, complaining about the disgraceful service that they receive on the Fenchurch Street line? Will my hon. Friend agree to tell the chairman of British Rail that he must do everything that he possibly can to improve the standard of service on that line for my constituents before 1995?

I certainly shall, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his assiduous representations on behalf of his constituents. Largely because of his representations, it was a pleasure to announce the resignalling of that line recently.

Duchy Of Lancaster

Ministerial Visit


To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he next expects to pay an official visit to Lancashire.

I have no plans to visit Lancashire in the near future.

I have no doubt that during the general election campaign the chairman of the Tory party will be spreading himself about a little bit, even though he has a tiny majority in Bath. Is he aware that I shall be following him in Lancashire? I shall be telling the Lancashire electors about the fact that the Tory party is financing its election campaign with money from Hong Kong, with £2 million from a Greek fascist and £440,000 from Asil Nadir—money which he stole from his company—and will the chairman of the Tory party—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should bear the sub judice rule in mind. Some of those cases are before the courts at the moment.

That money has not been declared in the company accounts of Polly Peck. Will the chairman of the Tory party send that money back to its rightful owners, bearing in mind the fact that the Labour party has agreed to send back Maxwell's money, if it is found to have had any connection with the Mirror group pension fund? That decision was passed unanimously and if it is good enough for us it should be good enough for the Tories.

I do not think that the Labour party could possibly repay the debt that it owes to the late Captain Maxwell. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and I manage to spend a little time in Lancashire together, and that he will come to Bath. He will find that in both Bath and Lancashire the electorate has as little faith in Labour's policies as he has.

Can my right hon. Friend spare a moment from Lancashire to come to Maidstone, where he will be able to share our pleasure—

My right hon. Friend will be aware, when he next visits Lancashire, that the news that the Liberal council has had to give up office in Maidstone has travelled the length and breadth of the land—


To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he next intends to visit the Duchy.

I have no plans to visit the Duchy in the near future, nor Maidstone, nor Basildon.

Would the Chancellor reconsider that decision because, when he next goes to the Duchy of Lancaster he may go to confession and admit to the untruths that are being told by his party in party-political broadcasts? He could admit that the 7 million days that allegedly were lost in one year under a Labour Government were lost under this Government, in less than three days because of unemployment. As a penance, will he restore the £500,000 that he stole from the shareholders of Polly Peck—

Order. [SEVERAL HON. MEMBERS: "On a point of order, Mr. Speaker."] Leave it to me, please. This case is sub judice. Will the hon. Gentleman please not use the word "stolen"?

If there is a court case, I shall refrain from commenting further, but would the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster urge the Tory party to refrain from wallowing in sleaze, which he calls scholarly?

One realises from studying the affairs surrounding the Maxwell Group that the Opposition know everything that there is to know about sleaze. The confessional is a matter of secrecy, but what is not secret is that, when they were really working at it, the previous Labour Government ensured that far more than 7 million days a year were lost through strikes.

Public Accounts Commission

National Audit Office (Public Relations)


To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission how much the National Audit Office spends on public relations, publicity and parliamentary relations.

The National Audit Office handles its own public relations, publicity and parliamentary relations work and one member of staff acts as press officer. Advance copies of reports are provided to the press and other interested parties at a cost of about £6,000 a year. In addition, the office produces an annual report at a cost of about £8,000 and periodic booklets on its work.

Will my hon. Friend pass to the National Audit Office the thanks of Parliament for its series of reports and ask whether it would be possible for us to have them at a time when Parliament is likely to be sitting rather than at one minute to midnight for the benefit of the press? That would be regarded by the House as a sensible courtesy.

The National Audit Office normally lays reports before the House five to seven days before publication. Once a report has been laid and a copy placed in the Library, it is available for any Member of Parliament to read. The Votes and Proceedings record daily items laid before the House. I understand, however, from the Comptroller and Auditor General that he would be happy to let any Member have an advance copy of a report if the Member indicates his interest. A list giving likely publications by the Comptroller and Auditor General in the coming months will now be made available in the Library.

Does my hon. Friend think that the excellent work of the NAO is sufficiently well understood and appreciated by hon. Members? If not, as some changes will be made to its membership after the election, will he consider writing to all Members explaining how the system works—what the Public Accounts Commission, the Public Accounts Committee and the NAO do?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I should certainly like to consider it. It is a great pity that hon. Members do not take more notice of the admirable reports that are made by the Comptroller and Auditor General, which are followed up so well by the Public Accounts Committee.

Is not it true that some documents that the Public Accounts Committee receives are not published, such as the memorandum that the National Audit Office drew up for me on the accountability of United Nations agencies? Is not it possible to put many of those documents in the public domain and publish them as Public Accounts Committee documents? Will the hon. Gentleman have a word with the Chairman and members of the Public Accounts Committee about that?

I should certainly like to consider that suggestion. Perhaps I could write to the hon. Gentleman.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a Bill to extend the powers of the National Audit Office to consider the Opposition's policies? Will he consider the staffing levels needed to cost the billions of pounds of wholly uncosted pledges made by the Opposition day after day, week after week? Would not that be an enormous and unfair burden on the NAO?

I think that it would place great strain not only on the Comptroller and Auditor General and his staff but on the budget of the Public Accounts Commission itself if it had to authorise such expenditure.

Duchy Of Lancaster

Ministerial Visit


To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether he has any plans to visit the Duchy in the near future; and if he will make a statement.

I refer to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) some moments ago.

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy realise that a visit to Lancashire—to the Duchy—in the near future—

I was born there. Would not such a visit provide a glorious opportunity to point out that the assisted places scheme—among other major educational advances—would be abolished under a Labour Government, thereby denying many bright children in the Duchy the opportunity of a first-rate education?

I share a birthplace with my hon. Friend, and I also share his concern about the future of the assisted places scheme. There are 295 schools in England benefiting from the scheme, and eight are in Lancashire. It is astonishing that the Labour party keep putting it on record that it is prepared to defend independent schools but refuses to allow poorer families to send their children to them. That is astonishing humbug.

Will the Chancellor of the Duchy reconsider his decision and pay a visit to the north-west, especially so that he can meet the 800 people a week who have lost their job since this time last year as a result of the Government's policies? When he is there, will he explain to the people of the north-west why he has changed his mind about borrowing? Does he recall saying in his Disraeli lecture to a Conservative audience that high levels of borrowing were nothing more than deferred taxation? Why has he changed his mind?

In the less demotic phases of my career I have given a number of lectures, most of them described as the Disraeli lectures, some as the Macmillan lecture and some even as the Macleod lecture. As for the borrowing lecture and the lecture on job creation, I have been able to state on a number of occasions when I have been a little more demotic that all independent forecast suggest that under a Labour Government—heaven forbid—borrowing and unemployment would be higher.

House Of Commons

Select Committee Reports


To ask the Lord President of the Council how many reports have been produced by House of Commons Select Committees during the current Session; and if he will make a statement.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. John MacGregor)

In Session 1991–92, to 5 March, Select Committees published 54 reports and nine special reports.

Will my right hon. Friend say how often these reports are considered on the Floor of the House? When he does, he will accept that it is not often enough. Will he take particular note of the excellent report on reading by the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts which established that reading standards have certainly not fallen and that teachers of reading should be congratulated on the excellent job that they do? If that report were debated, it would surely spread confidence in the teaching of reading which would benefit everyone, including hon. Members.

