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Commons Chamber
15 March 1995
Volume 256

House Of Commons

Wednesday 15 March 1995

The House met at Ten o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Wilderness Areas (Scotland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Lightbown.]

10.4 am

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I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate this subject, not least because it allowed me to spend last weekend hill walking in the Scottish highlands and to justify that as research. The Under-Secretary may like to know that I visited An Teallach—a magnificent mountain just above Loch Broom on Wester Ross. I reflected, as everyone who walks the Scottish hills must do, that we are custodians of a truly spectacular landscape that is unique in the world.

There is a growing consensus that particular areas of the Scottish hills are under great pressure from tourism, recreational use and all the other factors that arise from a mass leisure society, and that such areas merit special protection backed by Government regulation and administration. That is especially true of areas around Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms, where there is an overwhelming case for national parks.

We must be careful that regulations and controls designed to protect areas do not smother or stifle the people who live and work in those communities. The last thing that we want is another undemocratic quango. Democratic accountability and input from local communities are essential. However, the need for special protection and regulation is undeniable. I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) to pursue that aspect in detail, because he has a constituency interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), who also has great expertise in the subject, feels strongly that there is a need for national parks, and I know that he would have liked to be present this morning to hear this important debate.

Last year, the World Conservation Union published a report, "Paths for Life: Action for Protected Areas in Europe", which was welcomed by the Secretary of State for the Environment and strongly supported by Scottish Natural Heritage. However, there has been a conspicuous silence from the Scottish Office so far, and it is suggested that the Department is less than enthusiastic about the report. I shall be glad if the Minister will give the report a warm welcome and describe the steps being taken by the Scottish Office to implement the report's recommendations.

The rest of the highlands, beyond the high-pressure hot spots of the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond, and the wilderness areas receive fewer visitors and are therefore less controversial, but they are every bit as special. Their vulnerability arises not from the rise of mass leisure but from centuries of neglect and abuse. We think of the highlands as a wilderness, but as Francis Fraser Darling wrote in his classic account of highlands and islands ecology, it is a man-made wilderness and a unnecessary desert, and it could be restored and regenerated with the right land use and management. Jim Hunter, the historian of the highlands crofting community, pointed out that to describe the highlands and island as a wilderness or unspoilt, as people frequently do, is to abuse both the language and history.

Jim Hunter has cited the words of the Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan, who is a great grandson of a 19th-century immigrant from the Scottish highlands, and who, in an essay called "Scotchman's Return", recorded some impressions of the highlands from which his ancestors had been expelled just a century before. In MacLennan's view, in some ways the landscapes of highland Scotland resembled those of the Canadian Arctic, but he found one fundamental difference.

In his essay, MacLennan wrote:
"This Highland emptiness only a few hundred miles above the massed population of England is a far different thing from the emptiness of our own North-West Territories. Above the 60th parallel in Canada, you feel that nobody but God has ever been there before you. But in a deserted Highland Glen, you feel that everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone."
A similar point was made more recently by the chairman of the north west region of Scottish Natural Heritage, Sir John Lister-Kaye, in a pamphlet which he published last year called "Ill Fares the Land". He points to the great damage caused by sporting estates over the past century, and their role in the general process of environmental degradation of the highlands. Sir John wrote that the sporting estates were a purely extractive form of land use, extracting nutrients from an already impoverished landscape, and returning nothing to it.

It is often claimed by patrons of sporting estates that the estates provide some kind of economic boost to the highlands, but that is yet another myth. Deer stalking estates cover almost 20 per cent. of the total land area of Scotland, but red deer management was estimated by Scottish Natural Heritage in 1991 to provide only 316 full-time and 458 part-time jobs in the whole of Scotland, with 173 downstream jobs. The total income from commercial shooting and from subsequent venison sales was about £8 million.

That has to be set against the annual income from recreational activities such as hiking and hill walking, which the Scottish tourist board estimates brings about £270 million a year to Scotland. That estimate was made in 1989, and the figure today is probably nearer –300 million.

Such misuse and abuse of land in the highlands has reduced much of it to what is now perceived as wilderness—an empty, depopulated and degraded landscape, which also suffers from environmental and social and economic degradation.

It does not have to be like that. The scenic and ecological integrity of the highlands can be protected and enhanced, while promoting healthy and economically active rural communities. The two go best together: wilderness does not have to mean emptiness. To the extent that the highlands are devoid of people, it is not to the benefit of nature or the environment but rather to their active detriment, because it leads directly to neglect and abuse. I should like to make a comparison between Scotland and Norway. It is an apt comparison, and will be recognised as such by the Minister, because it was used by the then Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), at the time of the setting up of Scottish Natural Heritage three or four years ago. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that Scotland's ecology was more like that of Scandinavia than that of southern Britain.

Two years ago, Scottish Natural Heritage supported a study visit to the Hardaland region of western Norway. It took a representative group involved in land use community issues in rural Scotland, and a report of the visit was published last year in a pamphlet called "Scotland and Norway: a Study in Land Use". In ecological and climatic terms, the Hardaland region has much in common not just with Scotland in general but with the highlands in particular, including incessant rainfall. Like the highlands, Hardaland was extensively deforested centuries ago, but, unlike Scotland, the natural forest has been allowed to regenerate over the past 150 to 200 years.

The biggest difference is that, although the Hardaland region is slightly smaller than the highlands, it carries almost twice the population—414,000, compared with just over 200,000. About half the Hardaland population is in the city of Bergen, but even beyond that, in the rural areas the population is significantly greater in Hardaland than in the highlands. The reason for that difference lies in the system of land use and forestry that is employed in Hardaland.

In Scotland, forests are owned by large private estates or large state enterprises such as the Forestry Commission. In Norway, the tradition is to combine a small family farm with a small family forest. Typically, the family farm in Hardaland consists of about 10 hectares of land and about 60 hectares of forest per family.

Land use and land ownership in Norway is small-scale and decentralised. Forestry and agriculture are integrated at all levels of the system, and Government intervention and support are geared to encourage a range of farming and family-linked activities. That is in contrast to the highlands, where all support is focused on intensive sheep farming or blanket forestry.

The Minister will remember that I wrote to him a few weeks ago asking why support could not be provided to people who wish to raise goats for cashmere wool in the highlands, instead of all support being directed towards sheep or forestry. The Minister said that that was not possible, but it is exactly the kind of multi-purpose farming that is carried on in Norway, and we should encourage it more in the Scottish highlands.

The result of such diversified farming is healthy and stable rural communities in Norway, and a landscape that is obviously cared for and looked after. That is obvious to any visitor, and the land provides employment and income for local people. The contrast between that kind of community and landscape and the so-called wilderness areas of Scotland could not be more stark.

The fundamental difference between Scotland and Norway is one that I have not yet mentioned—land ownership. Land use and land management ultimately depend upon the control and ownership of the land. In Norway, the people own the land upon which they live and work. As the Minister well knows, in the highlands the land and its products are in the hands of a tiny few.

It is depressing, but far from surprising, to read that the titles of the top landowners of 1995 are those of the top landowners of 1875. They are the Duke of Atholl, the Countess of Sutherland, Cameron of Locheil and lesser grandees all the way down the social scale. Of course, there has been some turnover of ownership, but even where land has changed hands, the community has had no say, influence or input whatever.

Land ownership in the highlands is a speculative market for private investors, who buy up the highlands for the same reason that they buy up jewellery or oil paintings—to get a tax advantage. It is somewhere to store surplus cash. The sale and transfer of estates bears no relation to the environmental needs of the land or the interests of local people. It is a lottery, with a responsible landowner perhaps emerging now and again, but more frequently estates pass into the hands of people who have no genuine or long-term interest in the highlands.

I want to give one or two examples of the resulting fruits of land speculation. The Knoydart estate has 16,500 acres. It is one of the jewels in the highlands crown. It was sold for –1.7 million to a company called Titaghur plc, a jute manufacturing company with half a dozen mills and 17,000 employees in India. It also has a reported debt of £67 million, and the company is apparently going bust. I hear that the Indian authorities have served an extradition order on its chairman. What on earth are we doing allowing an estate like Knoydart to pass into the hands of such a company?

Strathconnan estate has 60,000 acres. It was sold recently for between –1 million and –3 million to the Danish owners of the Lego toy company. It is notable that Lego's owners would not have been able to make such a purchase in Denmark, because the Danish Agricultural Act 1973 excludes the purchase of land for recreation or hobby farming. It also prohibits wide disparities between the selling price of land and its productive value. It is not simply that Scots would not be able to make such a purchase in Denmark; even the Danes cannot speculate in that way—but they are allowed to come to the highlands and do it there.

The openness of the land lottery is well illustrated by an article in the Aberdeen Press and Journal 29 June last year. It quoted a company called Bowlts, in Elgin, which was trying to sell the Strathvaich estate. The article said:
"A great deal of interest has come, not only from Britain but also … America, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Italy and the Far East"—
interest from everywhere, it seems, but the local community. How could there be local interest, with an asking price of £2.5 million?

The issue matters deeply, because a feudal pattern of land ownership is not a harmless relic from another age; it profoundly distorts the social and economic life of the highlands, and it contributes directly to the environmental degradation and the economic and social decline associated with that. That was recognised by the Highlands and Islands development board in a consultation document in June 1978, in which it called for greater powers for the board over land use and ownership. It stated on page 7:
"Detailed case studies … have illustrated the effects of losses of production, tenancies and employment in fragile areas on the structure and viability of local communities. In some cases, whole communities have been put at risk. These studies illustrate the clash which can, and does occur between the interests of owner and community in the Highlands and Islands, and emphasises the measure of power, for good or ill, that can be wrought by one private individual over the lives of whole communities … under present legislation, the only necessary qualification for wielding this power is sufficient means to purchase the land."
That must end. The management of Scotland's wilderness areas and the prosperity and future of highlands communities cannot be left to the whims of the speculator and the dilettante. Nor can they be held for ever in the hands of an unelected few, who owe their positions of power to nothing but the accident of birth.

I want to suggest four ways in which we can begin to change the position. First, we need to know who owns the land, how much, and where. We need a comprehensive land registry, open and available to the public, of a kind not available in Britain since the late 19th century—150 years is too long a wait for such basic and essential information. It is time the Government acted and made it available to the public.

The second change must be in the taxation of land. Scotland's landed classes thought that they had pulled a neat trick last year, when, in the other place, an amendment was moved to the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill, abolishing sporting rates on large land estates. That is worth about –2 million to the wealthiest land owners in Scotland. On 22 January, an article on the property page of The Mail on Sunday reported that the exemption was
"the big bang that Scotland's hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity has been waiting for. From April, the tax paid on land used for field sports will disappear, as announced in the last Budget. As a result, the value of sporting land is set to rise".
I believe that that move will blow up in the faces of Scotland's landowners. It has placed the question of land taxation firmly back on the political agenda. If sporting rates had been left undisturbed, perhaps no one would have questioned them more deeply. Now that they have been abolished, there is the unacceptable position of large land estates paying no local taxes.

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I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's blanket condemnation of all landlords in Scotland, which is quite unreasonable in view of the high standard of management on many estates, especially with regard to sporting rates. Is he saying that he would rather continue the policy under which Scotland pays substantially more sporting rates than England? Does he believe that that unfair practice should continue?

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The Minister cannot possibly compare the large sporting estates of Scotland with estates in England. The difference is obvious. Indeed, it was apparent to the Victorian legislators who originally decided to impose sporting rates. I also do not see how the Minister can justify the anomaly of exempting sporting estates from paying local rates when even a Holiday hotel has to pay local rates, as do other businesses. The exemption for agricultural purposes is accepted, and nobody challenges that. However, there is no justification for exempting recreational and holiday estates from local taxation. That point was made to the Scottish Office last year in a joint letter to the Secretary of State from the chairmen of Scotland's rating valuation tribunals, which are independent.

In a letter that was leaked to the Glasgow Herald, they condemned the exemption as indefensible, and said:
"It is clearly totally wrong that a large estate … valued well into the seven figure bracket, should pay no local taxes".
That is especially true when they use local services such as roads, the snow clearing service and the police service. That is especially relevant to the salmon estates, which make great use of the police service. Does the Minister think that those chairmen are wrong?

No Government who are not in the grip of Tory landlords could possibly defend that anomaly. Large landed estates will have to be brought back into the taxation system. The move to exempt sporting rates has vilified the whole issue of the taxation of large land estates. We should now use the opportunity created by that to conduct a comprehensive review of the fiscal position of large land estates throughout Scotland, not just in the highlands. We should consider taxing land values as a means of taxing land speculation out of existence.

Taxation can help to deflate the speculative lottery of estate sales, but we need to do more than that. We require a set of public interest criteria that a prospective purchaser would have to fulfil before being permitted to take over ownership of any large estate.

That is not an entirely new idea. In the same report that I cited earlier, the HIDB called for changes to the Highlands and Islands Development (Scotland) Act 1965 to bring about more effective powers over rural land use. In that report, published in June 1978, it called for special powers in designated areas in the Highlands to veto any prospective land sale that did not conform to the HIDB's development plan for that region. Its proposals are contained in detail in section 68 of its report, a section called "Mechanism of Control Over the Sale of Land." It points out that its proposals have parallels in legislation in at least six European countries, notably Denmark and Norway.

We should bring out those HIDB proposals and examine them once again. I would make three changes to that 1978 plan. The first involves the fact that the HIDB, or Highlands and Islands Enterprise as it is now, is probably not the appropriate body to undertake such a scheme for the 1990s. A specialised land commission or a land use council would be more appropriate. It is worth remembering that a land use council was proposed in the 1970s by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in its report "Land Resource Use in Rural Scotland". Today, the need for a land use council is even greater.

Secondly, the scheme should apply not just to small designated areas, as the HIDB suggested, but to the whole of the highlands. Thirdly, from the point of view of the public interest, the development criteria against which large land sales should be evaluated should contain not just the social and economic goals that the HIDB were concentrating on in the 1970s, but the environmental goals that we now accept as being profoundly important.

The HIDB proposal, or my changes to it, would involve no compulsory purchasing, no nationalisation, no state ownership and no cost to the public purse, but it would leave a competitive, tightly regulated market in the sale of land. It would soon begin to have a dramatic effect on that market by weeding out the most unsuitable speculators and purchasers of estates—the Kluges and the Schellenbergs. It would contribute gradually to the deflating of the speculative value of Scottish estates. Only people with a genuine environmental, social and economic interest in developing the highlands would commit themselves to buying. That should have a significant effect on lowering prices.

That in turn should make a purchase easier for public interest groups such as the John Muir trust, which has been active in recent years, and it should bring estates more within the reach of local communities. That final aspect is the most important. We need to introduce measures that will begin to return the land to the people and to local communities so that they can manage the land directly.

Three local, democratically elected and accountable land trusts exist in the highlands. The Stornoway trust in my constituency has been going since the 1920s, and the Assynt trust in Lochinver was formed amid great publicity and great public approval last year. There is also the Borve trust in Skye. Those trusts will act as an inspiration and as a model that other communities will wish to follow.

The Government should actively intervene in the land market when local communities express the desire for more democratic control and direct ownership of their land. The initiative must come from local people, but, when it does, the Government should help in all ways possible, including financial. In that way, step by step and estate by estate, such community initiatives could begin to change the face of the highlands.

That would, of course, cost money, but resources are available that could be used even now. I wish to cite just a couple. In January, for example, the Duke of Atholl, whose lands are estimated to be valued at about –140 million, claimed –400,000 from the Forestry Commission for planting tress in Glen Bruar. Lord Strathnaver is claiming –150,000 from Scottish Natural Heritage, not for planting trees, but for not cutting them in Loch Shell in Sutherland.

Those are two of the biggest landowners in Britain—the fifth and sixth biggest respectively. They are engaged in a racket at the expense of the taxpayer. Lord Strathnaver wishes to be paid not to chop down trees and not to commit an act of environmental vandalism. If millions of pounds can be handed out to large landowners for doing literally nothing, the ordinary people of the highlands have a right to Government support and financial assistance when they aspire to take over their land.

That is one source of funding. Other resources could be used to finance the success of community ownership. Last financial year, for example, the sums allocated to promoting environmentally sensitive areas in Scotland were underspent by 86 per cent.—some –4 million. The previous year, underspend totalled around –3 million.

What is the explanation for those massive underspends in environmentally sensitive area budgets, and why can they not be diverted into helping communities such as Assynt to reclaim and restore land? Why can those funds not be used to help communities that wish to purchase small estates that are up for disposal from the Forestry Commission? Local communities wish to take over those small plantations, so why cannot the Government step in and help them realise their ambitions?

Those various alternative sources of funding are available to the Scottish Office, but a public fund is already in existence and it is even more ideally suited to that purpose. The National Heritage Memorial Fund started life as the National Land Fund. It was established by Hugh Dalton in 1949 to purchase, in his words,
"the loveliest parts of this land",
as a dedication to the memory of the war dead and for
"the use and enjoyment of the living for ever".
Unfortunately, after 32 years of Conservative Government since 1949, and two name changes to the fund, it has become better known for purchasing stately homes, sculptures and oil paintings than for buying land for the people—its original purpose. The next Labour Government can and must change that. If the fund can spend £1.5 million on a single painting for the National Gallery, as it did last year, it can afford to spend many millions of pounds more on its original mission of buying the land back for the public.

I have made four suggestions not just for the management, but for the restoration and regeneration, of Scotland's so-called wilderness areas. Those measures, or measures like them, would bring about a revolution in land management and land ownership in the highlands. They should be a major priority of the next Labour Government and of our new Scottish Parliament, so that local communities in Scotland can at last retrieve that power over their lives, which is the essential foundation of the economic revival and environmental regeneration of the highlands.

10.38 am

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The House is greatly indebted to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) for introducing this debate. The highlands cover almost half of Scotland's land mass, and much of the land covered falls into the category of wilderness, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke. Like the hon. Gentleman, I too have long been interested in the use of that land for enjoyment and economic activity that retains the environmental attractiveness and scenic interest for visitors.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to the 1978 Highlands and Islands development board proposals, which, alas, dropped out of sight as soon as the present Government took office. Those proposals followed rather closely recommendations that I made in a private Member's Bill back in 1973, which were debated in the Scottish Grand Committee.

The essence of the proposals seems not to have dated entirely and, like the hon. Gentleman, I very much hope that they will be reviewed and reconsidered at least as a starting point for discussions about how to deal with the conflicts, in the highlands in particular, over the use of land and the conflicts of interest between those who effectively regard the devastated areas of wilderness as places that should not be touched, and those with other views.

The hon. Gentleman was right to refer to Fraser Darling, the father of the study of the problem, and his famous west highland survey, and to remind us that the present degradation of much of that land is due to human intervention and neglect and, at various times in history, to a single concept being brought to bear on the use of the land, to the exclusion of other interests.

Sadly, it is not the case, as the Minister perhaps implied in his intervention, that all is well in the highlands. He made a rather sweeping attack, which I thought misrepresented the hon. Member for Western Isles, who was not attacking landlords in general. The hon. Gentleman criticised some landlords for some activities, although I do not entirely agree with him about at least one case—that of Lord Strathnaver—which affects my constituency.

In that case, the principle is not unlike that of the set-aside arrangements: if one is not going to harvest a crop and derive an income from one's plantations of trees, it is reasonable to be compensated. However, it is a detail, about which we could have a useful discussion.

It is clear that there are still significant conflicts. I am sorry to say that there is even an eviction case in my constituency which recalls past events. It involves James Moffat and Forest Farms near Croick in Strath Carron. It is a most distressing case. Scottish Natural Heritage was involved from the beginning, although it was not responsible for the threatened eviction of Mr. Moffat, who is the last remaining sheep rearer in a valley that produced great flocks of sheep which were known at the sales—especially the Lairg sales in Sutherland—as the best in the county.

That Mr. Moffat and his family should be left without a home, and the fact that the eviction means the disappearance of his sheep enterprise from the valley, is a reflection on the inadequacy of the existing arrangements for multi-purpose land use. As I said, SNH was involved at an early stage in order to try to encourage the development of native broadleaved species there and supported the new proprietors in their enterprise, but the way in which the matter has been handled is wholly unsatisfactory.

The Minister will be aware of another case in my constituency—that of Mr. Alec Sinclair of Stirkoke in Caithness, who owns the farm of Munsary, which is a large area close to Dubh lochs of Shielton. The Dubh lochs were properly designated as sites of special scientific interest by SNH. The matter was originally handled very well, with suitable management agreements being entered into with the proprietors.

However, when Mr. Sinclair wanted to sell his farm, which was certainly not in the same category of sensitivity or importance as the Dubh lochs of Shielton, the SNH moved in and proceeded, without adequate inspection, to have it declared an SSSI. It has thereby destroyed the prospect of afforestation in the area and the prospect of Mr. Sinclair using the resources drawn from the sale to develop appropriately his low-ground farming activity.

That case is a very sharp illustration of how unsatisfactory the present arrangements are for considering multi-purpose land use. It should not be possible for an agency, which is ultimately able to dispose of such matters without appeal to the Secretary of State, to be able to intervene and destroy a venture of the kind on which Mr. Sinclair was embarked. Parliament will have to return to the question whether it is satisfactory not to have a democratic appeals system against intervention by such an environmental agency. I do not believe it is, but the picture is perhaps more kaleidoscopic than when I first discussed these matters in the early and mid-1970s.

As the hon. Member for Western Isles said, it is true that land use has remained in the hands of some of the great landowners, but new elements are appearing—such as the arrival of great foreign investors such as the owners of Lego from Denmark. A further new development is the acquisition of land by bodies whose sole purpose is environmental protection. I am thinking of, for example, the John Muir trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, both of whom have acquired substantial estates in Sutherland in the past two years. The John Muir trust has an estate at Kinlochbervie, and the RSPB has an estate at Forsinard.

Although I have some admiration for the way in which the RSPB has set about its task, I am concerned to ensure that the acquisition of estates by organisations with a single use in mind does not mean the exclusion of economic activity, and that, in their understandable enthusiasm to protect what they own, such organisations do not seek to exclude visitors, hikers or those who are of great value to the communities in those areas.

Nor would I wish that type of organisation to have priority over developments which are locally owned and locally based. The Assynt trust development is, in its way, a model. Indeed, the extent to which public bodies were prepared to be involved in the Assynt trust was particularly encouraging. It was financially backed by the local enterprise company and the Highland regional council in the first instance, and it is possible that we shall see the kind of multi-purpose use evident in Norway, to which the hon. Member for Western Isles drew attention, which seems to be very much a model. I am particularly interested in the thinking of Assynt on the use of small plantations greatly to enhance the environment.

I do not wish to take up the time of the debate, because many hon. Members want to speak. I am most grateful for the opportunity to support the hon. Member for Western Isles in his call for the study of four specific measures. The land register, the taxation of under-used land, the set of public interest criteria against which to judge activities and the bringing of land under local management and control are all worthy of debate. His initiative should be strongly backed.

10.50 am

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I shall be extremely brief. I add my congratulations to those which have already been given to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) for bringing this very important issue before the House. Although this is a fairly lengthy debate today, the subject merits additional attention, and should certainly be taken forward by the Government and Opposition parties.

It is worth while reminding the House that, when we talk about land, especially in the highlands and islands of Scotland, we do so with a great deal of passion. Seared into our psyche is the memory of the highland clearances:
"The people damned by the black-faced ram, And the factor's fire-raisers"—
as the folk song goes. That memory always colours our attitudes to such matters.

It is important that we stress to the Government that we are looking not for a patronising attitude toward the highlands and islands, but for positive action, so that our people may remain in their glens, by their lochsides, and earn a decent living in a modern context. We have moved well past the stage of thinking of the highlands and islands as having a productivity of half an ounce of grouse per acre. We now recognise that the people of the area can bring important factors into play through tourism, their skills and their knowledge, and, particularly with the development of information technology, by work which makes it possible for them to stay in those remote areas.

I emphasise the importance attached by the hon. Member for Western Isles to the ownership and management of land. All of us want to see a correct balance. I certainly endorse the view that we should not ever have the attitude that all Scottish landowners are good and everybody else is bad, because the reality is that there is a mixture of good and bad landowners from all different origins in the highlands and islands. We want a people-centred policy: centred on the people whose linguistic and natural skills should enable them to make a living in their own area. We are looking for a sensible balance.

I remind the Minister that the Public Accounts Committee substantially criticised the failure to develop a land registry in Scotland. A report in November showed that no registration had taken place north of the Tay. It is high time that a register operated in the highlands and islands. I welcome the fact that my party has set up an independent land commission to which everyone is invited to give evidence, so that we may try to process information a little faster than Government tactics have made possible.

10.53 am

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I shall also be brief, because time is running out. The highlands are also dear to me, as a representative of the central belt of Scotland and as a Scotsman. In fact, they are dear to every person in Scotland. I was a councillor for 16 years, and I ended up as the chairman of the Lothian planning committee. We set up the reforestation of the central belt in the moorlands between Strathclyde and Lothian. I believe that the scheme is going very well. The trees were scientifically planted and looked after, because the lands needed that investment.

As a keen angler, and also, I must admit, as a member of a quango—non-paid, by the way—because of my role as an adviser to the forestry commission of the south and west of Scotland, my eyes were opened to what was going on and what could be done under good management. I had to compliment the commission: I had no criticism of it at all. It gives access and opens up places to the public in and around Galloway, Dumfries and the Borders region.

My aim is to achieve a joint effort. The panic button is set off when I see privatisation. Privatisation means "Private: Keep Out". One of my ambitions—it should be an ambition of all Scotsmen—is to get to know Scotland. How can people get to know Scotland when there is a "Keep Out" notice? How can we get to know the land of our birth when people are standing there, defying us, pushing us away and building obstacles, so that we cannot even stop our cars at the side of the road?

