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Commons Chamber

Volume 285: debated on Thursday 21 November 1996

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House Of Commons

Thursday 21 November 1996

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Milk Quota

1.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received concerning the level of the milk quota in the United Kingdom. [3719]

The Commission will present the Council with an options paper on the future of the dairy industry early next year. I shall continue to resist any arbitrary cuts in the United Kingdom's allocation.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer and for visiting my constituency recently and talking directly to several farmers who have been hit by the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis. He heard the concerns of farmers in my constituency, especially Mr. Paul Kenny who has a farm in Slaidburn and who spoke about the milk quota problem. Our milk quota is not sufficient to meet the amount that we should produce for home consumption. That problem has been exacerbated by the BSE crisis because many cattle that would not normally be in the fields are being kept out and producing milk. I fear that we will hit our quota sooner rather than later, but may face a shortage of milk thanks to the quota problem. Can he reassure farmers in Ribble Valley that he is working hard to ensure that we get an increased milk quota and that he is doing all that he can to ameliorate the current crisis?

I enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend's constituency and I remember Mr. Kenny and the point that he made. In the long term, we would like the system of quotas to be done away with. In the short term, the position is more encouraging than some people have imagined in the sense that milk production is now 0.5 per cent. below the quota profile. That is an encouraging state of affairs.

Is not the reality that the Government failed the country in 1984 when they agreed to milk quotas way below our requirements? Is not the solution to that problem the abolition of milk quotas? Has the Minister discussed with the new members of the European Community—Sweden, Finland and Austria—their views of the future of milk quotas?

There are several concepts of what we should have when the present system of milk quotas expires in 2000. The United Kingdom would much prefer to do away with quotas and price support of the present sort, although there would have to be a fairly extended transitional period. We must await the options paper, which we will get early next year. It is extraordinary that a Labour Member should make a point about a bad baseline, however, because we got less than we would have liked as a direct consequence of the agri-monetary policy pursued by the Labour party in the 1970s, which prevented us from having a sufficient output to justify a larger basic quota.

May I take it that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware of the dilemma faced by dairy farmers in my constituency and elsewhere? With the uncertainty over the accelerated cull, they do not know whether to dry off their cows or continue to milk them throughout the winter and thus go over quota. That causes difficulties with forward planning. Will he take that into account in his discussions with his European counterparts?

My hon. and learned Friend makes a sound point. It is highly desirable that dairy producers in his constituency should know the situation as exactly, and as soon, as possible.

Is the Minister aware that milk quotas, with his deregulation policies, have pushed up prices, destroyed jobs and caused problems with doorstep delivery? Will he make more effort to encourage children to drink milk rather than make policies that store up health problems for later life, such as osteoporosis?

I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Lady, but the first part of her question was total nonsense. The process of deregulation has actually been a great success.

Bse (Pet Food)

2.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what measures he has taken to ensure that BSE-infected cattle are not used by pet food manufacturers. [3720]

Since 1988, all cattle suspected of having BSE must, by law, be notified to the Ministry; those affected are then slaughtered and the carcase incinerated.

Does the Minister have any contingency plans if any cross-species infection is identified, so that we do not have the same sort of inept muddle that we have had with mad cow disease if we identify mad dog disease?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the industry has always been in the lead on safety matters? For example, the member companies of the Pet Food Manufacturers Association had a voluntary ban on the use of specified bovine offal six months before the House passed legislation on human use. Will he reassure the House that he will keep in the closest touch with the industry at the highest level as well as at official level, so that the industry is fully apprised of European developments?

Yes, indeed; but the controls that we have in abattoirs, rendering plants and knackeries are the toughest in Europe and address all the points about which my hon. Friend is concerned and which underpin his question.

In connection with all the measures for the eradication of BSE to which the Minister has referred, does he accept that there is continuing concern about the mismanagement of the slaughter programme? Has he read the article in a recent edition of Professional Engineering, which refers to the fact that, although the welcome increase in the slaughter programme to around 55,000 a week is dramatic, only about 1,000 carcases are being safely disposed of? The report states—I hope that he will confirm this—that the Ministry is still "frantically searching" for a safe solution to that problem. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that there is still widespread concern at the Government's failure to take a grip on the cull?

I really do not think that that criticism is especially well founded. On the over-30-month scheme, we now have the slaughter rate up to around 60,000— the total was slightly more than 60,000 last week—and, given that rate, I am confident that we can clear the backlog by the end of the year, as we said some time ago.

At the end of this year. That is an absurd intervention. The hon. Gentleman is simply causing confusion.

Set-Aside (Bird Life)

3.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he has taken to protect bird life on set-aside land. [3722]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Tony Baldry)

The management rules for set-aside are designed to protect wildlife and the environment. Further changes are being introduced in 1997 to restrict the cutting, and prohibit the cultivation, of set-aside during the main nesting season to protect birds such as lapwing and skylark.

I welcome the new changes in the management of set-aside as it affects bird life. Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of bird life is one of considerable interest to those of us who are lucky enough to live in rural areas? Is he aware, for example, that the rare stone curlew comes to nest at Elveden in my constituency, and that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with lottery funding, is recreating the natural habitat of the fens at Lakenheath as it existed prior to the draining of the fens several hundred years ago?

The Government and landowners do an enormous amount, both on set-aside and non-set-aside land, to promote bird life. We have environmentally sensitive areas and the countryside stewardship scheme, and landowners co-operate with the farming and wildlife advisory group. Those are excellent initiatives. Indeed, encouraged by the RSPB, they are all worthwhile initiatives to promote bird life.

The Minister mentioned the agri-environment regulations, but can I direct his attention to the organic aid scheme? Birds thrive in an organic environment and, although I applaud the Government's action on the organic aid scheme, why is no help given to farmers who already farm organically? Is not that a change that should be made?

Farmers who farm organically will find increasingly that they will be rewarded in the marketplace. They should not require reward from the Government. If they believe that there is a demand for organic farming, that reward will come to them in the marketplace subsequently.

Intervention Buying

4.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what estimate he has made of expenditure on the intervention buying of agricultural commodities in the United Kingdom in 1996–97. [3723]

Estimated expenditure on the intervention buying of agricultural commodities in the United Kingdom in 1996–97 is £320 million.

Can the Minister confirm that 413,000 tonnes of beef now stands in a mountain in intervention? Does he accept that that is a clear measure of the Government's failure to deal with the BSE crisis adequately? Does he accept that the only way to restore consumer confidence is to establish an absolutely independent, customer-oriented food standards agency, which might help to restore consumer confidence?

In the financial year 1996–97, purchases of beef are expected to amount to about 100,000 tonnes. We have had to intervene in the market as a consequence of the collapse in consumer confidence that has occurred as a result of what is commonly referred to as the BSE crisis. It is a consequence of the lack of market confidence.

Intervention buying is an important way to stabilise agricultural markets, so what action are the Government taking to stabilise the European market in farmed salmon? Is the Chancellor of the Exchequer blocking progress to stabilise that market? Could it be that an industry that contributes 6,000 jobs and £250 million to the Scottish economy is not important enough to deserve effective action from the Government?

That is a question of such complexity that I propose to respond to the hon. Gentleman in writing.

Does the Minister agree that his vacillation over the Florence agreement is undermining efforts to restore beef markets throughout Europe? The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes great play of the fact that the UK has met four of the five Florence obligations, but does he realise that three of those four conditions relate to human and animal health and should have been met years ago, and that the chaos in the Government's over-30-month slaughter scheme led to the fourth condition—that the Government get their act together? Regarding the fifth condition, for which, apparently, the Minister has not yet presented proposals, will he tell the House today whether he will implement a selective slaughter programme—yes or no?

The premise that underpins the hon. Gentleman's question is the lack of confidence in European markets. There is indeed a lack of confidence in European markets. There has been a collapse in the sale price of beef in European markets, and there is much anxiety among the farming community. That has certainly had an effect on members of the European Union, making them less willing or able—two ways of describing the same thing—than they previously were to proceed rapidly and substantially to lift the ban.

An accelerated cull has absolutely nothing to do with human safety and is not justified on those terms.

Set-Aside (Charity Events)

5.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress he has made in respect of changing the EU rules which prohibit charity events on set-aside land. [3724]

I am pleased to be able to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister secured an undertaking from the European Commission in July that the use of set-aside land for charitable events would be permitted in future. The Government welcome that as a sensible change to the set-aside rules which meets public concerns.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the prohibition is one more reason why the public in the United Kingdom are beginning to dislike the European Union? This is nonsenseland. Can my hon. Friend assure me that he will progress the revision of the common agricultural policy as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the type of approach that the Commission took at the end of 1995, when it wrote to us ruling out the use of set-aside land for charitable and local fund-raising events, brings the Commission into disrepute; that is why we sought to persuade the Commission to relax the rules for such events. We were successful, and whenever necessary we seek to ensure that the Community proceeds on the basis of commonsense policies.

