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Column 446Committee on Scottish Affairs? Will a positive motion be tabled on this matter next week, I hope in Government prime time--
Mr. Wakeham : I hope that there was not meant to be any element of threat in the hon. Gentleman's remarks, because that would not be the way to proceed. I make no complaint about the views of the hon. Gentleman or of his right hon. and hon. Friends. The hon. Gentleman knows the difficulties involved in setting up the Select Committee, and so do I. I have offered solutions and time for debate ; but my solutions were not acceptable to the Opposition, nor was the time that I allowed for debate. I think that I can now provide proper time for a debate. The right process is to have that debate and to see whether the matter can be resolved, one way or another. That will be for the House to decide.
Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) : Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the method by which oral questions are selected? Is he aware that in yesterday's ballot for Scottish questions, those by Conservative Members could be identified because they were on different coloured paper? That made it difficult for selection to be completely random. I am sure that the Leader will want to condemn that practice. May we have a debate on that matter?
Mr. Wakeham : I would also condemn any suggestion that those responsible for selecting questions do not conduct themselves in a proper and efficient manner. I acknowledge that not only must selection be done properly, but that both sides of the House must be satisfied that that is so. I shall make inquiries.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Is it not a matter of public anxiety that there is so much Prime Ministerial pressure on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to appease the apartheid regime that an information officer at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office came to the conclusion that he was willing to sacrifice his career because he believed that the truth ought to be told? Should not the Prime Minister, or at least the Foreign Secretary, make a statement before the recess, and is it not the case that, once the new Official Secrets Bill becomes law, the official in question will have no defence in claiming public interest?
Mr. Wakeham : The difference between the hon. Gentleman and me is that I like to express views when I know the facts, whereas he prefers to express views when he does not know the facts. The matter is being investigated and I have nothing further to say.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : The Leader of the House will be aware of the critical nature of the Council of Ministers meeting on fisheries this weekend, given that thousands of jobs are at stake. What provision will be made next week for an early statement or, better still, a debate, bearing in mind that last week's debate was severely truncated and that the ministerial responses were completely inadequate?
Mr. Wakeham : I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has made an important point. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may wish to make a statement early next week if that is deemed appropriate. I shall certainly find time for one if that is what he wants.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement tomorrow, or early next week, about the fire aboard the P and O ferry European Endeavour at half past 10 last Friday? That fire raged for three hours and was the result of all the cost cutting, fatigue and incompetence of the scab crews. Is it not high time for a statement and a debate on that matter? Despite Zeebrugge and all that happened there, P and O, which lined the pockets of the Tory party, is getting away with nigh on murder. It is the third fire since the strike and the lock-out began. Surely to God there should be an inquiry into the matter.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will the Leader of the House consider allowing a debate on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office matter? Some right hon. and hon. Members have no confidence in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's ability to do anything other than cover up Mr. Haseldine's allegations. If one was to translate his allegations to the situation concerning Father Ryan, it would mean that four of South Africa's most wanted terrorists, who were here to get arms to use to maim and butcher black people, were released with the connivance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to return to their county, having had serious criminal allegations made against them, for the convenience of the Prime Minister because she was about to meet the hated Botha, the representative of the apartheid regime. There is a strong case to answer and many right hon. and hon. Members have no confidence in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing anything but shoving this dirt under the carpet.
Mr. Wakeham : The hon. Gentleman makes his wild accusations, but impresses no one except his hon. Friend who sits on his right. I have indicated that it is a disciplinary matter and that it is being investigated in the proper manner. It is right that I should say nothing further.
Column 448Consolidated Fund Bill
Mr. Speaker : I have a short statement to make about the arrangements for the debate on the motion for the Adjournment, which will follow the passing of the Consolidated Fund Bill on Monday 19 December.
Right hon. and hon. Members should submit their subjects to my office not later than 9 am on Thursday 15 December. A list showing the subjects and the times will be published later that day. Normally, the time allotted will not exceed one and one half hours, but I propose exercising discretion to allow one or two debates to continue for longer, up to a maximum of three hours.