Those notices and obstacles are all part and parcel of the supposedly well-run estates. I have paid to fish in some parts of Scotland. I am sure that the hon. Member for Caithness Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) would agree that the flow lands have a beauty of their own. Again, the panic button was pressed when people were talking about using the lands for a dump for toxic or nuclear waste. The whole of Scotland stood up and said, "No, you can't do that." It was once a proposal, and I hope that it will never become a reality.

I join my colleagues from Scotland in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) for raising the subject. I emphasise how sensitive it is. I am sure that, as a Scotsman from the part of the world that I was praising earlier, the Minister is well aware of the sensitivity of and need for this debate.

It is all very well to say that there are well-managed estates. So there are, but others are the private domain of a group of people who are intent on using their land for one purpose only, and the community around it can get lost as far as they are concerned. There has to be public input, and for large tracts of Scotland there must be joint responsibility among the local authorities—the elected representatives—and obviously the Government, as well as private owners, landlords and others.

As a representative of the semi-rural area of Midlothian, I appreciate the country. As a miner, I used to use the countryside as a lung. Scotland should be used as a lung for people in industrial areas, and they should have access to land where they can enjoy its beauty and the fresh air. I hope that the debate has succeeded in emphasising certain points which have been made by my colleagues, and that the Minister will reply positively.

10.58 am

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May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald)? He has done us a great favour in introducing this debate. I shall talk exclusively about a wilderness area in my constituency: Loch Lomond.

I had to telephone the Minister's office to get a copy of the Government's response to the Hutchison report on Loch Lomond, despite the fact that the Minister and Mr. Magnus Magnusson publicly launched it on Monday, and that every Scottish journalist with an interest had that document. Will the Minister have some respect for the Opposition, and at least give us information at the same time as journalists receive it? Also, I hope that Sir Russell Hillhouse, the permanent secretary to the Scottish Office, will ensure that the civil servants act impartially, so that we obtain documents at the same time as journalists.

It has taken a long time for a response to the document to appear. Ten years ago, the Government set up the Countryside Commission to consider Loch Lomond and the national parks. The Countryside Commission reported in July 1990, and the Government refused to accept its recommendations. The response to the document on Monday is illustrated in the comments in The Herald, which referred to a
"Trumpet of disbelief for Loch Lomond's voluntary solution."
I have been very concerned about Loch Lomond for many years. On at least three occasions over the past six or seven years, I have convened meetings in my constituency which, on each occasion, were attended by at least 150 people from all parts of the political spectrum—by those from the town and the countryside, and by environmentalists, recreationists and anglers. On every occasion, a firm and universal view about the problems of Loch Lomond was expressed. The only person who is out of step is the Secretary of State. I can inform the Secretary of State and the Minister that the community body, the Friends of Loch Lomond, met last night. They described the document to which I have referred as "procrastination". The Minister has friends among the Friends of Loch Lomond—witness the fact that three members of the executive council of that body were appointed by the Secretary of State to the Hutchison committee. They are deeply dismayed by the response in the document.

Sir Peter Hutchison, whom the Secretary of State appointed personally, said on Monday that the Secretary of State must not lose ownership of the problem, because it is not a local problem; it is not within the fiefdom of the local authorities. It is a national problem, and the Secretary of State has abdicated his responsibility to Loch Lomond and to the national dimension.

The Secretary of State is cheating on the timetable. He set up the Countryside Commission 10 years ago to examine the issue. It reported, and he immediately shelved its report. He set up the Hutchison committee a few years ago. It reported two years ago, and he delayed a response until last Monday. The Secretary of State has passed the Hutchison committee report on to the local authorities, but he has given them no succour or indication of what finance will be available. That is a complete and utter abdication of his responsibilities.

I remind the Minister that the Countryside Commission report stated that Loch Lomond should have national park status, because, among other aspects, it would then join 130 other countries which have national parks in having indicative land strategies for land management, for key land uses, for the establishment of land management forums, for the integration of grants for conservation and agriculture, and for protection for wilderness land, better land management and access to open country.

It is crystal clear that we are totally out of step with our neighbours in Europe. Not only are we out of step: we will not have an opportunity to have grants and financial assistance that are available to other countries.

The essence of the document published on Monday is that the Secretary of State has set up a joint committee, as witnessed in paragraph 12 on page 7, to consider a joint committee. According to paragraph 12, the joint committee of Loch Lomond park authority, which exists at the moment, will be superseded by another joint committee, which will then consider the feasibility of having the Loch Lomond park authority and the Trossachs as part of yet another joint committee.

Leaving aside the question of the creation of a joint committee to consider a joint committee, why in the interim, cannot the Minister consider the whole area? If the Secretary of State so decides, he could exclude the Trossachs now, and could fund the existing joint committee—the Loch Lomond park authority—to the minimum of 75 per cent, which the Hutchison committee report recommended. He could also provide additional borrowing for capital consents to the constituent local authorities. However, he is not doing that, because, contrary to utchison's recommendations, the document contains no hint of what the funding will be.

The Secretary of State could appeal to the local authorities today—I would join in that appeal from the House of Commons—to give over their powers to the joint committee, as recommended by Hutchison, so that the finance, consent and lead from central Government would be given. The Secretary of State would have the full support of the official Opposition in that. While the interim committee looks to the future and considers whether the Loch Lomond and Trossachs areas should be separate or combined, at least we would be starting presently to consider the issue of a management programme for Loch Lomond.

Either the community and I are hopeless in advocating the case, or the Secretary of State is impervious to logical argument. I believe that the community would resoundingly state that it is the latter. The Secretary of State has ignored the point time and time again. As I have said, this is not a local issue: it is a national issue.

I cannot stress too strongly the urgency of the matter. There were a number of distinguished speakers at the meeting I held at Loch Lomond a couple of years ago. One was Mr. John Arnott, who used to be the vice-chairman of the Countryside Commission in Scotland. He advocated the case for national park status for Loch Lomond. About structure, and taking a comprehensive view of all the land and other uses, he said:
"Elsewhere in Britain this was not so in the creation of the national parks … which had two purposes: preserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the areas, and promoting their enjoyment by the public. It was not so in the creation of the Regional Park … in Loch Lomond"—
because the present structure under the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1981 simply stated that the park was being set up as
"An extensive area of land, part of which is devoted to the recreational needs of the public."
If the Secretary of State was serious about taking the Hutchison committee report at face value, he would have dwelt on page 14 of the report, where the management philosophy was elaborated. It stated that of crucial importance is environmental sustainability. It contains sections on
"maintaining ecological health and integrity … fostering social and economic wellbeing … maintaining fundamentally the rural character",
as that would provide
"environmentally responsible enjoyment of the countryside."
The Hutchison report's philosphy was eminently sensible, but there is not one iota of sense in the document published on Monday, to which I am referring. The community will agree with me about that. The Herald,The Scotsman and others have, over the past few years, advocated a campaign to stop Loch Lomond turning into an environmental disaster area. Every day the Secretary of State delays, the more chance there is that it will be turned into an environmental disaster area.

At the moment, Loch Lomond is simply an unregulated pond. Anyone can travel up the M6 with a boat, launch it on the loch at any point, and travel at any speed on the loch. The Secretary of State will be aware of the death on the loch last year of a young girl—Ann McAulay—because no regulations were in force. As we speak today, no regulations have been put in place, simply because of the Government's lack of interest in Loch Lomond.

What sort of interest is shown in Loch Lomond? The Secretary of State has moved in the past few months. He gave planning permission for a development on the shores of Loch Lomond to Dr. Michael Kelly and his friends. They established a plan, which they put to the district council several years ago. Notwithstanding the district council's unanimous rejection of the plan, the Secretary of State decided to go ahead, and give Dr. Kelly permission.

Dr. Kelly and his colleagues are the equivalent of the Loch Lomond derivative merchants. In this case, they are not playing around with other people's money. It is much more serious, because they are playing around with the natural landscape, the environment and the conservation jewel of Loch Lomond.

From day one, when they put their proposals to Dumbarton district council, Dr. Kelly and his colleagues did not mention a business plan. Indeed, they refused to put one forward. They still refuse to put one forward to the Secretary of State. However, in the Secretary of State's idleness—that is the only way I can describe it, as he paid no thought to the matter—he gave Dr. Kelly and his colleagues permission to go ahead.

The Secretary of State gave his permission in December. Three weeks later, Dr. Kelly's colleague in the consortium was talking about getting £4 million from Dumbartonshire Enterprise to upgrade the structure of Loch Lomond. Dr. Kelly is on record as saying of Dumbarton district council that there were ideological reasons and "irrational" political reasons. He said of the council:
"They don't like private houses, that's 1950s"
mentality.

I have some information for the Minister. Dumbarton district council unanimously refused permission, and the Tory group on the council rejected Dr. Kelly's proposal.

Dr. Kelly and his colleagues have now sold out. They went cap in hand to Dumbartonshire Enterprise, and said that they did not have the funds to go ahead with the development, despite boasts about what they would for the area. They asked Dumbartonshire Enterprise, "What will you do?" and Dumbartonshire Enterprise—a public body—is buying the land for £3 million.

It is scandalous in the first instance that the Secretary of State gave planning permission, but I applaud Dumbartonshire Enterprise, because this is an opportunity for a public body to intervene in the public interest for the good of the many, not the few. It is a classic example.

The Secretary of State has an awful lot to answer for on the issue. Had he accepted the Hutchison committee's report on any developers having to demonstrate their economic viability, he would not have got himself into this sorry mess. The local community is utterly against him in this matter, and, as I said, that goes across the entire political spectrum.

The Scottish Office released the greatest sleight-of-hand press release on Monday, in which it stated:
"Funding of some £2.85 million over the next three years will be available to support the protection of the beautiful Loch Lomond and Trossachs area of Scotland."
I asked the House of Commons Library to look into the issue of new money, because the Government's response does not refer at all to finance. The Hutchison committee's report recommended more than £1 million in the first instance and 75 per cent. funding from central Government, but there is nothing in the document asbout nthe Hutchison committee's recommendations.

The Library contacted the Scottish Office yesterday about new money, and wrote to me with this reply:

"Unfortunately, all the Scottish Office officials who deal with this are presently on the train from Edinburgh to London for tomorrow's debate. However, a colleague of theirs in Scotland tried to help and said that … although they know there is extra funding they are not sure if it is 'new'.
Scottish Natural Heritage's Loch Lomond office say that they are not sure exactly how the money is being made up and only know that the Scottish Office will make £850,000 available through Scottish Natural Heritage next year on top of SNH's support for the Park Authority."
That is a disgraceful situation. I charge the Minister with political sleight of hand in asserting that there is new money. I want chapter and verse about finance and where it is coming from when he comes to the Dispatch Box.

On a charitable basis, if we accept that there is new money, is it project-specific? Who will decide on the money—will it be a local body such as the Loch Lomond park authority, or will the park authority have to go on its knees to SNH to get the money? The track record in that area of SNH and others is not good.

Like the Minister, the chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage, Mr. Magnus Magnusson, has never come to one of my Loch Lomond conferences during the past few years. Mr. Magnusson has been a dutiful assistant and steward to the Government, but he is not doing very much on the environment or to assist local communities with their future.

Finally, on Loch Lomond, the urgency of the matter and the mechanisms for the new joint committee, I must refer to a speech by John Foster at the last conference that I convened. He was director of the Peak district national park from 1954 to 1968, and a director of the Countryside Commission from 1968 to 1985. The Countryside Commission is the organisation that the Minister set up to look into Loch Lomond in the late 1980s. It recommended national park status—a recommendation that the Secretary of State ignored.

Mr. Foster is also a member of Nature and National Parks for Europe. He said in his speech to my conference:
"Quite simply, I believe that Loch Lomond and the Trossachs are so important that whatever powers are necessary to protect them from further deterioration should be put in place here and now. This really is fundamental to success in securing and implementing the range of planning and management strategies so badly needed for the area. There is not time for experimenting with less positive solutions. That is just fiddling while Loch Lomond burns—or, more accurately, while it deteriorates further … I believe it is vital to success to put in place an adequate mechanism for the management of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs now—not in 5 or 10 years time."
Sadly, the Secretary of State has moved the responsibility on to local authorities, at a time when they are up to their eyes in devising new structures for all the serious responsibilities they will have in the next year. Loch Lomond will not be their number one priority, because they are dealing with political issues across the whole local government spectrum.

In the interval, I will call another meeting about Loch Lomond, and I guarantee that between 100 and 150 people will attend. I hope that this time, belatedly, the Secretary of State will come along and listen to the local community. If the Government do not do anything, the official Opposition will do something. As soon as we get into government, we will establish a national park for Loch Lomond, so that we become part of the family of national parks in Europe, and at last something positive will be done for the environment and conservation in that most beautiful part of Scotland.

11.14 am

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I am pleased to reply to this debate. When an hon. Member tables a subject for a detailed debate, however, it is a pity that so little time is left for the Minister to reply, as it is most important to hear what the Government have to say.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) on obtaining this debate, because he has shown a commendable interest in the natural heritage over the years. For that reason, I am a little disappointed that he spent most of his speech being so highly critical of landlords in Scotland. I listened carefully, and he did not even give credit to some landlords who are exceptionally good. By and large, he seemed to go down the road of compulsory purchase and compulsory ownership of land by the nation, which is certainly not a route down which I would wish to go. We want to be positive.

This debate has been incredibly negative—all "No, No, No", and turning down everything that one can think of. Hon. Members asked about "Parks for Life". Of course, we warmly welcomed it, because it runs in line with our plans for the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond.

In the short time left, I shall set out the Government's view of the main issues and the actions that we have taken to protect and enhance those large areas of Scotland that many would call wilderness.

The issue is one of management. The hon. Member for Western Isles spent too much time on ownership, but it is not ownership but how the land is managed that matters. That is where we put our emphasis, especially through Scottish Natural Heritage. We want to think about protection and enhancement of the natural heritage, enabling people who live in those areas to continue to derive worthwhile livings from them, the maintenance of the social systems around which such communities are constructed, and providing access for visitors.

Increasingly, our tourism is based on high-quality niche markets, such as country sports and those interested in wildlife. For many, the experience of wide open spaces without crowds is enough.

Wild land is not a new interest in Scotland. Many agencies have considered what needs to be done to maintain the value of our wild land, but we have to go forward with the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of what has happened in the past.

The mechanisms for achieving appropriate management have been subject to change in the past century. For example, the crofting system, on which the hon. Member for Western Isles is an expert, has provided the custodians of large areas of the north and west. Crofting offers a system of land management and a social structure which has bound nature and crofters together in partnership. I am glad that all the grant and loan schemes have been kept in place and enhanced wherever possible, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

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Will the Minister give way?

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Quickly, because time is rushing on.

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The budget for environmentally sensitive areas was underspent by 8 per cent. in the last financial year and 7 per cent. in the previous financial year, which amounts to £4 million and £3 million respectively. Why cannot that be used to increase grants to crofters, and why cannot some of it be used to allow communities to buy Forestry Commission woodland that is up for disposal?

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I will come to expenditure later.

Even the most remote hill grazing was managed by crofting townships. At the heart of the system lies the concept of consent and partnership. Crofting is a good example of a management system in which ownership is secondary to good management. In Scotland, I see little case to be made for the view that good management necessarily requires ownership to be in the hands of the state or some independent structure.

Our landowners, whether of large estates or of smaller parcels in the hands of farmers and crofters, have long shown a deep understanding of the ways of nature, and they are keen to manage the land for the wider good.

We are convinced that the voluntary principle remains the basis for the management of our wild areas. When all concerned enter into arrangements voluntarily and work in a partnership with a common aim, the outcome is likely to be accepted by the community.

The voluntary principle, as well as providing the basis for moving forward with the greatest possible support, also offers flexibility. The basis for the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which I took through the House, is that voluntary principle, with compulsory back-up powers when required. By and large, it has stood the test of time pretty well.

The role of Scottish Natural Heritage—which was criticised by many hon. Members today—is vital. Our perception now is that the natural heritage of Scotland as a whole needs the benefit of an organisation to design and put in place a strategic approach. We have done that by introducing the successor body to the Countryside Commission for Scotland and the Nature Conservancy Council.

Those organisations came together to form SNH, which has been a great success, bearing in mind the fact that it has been in place for only three years. I give tremendous credit to the chairman, Magnus Magnusson. We have made significant steps forward under his leadership, particularly on the regionalisation of SNH, so that the organisation is much closer to the man in the countryside and the rural areas of Scotland.

Opposition Members, who tend to overlook the Government's commitment to conservation, should remember that, in 1991-92, the Countryside Commission for Scotland and the NCCS received £25 million from the Government. In 1992-1993, the SNH received £34.6 million, and this coming year it will receive £41 million. Those substantial increases show the strong commitment of the Government to nature conservation in Scotland. We are committed over the next three years to fund conservation to the tune of £120 million.

I shall quickly refer to two issues which were raised in relation to the Cairngorms and to Loch Lomond. We set up the Cairngorms inquiry under Magnus Magnusson, which reported back in March 1993. The Government accepted the recommendation to set up a partnership, and that is going extremely well. Sir David Laird, who has taken over the chairmanship, will be able to announce the members of the partnership in a matter of weeks, and there should be an increased local government representation. The Cairngorm partnership will be up and working in a relatively short time, and I am confident that it will be a significant factor in developing conservation in that part of Scotland. It will be funded by SNH, and it is expected that an office will be established in Grantown-on-Spey in the next couple of weeks.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) gave some erroneous information about Loch Lomond, and my announcement in Glasgow on Monday was far removed from the impression that he tried to give today. I noticed that The Herald has stated that the hon. Gentleman said that I was kicking Sir Peter Hutchison in the teeth, but the Government have accepted his whole report—lock, stock and barrel. Every one of a very large number of recommendations in the report have been accepted. I do not see how any Government could do more than accept what they have been offered in a report, and I welcome Sir Peter's report strongly.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton seems to misunderstand the joint board, which can, if agreed, hand over planning powers to the three authorities involved. The hon. Gentleman is very negative in his attitude.

The Government accept that the park authority is made up of two regional councils and two district councils, but the two regional councils will disappear, and their areas will be added to Argyll and Bute council. I see no reason why democratically elected bodies wanting to do their best for their own areas should not come together voluntarily with a positive approach to manage the Trossachs and Loch Lomond to the highest possible standards. It is negative and wrong for the hon. Gentleman to think that it will all be a failure.

Opposition Members have been highly critical of things which they allege we have not done. We were asked in the report to do something rapidly about byelaws, and we have done that. The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill last year contained references to byelaws, and those will hopefully be in place in a matter of weeks.

The byelaws will control maritime operations on the loch, and will assist in setting up a range of services. A boat has been ordered and will be ready soon, and we hope that speeds of boats on the loch will be controlled, and that areas for every sport will be looked after adequately. The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to wave pieces of paper and say that we have done nothing.

There are powers in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act to set up joint boards, which could be voluntary or—if we ever wanted to do this in the future—compulsory. I hope that it will never be necessary to do the latter. Much has been done to prepare the paperwork for the three new local authorities which are responsible for Loch Lomond, and it is right that we should wait until April 1996 for the change. It would have been wrong to carry out the change this year, as two of the authorities are going out of existence in a year's time.

That does not in any way stop those authorities from supporting the park authority in doing all the work required this year. That is why we have provided substantial funding for the next three years of nearly £3 million. That figure includes £340,000 to the ranger and marine service, and £460,000 to be spent in the Trossachs area to deal with the trails, rights of way, tracks and visitor facilities. Much has been going on, and it is quite wrong for the hon. Member for Dumbarton and others to give the impression that there has been an unnecessary delay.

Some of the statements in the press have been quite wrong. In The Herald today, Lady Glasgow has called for a joint board with planning powers, but those powers will exist if that is what the three authorities wish. They will have the planning authority, despite what was said so wrongly in The Daily Telegraph yesterday. Other comments—particularly in the Scottish Daily Express—have welcomed the steps which we are taking to develop the park.

I would have liked to go into some detail on the important issues of deer and forestry in Scotland, but unfortunately I do not have the time to do so. We should certainly pay tribute to the Red Deer Commission for the way in which it has set up deer management groups. It has substantially improved culls, and is providing an acceptable habitat for deer herds in Scotland.

On forestry, we have made a good start in Glen Affric, and special grants have been made available for Scots pine. We are moving towards fulfilling our European directives on habitats and on birds. I wanted to pay tribute to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Government are providing large sums of money to voluntary organisations which are doing a good job.

I also want to say something about mountain safety, and I pay tribute to those involved in mountain rescue services and the police. I must say yet again—I have said it umpteen times this winter and last winter—that we want people to come to the Scottish highlands to enjoy hill walking and mountaineering, but they must listen to warnings about avalanches and bad weather, and they must remember the short period of daylight that is available in midwinter in Scotland.

All in all, we have a great deal to discuss. I wanted to talk positively, not negatively, about those matters, as I believe that we have an immense duty to the highlands and wildernesses of Scotland to provide the best possible service we can and ensure that they are enhanced, and not run down, as the hon. Member for Dumbarton said they were.

The highlands are the most wonderful and precious asset to us in Scotland. In the main, they have been well looked after by many different owners, good and sometimes, sadly, bad. By and large, the farmers, landlords and landowners of Scotland have done an immense amount to enhance Scotland's scenery. I want to ensure that, through SNH, that continues and improves, and the management of Scotland's land is in the best possible hands. We have set up the management and policies to ensure that that is carried out adequately in the future.

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Order. We now move on to the debate on local government in Birmingham.

Local Government (Birmingham)

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Before I call the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), may I say that it is obvious from the number of hon. Members in the Chamber that there is a great deal of interest in the debate, so I make a plea for brief contributions by hon. Members both on the Back and on the Front Benches.

11.30 am

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For months now, there have been hints, rumours and press reports showing that something fishy is going on in Labour-controlled Birmingham city council; but until I started to bring all the allegations together and listed and tabulated reports and events, I did not know the half of it.

It is important to say at the outset that Birmingham city council receives some £1.16 billion per annum from taxpayers and business rate payers. That is a considerable sum in any man's language. There is no doubt that substantial sums have been chiselled from that budget and misused. Other sums have disappeared without trace. Furthermore, it now seems that large sums have been misappropriated to gain political advantage for the Labour party in Birmingham, and some money has been used to help extremists against moderate Labour.

I therefore make two separate charges against the Labour controllers of Birmingham city council: first, misuse; and, secondly, misappropriation. I propose to deal with each separately. On the first issue, on 12 January—just over two months ago—I raised at Prime Minister's Question Time the case of Nancy Johnson, who was paid £42,000 per annum to be head of the women's unit in Birmingham. At that time, an investigation had apparently gone on into Ms Johnson's conduct in that office, and I naturally assumed that she had been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry. After all, if a doctor, or anyone else in any public office, is accused of misbehaviour, he or she is removed to prevent that person from doing further damage while an inquiry is pending—

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Except Tory Members who take £1,000 per question.

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I shall not take ridiculous interventions, especially from a Front-Bench Member. If that is the best that the hon. Gentleman can do, I shall challenge him on that one.

Although anyone else would have been suspended because of allegations of continued misconduct, Ms Johnson was allowed to continue in post at £42,000 per annum. However, the investigation into her conduct must have found that something was wrong, for the council paid her £11,000 to shut up and go away. We do not know what the inquiry found, because all its findings were kept totally secret and, although the Conservative leader of the council and the Conservative group on the council asked for details of the investigation, none was given.

What we do know is that that woman was also chairman of the Harambee housing association, which I dare say she looked on as another nice little earner because it lost £250,000 of ratepayers' money—[Interruption.] It is certainly public money. There is no question about that.

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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No, I will not. [HoN. MEMBERS: "The hon. Lady is wrong."] I am most certainly not wrong to say that the Harambee housing association lost £250,000 of ratepayers' money. [Interruption.] If the Opposition seriously suggest that it does not matter if someone wastes public money but matters only if someone wastes council money, that is an extraordinary allegation to make.

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On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The subject of this debate is clearly listed as "Local government in Birmingham". May I therefore have a ruling from you on whether the hon. Lady or, for that matter, other hon. Members, can raise issues that are in no way related to local government spending, as was the point which she just raised?

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Had the right hon. Gentleman listened attentively, he would have recognised that, so far, the hon. Lady has been entirely in order.

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No, she has not.

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The hon. Gentleman might reflect that I spent a great many years in local government.

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Ms Johnson appears to be a friendly soul, and she got her friends in on the act, including one who already worked full time as head of a council-run children's home in the city. That woman claimed—she was paid without a murmur—that she was working 416 hours a month, or 104 hours a week. I presume that that was 52 hours a week for the Harambee housing association and 52 hours a week for the city council-run home. She was paid without a murmur out of the public purse for working 416 hours a month when she could not possibly have been working anything like that.

Another Harambee worker under Ms Johnson's chairmanship asked for and received £500 from the council for "black women's therapy and social action". Normally, when one receives money from the council for such causes, one must fill in a grant application form, which must be sanctioned by responsible persons. No grant application form was ever filled in or sanctioned. The money was apparently paid over with no inquiries. Precisely how it was spent is a mystery.

Apart from all that money disappearing without visible trace, I maintain that setting up a women's unit is a misuse of ratepayers' money. After all, why not have a men's unit as well? Otherwise, is that not in contravention of sex discrimination legislation? Birmingham women's unit is currently putting on an international women's festival, and I have the programme before me. Even the Birmingham Evening Mail, which is certainly not anti-Labour—[Interruption.] It is certainly not—[HON. MEMBERS: "But Fowler is its chairman."] Now who is raising matters outside the subject of the debate? My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)is more than capable of answering for himself, if he is given the opportunity to do so.

