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Commons Chamber

Volume 246: debated on Wednesday 13 July 1994

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 13 July 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Lerwick Harbour Order Confirmation Bill

Considered; to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers To Questions

Foreign And Commonwealth Affairs

Afghanistan

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he last met representatives of the United Nations to discuss the continuing hostilities in Afghanistan.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is in former Yugoslavia today.

My right hon. Friend has not recently discussed Afghanistan with representatives of the United Nations.

In view of the continuing slaughter of innocent people in Kabul and other centres of population in Afghanistan, will the Foreign Secretary and the Minister arrange an early meeting with the United Nations to raise two matters—first, the need for an urgent arms embargo, especially on weapons from Pakistan; and secondly, the early re-establishment of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Afghanistan, which was withdrawn from the country in January? While the slaughter continues, both measures are needed.

We have regular contacts with United Nations representatives. In recent months, we have supported two Security Council presidential statements calling for an end to the hostilities and for support for the programme of humanitarian aid.

The United Nations is seeking to re-establish its presence in Afghanistan. A proposal is under consideration to put a mission from the UNHCR back in the country.

Rwanda

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about Government policy with regard to the situation in Rwanda.

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Rwanda.

We are fully joining in international efforts to bring a halt to the bloodshed. On 8 June, the Security Council approved the deployment of an expanded United Nations force. We have offered 50 trucks to the United Nations Aid Mission in Rwanda, UNAMIR, and we are considering whether we can do more. We have supported the French initiative to mount a humanitarian mission until the expanded UNAMIR can be put in place.

Since 6 April, we have given more than £11 million in humanitarian aid, and a further Overseas Development Administration assessment mission is now visiting the region. Once it returns we shall consider what further bilateral assistance we can provide, including in the areas covered by the French initiative.

I thank the Minister for his answer and for the letter to us all from the Minister for Overseas Development. Can he assure the House that we are giving as much humanitarian assistance as is needed? Can he ensure that the people of Rwanda are protected in the humanitarian zone? Given the finding that genocide has been perpetrated in Rwanda, can he assure the House that all responsible for it will speedily be brought to justice by the relevant international authorities?

I have outlined the humanitarian assistance that has been given to help refugees in the humanitarian zone and the neighbourhood, and a mission is assessing whether we should be doing more.

I can confirm that the French have established a humanitarian zone and that people can live there safely.

A Security Council resolution of 1 July established a commission of experts to analyse the information relating to violations of international human standards in Rwanda.

Is not it true that the French stepped in only because of the failure of the United Nations to act with urgency, and that the French have committed themselves to pulling out at the end of July? All my information leads me to believe that there is no commitment to replace them. Surely the Minister realizes that 50 trucks are wholly inadequate as supplementary logistical support. Whatever else happens, can the Minister assure us that we will be spared the obscenity of the Government of Rwanda becoming the president of the UN Security Council in September?

The hon. Gentleman has heard what Isaid and he has been in correspondence with my ministerial colleagues. I can only reiterate that the provision of British equipment is the result of what has been requested of us by the United Nations. Of course, we are not the only country that has responded in that area. A number of countries have offered logistical support, including ourselves, America, Russia, France, Canada and South Africa. So there are others involved. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the troops sought by the Secretary-General are coming from a number of African countries, which I think is right; they are from Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Congo and Mali. Local countries have taken the initiative at the request of the Secretary-General.

In his report to the Security Council, the Secretary-General suggested that, because the performance of the Security Council and the international community in dealing with the issue was, I think he said, deplorable, he would set up an inquiry into the operation of the international community when confronted with crises such as that in Rwanda. Has my hon. Friend any news about the inquiry? Has it been set up, and at what stage will we hear the result of it?

I am not aware of any detailed conclusions that have been reached; but of course I shall be happy to answer a question from my hon. Friend when those details are available.

The United Nations agreed a force for Rwanda, but did not agree its deployment. Now that its deployment has been agreed, we are told that it has been held up because of lack of logistical support from western countries. Why is further delay occurring? Genocide continues in Rwanda and hundreds of thousands of terrified people are flooding across the borders of some of the most impoverished countries in the world. Of course, no sensible person blames all that on Her Majesty's Government; I am not suggesting that. [Laughter.] I am dismayed that Conservative Members think that this is a laughing matter; it just shows how pathetic their attitude really is. We want to know from Foreign Office Ministers whether it is lack of capability or lack of political will that is preventing the United Nations from getting its act together.

Certainly it would be wrong of the right hon. Gentleman to blame the British Government and I defend the British Government—

No. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman was seeking to cast blame widely—including, in part, on the British Government. We have responded to the request of the Secretary-General for the supply of equipment. We have made that equipment available; it is being inspected by United Nations people at the moment and will be ready for deployment when the United Nations is ready. It is not lack of support from the British Government that is constraining activities in that area. As to humanitarian aid, we responded immediately and provided a substantial amount of help; we are ready to do more. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the British Government cannot be accused of not taking our international commitments seriously as we are the fourth largest contributor to United Nations operations in the world.

Israel

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Anglo-Israeli relations.

They are excellent.

I am pleased to hear that from the Minister. Is he aware of concern about the British Government's attitude to the continuing Arab trade boycott of Israel? Does he agree that British companies need the shield of legislation to allow them unequivocally to reject demands that they comply with the boycott? Will he consider introducing such legislation here?

There is concern about the trade boycott and we deplore that boycott. I am glad to say that the tertiary and secondary boycott has been falling away and that there has been a substantial increase in the volume of United Kingdom exports to Israel. In 1993, exports to Israel were up by 50 per cent; in the first five months of this year, exports to Israel were up by 26 per cent; and Israel is now the third most important export market for United Kingdom goods in the middle east.

What is the Government's attitude to the idea that Jerusalem could become the capital of an independent Palestinian state as well as the capital of Israel?

That is certainly a matter which should be given the utmost consideration by those who will have to negotiate Jerusalem's status. It has long been agreed that that status will be addressed at the very end of the peace process, which I consider both inevitable and right, but the parties to the negotiations will wish to think seriously about finding a way for Palestinians and Israelis to share Jerusalem.

Will Her Majesty's Government give a warm welcome to last week's political initiative from King Hussein of Jordan, which has received a ready response from the Israeli Government? I understand that official talks between the two countries are taking place this very week.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right, and we do indeed give a warm welcome to the speech made by His Majesty the King of Jordan. Negotiations between Jordan and Israel will start on 18 July, and will deal with such important subjects as the border, security and water. That is a very welcome development, and we applaud it.

I welcome the recent improvements in relations between Britain and Israel, but may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to agree with people in Israel who—remembering what happened in the years before 1967—are reluctant for Jerusalem ever again to become a divided city?

I do not think that I can sensibly add to what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel). The question of Jerusalem is of key importance, and is best dealt with at the end of the peace process. There are powerfully competing emotions among all sides in the negotiations, which must be dealt with sensibly.

I am sure the Minister will agree that the international community has a duty to help the new Administration in Gaza and Jericho. No doubt he is aware that that Administration requires an estimated £900 million of aid just to stabilise living conditions for the 700,000 Palestinians who live in Gaza, mostly in deplorable conditions. Will the Government give a lead in ensuring that the money promised by donor countries is delivered to those who have the great task of rebuilding Gaza?

But we are giving a lead. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has not overlooked the statement made on 8 July by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who made it plain that, in addition to the £70 million that we would make available over the next three years, we were providing an additional £5 million in bilateral assistance. That will go largely to the Palestinian police force, but there will be other technical support. The hon. Gentleman should also bear in mind the fact that, for example, the Bank of England is now helping the Palestinians to establish a Palestinian monetary authority. We are already playing a full part, and we now look to others to do likewise.

Asia-Pacific Commercial Sections

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what the Foreign Office is doing to reinforce commercial sections in Asia and the Pacific.

I am glad to say that exports to the Asia-Pacific rim region rose by 28.5 per cent. in 1993 to £13 billion, and that since 1990 total export promotion effort at the Foreign Office posts in Asian and Pacific rim countries has risen by 23 per cent.

I welcome the increasing trade in what might be termed a frontier market, but I was seeking assurances about the amount of additional assistance that the Foreign Office is offering business men. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the increased co-operation with the Department of Trade and Industry will continue, so that our business men receive as much assistance in these important markets as business men in our European competitor nations?

My hon. Friend is quite right. As I have said, the export promotion effort has risen substantially: we have created 40 new front-line commercial jobs at posts in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Delhi, Singapore and Hanoi, and at the British trade and cultural office in Taipei. My hon. Friend can rest assured that a great deal of effort is going into meeting that frontier market.

How many letters has the Foreign Office received from British business men or businesses suggesting—indeed, complaining—that Britain's attitude to China over Hong Kong is costing them business?

Some facts speak clearly for themselves. In 1992, exports to China were up 72 per cent. and in the first quarter of 1994 they were up 22 per cent., so we are on course to do the same again this year. I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. There have been assurances from Chinese Premier Li Peng and from the Vice Premier and Foreign Minister that China will not discriminate against British companies in commercial interests.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the performance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in trade development in recent years. Notwithstanding the statistics that he has just given us in relation to China, is my hon. Friend satisfied that we are doing as much as we can—and as much as our major competitors—to capture that fast-growing market?

All I can say is that we are doing extremely well. I cannot give precise comparisons because they are difficult to make. I believe that we are making an enormous effort to help British exporters, who are responding.

Yugoslavia

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the work of the war crimes tribunal investigating atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

We co-sponsored Security Council resolution 827 which established the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We welcome the recent appointment of Judge Richard Goldstone of South Africa as the prosecutor. In the meantime, we have been co-operating with and supporting the work of the acting deputy prosecutor, Mr. Blewitt, who has been setting up the prosecutor's office in The Hague.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he tell the House when he thinks that the first indictments will be issued by the tribunal and when the first prosecutions are likely to start? Does the Minister think that the time may be right for the British Government to give serious consideration to the establishment of a permanent United Nations tribunal to deal with war crimes and human rights violations around the world?

The former part of the hon. Gentleman's question is a matter for the prosecutor. I understand that there is some chance that there will be trials before the end of the year.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the position is that the United Nations International Law Commission has produced suggestions—a draft—for the establishment of an international criminal court. Clearly there are attractions in that. We now have to consider whether it is practicable. If one were to be set up, it might be the appropriate forum in which to try war crimes such as those to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Given the situation in the former Yugoslavia, which is symptomatic of the failure of our common European foreign policy led by Germany, will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the Karlsruhe judgment in Germany this week? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the speeches by President Clinton proposing a leadership role for Germany oversimplify foreign policy in Europe and are rather more reminiscent of Joseph Kennedy than of J. F. Kennedy?