Where identical or similar subjects have been selected by different right hon. or hon. Members whose names are drawn in the ballot, only the first name will be shown on the list. As some debates may not last the full time allotted to them, it will be the responsibility of right hon. and hon. Members to keep in touch with developments if they are not to miss their turn.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You gained the Chair with the good will of us all, and not least among the many reasons was that you said that you would be the protector of Back-Benchers' rights. In the opinion of one hon. Member--myself--you have done your best over many years to do so. There is a non-party issue for the House of Commons to consider. Is it proper that the Consolidated Fund Bill--which until recent years was considered sacred and a time when some of your predecessors would not even allow statements at 3.30 pm because they felt that the Consolidated Fund should start straight away--should be eroded gradually and by a trickle, first, by Adjournment debates, then by long statements, and now by starting at 10 o'clock at night? Several right hon. and hon. Members feel that they are being given even less opportunity to raise matters in prime time. This is a matter that you, Mr. Speaker, ought to consider as a matter of principle.
Mr. Speaker : I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, but, as the Leader of the House said, it is not unprecedented. The Consolidated Fund Bill gives Back-Bench Members a precious opportunity to raise matters of interest to them, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman should draw the matter to the attention of the Procedure Committee to see whether, in future, a definite arrangement can be made to ensure that Back-Bench time is preserved.
Column 449Welsh Rate Support Grant 1989-90
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Welsh rate support grant report 1989-90 and the supplementary reports for 1986- 87, 1987-88 and 1988-89, which I have today laid before the House.
I am today announcing the details of the 1989-90 settlement to the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance. Copies of the text of my statement to the consultative council, together with a number of key statistical tables, have been placed in the Library of the House.
As required by the Rate Support Grants Act 1988, in each report total expenditure--a crucial factor in determining entitlement to block grant-- has been treated for each authority as equal to a "relevant amount" determined according to specific rules, and based on information with me by 6 July 1988.
The supplementary reports for 1986-87, 1987-88 and 1988-89 update grant entitlements and are intended to be the final reports for those years. Authorities have been notified of the total expenditure figures on which the reports are based, and it has been open to them--and remains open to them--to make representations about the figures that I have used. If, under the rules, I am able to agree that an authority's expenditure figure should be changed, that authority's grant entitlement will be recalculated accordingly. My hon. Friend the Minister of State announced my proposals for 1989-90 to the House in July, and these have since been the subject of consultations with the local authorities and their associations. In making the report, I have taken account of the views that they have expressed.
The main elements of the 1989-90 settlement are as follows. Provision for relevant expenditure will be set at £2,057.8 million, some £124.7 million or 6.5 per cent above 1988-89 budgets and 8.6 per cent. above relevant provision. Provision for current expenditure is set at £1,785 million, an increase of £86.6 million or 5.1 per cent above 1988-89 budgets and 8.8 per cent. above current provision. Aggregate exchequer grant is set at £1,316 million, an increase of £63 million or 5 per cent. above the amount made available for 1988-89, and £68.6 million or 5.5 per cent. over the amount to be paid out in respect of 1988- 89. Specific and supplementary grants total £267 million. Domestic rate relief grant remains unchanged at 18.5 p in the pound, and in aggregate is £27 million. Block grant totals £1,021.9 million, an increase of £50.7 million or 5.2 per cent. over the amount paid in respect of 1988-89. It is fixed at this level.
The final year of the rate support grant system will be 1989-90, and in the interests of stability--and with the full agreement of the local authority associations--I have decided to retain the same block grant mechanisms as those used in the present year. Certain minor changes in methodology have, however, been made at the request of the associations.
The settlement provides stability and it also provides a firm indication of grant entitlement. Authorities will know when they are setting their budgets what they will receive
Column 450in the way of grant support. It is a realistic settlement which enables councils in Wales to contribute to the accelerating economic and social regeneration of the Principality. I am sure that they will do so in a responsible manner by keeping control of spending, budgeting for the low rate rises that are clearly attainable and continuing their encouraging progress towards greater efficiency. They know that this is in the interests of their ratepayers and their electors. I fully expect them to grasp the opportunity.