Last week, the local paper had a headline saying that it is "hard not to knock" the women's festival. It can say that again. The unit spent some £500,000 per annum of Government grant, which should go to the people of Birmingham. Let us look at the festival programme and see what can be done under such a great effort subsidised by ratepayers. People can go to a tea dance—that would be fun. I have nothing against tea dances, except when they are subsidised by the city council. I am sure that, if my hon. Friends attended such an event, they would be happy to pay the full price, and would not ask the ratepayers to foot the bill.

Alternatively, senior citizens can attend a nostalgia afternoon at the Grand hotel with tea and cakes. That will cost £2 as part of the subsidised women's festival; otherwise, it will cost double that amount. One can go sequence dancing for £1.50. There are still more goodies to come. People can join a domestic violence residents club. I do not know whether that means that one can go along and learn how to commit domestic violence; the programme does not explain what it is about. [Interruption.] You are scared to death—

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Order. I do not think that the Chair is prepared to hear comments like the one that came from the Opposition Front Bench just then. I would be grateful if Front Benchers would remain quiet, or else ask to intervene in the proper way.

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One can learn Egyptian dancing or—this is a good one—explore escape through the use of soundbeam. Does that not sound intriguing? One can investigate lesbianism, undergo assertiveness training—I bet Ms Johnson did not need any assertiveness training—or listen to dialogues with seven mad women. All those activities are in the women's festival programme.

The festival does investigate a few—but not many—useful subjects. However, if one wants to learn how to succeed in business or about self-defence or Japanese porcelain, one should not expect to do so using ratepayers' money, thus depriving others of much-needed council services. Many of my constituents live in houses and flats where water runs down the walls, the doors do not fit and the windows let in the rain.

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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No, I will not give way. Plenty of people wish to speak in the debate, and no doubt they will do so.

Many of my constituents face difficulties in their council homes. I listen to them talk about their troubles and I contact the council. Sometimes the repairs are done and the officials try to be helpful. They explain about the cuts in council funding. It is no wonder that its funding has been cut when the council funds rubbish like the women's festival.

What am I supposed to say to an 80-year-old woman who cannot get a home help to keep her house clean—"Never mind, dear, why don't you let the house go hang and nip across to the Ladywood arts and leisure centre, to hear a talk about Islam in Africa"? That little gem from the festival programme will not help that lady to get her house clean.

Swimming baths are being closed in Birmingham because it is alleged that not enough Government money is allocated to that city. Those baths are being closed while money is being wasted. Library opening hours are being reduced, creating serious problems for many Birmingham people who have always used those library facilities. Worst of all, some homes in Birmingham still do not have indoor lavatories. I think that it is absolutely scandalous that money is being wasted on a women's festival when people still have to go down the garden path to the lavatory at night in the snow and the rain. That is a disgrace.

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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No, I will not give way to any hon. Members. I have too many questions and answers myself, and I hope that there will be plenty of time for other hon. Members to put their oar in.

There cannot be any excuse for spending money on activities like the women's festival while people still do not have indoor lavatories. I am astonished that any hon. Member would defend that position.

So scandalous is Labour's misuse of grant money that the national papers are now sitting up and taking notice. One reported that a so-called Muslim unemployment project has pocketed £41,000 of ratepayers' money. That project did not provide any jobs, although it has been suggested that it certainly secured Labour votes. No accounts from the project were ever published, despite the fact that a large amount of money was spent. The House should not be surprised about that, because the project treasurer cannot read or write. He is totally illiterate in his own language, which is not English. I think that it is surprising to expect someone who cannot read or write to produce proper treasurer's reports.

One cannot help suspecting that he was put into that position as a patsy. Two Labour councillors, Mohammed Azam and Haider Zaman, seem to have masterminded the project, although they did not issue any treasurer's reports. A third Labour councillor, Ghazanfar Khan, was originally involved. He was forced to resign in a hurry after his planning application for a curry house in a residential area passed through the council on a whipped Labour vote.

The minority resource centre lost £13,000 per annum. Its secretary was Councillor Abdul Malik and the main worker at the centre was the councillor's nephew. I am not sure what that organisation does, but it is linked with the Bangladeshi Workers Association—which receives £24,000 per annum—through Councillor Malik. Neither organisation has any idea where that money has gone. A press report dealing with the matter said that an "unquantifiable amount of money has disappeared". Some of the vanishing thousands may have been spent within the letter of the law, but I would be very surprised if they were spent within the spirit of the law.

How can it be ethical for another Labour councillor, Councillor Rabani, to receive a grant of £52,000 to repair his house? It would cost a lot less than that to deal with damp in the homes of my constituents. Councillor Chauhan has received £11,000 to repair his house. There is nothing like ensuring undying allegiance to the Labour party with a good hefty cheque. It must be wrong to buy votes using taxpayers' money. It is pretty sleazy to buy votes with one's own money; it is very sleazy to buy them with public money.

There have been a number of press reports about the allegations, the latest of which involved a trade union centre in Birmingham which has received £1 million in ratepayers' money since 1986. Chunks of that money were apparently diverted to a hard left campaigning organisation through Councillor Mick Rice, who was able to channel cash from the former organisation to the latter because he was a member of both organisations. All that now remains of that £1 million expenditure is a few worn desks, chairs and filing cabinets—and a few secured Labour votes.

Councillor Mick Rice also seems to be extremely influential. A document which came into my hands only this morning gives chapter and verse of how moderate trade union activity has been sabotaged by a hard left group. According to the document, there has been serious misappropriation of local authority funds in order to aid that effort. It says that work has been commissioned fraudulently.

In fact, the entire document is an appalling catalogue of deceit. I am advised that Councillor Rice strongly opposed calls for any investigation of what had gone on, and claimed that he could ensure that Councillor Theresa Stewart, who is the head of the Labour group on the Birmingham city council, would be amenable to blocking any such inquiry. No such inquiry has taken place. I believe that my charge of misappropriation stands.

Finally, also under that head, I want to touch on the extremely unequal way in which money allocated by the Government to Birmingham is distributed in what certainly appears to be a blatant attempt to buy votes. Out of 841 grants to voluntary bodies, the lion's share goes to those parts of Birmingham that elect Labour councillors and Members of Parliament: Aston, Handsworth, Nechells, Small Heath, Soho, Sparkbrook and Sparkhill with Ladywood at the top of the list, receiving more than 100 grants totalling some £7 million. My constituency is only just across the road from Ladywood.

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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rose

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Order. The hon. Lady has made it clear that she is not giving way.

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The allegations that I make are far too serious to commit to memory. I have chapter and verse for all of them, and none of the barracking and bad behaviour of the Opposition will shut me up.

In Ladywood, more than 100 grants have been made, totalling £7 million. My constituency has received seven in Harborne, which is just across the road from Ladywood and two in Quinton. If anyone thinks that there is no deprivation in parts of my constituency, they are wrong. There are areas of Quinton where there is serious deprivation. There have been only two grants to the areas that need help in my patch. There are more one-parent families in Quinton than in any other part of Birmingham. I hope that all those allegations will be properly investigated by the Nolan committee.

Birmingham is a great city; it is a proud and honourable city. Its citizens deserve better than this.

11.51 am

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The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) has raised this debate not out of concern for the people of Birmingham but out of concern for the Birmingham Conservative councillors, who were almost wiped out in the last local election.

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Nonsense.

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Does the hon. Lady intend to persist in behaving like this, or will she behave with the dignity appropriate to her years?

The hon. Lady has shown concern for the councillors of Birmingham, who were virtually wiped out at the last municipal election. What we have seen is a re-run, in an even sillier version, of the party political broadcast that Conservative central office—in its folly—produced before the last municipal elections. The allegations have displayed the same triviality. Indeed, there was a moment when I thought that we were going to hear yet again about the horrendous scandal of the gravedigger discovered to be in possession of a mobile telephone.

I know that the hon. Lady is not in a mood to answer questions, but it would be interesting if she could tell us two things. What percentage of the total budget—the budget which she told us raised more than £1 billion from the electors of Birmingham£do the awful misexpenditures that she has reported represent? How many decimal places are required to discover the percentage of funds about which, in her trivial way, the hon. Lady has chosen to speak today? I am sure that she will not give us the figure, so let me ask her two other questions.

First, the hon. Lady spoke in the most florid language about allegations of misappropriation of funds and related matters. Had it not been a rather feeble political exercise, the most appropriate way for her to proceed as a Member of Parliament for the city would have been to report the allegations one by one to the district auditor. How many has she reported?

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I am waiting for Nolan. This is much too serious for anything but a totally independent top-level inquiry.

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We shall look forward to seeing whether Nolan actually reports explicitly on the various groups within the City of Birmingham, and we shall look forward to seeing why the hon. Lady does not regard the district auditor as an independent arbiter in these matters.

There is a further series of allegations which the hon. Lady was wise enough not to raise. They appeared on the front page of the Observer, and I shall touch on them for constituency reasons. As soon as the allegations appeared—they contained not the slightest suggestion of illegality or of money being illegally used, but only the suggestion of political rather than any other impropriety—the leader of Birmingham council, on her own initiative, referred the matter to the district auditor.

An interesting comparison can be drawn with the ex-leader of Westminster city council who—as the woman described as intentionally gerrymandering and using public funds to obtain votes for the Tory party—was also involved with the district auditor. The hon. Member for Edgbaston now appears to be concentrating on her correspondence. Which council leader would she prefer to work with—the one who, as soon as there is the faintest whiff of scandal, chooses—

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On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is a general conviction that hon. Members do not throw accusations across the House. If my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) is responding to a note from the Official Report, the right hon. Gentleman should withdraw his last remarks.

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The hon. Gentleman can safely leave the procedure of the Chamber in the hands of the Chair.

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I shall wait for the hon. Lady to pass her envelope along and then ask again which council leader would she prefer to work with—the one who, of her own volition, at the faintest whiff of scandal referred the whole matter to the district auditor, or the leader of the Westminster Tory flagship borough, who is herself the subject of a district auditor's inquiry?

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My impression is that the debate concerns Birmingham city council and nothing else.

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You have failed in your duty.

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I never fail in my duty.

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The hon. Lady might at least have the grace to repeat what I have just said—that the behaviour of the leader of Birmingham city council in this particular was admirable in every detail and should be applauded and supported by Members of Parliament who wish to ensure that corruption does not besmirch the city.

I wish to say a few words about the allegations in the Observer newspaper some weeks ago. It suggested that nothing illegal had been done, but it was concerned with how grants for improving derelict property were being obtained. The allegation was that the council—rightly but vaguely, in my view—tried to bring some order out of the chaos which had been caused by the Tory party in two ways: first, by not allocating enough money for improvements and, secondly, by inventing a crazy system for the allocation of the grants. The council failed to do that, and there were arguments about how some people should obtain the full rights to which they were entitled under the law. It was that and no more.

There is a crisis about housing improvement grants in Birmingham, but it is a crisis which has been brought about because there is so much decrepit property and so little Government assistance in putting that decrepit property right. As the hon. Lady knows, the leader of Birmingham council invited all the Conservative councillors—and, indeed, councillors of every political persuasion—to join a delegation to the Department of the Environment to ask for more money to make housing in Birmingham not right but better.

The hon. Lady spoke with what she regards as eloquence about housing conditions in her constituency. I understand that the leader of the council is to invite all the city Members of Parliament to see the Secretary of State for the Environment to see whether more money can be obtained under the housing investment programme. Will the hon. Lady come with us to lobby the Secretary of State for the Environment for more HIP money for Birmingham?

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I do not think that it is a particularly good idea to conduct a dialogue across the Floor of the House, as it may take time from other hon. Members who wish to speak. Nevertheless, I will answer the right hon. Gentleman's question. As I have repeatedly made clear today, if large amounts were not wasted on ridiculous nonsense, there would be plenty of money available to meet Birmingham's needs.

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I shall continue to give way to the hon. Lady as often as she wishes me to. The more she says, the more she demonstrates that she is interested only in the politics, not in the city. She has not been able to tell us how much money has been wasted, or how many houses could have been improved if there had been a total saving. She has not been able to tell us how many grants would have been extended. All she has managed to do is to produce the usual smears and allegations—generally unsubstantiated, and certainly unquantified.

This has been a year of extraordinary municipal achievement for Birmingham. But for a reduction of nearly £20 million in Government grant, the citizens of Birmingham would probably pay less for their municipal services next year than they paid last year. Despite a year of stringency—forced on the council by an arbitrarily low cap, and by cuts in grants which have always been small—the city has been perhaps uniquely successful in improving its education provision. Three weeks ago, when I last spoke in the House, the Secretary of State for Education preached a sermon to local councils, saying that, even in these desperate days they should find more money for education, fund the teachers' pay increase, extend coverage in the classrooms and preserve education standards. Birmingham has done exactly that.

This morning—purely by coincidence—the Joseph Chamberlain college, which stands between my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Edgbaston, wrote to me about some specific problems. The letter began by congratulating Birmingham city council on increasing the number of teachers despite the year's financial problems. This year Birmingham will have more than 500 extra teachers. It is taking precisely the action that the Government have told education authorities that they should take despite the difficulties that they are experiencing.

Why, when talking about Birmingham, does the peripatetic hon. Member for Edgbaston—she is now moving gaily from seat to seat—choose to concentrate on matters attracting trivial criticism rather than on matters which merit legitimate and major congratulation?

I see that the chairman of the group which owns the Birmingham Evening Mail is with us today. The last time he was invited to join a parliamentary delegation, he failed to do so—even though his own paper had organised the event, the purpose of which was to raise the issues of press freedom and the levying of value added tax on newspapers. He was too busy to go to Downing street with the other Birmingham Members of Parliament. I hope that in one of its editorials his paper will consider the following proposition: is increasing education spending in a year of unique stringency, and increasing the number of schoolteachers by more than 500, a virtue which more than outweighs the creation of a class in which elderly ladies can be taught to dance?

I believe that the people of Birmingham will know what is important in their city's municipal government, and I think that they will realise that the council has done a good job this year. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edgbaston, who—in her lack of wisdom—has enabled my hon. Friends and me to put some of the real facts on record.

11.3 am

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The defence advanced by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) was very unconvincing, and at times entered the realms of indescribable pomposity. When he addressed the issue at all, he seemed to be saying that only a small amount of public money was at stake, that the whole issue was trivial and that we should therefore consider other factors. The House should not accept that argument.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) on raising this issue. It should be made clear that the issue is the misuse of public funds.

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Alleged.

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The alleged misuse of public funds—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

There are other occasions on which we can debate the issues of government and local government, and wider issues. This morning we are discussing a much more specific question: whether funds provided by the public—the taxpayer—have been properly used. I intend to concentrate on the events of the past few weeks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston has provided a long list relating to a long period. I shall deal in particular with charges that have been made about the misuse of housing renewal grants, for a specific reason.

The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook accused us of seeking to make party political capital. The unique feature of the cases that have been raised is that they were not raised by Tory Members of Parliament or by the so-called Tory press, and they certainly were not manufactured by Midland Independent Newspapers. I declare an interest as non-executive chairman of the group—when we last debated matters of this kind, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made something of that.

The charges relating to renewal grants were made by a Labour Member of Parliament, supported by at least some Labour councillors, and have been reported in the national press by a newspaper which supports the Labour party. They were made by Labour against Labour. Let us be clear about this: it is not a Tory conspiracy—the whistle was blown by Labour supporters.

The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, who used to be deputy leader of the Labour party, did not dwell on an even more extraordinary fact: as a direct result of those charges, no fewer than four Labour constituency parties have been suspended. A party investigation is taking place and Labour's public relations machine has stressed at every stage how seriously it takes the affair.

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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

One can imagine the outcry that would have resulted if a single Conservative association in Birmingham—[HON. MEMBERS: "What about Westminster?"] I shall deal with Westminster shortly. In this instance, four Labour associations have been suspended. As Opposition Members well know, they would be expressing outrage if Conservative associations were involved, and their Front Bench would already be apportioning blame. Let me tell the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is my next-door neighbour in the area, that I certainly do not intend to apportion blame, for reasons that I shall come to. Suffice it to say that I can think of no other recent occasion on which four associations have been suspended as a result of such charges.

Let us consider the history of those charges. On 9 February, in an Adjournment debate, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker)—who is present in the Chamber—raised the issue of housing renewal in Birmingham. He criticised the operation of the grants, and went on to say specifically:
"Regrettably, the operation of the mandatory grant system of the renovation grants allows it to be used for the purposes of political patronage in Birmingham."—[Official Report, 9 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 558.]
I respect the hon. Member for Perry Barr for setting out his views in that way.

A couple of weeks later, on Sunday 26 February, the Observer took up the story. Whatever Opposition Members may feel about other papers, I do not believe that they would regard that as a Conservative supporting newspaper—[Interruption]
Some Opposition Members appear to have a persecution complex. That paper said:
"Inquiries by The Observer have revealed that, in some key inner-city wards, half of all Treasury-funded slum housing renovation grants are being directed to Labour Party members whose votes could help ambitious politicians to secure their local power base."
That report was carried under the headline:
"Labour in £2 million sleaze enquiry".
Once again, the hon. Member for Perry Barr was asked for his comments. According to the Observer, he said that there appeared to be a prima facie breach of local government corruption laws and that the matter should be referred to the police. I remind the House that those were the words of a respected Labour Member of Parliament who represents Birmingham. A few days later, The Guardian reported that the four constituency associations involved—Small Heath, Ladywood, Sparkbrook and Perry Barr—were being suspended. The inquiry by Peter Coleman, the Labour organisation director, would
"examine allegations that rival candidates for the Sparkbrook seat, to be vacated"
by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook,
"have been soliciting support by giving advice on how to jump the council queue for housing".
I emphasis that all these allegations were made in the past few weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston dealt with allegations going back much further than that. I do not intend to try to apportion guilt at this stage. Those who have been accused are entitled to put the case for their defence, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Erdington for raising that issue. I hope that when allegations are made against Conservative councils the Labour party will adopt the same attitude, although I fear that it has not always done so.

I have a constituency point to make in this regard. As the hon. Member for Perry Barr knows, I thought that he was wrong to name my constituent, Mr. John Woodcock, in this affair, and I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has now withdrawn the charges against him.

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I welcome the way in which the right hon. Gentleman has begun to set out his arguments. The hon. Member for Edgbaston raised many issues from the past, three of which affected my constituency and all three of which I reported to the appropriate authorities some years ago.

In my speech of 9 February I was unfair to Mr. Woodcock. I apologise to him here and now. I believe that he operated as a professional person, wholly innocent of any of the alleged scams. He is involved in the sense that he is a professional agent carrying out the work, but it was wrong of me to say that he touted for business. I have met him since and he has told me that he agreed with 97 per cent. of my speech—he agrees with the idea of urban renewal carried out on an area basis and not pepper-potted.

The Observer contacted me on the Saturday before it published the two articles and read them out to me. The paper confirmed that it, too, had named Woodcock, two firms of solicitors and two agents in the articles. Having heard what was read out to me, I told the newspaper that I did not think it fair or right to include Woodcock's name and that it was not relevant. The newspaper did not include it, and I wrote to Mr. Woodcock explaining that the articles had been read to me on the Saturday, that that was when I gave out the comment about the police, and that I had said that I did not think that his name should be used.

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I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has made a fair statement, for_ which my constituent will also be grateful.

Only one issue is at stake in this debate: is there a case to answer in respect of the allegations that I have set out? If there is, how should it be investigated? By setting up their own inquiries the Labour party and the city council have provided their own reply. Self-evidently, they believe that there is a case to be answered and a case which needs investigation.

My fundamental point for the Secretary of State is that the public will not be satisfied with a Labour party investigation or an internal council investigation: they must know that the charges will be thoroughly, independently and fiercely investigated. There must be no cover-up and no smokescreen—

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rose

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I am just finishing.

That is why I want an assurance from the Secretary of State today that when the district auditor investigates this case—as he surely will, because it has been referred to him—he will be given all the necessary powers and resources to conduct a thorough and independent investigation of what are, after all, very serious allegations involving the misuse of public money.

Above all, the investigation must be carried out speedily. That is the message that should go out—dare I say it—from both sides of the House. We must get to the bottom of this affair at the earliest opportunity. Until we do, I am not prepared to talk about guilt. I only hope that when the Conservative party is the subject of similar allegations the Labour party will adopt the same policy. A year or two from now the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook will no longer be with us, but nothing that I have heard him say in recent years leads me to the conclusion that he would ever support such a policy himself.

12.17 pm

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I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) for dealing at some length with the article in The Observer of 26 February. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for raising the issue.

Before I respond to the fabrications in that article, I should like to make one further point. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield called for an independent inquiry. Two days after the article about Labour being involved in a £2 million sleaze inquiry appeared, I referred the whole matter to the chief constable. I also took the trouble to write to the Home Secretary, in the following terms:
"I am sure you will conclude that the allegations have some similarity to those relating to the highly publicised case involving Westminster city council, and it is obviously of the utmost importance that these matters are properly investigated. If it is found that any form of corruption has occurred, then those responsible should face the law."
The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Home Secretary has not even bothered to reply.

However, the chief constable did reply. He said, "Thank you, Mr. Godsiff, but from a preliminary look I cannot see that there are any allegations that need to be investigated." I regret that the chief constable did not undertake an investigation, and particularly regret the fact that the Home Secretary was not prepared to use his good offices with the chief constable to encourage an investigation. I believe that the Home Secretary was not particularly interested.

The article that appeared in The Observer on 26 February was written by Mr. Dean Nelson—to whom I shall return later—using racy terminology. It began:
"Party members accused of using taxpayers' cash to 'buy' safe Labour House of Commons seat."
It continued:
"Inquiries by The Observer have revealed that in some key inner city wards, half of all Treasury-funded slum housing renovation grants are being directed to Labour Party members … It was privately disclosed that between a third and a half of all applicants in some wards were Labour Party members."
One has to read the article a second and third time, because it is difficult to nail down the allegations. There are many references to "an informed source"—
"a senior city councillor who does not wish to be named"
and "a spokesperson" but no one making the allegations is named.

The article continues:
"The area of greatest concern is the Small Heath ward where more than 50 per cent of those awarded grants are party members. The majority of these applicants were presented by Roger Godsiff … and his local membership secretary and agent, Gulbahar Khan, one of the city council's most influential members."
When I read that on Monday, I wrote to Dr. Alan Elkin, assistant director of the city's urban renewal programme. He knows all the facts and figures—he provides them to the politicians. I asked Dr. Elkin how many valid housing renovation grant applications received by the council related to properties in the Small Heath constituency. He answered quickly: one. He added that five other applications had been approved and that four more were valid. The Observer article stated that the area of greatest concern was Small Heath, where more than 50 per cent. of grants awarded had gone to Labour party members.

I pressed Dr. Elkin for further information. I asked whether one particular application had been made by the householder or by someone on his behalf, and whether any of the other nine applications had come through myself or my personal assistant, Councillor Khan. Again, Dr Elkin replied quickly:
"The owner of the property where works have been completed and grants paid made an application privately without professional assistance. However, I am not able to divulge the address without the owner's approval. The file and records have been checked and I can confirm that no applications have been submitted via yourself or Councillor Khan."
The article said that the area of greatest concern was Small Heath, where more than 50 per cent. of grants given related to Labour party members.

The Observer article further stated:
"Charles Road, Small Heath, Birmingham. This is the power base of Labour MP Roger Godsiff. It is also the home of his right-hand man, Gulbahar Khan."
That is absolutely right: it is my power base, but every hon. Member has a power base. The residents of Charles road have been extremely supportive of me, for which I am most grateful. It is one of the longest residential roads in Birmingham, containing 322 houses. Of those, 39 are occupied by members of the Labour party. I thought the figure would be much higher, and it should be.

The Observer stated:
"An internal Labour Party inquiry has led to allegations that Charles Road is at the heart of the scandal."
I checked with my party's regional secretary only this week, and she confirmed that no investigation has been authorised or undertaken. More to the point, the chairman of the party's organisation committee has never authorised an investigation. One begins to see that Mr. Dean Nelson's article is based not on fact but fabrications.

I will not read the whole article to the House, but it also implied that another councillor, Raghib Ahsan, had done something improper. That councillor is no friend of mine, but he was doing what he thought was in the best interests of his electorate. He is entitled not to be smeared over the front page of The Observer, as I was.

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The hon. Gentleman knows that a number of people in Birmingham are concerned about queue jumping and potential abuse of section 82 procedures. Does he, from his experience of Small Heath ward, know whether section 82 has been used in a partial manner, with the result that people who have been in the queue for a long time have been leapfrogged by people who have not?

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Section 82 relates to council housing, but the majority of Small Heath residents live in owner-occupied properties, so I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman. I am not aware of the figures for the Nechells or Aston wards.

Before reading The Observer article, I had never heard of Dean Nelson. Frankly, having read it, I do not want to hear of him again. However, this was not the first time that Mr. Nelson had written scandal articles. In 1990 and 1991, he wrote in The Independent about matters relating to local authorities in north Wales. In another article, Mr. Nelson made allegations about a former police officer, who sued The Independent,The Observer, Harlech Television and Private Eye, and was awarded £350,000 damages. At the end of that case, and after giving the matter serious study, Mr. Justice Drake—who is not given to using flowery language—referred to Mr. Nelson's journalistic methods as "plain crookery".

Birmingham has a problem with preserving its housing stock. Many properties in the city are unfit for habitation, and the money available to deal with the stock has been cut dramatically, from £60 million 10 years ago to less than £20 million. That problem of resources should concern all hon. Members representing Birmingham constituencies. Rightly or wrongly, the council decided, not illegally, to base its grants system on queuing and inquiry forms.