I have been listening carefully to the Minister's reply, but the House has not yet heard the whole story. As I understand it from the Commission, the Government did indeed approach the Commission for clarification, but concentrated in their interpretation on the issue of the lucrative use of set-aside land—including for charitable purposes. The Commission maintains that the Government's own interpretation is what stopped the charitable use of set-aside land for at least a year before the issue was clarified. The rules most certainly have not been changed—the Minister did not say that they have—but they have been clarified.

The problem is that the Ministry often interprets European Union rules to suit itself—and sometimes wrongly—and then blames the EU, when the blame should rest with MAFF itself.

That is complete hogwash. The simple facts are as follows: at the end of 1995, the Commission wrote to us ruling out the use of set-aside land for charitable and local fund-raising events, and made it perfectly clear that it was tightening up on the rules. The initiative came from the Commission, not from us—

I know that it is difficult for anyone in the Labour party to understand the idea of "lucrative". When charities organise fund-raising events, they hope to raise money from them. Such activities are, therefore, lucrative. The Commission made it very clear that it was tightening up the rules. We had to take the initiative to get the Commission to change those rules back, and that is what we have done.

Meat Retailing Sector

6.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will establish an independent inquiry into the pricing practices of the meat retailing sector. [3725]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mrs. Angela Browning)

We do not see the need to hold an inquiry into the meat retailing sector at the moment.

Is the Minister aware that beef farmers in this country, who get no help in the present difficult circumstances—

Most beef farmers raise their beef and take their cattle to market, where they get 20 per cent. less for them than they did before March. That has made it not worth feeding the animals over a long period. They want to know—it has not yet been explained to them properly—why a 20 per cent. cut in the price they get at market works through to a reduction of only 1 per cent. in the price to the consumer and housewife—and butchers and supermarkets. Those facts have been checked with the Minister and with the House of Commons Library. Farmers and consumers are not satisfied that they are not being robbed by someone along the food chain.

It is quite fallacious to say that the Ministry has not supported the beef farmer. We have done so with two tranches of money—£29 million already distributed at more than £60 per head of cattle that have gone into the food chain; and another tranche of £29 million due to be paid shortly to support farmers—

It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head: it is a matter of record. The hon. Gentleman may not like the truth, but here it is. I do not know how often he does his shopping: I hope that he, like me, goes to the supermarket and the butcher every week. If he does, he cannot fail to have noticed that, since 20 March—[HON. MEMBERS: "Get on with it."] I am getting on with it. It is pathetic that when this important market and the issue of consumer confidence in this product are discussed in the House, Opposition boys and girls are so quick to run down this vital industry. [Interruption.] The supermarkets have supported British beef; they said from day one that they would sell it, and they have. I offer the hon. Gentleman one example—[Interruption.]

Let me give the hon. Gentleman one fact—there are many more. In November 1995, Tesco was selling British mince at 139p per kilogram. This week, mince is on sale in Tesco, as it is in many other supermarkets, at 94p per kilogram. Such a display of confidence will get people back to British meat. That is what the supermarkets are doing.

That was telling them —I thank my hon. Friend. I do not believe that she has had any inquiry from butchers for financial support, however deserving they may be. Does she agree that the high street butcher can tell the customer exactly where the meat comes from, how to cook it and what price to pay for it?

Indeed. My hon. Friend mentions an important sector of the meat retailing trade. The independent butchery trade is responsible for the retailing of 40 per cent. of British meat. We have been supportive of, for example, campaigns run by the Meat and Livestock Commission, especially to promote important sales of forequarter cuts such as braising beef and mince. I was pleased to launch the 8,000th independent butcher selling MLC-accredited mince. It has been an extremely successful campaign and it has done a great deal to restore British confidence.

Does the Minister accept that there is a relationship between the amount of beef consumed and the price? Does she agree that one way to clear the stocks of intervention beef quickly is to give it away to charitable organisations so that they can distribute it to the needy in areas such as mine? Will she extend that scheme beyond beef to butter and, if she wishes to be popular, to wine and cheese?

I can inform the House that 64,000 tonnes of intervention beef has been stewed and canned and is being distributed as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Ec Fruit And Vegetable Regime

7.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the reform of the EC fruit and vegetable regime. [3726]

Now that the Council regulation has been agreed, we are working with our growers to ensure that the detailed implementing rules reflect their needs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the reforms that he and his European colleagues have secured to the fruit and vegetable regime. Will he confirm that only through a thorough overhaul of the common agricultural policy will it be possible to eliminate the waste and corruption that is still endemic in the present system of subsidies? Will he also strive for the repatriation of some elements of agricultural policy to Britain so that, for example, the minimum size of fruit that can be sold in our shops can once again be a matter for the consumer, not for politicians or bureaucrats?

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says. Credit for negotiating the fruit and vegetable regime should go to our right hon. and learned Friend. My hon. Friend is right to say that our view of the common agricultural policy does not stop at the limited review and reform of the fruit and vegetable regime. We want a much more market-related and competitive CAP. There have been regulations on fruit sizes in the United Kingdom for many years—predating the CAP. No significant changes are being enacted under the CAP or the fruit and vegetable regime, save in respect of one or two of the minimum sizes of traditionally larger apples. I have read some press comment, not all of which is well conceived, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that the Cox's Orange Pippin, and the small Cox's Orange Pippin, are safe in our hands.

Why are the Government going to such lengths to turn Europe into a continent of vegetarians? Since the Prime Minister told the House four months ago that the beef export market could be reopened if the British Government fulfilled the Florence criteria and carried out the selective cull of cattle at risk from BSE, why is the Ministry refusing even to undertake preliminary work to identify the cattle that would need to be culled in order to fulfil those criteria?

My right hon. and learned Friend has already responded fully and sufficiently to the issue of the selective cull. The initiative for depriving continental colleagues of the opportunity to eat British beef came at their behest, not ours. We regard the ban on selling excellent British beef in Europe as misconceived and legally inappropriate. We shall press at all times for its removal.

Can my hon. Friend inform the House whether any progress has been made in Brussels on establishing a potato regime?

We support the introduction of a modest potato regime along the lines of the fruit and vegetable regime, but with no recourse to intervention. It should protect and expand the market, but not involve waste or expense. We adhere fairly closely to the Commission position and we are pleased that several member states came into line with that position at the recent Council meeting. However, we have by no means secured the consensus that will lead to a common regime—although that remains a highly desirable objective.

Intensive Farming (Disincentives)

8.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he has to introduce disincentives in respect of intensive farming. [3727]

The Department's codes of good agricultural practice provide guidance to all farmers on protecting the environment. Environmental incentives are available through our agri-environment schemes, which in many cases promote extensive farming. In addition, extensification premiums are paid under the suckler cow and beef special premium schemes.

Does the Minister recall that one of the principal mistakes of over-intensive agriculture emerged in the realisation in 1988 that ruminant protein was almost certainly the main cause of BSE and that it was banned from cattle food? Is it not unbelievable that the Government confessed only recently that the date on which we can be certain that BSE contaminants were no longer in animal feed was 1 August—not 1988 but 1996? Will the Government apologise to the nation for their criminal delay, which has escalated the BSE tragedy?

I sometimes think that the hon. Gentleman should award himself the prize for the worst link between a supplementary and a main question. His original question referred to the extensification of agricultural production. If the hon. Gentleman looks at virtually any textbook from 100 years ago on what ruminants may be fed, he will find meat meal mentioned.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the issues have been rehearsed very well and that the Government have consistently followed the scientific advice that they received in implementing the ban on ruminant protein. He knows also that the ban and the measures taken in 1989 and 1990 have resulted in a progressive elimination of BSE in this country. An independent study has shown that the epidemic will end by about 2001. Recent measures reinforce, rather than lessen, the impact of the original measures that were taken appropriately in light of knowledge at that time.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best incentive for our farming community to extensify production is for the United Kingdom consumer to pay a fair price for a good product?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. British beef is excellent, it is well produced and it deserves to be consumed.

Bse (Isle Of Wight)

9.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will ensure that cattle from the Isle of Wight are allocated a regular slot in an abattoir under the BSE slaughter programme. [3728]

I expect abattoirs at Bath, Bridport and Langport, which have regularly taken over-30-month cattle from the Isle of Wight, to continue to do so.

I thank my hon. Friend and his staff for the help that they have given the island farmers, but there is a problem with very short notice—often late on a Friday—of an allocated slot at 8 am on a Monday. Owing to problems with ferry bookings, that creates difficulties—of which I know my hon. Friend is aware. We need a regular weekly slot for about 25 head of cattle; we could then deal with the balance in the usual manner. I hope that my hon. Friend will use his considerable ministerial influence to assist me in obtaining that concession from the Intervention Board.