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside) : The Secretary of State mentioned 5 per cent., but 10 per cent. is more like the real figure. The statement is a clever sleight of hand. Its flaw is that it ignores the rise in inflation and interest rates. Current expenditure is £37 million short and districts will find that they are £7 million down on block grant. Worse, block grant declines as a proportion of the aggregate Exchequer grant. The Government still dictate on specific grant, and the casualties will be housing benefit administration, schools services, environmental health, recreation and leisure services and the crucial local authority efforts in economic development to create jobs. It will be hard to keep rate rises down to reasonable levels.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the settlement is very unsatisfactory and that much has changed since the July statement? The Government say that a settlement based on a GDP deflator at 4 per cent., RPI at a similar 4 per cent. level and interest rates at 9.5 per cent. is still sufficient to meet the needs of local government. However, the GDP deflator is now an estimated 5 per cent., inflation is 6.4 per cent., and forecast to rise to 8 per cent. next spring, and interest rates are 13 per cent. Is that not a definition of strain on local authority budgets?
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State for Education and Science has proposed a 5.1 per cent. pay settlement for teachers next year. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that, as teachers' pay constitutes more than a quarter of most county budgets, the difference between the provisional 4 per cent. and 5.1 per cent. is very significant? The Secretary of State said just now that, if under the rules he was
"able to agree that an authority's expenditure figure should be changed, that authority's grant entitlement will be recalculated accordingly."
I know that the Secretary of State is aware of the concern in Cardiff. The city council met every requirement--and better--yet it stood to lose £2.3 million as a result of the retrospective arrangements that were announced on7 July, which were then legalised in the recent Rate Support Grants Act 1988. I must also report to the House that Torfaen borough was a major victim and lost more than £300,000.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the aggregate figures will not be sufficient to cover the increasing cost of preparing for the implementation of the poll tax and meeting the requirements of homelessness? I want to make a plea to the Secretary of State for a rethink by the Welsh Office on this defective settlement, on the ground that, with inflation at 6.4 per cent. now and estimates that in 1989 it will be 7 per cent. or even 8 per cent., inflation will push spending well above the Government's proposed figures. I understand that even the Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks that inflation may rise as high as 9 per cent. in August 1989. This is the last rate support grant settlement and, like all of them since 1980, it is unsatisfactory, to say the least.
Mr. Walker : I admire the courage of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) in putting those views because the rate support grants for which I have been responsible have been very different from those that were drawn up before this Administration came to power-- [Interruption.] Here we go. During the last three years of the Labour Government, at the time when the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside was at the Welsh Office
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that the subject that we are now discussing is, specifically, the statement that the Secretary of State made to the House? You would restrict us to questions on the statement, so surely the rules of the House and the rules that govern you require the Secretary of State to restrict his remarks to the precise terms of the statement.
Mr. Walker : I intend to make the comparison between our record and that of the Labour Government. I understand why Opposition Members want to do anything to stop that comparison being made. The comparison is simply that, in the last three years of the Labour Government, rate support grant fell by 16 per cent. in real terms. Had that trend continued, the rate support grant today would be £640 million, not £1,049 million. Therefore, if we had followed their example, Wales would receive £409 million less than it is receiving. Opposition Members have no right to ignore those comparisons. To summarise, as a result of this year's and last year's rate support grants, the 8.8 per cent. increase in current provision for 1988-89 has to be considered alongside the 8.2 per cent. increase in gross capital provision, giving a combined increase of 8.7 per cent. over 1988-89 and no less than 15.4 per cent.--or £298 million--over the two years in which I have been responsible for the settlement. By any standards, this is a reasonable and sensible settlement.
I hope that it will also be recognised throughout the Principality that, as a result of the settlement, 67 per cent. of the cost of local authority expenditure in Wales comes from central Government and 19 per cent. from non-domestic rates in the form of business rates. Only 14 per cent. of all local government expenditure in Wales comes from domestic ratepayers. There are other parts of the United Kingdom that would like to be in that position.
Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West) : Is it not clear that, as expected, my right hon. Friend has managed the best settlement possible for Wales? Is it not also clear that the question whether there have to be substantial rate rises will largely depend on the ability of local authorities to concentrate on doing the jobs that they were elected to do and in standing up to claims from public sector unions?
Mr. Walker : That is certainly true. There is scope for that. I am grateful to the local authorities in Wales for looking into the Audit Commission's proposals. It pointed to a potential saving of £40 million. I know that good work is being done in that direction. The increase in interest rates does not necessarily result in a similar increase in costs for local authorities. The 3 per cent. increase so far in interest rates has resulted in a 0.91 per cent. increase in the pool rate for local authorities. Much of their
Column 452borrowing is on fixed terms. We believe that this is a reasonable and sensible settlement. Prudent and sensible local authorities will have perfectly reasonable rate levels.