The forms had been completed by 9,500 people, but they have no legal standing whatever and if the system ended tomorrow those people would not have a legal leg to stand on. The queuing system is based on a cut-off date of July 1991, which is nearly four years ago. More to the point, the queuing system takes no account whatever of prioritisation. Those who applied after July 1991 and had minor problems of dampness in their properties went on the queuing list, as did those who applied after July 1991 and had no roof, dampness rising from the floor to the ceiling, every piece of wood riddled with woodworm and no hot water. As I have said, there is no prioritisation.

Some 18 months ago, I decided that I was no longer prepared to operate that system. I explained to the leader of the council that, in future when people came to see me, I would tell them the council's policy and its problems. I said that I would explain about the cut-off date and the queuing system. However, I said that, if any constituent said, "Please Mr. Godsiff, help me to get my urban renewal work carried out", I did not intend to deny that person his legal entitlement to know his rights. That is what I did, that is what I shall continue to do, and I make no apology for doing it.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for mentioning John Woodcock. Since I spoke to the leader of the council, I took care to ensure that anybody I passed on went to Mr. John Woodcock, a person of integrity and competence, who would deal properly with applications and would not rip people off. I took the trouble to interview him, not on my own but with another Birmingham Member, to ascertain that he was a person of integrity and competence. Everybody I have referred to him has spoken highly of the way in which he dealt with these matters.

I hold 11 advice bureau surgeries a month in my constituency and I have a full-time advice centre which is open five days a week. A huge number of people come to see me, many of them with urban renewal problems. My constituents are among the most disadvantaged in the country. I say with great respect that they are not middle-class people who know the law. They do not know the law, and they certainly do not know their entitlements. When they come to me as their Member of Parliament, they come to seek help, and many of them do not even have English as their first language.

I do not make the slightest apology in the House or anywhere else for helping my constituents to get their legal entitlements, because that is their right. I am sorry if, by doing that, I offend some people on the city council because it causes problems with their system. I will join those people in making representations to the Government for more resources, because that is what it is all about.

I suggested to the leader of the council that the 9,500 inquiry forms should be placed in front of the Secretary of State, and that he should be asked what to do with them. The 1989 Act is his legislation, and it is up to him to make sure that resources are available. I say again that my constituents are entitled to advice, and that I shall continue to give it when they come to see me. That advice will be given freely by me, irrespective of race, religion or colour.

12.33 pm

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The Labour party believes that wrongdoing in local or central Government or anywhere else should be rooted out without fear or favour. In local government, it should be rooted out whether it occurs in Labour, Tory or Liberal councils. We condemn wrongdoing wherever it occurs, but, unlike the Tory party, we also take action.

In Birmingham, charges of wrongdoing have arisen in connection with renovation grants. The immediate response to that from the Labour leader of the council was to call for a report from the district auditor. In an immediate response to the first article in The Observer, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) referred the matter to the police, as he has explained. He also referred it to the Home Secretary. In so far as there were charges relating to what might be wrongful actions within the Labour party, the party immediately announced a thorough investigation and closed four of the local branches to make sure that, if anything wrong had been done, it did not affect any selection or election that might be proceeding. That was right.

As a result of Labour action—not action by anyone else—there is an investigation by the district auditor, some sort of investigation by the police and an investigation by the Labour party. That is all at the instigation of the Labour party, and it was done without fear of favour. That is similar to the approach that we have adopted in Lambeth, Liverpool and other places. I contrast that with the record of the Tories when wrongdoing has occurred in Tory councils. When Wandsworth council was found guilty by the district auditor of breaking the law in relation to the homeless and carrying on headlong with its policy of selling council houses when people had nowhere to live, a vice-chairman of the Tory party, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), said on television that he was proud of that council's record—its law-breaking record!

In Westminster, the district auditor has made it clear that he thinks that the homes-for-votes scandal has cost £21 million and that the failure to collect service and repair charges from leaseholders may have cost £31 million. No investigation was instigated by the Tories who were in charge at Westminster: the Tory party in that council has been obstructive at every turn.

No Tory Minister and, to the best of my knowledge, no Tory Member has ever uttered one word of condemnation about Westminster council in relation to these scandals. Far from it: they have continued to defend the council. As I have said, that is in marked contrast to Labour's attitude to wrongdoing everywhere. Labour does something about it, but the Tories never utter a harsh word against their friends.

I do not know, nor do I think that any hon. Member knows, whether there has been wrongdoing in Birmingham. If there has been, it will be rooted out by Labour; but the issue is used as an excuse to attack the great city of Birmingham and its people. That great city and its ingenious and hard-working people, whose reputation for building and making is legendary throughout the world, have been hard hit by the recession, and the city council has done its desperate best not to take things lying down but to protect the people of that great city, maintain its economic status and give it an economic future.

The council has not always got it right—none of us ever does—but it has tried, and its partnership approach with local businesses and communities has been a substantial success, promoting job retention and creation. It has been criticised by the Tories in Birmingham and nationally at every turn. When the council built the international convention centre, it was described as a waste of money by local Tories—although not by all of them, because some supported it. It was certainly described as such by Tory Ministers, who accused Birmingham city council of squandering money on the centre.

Then what did we find? The most famous use that the centre has had to date on a serious matter was when the Prime Minister took the European summit to Birmingham because that great centre was worth showing off. The centre is smart and modern and has all the necessary facilities to host such an important conference. Not a penny of Government money went into it, and the Prime Minister preened himself and pranced around trying to take credit for it. I think that the centre was used last year for the CBI conference, and it will be used by the CBI again this year.

Lo and behold, among the Tory hypocrites the Tory party central council is to meet there at the end of this month. I wonder whether it will put up on one of those screens which it is so good at using a notice stating, "We condemned this place and the staff, and now we are proud to make use of it."

There have been complaints—they have been made time and again—about the city's efforts to renew the city centre and to make it a smart place of which the people of Birmingham and, indeed, Britain can be proud. It has succeeded. There has been a massive improvement in the city centre. Indeed, the Minister of State, Department of Employment visited the city centre this week and said:
"No one visiting the City of Birmingham can fail to be impressed by the change and developments in the city centre—surely one of the urban regeneration success stories of recent years."
The hon. Lady was merely following on from what the President of the Board of Trade had said last week, when he endorsed the city's regeneration efforts and held them up as a model of civic activity to promote regeneration.

However, all that the Government do is talk about renovation grants. It is absolutely typical of them—they will the end but do not will the means. They have given people a statutory right to renovation grants, but they have not provided the money to meet that right. The spending on renovation grants in the whole of Britain in 1984 was £1.5 billion; it was down to less than £500 million when the last annual figures were produced. In 1984., some 214,000 grants were made, but in the last year for which the full figures are available the number had been reduced to just 34,000. Councils have been forced to institute queuing systems. That may not be lawful, but it is the only thing that they can do when they are faced by people with a statutory right but have not been provided with the Government funds to meet that.

In the very last Budget, the Government lopped a further £57 million off the private sector renovation grant scheme. Birmingham was caught in a dilemma not of its or Labour's making but of the Tory Government's making. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), the chairman of the local newspaper group, asked who jumped the queue. The people of Birmingham are not really concerned about who jumped the queue; they are bothered about the people who created the queue in the first place. That needs to be sorted out.

If the city of Birmingham is to discharge its tasks, it faces massive problems in trying to serve almost 1 million people. It needs Government help to provide services. In the Government's list of deprived places in Britain, Birmingham comes 21st. Hon. Members might think that is fair and reasonable, but it should be compared with places that are higher up the list. For example, Westminster is fourth on the list; Kensington and Chelsea is 11th; the City of London—Barings notwithstanding, God help us—is 19th, before the great city of Birmingham. As a result, Birmingham's grant has been cut this year and it has been forced to increase its council tax and cut services. Consequently, the council tax payers of Birmingham, like the council tax payers in most other parts of the country, will he paying more and getting less because of the unfair distribution of grants.

If Birmingham city council had received as much financial help from the Government this year as Westminster received, it would not have had to collect any council tax. Indeed, if it had received the same level of grant as Westminster, it would have paid out an average rebate of £230 to every householder in Birmingham. That shows the unfairness of the system that the Government operate. It is a racket, and the system is rigged in favour of the Government's friends. Of course, the Tories do not regard the people of Birmingham as their friends.

I do not know whether the Secretary of State will roll it out again in his speech, but we are bound to hear the Tories say during the local government elections that Birmingham has a bigger debt than Albania. So it has. Let us compare Birmingham with Albania. Birmingham has better houses than Albania. Birmingham has better schools than Albania. Birmingham has better roads than Albania. Birmingham has better libraries than Albania. The reason for that is that Birmingham has invested in houses, schools, roads and libraries. To do that, and like anyone else, it had to take out a mortgage and then pay it back. That is why Birmingham has debt. The point is that people were prepared to lend money to Birmingham, while no one in his right mind would lend money to Albania. That is what Birmingham has done, and it has done it with the support of the people of Birmingham. Year in, year out, the Labour council has won election after election.

The council previously has been accused of neglecting education. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) spelled out, there have been massive improvements in education in Birmingham, giving priority to educating the children and young people of that great city to give them a chance in life and to give the city in 10, 15 or 20 years' time a chance in Britain and in the world.

I want again to emphasise the unfairness of the distribution system. If Birmingham's education grant had been as big as Westminster's in relation to the population, next year every primary school in Birmingham could have had two extra teachers and every 11-to-18 school could have had 20 extra teachers, without raising a penny on the council tax. That is a further illustration of the unfairness of the system.

I do not have time to spell out all the achievements of the city council. It has its faults—don't we all? However, it is trying hard in difficult circumstances. We have to ask, why are we having this debate? It is part of a concerted attack by the Tories on Birmingham. As I am sure the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield can confirm, there was a meeting last week, to which he was invited by the chairman of the Tory party, to discuss what the Tories could do in their campaign against Birmingham—[Interruption.] The Chief Whip was there. We could quote from conversations in the Corridors; people sometimes talk too loudly, and other people listen.

The Tories are launching their local government campaign today and they are starting it, as they did last year, by suggesting that Birmingham and the people of Birmingham are sleazy and are stupid for voting Labour. The fact is that the people of Birmingham know who is good for their city. They have solidly voted Labour for many years, and I am confident that they will do so again. The Tories' attempt to do down the city of Birmingham and its people will backfire. I am convinced that it will rebound on them, just as it did at this time last year.

12.46 pm

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The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) again revealed his ignorance of how the local government system works, so I shall remind him. The arrangements for grant are worked out by the Government and the Labour-controlled Association of District Councils, the Labour-controlled Association of County Councils, the Labour-controlled association covering the inner-London area and the outer-London area and the Labour-controlled Association of Metropolitan Councils—none of which says that the system is rigged and none of which agrees with the hon. Gentleman. All of them know the facts; the hon. Gentleman does not. That is the position from which we should start.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) set an example to the House in the way in which he responded to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) in his comments about his constituent. Throughout the current situation, the hon. Gentleman has been extremely careful to make it clear that when he is talking about grave allegations, he means allegations. He has not sought, in any circumstances, to suggest that anyone is guilty until he is so proven.

The House will recognise the distinction between the hon. Gentleman's approach, which throughout has been honourable, and the approach exemplified by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who, I am afraid, fell below even his usual standard in dealing with such a serious issue. The fact is that serious allegations have been made, against a background in which large sums of money have been put into Birmingham by the Government. On the Stockfield estate, tenants now live in houses owned by their own community association—not run in the appalling way in which Birmingham council had run the estate. The Birmingham Heartlands development corporation is spending £40 million in the inner-city area—the money comes directly from the taxpayer, through Government money, and matched by private money.

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Will the Secretary of State give way?

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I do not have time to give way.

In Birmingham, Castle Vale housing action trust—HATs were opposed tooth and nail by Labour councils up and down the country—received £100 million in Government money. Altogether, that makes about £400 million. That money is going towards the development of Birmingham, a proud city that is doing a great deal, most of it through partnership and direct Government and taxpayers' money.

I am pleased that, only last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) congratulated Birmingham on that partnership during a visit. The partnership has been made possible by the Government. It was set up in the teeth of opposition from the politically and historically neanderthal Birmingham council, which is supported by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is more neanderthal than many.

Increasingly, Birmingham is an improved city where developments are being funded by the taxpayer. The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook says that it has done better on education. That happened because the in-coming Labour authority attacked the outgoing Labour authority for not spending any money on education. In the past year and a bit, it has managed to start to make up for Birmingham city council's appalling education policy. The right hon. Gentleman knows that well. Instead of making pompous little remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for—[Interruption.]

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Edgbaston. [Interruption.]

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Order. The Opposition spokesman was given a hearing and the Secretary of State should be given the same.

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The Opposition spokesman finds it difficult to take any subject seriously because, if he did so, he would have to do some work to find out the facts. He does not like doing that. He does not know that £400 million has gone into Birmingham, or the facts about Birmingham. His knowledge is merely the anecdotal knowledge that leads him to throw allegations at anyone who does not support the Labour party.

I notice that the Labour party's approach to the Birmingham problem is different from its approach to other problems. If I were to speak about Birmingham as the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) did when he was doing the job of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, what would I say? I would say that this was
"a case of political corruption and gerrymandering on a scale unknown in modern Britain … There is no parallel … for corruption on this scale."
I would also say that the Labour party in Birmingham

"is rotten and amoral to the core, and has abandoned the most basic principles of public morality."—[Official Report, 13 January 1994; Vol. 235, c. 348.]
That is what I would have said if I were the sort of person who takes an allegation and then makes statements as if a court case had been held and a decision made.

The Labour party is entirely selective in the way in which it deals with these matters. I shall treat the allegations in precisely the same way as I have treated allegations against Lambeth, Westminster, Birmingham and the like. Until the district auditor's case has been proved, any Englishman is innocent until he is proved guilty. [Interruption.] That is not an unimportant matter. The fact that the Labour party can laugh at the basic principle of British justice shows clearly why the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras does not understand that the House is let down by the sort of speeches that he and the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook have made today.

The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook did not think that it mattered if funds had been misappropriated because not a lot of money was involved. In his view, it is only a small baby—that is all—and it does not matter because it is not very much. Conservative Members believe that it does matter, however small it is, and whichever party is guilty. If people are guilty, they should be punished; if they are not guilty, they should be presumed innocent. The House's privileges should not be abused by hon. Members, who could be sued if they made some of their comments outside the House.

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Will the Secretary of State give way?

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I shall not give way.

The problem is that Birmingham city council has much to be modest about, whereas Birmingham has a great deal to be proud of. After all, the council must explain the £2.5 million spent on women's workshops; not many jobs were created with that money. It must explain the £700,000 spent on the council's newspaper, the £3 million wasted on the social services department's computer system and the £1 million given to a trade union resource centre. It must explain that when it complains that there is not enough money for renovation grants, when it says that it does not have the money that it thinks is necessary for a range of goods, and when Opposition Front-Bench spokesman are giggling away. No doubt it does not matter that £1 million went to the trade union resource centre because, in the words of the right hon. Gentleman for Sparkbrook, it is not very much.

The issue is how we should deal with the allegations. I suggest to right hon. and hon. Opposition Members that they would have done their cause more good by taking a large leaf out of the book of the hon. Member for Perry Barr. That would have involved making a clear statement, and then allowing the district auditor to investigate it.

When the district auditor issues his report, I hope that Opposition Members will not assume that what he says means that someone is guilty until the due process of law has been completed. Interestingly, the statement of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras about what the auditor had said about Wandsworth implied that the auditor had said that something illegal had occurred. But the auditor said that the matter may be illegal and may have to be considered in the courts. If the hon. Gentleman cannot distinguish between one and the other when flinging his allegations across the House, he should not be here. He should recognise the damage that he does to the reputation not only of the House, but of the country for fair play and honesty.

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Will the Secretary of State give way?

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I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman overran his time, as did the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff).

The hon. Member for Small Heath is at the centre of the allegations. It would be wrong for anyone to make allegations about the hon. Gentleman, any of his hon. Friends or the people with whom he works without having extremely good evidence. It is much better to put that evidence in front of the suitable authorities rather than the public arena. He might just feel that his attempt to prove his position point by point would have been more successful if he had looked at the matter differently.

In these circumstances, we should do for ourselves precisely what we have done for other people. If the Labour party had approached this matter in the same way as it has approached other matters when it has attacked Conservative-controlled authorities, it would have gone to town today. We would never have seen the like of it before. What is wrong about the approach of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, apart from the consistent smirk, is that he has appalling double standards. In his view, people who have not been proved guilty are guilty if they are Conservatives and entirely innocent if they are socialists; people must not be smeared if they are socialists, but must he accepted as being absolutely guilty if they are Conservatives. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have let down the House by applying a double standard to an incompetent and useless council about which a number of allegations have been made.

The district auditor will investigate those allegations. I hope that, in the meantime, hon. Members of all parties will continue to adopt an even-handed approach and that we shall hear no more unsubstantiated allegations from Opposition Members about a Conservative council. We stand for the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty.

Land Mines

1 pm

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There is a global land mine—[Interruption.]

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Order. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?

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There is a global land mine crisis—there are 100 million land mines in 62 countries. The United Nations estimates that 800 people die each month from land mine injuries, and 1 million people have been killed or maimed since 1973. Twenty million refugees want to return to their homes, but are impeded by the problem of uncleared mines.

The purpose of land mines is to bring terror to large populations. They have been sown around key economic installations, electricity and water plants, roads and ports, and civilians are the targets. The United States recently reported that the number of land mines deployed increases by between 500,000 and 1 million each year, and that they are increasingly becoming more sophisticated and hard to detect.

The present generation of land mines are plastic, with only a small metal component, which means that they are difficult to detect with metal-seeking devices. The next generation could well be all plastic, and perhaps undetectable. Mines have increasingly sophisticated electrical fuses that are far more hazardous to find and remove, and have associated booby traps, too. By contrast, mine clearance technology has advanced little since the 1940s.

The United Nations reports 84 de-mining experts killed in Kuwait, and at least 30 in Afghanistan. There are terrific complications in clearing mines in Cambodia, Mozambique and Rwanda. In those counties, mines are often planted in long grass or on the tea plantations, which may have to be taken up blade by blade, bush by bush.

Mine clearance is expensive. The Government give about £8 million towards the process, but that is small potatoes when set against the extent of the problem. In Afghanistan, which has 10 million mines, it would cost about $17 million a year for six years just to clear the priority community areas. In Cambodia, there are between 5 million and 7 million mines, and our Government helped train the Khmer Rouge to lay them. In Rwanda, Somalia, Mozambique, Bosnia, the Yemen and the Gulf, millions of mines have been laid and are waiting to explode.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, pointed out that mines had gone from being
"a tactical battlefield weapon to a theatrewide weapon of mass civilian destruction—a weapon of mass destruction in slow motion."
Land mines need to be treated like chemical weapons, with a total worldwide ban. The United Nations has urged such a ban; the United States instituted a one-year ban or moratorium in October 1992, and extended it in 1993 for an additional three years; the European Parliament passed a resolution in December 1992 demanding a five-year moratorium; and many countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Israel, South Africa, Argentina and Canada, have announced their support for a moratorium. The Government say that they back the UN resolution for a moratorium, although the Foreign Office resisted it fiercely in private before accepting it. The Government keep demanding and applying exemptions to it.

The inhumane weapons convention of 1981 has a land mines protocol. We signed up to the convention in 1981, but I am told that we ratified it only three weeks ago. In answer to a parliamentary question on 16 January, the Government said that the motivation for ratification was to be able to take part in the September review conference. The implication is that they do not really support the convention but merely want a place at the table.

We have ratified the convention but only by Executive order, not legislation. Legislation would have made it a specific crime to breach the convention, but the Executive order does not. Only military disciplinary procedures will apply. That is not a good example to set other countries.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is in his place. He tabled the excellent early-day motion 727, which refers to the petition recently presented to Downing street by the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. It had millions of signatures, and called for an immediate moratorium on the export of all anti-personnel mines, and for the Government to encourage other Governments to follow suit. What have the Government done to encourage other Governments to follow suit?

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I congratulate the hon. Member on raising this issue on the Floor of the House. He might like to know that 100 hon. Members of all parties have now signed the early-day motion, and that many people share his belief that far more should be done not only to stop the export of component parts from the United Kingdom but to influence those countries which are the quartermasters, which provide the armaments and anti-personnel mines that are doing so much damage and creating major development problems.

There are 30,000 amputees in Cambodia alone who are the direct casualties of land mines, and I million people around the world have either died or been injured as a result of coming into contact with anti-personnel mines. Many hon. Members of all parties welcome the hon. Gentleman's initiative.

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I am grateful for that intervention, and to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that this is an all-party matter.

Also on 16 January, the Government said that no manufacturers were currently supplying United Kingdom armed forces with anti-personnel mines, including self-destruct or self-neutralising ones. If, as the Government claim, none has been exported since 1982, the implication is that no United Kingdom manufacturer is currently making complete land mines. Therefore, the Government could ban manufacture and export from this country. Why have they not done so?

In another place on 16 January, Lord Ingelwood said in effect that the moratorium did not include components for land mines and that exports were considered on a case-by-case basis. What has the Minister to say about components? Are we still making and exporting them?

What about work on land mines done by British companies under licence abroad? What about their research work? Oxfam said that the Government referred only to conventional land mines as part of the moratorium. What about non-conventional mines? The Government should be far more open about their policy. What are they covering up? Why will they not support a complete ban on the manufacture and export of such items?

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked a couple of interesting questions about exports. In answer to one, he was told that the Government had established a moratorium on the export of mines that did not have self-destruct or self-neutralising mechanisms, and that export licenses for components would be considered only in the light of "other established criteria". What are those criteria? The response makes particular reference to the exemption in respect of the self-destruct and self-neutralising mechanisms which the Government have awarded themselves.

In answer to another question about the export of land mines with self-destruct mechanisms, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields was told by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement:
"The UK has declared an indefinite moratorium on the export from the UK of all anti-personnel land mines which do not have self-destruct or self-neutralising mechanisms."
That means that the moratorium does not apply to the mines that do have such mechanisms. The reply goes on to refer to the Government's efforts in trying to forestall the transfer of anti-personnel mines. The final sentence is especially interesting:
"Any applications for an export licence for a land mine which did possess a self-destruct mechanism would be assessed carefully in the light of these and other factors."—[Official Report, 27 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 445.]
What other factors? The Minister should answer that. That whole sentence implies that permission may still be given for exports of those components. In fact, permission probably would be given if the mines were to have a self-destruct mechanism.

The Government are wrong in trying to set up an exemption for self-destruct and self-neutralising mines. They have said that such mines do not pose great dangers to civilian populations. They do. They still kill and maim innocent civilians, and are costly and dangerous to remove. Other countries do not talk about exemptions for such mines, so why do this Government?

Oxfam has expressed its concern about the Government trying thAT get-out; for example, it asks how long the Government say such mines should be in the ground. That is worth an answer, because the longer the mines are in the ground, the more dangerous they are.

Oxfam also asks whether the Government have researched the failure rates of self-destruct and self-neutralising mechanisms. I can answer that, because the Government answered my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) on that subject on 18 January. The answer was none. They have not conducted any research into failure rates, so their assumptions that such mines are not so dangerous is false. The Government are wrong to have distinguished between types of mines and established an exemption for themselves.

The Government have argued that the British Army should have anti-personnel land mine capability, and that the mines are legitimate defence weapons if used in accordance with the laws of war—clearly marked when laid, and removed afterwards. Incidentally, the Government have not ratified the 1977 additional protocol to the Geneva convention on the laws of war, and they should have, because it is linked to the inhumane weapons convention.

Most wars these days are not conducted according to those traditional laws of wars. Most conflicts are guerrilla wars or internal wars, such as in Bosnia, where anti-personnel mines are not used in any structured or controlled way. As I have said, they are used to destroy morale and instill terror among civilians.

Indeed, it has been reported that some land mines have even been dropped from the air, which shows the indiscriminate nature of their use. British forces have a whole array of sophisticated weapons at hand if operating abroad—we certainly do not want to deploy land mines in this country under any circumstances. It is worth the British forces abandoning their use of this weapon to stop the terror worldwide.

The Government have been obstructive, as was the case at the recent Copenhagen world summit. I bring to the attention of the House a letter I received—presumably other hon. Members also received it—from the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Bishop of Brentwood, leaders of the Religious Society of Friends, the Salvation Army and other groups. It says:
"The draft document for the Social Summit in Copenhagen includes a paragraph (No. 71) from the Vatican seeking to address the problem of arms with indiscriminate effects, e.g. land mines and laser weapons. Britain has bracketed this paragraph which means we want it removed. Please use your influence to persuade the Government to support the Vatican paragraph, rather than to eliminate it."
From what I hear about that Copenhagen summit, the Government had their way, and the Vatican's proposal was not taken on board. The Minister should explain why the Government took that position.

The land mines protocol of the inhumane weapons convention is acknowledged to be weak. For example, it does not apply to internal conflicts. Instead of trying to strengthen it, the Government are trying to exploit it. They keep saying that mines can be used in accordance with the protocol, and that mines do not pose great dangers to civilian populations. That is poppycock. The Government are also blocking the call for a moratorium and a total export ban.

By dragging their feet, the Government could deem worthless the review conference due to take place in September, in which land mines will be the major subject for debate. We should not wait until September in any case, we need action now, and strong action from Governments such as the British Government, to ensure a moratorium and a total export ban if we are to encourage other Governments and other countries to do the same.

There is a difference between the political parties on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, has made it clear that the Labour party has called for the Government to fully support the UN motion on halting the export of anti-personnel mines, including the high-tech varieties with self-destruct mechanisms. Indeed, my hon. Friend assures me of the proposed ban of export of all anti-personnel land mines.