The reports are debated in the House and we follow the practice of the Select Committee on Procedure which recommended three days for such reports. When I was Secretary of State for Education and Science I recall being concerned about the implications of some methods of teaching reading if they are followed too acutely—in other words, without a balance of reading methods. I know that that caused some concern, but, broadly speaking, my hon. Friend is right to say that standards in our schools are very good.

Will the Lord President explain the priorities that he adopts in providing time for debating the reports? He provided time rapidly for the Select Committee on Sittings of the House which concerned curtailing hon. Members' hours. Yet for more than three months he has had in his hands the report by the Select Committee on Members' Interests which recommends changes in the registration of commercial lobbying interests. Is not that because many Tory Members are up to their necks in money received for commercial lobbying of one sort or another? The right hon. Gentleman did not provide time for such a debate because he did not want to embarrass the Tory party so close to a general election.

That is absolute nonsense. It had nothing to do with that. Hon. Members of all parties who have interests have them declared in the register, as the hon. Gentleman knows. The reason why we have not been able to debate the report is that we have had a great deal of other business to do. We have made extremely good progress with the most important business—Government legislation. However, I thought it right to debate the report of the Select Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) because many hon. Members of all parties, which was not the case with the other Select Committee report, asked me to find an early opportunity to enable the House to give its initial response to that splendid and important report.

Palace Of Westminster (Security)


To ask the Lord President of the Council what new arrangements he proposes to improve security in the Palace of Westminster.

It has been the long-standing practice of Leaders of the House not to comment on matters of security within the Palace of Westminster. I can, however, reassure the hon. Gentleman that we regularly keep security matters under review and take all necessary further steps in the light of such reviews.

Will the Lord President urge the security services to concentrate their search for the alleged theft of information from hon. Members on the organisations that regularly spy on hon. Members, including the organisation that last week published a ludicrous volume full of slanders and innuendos about hon. Members? Will the right hon. Gentleman stop the self-defeating, ludicrous, sleazy, muck-raking by the Conservative party's thought police?

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the document that was recently published by Conservative Central Office—

"Who's Left?". There is no need to have any security inquiry into that document because it uses published, freely available sources. There is no sleaze. It is a document about the Labour party's policy attitudes and it rightly points out that more than half of Labour Members have either recently belonged to or still belong to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It is an important contribution to discussion and to policy attitudes on important matters.

As the Lord President has successfully demolished the Opposition's spurious arguments, will he get back to real questions of security and take time to pay tribute to all who look after security in the Palace of Westminster? It is a nightmarish and difficult job for them all and sometimes we sound a little bit too critical.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am happy to pay tribute to the security services. They do a good job in the House, under the Serjeant at Arms. It is not an easy task and it depends, for example, on thefts being reported. It does not help when distorted and misleading accusations, often with no foundation, are made by one or two hon. Members.

Question Time


To ask the Lord President of the Council whether he has any further plans to propose changes to the order and method of Question Time; and if he will make a statement.

It is a question. Do not panic. Is the Lord President aware that the Prime Minister has not been doing very cleverly lately in Question Time? He had to apologise about that young girl Carly because he got it all wrong. Then he got the public sector borrowing requirement wrong. Will the right hon. Gentleman take on board the idea of giving the Prime Minister a mentor who could sit by his side for these last two days to help him out? Perhaps he might use the ex-Prime Minister to give him a chuck on. May I make the further suggestion that when it is all over on 9 April we get the right hon. Gentleman a new job—a walk-on part in a re-run of "Crossroads" or as a substitute for Ken Barlow.

I sometimes think that the hon. Gentleman is so busy thinking up his contorted questions that he does not observe what is going on in the House at other times. If he had been observing, he would have noticed that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been scoring heavily at Prime Minister's Question Time —winning hands down. Whenever the election comes, the hon. Gentleman will find that the electorate has also noticed that.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that very few people in the country will share any of the views of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? Question Time is unique to this Parliament. It is very much admired by foreign parliaments and enables the Prime Minister and others to answer questions in front of us all. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done extremely well and will continue to do so for many years to come.

As always, my hon. Friend talks great sense, and I agree with everything that he has said.

May we have a change in our procedure for questioning the Leader of the House who last week announced the business for the following week even though he apparently knows that the election is to be called for 9 April and that the business will therefore be changed? Why should the Leader of the House be in a position to give the wrong information to the House, given that he will almost certainly be making another business statement this week? As Leader of the House, does not he have a responsibility to the whole House?

My business statement every week is based on the position as I see it at the time and we have organised matters at the time. There are occasions—there have been occasions in this Parliament—when I have to make a supplementary business statement. I always make the statement at the time—as I did last Thursday—based on the information available to me and on the right process for the House for the following week.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that many of us would like to ask how it is possible to contemplate spending an extra £38 billion without increasing taxes, increasing unemployment and increasing prices? Will he therefore amend Question Time to allow us to ask questions of the Leader of the Opposition?

My hon. Friend makes a point which my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will be making on many occasions in the weeks ahead. The reason why the Opposition do not like Question Time and try to drown my right hon. Friend out is that they know that we are right in everything that we say and that the country will not support them on their policies.

If the election were not to be held until May or June, would an announcement be made next time we have business questions?

Trust Ports

3.32 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the progress that has been made on the privatisation of the trust ports since the Ports Act 1991 received Royal Assent in July of last year. The main objective of the Government in promoting the legislation was to enable the major trust ports to bring themselves into the private sector.

On 28 January I announced that I had given my consent to the sale of the Tees and Hartlepool port authority's undertaking to Teesside Holdings Ltd and that sale has been completed. The Forth ports authority intends to seek the privatisation of its undertaking on 12 March by floating it on the stock exchange. The boards of the Clyde port authority and of the Medway ports authority have now put to me their recommendations concerning the sales of their ports; the board of the Port of London authority has put to me its recommendation concerning the sale of the port of Tilbury.

Different objectives were agreed for the sales of the three ports, but in all three cases they included encouraging the disposal to managers and employees of the whole or a substantial part of the equity share capital; seeking the best open market price subject to the other objectives; and continuing the port operations of the undertakings.

I am satisfied that, in all three cases, the boards conducted the sales in a fair and proper manner. In particular, I am satisfied that each of them carefully assessed the bids for their ports against the agreed objectives of sale.

The Clyde port authority board concluded that the bid made by Clydeport Holdings Ltd, a management and employee buy-out team, satisfied most appropriately and fully the objectives of sale. It was also the largest bid in monetary terms. Under the terms of the bid at least 60 per cent. of the equity share capital of the company will be held by managers and employees. The Clyde port authority board has accordingly recommended to me that its successor company should be sold to Clydeport Holdings Ltd.

The Medway ports authority received only one final bid for its undertaking. This was from Medports Mebo Ltd, also a management and employee buy-out team. The board considered that the bid fully met the agreed objectives of sale. Under the terms of the bid, 51 per cent. of the equity share capital will be held by managers and employees of the company and an employee share ownership trust. The Medway ports authority board has recommended that its successor company should be sold to Medports Mebo Ltd.