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : Does the Secretary of State not realise that the economic goal posts have moved since last July to nearly 6.5 per cent.? That must surely have an effect on local authority budgets in Wales. What allowance has he made for the poll tax set-up costs? We understand that only 50 per cent. of those costs are to be allocated to councils, which I regard as completely inadequate. What is the Secretary of State doing about Tai Cymru's budget, now that the district councils have practically no housing functions left to them? When does he expect to make an announcement? Capital expenditure in some of the rural counties is very tight indeed, particularly because of bridge repairs, such as those in Powys where half the bridges need attention. Is the Secretary of State making any allowance for that and for sparsity factors?
Mr. Walker : I repeat that, taking the two years for which I have been responsible, the total increase has been substantial. It will provide important assistance for all the tasks that need to be done. The inflation of 6.4 per cent. in recent months is mainly due to the increase in the mortgage interest rate. That does not have an effect on the retail prices index as it affects local authorities. Therefore, it is not a fair comparison.
Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, which I am sure will be widely welcomed in Wales. Once again he has achieved for Wales a far better settlement than has been achieved for England. May I take it that his reference to the revision of local council entitlement strongly suggests that at last a common sense response has been made to Cardiff's plea for grant entitlement for the last financial year rather than the bureaucratic response that has greeted it so far? What steps does my right hon. Friend intend to take to ensure that more of the capital receipts are used to repay the debts that have been incurred rather than spent, which would result in extra expense for Welsh ratepayers?
Mr. Walker : New proposals will be made next year about the treatment of receipts and the repayment of existing debt. They will have an important impact. The change that took place in Cardiff and the manner in which the present system was broken off was a disadvantage to Cardiff. However, it has been to the advantage of a whole range of district and county councils. Some were advantaged while others were disadvantaged. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the total rate support grant for Cardiff is to be increased from £15.8 million this year to £19.8 million next year.
Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East) : Does the Secretary of State appreciate that Newport borough council is worried about the amount allocated for preparatory work in connection with the introduction of the poll tax? If that fear is well founded, will the Secretary of State ensure that our local authorities are suitably reimbursed?
Mr. Walker : The figures suggested by local authorities for capital costs have been met in our assessments. As for revenue costs, local authorities submitted figures that we recognised were wrong. We went back to them and said that they needed a lot more than they were asking for ; we
Column 453more or less doubled that figure. However, they consider that they should have still more. There is a difference of opinion between us about current costs. However, the majority of the expenditure--the capital cost figures--has been agreed.
Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : We welcome the Sectretary of State's statement that local authorities can still make representations to his Department about the calculation of the settlement. We shall encourage local authorities to do so. However, will he confirm that this percentage increase in the block grant is not enough to meet the manual workers' settlement of 8.7 per cent.? That is a low-paid sector of the Welsh economy. Pay settlements will put pressure on local authorities.
Will the Secretary of State also confirm that the settlement falls short of the needs that were set out by the sub-group of the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance? The demands that were made to him by that group are £30 million more than has been granted. The Secretary of State is aware of my personal interest in the level of supplementary grant to the national parks. That is an important though minor part of the environmental protection of the Welsh countryside. Will he confirm that the settlement will put pressure on local authorities? Would he not be a more honest Secretary of State if he were to accept that fact?
Mr. Walker : In the 27 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, under both Labour and Conservative Governments and Lib-Lab pacts, I have never known local authorities to say that the settlement was just what they wanted, that they had been given just the right amount of money and what a super Government they were. Nevertheless, they are rather nearer to saying that this time round than was the case under certain other Administrations.
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the national parks and give him specific figures.
Of course there is pressure because of wage increases. If wage increases are given at 8.2 per cent.--well above the rate of inflation--they will have an impact on local authority expenditure, but I do not believe that all those increases should be met by direct Government grant. Local authorities must constantly continue to look for improved efficiency.
Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath) : Reference has been made to the upward movement of interest rates and inflation since the original statement in July. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House--so that we can plainly understand it--what, in money terms, is the effect of the settlement? Furthermore, what recompense can local authorities expect to receive?
