House Of Commons
Wednesday 30 June 1993
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]
Oral Answers To Questions
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to meet his EC colleagues to discuss measures to reduce the release of chlorofluoro-carbons and other gases causing depletion of the ozone layer; and if he will make a statement.
Measures to protect the ozone layer were discussed at the Council of European Environment Ministers earlier this week. I hope that we shall agree a new European regulation on ozone-depleting substances in the autumn.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and take this opportunity to welcome him to the Dispatch Box. He has made a seamless transition from agriculture to the environment. I should like to press him on the issue. Is there not more that we can do, especially in terms of recycling substances which are destroying the ozone layer?
I thank my hon. Friend. We are doing a great deal to encourage recycling. We have made the venting of waste chlorofluorocarbons illegal; we have allocated supplementary credit approvals to local authorities for investment in recycling facilities for 1993–94; and we have given special priority to schemes to help in that direction. As these substances exist, it is important to ensure that they are used usefully, but that, in future, they are not manufactured.
May I associate the Opposition Benches with the welcome to the new Secretary of State for the Environment? He may be assured of the greatest collaboration from this side in every initiative that supports good environmental practice and sustainability. In the light of allegations about a firm in Leeds, will he make it clear that anybody who discharges into the atmosphere materials such as chlorofluoromethane is liable to be prosecuted under sections 33 and 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990? Can it be made clear that prosecutions will take place as the law permits, and is the Secretary of State quite clear that, under his administration in the Department, there will be no mild response if people flagrantly break the law, but that he will make sure that that Act is enforced in the way that was intended?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the part of his question that was helpful. I do not want to refer to the case about which he spoke in the second part of his question, because that would obviously be improper. In general, I take a strong view about the need for this generation not to destroy the next generation. Therefore, the kind of activities to which the hon. Gentleman refers will be dealt with using the full rigour of the law.
Will my right hon. Friend take time to look at a report published in a national newspaper last week which casts grave doubts on the idea that locally produced, that is to say, earthbound-produced, chemicals have any effect at all on the ozone layer? The article said that the coming and going of holes in the ozone layer was a natural phenomenon. Before we begin to destroy the important refrigeration industry by banning one of its essential chemicals, we should take grave note of that report.
My hon. Friend and I have often sparred on matters not dissimilar to this one. I advise my hon. Friend not to base her arguments on a selective number of reports. It must be accepted that the dangers to the ozone layer are now pretty well attested. Even if the attestation were less, the dangers of getting this wrong for the next generation are so great that it is proper for us to take very tough measures. The fact that we are taking such measures in concert with our European partners and with other partners throughout the world enables us to ensure that our important refrigeration industry is able to compete on level terms with that industry in other countries. After all, there are alternatives for the refrigeration industry in most cases and they are now being put into place.
May I join in welcoming the right hon. Gentleman to his new job? May I also welcome what he said about taking precautions for the next generation and say how genuinely sad I am that he has made a very bad start in that job? The previous Secretary of State promised that the United Kingdom would take the lead on tighter European Community regulation on ozone depletion. Is it not the case that we made no progress at the recent meeting because of the big row about carbon energy tax? Eleven countries in Europe want to make progress; the United Kingdom says no. Therefore, Europe cannot sign the climate convention and Britain is holding back progress on such issues for the whole of Europe. That is the start that the right hon. Gentleman has made in his job.
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. In our meeting over lunch on the subject of which she speaks, we ended up moving from 11 to I against the United Kingdom, to 10 to 2 in favour, because every other member, bar two, felt that the Danish proposition did nothing to help prevent climate change. We felt that we ought to work at those things together. She will find—especially if she gives me her help—no one more concerned to protect the next generation than I am. I hope that she will not start our negotiations and discussions by making party-political points when there is no basis for them.
May I join in welcoming the Minister to his new post? He will understand, however, in the light of his unfortunate radio interview, that many of us will be looking for some sign that he is now fully in command of the subject as regards the ozone layer. Can he tell us why dry cleaning businesses in this country are not being offered any special assistance to convert machinery away from ozone-damaging processes, in accordance with the Montreal protocol, when my understanding is that assistance is available elsewhere in the European Community? When will the Minister consider assistance for dry cleaning businesses in this country?
I would not have expected an unremitting welcome from the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have fought long battles because I am in favour of sea fish conservation and he opposes it, for many narrow-minded, short-term reasons, so he has to find some comment of that sort.Britain's dry cleaning industry is as close to my heart as it is to the hon. Gentleman's and I recognise its difficulties. I am happy to consider whether other people benefit from things from which our dry cleaning industry does not, but it is not unreasonable to ask industry to meet requirements that are necessary for the protection of the future of this nation and the rest of the world. Businesses ought to meet those requirements and, in general, are doing so. They have been given time to do so and I hope that no one will take the hon. Gentleman's comments as an excuse for not proceeding as fast as possible.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he last met representatives of local authorities to discuss the implementation of the council tax.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) discussed the council tax with representatives of local authorities in England in September 1992. My Department has continued to work closely with local authorities on all aspects of council tax implementation.
Is the Minister aware that many thousands of householders throughout England and Wales believe that their homes have been placed in the wrong council tax band, and that they are still waiting for their cases to be heard? Can he tell the House what measures he is taking to speed up the hearing of those cases so that those householders may find some peace of mind? That will help revenue collection in hard-pressed local authorities.
Less than 3 per cent. of bandings have been appealed against and it is intended that the vast majority will be dealt with as speedily and effectively as possible. We anticipate that the vast majority of appeals will be dealt with during next year and many will be dealt with much sooner.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that there has been a great welcome for the introduction of the council tax? In my constituency, in the first week, half the telephone calls to the local council came from people who wanted to know why their bill was so low, because they did not appreciate the generosity of transitional relief. Does he also agree that many people have been misled by Labour party-political broadcasts, which claim that council tax under Labour councils is £16 lower on average than under Conservative councils? Can he confirm that that is extremely misleading? If one compares like with like for homes in the same band, the tax is much less under Conservative councils.
My hon. Friend makes some extremely good points. Six out of 10 people will pay less under the council tax than they did under the community charge. Band for band, Conservative councils cost less and deliver better services. Of course, it is absurd to compare average bill with average bill when the average band in a Labour area is band A and in a Conservative area it is band D. If we simply take the average band in a Conservative area, the tax is £107 less than the Labour equivalent.
Why does not the Minister wake up to the fact that the electors believed us on the council tax, not the Tories, which is why the Tory party was annihilated at the county elections and we had spectacular successes?While the Minister is singing the praises of the poll tax, is he aware that his Secretary of State, when he was Minister for the poll tax, screeched around the country damning any idea of a property tax based on capital values, such as the council tax? The right hon. Gentleman even claimed that the poll tax was the
and that it was, "a morally superior alternative" to a property-based tax. Has the Secretary of State yet told the Minister whether he still holds such crackpot views, or does the Minister think that his right hon. Friend's desire to stay in office has got the better of his moral superiority?"clearest and fairest local tax ever"
Electors should be very wary of listening to any estimates from the Labour party on anything to do with local tax. For example, Labour-controlled Birmingham city council said that the introduction of the council tax and this year's settlement would result in 3,000 redundancies. It then revised that figure to 1,000. In the event, it increased its full-time payroll by 2·3 per cent. So much for Labour estimates.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the main question was about implementation? I must say that, from my postbag, there appears to have been a very smooth transition from the community charge to the council tax. Does my hon. Friend further agree that if people have any complaints about banding, they should write to their Member of Parliament as soon as possible? The implementation has been so smooth that I believe that the council tax is one of the best policies that the Government have introduced recently.
My hon. Friend makes some excellent points. As I said, only 3 per cent. of bandings have been appealed against. That is a sign that the vast majority of people accept that their bandings are fair and reasonable. As I also said, six out of 10 people pay less under the council tax than they did under the community charge. We must also take into account council tax benefit, transitional relief and discounts—all of which further reduce the bills that people have to pay.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his latest information on the numbers of domestic households being disconnected from their water supply in order to recover debt.
In total, 18,636 domestic customers had their water supply disconnected in 1992–93 for non-payment of their bills.
Is the Minister aware that in my constituency of Devonport and in the region covered by South West Water, water charges are rising more rapidly than anywhere else in the country? That will inevitably lead to more and more people falling behind with their bills and they will then face disconnection. Does he accept that access to clean water is a basic fundamental human right which is essential to health and life? Will he introduce measures to outlaw disconnections and ensure that water companies use more acceptable means to collect their charges?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are doing everything that they can to ensure that price rises are kept to a minimum. The fact is that rates of disconnection in the south-west are barely half the national average. Whatever else may be the cause, it is clear that rates of disconnection are nothing to do with the hon. Gentleman's concern about prices.Disconnection must remain as a necessary last resort—a sanction on those who will not pay. It is not designed to dispossess those who cannot pay. In fact, over half of all households that are disconnected have their supply reconnected within 48 hours. No one who is seeking help from the Department of Social Security will be disconnected until his case has been investigated. Prohibiting disconnections would burden those customers who pay their bills, in order to help those who refuse to pay theirs. That is a policy which characterises the Labour party and it explains why it remains out of office.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that water disconnections last year were substantially down on the year before—by between 10 and 12 per cent.—and that a great many hoops have to be gone through before anybody can possibly be disconnected?
My hon. Friend is right; disconnections are down and so are court actions. She is also right that there are considerable obstacles to water companies disconnecting customers. They have to go through an elaborate legal process, and disconnection takes place only when all other routes have been exhausted. The overwhelming evidence is that it catches only those who have refused to pay and not those who are unable to pay.
May I first welcome the Minister to his new post? Does he agree that it is an outrage that every week 360 families in Britain have their water supply disconnected, while we heard only this morning that the chairman of North West Water received a salary increase last year of 43 per cent., bringing his salary to £238,000 a year? When will we end the barbaric practice of cutting off people's water supply, which is essential to their life and health, simply to recover a debt? Why do we not follow the example of other countries, including Scotland, I am pleased to say, and outlaw that practice?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. In the case of North West Water, I have seen a letter from his hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to the Prime Minister today about the pay of the chairman of North West Water. Disconnections in the north-west are even lower than they are in the south-west; they are running at about a quarter of the level that prevails across the country. It is absolutely typical of the Labour party to make no mention of the huge increase in the investment programme of the water industry since privatisation—a £30 billion programme through the decade. The water companies invest £8,000 every minute of every day. The Labour party can think only about the politics of envy and their concern about salaries.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there ought to be a happy medium between the idiocy of free water advocated by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devenport (Mr. Jamieson) and the level of water charges in the south-west? Does he accept that while it is not the Government's fault that the European bathing water directive has brought about extremely high water charges in the south-west, ultimately only the Government can deliver a solution? While I do not suggest that we should have free water, as the hon. Member for Devonport did, will my hon. Friend at least take on board that there is a problem in the west country which has to be addressed?