I note my hon. Friend's specific point about the logistics of transporting cattle from the Isle of Wight. When we introduced the registration scheme, 438 cattle were registered as part of the backlog on the island. Of those, at least 170 have been slaughtered. I expect the remaining 260 or so to be slaughtered in the next two or three weeks. It is therefore a short-term problem and, when the OTMS continues, I do not expect any difficulties in ensuring that island farmers get a weekly slot as and when they need it.

Quarantine Regulations

10.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he has to vary current quarantine regulations. [3729]

We are looking again at rabies control policy, taking account of the most recent information. If new moves are decided on, an announcement will be made. I stress that our paramount need is to protect the health of people and animals in this country.

Is the Minister aware that the great weight of public opinion and, increasingly, scientific opinion, is moving against the absurd rabies and quarantine regulations in this country? There has been no recorded outbreak of rabies coming from a pet animal anywhere in Europe, ever, yet thousands of animals and pets die in quarantine each year because of all the diseases that they pick up while there from other animals, and the appalling conditions that prevail in many quarantine kennels. Is it true, as was reported in The Sunday Telegraph, that the Prime Minister has asked the Minister to produce a report on the regulations by the end of this month? Is that true, and will he have that report?

I certainly will not comment on reports in the newspapers that are a private matter between the Prime Minister and a Minister. I have made it clear to the House—I shall repeat it for the hon. Gentleman if he did not hear me the first time—that we are looking again at rabies control policy, taking account of the most recent information, which will, of course, include recent scientific information.

My hon. Friend will be aware that her Department has spent considerable sums over the past few years—or rather more than the past few years—in promoting a fear of rabies in the British population. Will she now consider spending a similar sum in bringing up to date the scientific advice, on not only the veterinary side but the health side, so that the British public can view the matter in a rather different light from mediaeval witchcraft?

My hon. Friend was Chairman of the Agriculture Select Committee, which produced a very useful document, and we promised to keep the policy under review. I assure him, as I have the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), that all the latest scientific evidence on this subject—some of it is quite recent—will be taken into account as part of the review.

Has the Minister read the report by the Agriculture Select Committee? If so, she will have noticed that the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ruled out any change in quarantine regulations before the Select Committee had made its recommendations and reached a conclusion. Is it not time that the Ministry revisited that report? Will she bear it in mind that many of us on that Committee approached the study convinced that quarantine had to remain, but we were convinced of the opposite after we had examined all the evidence?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will remember that the Select Committee report generated quite a long debate on the Floor of the House in which he and I took part. I can assure him that we shall study the report as part of the review.

I warmly welcome the cautious but determined way in which the Government are reconsidering this issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that nobody—including me—who advocates change to our quarantine rules is advocating relaxing or slackening the rules? It is quite the reverse. We wish to see a tightening of the regulations, using the latest scientific and technological equipment to eradicate the need for smuggling, which is probably the greatest threat.

I am familiar with my hon. Friend's views. He has made them available to the Ministry on more than one occasion. We hear quite a few reports of smuggling, but the fact that a few people break a rule is not necessarily a reason to abolish that rule.

Will the Minister bear it in mind that anyone who is concerned about human beings does not want a single person in the United Kingdom to die from rabies? The decisions that she takes will have an immediate and important effect, and I know that she will bear that in mind.

I am conscious of the very important point that the hon. Lady mentioned. Indeed, I would go further and say that any proposal that is to be seriously considered must also take into account the fact that, in countries on mainland Europe that have been free of rabies for many years, people bitten or scratched by an animal still must have preventive treatment. For example, 10,000 people in France had to undergo injections as a result of being scratched or bitten by a dog. In the UK, that is not a treatment that people have to endure.

Fishing Industry

11.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on his policy in respect of (a) compulsory decommissioning of fishing vessels and (b) quota hopping. [3730]

The Government have made it clear that they are determined to find a lasting solution to the problem of quota hoppers. We have tabled a proposal in the intergovernmental conference. We have made it clear that we will not accept any compulsory decommissioning objectives for United Kingdom fishermen while the quota hopper issue remains unresolved.

When I am next in the fishermen's club in Eastbourne, may I give my constituents the Minister's assurance that we will not accept up to a further 40 per cent. reduction in our fishing fleet, that we will not allow 20 per cent. of our fleet to remain in foreign ownership and that, for the British Government, nothing less than a treaty change will do?

Yes. Fishing is one of the only policy areas in the European Union that applies national quotas. It is a perfectly straightforward proposition that UK fish should be for UK fishermen.

I welcome the Minister's robust stand on quota hopping. Will he be just as robust on the unrealistic proposals for reductions in quotas that are coming from Brussels, which fly in the face of reality—particularly in the Irish sea? Brussels is trying to impose on fishermen regulations on the size of catch that do not take account of the species that inhabit those waters.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the UK fishing industry, of which the Northern Ireland industry is an important part, made sensible proposals on technical conservation, which were all but ignored by the Commission. The Commission produced some complex and disadvantageous proposals, which, I am glad to say, we were able to kick into touch and will not be debated at tomorrow's Fisheries Council meeting. The Commission has been told to go back and get its tackle in order before coming forward with further proposals on technical conservation.

Does my hon. Friend accept that developments on quota hopping and boats in foreign ownership become more bizarre each day? Has he seen today's Daily Mail, which contains an account of a sea rescue involving a Nimrod and two helicopters from my constituency that lifted a Spanish fisherman to Cornwall? It seems that the man was not ill after all. That is apparently only one of a number of such incidents. Has my hon. Friend got to the bottom of the mystery of the Spanish fishermen who turn up in benefit offices in Cornwall and register for national insurance numbers? What on earth is going on?

There can be no justification for large numbers of Spanish-skippered, Spanish-owned, Spanish-crewed vessels in south-western waters masquerading as UK vessels and seeking to catch fish from our quota. That is crazy and it must come to an end. We are determined that it should end as speedily as possible. The only reasonable inference I can draw from the fact that Spaniards land from quota hoppers and take taxis to local unemployment benefit offices in my hon. Friend's constituency is that in some bizarre way they are seeking to justify an economic link. It is the craziest of all economic links if the only link that they can justify is that of claiming unemployment benefit.

Does the Minister agree that vessels engaged in industrial fishing should be compulsorily decommissioned as soon as possible? He cannot deny that industrial fishing vessels have inflicted damage on commercially valuable stocks. When will the Council of Ministers ban industrial fishing?

Quite apart from my concern that we should tackle the problem of quota hopping, I am worried about the Commission's proposals on decommissioning, because they make hardly any reference to industrial fishing. It is daft that proposals that are intended to deal with conservation measures do not deal with industrial fishing. If we are to reduce fish mortality, we must tackle the effects of industrial fishing, particularly on some of our stocks in the North sea.

12.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how much money has been spent on decommissioning fishing vessels over the last three years. [3731]

This year's scheme is still in progress, but it should add about £12 million to the £26.2 million spent in the previous three years.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this seems to be a cynical attempt to scupper our fishing fleet`? Does he agree that the problem seems to be not too many boats chasing too few fish, but too many Spanish boats chasing our fish? May I urge him to take a leaf out of Sir Francis Drake's book when it comes to dealing with armadas, and to press the issue at the intergovernmental conference until it is settled to the satisfaction of our fishermen?

I could not have made it plainer to the House that we are not prepared—the United Kingdom fishing industry is not prepared, and I do not think that any sensible person is prepared—to accept any compulsory further reductions in the UK fishing fleet until the whole issue of quota hoppers is resolved. Some 20 per cent. of our beam trawler fleet is now, in effect, foreign owned. The situation is crazy; it must be stopped, and we are determined that it will be.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November. [3749]

This morning, I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the report in today's issue of The Independent which states that, yesterday, three members of the IRA's Army council were brought to the House of Commons by Labour Members? Is he aware that one of them was allowed to wander around for 20 minutes unaccompanied? Will he please instigate an immediate investigation?

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has written to Madam Speaker about the incident. My understanding is that those representatives of Sinn Fein were invited to the House to meet a number of hon. Members, that no prior notification about the meeting was given and that the representatives were, from time to time, left unattended. I do not know what the outcome of the inquiry will be, but I think that it is stunning naivety on the part of any hon. Member not to realise the connection between Sinn Fein and the IRA.

In view of the extraordinary importance of the European reports on a single currency—matters that may be decided by Ministers in December—does the Prime Minister not agree, on reflection, that it would be monstrous to deny hon. Members a chance to debate the reports in full on the Floor of the House, especially as that was the unanimous view of the Select Committee on European Legislation? Does he not agree that a general debate on European matters prior to the Dublin summit is no adequate substitute?

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is right about the last point. There was detailed scrutiny in the Standing Committee, and in due course we shall table the appropriate motion. No final decisions are made at the meeting of Finance Ministers; that will be a matter, if appropriate, for the European summit in Dublin. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, and as my right hon. Friend the Lord President has made clear, the House invariably has an opportunity to have a full debate before such a summit, and there will be a full debate—in which this matter will be relevant—before the Dublin European summit.

