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Column 76disabled people in need of services. While claiming to have increased benefits, the Government repeatedly have cut back the cash benefits for which we legislated. The link with earnings was scrapped at a cost of £14.40 a week to pensioner couples among whom the elderly disabled often suffer most hardship. They have to endure the double handicap of disability and deprivation.
Other major benefits we introduced were savaged by last April's cuts. Ministers may point to the mobility allowance as an example of a benefit increase under the present Government, but that allowance has gone up in excess of inflation due to my decision, as the then Minister, to link the mobility allowance to rises in motoring costs. It really is intolerable that we still have had no oral statement to the House as to the Government's reaction to the two reports from the OPCS or to the Social Security Advisory Committee's report. Urgency is essential in the view of every major organisation of and for disabled people. I hope that the Leader of the House will give them some seasonal cheer tonight when he replies to the debate. 7.26 pm
Sir Barney Hayhoe (Brentford and Isleworth) : I shall not take up the comments of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) about disability and the action that the Government have taken except his specific reference to me about the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986. He will recall that I made it clear on many occasions during the passage of that Bill that the various provisions would not be implemented until the Government found the necessary resources. It was understood by the sponsors of the Bill that there would be no immediate implementation of its important provisions. I certainly join him in hoping that those provisions which still need to be implemented will be implemented at the earliest moment that the Government feel able to devote the necessary resources and when local government, which is very involved in the matter, can join them in that decision. The dominant theme of Christmastide is peace on earth. I warmly congratulate all those responsible for making this Christmas more hopeful for genuine lasting peace than anyone could have dared hope 12 months ago, and particularly for the recent developments in and around the centre of Christendom--Jerusalem. Particular
congratulations should be directed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on their speedy and constructive response to Mr. Arafat's recent speech to the United Nations in Geneva. I imagine that all hon. Members will pray that that process will now continue so that peace can come to that troubled part of the world.
I wish to make four brief points, two on national issues and two on issues of local concern. First, I very much regret that child benefit is not included in tomorrow's uprating order for social security benefits. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and others will appreciate that our parliamentary procedures prevent a specific vote tomorrow on child benefit. I am sorry that the House should break for the Christmas recess without a clear opportunity being given to those hon. Members like myself who believe that child benefit should have been uprated to express their
Column 77belief in the Division Lobbies if necessary. Without entering detailed arguments, I recall that child benefit replaced child tax allowances.
I could imagine the reaction in the House and the country if in his Budget speech this year the Chancellor had said, "I am raising the single person's allowance, I am raising the married man's allowance, I am raising the age allowance, but for the second year running I am leaving child tax allowance unchanged." All hell would have broken loose, and rightly so. I urge the Government to examine the matter again and to carry out fully the pledge in our manifesto at the last election which I understood to mean that this benefit would not be left withering on the vine but would be uprated at least to take account of the rise in the cost of living.
My second subject is also linked with Christmas, when spending and domestic demand tend to rise. Already there are signs that higher interest rates are reducing demand, as the Chancellor intended. I hope that higher interest rates will also encourage savings--the other side of that coin that must always be remembered. I wish that the Government would find ways of discouraging the aggressive marketing of credit, especially to young people, and, at the same time, give a boost and impetus to savings in addition to the rise in interest rates.
I appreciate that housing-linked borrowing is the main factor in the increase in domestic credit, but the aggressive selling of credit cards, high street credit and loans fosters a mood of spend, spend, spend when what the nation requires now is a philosophy of save, save, save. Surely Treasury Ministers and officials can devise ways of achieving the latter. I am not seeking a return to physical controls on credit, or anything like that, but surely the Treasury can devise ways of encouraging responsible attitudes and discouraging the aggressive marketing of money.
Thirdly, many of my constituents are deeply unhappy that Parliament should rise for its Christmas recess while the most unwelcome and potentially damaging proposal to construct a major new road through Chiswick, along the route of the railway line from Kew bridge to Barnes, Putney and Clapham, remains on the table. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) and his constituents are as horrified and vehemently opposed to that proposal as am I and my constituents.
The plan was floated some years ago and was decisively rejected. It should never have seen the light of day again, and the sooner it is sunk without trace and utterly abandoned the better.
My final point--you will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am being brief because I know that many other hon. Members want to participate in the debate--involves my local hospital, the West Middlesex University hospital. It serves the local community with dedication and distinction, and its staff, at all levels, deserve thanks and praise. However, many of its buildings are old, decrepit and decayed. Plans to build a new, modern and efficient hospital have been under consideration for far too long. Two years ago the then Minister for Health promised
Column 78early, final and formal approval of phase one of the rebuilding plans. However, departmental and Treasury approvals are still awaited.
My constituents and the hospital staff will be greatly disappointed if Parliament adjourns and Ministers leave Whitehall to celebrate Christmas without the rebuilding work being given the go-ahead. I send seasonal greetings to the Ministers and officials involved, but I hope that in wishing them well for the new year one of their early actions will be to give approval to phase one of the rebuilding plans. Such a decision will be warmly welcomed by the local community and will boost morale at our local hospital.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) : I have risen rather early in the debate because, in fairness to the Leader of the House, he should have an opportunity to find out the answers to some of the questions I wish to ask and points I wish to raise.