Oxfam has also made recommendations of which the House should be aware. Among them, it recommends at the very least that a ban on the export, transfer or sale of all anti-personnel mines, including those with self-destruct and self-neutralising mechanisms, should be agreed at the final review conference. The inhuman weapons convention should be made applicable to internal conflicts as well and it should be strengthened by an effective system of monitoring and enforcement.

Oxfam says:
"The above recommendations are vital, but the only adequate solution is a total ban on the production, sale and use of anti-personnel mines."
The Government should adopt such a policy and, if they do not, they risk being almost—I hesitate to say it—the Myra Hindley of the international community, if they allow such indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians around the world to continue. We do not want that.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon) rose—

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Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) to speak?

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I hope I have.

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Without the permission of the hon. Member for Leyton and the Minister, I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to speak.

1.16 pm

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I apologise for that misunderstanding, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) wished to speak. We are rather short of time.

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Will my hon. Friend give way? Mr. Davis: I shall give way for one intervention.

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I simply want to say that I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) for introducing this subject, and for his cogent and moving speech. I cannot conceive of any sufficient justification for this country continuing to permit the export of anti-personnel mines. I hope very much that, in fact, we shall have an enhanced programme to support the clear-up of these appalling devices. Apart from the humanitarian consideration, how much more in Britain's interest that surely would be than to continue to allow Britain's contribution to the world, even in principle, to be one which allows such destructiveness and suffering to continue.

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I shall have to move pretty fast to cover the points that I hope to cover.

I too congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) on obtaining this debate, and raising this subject. I certainly welcome the opportunity to reply.

The effect of land mines on civilians has rightly become a humanitarian issue of considerable public concern. The Government fully understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Leyton, although I hope that he will forgive me if I do not quite agree with his hyperbole from point to point about the Government's policy. As the hon. Gentleman said, the irresponsible use of land mines in recent conflicts, particularly in Africa and Asia, has had terrible consequences for civilians. Those consequences have endured long after the hostilities have ended. Scenes from those countries of awful damage to innocent civilians, often children, have understandably aroused strong emotions. The Government share the widespread abhorrence of those scenes. We share the views expressed by many charities and humanitarian agencies. Indeed, I believe that we share the views of the hon. Member for Leyton that the international community needs to act quickly.

The international community is acting. Contrary to what the hon. Member said, I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom is taking a lead in many areas. We have led the way in proposing and implementing practical and sensible measures which will command wide adherence, and which will therefore do the job for which they are intended—reducing the danger to innocent civilians.

I should like to set out clearly what we have done so far, and what we propose to do in the coming months. In doing so, I hope to respond to the majority of the points raised by the hon. Member for Leyton. My first announcement as a Minister, on 27 July 1994, was an indefinite moratorium on the export of all anti-personnel land mines, other than those equipped with a self-destructing or self-neutralising mechanism. That moratorium covers all countries.

We are often asked—the hon. Member for Leyton raised this point—why it is necessary to confine the moratorium to non-self-destructing mines. The answer is that that, in our view, is the best way to achieve our principal objective, which is to protect civilians. It is not combatants in the heat of battle but civilians who have suffered most from the improper or immoral use of land mines.

The hon. Member for Leyton had a vivid phrase for such weapons. He said that they were weapons which act in slow motion. Civilians are killed or injured when they return home and when they leave their homes to go about their daily business—not just in the days and weeks following a war, but sometimes for years afterwards. It is the mines that were laid earlier but which are still active which lead to most of the terrible pictures that we have all seen, not the use of land mines in the conflict itself.

All land mines can cause injuries to civilians as well as soldiers. However, a smart land mine which self-destructs or is neutralised after a period is then no longer a danger to civilians.

The hon. Member for Leyton raised two issues, with which I want to deal very quickly, in respect of technical standards and research.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I apologise, but I cannot give way. I would have liked to give way, but I am very short of time.

Our experts tell us that, with regard to standards, a failure rate of one in 1,000 is possible. The American experts, dealing with a technology that is well understood, believe that a failure rate of one in 1 million is achievable. Although the hon. Member for Leyton said that there was no research on the matter, as soon as the United Nations weaponry convention reaches a conclusion, and we reach a conclusion on our code of practice, the Ministry of Defence will undertake work to ensure that mines that obtain under the new convention meet those conditions properly.

It would be easy to say, "Ban the export of all land mines." However, the vast majority of countries, including Britain and most other western countries, accept that land mines are a legitimate means of defence, provided that they are used responsibly and in accordance with the laws of war. Frankly, we would not persuade many countries that they should give up land mines altogether.

Even more importantly, a complete ban on the export of land mines by well-meaning western countries would have little effect where it really matters. The conflicts which the hon. Member for Leyton and I have mentioned have largely been in the developing world. Land mines are a cheap weapon. In our view, it is only realistic to recognise that they will continue to be used.

Our aim should be to ensure that existing stocks are replaced as quickly as possible with self-destructing mines. That is not only a logical and realistic approach; in our view, it is the most humanitarian approach. That is why I announced last July a ban on the export of anti-personnel land mines which do not self destruct. It is our policy to support steps that represent realistic and practical progress. Our decisions at each stage reflect that.

I am pleased to be able to announce to the House an extension of the United Kingdom's policy. I am announcing a ban, with immediate effect, on the export of all types of anti-personnel land mines to those countries which have not ratified the United Nations weaponry convention. I can also announce—this relates directly to a point raised by the hon. Member for Leyton—that the United Kingdom's moratorium is now extended to cover a total ban on the export of non-detectable anti-personnel land mines.

That enhanced moratorium underlines our commitment to put an end to the trade in the types of anti-personnel land mines that are the most dangerous to civilians. It adds a further safeguard by confirming our support for a complete ban on non-detectable anti-personnel land mines which are especially difficult, dangerous and expensive to clear, as the hon. Member for Leyton quite rightly pointed out. Above all, it underlines our support for the principle that land mines must be used responsibly. I hope that it shows a principled and sensible example.

We hope that our action will encourage more countries to ratify the UN weaponry convention and abide by its provisions. We hope that others which have not announced moratoriums, and most particularly those countries which produce land mines, will follow that example soon. However, we are not simply making a gesture, as I believe we were accused of doing earlier, important though that is. The United Kingdom was one of the initial signatories to the 1981 UN weaponry convention—the so-called inhumane weapons convention. That convention lays down rules for the responsible use of land mines and certain other weapons.

The hon. Member for Leyton was correct to say that we did not ratify that convention until earlier this year. However, that was a somewhat technical and legal point, because our armed forces have been trained, throughout the period since signature, to abide by the convention. They have abided by it in two wars—the Falklands war and the Gulf war. In the Gulf war, we were dealing with an adversary who had not even signed the convention, let alone abided by it. Rather more than most countries, we can demonstrate a commitment to the notion of responsible behaviour in warfare.

The weaponry convention is an important landmark in the process of establishing sound laws of war, but it is now 15 years old. It is generally accepted that its provisions need strengthening. The hon. Member for Leyton made that point. The convention will be reviewed at a conference to be held in September. We will be there, as a full state party, and we will be taking a lead.

Our objectives are to strengthen the convention and to persuade more states to ratify and abide by it. When I talk about strengthening the convention, I mean a significant expansion of its coverage; here I come to a point raised by the hon. Gentleman. We want the convention to cover not only international conflicts but civil wars and other internal conflicts. That is vital, because the majority of cases of land mine abuse are not international wars. It is important that the convention should send a signal that the use of land mines in internal conflicts should also be governed by the humanitarian laws of war.

These are important areas in which we are working for the strengthening of the convention. It is important that the convention should set down clear definitions and standards for self-destructing mines, for the reasons that I set out earlier. It should stipulate when and how minefields are to be marked to keep civilians out. It should ensure that minefields are properly mapped, both to assist mine clearance after a conflict and to protect humanitarian agencies. There should also be provision to assist those agencies when working in those areas. Those are provisions which our own armed forces are trained to adhere to strictly.

The convention should ensure that mines are detectable. There is broad agreement on that, and on banning non-detectable anti-personnel mines. We also support the proposal that the convention should introduce international controls on transfers.

Those are our aims for the review conference in September, and we shall continue to work hard to achieve them. That means getting international consensus. There has been good progress in the preparations, but there is still much work to do. We have some persuading to do. We arc working with other countries to ensure that the results of the review are the best possible.

We have invested a good deal of effort in the revision of the weaponry convention, but we believe that serious land mine problems should be attacked on several fronts. To that end, last summer we proposed a code of conduct restricting the transfer of land mines. That is intended as a politically binding undertaking, to which states could accede with great formalities, and as a first step towards a more comprehensive programme for the control of land mine transfers. The idea provoked much useful thought and helped to concentrate minds, and others have made their own suggestions.

In addition to close co-ordination with our European allies, we are dealing extremely closely with our American friends on this matter. We aim to take it forward in parallel with the efforts of the weaponry convention—

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Order. Mr. Warren Hawksley.

Hayley Green Hospital

1.30 pm

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I thank you for allowing me to raise the important issue of Hayley Green hospital and its proposed closure, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is a very important issue in my constituency. The closure of any hospital is of great importance to Members of Parliament. Before I came to the House, I always believed that, in local government, small—whether in hospitals or schools—can be beautiful. I formed that view from an early age, perhaps because my late father was the chairman of a cottage hospital in Oswestry, which was set up with his help before the last war. Local small hospitals are something that the people are entitled to hope can be retained.

This case is made even worse because Hayley Green hospital is the only hospital in my constituency. Although every Member of Parliament would be worried about a closure, I suggest that the problem would be worse if it involved the closure of their only hospital.

Hayley Green is a very good hospital and, for more than 100 years, has provided useful hospital cover for generations of people in the Halesowen area. The purpose of that cover has changed and the hospital has had different uses. As time goes by, one accepts that changes are necessary, and I shall discuss the possibility that the hospital could, I hope, have a new use, but still in the health sphere.

The fact that the hospital is very popular was demonstrated when, in a very short time, the friends of the hospital received the signatures of 15,000 of my constituents who were calling for it to be kept open. The hospital is pleasant, the staff are very caring and it is set in beautiful grounds near a bus route. It is convenient for people visiting friends and relatives in the hospital.

As well as the massive objections from my constituents, it is interesting to note that, when the community health council was consulted, as the rules require, it formally objected to Dudley health authority's proposals. I suggest that it is the health watchdog to which we should listen.

If I were on the Opposition Benches, I would be saying that the closure was due to Government cuts, and I would be shouting and hollering political suggestions. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner)—the only Opposition Member present—but that is not the case. In Halesowen, we are paying for the fact that, since 1979, the Government have increased expenditure on health by about 68 per cent. in real terms. The increase in the health budget is causing our problems.

The hospital was full and well used until August last year, and no one locally thought that there was any danger of it being closed. The problem has arisen because of Government investment in the building of a new district general hospital in Sandwell. The opening of that hospital resulted in the withdrawal of patients who had been in Hayley Green but were residents of Sandwell. Naturally, the Sandwell authority has taken them back to their own area. I am sorry to disappoint the Labour party, but this is a case not of cost cutting, but of increased expenditure in the neighbouring authority.

Half the patients at Hayley Green came from the Sandwell area, which is why the hospital had only 50 per cent. occupancy after the new hospital opened in August last year. I accepted, as did most of my constituents, that something had to be done. One cannot run a hospital on only 50 per cent. occupancy. I, and to a certain extent the health authority, started an appeal to find alternative uses for the hospital site. I ought to explain that it is a green-field site and cannot be sold, as some people have suggested, for use as a supermarket or petrol station. That would not be approved by the local council, which has confirmed its use as a health establishment, and that is how it must remain.

If the hospital is closed, one must assume that patients from my constituency will be moved to one of the Dudley hospitals. Interestingly, during the consultation period, when we heard people's concerns about the proposals, the only supporter of the closure I heard of was a Dudley resident. His reason was that the hospital was too far away, and was very hard to get to by public or private transport because the road system drags one through Merry Hill, which is an area of certain congestion. The public transport system does not easily allow the cross-Dudley route. I suggest that that argument was the greatest argument that we had in Halesowen for retaining the hospital.

When the consultation period started, Dudley said that only 48 local—that is, Halesowen—patients had been in the hospital during the previous year. At the end of the consultation period, as many of my constituents had argued that that figure did not look right, Dudley health authority admitted that the 48 should have been 119, and that the figure was nearly 150 per cent. out. That was not a very good basis for making the original decision to close the hospital.

I appreciate that Dudley health authority's request has gone to the region which, in the view of many of my constituents, merely rubber-stamped it, and that because the community health council objected, the matter is with the Secretary of State. I appreciate that it might well be slightly sub judice as it is in her hands and I do not expect an answer today. I do not expect a yes or a no, but I hope that the Minister will be able to cover a few of my questions in his reply.

During the consultative procedures, quite serious questions have been raised. The first concerns the Dudley hospital trust, which was set up in April 1994 and had been using Hayley Green for its patients. In April 1994, Hayley Green was not surplus to requirements and was still needed as part of its plan. Because the regional health authority's lawyers had not completed the paperwork when the closure was proposed, they are claiming that the property will remain with West Midlands regional health authority.

That is unfair. If the Department could suggest that the capital that would be raised by selling the hospital, if it is sold, or as a result of whatever happens to the site, should be used for the benefit of people in the area, as Hayley Green is an old hospital that was raised by voluntary endeavour, my constituents would feel much better. That would not seem an unreasonable suggestion, as it should have been the capital of the trust when it started up in April last year.

The second question also involves the trust. I accept that this is early days—certainly for trusts in our part of the country—but we had many discussions as to what would happen to the hospital. I have here a leaflet entitled, "Hayley Green Hospital: Need It be Closed?", which advertised a public meeting. I was listed as being present to speak, Dudley health authority sent its chief executive and the trust was invited to send its chairman or chief executive, but it did not do so and took little part in the consultative procedures.

I am concerned that, as a Government, we should persuade trusts to accept a certain amount of responsibility if a hospital closure is proposed because of the withdrawal of purchasing contracts on the site. They should take part in the consultative procedures and look actively for other ways in which the facilities that are being closed could be useful in the health field. I say that deliberately, because the chairman of the health authority—who attended the meeting with the chief executive and myself—felt that many of the questions asked could have been answered very much better by the trust.

My third point is whether the recent case of the 55-year-old Leeds man who complained to the NHS ombudsman has any relevance to this case, and some of my constituents have written to me recently regarding that case. My hon. Friend the Minister stated that some health authorities will now be forced to re-provide withdrawn intensive nursing and other services for the elderly as a result of the ombudsman case. I ask for a reassurance that we shall look again before a decision is made to see whether the local health authority might need the hospital provision to honour that judgment. I hope that that point will be given serious consideration.

My fourth point is that, if the decision is made to close the hospital, the site should be used for health. I have stated that the site would be unlikely to get planning permission for any other purpose. The local league of friends might well consider setting up an old people's home in the form of a trust, and the local social services committee might well be prepared to offer 15 people to put into such a home.

Can my hon. Friend say whether it is appropriate to encourage Dudley health authority to take an interest in what happens to the hospital, and to work with social services and possibly with the league of friends to see whether a trust can be set up? That is a possibility, but nobody will be prepared to give it serious consideration until we know that closure is inevitable.

But if that happens, will it be possible to have such provision on a site designated only for health? West Midlands regional health authority, which obtained the property by unfair means—on the day when the trust was set up, the property was in use—should offer a reasonable lease to Dudley health authority, social services or a trust, so that the site can be used for the elderly.

My fifth point is that I would like to know what is to happen to the proceeds that will be raised if the site is sold. That is important, and I hope that the proceeds will come back into the Dudley area or the west midlands area.

I hope that I have shown that we are realistic in Halesowen. We realise that we have to tackle the problem that has been created by the building of a brand new hospital at Sandwell, but we believe that Halesowen should not suffer to the extent of having no hospital provision at all. We believe that the hospital can and should be saved. If it is not saved, we should look at the possibility of another health-based public service being provided. To do that, we shall need the help and good will not only of the Department and the Minister, but of West Midlands regional health authority and Dudley health authority.

Even at this late stage, I hope that we can convince the Department that the approval for closure that the West Midlands authority has requested should not be granted. I also hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the use of the premises in the long term may include health purposes.

1.43 pm

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Hawksley) on having the opportunity to initiate this debate, and on the helpful and measured way in which he has done so. Hon. Members who have had small hospitals in their constituencies understand the loyalty and affection that they can engender, and the concerns that are raised when there are question marks over their future.

While my hon. Friend kindly excused me from giving an answer to his main question today—he is right to say that that is not possible—he asked for clarification and answers that might help to reassure people. As he said, if they do not have the facilities that they have now, they would like to ensure that there is good health provision in their area. That is why I am glad to respond to the debate.

As my hon. Friend said, the proposal to close Hayley Green hospital has been contested by the community health council, and it has been referred to the Secretary of State by West Midlands regional health authority. My right hon. Friend has yet to reach a decision on its future.

My hon. Friend will also know that the Dudley Group of Hospitals NHS trust, which serves the residents of the borough of Dudley, is divided among five sites. While I appreciate the desire of the residents of Halesowen to retain services at Hayley Green hospital, the proposal that the hospital be closed will be judged on whether it is based on sound clinical and managerial factors, and with the best interests of the residents of the borough of Dudley in mind.

Hayley Green hospital is sited extremely close to the south-eastern boundary of the borough and has traditionally performed several roles, mainly connected with services for elderly people. Those services include rehabilitation for elderly patients with medical conditions, chest medicine for patients with chronic conditions and a 10-place pre-discharge unit for patients getting ready to transfer home following treatment. That amounts to a complement of 47 beds. The hospital serves patients from all over Dudley and occasionally patients from outside the borough.

Last April, the Dudley Group of Hospitals trust had to accept a large reduction in the contract that it had with Sandwell health authority. That was as a direct result of Sandwell Healthcare NHS trust planning to open, and subsequently opening, the new Rowley Regis community hospital in September. It enabled Sandwell health authority to purchase more locally accessible services for its population, removing much of its requirement for services from the Dudley Group of Hospitals. As my hon. Friend said, the problem has been caused by increased Government investment in the health service, which has resulted in new facilities that have affected his constituency.

The Dudley Group of Hospitals, as a self-governing trust, chose to concentrate the impact of the contract change on one site rather than try to spread savings attempts across a variety of sites in the trust. That meant the closure of more than half the beds at Hayley Green hospital, leaving the unit—in its view—unviable and extremely expensive to run. If the Dudley Group of Hospitals was to retain the site with its residual services, I am told that that would entail an additional cost of £180,000 per annum to Dudley health authority. As I am sure my hon. Friend can understand, those are funds that the health authority would prefer to invest in health care for the residents of Dudley, rather than—as the authority sees it—spend them on the maintenance of underused buildings.

As my hon. Friend is aware, Dudley health authority proposed that Hayley Green hospital should he closed and that the services previously purchased from there should be purchased from Corbett hospital, which is a part of the Dudley Group of Hospitals NHS trust, and from the newly opened £12 million Rowley Regis community hospital in Sandwell.

I am told that the majority of patients treated at Hayley Green are from outside the Halesowen area, although a not inconsiderable minority are locally based. During the consultation exercise, some of those people from outside Halesowen—it sounds as if my hon. Friend heard from one of them—commented on the travel difficulties they faced in getting to the hospital. That is a serious and important issue locally, and I understand that the proposals acknowledge those concerns. If the proposals were to be approved, Halesowen residents would have the choice of two nearby hospitals, while residents of the rest of Dudley would also benefit from improved access to services.

I am aware that other benefits have been identified, such as those arising from the development of an integrated service at Corbett hospital. The proposals outline a service better supported by a full multidisciplinary team, with on-site medical staffing at all times—facilities that are not available at Hayley Green. It is said that patients would also benefit from safer, speedier transfer to the rehabilitation programme after acute care.

Dudley health authority has also identified net savings of more than £200,000 a year through the removal of services from Hayley Green hospital and their reprovision at Corbett hospital and Rowley Regis community hospital. Those savings come from reduced site costs and through being able to offer alternative services on a more integrated basis, with only small cost increases.

The proposal is to use those savings to improve services for people in need of rehabilitation. My hon. Friend asked about the role of the regional health authority. Capital receipts from the disposal of assets go to the region, and it is for the regional health authority to decide how best to dispose. I am sure that it would wish to take into account the points that my hon. Friend made today, and other points that are made locally between now and any such decision, should it be made. Other revenue savings can be reinvested, and I understand that there are two possible plans. One is to set up a stroke rehabilitation service and the other is to establish a post-discharge support team, to lend home-based support to patients recently discharged from hospital. I am assured that services at Hayley Green would not be removed until their replacements were up and running. As far as is practicable, patients currently at Hayley Green hospital, and any subsequently transferred there, would have their hospital treatment concluded at that hospital if they so wished.

My hon. Friend raised the concern today that he raised with the chairman of the Dudley Group of Hospitals NHS trust, about why the trust was unable to lead in the public consultation exercise. It may be helpful if I point out that procedures must be followed when a significant change of service provision, or closure of a hospital, is being considered. That involves the purchaser—in this case, Dudley health authority—conducting a public consultation explaining the proposals and seeking local views, including those of the community health council.

We would expect local providers, such as the Dudley Group of Hospitals trust, to be fully involved in that process. However, as purchasers are responsible for ensuring effective local health care provision, responsibility for any changes in that provision must fall to them. The effectiveness of the consultation exercise is one of the issues to be considered when the proposals are placed before the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that, two weeks ago, I was involved in issuing clear and practical guidance to health authorities, local authorities and other agencies on NHS responsibilities for meeting continuing health care needs. In drawing up that guidance, we looked very carefully at the points raised in the many helpful and thoughtful responses that we received on the draft guidance, which we issued for consultation last summer. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that matter.

The key objectives of the guidance are, first, unambiguously to remind health authorities that it is a fundamental responsibility of the NHS to arrange and fund services to meet people's needs for continuing health care, including, where appropriate, continuing in-patient health care. Secondly, the guidance requires all health authorities to review their current arrangements. Here, I suspect, is my hon. Friend's rub. They should draw up policies and eligibility criteria for continuing health care and, where significant gaps in provision exist, take action to fill them. The guidance offers a further opportunity to strengthen collaboration between health and local authorities.

Thirdly, the guidance sets out a detailed national framework, which all health authorities must reflect in their local arrangements. I hope that that will lead to much greater consistency across the country in how those issues are handled, while preserving an appropriate level of local flexibility to respond to local needs. Fourthly, it reinforces the special care required in making decisions about hospital discharge for frail and vulnerable people who are likely to need continuing intensive support, whether on a long-term or short-term basis, to aid rehabilitation and recovery. Again, that is germane to the points that my hon. Friend raised.

Finally, it encourages greater openness on how decisions about continuing health care are taken. Local policies and eligibility criteria will be subject to public consultation. They will be published with details included in community care charters. From April 1996, patients who consider that eligibility criteria have not been correctly applied in their case will have the right to ask the health authority to review their case.

The need to strengthen local collaboration has been a central feature of the new community care arrangements. We have strengthened the incentives for close working by requiring local authorities, as a precondition to receiving the community care special transitional grant, to facilitate agreement between their social services departments and local health authorities, on the arrangements for hospital discharge.

My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. In return, I assure him that we shall ensure that the principles within the guidance are fully accounted for before any decision is made on the proposal to close Hayley Green hospital. Indeed, if my hon. Friend studies the guidance carefully, he will see that it contains a fairly clear timetable for the next stages of continuing care provision and that we do not expect any closures to take place, unless they meet the conditions within the guidance, before the review has taken place.

On the broader issue of health care within Dudley, I am sure that my hon. Friend will wish to join me in congratulating the Dudley Group of Hospitals trust on managing to increase its activity levels by 7 per cent. over the past year, while reducing prices by 2 per cent. He referred to many of its achievements. The number of patients seen is formidable. It is forecast that, this year, it will treat 14,500 elective and 24,400 emergency in-patients; 20,600 day cases; 7,700 maternity cases; 46,850 out-patient first attenders; 5,100 day-care attenders; and more than 73,000 accident and emergency attenders.

While work remains to he done, some of the patient charter standards that have been achieved are impressive. No in-patients wait for more than 12 months, and it is expected that the target of no in-patients waiting for more than nine months, set as part of the ambitious West Midlands waiting times initiative, will be achieved by the end of March. There is immediate assessment in accident and emergency, and 30 minutes is the maximum waiting time for urgent cases. In 1994-95, I believe that no operation was cancelled twice, and that all patients whose operations were cancelled on the day of admission were admitted within one month, as required by the new patients charter. That is progress indeed.

I understand that the Dudley Group of Hospitals NHS trust has received a SIGMA award—a West Midlands award for quality developments—for its accident and emergency department. The trust is running initiatives to reduce trolley waits and delays in getting X-rays reported by senior doctors. A 20-bed ward designed to provide immediate admission for patients needing urgent medical attention was opened at Russell's Hall hospital last October and a second is due to open this September at Wordsley hospital. Those wards will allow patients to bypass the accident and emergency department and so reduce trolley waits further.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, good health care within Dudley is not restricted to the Dudley group alone. In 1993-94 the Dudley Priority Health NHS trust achieved a five-star rating in five areas of the performance league tables. Last year, the trust opened a new £10.9 million mental health unit. Work was started on a new health facility incorporating a child and family psychiatric unit, which is due to open in July this year, and the trust is working closely with the local community and schools on the project. Three new mental health units have been established in conjunction with social services in the borough, and a fourth unit is under discussion.