Those explanations were specifically and unanimously rejected by the Select Committee. May I point out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has actually written that decisions may be made over the next few weeks? In any event, surely we would be failing in our duty if we did not debate these matters properly in the House. Would the Prime Minister not be a good deal more honest if he simply stood at the Dispatch Box and said that he was afraid to let the Chancellor of the Exchequer stand and debate the issues? That speaks volumes about the disarray of his Government.

Anyone who thinks that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor is not willing, able and confident to debate with the right hon. Gentleman, or anyone, on any subject at any time simply does not know my right hon. and learned Friend. I repeat the point that I made to the right hon. Gentleman a moment ago: no decisions will be made at the Economic and Finance Council meeting. The matter will come forward to the Heads of Government meeting in Dublin. If decisions are to be taken, they will be taken there, and not even that is certain. In any event, this issue and other issues will be the subject of a full debate before Dublin.

What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is in contradiction to the letter from the Chancellor to the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation, but if the Chancellor is indeed happy and prepared to debate these issues, let us have the debate. There can be no possible reason for not debating these questions. How can the Prime Minister be trusted with Britain's future in Europe when the internal party management of the Conservative party—because that is what it is about—always takes precedence over the interests of Britain or even, as here, British democracy? If he is not afraid of the debate, let him call one.

This is the right hon. Gentleman who once wanted to leave the European Union. This is the right hon. Gentleman who said, "I will never be isolated in Europe." If he is never prepared to be isolated in Europe, he could not possibly defend the British interest in Europe. We are prepared to be isolated where necessary. We do defend the British interest. It will be debated in the House and I will defend the British interest at Dublin.

Yesterday in European Standing Committee B, which I attended, there was no proper scrutiny of these important regulations, which affect the powers of the House. We were discussing the so-called stability pact, whereby important decisions about the British economy would be transferred from Britain to Frankfurt and Brussels. As my right hon. Friend himself has not made up his mind about whether Britain should join the single European currency, why should the House agree now to these regulations?

These regulations, were they to be approved in due course, would apply only to those countries that enter into a single currency—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. It is no good saying, " No." That is the fact of the matter. Whether Britain enters a single currency will certainly be determined in the House and it would then be determined in a full referendum of this country.

The Prime Minister is simply running away on this issue and the whole country knows it.

The Audit Commission said today that we are now less effective on tackling youth crime than we were 10 years ago, that, of the 7 million youth crimes committed in Britain every year, only about one in 10 reach court and that the Government's programmes are ineffective, inefficient and wasteful. Given the fact that the Government have been in power for 17 years, whom do they blame for that?

The right hon. Gentleman would do well to read the Audit Commission report in full. He will find that it endorses our strategy for intervening early with young people who might offend. I look forward to his support for the Green Paper, which he knows is coming forward. I hope that he will consider it. I hope that he will support it and I hope that he will, for once, have some proactive and worthwhile ideas to contribute to the debate.

Since today's press shows that Labour's answer to the question, "When is a pledge not a pledge?" is "When it is a commitment," will my right hon. Friend assure the House—(Interruption.)

Order. The hon. Lady will be heard. I want to hear her question. She is usually in order and I bet that she is going to be in order now.

Will my right hon. Friend give the House and its Members the pledge that he will continue to speak clearly and without ambiguity as to his plans for this country?

I find it extraordinary that 89 spending promises suddenly disappear, apparently overnight. The Opposition claim that what we said yesterday was untrue—I think "lies" was the word that they used—but, as we were quoting what they said, I wonder who the deceivers really were.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November. [3750]

Does the Prime Minister recall his promise—indeed, his pledge—to construct a classless society in this country? If he really meant that, why is he so set against the proposal from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to scrap the right of hereditary dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and lords to speak and vote in the House of Lords? Could it just be that the boy from Brixton, whom I remember, has got a feeling to make himself into a nob after he leaves here? Does he really want to be remembered as the nob from Brixton?

I hope that the future Lord Banks will reconsider what he has said about that matter. My remarks about a classless society were about equality of opportunity, and not about the grey uniformity that the hon. Gentleman would wish to see in this country.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November. [3751]

May I ask my right hon. Friend to order an urgent Government study into the recent report from Goldman Sachs which suggested that every household in Aylesbury would pay an additional £70 a year for its electricity alone if a windfall tax on the utilities were introduced? Those households would also face higher charges for gas and water and for the use of the telephone. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that such a tax would hit hardest at pensioners and people on low incomes—all those whom the Labour party pretends that it cares about?

It may be that we will find, yet again, that the windfall tax is another promise that is not. Perhaps we will find that out this afternoon.

What we do not know about the windfall tax is substantially more than what we know about it. We do not know who will pay it; what rate it would be levied at; and whom it would impact upon. We do not know why some utility chairmen think that they would not have to pay it. We do not know how much it would provide for the promises, mounting up to £30 billion, that the Labour party has made. I hope that we will get some of those answers this afternoon, but I doubt it.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November. [3752]

Although I regret the Prime Minister's decision to duck a debate on the single currency, I warmly welcome his courageous decision to sponsor this afternoon's debate on the privatised utilities and the Tory party's links with the bosses of those companies that have made obscene profits on the backs of the rest of us. Can he confirm that many of those companies have made large donations to the Tory party and have provided top jobs for ex-Tory Ministers? This afternoon's debate will allow the House to expose the Tories for what they really are—the political wing of the privatised utilities.

I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman was going to raise the question of the Leader of the Opposition's secret fund. I wonder whether we will hear which business men fund it; we certainly have not heard that yet. We were told by the Opposition spokesman that the fund has been set up as a blind trust to ensure that there is no linkage between donations and political influence. There were no names given, and nothing about the openness that the Opposition promised us some time ago. Because of a newspaper examination, all we have is the fact that the fund exists, and I hear that the deputy Leader of the Opposition has a research fund as well.

One minute, the Opposition attack share options; the next, they accept money from the millionaires who benefited from them. They attack successful business men and then host fund-raising dinners for those successful business men. They then call for openness in funding, but have a secret fund themselves. I wonder what the parliamentary word is for that behaviour.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November. [3753]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Barnet council recently voted to have its refuse collection done by the direct labour department despite the fact that an outside tender would have saved £500,000 over the length of the contract? Does he agree that that shows that Labour and Liberal councillors are more interested in jobs for the boys than in value for money for the ratepayers? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will take action to see that Barnet ratepayers are protected against dogmatic socialist policy?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have heard what my hon. Friend had to say. It is no secret that the Labour party is hostile to competitive tendering, even though it saves money for the council tax payer—a fact which is an irrelevance to Labour. As the deputy leader of the Labour party once said,

"Society should tolerate relative inefficiency in labour intensive sectors".
In other words: jobs for the boys, not savings for the council tax payer.

Q6.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November. [3754]

How much will the Prime Minister's proposal to abolish capital gains tax and inheritance tax cost the average taxpayer? Will he tell us whether that is a pledge, a policy, an aim, an aspiration—or merely another Tory tax lie?

As I have frequently told the House, we are pledged to abolish, as affordable, capital gains tax. I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. Such action will create jobs and stimulate employment, which is what I am determined to achieve in this country. The hon. Gentleman might like to create unemployment with extra social costs, but I wish to price people back into jobs by generating investment.

Business Of The House

3.30 pm

May I ask the Leader of the House for details of future business?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 25 NovEMBER—Second Reading of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Bill.

Consideration of supplemental allocation of time motion relating to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.

TUESDAY 26 NOVEMBER—My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

WEDNESDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Continuation of the Budget debate.

THURSDAY 28 NovEmBER—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 29 NOVEMBER—Debate on tourism on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 27 November there will be a debate on water for human consumption in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on the former Yugoslavia in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

The business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 2 DECEMBER—Continuation of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 3 DECEMBER—Conclusion of the debate on the Budget statement.

WEDNESDAY 4 DECEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Government business will be taken.

THURSDAY 5 DECEMBER—Government business will be taken.

FRIDAY 6 DECEMBER—Debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that it will be proposed that on Wednesday 4 December there will be a debate on air carrier liability in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on protection against third country legislation in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

I should also tell the House that I have in mind two changes to the arrangement of statements during the Budget debate, which I hope that the House will think are sensible. The English local government finance statement will now be made on the second day—Wednesday 27 November—which will give local authorities a little more time to take their budget decisions. The social security statement, which hitherto has taken place on that day, will be replaced by a social security debate on the third day—Thursday 28 November—thus giving the House a proper opportunity to debate the social security aspects of the unified Budget settlement.

[Wednesday 27 November:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Document: 7208/95, Water for Human Consumption. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: HC 70-xxii (1994–95), HC 51-v, HC51-xxii and HC 51-xxix (1995–96).