What is happening in former Yugoslavia has more to do with the bloodiness of human nature than with anything on the part of the German Government or any other Government. I disagree with my hon. Friend on that point.

Bosnia

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in central Bosnia.

The situation in central Bosnia is stable. The ceasefire between the Bosnian Government and the Bosnian Croat forces has held up well. The United Kingdom UNPROFOR contingent has played an active part in monitoring the ceasefire, chairing the joint liaison commissions and assisting humanitarian work in the area.

Does the Minister agree that to establish a lasting and successful peace framework in central Bosnia it will be essential to respect two principles: first, that the internationally recognised boundaries of Bosnia should be preserved in any peace settlement and, secondly, that there is a right for refugees and displaced persons to return to their areas of origin, from which many were forced out by the horrors of ethnic cleansing? Will the British Government be resolute in pressing for those principles as part of a peace settlement?

Both are important principles. The map worked out by the contact group provides for the preservation of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a complete entity, the external frontiers of which will be respected. The return of refugees is also tremendously important, but we must keep in mind the fact that before people will go back and, a fortiori, stay there, they must have confidence that they will be safe. If there is a settlement, the international community can achieve some things by way of implementation. I hope that it can instil confidence, which is a necessary precondition for the achievement of that second element.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the achievement of peace in Bosnia—we all wish the Foreign Secretary well in his difficult mission—depends primarily on the Serbs; that the Bosnian Government have behaved extremely responsibly in recent weeks; and that, as he himself said, the alliance with the Croats has held?

I welcome the alliance with the Croats, and it is true that the federation between the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats seems to be holding firm. It is important to keep in mind the fact that the recent infringements of the ceasefire were committed by both sides—by the Bosnian Government as much as by the Bosnian Serbs. It is important to be aware that the contact group's proposal will not work unless it is accepted by both sides; so we look to both sides to accept it.

Everyone wishes the Foreign Secretary well on his mission to former Yugoslavia and we hope that he will be successful in impressing on the combatants the fact that this is perhaps their last opportunity for a negotiated settlement. It is sad that the current offer to the Bosnian Government is worse than was available when they had the opportunity to reach a settlement in 1992. Of course we wish the Foreign Secretary well, but will the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure the House that, if a success is not achieved in the next few days, there will be no early abrogation of either the sanctions against Serbia or the arms embargo on Bosnia?

If a settlement is not reached because the contact group plan is rejected—I am focusing now on the question of rejection by the Bosnian Serbs—it is certain that sanctions will remain in place and that they will almost certainly be toughened. It is probable that the arms embargo will not survive. The pressure to relax the arms embargo in the event of the Serbs rejecting the plan will probably prove irresistible.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, at this stage, it would be a tragedy if the contact group were not successful, bearing in mind the sacrifices that have been made by French and British troops in delivering aid in Bosnia? I hope that he will continue in his endeavours to encourage everyone to sign the agreement.

I agree with my hon. Friend. This is a critical moment. If the parties do not accept the plan that has been proposed and worked out by the contact group, there is a grave danger that war in Bosnia will re-ignite and develop with ever-increasing intensity.

Albania And Macedonia

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what action he has taken or proposes to take in the light of Serbian aggression against Albania and Macedonia.

Following the occupation by Serbian troops of a hill near the Serbia-Macedonia border in mid-June, the British chargé d'affaires in Belgrade made representations to the Serbian authorities. We welcome the recent agreement brokered by UNPROFOR, under which Serbian and Macedonian troops withdrew from the vicinity of the hill. We are not aware of any recent cases of Serbian aggression towards Albania. We continue to watch developments in the region carefully.

Does not the Minister recognise that the west's inaction when Milosevic first used his tanks and aircraft against Ljubljana gave a green light to Serbian aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina? Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that appeasement of Serbian aggression and acceptance of their ability to gain territory by force encourages acts of aggression against Macedonia and Albania and the further persecution of the Albanian majority in Kosovo?

Will the Government now stand firm against Serbian aggression and try to prevent the conflict in the Balkans from getting completely out of hand?

The hon. Gentleman should not indulge in generalities; he needs to be careful not to induce people to suppose that the Government mean, or that he means, things that we do not or he does not really mean. It is our policy to try to persuade the parties to accept the plan worked out by the contact group. We are not in the business of waging war; the hon. Gentleman sounds as if he is, but that is not the policy of his party's Front-Bench spokesmen.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the Macedonian resolution passed almost unanimously by 53 nations in the Parliament of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe demanding of Greece the recognition of Macedonia and the withdrawal of any trade restrictions? Would that not greatly assist Macedonia with any problems that might arise in the future?

I have indeed seen the resolution to which my right hon. Friend refers, and I welcome it. The Greek Government's policies towards Macedonia are quite wrong, especially that of imposing sanctions. We were very pleased when the European Court of Justice took up the issue. Proposals worked out by Cyrus Vance address all the relevant questions which divide Macedonia and Greece, and I very much hope that Macedonia and Greece will be prepared to accept the compromises worked out by him.

Is not Macedonia facing a grave crisis in terms of its security and economy, with industry virtually at a standstill and unemployment rocketing? I welcome the Vance initiative, but what contact is the Minister having with the Greek Government and his European Union partners to resolve the problem, as it seems that the European Court avenue is not going to provide a speedy solution?

The hon. Lady is right that the European Court is not prepared to take interim action—a fact which I very much regret, as it would have been a useful way forward. We have been in frequent bilateral contact with the Greek authorities and the issue has been raised frequently by Ministers in the context of various European Union Councils. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary intends that it should be raised at the next Council meeting which, I believe, is early next week. It is a very important issue and we will continue to press the Greek Government on it.

Nigeria

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what further plans he has to try to persuade the Nigerian authorities to respect the result of last year's presidential elections.

The Secretary of State is worried about developments in Nigeria. The Nigerian Government claim to want a speedy transition to democratic government, but their actions contradict their claims: their decision to put Chief Abiola on trial cannot help to achieve that end. Meanwhile, their regressive economic policies are stifling industrial production and domestic and foreign investment and damaging Nigeria's standing with its creditors. We are urging all sides in Nigeria to join in constructive political dialogue.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he emphasise that the British Government's friendship towards the Nigerian people makes it absolutely clear that we want democratic accountability to come to Nigeria, that we want the President who was elected almost a year ago to be allowed to take his place, and that we want the Parliament that was freely elected to be able to take control from the military Government?

I can, of course, confirm that we wish Nigeria to return to democratic civilian government. Last June's elections were the most free and fair in Nigeria's history. It is important that Nigeria should have a President who is acceptable to all, and it must be for Nigerians to resolve whom that should be.

Is the Minister aware that there is grave concern about the arrest not only of Chief Abiola but of many other people who support the democratic process in Nigeria? Some people in this country, including Nigerian students, say that we should at least impose an arms embargo, if not go further, to try to ensure that Nigerians accept the democratic process.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, in conjunction with our European partners and the American Government we have imposed certain sanctions against the Nigerian military: visa restrictions, bans on high level visits and on military training, and restrictions on defence sales. Those will remain in force for the time being.

Paraguay

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the United Kingdom's relations with Paraguay following the recent visit to the United Kingdom by President Wasmosy.

Relations are excellent. We were delighted to welcome President Wasmosy to the United Kingdom for the first time last week.

During the recent visit of the Paraguayan President, did my hon. Friend have a chance to discuss with him the difficult question of drug trafficking from Latin America? Does he agree that it is time for a fresh initiative to try to stem the flow of life-destroying drugs from South America to Europe?

Yes, Paraguay is on a number of drug routes, which is why we so warmly welcome its Government's commitment to getting on top of that scourge. During the President's visit, we signed a drug assets confiscation agreement and we look forward to its being put into practical effect.

Does the Minister acknowledge that a key issue for people concerned about strengthening the democratic process in Paraguay is the establishment of a civil service free of party political interference—one which has security of tenure for its civil servants and is professionally recruited on merit? Does he share my deep concern, however, that we are in a weak position to lecture any other country on such subjects, having so weakened our own civil service under the present Government?

I entirely reject the hon. Gentleman's insinuations about this country, but I welcome without reservation Paraguay's return to democracy after more than 50 years.

Is not the significance of President Wasmosy's visit the fact that he is a directly elected Latin American President who received his symbols of office from a predecessor who was also directly elected—something for which Latin America is now once again becoming renowned? Is it not of great value to have within Mercosur, the trading bloc of southern America, a country with a long-standing record of free enterprise and free trade?

Yes, we welcome the return to civilian democratic government of almost all the countries in that continent. There is an especially interesting development concerning trade in the southern part of South America, in that we hope that the Mercosur agreement will come into effect at the beginning of next year. There will be a free trade zone among the countries of that region, and Paraguay will be at the centre of it, so our excellent trading relations with that country will stand us in good stead.

International Paedophile Rings

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent talks he has had with other Governments about international paedophile rings.

We take every opportunity in all international forums to urge action against child prostitution.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he consider having talks with the Sri Lankan Government, who are taking strong measures to combat paedophile rings? For example, they have established a Cabinet sub-committee and set up a separate unit in every police department, the tourist board is closely supervising hotels and guest houses, and the Government are carrying out a public awareness programme as well as conveying strongly to foreigners the message that they will not tolerate the exploitation of children. Does the Minister think that other Governments could learn from that? If so, what could his Department do to co-ordinate a campaign against that vile practice?

As the hon. Lady knows, I have myself been in touch with the Sri Lankan high commissioner on all these matters. I can tell her that there is a great deal of police co-operation between Britain, Sri Lanka and other countries. The national crime intelligence service has a paedophile unit which gathers information on known British rings and liaises with its counterparts in the region of which the hon. Lady speaks. British officers take an active part in the work of Interpol in dealing with offences against minors. Interpol provides a useful focus for international police co-operation in the area.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the time of kid glove action is over and that we must go for a mailed fist result? We must really go after the perverts—the evil people who prey on the bodies of children in an unnatural way. Would my hon. Friend consider discussing with people overseas and our Home Office whether, on a second conviction, castration might be a very suitable approach? One would be surprised to see how few people would need to be castrated to stop this evil practice against children—and I would do the same for those who rape women.

I do not think that my hon. Friend's suggestion is a matter for the Foreign Office.

Bosnia

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations have been made to the Bosnian Government in respect of recent breaches of ceasefire agreements; and if he will make a statement.

We have repeatedly urged all sides to show restraint and we are supporting UN efforts to extend the ceasefire. We are also pressing the parties to accept the proposals put forward by the Geneva ministerial meeting on 5 July. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and his French colleague Mr. Juppé are taking action with the key players in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia on their current visit.