Yes. I am grateful at last to have an intervention from my hon. Friend, who approaches the subject in a more rational light. Of course we cannot have free water; however, we entirely share his concern about the rate of price increases in the south-west and we are examining every possible option to find ways to restrain those price increases. I can assure him that, in complying with the European Community directives, we will make sure that we move no further or faster than we are absolutely required to do by law, and if there are any other ways of bringing those price increases under control and slowing them down, we are ready to discuss them with my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends from that region.
Local Government Reform
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has received in support of the Local Government Commission's report, "The Future Local Government of Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset".
At this stage of the review, representations are to be made to the Local Government Commission and not to me.
Is the Secretary of State aware that his proposals have gone down like a lead balloon and that the commissioners have been lucky to escape alive from public consultation meetings? Will he change the guidelines to commission and explain why he is prepared to spend large amounts of money on the review at the same time as cutting spending on front-line services such as education and police?
I have received representations from all over the House. Some of the recommendations have been well received—for instance in Avon, Humberside and Cleveland—and some have not been well received. However, we are only at stage 1 in a long process of consultation. The commission has to bring forward revised recommendations, the Government have to judge them and the House of Commons has to accept them. People have plenty of opportunity to make clear their views. To write off the thing now would be silly and it certainly would not be the views of the Liberal councillors whom I met at the Association of District Councils meeting in Bournemouth.
Is my hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 2153, signed by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones), which suggests that we should stop the local government review and retain both county and district councils? Does my hon. Friend accept that everybody in Gloucestershire wants unitary authorities, for their increased efficiency and the savings that they will make, and that that opinion is shared by the county council and the district council—everybody in the county except the hon. Gentleman?
We should have to reflect hard before we decided that we were simply going to call the review off, as the hon. Gentleman's early-day motion says. It would be a wrong decision and it would be difficult to explain why in certain authorities, such as Cleveland and Avon, people were to have the opportunity of successor unitary authorities, but in other parts of the country that may have similar characteristics, that was not to be available. The sensible thing is to consider the review and how we should take it forward to ensure that it reflects local opinions and the need to deliver local services effectively, rather than to spend too much time on the competing territorial ambitions of councillors.
Is the Minister aware that the Labour party conference and the national executive have long and consistently supported the principle of unitary authorities and of the commission to examine those proposals? I therefore welcome what he has said. Does the Minister understand, however, that there is widespread anxiety about the commission's interpretation of its guidance, especially on the issues of cost and of community identity?Does the Minister share the Labour party's view that the commission's current policy for local elections to be held once every four years only, in place of annual elections in most places, would be a disaster for local democracy and would greatly reduce the accountability of councils to their local electorates?
The Government have no religious views on how elections are to take place in successor organisations and we shall be willing to listen to representations on how that would make councils more accountable and effective.The hon. Gentleman's comments on unitary councils reflect the opinion of many people. It is important that people have the opportunity to express what sort of councils they want. In all the debate about the review, we should not lose sight of the fact that the essential purpose is the delivery of services to people. If there is an overwhelming feeling that the review needs to be looked at to see how it can be taken forward, the Government are open to that. Sir John Banham has made similar comments. We do not want to lose sight of the fact that the review is about the delivery of services to people, and how best that can be done in an efficient way that reflects the opinions, feelings and identities of people.
May I ask my hon. Friend to grasp Sir John Banham warmly by the throat and to ask him not to tinker with history and our heritage? He will be cheered to the echo if he gets rid of the aberration of Avon and restores the traditional county boundaries for all purposes other than local government, but if he carries on inventing history, or reinventing history, by, for example, creating an East Riding of Yorkshire that bears no resemblance to the original, those proposals will be as hated as the current counties of Humberside and Avon are.
I agree with my hon. Friend that one of the essential purposes of the review is to have regard to where people feel they belong and their identities. I know that there is a great anxiety over certain reunification movements. My hon. Friend will know that West Craven, in Yorkshire, has been put into Lancashire for reasons that—speaking as a Yorkshire Member—are always incomprehensible, but there is a move to return it to Yorkshire. It is up to people to express what they want from the review. It is at an early stage. The final recommendations must reflect local opinion and prove that they have done so. The Government have the discretion to accept the recommendations, to send them back to the commission or to make modifications within its spirit. There is a lot of work to be done. I listen carefully to what my hon. Friend and other hon. Members say about the feelings expressed by their constituents.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now meet a deputation of representatives from North Derbyshire to discuss dioxin and other related environmental matters.
A meeting is proposed for 5 July between Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and elected members and officers of Derbyshire county council and district councils specifically to discuss dioxins in Derbyshire.
I call on the Secretary of State for the Environment to meet the representatives and not just Her Majesty's inspectorate. Two years ago, dioxin was discovered in the milk in Bolsover. It was then found in the beef cattle and then in the soil. It has now been found in the next door constituency of Derbyshire, North-East. I call on the Minister to understand that we have a right to have meetings and a public inquiry. If dioxin was discovered in the pond that belongs to the Secretary of State for the Environment, there would be health inspectors and public inquiries until the cows come home.
I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is in characteristically courteous form. The report on the subject and all the relevant information will be published as soon as possible after a decision has been taken on whether to prosecute Coalite. Meanwhile, the Coalite incinerator has been closed for modification. Before it can restart operations, it will have to meet stringent standards. The House will also want to know that the Government's commitment to controlling dioxin emissions was demonstrated yesterday by our agreement in the Council of Ministers to the directive on the incineration of hazardous waste, which sets very demanding limits. Bearing all that in mind, no purpose would be served by holding a meeting at this stage.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to alter the help available to people living alone under the council tax.
People living alone are entitled to a 25 per cent. council tax discount. Many will also receive relief to ease the transition from the community charge. Households on low incomes qualify for benefit to offset part or all of their council tax liability.
I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful reply. Can he confirm that when the Local Government Finance Act 1992 was passing through the House, Opposition Members voted against the principle of a discount for those who live alone? Will he further note that many single-person households comprise pensioners? Given the Opposition's alleged concern for pensioners, does he agree that voting against a discount means voting against pensioners' interests?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Labour party made it clear in Committee that it objected in principle to the discount system. Labour Members made it clear that an incoming Labour Government would do away with the discount. Anyone who has a discount for being a single person, whether a pensioner or not, knows that if the Labour party had its way, discounts would be scrapped.
Does the Minister accept that despite what he has said, many elderly pensioners living alone are angry about the situation in which they find themselves? They were told that they would benefit most when rates were abolished, but they paid a lot more under the poll tax. Many of them are now paying even more under the council tax than they were under the poll tax. Will the Government consider introducing a banding lower than band A which would help many single people living alone and others who live in areas where there are many band A properties? In 57 local authorities, more than 50 per cent. of the properties are in band A.
Pensioners must think it a bit rich for a party that did not want to have discounts at all to now act as the pensioners' friend.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps have been taken by his Department since April 1992 specifically to assist the United Kingdom construction industry.
I refer my hon. Friend to the reply on 27 January, Official Report, columns 762–63. Since then, the Government have introduced measures in the Budget to help the industry and my Department has undertaken a range of supporting activities including a review of sponsorship, three successful overseas trade missions, new consultative arrangements, an increased commitment to collaborative research and guidance on the involvement of private finance.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 500,000 people have lost their jobs in the construction industry during the recession, that housing starts are 46 per cent. down since 1988 and that commercial output is down by 35 per cent. since 1990? Does my right hon. Friend agree with the House-Builders Federation, with the Building Employers Confederation, with the Federation of Master Builders and with the Manufacturing and Construction Industries Alliance which urge the Government further to reduce interest rates modestly, to abolish stamp duty, to increase expenditure on the repair and refurbishment of public building and housing stock and to ensure that those measures are introduced by our right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn Budget?
I will ensure that my hon. Friend's recommendations for the Budget are passed on to our right hon. and learned Friend. I agree that the construction industry has gone through a difficult time during the recession. It would be wrong of us to underestimate the degree to which that has harmed businesses. There is no doubt, however, that things are a little better. Total construction orders for the first quarter of 1993 are 22 per cent. higher than in the previous three months. Public works new orders are up 43 per cent. on this time last year. Public housing and housing association orders are up by 26 per cent. There is no doubt that the situation is improving after a very difficult time. What is important is that our right hon. and learned Friend should not take measures that would make even more difficult our exit from the recession. To burden us with greater debt would do that. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will not seek to press our right hon. and learned Friend to move in that direction.
Is the Minister aware that only a few weeks ago the Employment Select Committee conducted an inquiry and that the chairman of Blue Circle Cement appeared before it? We were told about the crisis and the job losses in the cement industry, due to the fact that electricity costs had increased by 40 per cent., with the result that the company is closing down many of its establishments and is now importing cheap cement from countries such as Greece. What does the Minister intend to do about high energy costs that are affecting the construction industry?
I am happy to look at the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I think that he must accept the fact that the cost of energy is something which all industries have to bear. Energy costs are particularly difficult in the cement industry because of the very high degree to which its costs are affected by electricity prices. However, these are not costs which can be passed on to others. It is a natural part of the cost of cement production. What is really difficult for the cement industry is the fall in orders because of the recession. What is therefore most important for the industry is that the Government continue with their economic policy and get us out of the recession much more quickly than any of our competitors.
Ought not the construction industry and my right hon. Friend salute with gratitude Mr. George Soros and all those who saved the British economy on 16 September and gave us a new economic policy, lower interest rates and the construction industry the chance once again to play its important role?
I am not sure which people we should salute, but we should have saluted the exchange rate mechanism which enabled us to bring down our interest rates in the way that we did. We began to come out of the recession before we moved out of the ERM. My hon. Friend's thanks should range more widely.
The Secretary of State claims that, in his words, things are a little better. Is he not aware of yesterday's reports from the United Kingdom's largest housebuilders which show that the pace of recovery in the housing market has slowed down in the last four weeks, which is precisely the length of time that the Secretary of State has been in his new post? Is not the reality, as the Building Employers Confederation spelt out today, that the construction industry is one of the hardest hit industries in this Government-induced recession? Output was down by 14 per cent. between 1990 and 1992 and it is still on a downward trend. The number of new housing starts has fallen by 46 per cent. since 1988. Repairs, maintenance and improvement work is 18 per cent. lower than it was in 1989. Why does the Secretary of State for the Environment not take some responsibility for it? Why does he not use the recently published English house condition survey as a charter for renovation and repair and tackle the problem of the 1·5 million homes that are now revealed to be unfit? Why does he not re-employ the 500,000 building workers who are on the dole and ensure that sufficient homes are provided for all those who need them?