European Standing Committee B-Relevant European Community Documents: (i) 7312/96, Former Yugoslavia: Aid for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation; (ii) 10602/96, Future Contractual Relations with Certain Countries in South Eastern Europe. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: (i) HC 51-xxiii, HC 51-xxvi and HC 51-xxix (1995–96); (ii) HC 36-ii (1996–97).

Wednesday 4 December:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Document: 5231/96, Air Carrier Liability. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 36-ii (1996–97).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: 9573/96, Protection against Third Country Legislation. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 51-xxix (1995–96).]

I thank the Leader of the House for that information. Will he ensure, following the statement in answer to the private notice question on the channel tunnel on Tuesday, that the matters that were mentioned will be followed up? Will he also ensure that there will be an opportunity for the House to debate the issue of channel tunnel safety? I am sure that he agrees that that is an important issue. We must not be alarmist, but it is important that the House should be kept informed. When the results of the public inquiries are announced, the House should have an opportunity to debate that important subject.

Secondly, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate in the near future on the Audit Commission report entitled "Misspent Youth", which was published today? The report is a devastating commentary on the failure of the youth justice system and the Government's record on youth crime, not least because it says that, although crime has doubled since the Conservatives came to office, overall, less is done now than was done a decade ago to address offending by young people. It also criticises the lack of cross-departmental co-operation to tackle those problems. Surely we should be told what action the Government intend to take. Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that the Government will not simply bury the report and forget it? Our constituents will certainly not forget the problems that they face as a result of youth crime.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, given the events yesterday and the comments made at Prime Minister's questions today, when it was clear that the Prime Minister did not understand the significance of the documents put before European Standing Committee B yesterday—the former Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) confirmed that there was not proper scrutiny in that Committee—will the Leader of the House reconsider the points that have been raised about those documents? Will he acknowledge that there are two aspects to the problem: first the importance of the documents, despite what the Prime Minister says; and, secondly, as Madam Speaker said yesterday, the fact that the issue involves maintaining the integrity of the procedures of the House? The Leader of the House has expressed concern on many occasions about the rights of hon. Members and the reputation of the House. Will he therefore think again, and think carefully, before rejecting the idea of a full debate on the Floor of the House? The documents are important, as is the reputation of the House. The Government cannot sweep the issue away. If there is not a full debate on the Floor of the House, not only the integrity of our procedures will be at stake, but the authority of the House.

The hon. Lady has raised three issues. I am grateful for the way in which she put her point on the channel tunnel. She acknowledged that the appropriate time to consider a debate will be when we have the results of the three inquiries that are taking place. I need hardly say that I shall keep the issue very much in mind.

I suppose that I ought to observe mildly that I find some of the hon. Lady's remarks on the Audit Commission report somewhat curious, given that Labour has voted against almost all the measures that we have taken to tackle the problem of crime. Leaving that aside for the moment, while we clearly do not agree with everything in the report, it appears to endorse our strategy of intervening early with young people who might offend. I shall bring the hon. Lady's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, because we shall be publishing a Green Paper shortly. I am sure that he will take her remarks into account.

The hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that I am not in a position to add significantly to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a few moments ago about the documents debated yesterday in European Standing Committee B. However, the notion that my right hon. Friend does not understand those matters does not correspond with reality.

No one is disputing the importance of the documents. I emphasised last week that the Standing Committee provides an opportunity for effective scrutiny. I also drew attention to the fact that there will be an opportunity—as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said—for debate before the Dublin Council to which the ECOFIN will be reporting. As for maintaining the integrity of the House's procedures, what has been proposed and is taking place is entirely within the Standing Orders of the House.

As someone who supports the Government's position on a single currency, and therefore has no axe to grind on the issue whatever, may I ask my right hon. Friend to give serious further consideration to the issue of a debate on the documents being considered by the Select Committee on European Legislation? Is he not aware that under resolution of this House and by its Standing Orders, that Committee has a clear responsibility and duty to advise the House when specific documents should be debated by the House as a whole? It is highly undesirable—and a potentially dangerous precedent—for the Government to sweep aside a unanimous recommendation from that Committee.

Obviously, whether they come from my right hon. Friend or any other hon. Member, I always look carefully at such concerns. But since the changes to the procedures of the House—which were designed to reduce the amount of business taken on the Floor—it has been necessary for judgments to be made on particular recommendations. That has happened before, and this is not a unique occasion. I continue to believe that the debate in Committee, taken together with the opportunity for general debate before Dublin, was the right course.

Who does the Leader of the House think he is pleasing by keeping this matter off the Floor of the House? He has infuriated a large part of his own party, he will get no thanks from those of us who believe in the merits of a single currency but want to see the issues debated on the Floor of the House, and he did not save the Government from defeat in the Committee. That having happened, surely he must recognise the need for a debate on the Floor.

While we are discussing single market issues, can I draw the Leader of the House's attention to the fact that 700 UK vehicles containing food produce are being blockaded in France by French lorry drivers, with no apparent effective action being taken by the French police? Will he make sure that representations are made on this issue at the highest level? If not, we will have to return to that matter also next week.

I will ensure that the latter remarks of the right hon. Gentleman are drawn immediately to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Transport who, no doubt, will be concerned with that matter. On the first part of his remarks, I cannot add to what I and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have already said.

My right hon. Friend will have noted that, belatedly, the Opposition have joined the referendum bandwagon on European currency. But has he noticed that, according to a recent report, they want a referendum not on that issue alone, but on every subject under the sun? May we have an opportunity to consider the future of referendums and their use? If we go down the line suggested by the Opposition—new Labour, new policy—we all might as well go home and leave everything to be decided by opinion polls.

My hon. Friend makes an important point which is largely for those hon. Members at whom I am looking across the Chamber. They, no doubt, will respond in their own way to my hon. Friend's very effective point.

May I reinforce the calls for a debate on the Floor of the House on the European regulations? I do not intend to repeat the arguments about the fact that the Select Committee was unanimous in its decision and that hardly any debate took place on the matter. I underline the fact that the Prime Minister reacted to an earlier question by saying that there was nothing in these regulations that applies to the United Kingdom. I refer the Leader of the House to the stability pact regulation, article 13, which refers to arrangements being made for sanctions and penalties on any member state that is not a part of economic and monetary union. In the circumstances, is it not imperative that we have a debate on the Floor of the House on the three vital regulations?

It is certainly important that those documents should be scrutinised and that is what we sought to arrange through the debate in European Standing Committee B. It appears that at least some of those present chose to raise points of order rather than to concentrate on the issues in the documents. I am not complaining about that, but equally I do not think that I can be held responsible for it. As to the question of the stability pact, whether we take part in the single currency or not, it is in this country's interest to ensure that if it goes ahead it is sustainable and does not damage our main export market.

May we have a debate on local government finance so that I may bring to the House's attention the cuts of £30,000 a year in adult education provision by the Labour council in Ealing? The cuts will take access to adult education away from hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Ealing, even though the Labour party professes to believe in such access. If we have a debate, I will be able to bring that disgraceful behaviour by Ealing Labour council before the House.

My hon. Friend will have heard me make the point that there will be a statement on local government finance on the day following the Budget. He may wish to raise his point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Since European Standing Committee B has reported to the House that it came to no resolution, is it not now the procedure, as used before, for the Leader of the House under Standing Order No. 102 to put down a motion on those three documents which must be decided forthwith? If he did that, would not he be going against the unanimous view of the Committee, under Standing Order No. 23, because the requirement for scrutiny would not have been discharged? If, however, the documents were to be debated under a motion covering a much wider range of issues, as the Prime Minister suggested this afternoon, a diverse debate would take place on no specific motion or resolution. In either case, would the requirement for scrutiny have been discharged? I suggest to the Leader of the House that it would not, and that is why we must have a debate on the Floor of the House.

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening closely to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, he would have heard him indicate that the necessary motion will be tabled in the normal way.

Does not my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House recognise that our hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) has already made the valid point that we might as well all go home if we cannot discuss issues that will be fundamental? May I also ask my right hon. Friend why the Government are afraid to have the debate on the Floor of the House when the Opposition have got as much to answer for as we have?

While I agree that the matter is important, I have already made it clear that we have provided opportunity for debate in what we thought was the most appropriate way and that there will be further opportunity before the Dublin summit.

Will the Leader of the House make time for an early debate on the future of Hadrian's wall? Is he aware that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) yesterday raised the prospect of the wall being policed to keep out the Scots? Is the Leader of the House further aware that when people in the north get to hear about that, there is a grave danger that they will descend on the wall in their thousands and remove it, stone by stone, several hundred miles to the south so that they, and their good neighbours the Scots, might be on the opposite side to the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield? Indeed, members of the public from all over Britain would gladly and enthusiastically rebuild the wall in a circle around the hon. Gentleman and his like.