Mr. Walker : I have just explained that to date the effect of the increase in interest rates is far less on local authorities, because much of their borrowing is at fixed interest rates over the long term. Therefore, the pool rate is important. At the moment it is running at about one third of the increase in interest rates. There have been periods recently when interest rates went down, but local authorities did not suggest that there should be a cut in the grants that were being made because interest rates were
Column 454lower. Such fluctuations have an impact-- sometimes to the benefit of local authorities and sometimes against them.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : Bearing in mind the controversy over exactly how interest rates will affect local authorities and what is the real effect of the retail prices index on local authority costs, what indicator does the Welsh Office use when assessing the effect of inflation on local government? The housing waiting lists in Wales are growing. How does the Secretary of State intend to meet that challenge? Will it be through the local authorities or through Tai Cymru? There is a huge waiting list in my local authority, Ogwr, for central heating conversions. Many of the people on the waiting list are sick and elderly. Does the Secretary of State recognise that, despite the fact that he believes that he has been generous over this settlement, many needs in Wales are still not being met?
Mr. Walker : Of course many needs are still not being met. The hon. Gentleman specifically mentioned housing. He knows that the total expenditure on local authority housing repairs and improvements in recent years has been at record levels. This Conservative Government have spent over £700 million on both private and public housing. Of considerable advantage in the coming year will be the use of receipts for council house repairs. Those receipts have risen quite sharply this year, and they are likely to rise again during the coming year.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : Are not those receipts destined to fall because of the natural limit at which housing sales will proceed? In view of the inadequate provision both for inflation and for wage settlements, is the Secretary of State deliberately forcing local authorities to increase rates in a way that will make them even more unpopular, thereby paving the way for the poll tax? Further to what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) said about the preparatory costs for the poll tax, is it correct that the Welsh Office estimated the costs for the two years 1988-89 and 1989-90 to be about £9 million--of which £5 million is being provided by the Welsh Office through grants- -but that actual expenditure will be nearer £14 million? Will the right hon. Gentleman accordingly revise the grant in line with the actual rather than the estimated expenditure by Welsh local authorities?
Mr. Walker : There is a difference between us on current expenditure and assessment of costs, but there are similar figures for capital expenditure. I do not accept the figures given by the hon. Gentleman. If, as is the hon. Gentleman's theory, I had wanted to introduce a rate support grant increase designed to put up rates in preparation for the poll tax, I could have followed the example set by the previous Labour Government during their last three years and introduced a rate support grant nowhere near the rate of inflation. That is what the Labour Government did, and it resulted in a reduction of 16 per cent. over three years. I have not done that. An increase in both current and capital provision of 15.4 per cent. over two years is not doing what the hon. Gentleman suggested.
Mr. Walker : I am not saying that I will send local authorities a cheque to cover whatever they might want to spend on administering the poll tax. I shall make a genuine assessment of what it should cost if it is carried out efficiently.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : Will the Secretary of State answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas), and confirm whether, earlier this year, he received a report from the expenditure sub-group of the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance, which established a figure for the needs of Wales £13 million above what the right hon. Gentleman has announced today? Has he told that sub-group that he disagrees with its analysis, or does he accept that there will be either a reduction in services or an increase in rates?
Mr. Walker : There is bound to be a group that suggests that everything that it can think of should be paid for. As I have said, during the 27 years that I have been in this House that has happened with every rate support grant, and it is likely to continue to happen. That sub-group did not include in its calculations the potential for improved efficiency. It did not, for example, suggest, as the Audit Commission has said, that there was potential for improvements in efficiency worth £40 million. There is a balance between the two.
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : The Secretary of State has already acknowledged that the settlemant will be much less than that asked for by the local authority associations. Does he also acknowledge that it is, in fact, less than they need? That is the vital question. It is only a 5 per cent. settlement. The Secretary of State has deliberately evaded all questions about inflation and interest rates. Will he now say unequivocally on what rate of inflation and what rate of interest the settlement was predicated? Has he made any contingency arrangements for increasing the settlement in the likely event of further increases in interest rates next year?
Mr. Walker : I should be interested to know whether the Opposition are, for the first time, saying that the rate support grant should give an exact increase in line with the prediction for inflation--
Mr. Walker : It is what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting should happen. As we know from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's recent statement, the reality is that, apart from the effect of mortgage interest rates, the current rate of inflation is about 5 per cent.