If I may take the House back to the hon. Gentleman's first sentence, his early seminary training will remind him that that piece of logic does not stand up. One cannot take four weeks and think that that will lead to any understanding of what is actually happening. In the three months to April, housing starts and completions rose by 20 and 14 per cent. respectively. That is a sensible measure and one which the hon. Gentleman would normally take.I am sure that if he were judging the circumstances of a local or national Government run by Labour, he would take that kind of measure.If we talk sensible measurements, the fact is that we are slowly but surely emerging from the recession. We shall get better. However, I am unlikely to have had the particular effect that the hon. Gentleman suggests I have over the past four weeks. He offers me the kind of power that would lead me to take credit for the good weather and that would obviously also be wrong.
Local Government, Cleveland
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the Local Government Commission's proposals for Cleveland.
I am required to take a view on the final proposals which will follow further consultation of local opinion by the commission.
Does the Minister agree that the Local Government Commission, far from being the political fix that some people have described it, carried out its work in Cleveland in a fair, rigorous and conscientious way? However, is the Minister aware of the disgraceful scaremongering and climate of intimidation which has been created by some people who are opposed to the commission's proposals? Will he take it from me that the majority of people in Cleveland want four unitary, local-based councils and that nothing else will do?
We have had some extremely disturbing reports about intimidation by certain people, including the Labour-controlled Cleveland council which is fighting desperately for its survival. We have heard elsewhere of meetings being packed by local authority employees. Of course they have their voice and a right to express their opinions. However, so has everyone else and it is opinion as a whole which counts. If opinion as a whole wants the change in Cleveland as in Avon and in Humberside—and we all know that those councils perhaps never quite attached themselves to the affections of people in the way that some historical councils did—and if people continue to make their representations, they will get those changes.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Cleveland county council's campaign of lies and disinformation, which has been deliberately designed to spread fear and anxiety among the council employees and among the public they are there to serve, has been condemned this afternoon on both sides of the House? Will he therefore give an undertaking that those responsible for the scurrilous campaign to save their own skins at the taxpayers' expense will receive the fullest possible scrutiny of the Department of the Environment and the district auditor?
I wish to make it absolutely clear that the kind of activity that has been reported is clearly wholly unacceptable. Whether or not people like the proposals by the Local Government Commission, the commission is free of party political colour. It would be entirely wrong if we were to introduce any note of party politics into the way in which the commission goes about its work, no matter what opinions we may form about its conclusions. Therefore, if people are going to try to gerrymander local opinion and give a false impression, it is clear that we will know about that and form our conclusions about what we believe to be genuine objective local opinion on the ground of all people and not necessarily those who are councillors, who work for the council or who have a special interest.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what further plans he has to assist the regeneration of urban areas.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on current urban policy.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his urban policies.
The Government will continue to support the regeneration of cities through their main programmes and through special measures. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) welcomes the impact in his and other urban areas of measures such as city challenge, the urban development corporations, the urban partnership fund, city grant and estate action. The Tyne and Wear UDC alone has attracted more than £500 million to its area since 1987.
Is the Minister aware that, due to over-concentration in the property market during the late 1980s, six urban development corporations have made a loss of £67 million as a result of the drop in property values? What steps does the Minister intend to take to ensure that, in future, public money is used for job creation and not for property speculation?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not running down the excellent work of the Tyne and Wear urban development corporation in his constituency. There has been a net increase of more than 9,000 jobs in that area since the UDC started work. It has a budget of £37·5 million this year and is making progress in creating wealth, creating jobs and promoting enterprise in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
Is the Minister aware that about 10,000 jobs and training places will be lost in Birmingham as a result of his decision to cancel the urban programme? Is he further aware that the city council spent £120,000 at his request to prepare the bids which he then cancelled at the last minute? Will he now apologise to the people of Birmingham and refund that £120,000?
The urban programme has not been cancelled. It is spending £7 million this year in Small Heath and is sponsoring about 10,000 projects throughout the country, promoting enterprise and wealth. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome Birmingham's success with city challenge, representing £7·5 million each year, a total of £37·5 million creating wealth, prosperity and jobs in Birmingham. He should look at the total investment in Birmingham from the Government and not concentrate on one small part of it.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Liverpool, £17 million of urban programme money is being replaced by only £1·1 million of urban partnership, with the consequent destruction of more than 3,000 jobs? Is he further aware that in Dovecot in my constituency, investment in housing stock will now not be able to be supported by commensurate investment in the environment? What ideas does the Minister have to help the people of Dovecot improve their environment?
Again, the hon. Lady's constituency was a successful bidder for city challenge, and the rewards for city challenge far outweigh the value of the urban programme. In addition to that, there is a housing action trust in Liverpool and we have the Merseyside task force and the urban development corporation. I urge the hon. Lady to look at the totality of investment by the Government in Liverpool. She will find that it has been very substantial indeed.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that Government as a whole are now putting about £4 billion per annum through targeted initiatives into urban areas in this country? Will he look at the important priorities in many urban areas, including in my constituency, and the need to help target the relatively high levels of inner town urban unemployment? I appreciate the way in which his Department is assisting in that work.Will my right. hon. Friend also look at a matter about which he knows I am particularly concerned, and that is the difficulty with premises that are currently hotels which can be turned into hostels without seeking change of use planning permission? That issue is of great concern and is having damaging effects on the legitimate tourism industry. I appreciate that he and his ministerial colleagues are aware of the position. I welcome their interest and hope that my right hon. Friend will examine the matter.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He raised, in the latter part of his supplementary question, an issue that has been raised with me by a number of my hon. Friends who represent seaside resorts. I propose to discuss the subject with my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Social Security to see whether further steps might be necessary. I welcomed a note of sanity and perspective in the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question in relation to the debate on inner cities. It is indeed the case that since 1979 there has been a fourfold real increase in urban spending by my Department.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the better aspects, arising out of the list of grants to which he referred, is the flexibility with which grants are applied? Will he continue with that flexibility and imagination, especially as they are applied in Calder Valley?
Yes, indeed. The Department is anxious to get the best value from its programmes. We have a competitive regime which rewards local authorities and voluntary organisations that put forward value-for-money schemes which bring with them private funding and create jobs in their areas. I shall look with interest at any projects coming from my hon. Friend's constituency.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary, for urban programmes to succeed, to have efficient and honest local authorities? Is he convinced that the local authority of Lambeth is efficient or honest? Does he agree that it is high time that the commissioners were sent in to run that council in the way it was once run?
Like my hon. Friend, I read the report prepared by the former chief executive, Herman Ouseley, on the London borough of Lambeth, and it contained a number of worrying allegations which, I know, are being followed up in the appropriate quarters. It is a matter for concern if any local authority misuses its ratepayers'; funds, and the appropriate avenues are available to people through the police or the district auditor.
Does the Minister recall the last Conservative election manifesto, ironically entitled "The Best Future for Britain", which claimed that our cities had been transformed? After the abolition of the urban programme—as the Minister knows very well, there are to be no new schemes under that programme—and the loss of 34,000 inner city jobs, after the abandonment of city challenge, of which there is to be no third round, and after announcing savage cuts of more than one third in urban funding over the next three years, I am sure that the whole House agrees that our cities have indeed been transformed. Does not the Minister accept that it is high time the Government started to celebrate and support cities, instead of undermining them and denying them the resources that they so desperately need?
I do not know how the hon. Gentleman has the nerve to come to the House and say such a thing. I have here a copy of The Guardian of 15 June, which, referring to the hon. Gentleman, says:
Those are not my words; they are the words of the hon. Gentleman. He went on to talk about the establishment of an inquiry called City 2020–2020 being, presumably, the earliest year in which he thinks a Labour Government will take office. This inquiry, for inspiration, is to start by looking at the socialist stewardship of areas such as Lambeth, Islington and Hackney."He also said that Labour had been neglecting the inner cities and needed a new strategy."
Will my right hon. Friend think again about his Department's refusal to grant housing action trust money to Copley close in my constituency, in respect of which a very good case was made? I hope that he will see that that very important and deserving estate is given the help that it greatly needs.
My hon. Friend and the London borough of Ealing are perfectly capable of putting forward another bid for estate action funds for that estate. We shall continue the estate action programme next year. If my hon. Friend would like to talk to the councillors and the director of housing of the borough and then resubmit the bid, we shall see whether, within resources, we can help.
Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the environmental implications that may arise from the operation of THORP; and if he will make a statement.
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, I have received a number of representations about the environmental implications that may arise from the operation of THORP.
What is the basis of the current consultation period, why has it been extended, and what does the Secretary of State hope to find out? Does he agree that, because the Government are not prepared to underwrite the contracts and because the electricity companies are not prepared to sign them, the Government are in a cleft stick, which will result in non-viability for THORP or in a blank cheque that will cost us all dear? Are there not real doubts about the economic viability and environmental safety of THORP? Should not the matter be cleared up sooner rather than later? Why should all those people have their agony and uncertainty prolonged?
The hon. Gentleman must accept that Parliament has put me and my right hon. Friend in the very clear position of having to assure ourselves before granting, or refusing to grant, the necessary powers to start up THORP. I shall treat my responsibilities as the House would want me to treat them. I shall take as little time as is necessary to do the job properly. I shall do it as quickly as possible, but not in a slap-dash way. That is what the hon. Gentleman must expect. He does not help the case by making extreme allegations in either direction. Special interests are pleading on both sides. My job is to uphold the public interest, together with my right hon. Friend.
What representations about the environmental implications of not starting up the THORP process has my right hon. Friend received? Does he accept that, even if we do away with THORP, the accumulated waste will not disappear and that, whatever we do in the future, it is far better to treat radioactive waste scientifically? THORP is a well-engineered, modern process intended to do just that, and it should be kept.
My hon. Friend expresses a particular point of view. Clearly, the Government and others put their particular points of view in the debate on THORP, and I know how strongly people hold their views. My job in these circumstances is clear: before I and my right hon. Friend allow THORP to go ahead, I must satisfy myself that it is in the public interest. That is what I intend to do and I shall do so in such a way that, whatever the result, people can see that it is done properly. It would be wrong for a parliamentarian to seek to hurry one beyond a point where one can take seriously the opposing arguments or to delay one, which would also be unacceptable. What I am trying to do is not easy; obviously it is not easy because both sides have strong views, and a great deal hangs on the decision. The one thing on which the public can depend is that the House has demanded that the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are put in a quasi judicial position and that that position demands that we do not take a view until we have considered all the facts.
On a constructive note, would the Secretary of State be prepared to consider supporting an authorisation to British Nuclear Fuels plc to undertake the commissioning of the uranium lines at THORP, particularly as it would mean that many jobs could be saved and also because BNFL has said that it is prepared to pay the £250,000 costs to decommission those lines in the event that, at the end of the day, THORP was not fully commissioned?