I am slightly at a loss for words for once, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that his point could be in order in the debate on tourism.

On the subject of the stability pact, which was not, before the Leader of the Opposition blundered in this afternoon, a party political issue, but an issue between Parliament and the Executive, will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not agree to anything at the ECOFIN Council in Dublin? By not having a debate before the Council meets, the Government are riding roughshod over Parliament and they are being contemptuous of democracy. In that case, why should they deserve support and why should anybody hold their Whip?

I appreciate the strength of my hon. Friend's feelings, and I was grateful for his courtesy in coming to see me the other night, as I hope he will not mind my mentioning, in order to underline his point. I recognise that, but the fact is that we have provided opportunity for debate, and I have now said several times that there will be further opportunity before the Dublin Council.

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging a debate on the rules governing eligibility for incapacity benefit? I ask that because of the number of complaints that I receive from people in my constituency, which is one of the poorest in the country. I am thinking in particular of the case of David Holmes, who for more than a decade suffered from a severe heart complaint and received incapacity benefit and mobility allowance. As others were, he was called up for examination to see whether he could continue to receive those benefits, and after the examination he was declared fit for work. That put tremendous pressure on him, as he recorded in a letter sent to the Department of Social Security. A few days later David died—from a massive heart attack, it was believed. Is it not now time to examine the rules governing the benefit?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, even were I in a position to do so, it would be wrong for me to attempt to comment on the details of that particular case—although, naturally, I hear of the outcome with great sympathy for the family and all those involved. I shall of course, as is right, bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, and I am sure that he will consider them carefully.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that almost all the police agencies in the country, the Security Service, and even Customs and Excise, are united in the belief that there is one measure that the Government could adopt which would assist in the fight against crime? That would be to allow telephone intercepts to be used in evidence in court. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the curious ambiguity that allows intercepted conversations recorded in America, but not recordings made in this country, to be used in the courts in this country? Does he accept that there may be an opportunity to amend the Crime (Sentences) Bill to allow those intercepts to be used in criminal prosecutions?

I cannot offer my hon. Friend an immediate judgment; in any case it would not be for me to decide whether an amendment to the Crime (Sentences) Bill would be in order. However, I shall ensure that his thoughts on the matter are drawn to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Will the Leader of House encourage the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement next week about his delays in implementing the report concerning the interconnector between Scotland and Northern Ireland? This is the second time within less than two weeks that the actions of the person who claims to stand for the Union have militated against the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and in this case also against the interests of the miners of Scotland, who could be producing the power.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will study the hon. Gentleman's words with care.

As Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend will agree with the general proposition that matters touching on the constitutional powers of the House should always be debated on the Floor of the House; it was a mistake to take the matter in question in a specialist Committee with limited membership and time. May I press him a little further beyond what he has already said and remind him that we are talking about draft European regulations, and that once such regulations are agreed in the Council of Ministers, they are directly binding in their entirety on the citizens of each member state, without any further reference to the House of Commons? I therefore ask him not to draft a motion simply inviting the House to take note, but to use a substantive motion asking us to approve, and to say whether we agree to the transfer of our powers as suggested in the regulations.

On the first part of what my right hon. Friend said, I need to underline, as the Prime Minister did, the fact that the fundamental protection for the rights of the House is the opt-out itself, as negotiated at Maastricht, together with the fact that the House and the country will have a proper opportunity to consider whether it is in this country's interest to join a single currency when that decision needs to be taken. On the remainder of my right hon. Friend's remarks, I do not think that I can add to what I said earlier.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the proposals for a stability pact mean a change in the operation of the Maastricht treaty as it applies to excessive deficits? The Maastricht treaty was debated on the Floor, approved and ratified by Her Majesty's Government. Should not a change in its operation also be debated on the Floor?

I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation. It is certainly the case that the Maastricht treaty sets out the basis of the stability pact, but it also makes it clear that no fines or other sanctions could apply to Britain unless we were in the single currency.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the article in The Times today about the remarkable improvement of British beaches as a result of the privatisation of the water companies? May we have a debate on the Environment Agency? An anomaly has arisen on the Isle of Wight whereby Ventnor achieved the standard but does not have a sewage scheme, while Ryde failed to but does have one. The Environment Agency does not know why.

I cannot comment on the precise position in the Isle of Wight, but the bathing water quality results for 1996 certainly show a further increase in the number of bathing waters that meet the key standards of the directive, which is good news for all concerned.

The Leader of the House will understand now, if he did not before, that the House of Commons is strongly committed to the need for open discussion of sensitive political issues on the Floor. I hope that he will therefore be prepared to ask the Secretary of State for Transport to explain to the House next week article 33 of the intergovernmental convention with the French on the channel tunnel, which ensures that total confidentiality of information will not apply in any investigation of what happened in the channel tunnel during the fire.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is, as the hon. Lady will have registered, due to answer questions next Monday. I will bring that possible question to his attention.

May I implore my right hon. Friend to think again about a debate on the stability pact? It is a constitutional issue that has not had adequate scrutiny. Does he appreciate the size of the bundle of documents involved? Many of the proposals can be changed by qualified majority voting and will, or could be made to, apply to Britain whether or not we are members of the single currency. Does he understand how sensitive we are after Britain was double-crossed over the social chapter opt-out? It is vital that the matter should be scrutinised on the Floor. It is not sensible for the Government to take on the whole Chamber.

I of course note what my hon. Friend said and, as with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), the strength of feeling. It must by now be apparent that, with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier and what I have sought to say in the past few minutes, there is little more that I can add.

I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 209.

[That this House congratulates Karamjit Singh Chahal on his release after more than six years from Bedford Prison following the landmark judgment concerning his case by the European Court of Human Rights; is delighted Mr. Chahal was freed, enabling him to rejoin his wife and two British-born children in Luton; believes Raghbir Singh, detained in Birmingham on national security grounds, should now be released; urges Her Majesty's Government to scrap the Advisory Committee on National Security—the so-called 'three wise men'—which is an outdated and unjust procedure, as was recognised by the ECHR; further urges Her Majesty's Government to ensure that in any future cases concerning national security the accused and the courts are given adequate factual information about alleged national security breaches; and believes the Labour Party must commit itself to introducing such legal reforms if Her Majesty's Government fails to act.]

I tried to discover whether my constituent, Raghbir Singh, would be released from prison after being held for 18 months with no charges. Will the right hon. Gentleman find out the latest position, which I have been unable to obtain from the Home Secretary's private office? If Raghbir Singh is to remain in prison, despite last week's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in an identical case where a person was held for five years without charges, will the Home Secretary make a statement to the House to justify his being held in prison without charges?

I will bring the hon. Gentleman's concern to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

My right hon. Friend will know that I have raised this issue for three weeks running and it will not surprise him to learn that I am going to raise it again: a debate on the Floor on the proceedings that took place in European Standing Committee B yesterday. These matters do not solely concern countries that will be in the single currency; there are huge matters that concern those who will be outside it. Further recommendations on the restriction of the powers of national Parliaments are among the matters that will be passed by the ECOFIN Council. Will he please, please listen to what we are saying and give us some time on the Floor?

I am not surprised, and I do not resent my hon. Friend, with his well-known and long-standing interest in these matters, raising the matter again in this way. It is precisely because arrangements of that kind do have effects, even on non-members, that it is important that we should play a part in the discussions.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that it would be a very shabby decision by the Government to put down a "forthwith" motion about a matter that had gone to a Committee but that had not been agreed by that Committee, in the knowledge that they would be able to sneak it through in the Table Office, at a time that was inconvenient to others, even a non-sitting day? Will he also confirm that it is possible, if we catch him laying that motion in time, that we could table an amendment to it and that, even though it could not be debated on the Floor of the House, we would be able to divide on that amendment; or that, failing to put an amendment down, we could divide on the motion?

As Leader of the House, will the right hon. Gentleman be generous enough and decent enough to ensure that, if he puts down that motion in that fashion and refuses a proper debate on a subject that undoubtedly affects a majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House, people are told in advance so that we can have a legitimate vote—even though we would like a debate—and so that we can send it back whence it came?

I said earlier, as did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that the necessary motion would be tabled and moved in due course.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many of my constituents are involved in the road haulage industry, carrying British exports through the port of Dover and on into Europe. Many of my constituents' companies are faced with enormous difficulties as a result of the outrageous dispute in the French road haulage industry, which is blocking the roads. Can we have an urgent statement, and can that statement be given after a Foreign Office Minister has been sent to the Ministry of Justice in Paris—preferably either by air or by ferry from Dover, rather than via the channel tunnel, which is currently experiencing difficulties? Can we make sure that that British Foreign Minister gives the Ministry in Paris the firm impression that we really mean business and that the police in France must enforce the law and ensure that British lorries can carry British goods into Europe?