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : I wish to press the Secretary of State on the question about Cardiff and the missing £2.3 million. He has already been questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) and by his hon. Friend and my neighbour the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones). The right hon. Gentleman appeared to be offering half an olive branch to Cardiff when he said that authorities' grant entitlement could be recalculated. Does he recognise that cross-party representatives, including his colleagues on Cardiff city council, are firm in their view of what happened to that £2.3 million? Will Cardiff get back that missing £2.3 million in the forthcoming rate support grant entitlement?
Mr. Walker : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has studied the matter in great detail and will know that we decided to draw a line, on a particular date, to end the present system, based upon the budgets received. It so happens that Cardiff considered that that settlement, compared with the budget that it was putting in thereafter, left it disadvantaged. We now have figures from all the districts in Wales, of which 11--including Cardiff--are disadvantaged and 15 are advantaged, some of them by very small amounts. We had to draw a line to end the present system, and some councils benefited and others did not.
Mr. Walker : We made it perfectly clear that the line had to be drawn. Does the hon. Gentleman want those councils that have been advantaged to have their money clawed back? Cardiff city council's rate support grant in this settlement is going up substantially, as is shown in the figures that I have given to the House. That will be of great benefit to Cardiff in the coming year. Indeed, based on the grant figure that it will receive, I do not expect its rates to rise by very much.
Column 457Prime Minister's Question Time
Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will no doubt have noticed that during Prime Minister's Question Time, in order to prevent hon. Members from asking questions about the historic unilateral troop cuts announced by the Soviet leader yesterday, the Prime Minister deliberately quoted at inordinate length from Mr. Gorbachev's speech in the United Nations yesterday. I accept that the right hon. Lady is entitled to do that, but it is not the first time that she has clearly indulged in a practice designed to reduce the number of hon. Members asking questions. Prime Minister's Question Time is, arguably, the most precious time in the House and extends to just two 15-minute sessions a week. If the Prime Minister intends to persist with such behaviour, should you not raise the matter with her, Mr. Speaker?
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that you are in a difficult position when a Minister persists in abusing Question Time, as the Prime Minister has done during the last three or four sessions of Prime Minister's Question Time. The right hon. Lady has read statements rather than make statements to the House on which she could be questioned. When Opposition Members ask questions--which is all that they can do--you sometimes intervene, Mr. Speaker, and say that we must try to be brief. In view of the Prime Minister's growing and persistent abuse, is it not possible
Column 458for you to point out to her that it is precious Back-Bench time and that she, too, should learn to be succinct and not abuse our proceedings?
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When considering the conduct of Prime Minister's Question Time, you might also wish to consider the conduct of the Leader of the Opposition, who was called four times and thus prevented other hon. Members asking questions. It is a little rich for Opposition Members to complain that they do not have time to ask questions when, in fact, they continually persist in shouting down my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she is answering questions.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I, as somebody who is neutral in the main argument--although I am hardly on the side of the Prime Minister--say that Mr. Speaker Thomas and Mr. Speaker Lloyd, I think, used to allow injury time at Prime Minister's Question Time for three or even four minutes beyond 3.30 pm if there was a feeling that there had been any abuse. Is that not a possibility open to us when the Prime Minister makes the sort of statements that she has done on a number of occasions recently?
Mr. Strang : I am grateful for your answer, Mr. Speaker, but the issue here is the length of time that the Prime Minister takes to quote from speeches. If we were to take that to its logical conclusion, the Prime Minister could stand at the Dispatch Box and read a statement for 10 minutes. Surely in those circumstances she should be pulled up.
Mr. Speaker : That would be considered an abuse, but I have not so far noticed an abuse of that sort. A certain scope is given to both Front Benches at Question Time. It is true, as I hope the House will agree, that I am anxious to call as many Back Benchers as possible, and that is helped by brief questions and answers.
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question[7 December], That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question again proposed.
Mr. Speaker : I must announce to the House that today I propose to limit speeches to 10 minutes between 6 and 8 o'clock. I hope that those who speak after 8 o'clock will also limit their speeches to that time, so that every hon. Member who wishes to be called can be accommodated.
Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Water is a matter of enormous significance to us in Wales, yet I notice that, apparently the Secretary of State for Wales is not going to participate in this important debate, and that it is being left to the Minister of State. Is there any way in which you, Mr. Speaker, can arrange for the Secretary of State to take part in this vital debate?