The Port of London authority board concluded that the bid by International Transport Ltd, also a management and employee buy-out team, best met the agreed objectives. It was also the largest bid in monetary terms. Up to 50·1 per cent. of the equity share capital and 7·5 per cent. of preference capital will be available to managers and employees of the company. The board of the Port of London authority has recommended that the port of Tilbury should be sold to International Transport Ltd.

I have considered carefully the recommendations of the three port authority boards. I am satisfied that in all three cases the recommended bids meet the agreed objectives of sale. I have noted the provisions made in each case for managers and employees of the company to hold a substantial part of the equity share capital of the companies. I also consider the bids to be satisfactory in monetary terms.

I am therefore writing to the chairman of each of the three port authority boards giving my consent to the sale of their ports to the three bidders whom they have recommended, subject to the completion of satisfactory contracts of sale. I am delighted that today's announcement means that three more major British ports are now moving into the private sector and that a fourth intends to do so shortly.

I commend this statement to the House.

I am pleased that, at least on this occasion, the House has been treated to a statement rather than a repeat of the rather shabby deal that was associated with the sale of the Tees and Hartlepool port.

The Secretary of State should reconsider the remarks that he made when I left the Chamber. He is aware that when a statement is made on such complex matters it is necessary to read and consider it before one can be expected to make a response. It is the convention in the House for statements to be given to the Opposition by approximately 2 o'clock so that they can consider the details. If that is done, it avoids any discourtesy to the House that is caused by having to go out of the Chamber to read the statement in order to make a proper assessment of it. In view of that, I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will withdraw his earlier remarks.

In view of the complex matters involved, we have been given insufficient time to make a proper judgment of the Government's assessment—[Interruption.] That is the reality. It is difficult to make a proper assessment of the matters involved.

Does the Secretary of State accept that great concern attended the sale of the Tees and Hartlepool port when the preference for the management-worker deal was ignored and the highest bid was refused? The integrity of that deal and the community interest were severely compromised.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the motivation behind and timing of his announcement has much to do with the coming election and tomorrow's Budget? No doubt the receipts from the sales will be used to finance the Government's taxation programmes. Does he accept that his announcement has nothing to do with transport policy or the national interest? In view of that, the Opposition reserve the right to review, where possible, these privatisation deals to ensure that the national interest and employees' interests have been properly taken into account. The Tees and Hartlepool sale failed to do that.

What is the estimated price to be paid for the deals that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has announced, and how much will be secured by the Treasury? When he considered the preference criteria for the management buy-out, were they in any way different from those in the Tees and Hartlepool deal? What protection has been secured for the employees, particularly with regard to their pension rights, from those who have purchased, or propose to purchase, the trust ports?

The Port of London police force, which is publicly accountable, will become a privatised force. What assurances have been given about the use of that privatised force, which has considerable powers and responsibilities in connection with drugs, illegal immigration and contraband? What arrangements have been made with regard to the navigation powers for the Thames, particularly in the Port of London area, and how will they be financed under the scheme?

The House will have noted the hon. Gentleman's opening comments about his absence, and it will make its own judgment on that matter.

The hon. Gentleman should realise that the House would expect him, and all other hon. Members responsible for transport matters, to be present during transport questions.

The hon. Gentleman says that it is difficult to make a judgment about the content of my statement, but he has not found if difficult until now. He has opposed the privatisation of ports. Irrespective of whether they were acquired by management and employees, he and the Labour party opposed the legislation. Why does he now find it difficult to make a judgment? Perhaps it is a late sign of repentance.

The hon. Gentleman made a comparison with the Tees and Hartlepool privatisation, but on that occasion the bid by the managment-employee company was not the highest. It was not the bid recommended by the port authority. Other factors led to the recommendation that was made to the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the timing of my statement. It has been made today because in the past few days we have received the recommendations from the port authorities. My task was simply to decide whether they complied fully with the objectives laid down in the Act, and I am satisfied that they do.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the price that has been agreed. For the Medway, it is £29.7 million, for the Clyde £26 million, and for Tilbury £32 million.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the position of the police in the Port of London authority. He will be aware that there are ample precedents in other ports already in the private sector for police serving those new port authority companies, and all the proper interests of the police have been taken fully into account.

Of course pensions have been covered. That is to be expected, given that management-employee bids succeeded in each case.

The most alarming aspect of the hon. Gentleman's remarks was that he said that if a Labour Government were to be elected they would review the privatisations. I am not sure what was the implicit threat in that remark. In the three companies to which I referred, the employees succeeded in taking over their company. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that a Labour Government would seek to reverse the decision that I have announced today? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is nodding. Is he saying that a Labour Government would try to deny to employees in Tilbury, the Medway and the Clyde the opportunity to own the companies in which they work? I am sure that local opinion in each of those three communities will be appalled by the insensitivity of his response.

I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), on their tremendous personal efforts to bring about these great advances in the port industry. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the port of Sheerness, in my constituency, which constitutes the bulk of the port of Medway, has transformed itself in the past 25 years from an ex-naval dockyard into one of the most profitable, enterprising and largest ports in the United Kingdom? The privatisation will allow the 650 employees to have an even greater stake in their futures and will attract new investment to our area.

Is he also aware that every advance in the ports industry has been opposed by the Labour party, and this privatisation has also been opposed by the Liberal Democrats? The suggestion by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that an incoming Labour Government would review the proposals is utterly irresponsible. It introduces uncertainty into the matter, whereas we had hoped that total certainty would be established by today's statement.

I thank my hon. Friend for his warm welcome, and I associate myself particularly with his tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), who played an enormous part, when piloting the Bill and at subsequent stages, in ensuring the successful progress of this policy.

My hon. Friend was also right to draw attention to the important benefits for his constituents and for those in the local community resulting from today's announcement.

Is it now possible to see details of the bids? I believe that in the case of the Clyde port authority an assurance was given that the value of the management-employee buy-out meant that 60 per cent. was controlled by management and employees. Would it be possible to discover who was represented by the other 40 per cent.? What undertakings have been given to safeguard such ports? What would happen if Clyde port authority decided to move to Greenock and to ignore the rest of the Clyde, as it has done in the past? What undertakings would then apply to ensure that the Clyde was dredged? Will the company give such assurances?

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that 60 per cent. of the shareholding belongs to management and employees. It is for the company to say who the remaining shareholders may be. Clyde port authority has expressed itself fully satisfied that all the responsibilities that it has undertaken in the past will be carried out by the successor company. The objectives of each sale—they are slightly different in each case, depending on circumstances—have to be taken into account. Both I and the port authority are satisfied that the requirements will be fully met.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on today's excellent statement about the port of Tilbury. There will be great rejoicing in Tilbury this afternoon and tonight. He will be aware that the hundreds of men and women who work at the port and who have successfully turned it around since the abolition of the dock labour scheme go along fully with his decision; and it was absolutely the right one, given all the hard work and dedication that they have put into the port in the past two years.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, before the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) decided that this announcement would be reviewed if Labour won the election, at the end of last year, Labour's parliamentary candidate for Thurrock said that he wished there had been a November election and that Labour had won it so that the privatisation would have been stopped?

I am aware of that. The local Labour party in Tilbury appears to contain the only people in the area who are trying to frustrate the natural aspirations of the employees of Tilbury to own their own company. I suspect that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East will find that his aspirations cannot be realised—first, because he will not be elected, and, secondly, because legal procedures and the strength of local community feeling in each of these ports would unite to prevent any of his suggestions from coming into effect.