I confess that I have a difficulty because the hon. Gentleman has, rather less constructively, already said that the Government are the reason for the problems. He said that he did not blame the company but that he blamed the Government whereas his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who is not a shadow agriculture spokesman—my right hon. Friend is a co-judge in the matter—said something quite different. He said:
I therefore find it very difficult to decide what members of Labour's Front Bench are saying about this matter. I had better tell the hon. Gentleman that I shall do everything I can to carry out what I need to do with my right hon. Friend as rapidly as is consonant with doing the job properly. At the same time, if BNFL wishes a variation in its present authorisation, it must make the proposal to HM inspectorate as the law requires. I remind the House that the problem is that we have always known that this type of decision is not easy. We therefore have a very clear procedure to follow. Although I know that it is disappointing for members of all parties, I am determined to adhere to the rules and regulations; otherwise, what the House has sought as a protection of the public interest would not exist. My job is to protect the public interest against what are necessarily sectional interests, either those of Greenpeace or of BNFL."I think the management of BNFL are using the workforce at Sellafield as a bit of a gun to hold to the Government's head."
Government Building Contracts
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what decisions he has reached on the need for a pay-when-paid clause in Government building contracts.
I am not considering any such clause. Government contracts are required to contain a clause committing the supplier or contractor to pay his subcontractors promptly.
Is the Minister aware that many companies across the country have full order books and are profitable but that they unfortunately cannot get paid? Will he assure me that the Government will set an example by paying their bills on time? Does he agree that the lot opposite know nothing about paying bills as their bills are paid by the National Union of Public Employees, the Confederation of Health Service Employees and the National and Local Government Officers Association, among others? Does he agree that the label "No say, no pay" hangs very well around their necks?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those who do good work deserve to be paid promptly. All Government contracts include provision for the prompt payment by main contractors of their subcontractors, usually within 30 days of receipt.
The Minister will be aware that there is a great deal of concern among many subcontracting companies, including small companies in the building industry, that they are not getting a fair deal as subcontractors to main contractors for Government contracts. Will the Minister be honest with the House and acknowledge that the reason for contractual arrangements not being sufficiently tough is that main contractors, such as Tarmac, have received favours from the Government in their attempts to privatise the Property Services Agency?
That is a ludicrous suggestion. As a Minister who sponsors the construction industry, my only ambition is to see the healthiest possible construction industry. That aim is something which the Labour party would not understand, however, because when it was last in government, it introduced a moratorium on many infrastructure contracts. We have clear Government contracts that stipulate that subcontractors should be paid within 30 days of their bills being presented.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what weight he will give to local opinion in Gloucestershire in arriving at decisions on local government structure in the county.
The Local Government Commission's final reports must demonstrate that due weight has been given to community identities and interests.
Is my hon. Friend aware that some local authorities are packing public meetings with their own staff? Is he further aware that certain local authorities distribute their own counter literature when distributing the Local Government Commission's literature? Will my hon. Friend ensure that those practices are fully discounted, and that the public have their fair say in the commission's decision on local government reorganisation?
I am determined that the final conclusion should rest upon the genuinely expressed wishes of local people, and not upon any rigging of that opinion.
Serious Fraud Office
With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement following the resignation statement made yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates)—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"]—concerning the conduct of the prosecution of Mr. Asil Nadir by the Serious Fraud Office.As to the background, on 16 December 1990, and subsequently on 22 October 1991, Mr. Asil Nadir was charged with a series of serious offences. On 7 February 1992, the case was transferred to the Crown court. A preliminary hearing was held on 28 February 1992 in front of the trial judge. He indicated on that occasion that it was his view that trial should take place in September 1992. On the application of the defence, who sought further time, the trial date was fixed, first for 8 March 1993 and, subsequently, following a further application by the defence, for 13 September 1993. On 4 May 1993, Mr. Nadir fled the jurisdiction and went to Northern Cyprus in breach of his bail conditions. It is the intention of the prosecution to bring Mr. Nadir to trial as soon as that can be effected, and a trial is still fixed for 4 October 1993. One of my duties as Attorney-General, with an overall purview of the prosecution process in England and Wales, and statutory supervision of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office, is to do all that I can to see that the prosecution process is conducted fairly and properly, so that alleged wrongdoers can be brought to trial and that their trial, wholly under the control of the independent judiciary, can be fairly and expeditiously carried out. It is essential to bear in mind the respective limits of my own role, the role of Parliament and the role of the media. The control of the conduct of the trial is for the independent judiciary. Ultimately, questions as to the propriety of the prosecution and the fairness of the trial, including decisions upon any representations by a defendant's legal adviser that a trial cannot fairly be conducted, are for the courts and the courts alone. In the context of my role as Attorney-General, it is perfectly proper for an hon. Member to make representations to me about any anxieties he or she may have concerning the conduct of a prosecution. Such representations are carefully and dispassionately examined. Between September 1991 and 10 May 1993, initially with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire did so. On a number of occasions, both in writing and orally—on which occasions the meetings were carefully noted by an official—he raised with me a number of concerns and allegations, each of which I caused to be carefully examined with the appropriate authority or body, and following which I wrote to my hon. Friend in some detail. Yesterday in his resignation statement, my hon. Friend made public his anxieties, going into a good deal of detail in his own way, and called for what he described as an independent inquiry. I wish to explain briefly to the House how his concerns have been dealt with to date and why I do not believe that any such further and separate inquiry is called for or appropriate, and deal with the question of the publication of the correspondence, which I intend to place in the Library of the House in due course. In doing so, I am intensely conscious, as the House will be, of the need to keep separate the roles of Parliament and the political process and the role of the judiciary. I believe, Madam Speaker, that you were entirely right to be anxious about potential breaches of our sub judice rule, and it is only in the exceptional circumstances that I ask your discretion to enable me to deal, albeit briefly, with the points raised yesterday by my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend has, in summary, raised the following issues. He has accused the Serious Fraud Office of improperly seeking to harass and prejudice the defendant by allegedly tipping off the media as to the times and places of arrests and other aspects of the investigation; refusing to give proper consideration to a report prepared by the accountants Binder Hamlyn for the defence and failing to make proper inquiries in Northern Cyprus; improperly opening privileged documents; the allegedly improper seizure by the trustee in bankruptcy of Asil Nadir's papers and certain personal effects; and improper pressures allegedly brought by the Serious Fraud Office on the judge. I caused each of those matters to be investigated, and, in necessarily brief summary, the answers are as follows. The assertions of improper briefing have all been carefully investigated. None was accompanied by any tangible or verifiable evidence from my hon. Friend. On the initial occasion involving the fall of the Polly Peck share price, the press were not even present until after that fall, and the raid had been in progress for some considerable time. It is correct that two bags containing some privileged documents, among others, were opened in error by some police officers. The privileged documents were not copied; they were returned after the issue of privilege had been determined by an independent silk. The papers and effects seized by the trustee in bankruptcy were seized pursuant to an order of the court. The report of Binder Hamlyn is part of the defence case. The Serious Fraud Office has had no opportunity to scrutinise the supporting documents. Assertions that their removal to this country would contravene local Cypriot law have been refuted by independent Cypriot legal advice. The Serious Fraud Office has been unable to obtain permission for its officers to investigate the case in Northern Cyprus, as each informal application has been met by the response that approaches must be through diplomatic channels, which the House will appreciate do not exist in the absence of formal recognition of the Republic of Northern Cyprus. The alleged conspiracy to bribe the judge is the subject of a separate police investigation under the supervision not of the Serious Fraud Office but of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I do not propose to say more about it. as it has been dealt with in court, either in camera or subject to reporting restrictions. With the exception of the publicity surrounding the arrests and other investigations, all these matters relate essentially to the court proceedings. Their substance and any effect that they may have on the fairness of the trial is essentially a matter for the trial judge. Mr. Nadir has throughout, until he departed the jurisdiction, been represented by highly experienced solicitors and counsel; and, indeed, many of these matters have already been canvassed to a greater or lesser extent with the court. I am of the clear view that it is mistaken and wholly inimical to our justice system to set up a so-called independent inquiry into the handling of such matters in parallel to a trial. I now turn to the question of the publication of the correspondence. As the House knows, I have hitherto resisted such publication. The matters it contained were properly raised with me with the objective of seeing that the defendant's prosecution and trial were fairly handled. Inevitably, it deals with a number of issues that have been or may be raised in the preparatory hearings or the trial, which could run the risk of confusing the issues, or, from certain viewpoints, reflecting adversely on the defendant. Thus, although the correspondence was not secret, and copies are undoubtedly in the hands of not only my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire my office, and the Serious Fraud Office, but Mr. Nadir's advisers, legal and otherwise, and Mr. Nadir, it did not seem to me at that stage that a responsible person should court unnecessary media attention by placing them in the public domain. However, following the partial publication of so much of their substance by my hon. Friend yesterday in his statement, and the fact that the rest of the correspondence is likely to be the subject of intense search and speculation, it now seems to me that, subject to certain editing—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—it is better that the correspondence should be published. I am therefore arranging to place copies in the Library as soon as possible. Editing will be confined to two points. First, the names of individuals who happen to be mentioned but whose involvement is purely peripheral have been deleted in order to respect their privacy. Having taken the advice of counsel, deletions will also be made covering the alleged conspiracy to bribe the judge, which is the subject of the continuing police investigation under the supervision of the Director of Public Prosecutions and which has been dealt with in court, either in camera or subject to reporting restrictions. I make it clear at once that it has revealed no credible evidence implicating the judge personally in any way. In conclusion, the matters raised by my hon. Friend in the past 18 months have already been carefully and dispassionately examined. There is no precedent or justification for an independent inquiry in parallel to the trial. There is no justification for the defendant staying away. Any submissions about the fairness of his trial are matters for the judge and the courts alone.