I made some reference to that matter earlier on, when it was raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). All that I can add at this stage is that both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary are due to answer questions next week.

Is the Leader of the House aware that his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was quite shameful? He will not even promise the House that sufficient notice will be given of a motion being tabled to give us an opportunity to respond. In those circumstances, why should those of us who have been members, since their start, of the Select Committee on European Legislation or European Standing Committees continue to plod away, time after time, at rather unglamorous activities? Those bodies should discuss matters of the sort that are down to be considered next week, not a measure that is of such significance that the members of the Select Committee are united in asking for it to be dealt with in the Chamber. We should have what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover asked for; it is the least that the Leader of the House should offer at this time.

I note that request, as I noted the request from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I have to say that I do not think that the answer I gave the hon. Gentleman was in any way shameful.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that the matters on the stability pact that were very briefly discussed in Committee yesterday were not mere technicalities?

May I say to my right hon. Friend that it saddens me to see him, as a custodian of the responsibilities of this place, risk his reputation and risk also an allegation that he has been a willing participant in a disreputable subterfuge? Can he now assure the House that, in the two days of Government business next week, he will allow a proper opportunity for the House to debate the merits or otherwise of a stability pact before the Chancellor goes to Dublin, potentially to stitch us up into something from which we cannot withdraw?

I say to my right hon. Friend that I now comprehend the rage that filled the breasts of the parliamentarians in the civil war in this country and of the colonists in the American revolutionary war; the issue at stake on both occasions was an abuse of Executive power.

I would obviously much regret it, and with some feeling, were my hon. Friend to feel as he suggested in some of his comments, but I have made it clear that we do anticipate further opportunity for debate before the Dublin Council.

Has the Leader of the House noticed that one of our more enthusiastic Europeans, Mr. Sean Connery, who spends more time in Spain as a tax exile than he does at home, is returning to these shores to make a party political broadcast for the Scottish National party? Does he agree that some time should be devoted in the Chamber to considering the rules under which people can be tax exiles, whether it is appropriate for someone to avoid paying taxes in this country but to influence the votes of his fellow citizens, and approximately how much money is lost to the Exchequer by the system of permitting people to avoid tax by living abroad?

It would appear to me that, with the imminence of five days' debate on the Budget, the hon. Lady should have an opportunity to raise that point.

May we have a debate next week on competitive tendering? During the debate, tenderers in our constituencies could be fully advised of the booking arrangements for them to have lunches with the chairmen of the committees that take decisions; I am sure that the Liberal spokesman in that debate would oblige the House.

There is a Liberal spokesman in his place. I do not know whether he will oblige the House, but I am sure that he listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said.

Will the Leader of the House clarify what kind of motion he intends to table to enable us to debate the stability pact papers? Is he saying that, during another debate, he nevertheless will table a motion either to take note of or to approve the documents concerned?

What I have indicated, I believe both last week and this, is that I anticipate the type of general debate before the Dublin Council that we have had on previous occasions.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the use of the English language? Is he aware that individuals tour the country, saying that services are underfunded, expecting their audiences to assume that that is a spending pledge, and then complaining like billy-o when someone tries to quantify the extent of that extra spending?

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. There may well be opportunities for him to speak during the debate on the Budget, which also covers public expenditure.

I realise that being repetitive makes one unpopular; similarly, disagreeing with one's own Government makes one feel even more unpopular. But may I say as gently as I possibly can that I believe that my right hon. Friend is profoundly wrong not to allow the House to debate fully and to vote on the matters that were not scrutinised yesterday?

I do not in any way resent the repetition by my hon. Friend. Unless I am to repeat the same things over and over again, however, I do not think that I can add to what I said earlier.

May I support the plea of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) to bring the Secretary of State for Scotland to this place to tell the House why he has overturned the decision of the recorder on that specific aspect of the interconnector between Ireland and Scotland? There has been a six-month inquiry. I learned today from a press release which I happened to get from Dover house—because I asked for it—that the recommendation is that the decision of the recorder on this important link between Northern Ireland and Scotland be overturned.

The hon. Gentleman will already have heard me undertake to bring that concern, expressed earlier but now underlined by him, to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Will the Leader of the House—some time before next Easter while he is still Leader of the House—arrange for a statement by the Government, or preferably a debate in Government time, in which they can make clear their views on the community's role in respect of an opencast mining proposal which is so large that four constituencies are directly affected? On such an important matter, the community's say should be clear; it is not clear in the minerals planning guidance. We need an opportunity to debate what powers the community has to ensure that such a proposal does not go forward.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that questions concerning the minerals planning guidance are primarily for the Secretary of State for the Environment, to whose attention I shall ensure that his remarks are brought.

Madam Speaker's Statement

4.11 pm

I have a short statement to make. On Monday, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) raised with me the question of communication between Members and civil servants in the officials' Box. She referred to incidents that occurred on Friday, when it appeared that Back-Bench Members were being directly briefed by officials. My deputy in the Chair at the time last Friday dealt properly with the points of order raised with her.

It may be helpful if I make clear to the House the conventions that apply in this case. The officials' Box is intended for civil servants and political advisers with civil service status whose attendance is deemed essential by the Minister responsible. Their attendance is by my permission, and a list of names is required to be submitted to my office in advance. Their function is to provide information and briefing to Ministers as required.

It follows that in general the only Members who should approach the Box are the Minister concerned, the parliamentary private secretary or, in the absence of the latter, another Member operating with the Minister's authority. There may be other occasions when it makes sense for a Member on either side of the House to approach the Box—for example, to check an apparently inaccurate fact or a reference in a Government document under discussion—but I would expect such occasions to be very rare indeed.

I do not regard it as acceptable for Members to engage in social discussions with officials in the Box, since this could be open to misinterpretation and cause irritation to other Members.

There is one other point that I should like to underline. Officials in the Box are required to conduct themselves discreetly at all times. In particular, they should not show any partiality in the course of a debate. I am glad to say that this is an issue which has been raised with the Chair on very few occasions—although there should never be cause for it to be drawn to my attention again.

Points Of Order

4.12 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Has the Secretary of State for Social Security given you notice that he intends to come before the House to make a statement on his proposals on chronic bronchitis and emphysema? He has today answered a written question in which he proposes to implement in full the recommendations of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council as from next April and without retrospection.

I have checked with the company that now manages the mineworkers pension scheme, which informs me that an average of 700 elderly miners die each month. That means that, in the 14 months between the end of the review and implementation of the recommendations next April, roughly 10,000 miners will have died. I am not saying that all of them would have had a claim, but a good number of them would have. It is very important that the Secretary of State should come to the House to make a statement so that we can question him on these matters.

I have not been informed that the Secretary of State is seeking to make a statement on that matter. Had that been the case today, we would have known it already, because it would have appeared on the Annunciator.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will know that it is the unanimous view of the Select Committee on European Legislation that scrutiny should not be given to the package of financial measures unless and until there is a debate on the Floor of the House. You will know that it is possible for the Government to table a "forthwith" motion, and that that could be done late in the evening when no Member was available to table an amendment. In that case, it would be possible for some Members to seek to put a manuscript amendment before the House the following day. Given that the powers of the House are at stake—democracy is at stake—if a manuscript amendment were tabled in such circumstances, can you give an assurance that you would look favourably upon it?

It is hypothetical at this time, but I would look very carefully at any manuscript amendment that came my way.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Yesterday at Question Time I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland a question. He replied that the social work department of Glasgow district council was unsure how many social workers it employs. That is an inaccurate statement. I have evidence from the Glasgow social work department that it knows how many staff and social workers it employs. Furthermore, the Scottish Office was informed of those numbers some time ago. The Secretary of State should have checked with his Department so that he could give the House accurate information. I ask that he should come before the House and clear up that misunderstanding.

The hon. Gentleman might like to consider an Adjournment debate, which would allow him to air the problems of his local authority and give the correct figures.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I refer to Standing Order No. 102(9), which states:

"If any motion is made in the House in relation to any European Community document".
I raise this point of order in the context of European Standing Committee B. Clearly, Standing Order No. 102(9) is inconclusive, as the wording is "If any motion", not "Any motion must be". Will you ensure that there must be a report back, and that time is allowed for Back Benchers or other Members to table amendments to the motion?

I refer the hon. Gentleman and the House to the statement that I made yesterday.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will know that from time to time hon. Members have been concerned about the fact that, with regard to the agencies that the Government have set up, statements have been made without parliamentary debate or questioning of Ministers. Yesterday evening a journalist gave guidance to my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that there would be a statement today on prisons. On inquiring, my hon. Friend discovered that there would be no ministerial statement, but a press release from the director of prisons dealing with release and other aspects with which I would have some sympathy. By allowing such statements to be made outside the House by those who are not directly answerable to the House, we have gone too far: there is no opportunity for proper scrutiny. I hope that that will be borne in mind in future.