I welcome the statement, but will the Secretary of State explain what he means by

"a substantial part of the equity share capital"?
In the case of Tees and Hartlepool, it meant only 5 per cent., which appeared to be a shambles. Are the figures in these cases substantial—and are they correct?

I have explained what a substantial share means: it was 60 per cent. in the case of Clyde, 51 per cent. in the case of Medway and 50·1 per cent. in the case of Tilbury. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, under the Act, management and employee shareholding was one of the objectives, not an obligation. Such shareholding would of course strengthen any bid put before the Secretary of State or before the authority. Sad to say, although the Tees and Hartlepool employees' bid met that requirement, it did not meet all the other objectives so that port authority felt unable to make that recommendation. I concurred in that judgment.

Does not the attitude of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) clearly show that on this as on so many other issues the Labour party is torn between the interests of its trade union masters and those of the work force whom it purports to represent? Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen the recently published report of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, which produced the first profit for 29 years and restored traffic levels to what they were in the mid-1950s, and which attributed that almost entirely to the ending of the dock labour scheme—which the Government pursued through the House in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party? Is it not clear that our ports, as with so much else in this country, depend on the continuation of good, sound Conservative government to drag us into the future and to prevent us from being dragged into the past by the Labour party?

Yes. There has been a splendid renaissance of the ports since the repeal of the dock labour scheme. The Labour party's response is typical because it always provides pig-headed opposition to any sensible reform, always in the face of the Government and the employers, and usually in the face of the employees as well.

The Secretary of State rather flippantly set aside the issue of pensions on the basis that there was a management-employee buy-out. The report on pensions published this morning seems to show that that is insufficient to protect pensioners. Will current pension arrangements be safeguarded and will the scheme continue, or will there be a new scheme under the new management? That is vital, because previous privatisations in the transport industry have led to losses of pensions, as in the case of British Rail Engineering Ltd., where the company was sold to Parkfield which eventually went bankrupt and the members lost their pensions after paying into the British Rail scheme for 25 to 30 years. Will the Secretary of State give a clear understanding on the issue of pensions and on the protection that is required for pensioners who are currently receiving benefits from the scheme and for future pensioners?

Both the legislation and the various schemes that have been proposed have had to take into account the proper and legitimate interests of pensioners. The hon. Gentleman can assume that the port authority would have been looking especially at that matter in the light of its responsibilities. The Government, as the body required to give final approval, would also wish to take that matter into account.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that, although his statement will be enthusiastically welcomed in practically every quarter, it is just possible that in certain circumstances it could be less welcome to the British coal industry, of which the Leicestershire coalfield and Selby, in particular, are important parts? I also represent the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart). Will my right hon. and learned Friend kindly tell those who are likely to be newly responsible for the ports featured in his statement that there is already much unused capacity at British ports for coal imports, and that they would be ill advised to seek to provide further capacity?

It is for each port, irrespective of ownership, to come to a judgment on whether there is likely to be a demand for its services which requires increased capacity. Clearly, it will be for individual ports to decide on that matter, and that would have been true irrespective of my statement. Obviously, matters of energy policy are not for me. My responsibility is to ensure that there is a framework in which the ports can prosper, and it is the ports' obligation to judge the demand for their services and to seek to provide capacity to meet it.

Would the Secretary of State rethink his initial response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott)? When he demands that a decision should be made irrespective of whether the information is available or whether reflection has taken place, he is asking for a decision based on prejudice. Does he not think that, after 13 years of prejudiced and dogma-ridden decisions, the country would find it refreshing for a politician to say, "I want to see the facts before I make a decision"? On the facts of the Clyde port authority, the Minister said that there would be 60 per cent. control by the management and work force. What percentage of that is nonmanagement control?

I think that I am entitled to be a little sceptical about the hon. Gentleman's remarks and those of his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). The idea that the Opposition regularly ask for time to reflect on Government announcements before giving their response so that the response can be fully informed, and not based on misunderstanding or be in danger of misrepresentation, is an endearing suggestion, but not one that the House has regularly identified. If it is to be the policy of the Opposition in the next Parliament to reflect on all Government announcements before responding, I heartily welcome their conversion.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) in whose constituency is the largest part of the Medway port authority. I have the honour to serve the Medway constituency and my constituents will today be saying, "Thank you for a management-staff buy-out." We have always had good industrial relations in the Medway. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that this sort of buy-out, which really involves staff, quite contrary to the prejudice about which the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) spoke, can only enhance the good industrial relations that we have always had in that port?

I agree with my hon. Friend. A healthy bid from a management-employee organisation helps to create motivation, and that is always to be welcomed. It is sad that that kind of initiative does not always succeed, but wherever it does, and if it meets the overall requirements, it is proper for it to be welcomed in all quarters.

Is it Government policy eventually to privatise all trusts?

The hon. Gentleman should consult the Ports Act 1991, which makes it clear that the Secretary of State has the power to require privatisation of the 13 largest ports, but only after two years have elapsed since the passage of the legislation. That time will not elapse until July next year. As it happens, once Forth completes its procedure, five of the 13 ports will already have used the voluntary procedure, and that includes four out of the five largest ports.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that I have constituents employed in both the port of Tilbury and the Medway port. They will welcome today's decision and see it not only as underwriting the future and putting it in their hands but as giving them the opportunity to take a personal stake in the ports.

My hon. Friend is rightly entitled to feel doubly delighted by the announcement.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the answer that he gave the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) about the importation of coal? Was he saying that, although nearly 20 million tonnes of coal were imported last year and more is likely to be imported this year, he will allow these ports to import as much coal as they like, even though, when it comes to producing food, British Governments, of whatever colour, have always taken the view that it makes sense not to import food but to produce as much as we can and subsidise it here? What he is saying is that as much coal can come into these ports as anybody wants without the Government interfering. Come on, let us hear exactly what the Secretary of State has to say.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I was making no comment on energy policy, which is a matter for others to comment on, if appropriate. I should have thought that it was entirely obvious what I was saying. The ports' responsibility is to respond to any legitimate request that they receive from any potential customer to handle products either for import or for export. Individual ports do not determine energy policy.

At my first constituency surgery in 1983, two dockers from the Medway port came to see me and asked whether we could get rid of the dock labour scheme. We have come a long way since then, and the improvement in the ports in Kent has been staggering. Today's announcement carries them a stage further. Will my right hon. and learned Friend remember that, as the volume of traffic increases, the opportunity for a considerable amount of freight to move from road to rail will increase? Given that a new railway line is under consideration, will he make sure that the possibility of taking freight from road to rail is closely borne in mind?

We are keen to see a move from road to rail and also to sea transport. There may be opportunities for the ports to benefit from the improved freight facility grants that I announced some months ago. Interest in the grants is mostly centred on the opportunity for the railways, but there is also an opportunity for the ports if environmental benefits would result from freight that would normally be carried by road being carried by sea.

Now that we know that the Secretary of State does not care about energy policy, and will pursue his policy no matter what, will he give the House an assurance that he will consult the Department of the Environment? During the passage of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Bill, it was made clear that no consideration had been given to the dreadful and deleterious effects on the local environment of the way in which its provisions would operate. For the future, therefore, will the Secretary of State lay down guidelines on the control of orimulsion and coal, when they are being stored, to prevent happening what has happened in the past in Liverpool?