Does the Minister agree that the breaches of the ceasefire have been mainly by the Muslim Government from Sarajevo since the recent ceasefire agreement was arranged? It is important that we get the right message through to the Bosnian Muslim Government. Does the Minister agree that it is erroneous to tell the Bosnian Serbs that whenever they have breached the ceasefire agreements they may be confronted by air strikes when there are not tit-for-tat threats against the Muslim leaders in Sarajevo? If there is to be a successful conclusion to the present peace negotiations and if there is to be agreement by the Bosnian Serbs, this country and the United Nations must show an even-handed approach.

On the first three paragraphs of the hon. Gentleman's question, the factual position is as follows: in terms of the number of infringements during the past month's ceasefire, the Bosnian Serbs committed the most, but perhaps the most serious infringements were committed by the Bosnian Government. Looking forward, I greatly welcome the fact that Mr. Akashi was able to negotiate an extension to that one-month ceasefire.

In the context of what the Minister said earlier, when he surmised that the arms embargo could be lifted, and given the fairly trenchant position that the Foreign Secretary and the Government have taken on the issue, what would be the British Government's position if such a development were to come about or draw near?

It is true that for two years or so we have argued strongly against the relaxation of the arms embargo as we believe that such a relaxation would run the risk of seriously re-igniting the war in Bosnia. That remains our view, but it also remains a fact that if the present negotiations do not succeed and, in particular, if they are rejected by the Bosnian Serbs, the pressure to relax the arms embargo—most especially, although not exclusively, in Washington—will probably prove irresistible. We shall have to judge our own policy as the facts develop.

Commonwealth Institute

15.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the future of the Commonwealth Institute.

I am pleased to announce that the Minister for Overseas Development has today informed the acting chairman of the Commonwealth Institute that the Government are willing to provide a grant of £2.4 million over the three-year period from 1996–97 to enable the institute to regenerate its galleries and become self-supporting by March 1999.

I thank the Minister for his reply and also for kindly telephoning me this morning in relation to the matter. Is he aware, however, that the Commonwealth Institute in London is desperately in need of cash to finance the refurbishment of the building, which will cost about £5 million? Given that grants were previously in the order of £2 million per year, does not £2.4 million over three years pale a little in comparison? Does that not show a negative attitude towards the Commonwealth?

No. The Government are most certainly committed to the continued strength of the Commonwealth. The offer that the Government have made is under discussion with Mr. David Thompson, the acting chairman, and it is on condition that the institute raises £5 million in sponsorship and submits satisfactory business and building maintenance plans. Mr. Thompson is confident that, with the restructuring in hand and with the assistance that he will receive from private sponsorship, he will be able to maintain the building and make the Commonwealth Institute a viable and flourishing institution for the future.

Does my hon. Friend accept that that is excellent news which will be widely welcomed on both sides of the house? Does he further accept, as I am sure that he does, that that institute or club, the Commonwealth, is not only thriving, but growing and that more and more countries are seeking to join it? Does he realise, as I am sure that he also does, that the provision is a very good move which reflects the growing interest of this country and Commonwealth members in grouping together for the future?

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend and I am grateful for his encouraging comments. We hope that the Commonwealth Institute will thrive and flourish with an injection of private sector funds as well as Government assistance in the interim period because it is an important institute for the development of the Commonwealth which we wish to see flourish and thrive. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, we paid some 30 per cent. of the costs of the Commonwealth secretariat in London and 60 per cent. of our bilateral aid goes to Commonwealth countries.

I do not quite understand why the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) thinks that the Government are advancing when there is a cut in grant from £6 million to £2.4 million. The Minister and the Government are sending out completely the wrong signals to the Commonwealth. We should like to know whether the Government intend to privatise or to hive off that valuable and focal institution because that is what they are doing under the restructuring. Will the Minister tell us what status he envisages for the Commonwealth Institute after 1996 and whether, when the process which he seems to be undertaking starts, he intends to repeal the Imperial Institute Act 1925 and the Commonwealth Institute Act 1958 under which the institute is governed? When will that process be put into train?

No, I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government believe that the Commonwealth Institute has a great future ahead of it, in the way in which I have indicated, with assistance from the private sector and help from the Government over the interim period. The institute is, of course, run by its own body of management, governing body and trustees. There is no plan to repeal the Acts of Parliament to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which established the Imperial Institute and later the Commonwealth Institute.

Korea

16.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment he has made of the current state of relations between North and South Korea.

It is too soon to know how the new leadership in Pyongyang will approach relations with South Korea, but we hope that the death of Kim Il-sung will not lead to a lengthy postponement of the summit talks between South and North Korea earlier planned for this month.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the words "North Korea" are merely shorthand for the dangers posed by nuclear proliferation? Has he seen reports that North Korea may have as many as six—certainly at least two—nuclear devices which it is seeking to develop to a state in which it can deliver them overseas? Is he aware that North Korea is trading in nuclear technologies with a number of countries whose interests are not favourable to ours? Will he use the hiatus caused by the death of the North Korean leader to accelerate rather than decelerate pressure on that country to reduce nuclear proliferation?

There is no hard evidence that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons. There must be suspicions, however, because North Korea does not allow the necessary international inspections which would assure us that plutonium is not being diverted. We take the drive against nuclear proliferation extremely seriously. We are glad that North Korea has not denounced the nonproliferation treaty, and we hope very much that it will allow the necessary inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In the context of North Korea, does the Minister know whether Marxism-Leninism now accepts entirely the Conservative principle of hereditary succession? Will Ministers be writing to congratulate the North Korean leadership on a new development in Marxism-Leninism?

They do like to try to keep it in the family in such countries. That is a feature of Marxist dictatorships. The succession to the leadership is a matter for the North Koreans. It is important to note that the dictator concerned is one of the last vestiges of a socialist world order that is now widely discredited.

It is pretty well established that both Iran and Iraq have been spending substantial sums—Iran has been spending up to $0.5 billion every year—on nuclear proliferation. Much of the technology has been transferred to Iran and Iraq from North Korea and China. Does my hon. Friend have any clear plan to deal with that? It would seem that the policy of nonproliferation has pretty well failed in many countries and that we should be looking to something much harsher.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend that non-proliferation has failed. We are working to achieve an indefinite extension to the non-proliferation treaty. We are also working to negotiate a comprehensive test ban, provided that it is part of a wider move to prevent proliferation, especially among the states that my hon. Friend mentioned.

China

17.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the United Kingdom's relationships with the Chinese Government.

Relations with China have improved recently. On Hong Kong, we have reached agreement on defence lands and have made progress in our discussions on financing the new airport. Our trade figures show a 72 per cent. increase in direct exports to China last year and a 22 per cent. increase in the first quarter of this year. We also have an active dialogue on human rights and international and United Nations matters. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), will be visiting China from tomorrow.

What representations did the Government make to the Chinese Government after the underground nuclear test on 10 June, which was conducted in defiance of international opinion and in breach of an international moratorium? Can the Minister able assure the House that that second underground nuclear test in nine months met with firm representations from the Government and that difficult relations over Hong Kong did not prevent the Government from expressing concerns about real and important nuclear issues?

Yes. We have expressed our disapproval of the continuing underground testing in China and I am glad that China has at least indicated its intention to participate in negotiations for a comprehensive test ban.

Despite the public rhetoric of the Chinese Government, will my hon. Friend continue to keep the pressure on them to accept the democratic through train up to and beyond 1997?

Yes. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will doubtless be carrying those discussions forward during his forthcoming visit.

When will the Government next have discussions on Bosnia in the United Nations Security Council? Will the Government be trying to work with the Chinese to veto any move by the United States to lift the arms embargo? In view of the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg)—and of the Prime Minister yesterday, when he said that he was against the unilateral lifting of the arms embargo—may we have a categorical assurance that our Government will not give way to misguided pressure from the American Congress and President Clinton but will work with others to stop the lifting of the arms embargo?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it known to the United States Government that any unilateral move of the sort suggested by the hon. Gentleman would be strongly deprecated.

Embassies (Science And Technology Sections)

18.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what are the criteria for the establishment of a specialised science and technology section within British embassies abroad.

Science and technology work is carried out by different sections within a wide range of our overseas posts, as appropriate and in response to demand.

Does the Minister agree that it is crucial that scientists and businesses in the United Kingdom are kept aware of developing science and technology in other countries, particularly in the United States? Will he explain why he has decided that the science and technology counsellor in Washington can be absorbed into another section when the German embassy in Washington maintains a section of five people, the French embassy maintains a section of six people, and the Chinese embassy maintains a section of 11 people?

I believe that we are extremely well served by the new arrangements established in Washington. We have created responsibilities at counsellor level for a counsellor with science and technology responsibility and also in other areas, including transport, energy and the environment, in line with the kind of arrangements which prevail in Paris, Bonn and elsewhere. We also have one full-time first secretary below him and a part-time first secretary assisting him.

The hon. Lady makes a comparison between France, Germany and Japan, or perhaps it was China. She should be aware that the academic contact between British academics and American academics, because of the common language and culture, is very extensive indeed and, I am sure, nothing like so extensive in the countries that she mentioned.

South Pacific Forum

19.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he plans to visit the south Pacific forum in Brisbane this summer.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), will take part in a post-forum dialogue which follows the south Pacific forum in Brisbane.

Does my hon. Friend understand the concern that Britain's role in the region is not always as significant as it once was? Against that background, does he understand the welcome that will be given to my right hon. Friend's visit to Brisbane, emphasising the fact that we must take a very close interest in the affairs of the south Pacific?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Our annual attendance at ministerial level in discussions following the conference shows the importance that we attach to the area. There will be an opportunity to identify shared policy priorities and objectives. My right hon. Friend will continue with his visits in Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, we maintain a significant aid programme in the area which shows our continuing interest.

In view of the contortions of a slightly earlier question, will the Minister consider, on his way to visit the south Pacific forum in Brisbane this summer, the necessity to apologise to the Chinese Government for the—[Interruption.]

Middle East

21.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the peace process in the middle east.

I welcome Mr. Arafat's return to Gaza and Jericho, which symbolises progress in the peace process. We shall continue to provide assistance to his new Administration. We welcome recent progress on the Jordanian track of the peace process and hope for progress on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks.

Earlier, the Minister skated rather rapidly over the question of the boycott. Why is it that France, Germany and America and various other countries have very firm anti-boycott legislation, but the British Government, who know that British businesses are losing out in this matter, absolutely refuse to support the European directive or to introduce legislation in this House which would outlaw such activities?