I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said about press releases in advance of statements in the House.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You have heard several Members mention, and the Leader of the House say two or three times, that the Prime Minister said that a "forthwith" motion would be tabled. I checked with one or two of my hon. Friends, who say that they did not hear that, but we must assume that such a motion may be tabled. The Leader of the House—who has, unfortunately, departed—refused to assure you and the House that such a motion would be tabled in such a way as to allow considered amendments to be tabled for your possible selection. Will you give an assurance that if any hon. Member moved the Adjournment of the House prior to such a motion being taken forthwith, you would look upon it favourably?

I can give no commitments to the hon. Gentleman, but I have noted his comments.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you give your support to a rough sleepers initiative for the benefit of hon. Members? You may be aware that last night five hon. Members slept rough in the room opposite the Public Bill Office in order to secure ten-minute Bill time. Conditions were most uncomfortable, but we had the opportunity for in-depth discussion and we agreed that the procedure should be abandoned in favour of selecting hon. Members perhaps in the same way as they are selected for oral questions. We believe that the present procedure is archaic and inefficient. It wastes time, it is unfair to female Members of Parliament and it has no place in a modern Parliament.

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I support the hon. Gentleman in his request for a much better system. Last night and in the early hours of this morning, I flatly refused to sleep in a small conference room on the Committee Corridor with three gentlemen. [Interruption.] I would not consider sleeping with Conservative Members of Parliament and I certainly would not sleep with Labour Members.

I have noted the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who raised the original point of order. I understand that a relevant report from the Procedure Committee of the last Parliament remains on the table. The hon. Gentleman may wish to ask that Committee to consider the matter again.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will be aware that last night there was a massive power failure on the London underground which trapped many thousands of Londoners in tunnels for more than an hour. I had hoped for a ministerial statement on the subject, but obviously one was not requested.

Without claiming special treatment for Members of Parliament, those hon. Members who do not drive around in chauffeured limos with police outriders would like to be informed of any problems on the underground before we attempted to travel on it. Madam Speaker, could you request London Underground authorities to inform you if such an event occurs again so that hon. Members and their staff may be warned before they try to use the underground system?

I do not think that there is anything special about hon. Members and their staff: they are treated like any other Londoners as far as I am concerned.

Windfall Tax

4.22 pm

I beg to move,

That this House deplores the dangers and injustices inherent in the concept of a windfall tax on the privatised utilities and condemns a tax that would hit consumers, shareholders and pensioners while damaging the credibility of the United Kingdom as a stable regime for inward investment.

It is now more than four years since the old Labour shadow Chancellor announced Labour's big idea of a windfall tax. Its very name implied that somehow money was there for the taking, that no one would feel the impact, and that fat cats would be punished appropriately. It implied that somehow Labour had found a pot of fool's gold with which to pay for its ever-lengthening list of unquantified spending commitments. It was a tax for the moment: a headline grabber; a soundbite tax.

Four years later, old Labour is gone and the old Labour shadow Chancellor has become the new Labour shadow Chancellor. However, the windfall relic has survived that cultural revolution—the windfall tax lives on.

Four years later, not even the most basic calculation or clarification has been advanced as to what the Labour party proposes. Every day, often in newspapers that are normally sympathetic to the Labour party, the chorus of condemnation grows. I quote from The Independent business section earlier this month:
"this is a tax hard to justify and hard to implement … Labour's tax lawyers and financial advisers are still, years after the proposal was mooted, wrestling with the legal difficulties of defining those the party wants to penalise."
No Conservative Member could have put it more clearly.

Today, we are providing an opportunity for the Labour party to come clean, to answer the questions, to spell out the costs, and, above all, to let the British people know what the windfall tax will cost every one of them.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the windfall tax is a pledge or a commitment, in the phraseology used so often by the shadow Chancellor?

It is neither a pledge nor commitment; just a downright threat, I would have thought.

If one is to create the concept of a tax, people are entitled to ask who will have to pay; how much they will pay; where the lines will be drawn; how the victims will be defined; how the legal challenges will be avoided; how to stand up to the already audible cries of protest from international investors. It is interesting: in the most successful part of the rejuvenation of our economy in the constituencies of the Labour party are inward investors, who come to this country because it is the enterprise centre of Europe. Yet what do we hear? The moment attention is drawn to these people, the Labour party goes back to its old tricks of sneering at anything that smacks of an enterprise economy.

The Labour party is so subliminally ashamed of the concept that it has invented a tax that it is now trying to call it a levy—old taxes, new levies. It amounts to an unprecedented attack on our privatised industries. Is it an attack on all of them, or just some of them? If it is only some of them, which ones? If we are looking at only some of them, how will that be defined when drafting legislation? Which sectors of British industry have been singled out as the old-style milch cow for new-style Labour taxes?

The Labour party has yet to explain which companies it defines as utilities, let alone which utilities are covered. Indeed, we have it clearly on the record. At the Labour party conference, the Leader of the Opposition said that there would be a one-off windfall levy on the excess profits of the privatised monopoly utilities.

My right hon. Friend will have received a letter, as will the Leader of the Opposition, from Yorkshire Electricity, pointing out that, before privatisation, it paid £41 million in tax, and that it now pays £90 million in tax. It has pointed out that its prices have been reduced in real terms by 25 per cent. It has also pointed out the effect of a windfall tax on jobs, investment and prices.

Does my right hon. Friend agree, having read the letter, that, in the end, it is the people who use electricity who will pay; that it is the investors who look forward who will pay? In other words, the Labour party is penalising people for its own ends, and it knows not why.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I happen to have the letter to hand. It is interesting that the Labour party laughs at the effects that will flow to the constituents in Yorkshire, which are clearly set out in the letter from Yorkshire Electricity. What will the tax do? It will

"undermine our ability to sustain the current level of investment … affect jobs … increase prices to customers in the longer term … reduce dividend income for our shareholders, over 100,000 of whom live in our region and are also customers",
and
"reduce pensioners' income as many of our large shareholders are pension funds."

That is what the windfall tax will do in Yorkshire, to the people who are expected to vote for the Labour party, which will introduce the tax, which will penalise the constituents on whose votes it depends.

When my right hon. Friend sees today's Yorkshire Post, he will see that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the deputy leader of the Labour party, sneered at journalists who were gathered in Yorkshire, and told them to talk to business men. Labour authorities were being accused of penalising pensioners in the same way as the windfall tax would penalise them. All that the right hon. Gentleman could say was, "Go and talk to the business men."

The right hon. Gentleman would be better advised to talk to pensioners and employees. [Interruption.] Yes, to the pensioners who own shares in the companies on which the Labour party intends to impose a windfall tax. Those are the people to whom he should talk.

It is nothing short of sheer hypocrisy for the Government, and the right hon. Gentleman in particular, to attack the Labour party on its proposals for a windfall tax on public utilities—for which Conservative Members act in a consultative capacity, and which give money to the Tory party for its election funds—when that same Government, of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member, some years ago decided to impose a windfall tax on the banks. What is the difference between a windfall tax on banks and a windfall tax on the fat cats who are close to Tory Members?

Why does not the hon. Gentleman ask trade unions, which invested funds in the utilities? For taking the trouble to support the election of a Labour Government—if that were ever to happen—trade unions would have a windfall tax imposed on them.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is simple: the tax on the banks in 1981 reflected the fact that large numbers of British depositors attracted no interest on their deposits. That enabled banks to make a one-off large capital gain, which was legitimate. That has nothing to do with the free market operation of selling shares in companies that were floated at a price that the market commanded-they are two totally different circumstances.

To understand the dilemma that faces anyone seriously trying to do business with the Labour party, let us take the dilemma of the chief executive of PowerGen, Mr. Ed Wallis. He made a simple mistake, because he took new Labour at its new face value. He was asked a straight question by a Select Committee of the House, and, being a straight guy, he gave a straight answer. He told the Select Committee that his company, PowerGen, not being a monopoly, would escape the tax. No one can blame him for saying that, because he had the full authority of no less a figure than Alastair Campbell to give him confidence.

In a letter written to The Independent on 5 November, Alastair Campbell confirmed that the tax would hit only monopolies. No sooner had Mr. Campbell offered that helpful confirmation than up popped someone else, rather more modestly referred to in The Daily Telegraph as merely a spokesperson for the shadow Chancellor. He set out the shadow Chancellor's view, which was totally different from the view that was previously believed and trusted in by Mr. Wallis. The spokesman said that, in principle, all privatised utilities will be considered, and that the Labour party will not want to discriminate unfairly.

I am sure that it will be a relief to all those who work in the privatised utilities to know that Labour is not aiming to discriminate unfairly. There will be no unfair discrimination: that is clear. In its place will be fair discrimination. What is fair discrimination, and when will the Leader of the Opposition and his shadow Chancellor reach agreement on a definition of who will pay the tax?

Mr. Robert Atkins
(South Ribble)