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that it is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to comment on the energy implications of the policy. The environmental matters that arise from these decisions, and especially conservancy responsibilities, have been important factors, particularly in terms of the Medway where the port authority was more than satisfied with the determination of the new owners fully to carry out their responsibilities.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if it had not been for the abolition of the dock labour scheme, his statement could not have been made? My constituents, who are a long way from the sea, would have been pleased to hear my right hon. and learned Friend make his statement. They would have heard that yet again the Government are giving workers their rights, as they gave council tenants and parents their rights. Is it not significant that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the shadow Secretary of State, did not even mention the coal industry, showing how incompetent he is?

As always, my hon. Friend is entirely correct in his observations. Without the ending of the dock labour scheme it is conceivable that neither management nor employees would have been remotely interested in controlling the ports in which they work. There is an entirely new spirit in the ports. Those of us who have visited small ports since the ending of the dock labour scheme have been told constantly by management and by the representatives of trade unions that the spirit has changed entirely. There is an enormous amount of co-operation in ensuring that the ports can best meet the needs of local communities. The Opposition know that. There has not been the slightest suggestion from them that they would bring back the scheme. We know very well why that should be their view.

My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens), is landlocked. However, my constituents are second to none in recognising that an efficient, innovative and dynamically managed set of ports is essential for economic growth. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, during the had old days of nationalisation and trade union monopoly, the registered ports were a costly and moribund incubus on the economy? They were incapable of competing either with private sector ports or, importantly, with Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and other ports on the continent.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that his announcement is excellent news? It constitutes a splendid new step in the revival of our ports. Does he agree with me also that nothing is more revealing in terms of the damage that Labour's industrial policy would do than the scarcely veiled threat of renationalisation that we heard from the Opposition Front Bench this afternoon?

I agree with my hon. Friend, as do the managements and employees at the ports. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) is the last of the neanderthals.

Points Of Order

4.7 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to seek your help and advice on a matter of security at one of the outbuildings that Members use in Dean's yard. Over the 15 years that I have been here there have been some excellent attendants and security guards, and I and others could get in and out of the outbuildings without any problem. About two months ago, however, somebody approved a piece of enormous expenditure and brought in a most sophisticated security system. The only snag is that it clearly was not made in Britain because it does not work. One of the problems is that it is not possible to get into the place. Once one has gained entry, it is often not possible to get out. I am especially concerned because somebody has spent a great deal of money on the system.

Over the weekend—in the past it was possible to get in by using a key —I was unable to gain entry to Dean's yard because my pass was rejected as being unsuitable, although it is an up-to-date pass. In the circumstances, one has to go to a phone box—I did so on Sunday afternoon—to call the security people. To give them credit, they came at great speed. However, as they had been called out half a dozen times that day, the man who opened the door was becoming rather tired of going backwards and forwards opening and closing it.

My understanding is that there is a further problem today—the door will not close. Therefore, despite all the sophisticated paraphernalia, the security is worse than it was previously. In the four or five days before the House rises, perhaps you, Mr. Speaker, would authorise the Serjeant at Arms to get rid of the system so that we can go back to the good old days.

I am aware that there has been some difficulty with that sophisticated entry and exit system. I shall ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, arising out of questions—

Order. It cannot arise out of questions or it would not be a matter for me.

Quite. It is a point of order arising out of questions, not a question arising out of Question Time. Is it in order to ask whether some exception could be made for answers when Ministers are so shocked and taken ill—as the Secretary of State for Transport was today by my suggestion that decisions should be based on rationality rather than prejudice—that they forget to answer the second part of a question? Could not some mechanism be found to ensure that Ministers write to hon. Members to answer their questions—which in my case was what proportion of the 60 per cent. of the Clyde port authority was non-management rather than management?

I cannot answer that question because I am not responsible for Ministers' answers. The hon. Gentleman should pursue the matter directly, possibly by letter, with the Secretary of State.

On a genuine point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance? Has your office been approached today by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) with a view to his coming to the House to make a personal statement to apologise for the way in which, over the past week or so, he has distorted Government figures—as highlighted by his embarrassment when he appeared on the Frost programme—on the number of people treated in the national health service?

I did not see that programme. Thank goodness, I am not responsible for what goes on in television studios.

On a genuine point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance on the question of privilege—

I checked "Erskine May" and noted that the proper procedure is to write to you, Mr. Speaker. However, may I seek your guidance prior to doing so? My point relates to the publication of a document that quotes from our proceedings in this House and from the Order Paper. The document refers to some hon. Members and contains information that is wholly untrue. The document has been published by the Conservative party—

It is to do with a document called "Who's Left?", published by the Conservative party—

Order. That is not a Select Committee report and not part of the proceedings of this House. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would ask his question of the Leader of the House. It is not a matter for me.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) in his point of order. We are in some difficulty because it has come to my attention that there is a rumour going around that there might be a general election. If that takes place quite soon, there will be no opportunity for us to cross-examine the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) on the figures that he has given to the public—

Order. I, too, have heard that rumour, but some other method must be found to raise the issue. What goes on in a television studio is not a matter for me.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are anxious to ease you into your retirement in a kindly way, Mr. Speaker, so you would not expect a bogus point of order on which to finish the day. I support my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) in his point of order. Try not to tax yourself too hard this week, Mr. Speaker, as the Serjeant at Arms is on duty and has no doubt heard about the problems that we are encountering at Dean's yard. That will save you having to bring the matter to his attention.

I am not sure that I understand the significance of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I hope that he does not get locked in.

Orders Of The Day

Friendly Societies Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

4.10 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Friendly societies have a long and distinguished history of making mutual provision for their members and their relatives against loss of income through sickness or unemployment and for retirement. Most societies provide not only contractual benefits but discretionary benefits to members who find themselves in financial difficulties, and many societies are also engaged in more general benevolent activitis. The nature and range of friendly societies vary considerably, but all operate on the admirable principles of mutual self-help and the encouragement of thrift. They have played a particularly valuable role in providing protection and savings for people on modest incomes who might otherwise be unable to make provision for themselves.

Friendly societies have been recognised in statute for nearly 200 years, although their origins date back to at least the middle ages. The Bill before the House today is the most far-reaching legislation on friendly societies for over 100 years, since the Friendly Societies Act 1875. There has been amending legislation since, but the fundamental structure of the 1875 Act has survived until now, and the consolidated Friendly Societies Act 1974—the current legislation governing the activities of friendly societies—still bears a clear similarity to it.

Time has obviously moved on, as has the environment in which friendly societies operate. Since the late 1940s the state has provided many of the benefits for which friendly societies were originally formed and new financial products have become available. In recent years, the ability of societies to compete successfully with insurance companies and others has been increasingly hampered by the framework that governs them—particularly the limited range of business in which societies can engage. However, they are still significant financial institutions, with millions of members and assets of more than £5 billion, and they continue to perform an important function.

The Government—and, I believe, Members in all parts of the House—recognise that the values friendly societies represent are well worth protecting and fostering. The Bill's main purpose is to enable societies to develop and prosper in the modern world, while ensuring sound standards of investor protection.

The Government set out their proposals for the future of societies in a Green Paper, "Friendly Societies: A New Framework", published in January 1990, which was widely welcomed—not least by friendly societies themselves—and forms the basis of the legislation before the House today. We have, however, made various modifications to the proposals in the light of the comments that we have received. In particular, we sought wherever possible to meet the requests of the friendly societies for further refinements to the framework.