I do not think that legislation would be helpful. We have already been successful in persuading the Arab states to relax the boycott. I have already spoken of the relaxation in the secondary and tertiary boycotts. Israel is now the third most important United Kingdom export market in the middle east, and there have been substantial increases in UK exports to Israel. That shows that the boycott is extraordinarily ineffective.

Cyprus

22.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about relations between the United Kingdom and Cyprus.

Our relationship with Cyprus is close. We regard the division of the island since 1974 as damaging and unacceptable. We continue to work, both at the United Nations and in our capacity as a guarantor power, for a peaceful, just and lasting settlement. We believe that the package of confidence-building measures put forward by the UN offers the best way to make progress towards such a settlement. The gap between the two parties is now narrow. I hope that they will be able to seize the present opportunity to take a decisive step forward.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be quite wrong for Mr. Denktash to have a right of veto over Cyprus's application to join the European Union? May we have an assurance that the Government will support that application, whether or not the current measures lead to agreement?

We do support and have supported the application. Neither Mr. Denktash nor anyone else has a veto over the application, but we recognise the difficulties of bringing in a divided island: that is why the position will be reviewed by a European Union observer at the start of next year.

Civil Service

3.30 pm

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the White Paper on the civil service, published today.

It is nearly 150 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report first laid out the principles of a professional civil service, accountable through Ministers to Parliament, recruited on merit, politically impartial and dominated by a high ideal of the value of public service. Over the years since, the civil service has seen the demands laid upon it change in ways that could not have been imagined then. But the core principles established at that time have remained unaltered. They have served the country well; they continue to do so.

Today's White Paper therefore reaffirms those same fundamental principles. These principles help us to live in a decent society, but they have economic value, too. No one should underestimate the advantage we get from the justified reputation we have as a country in which our public service is honest, competent and apolitical.

None the less, no organisation can stand still in changing times. The public rightly expect to see continuing improvements in the standards of service in the public sector within the resources which can be afforded. That is why this Government have introduced a series of wide-ranging reforms, now brought together under the banner of the citizens charter, aimed at delivering better service ever more efficiently. These include the financial management initiative, the next steps programme, the efficiency reviews and the "Competing for Quality" programme.

I believe that the House should pay tribute to the way the civil service has handled these and other initiatives. They have already produced marked increases in both performance and efficiency. The size of the civil service is at its lowest level since the second world war, and the new structures are showing considerable gains in efficiency. The White Paper published today sets out how the Government see these reforms being taken forward and draws together the implications for the future of the civil service.

One central principle of management unites all these reforms—that of delegation to and within properly accountable organisations. We should now take further steps in that same direction, building on what we know works, rather than going off in a new direction.

But it is a fact that the most radical change so far has been in those parts of the civil service, much the largest in terms of numbers, which provide service directly to the public. The role of departmental headquarters and of the Cabinet Office and the Treasury now needs to change, too. The central role should be to set tough targets and to monitor performance on the basis of better information than we have at present. But staff throughout the civil service should be given the power to manage and operate in ways that best meet their particular tasks and needs, rather than within a single, central blueprint, adequate for all, but well fitted to none. We therefore intend to carry the next steps process further.

The Government propose that Departments should take greater responsibility for deciding their organisational structures, the pay of their staff and the best mix of efficiency measures to meet the never-ending pressure to raise standards within tight running costs. Departments themselves should judge, for example, how best to use privatisation, contracting out and market testing. Centrally driven initiatives have shown in recent years how more competition and choice improves quality and reduces costs: Departments themselves must now take these well-established policies forward if we are to see the full benefit from them. The central Departments should continue to measure, monitor and report to Parliament, but with less second guessing of Departments' plans.

To do that, we need better information systems and more modern accounting practices. The Prime Minister has therefore asked the efficiency unit to conduct a scrutiny on management information systems and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is publishing today a Green Paper on resource accounting and budgeting. The Green Paper paves the way for important reforms of the way in which we account for public money and opens up the possibility of changes in the way in which the Government plan their spending, both of which will complement the changes that I am proposing in the White Paper.

Departments will be given the freedom to determine their own management structures at all levels matched to their own needs. We expect them to be tauter and flatter than now. The Government propose to extend the delegation of pay and grading—which at present covers around 60 per cent. of the civil service—to cover all civil servants below the senior civil service. I shall return to pay arrangements for the latter in a moment.

The senior civil service needs to support both the collective responsibility of Government and the particular responsibilities of Departments, and to underpin both policy making and high-quality service delivery. But it, too, cannot be immune from change. It needs changing qualities and skills to match its changing tasks. The Government published an efficiency unit report on those issues last winter, known as the Oughton report, and the White Paper includes the Government's response. The Government accept the efficiency unit's main recommendations, but propose additional changes. Our main conclusions are as follows.

To strengthen cohesion across the civil service and bring in all those with substantial management responsibilities, the Government propose to create a new senior civil service, including those broadly down to the present grade 5 level. It will include up to 3,500 people.

There should be more interchange between this senior civil service—and, indeed, the rest of the civil service—and outside employees. Open competition should become a more normal part of the process for selecting people for senior appointments. It need not be used in every case, but it should be considered in every case. Such competitions must be superintended, as now, by the Civil Service Commissioners, independently of Ministers, to guard against the possibility of politicisation. I am publishing today, alongside the White Paper, a report on the future role of the commissioners. I myself believe that if the civil service is as good as it should be at training and career development, most senior posts are likely still to be held by insiders, as they would be in most big firms; but we should set no targets one way or the other.

Next, the Government propose to introduce explicit written employment contracts for members of the new senior civil service. For the great majority, they will provide for employment for an indefinite term, but with specified periods of notice. Fixed-term and rolling contracts would also be used as appropriate.

As figures in the White Paper show, it is a myth that the civil service is an organisation in which people serve as a matter of course until retiring age. Substantial numbers of senior staff have left early in recent years and that is likely to continue.

Finally, the White Paper proposes that a new, more flexible pay system should be introduced for this group. There should be a range for permanent secretaries' pay, with the positions of individuals determined by a remuneration committee with a majority of non-civil service members. Below that, we propose a system of wider, overlapping pay bands broadly linked to levels of responsibility, with progression based on performance, giving more room for manoeuvre to Departments to change their structure to fit their needs. As a first step, the Government will implement the wider pay ranges recommended by the Senior Salaries Review Body for the present grades 2 and 3 and will ask the review body to recommend a pay range for permanent secretaries. Those proposals will, in time, allow for greater differentiation in individuals' pay within the overall pay bill. No immediate pay increases are entailed.

The proposals for greater delegation to Departments and reform of the senior civil service represent a considerable further challenge for the civil service. We are seeking to raise standards of service within tight control of running costs. Staff numbers will continue to fall, from 533,000 at present to significantly below 500,000, with reductions at all levels. Wherever possible, that will be achieved through natural wastage and by voluntary departures. From the autumn of this year, the Treasury will give special assistance to Departments with any additional costs.

The Government believe that the civil service is fully capable of achieving what we have asked of it. It will be helped to do that by the greater flexibilities and the management changes that I have announced, against the background of the reaffirmation of the old strengths and values which underpin the civil service, which the Government have reaffirmed today, and with which, I believe, the whole House will concur. The civil service must continue to offer attractive and exciting careers to talented people who wish to serve their country in some of our most important and challenging jobs and it will be helped to do so by up-to-date organisations and structures.

The civil service has a unique role maintaining our unwritten constitution. It does not belong to one Government or party. The Government, therefore, plan to consult Opposition parties as well as others with an interest in the proposals that I have outlined today. We shall, of course, consider carefully the forthcoming report from the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee.

The Government's objective in publishing the White Paper is to map a way forward for the civil service to the end of the century and beyond. The result will be a smaller civil service, more flexible in organisation, better able to respond to changing tasks, properly rewarded on the basis of responsibilities and performance and offering challenging careers for both staff and managers with a reaffirmed commitment to the unchanging principle of public service. I commend the White Paper to the House.

The statement is a menu for the accelerated privatisation of the civil service, which threatens to destroy the constitutional principles on which the civil service has rested for 150 years since Northcote-Trevelyan. Those principles include ministerial accountability, the unity of the civil service and the public service ethic as the standard for civil servants' actions. All of them will be undermined by the statement.

The right hon. Gentleman is squeezing out around 50,000 jobs by cutting the running costs of Departments. Is not that a wholly arbitrary exercise, in which he has abdicated his responsibility for the overall direction and general goals of the civil service? Is not he doing that because market testing has manifestly failed, even though he has constantly exaggerated the forecasted savings from the exercise?

The right hon. Gentleman said that centralised pay bargaining in Whitehall would end. Is not he reneging on long-term civil service pay agreements into which the Government solemnly and unequivocally entered two years ago? Will he tell the House how many hundreds more civil servants will be needed to negotiate pay agreements in each Department? Does he recognise that there will be a massive duplication of bureaucracy with the creation of at least 150 separate pay-bargaining units, and that 3,000 civil servants must be trained for that? Currently it is done by a mere 40 in the Treasury.

Will this be a repetition of what happened two years ago when the Government introduced performance-related pay, when nine Government Departments individually approached Andersen Consulting and paid nine fat fees for the same advice? As for personal contracts and performance pay for the top 2,000 civil servants, how does the right hon. Gentleman propose to measure the performance of a top civil servant—by how much he pleases the Minister?

On open competition for top posts, is not it true that Ministers make the final choice of appointee and that, despite the right hon. Gentleman's denials, his proposed changes will open the way for more politicisation of the civil service, which the Government have taken too far already? Does not he recall the then Home Secretary a few years ago insisting on appointing as head of the Prisons Agency a man who had no knowledge or experience of the prison service, but whose private sector views made him ideologically sound? This Government have quangoised Britain with their own political placemen. Are they now going to do the same for the top ranks of the civil service?

Why is there no mention of equal opportunities in the civil service, with the right hon. Gentleman's retention of the elitist fast stream entry to top jobs? The real objection to this White Paper is that it has no vision. The public do have concerns about the civil service—about how Ministers increasingly rule by fiat and compromise civil servants' political neutrality; about what Pergau and the Scott inquiry reveal about the secrecy culture in Whitehall; and about the dismantling of an institution which has hitherto been the envy of the world. None of these matters which really worry the public are dealt with in the statement. It is not just a missed opportunity: it is a major backward step from the good governance of our country.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), as usual, gets it almost entirely wrong. I believe that he will find that he has misjudged the White Paper and the mood of the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked, as if it were a difficult question, how we can measure the performance of senior civil servants—[Interruption.]—clearly showing himself as unaware as is his hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), who is misadvising him, that senior civil servants have been on performance pay for many years.