Attacking the integrity of the prosecution is a fairly standard line of defence. Can we assume that the Attorney-General considers such matters carefully and dispassionately, but also with a healthy scepticism, especially as substantial amounts of money have been paid by Mr. Asil Nadir in past years? Perhaps it is right to say that the integrity of the Serious Fraud Office was certainly not in doubt when it strongly opposed bail for the defendant in this case.Having said that, does the Attorney-General recognise the legitimate anxiety about the use of the wide powers of the Serious Fraud Office, the width of the charges that it often lays and its potential to exploit the media, especially in high-profile cases? I understand what the Attorney-General has said about alerting the media in the case, but I hope that he will recognise that there are three dangers. It is wrong for either the Serious Fraud Office or the police to give advance notice. of high-profile arrests for two reasons. The first is that such publicity is often more akin to a big fight than a long trial. It can prejudice the case and cause the conviction of innocent people. But equally there is a danger that it could bring about the acquittal of those who otherwise might be found guilty. So there are dangers both ways. Does the Attorney-General recognise that there have been many cases, including the Nadir case, in which there appears to have been far too much coincidence between a high-profile arrest, sometimes in the early hours, and the press, including television, being present? Will he give that matter serious attention, in view of the effect that it is likely to have on the fairness of trials? I welcome the publication of the correspondence. I understand the necessity for some editing to preserve the possibility of a fair trial, if that ever takes place. Will the publication include letters from all Members of Parliament who wrote to him, and not merely the ones from the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates)? I repeat the question that I put to the Attorney-General last week on whether any of the letters contained declarations of interest by the hon. Members who made representations to him. I understand that it is our proper practice to disclose interests when we make representations on cases such as the Nadir case. The Attorney-General dealt today with the allegations of bribery and of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice that were raised yesterday, and said that they were being investigated. We are dealing with a case where a substantial sum was paid to the Conservative party. With hindsight, one could say that it might well have been with some expectation. Substantial sums must have been paid to fly the defendant out of the country. There is a question mark hanging over the source of bail and surety moneys. Under all those circumstances, the Attorney-General is right to examine these matters. There must be the greatest concern if there is also any evidence of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. I know that the Attorney-General wants to restrict himself on these matters, but can he say how much of a prima facie case there is? What is the strength of the evidence available to him? When—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] These matters concern the House. When will he report back to the House on these matters? My last question is this: so that no cloud hangs over any of these investigations and no suspicion attaches to any Member of Parliament, will the Attorney-General recommend to his colleagues in the Conservative party and on the Front Bench that the £440,000 paid to the Conservative party is now returned?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has approached this matter, particularly in that his questions deal with the substance of the case. He is right to say that to attack the prosecution is a fairly standard form of defence. The prosecutor must look at the case dispassionately, and sometimes coldly.Prosecutions are carried out without fear or favour, affection or ill will, and contributions to any political party in this country would not be taken into account by any Attorney-General or any independent prosecuting authority. I hope that I will continue to carry on what I consider to be an unsullied tradition, which I am sure is carried on by the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Serious Fraud Office. I rule that out utterly. The powers of the SFO are wide and general. Although they do not arise specifically today, I believe that they are necessary. We are dealing with the investigation of frauds and potential frauds by people in the City and elsewhere who have the stewardship of enormous sums of other people's money. It is right that they should be open to careful, detailed and penetrating scrutiny. The hon. Gentleman asked about advance tip-offs of arrests or other aspects of an investigation. I deplore, and the director of the SFO and the whole House deplore, any tip-offs that lead to unnecessary publicity. I have raised the matter with the director of the SFO and I know that he has raised it repeatedly with his staff. There is no tangible evidence to point the finger. The House, and those experienced in criminal matters, will realise that necessarily some advance warning to people properly involved must be given of many or most of these matters. There are all too many areas from which either a tip-off can be obtained or a clever inference drawn by those with plenty of time and money to chase up these matters. I deplore that, and the SFO will do everything it can to prevent it. That is as much as I can say on that. On the publication of the correspondence, I think that I am right that one should not publish the correspondence in general. Hon. Members should be able to approach me in private and—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Well, if hon. Members wish to, that is entirely a matter for them. Issues in the trial should be capable of being investigated dispassionately and carefully without the waters being muddied by unnecessary publicity. Whether any individual Member who makes a representation to the Law Officers chooses to make that public is for them. I do not intend to publicise or publish the other letters that have been sent, but from whichever part of the House they have come, they have come perfectly properly. On the question of the police investigation into the alleged conspiracy relating to the bribery of the judge, it is a continuing investigation and will be evaluated when the police make a report. It would not be proper for me to say more about it at present.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept our thanks for a prompt, thorough and careful statement, in the best traditions of his office? Does he agree that there is always a danger, when Back Benchers of all parties get carried away with their enthusiasm for the rights or wrongs that may exist in some judicial process, that ultimately we shall achieve the pollution of the pure stream of justice? We must be careful that what we do is not counter-productive.Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept the fact that the best course in these matters is to let the lawyers and judicial process deal with all those issues at the time of the trial, if there is one?
I am most grateful for what my hon. and learned Friend has said. He is entirely right. Questions of justice and of trials are matters not for this House but for the courts.
I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has decided to make this statement to the House and to publish the correspondence, subject to the necessary editing to which he referred. However, I suspect that those will not be his final words on the working practices of the SFO.Although we sympathise with and share his concern at present not to prejudice the criminal proceedings against Asil Nadir by widening and further opening up his own investigations of which he has spoken, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that the disquiet about the SFO—not only in this case—will not evaporate without a timely and full inquiry into its modes of operation?
No. With respect, I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. A great deal of inaccurate and unfair comment is made about the SFO's activities. It is not altogether surprising. One must remember that the people with whom it has to deal and who are charged with serious offences are capable of defending themselves at all levels—not improperly, but they are able to make representations about the kinds of questions that they are asked to answer, whether inside or outside a court. It was this House that decided that the powers should be given to the SFO, and I believe that those powers are exercised impartially and fairly.
When my right hon. and learned Friend calls for an inquiry to be made into allegations about the operation of agencies under his responsibility, is it the agency that investigates itself? If so, is that the most satisfactory way of assuring public confidence that that is appropriate? Could it not be self-serving?
The straight answer to my hon. Friend is, very often, yes, it is. I went straight away to the director of the Serious Fraud Office and asked him to have these matters extremely carefully looked into. He is a very senior and independent public official. Just as his predecessor was a most distinguished Queen's counsel, now the Director of Public Prosecutions, so he was a leading member and senior partner of one of the largest and most highly respected firms of solicitors in the country. He did not come into his office to abuse his position, and he is the person who, inevitably, can best instigate an investigation in such a case.
Does the Attorney-General accept that the Serious Fraud Office should perhaps adopt the practice of the commercial division of the City of London police of yesteryear, who merely asked a defendant to attend at a police station with a solicitor? That got over all the publicity. Does he not also feel that asking the SFO to investigate itself is a bit like asking a police superintendent to investigate himself? Is it not wiser to call in outside bodies, just as we do with the police force?
I shall deal first with the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question. It would seldom be wiser to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests. While any public body and any individual must expect to be open to scrutiny if the House thinks it right from time to time, it would normally be extremely disruptive to the prosecution process, and would be an easy card to play by those who wished, for whatever reason, to avoid conviction.The hon. Gentleman asked about arresting people or otherwise interviewing them by arrangement. That frequently happens, but whether it happens in any particular case—arrests are operational matters for the police—must be an operational decision on each occasion.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider that many of the activities, events and statements of the past 48 hours may be a smokescreen hiding the real issue? That issue is that many pensioners and shareholders in Polly Peck have lost £100 million or more in places abroad from which the money cannot be brought back.In that context, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider the objectives of the Serious Fraud Office, and whether it serves the public interest? Will he consider that what we want is a prosecuting organisation that can bring cases to trial sooner, and also take part in the recovery process in a more efficient manner than has been evident to date?
The object of the Serious Fraud Office is to investigate effectively and promptly very complex matters of national and international fraud. I have been involved, directly and indirectly, in these matters for more than 13 years, and I have seen developments through the original fraud investigation groups to the setting up of the Serious Fraud Office. For all the criticism, often uninformed, about the Serious Fraud Office, the speed and efficiency with which major cases are now brought to trial differ enormously from the position 10 years ago.
As the Attorney-General has raised the subject of publishing, I hope that he intends to publish the names of all those MPs from whichever side they come. Will he also publish a detailed account of what the Lord Chancellor and Asil Nadir said when they had that discussion? Is it not rather odd that the man who sits on the woolsack during the day turned up to meet Nadir after he had fled from bail, although nobody else would have the attention of the Lord Chancellor?That is why, although the Attorney-General might convince some Conservative Members about what this is all about, the people out there in the country believe that the connection between Asil Nadir, the Tory party and all that money was why he was able to flee this country, with the help of the people in the establishment.
If the hon. Gentleman would do a little more homework, he would not ask such idiotic questions in the House. There is no question of the Lord Chancellor having gone to meet Mr. Nadir, and if the hon. Gentleman had bothered to read any newspaper on the subject, he would know that, and would not have asked that question for the second time in about 10 days. I assure the House that the names that are edited out of the correspondence do not relate to Members of Parliament in any way.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that concern about tip-offs to the press before a raid or an arrest are not confined to one side of the House? It is a matter of concern, and it damages natural justice. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it absolutely clear to the prosecuting authorities that the person who is the head and in charge must take responsibility for such leaks, and that if he does not, he will have to go?Is my right hon. and learned Friend also aware that there is concern about the way in which prosecutions generally have taken place in recent years? Although they have to be independent, there is an impression that sometimes they are rather like a loose cannon rolling about. In that context, will he have another look at the evidence given by Customs and Excise to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and at the evidence given by his predecessor in relation to the supergun inquiry, because that revealed a rather curious method of prosecution in our society?
I recognise what my hon. Friend says. First, I wholly agree with him—as do the director of the Serious Fraud Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions—that those tip-offs are thoroughly undesirable. No member of their staff is under any illusion as to that.Having said that, those matters have been carefully looked into, and it is often completely unfair just to point the finger at the staff. In cases where it is well known that an arrest is likely at some stage, there is close media attention and, naturally enough, the media make every possible effort to try to find out when the arrest will be and it is quite difficult to conceal. However, I entirely take my hon. Friend's point, in principle. As to prosecutions by the Serious Fraud Office being a loose cannon, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would write or speak to me to let me know any particular points that he has in mind; they will be carefully considered. I think that many of the allegations are unfairly made, but I would certainly look at any that he has in mind. In relation to the question of Customs and Excise and the DTI, that is already a matter of record, but I understand my hon. Friend's point.
What term is there to the pursuit of this projected trial, and when would this sub judice rule lapse? As regards the correspondence, why does the Attorney-General refer to "all parts of the House", when he knows perfectly well that no one on this side of the House put in any applications on behalf of Asil Nadir?
How do you know?
The sub judice rule is a matter for you, Madam Speaker. Briefly, we regard matters as sub judice while they are outstanding matters before the courts. As to the question of who did or did not make representations to me, I am in a better position to know than the hon. Gentleman.
Will the Attorney-General tell the Serious Fraud Office that it should be more energetic in pursuing fraudsters who take tens and hundreds of millions of pounds from shareholders and others? Will he please assist the House by stating which members of political parties have made representations to him on behalf of Mr. Nadir?
Dealing with that second matter—it seems to be a matter of intense interest to the House—no representation that has been made to me has been in any way improper. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name them, then."] No. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Because if I set a precedent of naming people—[Interruption.]—I can look round the Chamber and see people who have made proper representations to me on a variety of cases. I shall stick firmly to what I believe to be the proper procedure.As to the question of the Serious Fraud Office properly pursuing fraudsters, that is its role. I believe that it does so carefully. If the hon. Gentleman knows of particular points where he thinks that it is not doing so, no doubt he will make representations to me and again I will look into them.