Since the publication of the Green Paper there has been an extensive consultation process. We consulted interested parties on not only the draft instructions to parliamentary counsel for the preparation of the Bill but successive drafts of the Bill itself. The Bill has benefited greatly as a result, and I thank all those who took part, particularly the Friendly Societies Liaison Committee and representatives of the actuarial and accountancy professions. All their main concerns have been met, and the Bill therefore has the full endorsement of the friendly societies movement.

One of the Bill's most important provisions is to allow friendly societies to incorporate. That is an essential prerequisite for their being able to provide a wider range of financial and other services. For prudential reasons, European Community insurance legislation prohibits an institution providing long-term life or general insurance from engaging directly in other activities. It follows that such other activities must be conducted through separately managed and financed subsidiaries.

Friendly societies are currently unincorporated associations of individuals, and under the present law are effectively unable to own subsidiaries. The Bill therefore provides for societies to incorporate as a new category of friendly society, and to form and acquire subsidiaries. Although there will be no obligation—either legislative or otherwise—for existing friendly societies to incorporate, incorporation does offer advantages.

In particular, it offers societies the ability to own their assets directly rather than through trustees and to have legal personality for contractual and other purposes. We therefore hope that, even where they do not intend to take up the new powers provided by the Bill, societies will take the opportunity to incorporate. We have made special provision to preserve the character of societies with a federal structure, such as the Independent Order of Oddfellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters, if they choose to incorporate—but the decision on whether or not to incorporate will be for the members of each society.

Societies that incorporate will be able to establish subsidiaries or, together with other societies or other institutions, to establish the joint control over companies. Through those subsidiaries and jointly controlled bodies, they will be able to conduct a wide range of financial and other services. Those new activities are set out in schedule 7. They are mostly those put forward in the Green Paper, but, at the request of societies, we have added a number of additional activities.

The services that societies will be able to offer through subsidiaries include the establishment and management of unit trusts and personal equity plans; arranging for the provision of credit; carrying on long-term or general insurance business; the provision of insurance intermediary services; the administration of estates and the execution of trusts and wills; and the establishment and management of sheltered housing, residential homes for the elderly, hospitals and nursing homes. Those services can be provided not only for members of the society, but for the public at large.

All the activities listed in the Bill either relate closely to the existing businesses of friendly societies, or are natural areas into which they can diversify. However, the Bill provides for the list of activities conducted by subsidiaries and jointly-controlled bodies to be amended by secondary legislation. That means that, subject to the agreement of Parliament, additional services could be added as appropriate in the future by statutory instrument, without the need for fresh primary legislation. That flexible approach will allow the powers of friendly societies to be adapted to changing market conditions, and will ensure that their ability to compete is not unjustifiably restricted by their legislative framework.

We are conscious, however, that the basic concept of a friendly society—existing to provide a service to its members and controlled by them—should not be compromised by the new powers. We would not want a society to diversify to the extent that its new activities became disproportionate to the traditional business of the society. The Bill therefore provides safeguards in that respect. The purposes of an incorporated friendly society must include the provision of traditional friendly society services to its members, and they are set out in an updated form in schedule 2.

I have been looking at schedule 3, which deals with the procedure of incorporation. Would it be sufficient for a society's members to vote for incorporation by means of a simple majority, or will there be some higher hurdle, as there is in the case of building societies? If members do vote for incorporation, who will be the members of the society when it is incorporated? Who will be the shareholders?

There will not be shareholders. Although the society will then be an incorporated body, it will not be a Companies Act company; it will be incorporated specifically under the Bill. A friendly society will need to amend its rules to bring them into line with the requirements for incorporation that are made in the Bill. The resolutions required for such amendments will be those that are required by the friendly society's rules. I understand that, on the whole, rules can be amended by a simple majority, but I shall check that and confirm the position when I reply to the debate. It will be for the friendly society to amend its rules in accordance with its own procedures for amending rules—if that is not tautological.

There are powers to regulate the scale and nature of the activities of a society's subsidiaries if they are considerd to be unsuitable or disproportionate to the activities of the friendly society group as a whole. Societies will, as now, have the option of converting into companies if they wish to diversify further. That, I think, deals with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith): I was not talking about incorporation into a Companies Act company, but that further option is available to friendly societies now. If they find the legislation too constricting, either now or in the future, they can take such action; and, in such circumstances, they would be normal Companies Act companies with shareholders.

The second major element of the Bill is the establishment of a regulatory framework for friendly societies, in line with the best current standards. The prime responsibility for protecting the reputation of friendly societies for soundness will continue to rest with the committees of management of the societies themselves. The Bill tightens the requirements in that regard, including the requirement for at least two members of the committee of management, and the requirement that the committee be subject to re-election at regular intervals.

Clearly, however, we also need to strengthen and modernise the arrangements for the prudential supervision of societies as their business becomes less restricted, and to ensure that members of declining societies are protected appropriately. Although the problems that have arisen in relation to friendly societies in recent years have not been serious—indeed, the movement has a very good record—we must not neglect the need for their proper supervision. The supervisory system for friendly societies provided by the Bill therefore reflects and responds to the developments in regulation which have taken place elsewhere in the financial services sector.

Accordingly, under this legislation we propose to establish a friendly societies commission, to exercise and extend the functions at present carried on by the Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies. The new commission will include people with suitable experience outside the public service and the supervisory staff dealing with friendly societies will be strengthened. In parallel with that, the commission will have new powers, based on a requirement for all active friendly societies to be authorised.

The main power of the supervisor will rest in the granting or revocation of authorisation to carry on insurance or other contractual business, and in the imposition of conditions on it. A society carrying on such business without authorisation will be guilty of an offence. Authorisation is, of course, the standard procedure elsewhere in the financial services sector.

The Bill also sets out criteria of prudent management, with which all friendly societies—regardless of whether they require authorisation or are closed societies not conducting new business—will have to comply. The main criteria include the maintenance of any required solvency margin and of requisite accounting records and systems of control; direction and management by sufficient fit and proper persons; and conduct of the society's business with adequate professional skills, and in relation to the insurance business, so as to meet the reasonable expectations of members. In addition, those incorporated societies with subsidiaries will be required to ensure that they supervise the activities of those subsidiaries with due care and diligence.

If the commission considers that a society is failing to comply with the criteria of prudent management or if it thinks that action is needed to protect the interests of the members of a society for other reasons, it will be able to exercise a range of prudential powers. It can forbid a society to accept new members or withdraw or impose conditions on its authorisation. In addition, there will be a general power in relation to closed societies to direct a society to take such action as the commission considers appropriate. The commission will also be able to petition for the winding up of a society on a just and equitable ground, and to order a society to transfer its engagements.

The commission will have accompanying powers to obtain from societies and their subsidiaries the information necessary for its supervisory functions and to conduct inspections and investigations into societies.

The Bill therefore provides a flexible and wide-ranging regulatory structure to protect members' interests. That was the reason why we considered it appropriate to vest these powers in a commission, including independent members, rather than one person—the Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies—as at present. However, in line with building societies and banking legislation, the Bill also makes provision for an independent appeals procedure against the supervisor's decisions.