Next, the hon. Gentleman mistakenly asked whether Ministers make the final choice. That is not true. The Civil Service Commission makes the final choice. I have today published a paper—the hon. Gentleman should study it—which rightly explains the role of the commission. If it is necessary, as I believe it is, to bring in more people to the senior civil service to gain their experience, those jobs must not be politicised. It is therefore vital that the choice remains with the Civil Service Commission.

Nothing in the White Paper or in the Government's reforms changes ministerial accountability to this House, or the accountability of civil servants, through Ministers, to this House.

Typically, in a recent article, the hon. Member for Oldham, West claimed that the Government intended to reduce the numbers of civil servants to 50,000. We intend, I hope, to reduce their numbers to below 500,000—the hon. Gentleman got the decimal point wrong, just as he has got virtually everything else wrong on this occasion.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his advisers on the hard thinking and hard work that have gone into the White Paper.

Will the Government acknowledge that the wider recruitment and wider exchanges that they seek as between the senior civil service and the private sector will come about in practice only if pay amounts as well as pay structures in the senior civil service are made comparable with those in the private sector? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend press for an early debate in Government time, as soon as the House returns, on these important proposals?

On the latter point, I will, of course, report to the Leader of the House what my hon. Friend has said.

Needless to say, the Select Committee is already engaged in cross-examinations on my hon. Friend's point, and I look forward to appearing before a sub-committee of the Select Committee next week to discuss it.

We believe that there should be more competition for the top jobs; that is the challenge that we offer the civil service. The other side of the coin must be that we develop the capacity over time to respond in terms of pay, so that these jobs attract a reward commensurate with the competition that they entail. That will take time. There is no overnight pay increase in the White Paper; but we need greater flexibility and wider pay bands to enable the civil service to attract its fair share of people from outside on equal terms.

The White Paper has much in it to be commended. It is important not to oppose change merely for the sake of opposing it, but the record of Ministers shows that they have often favoured change merely for its own sake, particularly in respect of privatisation.

The White Paper does not deal well enough with the worry that, with greater flexibility at senior levels of the civil service and with greater emphasis on performance among those who give advice, the robust independence of the civil service will be affected. That is not addressed in the White Paper and it needs to be addressed more seriously by Ministers. The one great gaping hole—

Order. As the hon. Gentleman and the House have seen, a number of hon. Members are seeking to ask questions. I want questions and not statements now.

There is a gaping hole in the White Paper that I would ask the Minister to address: why are the same rules, the same issues of independence and proper public appointment subject to independent scrutiny not being applied to the great growth areas of the state—the trusts, quangos and appointees subject to ministerial appointment—when the Minister places such importance on the independence of the civil service?

The White Paper addresses head on the essential point that the hon. Gentleman fairly makes. Its entire first chapter deals with the importance of maintaining a robustly apolitical and independent civil service. I have absolutely no doubt that, should by some misfortune the Labour party or the hon. Member's party find their way into power, the civil service would serve them with exactly the same loyalty with which it has served us. Anybody who doubts that is casting an aspersion against the civil service. We reaffirm that today and I join the hon. Gentleman in reiterating its importance.

The hon. Member's second point is a real one. My right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Health has just published guidelines for the selection and conduct of trust boards and the Treasury has just republished and reinforced its guidance on appointments to non-departmental bodies. They are separate matters from the issues that we are looking at today, but they are important and should and are being addressed.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that any savings to the taxpayer as a result of the White Paper will be welcomed by Conservative Members, unlike the Opposition, who have no regard to the British taxpayer? He said that he hopes to reduce the civil service by some 33,000 to around 500,000. Are those all going to be saved posts or will any be contracted out? If they are all saved, that is a reduction of something like 6 per cent. in the overall head count. Does he agree that it is still rather conservative compared with the reduction in overheads that most private companies have had to make during the recession? Does he agree that our investment in information technology in the civil service has not produced the return it should have done?

My hon. Friend is right to say that, when we look at our own organisations, we should consider the very rapid change undertaken by large organisations outside, many of which have had to undertake change quicker under the compulsion of the markets than we have achieved. None the less, I pay tribute to the civil service because it has changed fast. The fall in numbers—that is a gain in efficiency and a return for the taxpayers who pay for us all—has been faster in recent years than in the period running back to 1979, though there has been a considerable drop in numbers since then. Some jobs will be contracted out or privatised, some will go because we analyse that there is no need for the function at all, and others will be go due to sheer efficiency gains. In the past 18 months, the ratio of efficiency gains to contracting out has been running at about 60:40.

Despite the right hon. Gentleman's claim that so much of the reform is apolitical, is he aware that one of its serious aspects is the way in which fixed-term appointments will be made? Who will decide, when the term ends, whether that person will be reappointed? Is that not the time when the Minister concerned can exert his own pressure? Finally, 108 members of the Government are paid for out of public funds. We are reducing the numbers of civil servants, yet the numbers of Ministers have increased year by year. Why does he not turn his attention to that?

The latter point may be for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rather than being my direct responsibility. On the former point, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We have come down against fixed-term contracts for the generality of the new contracts that will be negotiated. They must be negotiated with the staff for the very reason that the right hon. Gentleman gives. The cliff edge might produce a sense of insecurity and it is part of an efficient and apolitical civil service to give advice to their political masters that may not be welcome; civil servants should have the confidence to do that.

Will this pruning and semi-privatisation of the civil service apply across the board in Northern Ireland? Will it apply to both the Northern Ireland Office and the Departments in Northern Ireland? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the people of Northern Ireland that—contrary to pressures from Dublin—any new members of the Northern Ireland civil service will be appointed, as they are in this part of the United Kingdom, solely on the basis of merit rather than religion?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Northern Ireland civil service is a separate body; however, the principles underlying our proposals apply to it with equal force. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be considering how, and to what extent, they might be implemented in the particular circumstances of the Northern Ireland civil service.

The Northern Ireland civil service selects on merit, and the principles—well known to the hon. Gentleman—according to which it seeks to extend the pool from which it selects to all communities are an important part of that.

Is the Minister aware that the Select Committee will need to examine the details of the White Paper and discuss them with him? Personally, I welcome the fact that the Government have seen the need to reassert the essential values of the civil service at this time. I am also pleased that they recognise that the service is not the property of any one party, and are prepared to consult the Opposition; and that the Select Committee will have a role in considering its future.

I am happy to reaffirm the importance of the Select Committee's work. We have explicitly stated in the White Paper that we shall await its report before reaching any final conclusions. It has taken an interest in a number of aspects—for instance, civil service Acts and statutory backing for ethical codes. I must say that the hon. Gentleman seems to show more understanding of both the issues and the sense of the House than does his Front-Bench spokesman.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain is one of the few countries in which corruption at the top levels of Government is almost unknown? That is largely due to the dedication and high integrity of senior civil servants. Is my right hon. Friend confident that introducing an increasing number of people from an entirely different ethos, and without such long training, will not lead to a lowering of standards, with serious consequences for our political life?

I entirely agree with the first part of what my hon. Friend has said. We should be proud of the standards in our civil service. As I said in my statement, they not only make life better in this country, but provide an economic advantage: people invest here in the knowledge that the British officials with whom they will deal are not corrupt.

As for my hon. Friend's second point, let me remind him that during the war many people who entered the civil service—I think of, for instance, Roger Sherfield and Oliver Franks—greatly added to its strength. We have lost something of that since the war has become more distant. If we can widen the pool of able people who wish to serve the public by working in the civil service at some point in their careers, I do not think that that implies any lowering of standards. The great men and women who served at that time, and later, reinforce my belief.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could have delivered his piece with a little less rattle and a little more conviction. Do the Government really intend to pursue the introduction of performance-related pay in the higher echelons of the civil service? How on earth can such performance be measured?

I would not want to compete with the hon. Gentleman in terms of rattle. There is virtually no organisation in the world, including the British senior civil service, that does not have some measure of performance-related pay. [Interruption.] The hon. Member and the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) are decades out of date if they think that people have not been addressing these problems and solving them perfectly satisfactorily.

I notice that my right hon. Friend's statement does not refer to the Fulton report. Is not it true that the philosophy of that committee, which was established by a Labour Government, is followed by the bold and imaginative ideas that my right hon. Friend has outlined today, particularly in terms of the need for a widening of recruitment into the civil service and for greater management efficiency? In terms of the accountability of the senior civil service to the House, is it possible that the Select Committee system has some part to play in the appointment of certain members of the senior civil service?

My hon. Friend is right that part of the important advice from the Fulton committee was that we should achieve a greater interchange and wider experience in people's careers before they reach the top of the public service. That has not happened enough, although it has happened to a considerable degree and we want it to happen more. We are abolishing one thing that was derived from the Fulton report, the senior open structure down to grade 3, because we have come to the conclusion that that is too narrow a basis for the unified cross-departmental senior civil service that we need. As we need better devolution to Departments and less Treasury and Cabinet Office interference in the management of Departments, we also need to retain a capacity to move people laterally. That is why we have established the new senior civil service structure.

The Minister's statement will require careful examination, but will he answer some questions? If power is to be devolved to civil servants in Departments who will no longer be accountable to Ministers for many aspects, is not it true that an incoming Government might regard the friends who have been brought in by this Government as wholly unsuitable and be entitled to remove them on the grounds that their performance is of a political character, quite unacceptable to the decision reached by the electors, which normally removes the Ministers who run the civil service?

Is not it also true that all the fine language used by the Minister is a cover for a return to the "spoils system" which has ruined the American civil service and which goes back before the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms and will ultimately create great distrust among the public about the operations of the civil service because it is being put on the basis of accepting the Government's political philosophy which is wholly foreign now to the majority in this country?

If the reforms did any of those things, I would join the right hon. Gentleman in opposing them. It would be wise for the right hon. Gentleman to heed his own advice, which is that what we are saying does require close attention. What will be devolved is structures, pay and management matters. Accountability for those matters lies ultimately through the Minister to the House. The right hon. Gentleman, with his long experience—I have read his diaries on many of these points—often found himself resenting detailed management intervention from the central Departments. If we can find ways of minimising that within proper accountability structures, we will have done something valuable.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the real reasons why we get into the mess that we do with respect to the amount of money spent on the civil service is the legislative burden that both sides of the House impose on it? Would not it be sensible, in the light of the review that is taking place, for us to consider reducing the duties imposed through Acts of Parliament which drive so many of the increases in duties imposed on our civil servants and in the functions imposed on the people of this country?