I am sure that the right thing has been done through the publication of the letters. May I, however, refer the Attorney-General back to the publication of one of the letters in a newspaper last week? What inquiries have been made, or can be made, to try to trace the source of the leak? It must be a matter of very grave concern if there is any suspicion that a letter was leaked by public officials to get rid of an awkward questioner.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, if there were any question of a letter being leaked by a public official, it would be very serious. I think that most, if not all, public officials fully appreciate that. Those letters were not secret. As my statement has already revealed, they were likely to have been in the hands of quite a large number of people. One has to be a little bit sanguine about these leak inquiries, which are not easy to carry out. I make it quite clear to the hon. Gentleman that I deplore leaks.In the light of the statement yesterday, it seems sensible to publish as a whole but, in principle, I believe, and shall continue to believe, that it is right that, if hon. Members make representations to me about the handling of an individual case, I shall not without their leave publish the substance of that correspondence, unless they choose first to make it public.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the sub judice rule, whereby we do not comment in this House on outstanding legal matters and criminal proceedings, is a crucial protection for the defendant and for the independence of our judicial system? Does he agree that this afternoon we have perhaps seen the tip of the iceberg of what might emerge if that rule were abandoned? Will he please ensure that he is not drawn further into the issue?
I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said. The separation of powers—the different functions, the different rules of this House and of Parliament, the political process generally and the independence of the courts—is extremely important, and our sub judice rule is designed to that end.
Does the Attorney-General accept that some people believe that double standards are developing in serious fraud trials, with defendants able to plead temporary Alzheimer's to bring a trial to an end?In view of the propaganda on behalf of Asil Nadir—a person who is not prepared to face justice, whose representatives asked for deferment of the court hearing, and who fled bail in the most unscrupulous, unprincipled and disgraceful manner—can the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure the House that he will use every endeavour and will remain firm in his determination to bring serious fraudsters to justice? In that light, surely he accepts that, to emphasise his independence in pursuit of that aim, the party of which he is a member should return all those moneys that it has received from people who are facing charges or have been convicted of serious fraud?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in my office, I shall do everything that I can to assist the administration of justice and the bringing to justice of wrongdoers of this sort and all other sorts. The last part of the question is not a matter for me.On the hon. Gentleman's question whether a particular defendant should have his trial stopped or whether someone's prison sentence should be reduced because of illness, as perceived by the courts, that is entirely a matter for the independent courts.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that one of the worms in the fabric of government that needs urgent attention is the improper leaking of documents by people in a position of trust. I should be grateful if my right hon. and learned Friend could say—it would be helpful if he could confirm—that neither his office nor the Serious Fraud Office had anything to do with the leaking to the press of the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates).
I have absolutely no reason to think that either office had anything to do with it, and I entirely agree with my hon. Friend when he deplores it.
Can the Attorney-General understand that the nature and extent of representations made to him by Members of this House is a matter of public interest, because it enables us to determine whether the way that the matter has been treated is exceptional or normal? Therefore, can he tell us how many hon. Members have made representations to him, whether they are Ministers or Back Benchers—one Minister has lost his job—and whether he makes any distinction in the representations he receives between those that come directly from the hon. Member whose constituent is the subject of the charges, those that come from a public relations company acting on behalf of an individual, and those that come from an hon. Member who just happens to have a passing interest in the subject?Above all, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give us his assessment—people are entitled to know—whether what seems to be at any rate an exceptional degree of direct representation by letter and by personal meetings with him about this case is, in fact, exceptional or normal? If it is exceptional, he should tell the House.
On the last point, I can tell the House that the degree of representation was exceptional. I believe it to have been bona fide. Having heard the statement yesterday, I think that the House believes it to have been bona fide. As I have said in my statement today, the matter was carefully and dispassionately looked into.On the question of how many other hon. Members have made representations, I have already answered a number of similar parliamentary questions, and I have nothing to add to my answer to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). All representations, from whichever hon. Member they come and it-they seem to have substance, will be looked at with equal care.
On the question of how to bring Mr. Nadir back to Britain to stand trial, in view of Britain's non-recognition of Northern Cyprus but its excellent relations with Turkey, is my right hon. and learned Friend in a position to say whether our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is considering making further representations to Turkey with a view to the Turks also saying something to Northern Cyprus?
No. I do not think I can say anything on that subject. With some countries we have extradition treaties; with others we have not.
One can understand what the Attorney-General is saying about the undesirability of having an inquiry at the same time as a trial, but there is unfortunately one missing ingredient for the trial—we do not have Mr. Asil Nadir—and Turkey is not going to vote for Christmas. What will the Attorney-General do to investigate these serious matters if it is clear that there will be no trial?
The hon. Gentleman asks a hypothetical question. At the moment, it is certainly my hope that there will be a trial, and there is still a trial date fixed. I repeat that there is no justification for the defendant remaining away. Any representation that he wishes to make about the fairness of his trial should be made to the court.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Serious Fraud Office must be properly equipped and resourced to deal fully with rich and powerful individuals? Without the likes of Mr. Nadir, we would not need a Serious Fraud Office.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Serious Fraud Office was set up partly because of a number of cases, which the House will have in mind, in which people who had at their disposal large sums of money—all too often, other people's money—departed to other parts of the world and managed to avoid prosecution. Since the Serious Fraud Office came into being, fewer of those people have been so effective. It has a very good record of careful and effective prosecution.
Does the Attorney-General agree that, for the Serious Fraud Office, which is an important institution, to be effective in the detection of serious fraud, it must have full public confidence? Does he agree that concern arises not only from the Nadir case?I know that he is aware that, in relation to another matter which I will not name, last year a professional officer of the Serious Fraud Office forged a letter or fax purporting to come from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel). Is he aware that the explanation given by the Serious Fraud Office for that outrageous forgery was that it was an April fool joke? Is the Attorney-General aware that the lack of any disciplinary proceedings of any meaning in that matter is profoundly unsatisfactory, and does he not agree that the disquiet which was mentioned earlier about the organisation and conduct of the Serious Fraud Office will continue at least until a thorough review of its conduct—perhaps a private review—is carried out?
Starting with the last part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, no, I do not agree with that latter point. It is easy and understandable that people should criticise the Serious Fraud Office, and that those who are under investigation by it, or whose friends are under investigation by it, should often feel critical and express that criticism. The Serious Fraud Office carries out its work professionally and carefully.There was a serious lapse from that standard in a grave error of misjudgment, about which I have apologised personally to the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale. I have looked into it very carefully, and it was dealt with internally by the office. It was a very serious error of judgment, but it was not a matter of dishonesty or anything of that nature; it was a stupid thing to do, but the water should not be muddied. In general, the Serious Fraud Office does its work diligently and scrupulously.
Is it not clear that some elements on the Opposition Benches really want a system of televised political show trials, with the opportunity for them to play starring roles? In the interests of justice, will my right hon. and learned Friend resist that process with all the vigour at his disposal?
My hon. Friend makes the important point that the House, which is normally restrained on matters of judicial proceedings, is wise to be so restrained.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend persist in not disclosing other names? All of us, myself included, frequently write to him and to his colleagues at the Home Office about our constituents who are in trouble. Frequently, we are also asked by other hon. Members to write on behalf of their constituents, and we are asked to write on behalf of constituents of other hon. Members in support of their Member of Parliament. If that system is to persist, and if that form of justice is to continue, we cannot have names leaked, either positively or secretly.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that people who have public jobs, whether that job is as the director of the Serious Fraud Office, the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the Attorney-General, should be trusted in their work. If they are found to have done their work improperly, they should resign. If hon. Members write to me in confidence, their confidence will be respected.
Reflecting on the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), the Attorney-General said that he hoped that there would be a trial. Is not that just a little disingenuous? What is the basis for that hope? If a Law Officer of the Crown says that there is a hope of a trial, presumably there is some basis for that hope. What is the basis?
There is no justification for the defendant in this case to stay away. There is no justification for any defendant to flee their bail. While I cannot say whether the defendant will return, I hope and trust that he will, and if he does, I believe that he will be fairly tried.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker.
No, not yet. I call Mr. John Fraser.
Will the Attorney-General clear up one ambiguity that may have unintentionally crept into his answers? Can he confirm that he has had no representations from Labour Members of Parliament?
I think that I ought to stick to my principles and not say from where I have received representations. No representation that I have received from anywhere has been, in my view, in any way improper.
Points Of Order
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would you explain to the House the proper way in which personal statements are made by hon. Members? Yesterday, I thought that, although the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) had matters of great importance to raise, they did not seem relevant to a personal statement.I understood that such statements were meant to be explanations of why Ministers felt it necessary to resign. I thought that the statement yesterday put the House, and especially you, Madam Speaker, in a difficult position. It may be that the whole nature and purpose of personal statements ought to be reviewed, or at the least clarified.
Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. You may recall that I asked you yesterday to consider the way in which personal statements are vetted and agreed by the Speaker before their delivery and, in return, the personal statement is allowed to be made without interruption. I understand that that is not the case with personal statements about resignations. Have you been able to give some thought to asking the Procedure Committee to look into the matter, with a view to making all personal statements subject to the prior agreement of the Speaker of the day?
Let me try to help the House. Personal statements are vetted by the Speaker. Resignation statements are not vetted by the Speaker. I have no authority whatever to vet such a statement, nor did I vet the statement yesterday.There is a lot of disquiet in the House about such statements. I have received a letter from the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, which I have not yet had the opportunity to read, but I believe that it suggests that the Committee may well look into that whole area. I am sure that many hon. Members will welcome the Procedure Committee's initiative. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I hope that I have laid this matter to rest. I want no further points of order upon it.
On a different point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that, yesterday, the Prime Minister raised with the Leader of the Opposition a document on Northern Ireland by the official Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, in which he proposed, in effect, constitutionally abandoning the Northern Irish people.Since then, confusion has reigned, with some newspapers saying that his leader is going to back him, and others saying that he should be disowned. I wonder whether you have had a request for a statement, either from the Opposition's Northern Ireland spokesman or from the Leader of the Opposition, so that we can clear it up once and for all?
That is barely a point of order for me, but I have received no such request for a statement.
Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Can I refer you to the 21st edition of "Erskine May", page 230, where the manner of taking the oath, affirmation in lieu of oath and the penalties for omission to take the oath are set out. The form of the oath is:
As you know, Madam Speaker, if a Member does not wish to take the oath, he or she can affirm. The penalties for omitting to take the oath or to affirm are:"I do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."
In the Commons it is necessary to move a new writ immediately the omission—"any Member of the House of Commons who votes as such, or sits during any debate after the Speaker has been chosen, without having taken the oath, is subject to the same penalty, and his seat is also vacated in the same manner as if he were dead."
Order. We are very interested in what "Erskine May" says. I read it regularly, but I should be glad if the hon. Gentleman would come to the point of order for me.
You anticipated me, Madam Speaker, by two seconds.In view of what is said in "Erskine May", can you advise the House whether the proposal mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin)—that Ulster should become an independent state and share sovereignty with the presidency of the Irish Republic—constitutes a revocation of the oath, and what consequences should flow from it?
That is a very interesting use of the time of the House before we reach the ten-minute motion.
Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.
Order. There is no "Further to that point of order." If it is a new point of order, I shall of course hear the hon. Gentleman.
It is on a different aspect of that point of order.
No, I have dealt with it.