The commission's prudential powers are not the only safeguard for friendly society members. The Bill also requires all societies carrying on long-term life insurance business to appoint an actuary for the society. And all societies transacting insurance business will be required to have regular actuarial valuations of their liabilities, with checks taking place in intervening years.

In addition, new provisions relating to the preparation of the accounts of friendly societies and the duties of auditors are included in the Bill. The provisions reflect those in companies and building societies legislation. They require friendly societies to maintain proper accounting records and systems of control. Each year, the auditors of a society will have to make a report to the commission on whether the society has complied with the statutory requirements. The auditors are also empowered to furnish other information to the commission on the conduct of the activity of the society or the business of any subsidiaries.

Effective management, subject to appropriate supervision, is the best means of providing for the integrity and soundness of friendly societies. But to underpin all that the Bill makes fresh provision for investor protection. There is currently a voluntary scheme to protect friendly society members. However, although all the large societies, which account for the vast proportion of friendly society business, belong to the scheme, a number of the smaller societies have not joined it. It is accordingly desirable—as with banks, building societies, insurance companies and other financial services institutions—that there should be a statutory scheme, which is mandatory on any society which gives its members contractual rights.

Although it would have been possible to establish a statutory scheme just for friendly societies, it makes more sense to bring societies within the existing arrangements provided by the Policyholders Protection Act 1975, which covers the insurance industry. Accordingly the Bill provides for the amendment of that Act so that policyholders of friendly societies are brought within its scope on the same terms as those of insurance companies. Responsibility for the 1975 Act lies, of course, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and it is outwith the scope of the Friendly Societies Bill to make any more general amendments to that legislation.

We are removing the responsibilities of the Registry of Friendly Societies for hearing disputes between friendly societies and their members. Very few such disputes have been referred to the registry in recent years. In future, if a dispute cannot be settled under the rules of a society, it may be referred to the courts. We consider that the role of arbitrator under the disputes provisions does not sit easily with that of being supervisor of the institution which is one of the parties involved. However, although the commission will have no formal responsibilities in this area, it will continue the registry's role of using its good offices to resolve complaints. Friendly societies will also be encouraged to join one of the existing voluntary complaints schemes which cover insurance companies such as the insurance ombudsman bureau.

We are also taking the opportunity to rationalise the other disputes functions of the chief registrar. In particular, responsibility for determining disputes between the Department for National Savings and its investors will be transferred to an independent adjudicator. Although the independence and objectivity of the registry in handling these disputes has not been called into question, we have been conscious that it is rather anomalous for one of the Chancellor's Departments to determine disputes involving another.

The Bill also makes fresh provision in relation to amalgamations, transfers of engagements by and to friendly societies and their conversion into companies. As I said, a number of declining societies have ceased to take on new business. If a society is in terminal decline or if a management void appears, the interests of its members may be better served by a transfer of its engagements to another society willing to accept them than by allowing the decline to continue or winding up the society.

The Bill therefore contains measures to facilitate voluntary transfers while at the same time making provision to protect the interests of the members of the friendly society making or accepting the transfer. In particular, it introduces a conformation procedure so that the commission can be satisfied that the procedures for a transfer have been properly carried out. Where a friendly society proposes to transfer any of its insurance business to another society required to maintain a margin of solvency, the commission must be provided with an actuary's report on the ability of the receiving society to maintain the requisite solvency margin. The commission will also have the power to direct a society to transfer its engagements to another friendly society or other suitable body if it considers that the society is unable to manage these satisfactorily and that a transfer would be in the best interests of the members. A conformation procedure is also provided where societies wish to amalgamate or where a society wants to convert into a company.

The Bill is a long and technical measure. That is inevitable as it is the first major overhaul of the law relating to friendly societies in more than a century. Besides providing new powers for societies, it thoroughly modernises their legislative framework and incorporates many of the provisions that have already been enacted for companies in the Companies and Insurance Companies Acts in recent years and for building societies in the 1986 Act.

The Bill gives friendly societies important new opportunities to respond to the needs of their members and to plan for the future. Our purpose has been to provide a framework in which each society can develop in the way that it judges best, while always retaining the essential characteristics on which the reputation of friendly societies has been based. I am sure that there will still be room for societies of all sorts—large and small, national, regional and local—as long as they continue to provide the services that the public want.

The Bill should not diminish but enhance the diversity of the friendly society movement. It gives those societies with the necessary will and ability the opportunity to move into new areas and to expand their services to their members. It also provides for a regulatory framework in line with the best current standards. Friendly societies have given outstanding services to the community for more than two centuries. This legislation will enable them to continue to do so for many years to come. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.28 pm

A Bill to update the outmoded and antiquated legislative framework of friendly societies is hardly likely to excite the passions of the House. It is surprising, therefore, that the Bill should have taken so long to come here.

There can seldom, if ever, have been a measure that has been so long awaited, so well trailed and so desperately needed by the group of organisations and people involved. Our regret is that it has been introduced so late in the day, at the eleventh hour. In their last moments, the Government have chosen to introduce a measure that it was open to them to introduce many months ago had they been so minded.

Indeed, as long ago as June 1989, during a debate on the Finance Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that the Opposition would be only too willing to co-operate with the Government in identifying a time slot for such legislation and to give it a fair wind. My hon. Friend had been encouraged in saying that by the remarks of the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury during an Adjournment debate initiated—I want to give credit where credit is due—by no less a personage than the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs). He may remember it. At that time he had a slightly different role—a less distinguished role perhaps—but he was at least free to speak his mind. Now he is muted, at least on this topic.

However, on that occasion, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest moved the Adjournment debate and received due credit—his picture was in no less a journal than The Times of Saturday 8 April 1989. The hon. Gentleman remembers it well. It is not often that he features in The Times in any capacity. The headline under his picture—

Indeed, he did look younger—that is true. The headline was "Taken up the Cause". That was three years ago, which does not say much for the hon. Gentleman's persuasive powers. He is certainly older, but I am not sure that he is wiser. Three years later the measure has found its way to the House.

At the time, the then Economic Secretary—the current Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—said:
"Friendly societies are an important part of our social and economic fabric."—[Official Report, 4 April 1989; Vol. 150, c. 170.]
He also said in the Finance Bill Committee:
"I welcome their work and wish them to continue to operate."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 29 June 1989: c. 707.]
With such support, we might reasonably have believed that the Government would give the matter priority, but it was more than six months before they managed to arrange publication of the Green Paper entitled "Friendly Societies: A New Framework", to which the Economic Secretary referred. In view of that degree of diligence by the then Economic Secretary, it is no wonder that since he took over at the Department of Trade and Industry the Department has been renamed "The Department of Torpor and Indifference".

I hesitate to introduce a rancorous note into what should be a happy debate, as this is a non-controversial and inoffensive measure. However, for those of us who follow these matters—there are not many of us, but we are nevertheless a dedicated band of observers—it is interesting to note that the process began with the then Economic Secretary, who is now Secretary of Trade and Industry, and continued to cover no less a personage than the Patronage Secretary. The post of Economic Secretary is interesting, because although it tends to paralyse those who hold it, at least in terms of friendly society legislation it does not subsequently impede their advance up the slippery pole. Sadly, the exception to that rule is the personage who now occupies the post of Economic Secretary. I fear, for his sake, that he does not have much further to go up the slippery pole and that he will shortly slip off it altogether.