My hon. Friend has made an extremely good point. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, together with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, has launched the major deregulation initiative. Over the years, under all Governments, we have found ourselves steadily increasing the amount of regulation that we ask the civil service to carry through—and it carries it through efficiently on all occasions. We then find that we have placed new burdens on industry and on our population, which we regret. I accept the principle of what my hon. Friend said and we are introducing measures under the vigorous leadership of our right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

Is the Minister aware that many people will regard the White Paper not as a clear, bold blueprint for the future, but as a rather patchy, inconclusive mish-mash? Will he confirm that his Cabinet colleagues, led bravely by the Foreign Secretary, threw out some of his more ludicrous, extreme proposals, and that what remains in the White Paper will not lead to the creeping politicisation and deprofessionalisation of the senior civil service which many fear? Does not he agree that, to overcome the serious concerns and worries that have been expressed by hon. Members this afternoon, he should consider introducing a new code of ethics that will govern and safeguard the neutrality, standards and professional independence of the civil service?

I did not notice the hon. Gentleman under the table at the Cabinet discussions; perhaps he was there. I do not think that he knows how they went. The result is a policy and a White Paper which have been whole-heartedly endorsed, as I believe my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will confirm, by every senior Minister in the Cabinet and elsewhere. The code of ethics point that the hon. Gentleman makes is a real one, but he should note that, last year, we brought together for the first time in the civil service management code all relevant documents, including the Armstrong memorandum and other important documents. It is vital that they are properly disseminated. They are part of the terms of service in the civil service. We await what the Select Committee says on the matter. The hon. Gentleman and I have no argument on the importance of maintaining that code. The Select Committee may wish to advise us on whether the code should be statutorily backed in some way. Now, as in the past, it is binding on civil servants and it must remain so.

To what extent does my right hon. Friend expect competition for the top jobs in the civil service to result in an inflow of permanent secretaries from outside? Will he give an assurance that such a move will maintain and enhance the standards of public service which the House is entitled to expect and which the Public Accounts Committee considers twice a week and on which it reports to the House every Session?

Eight out of the present 35 permanent secretaries came from outside, including the head of the Treasury, so the process started some time ago. I do not know whether the number will increase. That depends ultimately on the skill, determination and resources that we put into the training of our people to enable them to compete properly. As for the service of the public and of the House, we must look at as wide a field as possible to employ the best possible people.

Can the Minister say why it was sensible to make his statement on the White Paper before the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee had completed its investigation into this matter? Why was it sensible to have overlooked the recent, devastating conclusions of the Public Accounts Committee, which said that standards in the conduct of public business were at their lowest point since before the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms and that the reason for that decline was the increased inter-penetration of the public and private sectors and the erosion of the public service tradition? Why was it sensible further to erode that tradition rather than to deal with the issue? If it is sensible for the Civil Service Commission to consider new appointments to the senior civil service, would not it also be sensible to have a public appointments commission—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. I have asked for brief questions. I am attempting to assist hon. Members and call as many of them as possible, but I am not getting the co-operation from them to which I am entitled. I intend to have it from now on.

On timing, we would have been happy if the Select Committee had finished its work first, but it did not seem possible to wait indefinitely. As we can consult it further, it seemed sensible, as we had finished our work, to publish the White Paper.

The hon. Gentleman provides a travesty of what the PAC report said. In the clearest terms, it stated that there was nothing in the reformed structures that inherently or in any way threatened public accountability or standards, but that in a more devolved system—and I accept that this is right—it is necessary to take even more trouble to ensure that everyone understands what his or her duties and responsibilities are.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that market accountability is not the same as democratic accountability and that both are required from the public service? Will he describe to the House the Government's view of the principle that should determine the balance between them?

What drives the public service is accountability ultimately to the democratic process. There are certain parts of the public sector into which, if one does it properly, one can introduce choice and competition to the benefit of standards in general. However, in no sense is the public sector comparable to the market; otherwise, those things should be in the market. It is much better to privatise something which really should be in the market, and that is what we believe in. There is a distinction, or the Government would not be in this business in the first place. Nevertheless, there are things that can be learnt from private sector markets to the benefit of both sides.

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that the record and standing of this Administration are such that they will commend this policy to the public? Is he really happy with the contraction which has occurred and which now means that if our constituents write to certain Government Departments, the chances are that their letters will be mislaid?

As a matter of fact, I believe that the performance of Departments in responding to letters has steadily improved in recent years, but where there are failings, they must be put right. That is a perfectly proper thing to do. The principle that I am setting out—giving Departments the chance to organise themselves properly to deal with the tasks that they face—will help with such problems where they exist rather than hinder.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that he is managing with skill the latest stage in a process which began with the Fulton commission under a Labour Government and continued with the White Paper on central Government reorganisation in 1970? This is the latest stage, so it has taken about a quarter of a century to get things moving which, I suppose, is quick by British standards. However, will he accept two caveats? First, our nation has a fine tradition of public service, which we must do nothing to damage. Secondly, in giving more accountability and separate management control to Departments, as we planned 25 years ago, will he ensure that there is still plenty of movement between Departments, especially between the Department of Trade and Industry and the foreign service?

I strongly endorse what my right hon. Friend says about the standards and principles that lie behind our public service. He is right to say that the origin of a fair amount of the White Paper goes back a good many years—he said about 25 years, and that may be fair. In fact, that exactly parallels the time that it took to introduce the original Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, which were not fully implemented until the 1870s.

Why have the Government retained the fast stream for top management jobs? Does not it place a severe limitation on people getting to the top on merit?

The study that was published today on the so-called fast stream, which the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) so dislikes—I should say that we issued a report partly in response to the hon. Member's badgering, so I must pay tribute to him for that—concluded that there is no large employer that does not have some means of trying to get hold of a share of the best output from universities and colleges. What is wrong is the name "fast stream", which gives the impression that the people involved in it have some privileged route to the top, whereas, in fact, they have not. It would hobble the civil service most unfairly in the jobs market if it were not allowed to go on what is called the "milk round" to try to get its share of the best people from our universities.

May I welcome especially the delegation of responsibility for the management of budgets down through the senior civil service? Is not it the case that with delegation comes responsibility for more effective decision making? Have not the Opposition perhaps missed the fact that with responsibility ultimately comes a great deal of job satisfaction for people who have been deprived of any responsibility in the past?

The point that my hon. Friend makes seems entirely right. It was accepted by the Labour party when the original next steps programme was introduced. Although the party's then spokesman, the late John Smith, criticised the Government on other matters, he accepted that devolution was a sensible way to proceed, and I believe that he was right to do so. When the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has calmed down, I am sure that he, too, will find that it is the sensible thing to do.

As most women working in the civil service are in the secretarial and clerical grades, what proposals has the Minister for increasing equality of opportunity for both men and women across the grades in the civil service?

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said that there was nothing about equality of opportunity in the White Paper. In fact, there is a considerable passage. I believe that the civil service is a good equal opportunities employer and, in terms of the proportion of applicants, the numbers entering the service are about right. We are getting better at employing more senior women. That is necessary, but there is much more to do, and also more to do in reaching out to people in the ethnic minority communities. The White Paper addresses that subject, too.

While my right hon. Friend is busy pushing his new broom through the corridors of Whitehall, will he consider the fact that one of the greatest impediments to the transfer of employees from the public to the private sector and vice versa is their pension entitlement? Will he share with the House his thoughts on what he intends to do about that?

The imbalance in pension entitlements was at its most acute when there was very high inflation. I have not heard private sector employers arguing about it so much since then. In the schemes that we now have in place for swapping people to and fro, which are welcome both to private industry and to the civil service, we have not found such factors to be a bar.

Privatisation has led to the disappearance of a Department of State—the Department of Energy—and is leading to further uncoupling of the work of the Department of Trade and Industry, and to the disappearance of the accountability for measures to the House. The next steps agencies are taking over from Departments, and often run things in a rubbishy fashion. Does not the Minister realise that in the end a small civil service might be a manipulative civil service—in fact, no civil service at all?

There is a good deal of rubbish in what the hon. Gentleman says. I remember a Conservative Government setting up the Department of Energy. That was nothing to do with privatisation, and the fact that energy policy is now run from within the DTI is nothing to do with privatisation either. When the hon. Gentleman attacks the "rubbishy" next steps agencies, he should remember that he is attacking two thirds of the civil service. I do not believe that that is right. The hon. Gentleman will find in the White Paper evidence of the fact that, according to a whole range of indicators, the performance of the next steps agencies is improving services to the people who rely on them. If the hon. Gentleman doubts that, he should study the evidence that we have placed in the Library. If he does so, he will tind that he is wrong.

In connection with the question asked by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) concerning fixed-term contracts, will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the White Paper says anything about the principle of secondment? Does not that principle provide the opportunity, on a two-way basis, for people from the civil service to play a role in industry and vice versa? Does the White Paper say anything about that?

It does; it endorses the importance of more secondments and of those who work with the civil service to arrange them. I have in my Department several secondees from outside; they make a valuable contribution and I believe that it helps to develop their careers in the private sector, too. Equally, those from the civil service who go out find that their careers are enhanced. I do not believe, as some Opposition Members seem to, that any threat arises from the mixing of the public and private sector cultures. Both gain from it.

The Minister has been anxious to assure us of the political impartiality of new entrants into his new model senior civil service. Will he confirm here and now that active participation in one's local Conservative association will be a disqualification rather than the qualification for a new entrant?

The rules on that are perfectly clear. Those who work for political parties on either side—presumably there are people on the Labour side who are also inconvenienced—are subject to the published code, which the hon. Gentleman can find in the Library. There is no more difficulty on that subject now than in the past.

It was a jolly good statement, and the whole House is most grateful to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We much enjoyed the statement, but one inherent danger was not mentioned—the likelihood that the civil servants who are left when others have been removed will become more over-zealous and officious. Will the rules and regulations be more over-zealously enforced by the remaining numbers? Surely the raison d'être—if my right hon. Friend will excuse the phrase—of the civil service is that civil servants must serve the public, that they must help to create jobs and that they must help to create wealth in the private sector. Is not that the test of the civil service today?

The overwhelming raison d'être—the use of the phrase "raison d'être" by my hon. Friend is slightly surprising, now that I come to think of it—or duty of the civil service is to serve the system of ministerial accountability properly and to carry out the duties laid on it ultimately by the House. It is ultimately the House which should take the responsibility for over-regulation and which should take steps to diminish it. It should not blame over-regulation on the civil service. That is why it is a political matter, for us as the Conservative party, to lead the campaign against over-regulation which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched at our party conference.