Medical Act 1983 (Amendment)
I beg to move,
In simple language, the Bill would give greater optional and discretionary powers to the professional conduct committee of the General Medical Council than those that it currently possesses. I want to make it absolutely clear from the start that this is not an anti-doctor Bill or an anti-GMC Bill. It would give greater protection to the medical profession, and enhance whatever reputation the General Medical Council has at the moment. The Bill further assumes that there is merit in, and that there will be a continuation of, self-regulation as a means of regulating the profession. That is considered by many to be preferable to any other alternative. I am sure that the whole House agrees that only a very small number of doctors need to be involved in the sometimes controversial disciplinary procedures of the General Medical Council, and that the overwhelming proportion of the profession deserves the thanks and full respect of the public, whose protection is the advertised prime function of the GMC. The Bill arises from two cases in my constituency, which I believe have revealed a lacuna in the aforementioned Act that gave the GMC its statutory powers. Many hon. Members have had similar difficulties. I first introduced this Bill in the 1984–85 Session, and I introduced it in four subsequent Sessions. This is the sixth occasion on which it has been before the House. On 3 March 1987, I introduced a Bill under the ten-minute rule, as reported at column 757 of Hansard. This is an across-the-Floor motion, which has nothing whatever to do with other political matters. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) is in his place. He referred to a specific constituency case on 24 July 1985. On 25 March 1986, at column 842 of Hansard, he told the House about a distressing case in his constituency of the daughter of a well-known constituent of his, who had returned home from playing badminton. She was a healthy person aged 22. She had complained of pains and was given an injection for a strained ligament. Unfortunately, diagnosis did not take place, and the young lady died as a result of acute septicemia about three or four days later. I have another sponsor in my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith). He is known to us as "Mr." but in the medical world that title denotes a consultant neuro-surgeon. He is a former member of the General Medical Council. In the past, this Bill has also been sponsored by Dr. Maurice Miller, a former Member of Parliament well known to many here. The British Medical Association has passed a resolution not to oppose the Bill, and I know of no Member of Parliament, other than those who for a time have sat on the Treasury Bench in a certain capacity, who oppose it. I rather suspect that, when the Bill has been opposed over the years—perhaps by a Treasury representative on a Friday afternoon—that was because the GMC was not happy with the amendment of the Medical Act 1983, as it has other proposals which it believes would deal with the matter more effectively. I do not think that its view is correct, and I shall explain why. The Bill, which the GMC has been preparing over the past two or three years, after extensive discussion inside the medical profession, deals with the related but not specific case of the performance of medical practitioners in respect of their general profession, and it might be able to take on board some of the complaints that reach the GMC. I put it to you, Madam Speaker, and to the House, that that is parallel to the disciplinary procedure and is not connected directly with it, certainly under current statutes. To understand the Bill, I must explain what I regard as the lacuna within it, which I think was unintentional when it was passed in 1983. Under the Medical Act 1983, the only charge that can be made by the professional conduct committee against a medical practitioner is one of serious professional misconduct. The complaint reaches the PPC only after three stages of sifting. When it reaches the committee, those hearings are in public. However, the problem is that, when the GMC conducts its own case against a practitioner, it says that the conduct must be related to certain forms of action. It says that the first consideration of the PPC is to determine whether or not the alleged misconduct has been found to be correct and proven. If the matters are found proven, the PPC has a further stage in its consideration: given that the allegation is proven, does it amount to serious professional misconduct? Only if it decides that it amounts to serious professional misconduct has it any penalties or sanctions of any sort other than the publicity available. I am not a great one for penalties. I believe that remedies are sometimes better. The least remedy available to the GMC where serious professional misconduct is found is conditional registration or a reprimand. In effect, a conditional registration says, "Carry on doctor, but…" Certain actions are then specified for the doctor, such as to attend courses, not to perform certain activities, and to have conversations with the chairman of his local medical committee from time to time. Those actions can be varied case by case. However, if the GMC does not find that the charges proved amount to serious professional misconduct, it cannot do anything, even if it finds that there has been professional misconduct as such or, as in the case of my late young constituent Alfie Turner in 1982, if it finds that there has been unacceptable professional conduct. The council can say that that is the case, but it has no power, because there is no relevant power in the Medical Act 1983 for the GMC to act. That lack of power, where there is manifest professional incompetence which is seen and open, and where the charges found have been proved correct, causes public disquiet and disquiet inside the profession. I have discussed the matter with the GMC and its presidents over many years. I informed the current president of the GMC that I was going to move my Bill today for the sixth time. He sent me a letter which refers to a letter which he sent me on 29 September, in which he says that it would not be timely to accept my Bill because it would notThat leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Medical Act 1983 to permit the Professional Conduct Committee of the General Medical Council to take action in specified circumstances in respect of conduct of a medical practitioner which they judge to be unacceptable professional conduct; and for connected purposes.
that is, while a new comprehensive Bill is being considered—"be in the long-term public interest for the introduction of these procedures to be delayed"—
However, my Bill is not an alternative. It will remedy a manifest and continuing defect in our legislation. I wrote to the president of the GMC on 10 June, and I have a reply dated 29 June, which I received in full this morning and in a faxed form yesterday. I understand that a copy was sent to the Department of Health. I want to quote that letter because it is very important. The president states:"or in any way hampered by the introduction of an alternative amending the Medical Act."
"I … should like to make it clear at the outset that the GMC's Professional Conduct Committee"—
Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Gentleman and I have been trying to catch his eye, but his time has run out.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Nigel Spearing, Sir Anthony Grant and Mr. Sam Galbraith.
Medical Act 1983 (Amendment)
Mr. Nigel Spearing accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Medical Act 1983 to permit the Professional Conduct Committee of the General Medical Council to take action in specified circumstances in respect of conduct of a medical practitioner which they judge to be unacceptable professional conduct; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 2 July, and to be printed. [Bill 229.]
Orders Of The Day
European Parliamentary Elections Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.I stress at the outset that the Bill has no effect whatever on the powers of the European Parliament. The Bill is a consequence of the agreement reached at the European Council at Edinburgh that additional seats should be allocated to some member states. That agreement was a consequence of the large increase in the population of Germany arising out of unification of that country following the collapse of communism. The United Kingdom received six additional seats under the agreement. The Bill provides for their distribution within Britain and for the work needed to change the boundaries of European constituencies to incorporate the extra seats. Under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, which the Bill amends, representatives from Great Britain in the European Parliament fill single-member seats to which the candidate with a simple majority is elected. The Bill proposes no change in that system. In the exceptional circumstances of Northern Ireland, as in local government elections, Members of the European Parliament are chosen by the single transferable vote system. Northern Ireland is a single constituency for that purpose. That system was introduced in the Province in 1977 to ensure fair representation for both communities, and we do not propose to change it. We are prepared to participate in further Community discussions about electoral procedures for the European Parliament, but I must make it clear to the House that we see no case for departing from our traditional system. It is noteworthy that there is a movement in our direction in the Community, as people in other member states see the disadvantages of proportional representation. That hardly suggests that we should be moving in the opposite direction.
I am grateful, as many of my hon. Friends will be, for the strong words that my right hon. and learned Friend has used about our excellent system of voting for membership of the European Parliament. It is obvious that next year we shall be having an election in this country on the basis of the first-past-the-post system. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, so far as he is concerned. the European election after that will also be fought on the first-past-the-post system?
I have answered my hon. Friend. I see absolutely no case for moving away from our first-past-the-post system. I am convinced that it is the best system and I am confident that, in time, our view will prevail in the Community.
I have the impression that Opposition Members are sceptical when my right hon. and learned Friend speaks about people in other countries coming our way. Does he agree that there has been total chaos in Italy, but that Italy has now come our way?
My hon. Friend is right to the extent that Italy is moving in our direction—not yet as far or as fast as I would like, but I live in hope. What we have seen are the first stages of a move in our direction. I am confident that in time we shall see more.
Given that the Community is shortly to extend itself from 12 to perhaps 16 seats, and given that the majority of countries use proportional representation, how does the right hon. and learned Gentleman reconcile that with article 138 of the treaty, which says that we should move to a uniform electoral system?
The hon. Lady will be aware that all decisions on what that uniform system should be must be reached by unanimity. During the period when the movement in our direction which I described is still taking place, we shall rely on our veto to encourage those other member states to move further and faster in our direction.
To avoid wasting time, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman simply confirm that Italy has changed from one proportional system to another proportional system?
As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), Italy is moving in our direction, away from a system of extreme proportionality to a system much closer to ours. I said that Italy had not moved as far or as fast as I would like, but I am an optimist.The effect of clause 1 is that next year's European parliamentary elections will be contested with the following number of seats for each of the four territories of the United Kingdom: 71 seats in England, eight in Scotland, five in Wales and three in Northern Ireland. That represents an increase of five for England and one for Wales. That distribution of the extra seats is, I believe, the fairest available, as the arithmetic clearly shows. I have put in the Vote Office—and my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has copies available in the Chamber for hon. Members who wish to follow the matter—a note setting out both the current position and the effect of introducing the various options. At present, the average electorate of a European Parliament seat in Wales is 1 per cent. greater than that in England. In Scotland, the average electorate is 10 per cent. smaller than that in England. So Wales is slightly disadvantaged compared with England and considerably disadvantaged compared with Scotland. England, too, is disadvantaged compared with Scotland. If all the new seats were allocated to England the average electorate for Wales would be 10 per cent. greater than that for England. In Scotland, the average would he 3 per cent. less than that in England. That option would therefore increase the disadvantage to Wales. The most unsatisfactory change of all would be to distribute the seats on the basis of four to England, one to Scotland, and one to Wales—the solution suggested in the Opposition's reasoned amendment. This would mean that Scotland's unfair advantage would increase from the present 10 per cent. to 16 per cent., while the average for Wales would go from 1 per cent. more than England to 15 per cent. less, giving Wales an unfair advantage over England almost as big as that of Scotland. By giving five seats to England and one to Wales, the most satisfactory result which does not disadvantage Wales is achieved. The average electorate in Wales would become 13 per cent. less than England's, but Scotland's would still be 4 per cent. less than England's, so both Wales and Scotland would still be advantaged over England, but to a much lesser extent than the four-one-one option favoured by the Opposition. The strength of the Union depends on all its parts being treated fairly. Once again, it is only the Conservative party that is prepared to stand up for a fair deal for England.
Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman failed to take land mass into account? Does he appreciate that the existing Highlands and Islands constituency is larger than some countries in the Community? Is he not prepared to take into account the area that has to be covered by each MEP? Does he accept that if the Government's recommendation is adopted, Scotland's representation will be lower in Europe than in the House of Commons?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates precisely the point to which I was about to come.The largest of the Scottish constituencies, in geographic terms—the Highlands and Islands—is already the lowest in terms of population. It would be very unlikely to be altered were there to be an extra Scottish seat. It is far more likely that there would be an extra seat in the central belt of Scotland, where there could be no conceivable argument of geographical fairness or of fairness based on the size of the electorate or any other criterion.