My hon. Friend has a particular interest in the area of Halesowen and I am sure that he will agree that over the past seven years there has been considerable expansion in the range of health facilities available locally. The residents of Halesowen have seen the commissioning of a new health centre, a new community mental health service base and the creation of a 24-place home, primarily for local people with mental health problems. In addition, a new clinic is currently being built on the eastern side of Halesowen, which will provide extensive local services.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with me that the people of Halesowen and Stourbridge, as well as the rest of the borough of Dudley, are provided with a first-class service of which both patients and staff can be justifiably proud. I thank him for bringing his concerns to my attention. I assure him that they will be given full consideration before any decision is taken, and any decisions will be made in the best interests of the people of Dudley.

Patrick Kane, Sean Kelly And Michaeltimmons

2 pm

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This debate is about a major miscarriage of justice. Three men are in prison in Northern Ireland serving two life sentences each for murders that they did not commit.

It is alleged that Patrick Kane, Sean Kelly and Michael Timmons are guilty of murder because they were present at a violent incident, which occurred at a different location and was perpetrated by two unknown assailants and which culminated in the murder of two army corporals. None of the three men is accused of direct involvement in the murder; none had direct knowledge of the direct perpetrators; none is alleged to have any paramilitary connections, including membership of the Irish Republican Army; and none has a criminal record. They all maintain their innocence.

On 19 March 1988, Corporals David Howes and Derek Wood were murdered by the IRA in Penny lane in Andersonstown in west Belfast. What happened to the two soldiers was extremely brutal, and the nearest thing to the crucifixion of Christ that one could see. Earlier that day, due to the presence of world media, millions of television viewers watched in horror as a crowd in west Belfast set upon the two occupants of a silver Volkswagen that had driven into a large funeral procession. One of the occupants of the car fired a shot, but shortly afterwards the two men were violently hauled from their car, disarmed, taken to Casement park, stripped and savagely beaten.

When their pockets were searched, it became apparent that the two men were soldiers in civilian dress, and they were later identified as Corporals David Howes and Derek Wood. They were subsequently driven in a black taxi to Penny lane about half a mile away, where they were shot dead by the IRA.

Those events took place in a highly charged atmosphere. The funeral into which the soldiers drove was that of Kevin Brady, an IRA man. Mr. Brady, along with two others, was murdered a few days earlier in Milltown cemetery after a gun and grenade attack by a loyalist at the funeral of three unarmed IRA members who were shot dead in Gibraltar by the Special Air Services. No explanation has been given as to why the corporals were present at the funeral procession, nor why the police and the army did nothing to attempt to rescue them.

Those who attended Kevin Brady's funeral were very apprehensive, and genuinely believed that the car contained loyalist gunmen who were hellbent on mass murder. Much of what happened—particularly the final murder—was filmed by an army helicopter, but the two IRA gunmen have never been identified or apprehended. Instead, scores of people were arrested and more than 40 were charged in connection with their activities in and around the stopping of the car and the grievous bodily harm inflicted on the soldiers prior to their being taken away by taxi to be murdered by the IRA.

I am seriously concerned about other cases, but my main focus today is on three of the men who have been found guilty of murder. I believe that a grave miscarriage of justice has taken place. I further believe that Patrick Kane, Sean Kelly and Michael Timmons should he released immediately. All three men were found guilty of murder under the principle of common purpose. It is accepted that none of them had been convicted of the actual murders or was present when the soldiers were murdered. Mr. Justice Carswell ruled that the accused were guilty either because there was a plan to murder the two soldiers and the accused knowingly agreed to and supported the joint enterprise; or, if the purpose of the joint enterprise was not to commit murder, it was foreseeable that a murder might be committed. Given the unpremeditated nature of the incident, there has been no suggestion that there was a preconceived plan to murder the soldiers.

The Committee on the Administration of Justice report commented:
"When considering Kane, Timmons and Kelly it is crucial that their entire alleged involvement lasted only a few minutes."
Therefore, how could it possibly be foreseeable that a murder might be committed?

Patrick Kane was arrested in December 1988 at his home and he was taken to Woodburn police barracks where he was interrogated for several hours. At no time was a solicitor or an appropriate adult—I use that term in the legal sense—present. Later that day, he was charged with grievous bodily harm and false imprisonment. He was allowed out on bail of £150 and two sureties of £300 each. At no time was he remanded in custody—I emphasise that point. He continued working for 14 months while out on bail, and a judge allowed him to go to the Republic of Ireland on holiday as the police had no objection to the trip.

The charge of murder was added in June 1989. Even though charged with murder, Patrick Kane was allowed to stay out on bail until his trial in February 1990. He was found guilty of counselling and procuring the murder of the soldiers, because the judge held that Kane was present at and engaged to a minor extent in the physical beating of the soldiers, and that the accused must have known that murder was one possible outcome of his illegal conduct.

Kane was convicted on the basis of controversial video identification evidence and on confessions that he was alleged to have made to the police following several hours of sustained interrogation. It was clearly established before Patrick Kane's trial that he had the IQ of a 10 or 11-year-old and that he was considerably deaf. Dr. Gisli Hannes Gudjonsson, head of forensic psychology services and clinical psychologist to the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley hospitals, examined Patrick Kane on 18 February 1990 in prison for approximately two hours.

In his report, dated 19 February 1990, he comments that at the beginning of the session Mr. Kane begged not to be asked to read anything. He explained that he was almost completely illiterate and felt very embarrassed by it. He said that he tried very hard to cover up his illiteracy when he was with people he did not know. He did not want the other prisoners to know that he could not read or write and, on occasions, he would pretend to other prisoners that he could read.

In his conclusion, Dr. Gudjonsson commented that Mr. Kane's IQ falls at the bottom 8 to 9 per cent. of the general population. That would give him a mental age of about 11 years. He found that Mr. Kane was almost completely illiterate and that the most striking feature of Mr. Kane's personality was his high anxiety. Dr. Gudjonsson felt that Mr. Kane was clearly a man of nervous disposition who would be at a considerable disadvantage when having to cope with an unfamiliar and demanding situation. When in a situation that he found particularly stressful, Dr. Gudjonsson found that Mr. Kane would be more inclined than the average person to consider only the immediate or short-term consequences of his behaviour.

Patrick Kane has suffered from defective hearing for many years and has attended the ear, nose and throat department of the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast since 1968. A senior consultant at the hospital, Mr. Roy Gibson, prepared a report on 21 February 1990, which was submitted to the court by Patrick's defence lawyers. Mr. Gibson studied Patrick's notes and said that it appeared that Mr. Kane had first attended the Royal Victoria hospital on 25 March 1968. It was recorded in his notes that
"his hearing reserve is so poor that it is not justifiable to operate on him at all".
He had surgery on his right ear in 1989. In the report's conclusion, Mr. Gibson stated:
"Patrick Kane has a moderate hearing loss at low tones and a severe hearing loss at high tones in both ears".
We have evidence from one of the country's leading psychologists that Patrick Kane had the intelligence of an 11-year-old, yet for some mysterious reason Dr. Gudjonsson's report was not made available to the trial judge or to the judges in the Court of Appeal.

Mr. Gibson's reports on Mr. Kane's defective hearing were accepted by the court, but at no time discussed either at the main trial or at the Court of Appeal. Despite his obvious handicaps and the contravention of his rights and natural justice, he had been interviewed five times on the first day of his detention—from 10.30 in the morning until late at night—in the absence of a solicitor or any other appropriate adult, as is provided by law in cases such as his.

He asserts that the statements that he made to the police are false and were made out of fear and confusion. Furthermore, the claim made by the police that he kicked one of the soldiers and escorted a priest, Father Alex Reid, away from the scene of the attack is entirely inconsistent with the video evidence of events. A policeman who interviewed Mr. Kane stated in evidence:
"Had I had any idea that he had a hearing defect, I possibly would have looked for an interpreter."
In the BBC documentary "Rough Justice" Mr. Kane's case was examined in great detail and John Ware, the reporter, concluded that the conviction and life sentence passed on Mr. Kane were perverse. On the programme, Peter Thornton QC agreed that a jury might well have reached a different conclusion from Mr. Justice Carswell who, as a Diplock court judge, was sitting alone.

In the same programme, Mr. John Ware spoke about Father Alex Reid, who had been an independent witness in Casement park. Father Reid did not believe that the soldiers would be murdered; he thought that the danger was not from the IRA, but from people losing their heads. He said that he was holding on to both soldiers and thought that he had things under control. It finally became clear to him that the IRA was taking charge after the men began to be stripped. Mr. Justice Carswell seemed to see the stripping as the benchmark for deciding when there could have been no doubt about the soldiers' fate.

Kane said in his statement that he saw a priest on his knees saying prayers beside one of the persons. He goes on to say that he realised then that something bad was happening or going to happen and decided that he wanted out. Indeed, the man in the green jacket seen on video and believed by the judge to be Kane is clearly walking towards the gates, avoiding any contact with the crowd around the half-naked soldiers. He stays behind the wall, keeping well way from the action. The green man cannot leave immediately because, as the heli-tele showed, the park gates were closed. While the man in the green jacket is behind the wall, an IRA man dressed in white goes into the crowd and takes Father Reid from someone else and Father Reid is manhandled towards the gates.

The judge's conflicting assessment of Patrick Kane's statement must give further concern. Mr. Justice Carswell accepted as true the written statement that Kane had made to the police, and he also relied on the video evidence to prove that the defendant was someone he claimed not to be. The judge chose to disregard major discrepancies between the video and the written evidence.

At the time of his arrest, Michael Timmons was also charged with murder, grievous bodily harm and false imprisonment. He admitted to having been present in Casement park when the soldiers were beaten. Like the other defendants, he denies that he intended to engage in serious criminal activity, still less in a conspiracy to murder.

Although Mr. Timmons was not accused of direct involvement in the murder of the two soldiers, or even of transporting them to the place where they were murdered by others, he was found guilty of murder. The appeal judges concurred with Mr. Justice Carswell's finding.

Sean Kelly was arrested some 11 months after the murder of the two soldiers. He made a statement to the police giving an account of his movements that day and denied any involvement in the murder or beating of the two men. He then chose to exercise his right to remain silent, both in response to further police questioning and at the trial itself.

Mr. Justice Carswell found inconsistencies between Mr. Kelly's statement to the police and the video evidence, yet he had reservations about accepting the identification of Kelly from the heli-tele film on its own because of the poor quality of the film. Nevertheless, the judge determined that, although the video evidence was uncertain, it, combined with the adverse inference of guilt which he was able to draw from the silence of the accused, gave him sufficient grounds to find as a fact that Sean Kelly was in Casement park and that he was guilty of murder.

There have been other judicial inconsistencies. In another Casement park case, the driver of a black taxi was found guilty by Mr. Justice McDermott of transporting the soldiers to the place of the murders, but he was acquitted of murder.

In a second case, another person who actually confessed that at some point he thought that the soldiers would be killed was acquitted of murder by Mr. Justice McCollum, who claimed that the man did not know what he was saying and that he, the judge, believed that no one could have been thinking so clearly in such a situation.

In its report in 1992, the Committee on the Administration of Justice concluded:
"the attitude of the particular judge hearing the case is sometimes just as important as what the accused did.".

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I thank the hon. Member for giving way, and I am reluctant to interrupt him because of the shortage of time. On his last point, will he take into account the fact that, at the appeal hearing, the appeal judgment stated:

"These contentions by the prosecution as to the legal basis for murder by the appellants as secondary parties were accepted by the defence as correct … It was not contended"
by the defence
"that the trial judge had misdirected himself as to the law, or misapplied it.".
In view of that clear statement by the Court of Appeal, will the hon. Gentleman withdraw the aspersions that he has cast on the judgment of the trial judge.

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No. I will most certainly not withdraw that. There are gross inconsistencies.

Anyone studying the case—we know it was a horrific slaughter of two soldiers—or reading the transcript of the trial and of what the appeal judge said should watch the "Rough Justice" programme as it showed that there are serious differences in interpretation of the statements, especially that made by Patrick Kane and the evidence on video. That is extremely important.

In conclusion, unlike Paratrooper Lee Clegg, whose case is being reviewed in June this year, Patrick Kane, Michael Timmons and Sean Kelly did not kill anyone. Those three men have not had a fair trial, and most definitely are not guilty of murder. As with the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, we are again seeing a gross miscarriage of justice. I am asking the Secretary of State, through the Minister, to take whatever steps are necessary to have the three men released forthwith.

2.17 pm

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Before I respond to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), I should like to congratulate him on his success in securing an Adjournment debate for the second time. The subject is one about which he and many other people both inside and outside the House have a deep and sincere concern.

I welcome the opportunity presented to me to explain to the House my right hon. and learned Friend's role in these cases. The House may find it helpful if, at the outset, I remind him of the Secretary of State's powers to refer a case to the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland. They are the same as those available to the Home Secretary in respect of convictions in England and Wales.

It is not for Ministers to substitute their own assessment of the evidence in any case for that of the courts. Their function, by long-established practice, is to examine whether there is some new evidence or other consideration of substance that has not previously been before the courts and that now appears to cast some doubt on the safety of the conviction. This is the criterion: whether it appears to cast doubt. It is not for Ministers to reach a concluded view on whether a conviction is safe.

I remind the House that, on 30 March 1990, Kane, Timmons and Kelly were convicted of murder, grievous bodily harm and false imprisonment. On 5 July 1991, the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland upheld their convictions and sentences.

The Secretary of State and I have received many representations regarding the cases of the three men. The representations have in the main, but not exclusively, sought to dispute the deductions made by the courts based on the evidence that they accepted. When representations have sought to challenge the evidence itself, they have tended to concentrate on the identification of the defendants from the considerable video and film footage that is available. In the case of every representation, the Secretary of State had to satisfy himself as to whether the points argued had or had not already been before the courts.

In addressing the question of identification evidence, the Court of Appeal said: "In seeking to identify any of the appellants on the films, we reminded ourselves, being all too familiar with the frailties of identification, of the need for caution before reaching any firm conclusion".

The court went on to state, in respect of Patrick Kane:
"Repeated running of the films, concentrated observation of them and comparison with the general appearance of Kane in the park satisfies us that the man seen inside the park dressed in the combination of colours of green anorak, dark trousers and white shoes was undoubtedly Kane."
In respect of Kelly, the court said:
"We looked at the film very many times. We had it played and replayed over at normal and slow speeds. We were satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Kelly was indeed the figure inside the Park that the prosecution pointed to."
I have also noted the widespread expression of unease concerning the application of the law on common purpose to these cases. I am sure that the House will expect me to comment on that aspect.

The principle of common purpose is not new, and its use is not confined to Northern Ireland or, indeed, to the United Kingdom. Mr. Justice—now Lord Justice—Carswell's written trial judgment provides a detailed account of the law pertaining to common purpose and his application of that law to the defendants; I therefore do not propose to rehearse all the arguments now.

I consider it important, however, for the House to hear Lord Lane's comments, expressed as recently as 1989, which the trial judge quoted in his judgment. Lord Lane said:
"A must be proved to have intended to kill or do serious harm at the time he killed. B may not be present at the killing; he may be a distance away, for example, waiting in the getaway car; he may not know that A has killed; he may have hoped (and probably did) that A would not kill or do serious injury. If, however, as part of their joint plan it was understood between them expressly or tacitly that if necessary one of them would kill or do serious harm as part of their common enterprise, then B is guilty of murder".
In applying the law on common purpose, the court did not contend that Kane, Timmons or Kelly attended the funeral that day with murder in mind. However, the court did consider them to have joined in and given support to a joint enterprise, a foreseeable consequence of which was the eventual murder of the soldiers. It was that finding of fact that was upheld by the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal's comments are also pertinent in relation to the principle of common purpose. It said:
"These contentions by the prosecution as to the legal basis for murder by the appellants as secondary parties were accepted by the defence as correct both before the trial judge and this Court."
The court also stated:
"It was not contended during the hearing of these appeals that the trial judge had misdirected himself as to the law, or misapplied it. The contentions were directed in each case against the Judge's findings of fact and the inferences he drew from them."
In the case of Kane, various representations have pointed to his illiteracy, aural impediment and intellectual limitations, and drawn attention to the fact that an "appropriate adult"—the hon. Gentleman's term—was not provided before and during his questioning by the police. All those aspects have been considered most carefully.

Patrick Kane was arrested in December 1988 under the powers derived from the ordinary criminal law, not emergency legislation. The provisions of the non-statutory "Guide to the Emergency Powers" which relate to the appointment of an "appropriate adult" were not therefore applicable. Similar "appropriate adult" provisions have subsequently been introduced for non-scheduled cases in code "C" of the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, but they did not come into operation until 1 January 1990.

Patrick Kane's counsel at trial and on appeal argued that his statements should be treated as inadmissible. The Court of Appeal noted:
"Before the trial judge, his counsel submitted that no weight should be given to his oral statements or the written statement because he was illiterate, of low intellectual ability and had a significant hearing loss. Before this Court his counsel, Miss McDermott QC, went further. She submitted that the trial judge should have ruled all these statements inadmissible on those grounds."
The court concluded:
"This Court sees no reason why the judge should have held his statements either inadmissible or of no weight or lesser weight than they commanded on their face. The allegation of a hearing loss could not have been a relevant factor in the nature of the challenge made. It is clear from the transcript that the case he was making at trial implied that he had heard all the suggestions made to him by the police. Otherwise he could not have agreed with them through fear. Nor do we consider that the other grounds put forward are of any avail. He was at the time of his arrest a man of 31 years. Although he could not read or barely write, he was able to write his signature and the words 'No complaints'. But much more so, any detailed reading of the transcript of his evidence, particularly the searching cross-examination by Mr. Foote, shows that he had a ready capacity at all times to understand the purport of the questions put and at times to anticipate and evade what might have been incriminating."
It is clear that the question of Kane's intellectual abilities was very fully argued by his counsel and duly considered by the court. Those aspects therefore do not constitute new material on the basis of which my right hon. and learned Friend could properly ask the Court of Appeal to reconsider his case.

We have also been aware of suggestions of judicial inconsistency between this case and others. It must, however, be borne in mind that judges are duty bound to assess each case on its own circumstances—even when several cases arise from a common incident—and weigh the evidence separately: both the persuasiveness of the prosecution case and the credibility of the accused's defence. The fact that different outcomes may be pointed to does not of itself mean that a particular conviction is unsafe or a sentence wrong.

As I said, the Secretary of State has given the utmost thought to all the representations received before today, and has concluded that in respect of all three men the criterion for a referral to the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland has not been fulfilled.

At this point it may be timely to remind right hon. and hon. Members that the Criminal Appeal Bill was approved without a Division on Second Reading in the House on 6 March. .A number of hon. Members welcomed its extension to Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State's decision to seek to have the Bill extended to Northern Ireland followed a wide-ranging consultation process. The new independent body will investigate miscarriages of justice and when necessary refer them to the Court of Appeal for review.

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's speech today. I wish to assure him and the House that the Secretary of State's mind remains open and that he is willing to consider most carefully any further material put to him, pending the establishment of the new Criminal Cases Review Commission.

It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to Order [19 December].

Oral Answers To Questions

Environment

Out-Of-Town Shopping Developments

1.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when the precise wording of the new guidance for planning powers relating to out-of-town shopping developments will be published.

5.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when the wording of the new guidance for planning powers relating to out-of-town shopping developments will be published.

11.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when the precise wording of the new guidance for planning powers relating to out-of-town shopping developments will be published.

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I hope to publish a draft of revised guidance on town centres and retailing for consultation before the summer recess.

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Is the Secretary of State aware of the concern among small shopkeepers serving my constituency about the possible effects of out-of-town shopping?

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It is precisely for that and other reasons that I have brought in the planning guidance that has sought to reinvigorate our city and town centres and to increase the amount of mixed use, so that people can live, work, worship, shop and do many other things together in city centres, instead of relying on the motor car.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that, although the issue tends to concentrate on green-field sites outside relatively provincial towns, inner-urban areas whose developments will be on brown-field sites close to traditional ribbon high streets also present an issue? Will the guidance have anything to say about its impact?

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Of course it will be necessary to see that new development enhances the town centre, especially the shopping centre. Each case is different. Most of us, looking at Lewisham, would say that a number of serious development mistakes were made in the past. One has to try to provide the best answers within the framework that we shall lay down.

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Does the Minister accept that irreparable and irreversible damage has been done to many town centres by out-of-town developments, and that small businesses in constituencies such as mine have suffered at the expense of large businesses, which have been allowed to develop out of town? Does that not show that the unrestricted free market principles behind out-of-town developments have damaged many small, long-established businesses?

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That is a very odd question. The fact is that the centres of our cities have been run down, largely by appalling planning decisions taken by local Labour councils. We know who the people who have destroyed our cities are: Labour councillors who hate small businesses and who, when they controlled the business rates, pushed them up so that more and more small businesses were driven to the wall. It is to repair that damage that I am spending a great deal of public money to redevelop our city centres for the benefit of all our people.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has done so far, but does he accept that there have been two sad developments in recent years, and not just in Labour areas? One has been the decline of the small specialist shop; the other has been the sucking of life out of the centres of many towns and cities. It is therefore important to try to redress the balance.

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I think that the old saying, "Don't use it, lose it," is sensible in respect of shopping. The out-of-town shopping centre has provided an important tradition which many people want. It is a question of striking a balance. It is universally true that, in the city centres that the Labour party has controlled, decline and degradation have been the results of its period of office. Only now are we beginning, with taxpayers' money, to rejuvenate our city centres as I have described.

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Is my right hon. Friend aware that traders in the centre of Lichfield are heartened by today's news that retail sales are at their highest for more than 12 months? Is he further aware that retail sales will be enhanced by the fact that unemployment is the lowest it has been in three years?

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I am sure that the increasingly good economic news will be welcomed by those who want to expand their businesses. I want those businesses to expand in the centres of our cities and market towns, so that we can return to the vibrant communities which are so much a mark of Conservative communities and so much abhorred by the Labour party.

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Will my right hon. Friend consider in particular the problems caused by traffic and parking where so-called out-of-town development occurs on brown-field sites of the sort mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd)? His constituents and mine are affected by a major development at Bell green, Lewisham that poses the danger of having such an impact. I compliment the hon. Member for Lewisham, West on the assiduity with which he has pursued the concerns of his constituents and mine. Wider issues are at stake, and perhaps my right hon. Friend will examine them.

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I cannot comment on the particular example that my hon. Friend mentioned, but it is essential to ensure that proper provision for cars and parking is made in city centre developments. I want people to be able to choose whether to use a car to shop.

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Every time the Secretary of State speaks on this issue in the House, he leaves Government policy in utter confusion. Will the right hon. Gentleman simply tell the House whether he is in favour of out-of-town developments or against them? If he is in favour, how will he halt the decline of our town and city centres? If he is against, how will he ensure proper investment in town centre management? Is this just another two-faced policy from a two-faced Government?

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The hon. Gentleman has been lauded in the newspapers as a reasonable and polite person, but he is being neither on this occasion. He knows perfectly well that he can like both apples and pears but need not say that he dislikes either of them. Out-of-town shopping development has been necessary and needed, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman is saying to his constituents that they may not shop at a superstore. We need to get the balance right. It has moved too much to the out-of-town shopping centre, and I want to move it back to the city centre. Most people, but not the hon. Gentleman, view that as a balanced and sensible policy. The trouble with Labour is that it goes to extremes on everything—even shopping.

Business Rates

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the increase in business rates in Waltham Forest and Redbridge following the recent revaluation.

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Rateable values in Redbridge and Waltham Forest have increased 28 per cent. and 25 per cent. respectively. Transitional arrangements will restrict the average increase in bills in the next financial year to 7 per cent. in both districts.

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The Minister referred to the huge increases in business rateable values in those districts under the current revaluation, whereas those for the rest of London have fallen. Why is my part of east London singled out for unfair treatment? Businesses are already struggling to survive the recession, without having an added unjust burden. Now that the Minister is in control of business rates, why does he not personally intervene to stop my local firms being driven to the wall?

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As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, valuations are independently made by valuation offices. Of course he is right to say that inner-London rateable values have fallen. They have risen in outer London, but not as much as in Waltham Forest and Redbridge. I strongly suggest that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents contact the local valuation office and provide evidence to challenge any valuation thought to be inaccurate.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that a nationwide uniform business rate is greatly to the advantage of businesses? Does he recall the days when high business rates imposed by Labour authorities drove firms into bankruptcy and pushed many people out of jobs?

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My hon. Friend is correct. Nationwide, the Government are taking no more in real terms from businesses than in the previous year, because we are committed to increasing the take only in line with inflation. In the old days, some local authorities used to raid businesses to finance grandiose schemes, which was deplorable. They were, of course, Labour authorities.

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Is it not a fact that businesses increasingly know that it is this loony right Government who are putting up business costs? Is it not true that, in places such as Waltham Forest, Redbridge and the north of England, businesses blame the Government for increasing their costs, and that when firms go to the wall the Government are responsible? Why does the Minister not apologise for the nationalisation of the business rate?

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Fortunately, businesses are a great deal more sensible than the hon. Gentleman and they know full well that what the Government are taking is restricted to level terms finance. We have to face the fact that valuations will vary from area to area. An appeals system is built in so that people can challenge the rateable values that have been attributed to their businesses.

Objective 1 Funding

3.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress is being made in the utilisation of objective I funding on Merseyside; what representations he has received in respect of the participation of local authority and social partners on the committees monitoring the use of objective 1 funds; and if he will make a statement.

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Last November, approvals in principle for almost 800 projects, worth over £175 million, were announced, and 742 schemes have now received formal approval. The local authorities are fully involved in the committees monitoring the use of objective 1 funds, as are a range of other partners.

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I notice that the Minister did not answer the part of my question about the representation of social partners in objective 1 funding. I believe that he was told by Mrs. Wulf-Mathies, the Commissioner, as early as last November that social partners should be represented. According to an answer in the European Parliament, representations were made. Is the Minister aware that there is considerable enthusiasm on Merseyside for objective 1 status? People there are keen to get on with the work of the schemes, but they are thwarted by the inadequacy of the secretariat and by bureaucracy on Merseyside. If the Minister does not pull his finger out, Merseyside stands to lose.