Can my right hon. Friend put the streamlining of the civil service into context by telling us what has happened to total civil service numbers since the Government came to power so that the House and the country can differentiate between the Government's love for less government and the bloated bureaucracy left and loved by the Labour party?

The highest number the civil service achieved—if that is quite the right word—was under the previous Labour Government. We have brought the number down from 732,000 in 1979 by almost exactly 200,000. That is an achievement of which we should be proud. We should also be proud of the fact that the smaller civil service is carrying great burdens and doing great work with greater efficiency than was the case then.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the major achievements of our civil service over the past century has been its ability to evolve and to develop in response to changing circumstances and needs? Does he accept that the White Paper published today advances that fine tradition? It looks yet again at cutting out inefficiency and wasteful bureaucracy and it seeks to improve even more standards of efficiency and user-friendly services, both for those who receive them at the sharp end and for the civil servants themselves.

I believe that my hon. Friend is right and I also believe that if one gives a clear task and a clear challenge to the civil service, it always shows itself willing to meet it. The gains in efficiency that we are seeing and the gains in service to the customer—the patient, the pupil and everyone who relies on the civil service—are genuine. The civil service should be congratulated on them. Civil servants understand as well as we do that the search for efficiency gains never ends.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the many thousands of my constituents who are employed in the private sector, who have often learnt at great personal cost of the need in the modern world for ever-increasing efficiency and productivity and who have realised that there is no such thing as a right to a job for life, will be pleased to learn that the rules that apply to them are about to apply to the people whose salaries they pay?

What my hon. Friend says is right. We have a duty in the House to the taxpayer as well as to the public service. I believe that the balancing of those two has been achieved in the White Paper. We need to continue the drive for efficiency, but we also need to protect the apolitical, independent nature of our civil service. I believe that the White Paper achieves that.

Surely the fact is that the right hon. Gentleman, nominally the Minister for the civil service, has simply copped out. Rather than produce a policy for the future of the civil service, he has signalled the start of a competition between Ministers to fire as many civil servants as possible. The results will be purely arbitrary, with the fast streamers and mandarins, like him, getting off exceptionally lightly and junior jobs going in their thousands. The right hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, so why did he stop it carrying out a direct investigation of the civil service? Will he ask his successor to reconsider these thoroughly incompetent proposals?

The hon. Gentleman achieves a new low. He always manages to go below the level of the subject, but today he has managed to get right under the carpet. As usual, the hon. Gentleman is factually wrong. In recent years, the proportion of those leaving has been higher from the senior civil service than from the civil service more widely. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the wireless this morning, he would have heard the First Division Association pointing that out.

I have answered questions in the House before about the survey of the civil service. The issue is perfectly simple. As the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) demonstrate all the time, those matters, at least for the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, although not for all the Back Benchers, are of political dispute. If we involved the opinions of civil servants in that political knockabout and we identified those opinions, we would have done more at a stroke to damage the political impartiality of the civil service than if we had done anything else.

Bill Presented

Data Protection

Mr. Harry Cohen presented a Bill to make further provision for the retention, registration, use and disclosure of automatically-processed information relating to individuals; to regulate the provision of services in respect of such information; to provide for a Data Protection Commissioner and a Data Protection Tribunal; to replace the Data Protection Act 1984; and for purposes connected therewith: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 October, and to be printed. [Bill 151.]

War Pensioners (Equal Rights)

4.25 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to review the effect of differential treatment of war disablement and war widow pensioners by local authorities; to bring forward means for equal treatment; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would correct one small but important injustice in the way in which we treat war pensioners in this country. Over the years, it has been accepted by Governments that war pensioners, by which I mean war widows and war disablement pensioners—people who were in active service or those who were injured in the war when they were at home—have been treated by the state as the recipients of a justified form of compensation for their injury or bereavement. Answers on that point have been given over the years—I am grateful for the presence of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—by Ministers from the Department of Social Security which have made that clear.

Over the past decade, or a little longer, the cost of that compensation has been assessed and there has been a change in the way that the legislation has treated those people. First, dating back a little more than 20 years, local authorities in Britain were obliged—it goes back to the Housing Finance Act 1972—to disregard a proportion of war widow and war disablement pensions when assessing the entitlement of people in that category to housing benefit. In 1986, under the general review of social security legislation, there was no change to the discretionary position of local authorities, above the obligatory minimum amount of disregard. We then had an uprating in 1990 when the disregard went from £5 to £10.

By the arbitrary nature of which local authority area one lives in, it may be that if one is a war disablement pensioner or a war widow, one's entire pension is disregarded, part of one's pension is disregarded or the statutory 10 quid only is disregarded. That is not in any way a party-political point, because local authorities of all political colours and, indeed, of none fall into each of the categories. For example, if a war pensioner lives in Bristol, the City of London, Croydon, Leeds, Oxford, Pendle, Restormel or Wear Valley—I have chosen, at random, a group of local authorities across the country—not more than £10 would be disregarded, whereas if a war pensioner lives in one of the authorities next door, everything would be disregarded. So the anomaly has arisen that certain people, in exactly the same predicament, are treated differently by virtue simply of their residence. For a pensioner on a limited income, that difference may be significant and it is certainly unfair. The other relevant aspect is that the disregard now applies also to council tax benefit, so it applies to the help that pensioners receive with housing costs and with council tax bills.

All I want to argue is that there should be an urgent review and the Government should be asked to look at their policy again to see whether they ought to change it to give equity of treatment across the land.

The latest available figures—they were given to me by Ministers in the past month—are that more than 290 local authorities offered a full disregard. A further 28 offered a full disregard for disablement pensioners only and another five offered a full disregard for widows' pensions only. About 150 local authorities did not operate a full disregard system. As a result, in 150 areas such pensioners were treated less fairly. Certainly they were less well off.

The full cost of my Bill would be very small. The Southwark local authority offers a full disregard and it costs every adult about 8p a year to do that. We are talking only of pence. It is also obvious that the problem is becoming less expensive to solve, because there are fewer war disablement pensioners and war widows left. In 1978, there were about 382,000 in those categories, and in 1992 there were only just over a quarter of a million. The bill to the Treasury is becoming smaller.

In the past financial year, the Government paid out—the figures were supplied by the Government—about £225 million in war widows' pensions. On the last day of last month, there were nearly 50,000 war widows' pensions and about 250,000 war disablement pensions.

This is the 50th anniversary year of D-day and next year will be the 50th anniversary year of VE-day. I am raising an issue which pensioners' organisations and ex-service people's organisations, such as the Royal British Legion, have been on about for a very long time, as Ministers will know.

I wish to put down a marker today so that between now and the Budget in the autumn the Treasury can seriously consider whether the very small additional cost in revenue terms of righting a social injustice for increasingly few people is something that it can now meet as a reward to a specific category of our fellow citizens during this year of all years.

The reality is that some people in the category that I am talking about are very old. They served, or were alive, in both world wars. The rest were alive during the second world war although not the first. They all deserve equity and I hope that the House will allow the issue to be examined. Above all, I hope that the Government will allow the Bill to be considered and that they will bring forward a proposal to put money into the kitty so that every local authority can treat every war pensioner in the same way from next year onwards.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Andrew Mackinlay, Mr. David Shaw and Mrs. Diana Maddock.

War Pensioners (Equal Rights)

Mr. Simon Hughes accordingly presented a Bill to review the effect of differential treatment of war disablement and war widow pensioners by local authorities; to bring forward means for equal treatment; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 October, and to be printed. [Bill 152.]

Privilege

4.33 pm

I wish to call attention to a report in The Sunday Times of 10 July that Members of the House had been offered, and had accepted, payment for the tabling of parliamentary questions; and to move,

That the matter of the complaint, together with the issues referred to in the statement by the Speaker on 12th July, be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Madam Speaker announces that she has not selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton).

The motion is facilitated by the statement made yesterday by Madam Speaker. Its purpose is not to decide the matters of substance but to call the attention of the House to recent allegations and to refer them, and wider questions of principle, to the Committee of Privileges.

The specific allegation arises from a story in The Sunday Times of 10 July 1994. The allegation is:
"Two leading Tories were willing to table official questions in the House of Commons in return for £1,000."
Madam Speaker, you reminded us yesterday of the section of the report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, which states:
"A financial inducement to take a particular course of action in Parliament may constitute a bribe and thus be an offence against the law of Parliament."—[Official Report, 12 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 829.]
On page 119 of "Erskine May" we are told in a section headed "Corruption in the execution of a Member's duty":
"The acceptance by any Member of either House of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as such Member or of any fee, compensation or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to any bill, resolution, matter or thing submitted or intended to be submitted to the House or any committee thereof, is a breach of privilege. Members of the Commons who have been found guilty of such an offence have been expelled or committed. It is also a contempt for a Member to enter into an agreement with another person to advocate the claims of such person in the House, for pecuniary reward."
The newspaper allegation is clearly that such a breach has been committed. The questions that were tabled relate to fictional matters—a drug called "Sigthin", and a company called "Githins". Both are anagrams of "Insight", and both are clearly bogus. It is therefore not open to anyone to claim a long-standing interest or alleged public interest in either the drug or the company. They are both clearly fictional.

It is also painfully clear that, if the drug and the company had been real entities, the only beneficiary of the parliamentary questions would have been the business men who procured the tabling of the questions. On the face of it, there is no public interest justification for tabling the questions.

The transcripts of conversations between Members of Parliament and the investigative reporters have been published. One Conservative Member is quoted as saying:
"The main point is the question you have asked will be answered…one way or another, so we will just have to wait and see"
The reporter then says:
"I will send you the £1,000 in the post now, then."
The Conservative Member of Parliament then says:
"That's very kind of you."
The reporter then says:
"And thank you again for your help."
A separate conversation with another Conservative Member of Parliament deals with the ethical issues involved. The reporter asks:
"Did you manage to have—you were going to talk to the Members' Interests people."
The Conservative Member of Parliament replies:
"Yes, yes. I do not see any problem."
The reporter then asks:
"There is no problem at all?"
The Conservative Member says:
"No. I would be quite happy to go ahead."
The reporter then says:
"What do you want to do about paying you the £1,000?"
The Conservative Member then says:
"I don't really mind. Why don't you just send it to me? Do you want my home address?"
On the face of it, the relationship between the money and the tabled questions seems overwhelming. In any event, it is my contention that it is strong enough to justify referral to the Privileges Committee.

Is my hon. Friend aware that I am no defender of many of the exploits of the tabloid press or the serious press when the press intrudes into people's private lives, be they Members of Parliament or anyone else? However, for the life of me, in this case I cannot understand why there should be any criticism of The Sunday Times. If The Sunday Times had not done what it did, we would not be debating, or referring to the Privileges Committee, the whole question whether parliamentary questions are being tabled for money. If anything, The Sunday Times is to be congratulated.