My House of Commons constituency lies within the Highlands and Islands European constituency, which is represented by my mother-in-law, Madame Ecosse. If the Secretary of State looks at the geography of the Highlands and Islands, he will see that the constituency's most southerly point is nearer to London than to its most northerly point. Thus, the servicing of the constituency involves a great deal of complication. Just getting to the islands is a problem. Indeed, the constituency has more islands than any other part of the European Community, and its land mass is bigger than that of Belgium. Does the Secretary of State not agree that it is desirable to take account of geography as well as of arithmetic?
The hon. Lady cannot have heard the answer that I gave a moment ago. In practice, what she wants would not make any difference. I should be delighted to take any possible steps to enable her to see more of her mother-in-law. Indeed, I can think of a number of ways in which the electorate could assist in that process—I am thinking not just of European parliamentary elections but also of United Kingdom parliamentary elections, in the next of which I hope that the electorate will take the necessary steps. However, this is not the best means of achieving that desirable objective.
Scotland is not the only part of the kingdom with very large constituencies. The constituency that I had the honour of representing years ago—then Cumbria, now Cumbria and North Lancashire—includes all of Cumbria and three very large House of Commons constituencies in north Lancashire, and is bigger than the rest of the north-west put together. I certainly had some travelling to do, but I loved it.
My hon. Friend is completely right. She makes an entirely apposite point.
My right hon. and learned Friend referred very skilfully to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, but that Act was amended in 1981 and 1986. Has he not noticed the specific reference to the role of the Boundary Commission? It would not be right to say that the European constituency boundaries create more difficulty for the Boundary Commission than do the House of Commons constituencies, which have to take account of geography, shape, accessibility and so on. With regard to the European parliamentary boundaries laid down in the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986, it is provided that if at least 500 electors make any representation—not by reference to criteria laid down in respect of Westminster—there must be a local inquiry. Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that this Bill represents a step well away from arrangements enacted as recently as 1986?
I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me, as I am dealing at the moment with the distribution or seats in Great Britain. Of course there is an important point with regard to the role of the Boundary Commission and I shall come to that in due course.
My right hon. and learned Friend is being very brave in at last securing an element of fairness for England in the European Parliament. Will he go one step further and reduce Scotland's representation in the House of Commons so that England can have fairness here?
My hon. Friend will be the first to appreciate that this is not an appropriate legislative vehicle for any endeavour of that kind.In the figures that I have given, I have made no mention of Northern Ireland as it is proportionately the best represented of the territories of the United Kingdom, with three Members of the European Parliament for a population of only 1,153,204. That level of representation is for good reasons. First, any fewer seats would result in Northern Ireland's being the least well represented of the home countries. Secondly, the three seats allow the communities to be represented roughly in proportion to their numbers.
The Secretary of State has been talking about the six extra seats—whether they be Scottish, Irish, Welsh or English. We are told that the extra cost will be £250,000. My understanding is that that sum would provide only one and three quarters MEPs. Is this bargain-basement Europeanism? How have the Government done their arithmetic?
I am always keen to help my hon. Friend in his search for value for money. The sum to which he referred is the cost of reorganising the constituencies to enable us to implement the provisions of the Bill.
On the question of cost, I should like to ask my right hon. and learned Friend what I ought to say to those of my constituents who believe tht there are already too many MEPs, do not know what those MEPs do, and who say—perhaps unfairly—that they never see or hear of them. [Interruption.] I am expressing a view that has been put to me not infrequently by constituents. Are we justified in increasing the number of MEPs, who have very limited power and virtually no influence? Is there any point in having more of them before they have a real job to do?
My hon. Friend is inviting me to dip a toe into some very troubled waters. I am a little reluctant to accept his invitation, although I realise that it was extended with the best of motives. I am sure that even my hon. Friend acknowledges that it is sensible for us to take advantage of increased representation for the United Kingdom when there is to be increased representation for other countries. No doubt we shall all do our utmost to make sure that the people who represent the United Kingdom will do so sensibly.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend think it possible that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) misheard slightly and that most of the criticisms to which he referred were about Members of this House?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I think that the sense of hearing of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) was probably accurate on this occasion.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, even after the proposed redistribution, the proposals will still result in a greater number of electors per seat in England than in Scotland? Is that not one of the reasons why it is appropriate for the seats to be awarded principally to England?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Even after the distribution of seats proposed in the Bill, England will still be at a disadvantage compared with Scotland and Wales, but it will be a much smaller disadvantge than that which would flow from the alternative arrangement suggested by the Opposition parties. That is why I said that only the Conservative party is prepared to fight for a fair deal for England.
This is the last time that I shall give way before dealing with clause 2.
Perhaps I can make the Secretary of State more comfortable by saying that, however unsatisfactory the position in the Brighton area, we in east Scotland get excellent value from Mr. David Martin and Mr. Alex Falconer.
I note the hon. Gentleman's view on that matter.Clause 2 and the schedule to the Bill set out the machinery proposed for making recommendations for the constituencies for the 1994 European parliamentary elections. I now come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). The recommendations will be made by two special ad hoc European parliamentary constituencies committees, one each for England and Wales, appointed by the Home Secretary. It is a one-off task and does not form part of the duties assigned to the parliamentary Boundary Commission by the 1978 Act or, indeed, by the 1986 Act. That is solely because time does not permit that course to be followed. There is wide agreement that the process should be completed by the end of November. The Boundary Commission's procedures would not enable that date to be met, but it is my intention that, subject to those time constraints, the procedures that we adopt should follow as closely as possible the procedures which the Boundary Commission would adopt. The membership of the committees will be selected in consultation with Opposition parties, and I shall seek agreement with them on this matter in exactly the same way that I would if I were appointing Boundary Commissioners. I am delighted to say that, subject only to confirmation of the necessary timetable, I have the agreement of one existing Boundary Commissioner to sit on the committee for England and that of one existing Boundary Commissioner to sit on the committee for Wales. I certainly intend to appoint more Boundary Commissioners if it proves possible.
Let us be quite clear about this. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that, with regard to the appointments to and the independence of the committees, the process of consultation and agreement with other parties will be exactly the same as with the Boundary Commission?
Yes.The committees will adopt procedures which—again, subject to time constraints—will follow the consultation arrangements which the Boundary Commission would have followed. Due to the time constraints, it will not be possible to hold public inquiries, but I am confident that full opportunity will be made available to all who wish their views to be taken into account. It is clearly important that the shape of the constituencies is settled as quickly as possible, taking account of the need for proper public consultation, so that the political parties can select candidates and prepare for the June 1994 elections in good time. I shall therefore ask the members of the committees to start work immediately on their appointment and before Royal Assent.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend not recognise that an important point of principle is involved? Why is it right for us in the European context to abandon the traditional methods and safeguards that we observe when choosing or altering British parliamentary boundaries? Does that not tend to reinforce the fears of those of us who believe that every step down the European road tends to weaken this country's traditional democratic safeguards?
I do not think that my hon. Friend's fears are justified by anything in the Bill. He talked about our traditions, but this will not be the first time there have been no public inquiries on the designation of constituencies for European parliamentary elections. When the first direct European Parliament elections took place in 1979, the process for drawing up the constituencies did not make provision for public inquiries. So there is a precedent-this is not a novel departure in the context of the European Parliament.
We were promised that it would never happen again.
I do not conceal from my hon. Friend the fact that I would have preferred to appoint the Boundary Commissioners in the usual way and to hold public inquiries, but there is no time. We have checked carefully how long that procedure would take, and I am satisfied that time does not permit us to adopt it. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, that I proposed the alternative procedure and, as I have tried to say, I am attempting to mirror to the greatest possible extent within the time contraints the procedures which would be followed were the Boundary Commissions to be set up.
If any Home Secretary of any political party were to say that the British parliamentary constituency boundaries were to be changed but that the traditional method of doing that was to be abandoned due to pressures of time, there would be an outcry from all parties and throughout the country, so why should the argument be acceptable in the European context, especially bearing in mind that in 1978 we were given an absolute assurance that such a procedure would never be followed again?
I have made as clear as I can the reasons why we propose to follow this course on this occasion. I do not think that I can add anything to what I have said.
I am happy to give way, but I have already given the reasons for pursuing this course and I shall only be able to repeat them in answer to further interventions.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, although the Boundary Commissions' reports for Europe were published in July 1983, because of the public inquiry system the boundaries were not finalised until March 1984? Would such a delay not make it almost impossible for candidates who are seeking to fight constituencies of 500,000 people, which is very much more difficult than fighting a Westminster constituency?
I think that my hon. Friend is right. There was widespread agreement that we needed to have the constituencies finalised in good time before the election, for reasons that we all readily understand. As I have said, it was for that reason that I have included this procedure in the Bill.
If we cannot do what is necessary through the Boundary Commission because of the lack of time, how do we explain to our constituents, who will surely want to know, that we are appointing a committee rather than referring the issue to the Boundary Commission when we have lost more than six months since it was originally agreed that the number of seats would have to be increased?
I have a suspicion that the issue will not be uppermost in the minds of our constituents, but when it is raised we shall have to tell them—and there are few people better placed to do so than my hon. Friend—that we have had an especially heavy legislative timetable this Session and that we have been occupied with other matters, which has made it very difficult for us to deal with this issue until today. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to put that case persuasively to his constituents.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 related to a tin-pot Assembly by no means the same as that referred to in the proposals contained in the Maastricht treaty concerning European political parties, the process of integration and all that goes with that? I therefore argue—and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will agree—that the requirements for greater control are necessary by virtue of the fact that the Maastricht treaty enhances the powers of the European Parliament. It is therefore essential that the criteria followed are no less significant than those which apply to the Boundary Commission. By bypassing the insertions in the 1986 Act, my right hon. and learned Friend is depriving 500 or more electors, notwithstanding the local inquiry, from having an opportunity to have their say on a far more important matter than that which applied in 1978.
With great respect to my hon. Friend, he has got it wrong. The criteria that will be used to draw up the new constituencies will be identical to those that the Boundary Commissioners would follow. The procedures, however, will be different.
I am glad to have the assent of my hon. Friend.The 500 people to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred will have full opportunity to make representations, which will be taken fully into account. The difference is that there will be no opportunity for a public inquiry. I wish that that were not so, but the time constraints make it impossible for such inquiries to be delivered.
Arising out of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), and accepting that there are considerable time pressures facing the Boundary Commissioners at present, would my right hon. and learned Friend be prepared to consider that between the next two European elections the ordinary processes by which we decide our parliamentary boundaries should apply? That would enable local difficulties or complaints about relatively minor matters to be negotiated through public inquiries. The boundaries would be honed rather than decided roughly through the committee, as proposed.
I very much hope so. I do not find it easy to look so far ahead in such detail, but I hope that we shall be able to do what my hon. Friend regards as important.