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Order. We shall not make any progress at all today if we have Adjournment debates instead of questions. Perhaps the Minister can answer briskly and questions can be to the point.

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The Commission has accepted that the social partners are not represented. I accept that we need to get the next round dealt with more quickly; but, with 1,500 applications, there is a great deal of work to be done in the cumbersome scheme that we have to operate.

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Is the Minister aware that, of the 106 applications in the past 12 months, only six have been agreed and that the process is in danger of silting up? Is there not a good case for appointing one person to take control of objective 1 bids to ensure that the programme works effectively?

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The machinery is cumbersome, but it is imposed by the objective 1 mechanism which we cannot vary or short circuit. On capital projects, 42 regional fund bids have been approved. The social fund training schemes have been done quite quickly; another 25 should come in the next couple of weeks, and 30 had to go back for further work because they were not put together well enough. We hope to bring those forward as soon as we can and we shall try to speed up the processing of the 1995 round bids. However, as I have said, there are 1,500 of them and it is necessarily a difficult process. We shall do our best.

Training

4.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many training places have been created through regeneration policies since April 1992.

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My Department's regeneration programmes have created more than 270,000 training places over this period.

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At the peak of the last economic boom, there were desperate skill shortages in London, but 200,000 people were registered as unemployed. Does the Minister agree that the single regeneration budget guidelines should be reviewed to give training greater priority so that, if there is another economic boom, the crisis of no jobs will not be replaced by a crisis of no skills?

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The hon. Lady obviously does not understand that the SRB is a partnership with local authorities and others. [Interruption.] She obviously understands more about urban degeneration than about urban regeneration. When she wore her previous hat, Islington in the 1980s was the seventh worst council of all the English local authorities in the index of local conditions; today it is the fourth worst.

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Will my hon. Friend confirm that one of the basic criteria for single generation bids was the creation of jobs? When the second round is considered, will he undertake to give priority to areas such as Erewash which were unsuccessful in the first round?

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I accept and understand my hon. Friend's concern for her area. I hope that she will help to ensure that its bid is more competitive. Through the process since 1992 or in the pipeline, some 340,000 jobs have been either created or safeguarded.

Contaminated Land

6.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of whether the liabilities for cleaning up contaminated land are too onerous for developers to carry out; and what is the effect on revitalising urban redevelopment.

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We have carried out a review of responsibilities for dealing with land contamination in which we consulted with a large number of landowners, developers, investors and others. One of the key objectives was to ensure that land was brought back into beneficial use. Our suitable-for-use policy requires action to clean up land only where contamination poses unacceptable actual or potential threats to health or the environment and where there are appropriate and cost-effective means so to do.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that there must be a balance between the private and the public sectors in the costs of cleaning up contaminated land? Therefore, should not the suitable-for-use principle be upheld and the Environment Bill amended to incorporate the common law provisions that have existed in this country for centuries? Should not the conveyancing system be modernised so that it is perfectly clear to all those who might buy potentially contaminated sites what their obligations will be under the new Bill?

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My hon. Friend knows a great deal about this subject and I am sure that he will contribute substantially to the discussions on the Bill when it comes to the House from the other place. I assure him that his considerations and those of others with like concerns will be taken into great account when the Bill is discussed.

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Is the Minister aware that a Welsh Office report has shown that there are 76 former gasworks sites in Wales where the land is seriously contaminated, including one site in my constituency? The local authority is finding it difficult to obtain any information on that matter. Will the Government agree to an amendment to the Gas Bill to enable information to be made available to the public about the level of contamination on former gas works sites? Could that not be achieved by making it a condition of the licence under the Gas Bill?

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There is quite a lot of gas production in Wales, of which the hon. Gentleman is a classic example. It is a matter for the Welsh Office, and I shall ensure that it is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's points.

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rose

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This will be good.

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Yes, this will be good.

In his reply, the Minister said that there was a definition of actual harm. He clearly does not know that his colleagues in the other place have already amended the Government's Bill and introduced the qualification "significant". Is it not true that the Government do not know what to do about contaminated land and are having to choose between trying to don the green mantle and obliging their friends in the City?

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The trouble with the hon. Lady and the Labour Front Bench on this issue is that they are determined to ensure that industry—which is part and parcel of the problems of contamination and, equally, will be one of those that have to pay for it—has no part to play in the whole issue. We believe that it does and that balance is essential. When the Bill comes to the House, I am sure that the hon. Lady will be able to examine it in as much detail as she wants—and we will have every answer.

Standard Spending Assessments

7.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to change the methodology for calculating standard spending assessments for 1996-97.

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I announced my programme for SSA changes during the debate on local government finance in the House on I February, at which the hon. Gentleman was present.

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In the discussions that the Minister expects to have this year, will he take account of the growing discrepancy between the amount of interest on balances which is assumed in the formula and the actual amount raised?

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The principle of notionality is at the heart of the system. We are trying to ensure that, over local government as a whole, we reflect what happens across the board. When it comes to individual councils, if we move to a system in which the SSA formula is there simply to reflect the actual spending patterns of councils, we will get some very grave distortions and unfairnesses. I am willing to examine all aspects of the SSA, within reason, and I shall certainly look at the point that the hon. Gentleman raised. However, he will understand that there is a basic principle and that, if we actually started to track individual spending, there would be serious problems in trying to run an objective system.

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Is my hon. Friend aware that the concept of area cost adjustment continues to cause great heartache among shire counties, not least Hereford and Worcester? Will he join the local authority associations in reviewing the methodology so that a more sensible, transparent and apparently fair mechanism can be worked out to solve the problem?

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We have already discussed with the local authority associations a research programme that would consider whether we could move towards a travel-to-work concept in assessing overall employment costs. I have said to the Association of County Councils that, if it can develop its suggestions into a practical alternative methodology, I shall examine that, along with whatever other ideas come forward to deal with the matter.

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Does the Minister accept that, whatever changes he may make in the methodology, if the Government continue to assume, for the purpose of calculations, that Westminster is the fourth most deprived place in Britain, the system will be rigged to the advantage of Westminster? If virtually every other local authority received the same Government support as Westminster, those authorities would not need to collect any council tax; they would go around paying out rebates.

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It is about time that the hon. Gentleman visited Westminster. [Interruption.] Perhaps he should visit the bits of Westminster that he does not customarily visit. Yesterday, I received a delegation from Brent, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster in relation to their bids for the urban programme to aid severely deprived parts of those boroughs. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the 100 yards around Palace green represent Westminster, that shows that he knows damn little about local government.

River Thames

8.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of how those parts of London adjacent to the Thames can be more effectively utilised.

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My Department has recently undertaken a Thames strategy study and has produced a planning framework for the Thames gateway, both of which directly deal with the issue and make recommendations to ensure that land use planning by riparian authorities takes full account of the special character of the river.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Thames in London is a priceless national asset that is disappointingly and significantly underused? Does he further agree that two of the keys to unlocking that problem are access to the river and attractions beside the river? In the second context, is it not encouraging that Bankside power station is to be taken over by the 'Tate gallery and that the new Globe theatre is nearing completion?

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I agree with my hon. Friend about those last examples. I have considered carefully not only the planning guidance that we should give for the Thames but the nature of the Thames beyond the old Greater London council boundary to the sea. We have some proposals and I hope that he agrees that it is important to have wider public consultation. That is why I recently called in the proposals for a new building on the site near Battersea old church.

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If we are talking about power stations by the Thames, what about Battersea power station? It is one of most horrific sights in London in terms of the fact that it has been allowed to become derelict. The roof is off and a grave danger exists that the building will collapse; I suspect that that is precisely what the owners want. Will the Secretary of State take urgent action to do something about one of the great landmark buildings of London?

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I am not sure that I would go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman in his love of Battersea power station, but I recognise that many people are keen on that building. He will be happy to know that the relatively recent inspection showed that the building's structure is being properly looked after. We need to find a proper use for the building and to have the money to develop it. We would all like to know about it if the hon. Gentleman has a use into which he is prepared to put his money.

Planning Policy Guidance 13

9.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how he intends to take forward the advice issued in planning policy guidance note 13.

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I shall publish shortly a guide to good practice on PPG13, which relates to transport. My Department is funding research into the implementation of that guidance.

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Dos my right hon. Friend agree that central Government and local authorities need to treat land use planning and transport planning as two halves of a whole and not as discrete, separate entities if we are to strike the right balance between the interests of those who use cars and those who do not?

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That has been particularly shown in the establishment of Government offices which has brought together the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport, and the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Employment. These matters are now seen in a holistic way, which means that we can produce a much more sensible answer. We need an answer that strikes a balance between the use of motor cars and the traffic that such use produces. We do not want to follow the path outlined by the Opposition, who are opposed to the motor car. We need to be a party that makes the motor car our servant, not our master.

Housing Policy

10.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the Government's plans for reviews of housing policy in the areas of (a) obligations and rights of leaseholders who have acquired their homes under the right-to-buy legislation, (b) local authority housing, (c) housing associations and (d) housing co-operatives.

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We keep our housing policy under continuous review.

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That is a really helpful answer. If it is the case, will the Minister be a bit more explicit about when he will publish his proposals on the review of the right-to-buy legislation and its working for people who bought their homes from local authorities? A study is being undertaken, but he knows that many people are now trapped—they are unable to sell and unable to move and have extremely high service or capital charges. It is not a dream; it has turned out to be a nightmare. When will the Government introduce proposals to make the right to buy a realistic opportunity for the many who took up the option?

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There are no plans to revise the right-to-buy legislation. Some 45,000 people a year are still moving from social housing to owner-occupation under the right-to-buy proposals, but I think that the hon. Gentleman was referring more particularly to leaseholders who bought their properties. I recognise that there is a specific problem. Up to now, we have consulted on three elements. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the good practice guide, with the rules governing mortgage indemnity offered by local authorities and an exchange sales scheme. We are looking to see whether we need to develop that package to deal with what I accept is a real problem for a number of people, although perhaps not for thousands, as is sometimes claimed. I accept that some people have a real difficulty, and we are anxious to find a way through for them.

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When my hon. Friend reviews housing policy, will be consider what steps he can take to bring pressure to bear on the local authorities that have the worst record in terms of rent collection and poor management of housing stock and the largest number of empty units of accommodation, and that are largely Labour-controlled?

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My hon. Friend is right. The basic management skills—making sure that one does not have voids and that rent and taxes are collected—are all part of raising legitimate funds to be spent on services, something that local government should never forget is its prime and essential function.

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Why does the Minister not recognise the disastrous impact of current Government policies on almost every aspect of housing? Will he acknowledge that his Department published figures this week showing that the output of new private homes is down by 11 per cent., that new council and housing association starts are down by 31 per cent. and that, on current trends, the output of new rented homes this year will be down to 20,000, the worst figures for any year since the end of the second world war? When will the Government recognise that their policies have failed the nation and need to be revised comprehensively?

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It is just not true. The hon. Gentleman should examine what is happening. He will see, for example, major growth in the role played by housing associations in the past 10 years and that tenure has been diversified away from local authorities, although he wants to lodge all housing construction with the local authorities again. He will also see that there have been major advances with the right to buy, which is creating a new generation of owner-occupiers.

The hon. Gentleman will see that housing policy has moved on from the grey monolithic policy which was espoused by the Labour party and to which it would want to return; we now have more diversification, with the private rented sector playing its part. He will find that Conservative housing policies are more effective, more diversified and deliver more choice to people and responsibility than the grey uniformity which is Labour's hallmark.

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Is the Minister aware that senior citizens in Northern Ireland are not permitted to buy their Housing Executive bungalows, although those bungalows may be in areas of very low demand?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I shall examine the point that he makes and get in touch with him.

Pollution (Iver)

12.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received in the last year from (a) hon. Members and (b) other bodies in respect of environmental pollution caused by industrial activities on the Buckinghamshire side of the River Colne at Iver with particular reference to the West Drayton area of the London borough of Hillingdon.

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Sixteen letters of objection were received concerning the planning enforcement appeals by A M Talbot Limited relating to the use of land at railway sidings in Thorney Mill road for the recycling of coated roadstone, including letters from my hon. Friend and from my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith).

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Will my hon. Friend now go further and ask Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to examine alleged atmospheric pollution caused by diesel engines on that site, which is greatly distressing my constituents on the West Drayton side of the River Colne?

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I know how concerned my hon. Friend and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield have been to fight the corner for their constituents. I shall certainly ask Mer Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to have a look at the site and see—without prejudice to the result, of course—what may or may not be done to assist.

Housing (Right To Buy)

14.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many homes have been sold under right-to-buy legislation.

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In England, more than 1.23 million homes have been sold under the right to buy. The figure for Great Britain as a whole is more than 1.5 million.

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That is excellent news. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that housing is more affordable than it has been for some years, and seek to promote opportunities for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people to join the property-owning democracy, for their benefit and for ours?

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The situation is improving considerably. We are now selling houses under the right-to-buy scheme or similar schemes to the tune of 60,000 per year. That means, of course, that those people are choosing to buy their homes knowing that the Labour party would have stopped them. That is the distinction between the parties.

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Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the splendid way in which housing associations have reinvested the proceeds of houses sold under the right to buy? Why does he not let local authorities do the same?

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The right-to-buy system does not work in that way for housing associations—only if they have carried the right to buy on from the local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman no doubt knows on reflection. We allow local authorities to reinvest the money, but we also ask them to pay off the mortgages that they have incurred to build the houses in the first place.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing and enthusiastic support for the right to buy. I also thank him for listening to the great concerns of right-to-buy leaseholders in Enfield and Edmonton, who enthusiastically grasped the opportunity to buy, but now find themselves stuck in properties with structural damage which was not disclosed to them when they bought the houses. It is a reasonably small number of people, but they deserve our urgent help. Will the Secretary of State give me an answer?

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I praise my hon. Friend for leading the campaign of this relatively small but important group of people who have those particular problems. He knows that I am looking at them very carefully.

Housing Association Rents

15.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the average rent for new lettings by housing associations; and what was the equivalent figure for 1989.

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The average rent for housing association lettings made in the third quarter of 1994 was £45.63. The equivalent figure for the calendar year 1989 was £23.64.

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Does the Minister agree that the doubling of rent has been caused by the Government's deliberate policy of reducing the rate of grant to housing associations, which has fallen from 75 per cent. in 1989 to 62 per cent. today? Will he consider giving more grant to the housing associations so that the rise in rents stop and more people can be given homes in housing association property?

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As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a trade-off between grant rates and volumes. Reducing the grant rate has, of course, resulted in 10,000 more lettings being made available. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that the grant rate must be kept under review. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) made exactly that point as Minister for Housing and Planning when he answered questions before the Environment Select Committee on the subject some considerable time ago.

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Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the enormous benefits to be gained from the wholesale transfer of housing stock to housing associations, which can mean far better management, a reduction in local authority debt, lower council taxes as a result, and far better conditions for those tenants whose houses are transferred?

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My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to what has happened as a result of large scale voluntary transfers. It is not only a question of benefits for the local authority and for the tenants. Additional building has also been possible as a result of LSVT housing associations. They have also been able to bring forward their capital improvement programmes. It is very much a win-win situation.

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Does the Minister recognise that the private sector is looking increasingly warily at investing in housing association stock because rent levels are now so high that people can obtain those properties only if they can get full housing benefit? Does the Minister accept that the situation is now unacceptable and that we must do something more to ensure that units are offered at affordable rents?

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As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I spend much time discussing these matters with the lenders. We have found a continuing enthusiasm on their part for lending to housing associations, which they see as a solid investment.

Homelessness

16.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on progress on the problem of homelessness in Greater London.

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The number of households accepted by London local authorities as statutorily homeless continues to fall. Last year 9.9 per cent. fewer households were accepted than in 1993, which is 24 per cent. below the 1992 level. In central London, the Government's £182 million rough sleepers initiative has reduced the number of people sleeping rough by three quarters.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent news. Will he join me in congratulating the voluntary agencies which work so closely with his Department? They have the experience, expertise and knowledge, and they know very well that there is no reason for anyone to sleep rough on the streets of London.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have no problem in joining her in paying tribute to the voluntary agencies. They do a very good job in respect of rough sleeping and in respect of preventing homelessness elsewhere. However, it is also only fair to pay tribute to the many local authorities which have put a great deal of effort into preventing homelessness, as opposed to dealing with the problem once it arises.

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I welcome the fall in the homelessness figures, but what effect does the Minister expect to see in respect of next year's figures as a result of the cuts in income support for mortgage payers and the caps on housing benefit? Would the Minister like to predict what effect that will have on next year's figures?

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As local authorities appreciate the importance of preventive action, I certainly expect that to feed through in terms of the homelessness figures. As the rough sleepers initiative has gathered pace, and as we have managed to house those people who are willing to be housed, the problem will come down to a hard core of those who, because of drugs, mental illness or drink problems, are perhaps unwilling to be housed—unless one opts for enforced action, which raises a number of moral issues.

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Will my hon. Friend ensure that the most recent figures, which show a drop in the homelessness numbers, are sent to organisations such as Shelter? Does he not find it slightly strange that such organisations issue press releases whenever the figures are worse but have been strangely silent over the past two years while the figures have been improving?

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That is reflected in the fact that Opposition Front-Bench Members' welcome for the splendid figures has also been conspicuously absent.

Tyne And Wear Fire And Civil Defence Authority

17.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about capping criteria for the Tyne and Wear fire and civil defence authority; and if he will make a statement.

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I have received a number of representations about the provisional capping criteria as they affect the Tyne and Wear fire and civil defence authority.

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Is the Minister aware that Tyne and Wear fire and civil defence authority has lost about £540,000, and Manchester more than £1 million, as a result of bungling by the Department in setting the capping criteria? What steps is the Minister taking to repair the damage and to avoid any repeat of that situation next year?

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The hon. Gentleman will know that, once a budget has been set, an authority cannot revise it upwards unless some legal point went wrong in the calculation. Having set the budget, authorities are able by definition to discharge their statutory responsibilities within it. I am considering the criteria for next year and will consider the point that he is making about the amount by which the Tyne and Wear authority might have raised its budget, had it set it later.

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Is the Minister aware of the danger that, because of the cap imposed by his Department on its budget, the Tyne and Wear authority might not be able to fulfil its statutory obligations under law—as laid on it by the Home Secretary—as is already the case on Merseyside?

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If a local authority sets a budget within the cap, we must assume that it can discharge its statutory responsibilities. Local authorities can set a budget above the cap and tell the Government why that is necessary to discharge their responsibilities satisfactorily. A number of authorities have taken that course of action, but it was not one pursued by Tyne and Wear or Merseyside authorities.

Royal Docks, London

18.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what contribution he intends to make to the development of London's royal docks.

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Through the London Docklands development corporation, we have invested about £400 million in major infrastructure works in the royal docks. That has triggered a number of innovative and exciting private finance initiative regeneration projects—particularly the urban village, the proposed exhibition centre and the combined heat and power energy company. All have the potential to make a major contribution to east London's economy.

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Is my hon. Friend aware of the disappointment at the decision not to allocate funding from the single regeneration budget for the royals university college. That and the proposals for a new international exhibition centre represent a major opportunity to regenerate east London as a whole in the way that he described. As the royals already have excellent access by road, light rail and air, through London city airport, will my hon. Friend undertake to continue the Government's role as a catalyst in realising the full commercial, academic and employment potential of the royal docks?

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I can reassure my hon. Friend. As I understand it, although the royal docks missed this year's single regeneration budget bid they intend to bid again next year. Perhaps my hon. Friend could help them to ensure that they win the competition next time around.

Local Government Reorganisation

19.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to announce his Department's proposals for the organisation of local government in the counties of Leicestershire and Rutland.

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I hope to be able to announce a decision very soon.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for his continuing detailed interest in this unique decision affecting Rutland. May I invite him to investigate whether his Department might publish its assessment of the costs and practicality of granting unitary status to Rutland?

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Rutland has almost unparalleled support for its own special nature, as I have seen in all that I have read. There are obvious problems with an area which has a population of just 33,000 or so, but we are certainly looking at the proposals—not only the commission's proposals to me, but those that my hon. Friend has put to me.

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Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if unitary status is given to Rutland, many of us will want to know why district councils which are larger than Rutland and have made cases for unitary status have been denied it?

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The commission has made certain recommendations and happens to have recommended Rutland for that purpose and not my hon. Friend's excellent district council. I want to try to achieve a coherent result, and special circumstances distinguish some places from others.

Coalfield Communities Campaign

20.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment for what reasons he declined the invitation of Councillor Hedley Salt for any Minister in his Department to address a major conference of the Coalfield Communities Campaign in London at any hour of any date of his choosing in February.

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My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside met a delegation led by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) only this week. I am meeting a delegation from the group led by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration has met Mr. Salt on four occasions in the recent past, including a visit to his town to see the city challenge, which was partly attracted there because of the closure of mines.

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Should it not be a high priority in the Department's strategy to face up to the appalling problem—now that so many mine pumps have gone silent—of water systems which are seriously injured?

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The list of occasions on which that and other matters have been discussed recently shows that it is a high priority. We are trying to solve the problem, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that to do so we need to balance a range of different matters. In my judgment, we are getting the balance about right.

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Although none of the Ministers at the Department could be bothered to turn up at a meeting that the Coalfield Communities Campaign was willing to organise on any date convenient to them, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that it is necessary for the Government to take immediate action to make sure that pumping continues in disused mines and is recommenced in a number of others? If not, rivers and streams in the coalfield communities—which were so badly betrayed by the pit closure programme two years ago—will be grossly polluted.

While the right hon. Gentleman is on his feet, will he also tell the House what progress is being made towards establishing the enterprise zones in the coalfield communities, which were so prominently promised two years ago and on which nothing has yet been done?

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On the hon. Gentleman's second point, we are going through the detailed procedure which is necessary under European legislation. On his first point, he shows yet again that he does not know his facts and that he has not done his homework. The truth is that there is a commitment from the Government—made without any pressure from the hon. Gentleman—to carry out what he has asked for. The hon. Gentleman really ought to check his facts before he gets to his feet.

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If my right hon. Friend did attend a conference organised by the Coalfield Communities Campaign, would it not provide him with an opportunity to point out the excellent work carried out by British Coal Enterprise in creating more than 100,000 new jobs in those areas which have been hit by pit closures?

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We have been able to do that on the large number of occasions on which we have met those concerned. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who leads for the Opposition on this, is now descending to cheap jibes, and has ceased to understand the facts at all.

Environment Bill Lords

22.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received recently from environmental groups regarding the Environment Bill [Lords]; and if he will make a statement.

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I have received a number of representations from a range of organisations and individuals with an interest in the Environment Bill. Most of those representations have raised subjects also addressed by amendments being discussed as the Bill makes progress through another place.

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The Minister will therefore know that all the major conservation groups—with membership now amounting to some 5 million—supported the successful amendment in another place to the definition of the purposes of national parks. Notwithstanding the pressure that the Minister will come under from those promoting noisy sports, will he give an undertaking to include the promotion of quiet enjoyment in the purposes of national parks?

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I should be interested to hear how the hon. Lady defines quiet enjoyment. That point came up during the debates in another place. If the hon. Lady had read any of the debates, she would have seen that at least one Law Lord suggested that the definition as amended is rather bad law and needs to be qualified more carefully. I should be interested to know what effect the hon. Lady feels that the promotion of quiet enjoyment currently in the Bill would have on the RAC rally, which is one of the biggest sporting events in the country and which hundreds of thousands people go to watch as it passes though national parks. If the hon. Lady wants that rally to he abolished, she is going the right way about it.

Surcharged Councillors

23.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment in what circumstances councillors can be surcharged.

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Under sections 19 and 20 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982, the auditor has powers to declare items of account unlawful and to recover, by surcharge of those responsible, any financial loss sustained by the authority as a result of illegal action or wilful misconduct by officers or members of the authority.

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Has my hon. Friend heard that some of the wishy-washy Liberal Democrat councillors on the Isle of Wight are telling their electorate that they cannot possibly refuse to grant a licence for an open-air pop festival on the island this summer because they might be surcharged? Does he agree that, like the leader of their party, they have a pathological dislike of any difficult decision and that that reason is almost as much balderdash as one of their manifestos, and is completely untrue?

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It certainly sounds like a Liberal cop-out to me. I am sure that my hon. Friend will put those councillors and, for that matter, their electors in touch with the legal advisers to the local authority concerned, who will be delighted to confirm that only illegal action or wilful misconduct would result in a surcharge, which therefore seems unlikely in the case that he raises.

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Does the Minister accept that, if councillors engage in corrupt practices, they can be subject to criminal processes and surcharged? If he and his colleagues have evidence to support the allegations made today by the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) about corruption in Labour authorities, is he not surprised that far more councils have not been surcharged over the years? Does he believe that the majority of Labour councils are corrupt, as the right hon. Gentleman alleged? If so, what evidence does he have to prove that?

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Certainly they are incompetent; I do not know whether they are corrupt. The hon. Gent should note that among those providing evidence for investigation into councillors are some of his hon. Friends.

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Will my hon. Friend confirm that the distribution of housing improvement grant for the purposes of gaining party political advantage, as alleged in the case of Birmingham city council, could be surchargeable?

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The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who has been campaigning strongly on that issue, has drawn attention to malpractices in Birmingham which must be investigated. I look forward with interest to the results of those investigations.

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Twenty-one councillors in Clay Cross in my constituency were surcharged in the early 1970s, before the passing of the legislation to which the Minister referred. They were surcharged not on grounds of corruption but for political decisions that they took. Ten of those were surcharged a total sum of £2,300, which could be done only by charging them jointly and severally. People in my constituency are therefore keen to see that what is going on in Westminster and Wandsworth involving millions of pounds is properly dealt with under the law and that the surcharging provision applies.