My hon. Friend has made his point. I will deal with precisely that point later, because my motion refers to that, just as it refers to the wider issues of principle—as, indeed, you did, Madam Speaker, yesterday. However, I would like to make my speech in my own way, because I want to persuade the whole House to support my motion.

The two hon. Members involved will want to tell their side of the story and should have the opportunity to do so. I understand that 20 Members of Parliament were approached—10 Labour and 10 Conservative. The 10 Labour Members and six Conservative Members who appear to have rejected the approach outright clearly have something of value to say.

Another Conservative Member allegedly offered to table a question about a fictional disease called "thising", which is another anagram of "Insight", and apparently wanted his cheque for £1,000 given to his favourite charity. That allegation should also be considered by the Committee of Privileges. It is the exchange of money specifically for the asking of parliamentary questions that I believe to be the breach of privilege. The use to which the money is put, no matter how noble or worth while, is wholly beside the point.

I trust that the hon. Gentleman will note that I requested exactly what Madam Speaker has given us today: the opportunity to have this matter considered by the most senior Committee of the House. I was deeply concerned about the activities of the individual who approached me. Before the hon. Gentleman says too much about me, he should remember that, if there are recordings, they will all be on tape.

I have already said that I believe that all the hon. Members mentioned in the allegations should, of course, have the opportunity to explain what they have done before the Committee of Privileges. That is the very reason why I am moving my motion.

I hope that the House will have noted that I am carefully avoiding naming individual Members. I have to set out the allegations to make the case for referral to the Committee of Privileges. I am trying to do so in a way that does not spark off a debate on the matters that I am asking the Committee to consider and not asking the House to determine this afternoon. It is a difficult line to tread, and I hope that the House understands that I am doing my best.

It is not possible to consider the ethics of taking a payment without looking at the ethics of offering payment—the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). "Erskine May" states on page 128, under the section on improper influence:
"Attempts by improper means to influence Members in their parliamentary conduct may be considered contempts. One of the methods by which such influence may be brought to bear is bribery and in 1695 the House of Commons resolved"
to deal with this issue. When my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) raised that point, hon. Members laughed, thinking that 1695 was a long time ago. The resolution carried then is still the law of Parliament on bribery, and it is worth repeating to the House. The resolution states:
"the offer of money, or other advantage, to any Member of Parliament for the promoting of any matter whatsoever, depending or to be transacted in Parliament is a high crime and misdemeanour and tends to the subversion of the English constitution".
That was before the Act of Union.

If the intervention is about the Act of Union, I am not sure how grateful I shall be for it.

My hon. Friend has just quoted from the rule. Is not consultancy, in principle, above that? Is it not fair to argue, as have a number of my hon. Friends, that the entering into a consultancy agreement by a Member of Parliament in return for money, in the knowledge that that consultancy requires the promotion of an interest that benefits a Member, is in breach of the law?

That is the third issue that I want to raise. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington anticipates me.

I shall first deal with the issue of contempt—the offering of the bribe rather than the acceptance of it, if bribe it was. The Sunday Times story made it perfectly clear, at least to me, that Members of Parliament had been entrapped. It was also perfectly clear that Members of Parliament had been subjected to attempted entrapment.

The investigative journalists involved will say that they were acting within the ethics of their profession—[Interruption.] I am not always sure whether hon. Members are listening properly. What I said was that the investigative journalists involved would say that they were acting within the ethics of their profession—quite.

The Press Complaints Commission has an excellent code of practice—it would be excellent, if anyone took any notice of it—and it has something to say on the topic. It has quite a long section on misrepresentation. Section 6(iii) states:
"Subterfuge can be justified only in the public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by any other means.
In all these clauses the public interest includes:
(a) Detecting or exposing crime or serious misdemeanour."

Given the nature of the rumours that we have heard about hon. Members tabling questions for money, it is clear that evidence of that would never become available, as those spending the money would not expose the action. Does my hon. Friend agree that The Sunday Times has done British democracy a favour through the investigation in exposing such gross behaviour, which must be scrutinised by the House of Commons?

I am trying to make the case for my motion in as neutral a way as I can, while still placing the facts in the public domain. It is clearly my duty to say what the issues are without trying to take sides in too partisan a way.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) has made a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, which has now said that it will investigate his complaint? Would it be right for the PCC to investigate and pronounce judgment before the Committee of Privileges has had a chance to sit? It may not start sitting until October, and it may not produce anything until January or February. What would happen if the PCC came to a verdict before the Committee of Privileges?

I was not aware that the complaint had been made. We are trying to establish an organisation with authority, and there is already an established body that has the authority to make investigations in its own different arena. I am certain that it is not for me to tell it how to proceed or to conduct its affairs. It is clearly open to the "Insight" team to mount a defence of their actions on the grounds of public interest. I share what I think is the general prejudice against entrapment.

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, because surely there would be a defence if the "Insight" team had been trying to reveal an activity that it was suspected was happening in this place. I have been a Member only seven years, but I have spoken to a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House, and no one has ever heard of an instance of someone attempting to bribe a Member of Parliament to table a question in the House. Is not that the reason we are having this debate?

The reason that we are having this debate is that a number of hon. Members wrote to Madam Speaker following the publication of The Sunday Times article. You, Madam Speaker, made your statement to the House yesterday, which facilitated this motion. That is the reason we are having today's debate.

I am trying hard to introduce the motion in a neutral way, without denying the House the explanation of what lies behind it. I do not think that I am helped in that by interventions that invite me to go further than I should now into the matters of substance. I hope that, if the Committee of Privileges decides that it wishes to meet the "Insight" team, they will, if asked, willingly co-operate with its inquiry.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he is presenting his motion.

The "Insight" team have also said that they started their entrapment procedure because a business man had told them that he was in the business of giving Members of Parliament money to table questions. Will the "Insight" team be obliged to answer the questions that should be put to them: who is that business man, and what real evidence have the "Insight" team got?

That is exactly what I asked the House not to do in response to the last intervention. Clearly, that is a matter for the Committee of Privileges to consider. My motion seeks to get the issue—and, indeed, some wider issues—to the Committee of Privileges and to allow it to consider how best to proceed. Certainly it is not my place to tell it how to proceed.

This is a serious debate, and not a matter for joking. Will the remit of the Committee include those Members of the House who engage an excessive number of research assistants, many from America, who obtain information from the Library to enable them to get their D.Phil, doctorate or whatever? That is a nuisance to every Member of the House.

Frankly, I had not given that matter the consideration that I perhaps should have done. Again, I feel that I am being drawn into the details of the matter, when I want to deal at this stage with the broader questions of principle.

Yesterday, Madam Speaker, you spoke of the
"urgent need to clarify the law of Parliament in that area."
You gave that as a specific reason for granting the motion today. You also said that the Committee would have
"power to inquire not only into the matter of the particular complaint, but into the facts surrounding and reasonably connected with it, and into the principles of the law and custom of privilege which are concerned. I hope that it will use that power for the assistance of the House in a difficult area."—[Official Report, 12 July 1994; Vol.246, c. 829.]
It is a difficult area.

An excellent research paper prepared by the home affairs section of the House of Commons Library sets out the background to the topic, and explores the problems. There is a widespread fear among many who originally supported the Register of Members' Interests that it acts more as a licence than as a safeguard.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Committee of Privileges investigating the allegations against individual Members. However, Madam Speaker referred specifically to The Sunday Times. Will the inquiry that the hon. Gentleman envisages include a thorough inquiry into The Sunday Times, and into why it makes wild allegations every time there is a meeting overseas, so that, whenever my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister comes back to report, it is eclipsed? Will it also make inquiries into the allegation that The Sunday Times has said that it intends to get rid of the Government by causing by-elections? Those are allegations that I have heard from The Sunday Times itself.

The motion invites the Committee of Privileges to examine the issues dealt with in The Sunday Times story—the cash-for-questions row. It invites it separately to consider the wider questions of principle that are involved in the relationship between Members of Parliament's public duty and their private business interests. That is what I seek to refer to the Committee of Privileges. I am closely paralleling the statement that you, Madam Speaker, made yesterday.

The hon. Gentleman asks that the Committee should investigate more widely. I am not sure that it will want to investigate quite so widely as he wants it to do. Nevertheless, I hope that it will examine the broad issues of principle, rather than merely the narrow issue that has given focus to the motion today.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the public would find it utterly baffling, indeed incomprehensible, if we gave any impression that the House gave equal sense of seriousness to the activities of some journalists on The Sunday Times and to the alleged bribery of Members of Parliament? Those two issues are not of equal importance. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, they are."] Conservative Members say that they are of equal importance. They are certainly not of equal importance to the people we represent. It is vital that the Committee of Privileges acknowledges that, not least because it would be ludicrous if a decision was made in the end which condemned the activities of The Sunday Times and condemned the activities of the hon. Members. They would never have been found out if it had not been for The Sunday Times.

I am trying to get the Committee up and moving. I certainly do not intend to tell it what its decision should be. It is difficult for me to respond to hypothetical conclusions of the Committee of Privileges when it has not even been set up yet. The purpose of the motion is to set it up and give it the widest possible remit, including the broader issues of principle.

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman said that he understood that 20 Members had been approached by The Sunday Times. Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence, since he tabled the motion, that 10 Labour Members were approached, or has he had no evidence at all?

Those matters are referred to in the story. Clearly it will be open to the Committee of Privileges to invite the "Insight" team to come before it and say whom it approached and what the responses were. The point that I was trying to make to the House was that 16 Members from both sides of the House rejected the approach outright, and that their reasons for so doing would clearly be of interest to the Committee of Privileges. That is the only point that I make in that matter.

I do not want to go through the recent well publicised causes for concern. It will suffice to say that there is widespread public disquiet about the relationship between the public duties of Members of Parliament and their private business interests. Our rules must ensure that there is no improper overlap between the two.

I know that, as the then Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), told the Committee which considered the matter a few years ago, there are profound problems of interpretation, enforcement and punishment. In my view, there is an even more profound problem in not tackling the issues. My motion enables the Committee of Privileges to try to do so.

An amendment has been tabled but not selected which suggests that, unless there are pressing reasons to the contrary, the Committee should follow its usual procedure in recent years and keep its proceedings in the public domain. I hope that the Committee will be able to do that, not merely because there is public interest in the issue but because, if Parliament looks at its own affairs and how we regulate the relationships between public and private interests, it is right that the public should see us doing it, and should understand the outcome.

4.56 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Tony Newton)