In the hon. Gentleman's historical review, will he remind us why, when legislation on friendly societies was consolidated in 1974 and the possibility of new legislation was raised, the then Labour Government chose to do nothing? I, too, do not want to bring a note of rancour into the debate, but I must point out that friendly societies seem to have suffered under all parties in the House.

The Government have had 13 years in which to do something about friendly society legislation and they have chosen to do absolutely nothing. I am glad that the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) does not want to introduce a note of rancour into the proceedings. He will understand, therefore, why I do not respond directly to his point.

I will not be provoked by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith). He has been trying to provoke me for years and, in my experience, the best course with him is not to be provoked. We shall come to the history of the matter in due course—and there is an awful lot of history.

It is interesting that the Prime Minister, who was then in his incarnation as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was very free with his words of encouragement to the friendly society movement. He wrote:
"The Government hopes the proposals in this Green Paper will provide the societies with firmer footing in the modern world and secure the future of the friendly societies into the next century."
The Economic Secretary, now the Patronage Secretary, echoed his master's voice, in no less a journal than The Daily Telegraph, with uncanny accuracy. He used the words:
"secure the future of the friendly society movement into the next century".
If the proposals were allowed to continue at the rate at which the Government have dealt with them, it would be well into the next century before a Bill was passed. Mercifully, that will not happen, but not because the Bill has now been published and will be given a Second Reading today. With things as they are in the current political climate and with a general election just around the corner, this is a Second Reading into oblivion.

The Whip, who should be silent bearing in mind his exalted position, asks, "Is it?" It would be interesting to explore that quesiton. The Bill, which has been introduced in these quiet and uncluttered hours of the day, is perhaps being introduced in the light of circumstances about which, until the intervention of the one who should not have spoken, we knew nothing. In 72 hours' time, or sooner, we may be told that the Government will not, after all, go to the polls because to do so would interfere with the passage of the long-awaited Friendly Societies Bill. It may be the secret weapon and it may be what the nation has been waiting for as the excuse for the reason why the Prime Minister, in a state of frit, declines to announce on Wednesday, as expected, that he is to go to the polls.

If the Bill is as important as the hon. Gentleman says it is, and if it is about to disappear into a black void, will he undertake that, if we have the misfortune to have a Labour Government, it will feature in their first Queen's Speech?

The pigmentation of the void is neither here not there; I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should have introduced such a note. If the Bill were to disappear—as I fear it will—into a void, in the fullness of time, it would come out of the void under a Labour Government and find itself on the statute book in something approaching its present form.

We have no quarrel with the content of the Bill. What we are concerned about—and what the friendly societies movement is concerned about—is the time that the Bill has taken to reach this place. It is an apt comment on the Government's priorities that, during this Session, they have preferred to introduce controversial, headline-grabbing legislation, which they hope may grub up a few votes in their hour of desperation—much of which they might have done well to abandon—than to introduce a solid proposal on the friendly societies which would have made a measurable contribution to the welfare of ordinary citizens and which could be secured with the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

What a pity it is that the Government did not take that course. What we have here is yet another example of their willingness to render all assistance to the citizens in whose name they produce charters and to do everything for them that they can—except actually to deliver anything that seriously might help them. The Government have still not decided whether they really want the Bill. We understand—the Minister will have his opportunity to deny it if it is to be denied—that Treasury officials and parliamentary counsel worked weekends in January to bring the Bill, with its 126 clauses and 22 schedules, to its published state.

The Economic Secretary nods his head in confirmation of that. Parliamentary counsel and Treasury officials are to be congratulated on having sacrificed their weekends in so noble a cause. But why, then, did the Bill lie on the shelf for most of February? Why was it not introduced earlier, to beat the dissolution? The Opposition would have done all that we possibly could to ensure that it completed its Committee stage: we would have been prepared to sit until late into the night if necessary to do that.

Is not the Bill one of the few measures in respect of which the Government will not have introduced a guillotine? They have guillotined every single piece of controversial legislation that has come before the House. Every evening last week we had guillotined legislation which was controversial and which had no support from a large section of the House. In one case, legislation was guillotined through in a mere two hours. The present Bill has the support of the whole country, but the Government are not prepared to use the guillotine procedures to facilitate its passage before the calling of the general election.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) will agree that, even by the standards observed by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) when he was Leader of the House, it would be unusual to guillotine a Bill before it had had its Second Reading.

The Minister is being somewhat flippant, given that the Leader of the House has already told us that, in his view, it should be our policy to timetable Bills on Second Reading. That procedure could be implemented for this Bill, and the Leader of the House could announce at the end of this debate—the Second Reading will be unopposed—that a timetable will be introduced to allow it to reach the statute book.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point which echoes a point that was made when the Leader of the House first started to impose guillotine motions. We asked why it was necessary to introduce a guillotine in relation to those measures, given that the Leader of the House had given the clearest and most unambiguous assurances that we would do all that we possibly could—

No. I have already given way more than I should have done—not least to the Economic Secretary, whose last intervention shows what happens when one shows a generous nature and exhibits a generous heart: one is taken advantage of by Conservative Members.

The need for the Bill is unquestioned. The Minister may recall that, back in 1987, the Friendly Societies Liaison Committee, to which he rightly paid tribute—the Opposition are happy to join him in that—argued that the friendly societies offered a unique combination of insurance business based on the principles of thrift and self-help, recognition of a responsibility to care for members going beyond contractual provision and a mutual constitution. The Opposition strongly support those qualities, especially as friendly societies are prepared to deal in smaller sums than conventional insurers and, hence, typically cater for the smaller saver.

We support the principles on which the friendly societies movement is based. We can understand why many people may feel a renewed need for the services that they offer. Undoubtedly, the societies are unlikely ever again to achieve the prominence that they occupied in the last century, but, as job security worsens and as the need for social services and welfare provision increases, it is vital that there should be vehicles to facilitate mutual support in the community and that the regulatory regime under which they operate should permit them to offer their present and potential future customers an attractive service.

That is not the case at present, and that is why the friendly societies movement has suffered a severe contraction in its numerical strength of late. There were some 8·7 million members in 1945. That number has fallen to about 3 million. Meanwhile, the number of societies has also declined—from 2,740 in 1945 to well under 500 now. More than 100 of the existing societies have ceased to take new business.

In that context, it is hardly any wonder that there has been widespread concern in the industry about the Government's record. The societies speak for themselves when they say:
"The lack of any sense of urgency on the part of the Government is causing severe frustration."
In the aftermath of the Government's last piece of procrastination, one commentator said:
"New legislation is not a vote catcher, nor does it serve political dogma, as do PEPS. Quite simply, the Government doesn't care about friendly societies."
That is the voice of the friendly societies movement and of the many millions who support it. To be fair, widespread concern has also been expressed in the House. A number of hon. Members present today signed an early-day motion urging the Government to bring forward the present Bill.

The position has been made much worse by the Government's fiscal policy. In examining the history of the matter, we must consider the role of the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson). He is past history. Conservative Members would either seek to forget about him and his role or to paint him as the villain of the piece in the past 13 years of Conservative misrule. They are right to paint him as a villain, but he was not alone. Conservative Members were his accomplices in the same way that they have been the accomplices of his successor. The right hon. for Blaby had a pathological loathing—I use those words advisedly with no sense of exaggeration—

Mr. Anthony Coombs
(Wyre Forest)