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The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to what I said. I specifically mentioned the case of wilful misconduct, and the hon. Gentleman knows that breaking the law deliberately is wilful misconduct. The surcharge that he mentioned arose as a result of a conviction. The hon. Gentleman proves, as many of his colleagues have done time and again, that the Labour party could not be trusted with an independent judicial system because it does not believe in the process of the courts and of finding people guilty or innocent as a result of a judicial process. Labour Members want to hang, draw and quarter people without going through any of those processes.

Water (Capital Investment)

24.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the amount of capital investment undertaken by the water industry since privatisation.

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Since 1990-91, the first full year of privatisation, the water industry's gross capital expenditure has been about £15 billion.

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I welcome that level of investment, which certainly would not have happened under a Labour Government, but does my hon. Friend feel that it is doing enough to exert downward pressure on prices? In my constituency, Thames Water supplies water to the north of the constituency at 40 per cent. below the price at which East Surrey Water supplies it in the south of the constituency. What is he doing to encourage more competition between adjacent water companies?

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I understand my hon. Friend's problem. He will know that the matter is for the water regulator—[Interruption.] As usual, the Opposition want it both ways. If the regulator is independent, they suggest that we should attack the regulator; if it is the reverse, they say that we are interfering. The regulator has a task to fulfil. My hon. Friend has raised that point in the past. I will ensure that the regulator understands the depth of his concern and reports to me accordingly.

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If the water companies were to borrow more against their assets, could they not invest more capital and reduce water charges?

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As usual, the Labour party has got it wrong. As a result of the Government's policy of privatising water, there is now more money available to do the necessary remedial work in a wide variety of areas, the cost of which would otherwise have been borne by the taxpayer. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that his party would be prepared to spend yet more money if it were in government, I should like to know where that money would come from.

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Will my hon. Friend compare the figure that he has just given for investment in water infrastructure since privatisation with what happened during the 1970s, when the average amount spent per year on water infrastructure decreased from £900 million to £500 million between 1974 and 1979? Does that not show the success of privatisation in increasing investment in water infrastructure and giving everyone better water and a better system?

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My hon. Friend is quite right. He is in a position to know about the matter because, in Fleetwood in his constituency, North West Water is spending hundreds of millions of pounds to complete a sewage treatment centre which will solve some of the problems of sewage outflow on to the beaches. That is a substantial sum of money and it is indicative of the changed attitude of the water companies, now privatised, compared with their outlook under the dead hand of nationalisation.

National Rivers Authority

26.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what the total number of people working for the National Rivers Authority was (a) when it was first established and (b) on the latest available figures.

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At the end of March 1990, NRA. staff numbered 6,535; at the end of March 1994, the figure was 7,709.

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The Minister will know that the establishment of the National Rivers Authority was supported by the Labour party and has proved a great success. Does he agree that the excellent people in pollution control will form the basis of the Environmental Protection Agency, and that their good work must continue in that agency?

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I am delighted to say that the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. The NRA and the people involved with it have done a great job. Many people involved in angling, for example, believe that the water bailiffs perform significant and important tasks along the river banks. During the progress of the Environment Bill, the Government intend to ensure that the NRA, like the other agencies to be subsumed into the new environment agency, will continue to play a very important role.

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As my constituency has more River Thames bank than any other constituency in Greater London, I can inform my hon. Friend that the River Thames is in excellent condition, which is a great credit to the National Rivers Authority and to the Government who established that agency.

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As a fellow riparian Member, with the River Ribble forming a substantial part of the boundary of my constituency, I know only too well what the NRA has achieved. I am delighted that my hon. Friend and I agree on that issue, as on so many others.

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Does the Minister recognise that there is concern within the National Rivers Authority about the reduced level of staffing foreshadowed in the annual report published two days ago? That will do nothing to assist the National Rivers Authority in taking necessary action on the issue of abandoned mines, which was raised at the Coalfield Communities Campaign conference. We cannot address that serious issue without having sufficient staff levels in the monitoring agencies such as the National Rivers Authority.

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The hon. Lady, like so many Opposition Members, believes that more people should be involved in performing those tasks than we believe is warranted. As I said to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the NRA is an extremely efficient organisation WHICH has performed extremely well over the years. It has improved its operation, increased its productivity and done the job more efficiently.

The hon. Lady's point about abandoned mines is well taken. I had a very interesting and constructive meeting with her right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip only yesterday, when we discussed those matters at some length. He agreed with me that, give or take a nuance or two, he and others support what we are trying to do.

Housing Management

28.

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about his plans for the application of compulsory competitive tendering to housing management.

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We have put in place the legislative framework extending compulsory competitive tendering to housing management. The first contracts are due to be in operation from April 1996. I am pleased to say that local authorities are making good progress with their preparations.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that compulsory competitive tendering has been one of the most successful Government policies, in that it has at long last brought some common sense even to some Labour authorities? Is it not greatly to be welcomed that compulsory competitive tendering can be brought into a further sector of local authority financial operations so that we may have an improvement in the standard of housing management right across the country, even in Labour and Liberal Democrat authorities, as they will be forced to use business common sense?

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Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. I would particularly point out to him that, for the first time in years, Labour and Liberal councils are being forced to talk to their tenants about what they want in terms of standards and methods of organisation. That is one of the great successes of compulsory competitive tendering.

Points Of Order

3.30 pm

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On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not know whether you have noticed the remarkable similarity between Questions 1, 5 and 11 on today's Order Paper, and I was wondering whether by chance they might be related. During Environment questions, we might understandably turn our minds to the planting of trees and flowers, but is it not going a bit far when the only planting is that of Opposition questions? I wonder whether, during your busy day, you might have the opportunity to see how three complicated but identically worded questions came to be tabled.

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If the hon. Gentleman examined the Order Paper as often and thoroughly as I do, he would find that there are many planted questions, many of which come from his side of the House.

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On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Today the Audit Commission published a report stating that one in three consultants with large private practices had missed 10 per cent. of their operating sessions and that was an underestimate. Health questions were yesterday. It is most convenient that the report has come out the day after Health questions. That happens again and again, and I wonder whether I could seek your help to ensure that these reports come out on the day when they are most useful to hon. Members in challenging the responses of Ministers to Health questions.

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Perhaps I should inform the hon. Lady and the House that I have no authority whatsoever over the publication of reports. I can understand the frustrations of the hon. Lady and the House on these matters. All I can advise her to do is pursue the matter through Ministers and the Order Paper, as I am sure she will.

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On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You may have seen the report in The Scotsman that the electoral registration officer in Tayside has ordered an urgent inquiry into the possible misuse and misrepresentation of postal and proxy votes in Dundee, in particular the case of a 91-year-old woman who has had her postal vote changed to a proxy vote in the name of a Labour activist to whom she gave no authorisation, and whom she did not know.

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It is all a long way geographically from the Chair. Will the hon. Gentleman relate his question to my responsibilities?

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With regard to electoral matters, do you have any authority to institute an inquiry into the misuse of postal votes and vote-rigging in another Labour authority?

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The Speaker of this House has no such authority.

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On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received any questions from the Government for a Transport Minister or a Scottish Office Minister to make a statement today about the lunchtime announcement by the British Railways Board of the cancellation with effect from May of the sleeper on the Motorail services to Scotland?

You will recall that, the week before last, at Question Time, the Prime Minister gave myself and the House a categorical assurance that meetings would be available to an all-party delegation to see the Secretary of State for Transport and the Prime Minister about these matters. That pledge has now been made a mockery by that grotesque breach of faith. What are Ministers going to do about it? Have they approached you to explain themselves?

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I have had no indication from a Minister that they are seeking to make a statement on that matter today. I can only advise the hon. Gentleman to use the Order Paper, and to table questions to Ministers who have some responsibility in these matters, as I am sure he will do.

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On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you assist me by telling me how I can clarify a confusion that seems to have arisen over a statement by the Director General of Ofgas, Miss Clare Spottiswoode, who told a seminar yesterday that utility regulation is flawed—too dependent on the individuals responsible for it—and that the system is weakened by the regulator's lack of accountability. Is it possible for a Minister to clarify the difficulty that has now arisen?

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I have no authority over statements made by Ministers, let alone anyone outside the House.

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On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I recognise that you cannot call a Minister into the Chamber to make a statement, but under a well-known system, Ministers can come here to be held accountable to the House for their decisions or actions. What steps can be taken by hon. Members when someone who holds a senior position in the House, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment, is accused of abusing his position? Is it possible for him to come to the House, make a statement and be questioned on it, or can he remain silent on an issue involving his responsibility for issuing share options—very generously, moreover?

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that Committees of the House rightly have a great deal of autonomy. It is for the Committee to take any action that it considers fit.

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On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it not the custom of the House for an hon. Member who intends to attack another to give notice to that Member?

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Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I have done so.

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My goodness! My wise words are getting through.

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I telephoned the office of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). I should add that there are four telephone numbers for him in the directory.

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I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has taken all possible steps. I am delighted to hear that my wise words are getting through to hon. Members.

Animal Health (European Law)

3.36 pm

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Animal Health Act 1981 to provide that European Community law shall not interfere with the validity or legal effectiveness under the laws of the United Kingdom of any prohibitions or restrictions on the export of animals which the designated Ministers shall certify to be justified.
I am pleased to say that my Bill has cross-party support. It has Euro-sceptic support, Euro-enthusiast support, vegetarian support, meat-eating support and even meat exporting support.

Until recently, the small town of Brightlingsea was a little-known, peaceful corner of my constituency on the Essex coast. There is only one road into the town—three miles of twisting lane across a beautiful Essex valley. Brightlingsea is a close-knit community of small streets, friendly shops, good schools and a delicate economy, dependent as much on a fragile network of small indigenous employers as on employment in nearby Colchester and elsewhere on the Tendring peninsula.

The words "Brightlingsea port" give entirely the wrong impression. This is no Shoreham or Dover; Brightlingsea creek is a natural haven for small boats, dinghies and yachts. Only one small vessel can berth at the whnarf, which itself looks large and out of place. It can be reached only by driving through the heart of the town. The wharf did little trade until the export of live animals began in January this year.

I beg the House to understand the depth and strength of the reaction that the trade through Brightlingsea has provoked. Just as the convoys of 40-tonne trucks thundering down the crowded main street have shattered the peace of the town, so the issue of live exports has roused many ordinary people to anger, outrage and despair. There are some in the town who do not support the protesters, and also a large number who are sympathetic to their aims but increasingly resent the disruption and expense of the protests.

I would, however, fail in my duty as a Member of Parliament if I did not impress on the House the huge public feeling on the issue that exists in Brightlingsea. My right hon. and hon. Friends will know that, in fact, public concern extends far more widely than the places that are involved directly in the trade. All those concerned demand action from their representatives in Parliament.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister hit exactly the right nomte when he met a group of Brightlingsea protesters on a recent visit to East Anglia. He said that he would "much prefer" to see animals transported in carcase form, and during Question Time on 10 January he expressed a preference for export on the hook rather than on the hoof. I agree.

I pay tribute to our Ministers who are dealing with the issue. Both my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his doughty Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning)—whose presence I am pleased to note—have made progress in the European Council. But even if agreement is reached, and over-long journeys and veal crates are banned under EC law, it is unlikely that implementation by other states will meet the high animal welfare standards that we expect in the United Kingdom.

It is at this point that most people feel that the United Kingdom should at least be able to implement selective bans on live exports. The anger and frustration of Brightlingsea people are, however, turned to fury when Ministers explain their powerlessness under European Community law.

My legal advice is the same as that of Ministers: we cannot apply article 36 of the treaty on European union unilaterally. Subsequent EC directives have brought it into the occupied field of EC legal competence; but this issue has, perhaps as much as any other, brought home to the British public the huge extent of the powers that Governments have signed away in Europe. They rightly feel that the argument about live exports from the United Kingdom should be settled by the United Kingdom Parliament, not left hostage to the vested interests of foreign Governments.

This Bill does not directly ban live exports—I can reassure the Minister on that point. It restores the powers of Ministers under the Animal Health Act 1981—powers that most people believe that Ministers should never have given away. I must tell the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) that, even if his Protection of Calves (Export) Bill became an Act of Parliament, its failure to tackle the issue of European law would leave United Kingdom Ministers powerless to implement it. But I am grateful for the fact that he is sponsoring this Bill.

The Bill has two main elements. Clause 1 first makes it clear that the Animal Health Act 1981 may be used to impose a general export ban, and that it is not restricted merely to regulating the means and mode of export. The power to impose a ban may be exercised on the grounds of cruelty to the animals in the country of destination, not just on the grounds of suffering during the journey.

Most people would agree that this is the sort of sanction that Ministers require, to demonstrate that they are serious about ensuring that EC animal welfare legislation is properly enforced. Ministers may certify that any such export ban
"is in their opinion justified for the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants, notwithstanding that it may prohibit or restrict the exportation of animals to other member states and that such prohibition or restriction does not constitute a means of arbitrary discrimination or disguised restriction on trade between member states".
This follows the wording of article 36 of the treaty on European union. So the Bill would simply allow Ministers to exercise powers that they thought were protected by article 36 when they signed the Single European Act in the first place.

The second main element of the Bill is designed to protect Ministers' actions from possible prosecution under Community law. Section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972 provides that Community law shall be
"recognised and available in law"
in the United Kingdom. Section 2(4) of the Act provides that any future Act
"shall be construed and have effect subject to"
section 2(1). My Bill denies legal force under the law of the United Kingdom to any rule of Community law that would interfere with the export ban, so it becomes Parliament's express wish, if necessary, to override this part of the 1972 Act. What is the effect of the Bill? If Ministers chose to apply an export ban on grounds of cruelty to animals in the country of destination, Parliament would have made it clear that the UK courts would be obliged to uphold UK law in the matter, against EC law if necessary. This would probably put the United Kingdom in breach of EC law. At a meeting with the Minister, her officials told me that this Act "would not work", implying that our courts would override the express wish of Parliament to exclude EC law.

If the courts fail Parliament in this regard, it will have been proved beyond dispute that parliamentary sovereignty is incompatible with continued membership of the European Community on the current basis. That in turn flies in the face of all the assurances given by Ministers about parliamentary sovereignty on the Floor of the House.

Although Parliament instructed our courts to enforce EC law in the 1972 Act, no Parliament can bind its successor. As a sovereign Parliament, we should never allow people to claim that we are powerless to enact and to enforce legislation just because it is contrary to European Union law. I doubt that any hon. Member would be happy to see Parliament being lectured by Ministry of Agriculture officials about that on which it can or cannot legislate.

The Bill restores the UK's choice to decide the live exports issue—a choice that most British people believe that this country should have. It would add authority to Government actions, because Ministers would be pursuing a policy that they could claim as their own, instead of one forced on them. Nothing could be more corrosive to the idea of democratic accountability than to find ourselves saying that we have given away the power to decide matters for ourselves without consent or explanation, and without realising that we were doing that at the time.

Anyone who has argued in favour of a ban on live exports should feel obliged to support my Bill, as it is the only effective means of enacting a ban. I am more than a little scornful of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) for sponsoring the Protection of Calves (Export) Bill, when his reluctance to sponsor my Bill suggests that he finds the truth about the position in the EU too difficult to handle.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Sir Andrew Bowden, Mr. Roger Knapman, Mr. lain Duncan Smith, Mr. Harry Greenway, Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mr. David Evans, Mr. Nick Harvey, Mr. Eric Martlew, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Tony Banks and Mr. Bill Olner.

Animal Health (European Law)

Mr. Bernard Jenkin accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Animal Health Act 1981 to provide that European Community law shall not interfere with the validity or legal effectiveness under the laws of the United Kingdom of any prohibitions or restrictions on the export of animals which the designated Ministers shall certify to be justified: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 24 March, and to be printed. [Bill 81.]

Estimates Day

[2ND ALLOTTED DAY]

Supplementary Estimates, 1994-95

Class Iv, Vote 1

Broadband Communications

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Trade and Industry Committee of Session 1993-94, on Optical Fibre Networks (House of Commons Paper No. 285); the Department of Trade and Industry Paper on Creating the Superhighways of the Future: Developing Broadband Communications in the UK (Cm 2734); and the Department of Trade and Industry Annual Report 1995: The Government's Expenditure Plans 1995-96 to 1997-98 (Cm 2804).]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a further supplementary sum not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1995 for expenditure by the Department of Trade and Industry on support for business, research and development; consumer protection and the regulation of trade, energy related programmes, including research and development, and residual privatisation expenses; departmental administration, central and miscellaneous services; security of oil and gas supplies; the operational costs of departmental executive agencies and associated research laboratory privatisation expenses; the provision of land and building; loans, grants and other payments.—[Mr. Ian Taylor.]

3.47 pm

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I place on record my appreciation of the excellent service given by the Clerks to all Select Committees and their back-up staff, because the amount of work they do on the many good reports presented to the House sometimes goes unnoticed.

This is probably the first time that the House has had the opportunity to debate in depth the importance of the information super-highway, and to question whether Government policy is helping or hindering the development of advanced communication networks and services. Such a debate is long overdue, because the issues are of real significance to this country's future competitiveness, and they will shape the life style and work patterns of millions of people.

The information super-highway has implications for the way that the House conducts its business and hon. Members conduct their working lives. The Committee took the opportunity to undertake the first video conferencing of an official Committee of the House. I was pleased to learn that the House is planning to offer that facility, and that arrangements are under way for the House's own research network to be available on the Internet.

Our report on the super-highway was the first Select Committee report ever placed on the Internet, but not by the House authorities or the Select Committee Clerks—somebody else did us that courtesy. The House does not offer that service, but makes our report available only in hard copy form, through a limited number of outlets.

The problem is that the report is expensive. I have received several inquiries from academic bodies in particular, which want such reports made more accessible on their databases. Government Departments and agencies were recently connected to the Internet. We called for that in our report, and I welcome that development.

A number of local authorities are also on the system, as are most large companies and universities. It is perhaps time that Hansard and Select Committee reports and other parliamentary information was also made available on Internet. The cost is minuscule, and it can only help raise the standard of the House.

The United States Congress has been on Internet for several years. I can access the Congress World Wide Web information service at any time, for the price of a local telephone call. The menu covers the full text of congressional debates and reports and judgments, as well as the e-mail addresses of Congressmen. That system might be popular with hon. Members. There is even a special mail box through which people can request information or contact a particular person.

If that is possible for the US Congress, why should it not be possible here? I have already raised that question with the Liaison Committee, and I hope that, if it comes before the House, it will be supported. I shall now return to the Select Committee report on optical fibre networks and the information super-highway, which was published last July.

The Government's response to our report took the form of a Command Paper, issued in November. Last month, there was a G7 summit on the global super-highway, and, as many hon. Members may know, the Labour party has set up its own information super-highway policy forum. The enormous interest generated by our report has certainly concentrated a few minds in the Department of Trade and Industry. Although we were disappointed by the Government's response, our report has put the issue firmly on the political agenda. There is now a widely held view that we need a nationwide network sooner rather than later. I think that the Minister will agree.

I welcome the enthusiasm that the Minister has brought to his portfolio, and I hope that it will affect Government policy. The potential for industry, jobs and leisure is vast. Our report states that broadband networks and services are likely to be critical to the competitiveness of businesses and a major factor in attracting inward investment. The report also emphasises the enormous potential social benefits for education, skills training, health care and local government services. However, getting the full benefit depends on the speed at which the highway and the new multi-media services can he developed, and on making the network as open and accessible as possible.

Our report highlights the significant benefits to industry and states that the information industry is expanding worldwide faster than anyone expected. The telecommunications industry alone is growing at such a pace that, within a few years, it will overtake Europe's motor industry in its impact on GDP. I say that to make the point that the competitive advantage of the information industry is relative, and that those countries which develop the networks and software first will corner the market.

To get investment in new broadband services requires an integrated and accessible network. The Committee's concern is that we may not get the infrastructure in place in time, and will fail to stimulate growth in new and innovative software applications. The networks and services must develop together, and we must keep the policy of attracting new investment in both. Unlike the Americans and the Japanese, the Government are reluctant to set a target date for the super-highway. They seem preoccupied with encouraging so-called competition for local cable franchises. We should concentrate on encouraging the development of a nationwide broadband network, with maximum usage for broadband services. That is what the French, the Dutch and the Germans are doing.

Just last week, France Telecom announced that it would bring forward new investments for expanding its optical fibre network to meet the French target of a nationwide super-highway by 2015. Meanwhile, Japan and the United States have set firm target dates for connecting up all schools and hospitals by 2000 and 2010. The problem for the Government is that they cannot set any targets, because there is no certainty that the cable companies can meet them. Under current regulations, there is no incentive to push ahead anyway.

Our report argues that our regulatory system hinders the development of broadband networks and services. We could see no logic in keeping the regulatory rules which ban BT and Mercury from providing cable television. Repealing them would provide the income stream that is needed for investment in the new broadband networks and services.

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I think that my hon. Friend is arguing the point that British Telecom principally, and Mercury to some extent, are the only telecom operators that can provide the broadband network nationally and send fibre into every home, and that that provides the sole basis for the integrated national network that can put Britain in the lead in the super-highway. Does he agree that, unless we have that, we will lag behind competitor countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany, when in fact we invented the technology?

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That is a good point, and one on which the report concentrates. As I develop the theme, the historical context in which regulation arose will show the weakness in the application of that regulation.

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The hon. Gentleman is aware of my declared interest in the cablecoms industry. Is he confident that BT would have invested the £10 billion in cable networks that the cable companies are proposing to invest this century if it had not been given some regulatory confirmation that it would have a return on its capital?

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That is a hypothetical question. The Select Committee report deals with practical matters, and the situation as it is today. We have tried to develop with the cable companies and with both BT and Mercury an information super-highway for the early part of the 21st century. Therefore, no useful point would be served by answering the hon. Gentleman's question. We have tried to look forward and judge how we can best match what we have now with the cables and the PTOs, and develop that for the full information super-highway for the early part of the 21st century.

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I am following what my hon. Friend is saying with great interest. If we are to achieve what the Select Committee wants us to achieve, the question of the asymmetry rule must be addressed by the Government. As I understand it, the rule will only be reviewed in the year 2001, with no guarantee that it will be changed. If it is not changed, it is clear that British Telecom will not invest the £15 billion required to put fibre into the domestic network.

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My hon. Friend raises a very important point. He will find the Select Committee's answer to it as I develop my speech. I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to answer my hon. Friend's question. After all, it applies more to the Minister than it does to me.

As I was saying, we could see no logic in keeping the rules that ban BT and Mercury. The Committee asked why, when the predominantly US-owned cable companies have a privileged monopoly in our backyard, when BT tries to compete within the US it does not get equal access to the US market. That should be a matter for concern for the Government.

The entertainment ban was built into the regulation when cabling was in its infancy. At the time, there was some sense in giving fledgling British cable companies a helping hand. However, the position has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. The franchise has been sold on, and the big US cable and telecom companies seem more interested in taking on BT in the standard telephony market than in creating a national super-highway.

The Government have made some concessions at the margins to BT and Mercury, and they are welcome; however, the ban remains open-ended. The Committee would have had more sympathy with the Government's position if the cable companies were attracting a higher take-up rate for cable television and promoting new interactive services. The fact is that they are not. The penetration rate for cable take-up is currently 21 per cent.—the same as it was in 1992. In the US, it is more than 70 per cent.

In some areas, cable has not even begun. I received a letter only last week from a couple in Hackney complaining that they could not get cable television. The couple contacted the local franchise holder, Cable London, to ask when they could expect their street to be cabled up. They were told to call back some time in 1997.

Our report also pointed out our concern that the majority of cable companies were not investing in optical fibre networks, or offering new broadband services. The evidence we received—and it was pretty extensive—showed a mosaic of cable networks using mostly traditional copper or coaxial-based technologies. We could find few examples of cable companies experimenting with advanced broadband networks that have the ability to deliver interactive, two-way television.

Even if the cable companies met their build obligations in full, it would still leave more than a third of the country without access to a fixed cable network. The Select Committee felt that the scales had been tipped too far in favour of the cable companies, and that now was the time to start opening up the market by lifting the entertainment ban and by providing for open access to any cable network.

Some cable franchises have been protected for 10 years, and they could run for a minimum of another seven years. It could be even longer than that, unless policy is changed. Despite the Minister's suggestion, the Committee could find no technical or legal problem with phasing out the ban. The way forward must be to get BT, Mercury and the cable companies to build a national network together. That can be achieved by relaxing the regulations franchise by franchise, with the aim of lifting all restrictions on BT and Mercury by end of 2002. As a quid pro qua, we recommended that BT and Mercury should be required to allow open access to their networks, and to be given the task of linking all public facilities to the super-highway as soon as possible.

The benefits of that approach are spelled out in our report. First, it would enable BT and Mercury to begin investing the £15 billion to £20 billion necessary to develop a national broadband network, without denying some protection to existing cable companies. Secondly, it would provide an incentive for cable companies to expand and upgrade their networks, both to private customers and to the public service users. Thirdly, it would create the certainty and purpose that is lacking.

The certainty is not just for telecommunications and cable companies; the problem affects the hundreds of UK firms which are supplying the technology and the software. Their concern is the long lead time they need to develop broadband technology. With the present uncertainty, those firms cannot take the risk that, in five or 10 years' time, BT may be able to start investing in broadband networks and services. We will end up having to buy the technology and equipment from United States, Japan or other countries.

Most of the cable companies said that they could live with our proposals, yet the Minister keeps telling us that the status quo is preferable, because it offers stability. The Committee could not accept that. We argued that keeping things as they are creates uncertainties. We could not accept t