Earlier today the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a statement about what he called
"measures to assist the egg industry."
That gave away the Government's approach. It was not a statement to clarify the scale of the threat posed to consumers by salmonella in eggs nor about measures to make eggs safer to eat but about assisting the egg industry.
The Government's response to the increasing incidence of salmonella poisoning as a result of eating eggs is a story that ranges from buck- passing to positive lunacy by way of confusion and conflict. As a result of all that the Government have and have not done, the previously wholesome egg now carries a Government health warning. Thousands of traditional ways of using and eating eggs are apparently no longer safe. The Prime Minister talks about Victorian values but, even in pre-Victorian Britain, it was safe to eat eggs in ways that are no longer safe, at least if Jane Austen is to be believed. In "Emma", published in 1815, Mr. Woodhouse says :
"An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome."
It was not unwholesome in 1815 but we are told by the chief medical officer that now, towards the end of the 20th century, it is unwholesome. That shows how far the decline in the standards of the industry has gone.
We want to know how it has come about. How long has the problem been building up? I must put questions to the Leader of the House to which we have as yet received no answers. When was the Department of Health first aware of the scale of salmonella poisoning from eggs which led the chief medical officer to issue his warning on 26 August? When was the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food aware of the facts that led to the chief medical officer issuing that warning? Was the Ministry aware of the facts when it decided to stop funding the work on salmonella at the Institute of Food Research in Bristol? If so, why did it announce those cuts in funding in November? Did it think that the research was not necessary? Does the Ministry--a collection of incompetents--think it knows it all? If it does know it all, why has it come to the House today with a scheme that provides £17 million compensation for egg producers but does nothing to reduce salmonella in eggs? The eggs destroyed will not necessarily all be infected and the chickens to be gassed will not necessarily be from infected stocks.
The Minister said :
Column 79"The scheme will enable up to 4 million hens- -roughly equivalent to 10 per cent. of the laying flock--to be culled under the supervision of the Agriculture Departments."
Culling usually means that one identifies and gets rid of the weak and the diseased of those parts of the stock from which one does not want to breed. The Government have not proposed a cull in that sense. They are proposing what might be described as the random destruction of 10 million hens. It will do nothing to get rid of salmonella in eggs or chickens. The Minister's statement simply said that £17 million of Government money will be spent but the eggs being sold will be just as infected as they are now and the breeding chickens will be just as contaminated with salmonella as those alive now. That is preposterous. If £17 million of public money is to be spent, it should be directed at ensuring that people can buy eggs that are safe and sound.
Perhaps the most important remark made by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was in response to a direct question from my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). The Minister said,
"from the evidence available to me, it is not the case that most egg production is infected."
That is a flat contradiction of the statement made by the former Under- Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who said :
"Most of the egg production in this country is infected with salmonella."
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that the Government stated clearly that poultry and eggs from Northern Ireland have never been associated with salmonella? We are suffering badly because of the foolishness that failed to expose that, and caused the problem in the first place.
Mr. Dobson : If what the hon. Gentleman says is correct--and I have no reason to doubt it--the Government are obliged to make it clear that eggs from Northern Ireland are not contaminated. That would be only fair to egg producers in Northern Ireland and, more important, egg consumers throughout the rest of the country.
Is the statement made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South that most of the egg production is infected correct, or is that by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that most of the egg production is not affected correct? If the Minister is right, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South must have been wrong. Either one was right and the other was wrong. There is no way of fudging it. If the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was wrong, why was her statement not corrected until today? On Monday 5 December, the Secretary of State for Health answered a private notice question but never once said that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was wrong. On Tuesday 13 December, the Prime Minister, no less, was asked about salmonella and eggs, but did not say that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was wrong. On 15 December, in response to a specific question asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister passed up the opportunity to correct the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South by saying that she was wrong. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South has resigned, which was the honourable thing to do. Did she do so
Column 80because she was wrong? We still have not received an answer to that question. Clearly, her remarks led to a massive drop in egg consumption, but if she was right, why did she have to resign? If she was telling the truth and egg consumption fell, that was not her fault. If she was wrong, why was she not corrected by the Secretary of State for Health, who had an opportunity to do so in the House, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who also had an opportunity to do so in the House, or the Prime Minister, on the innumerable occasions when she had the opportunity to put the record straight? God knows, the Prime Minister is not usually reluctant to correct people ; indeed, it might be described as her forte. She took no steps to suggest that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was wrong.
No one knows what the truth is. Was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food telling the truth today about the scale of the infection? Given her failure to say so, presumably the Prime Minister does not agree. It would appear that until now she has agreed with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South. Two weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked the Prime Minister to take scientific advice to put the record straight. He asked when it would be done, whether the Prime Minister proposed to adjudicate between the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and when the Government would clear up the discrepancy between the two Departments. Many hon. Members are beginning to think that once the former Under-Secretary of State for Health resigned, she was used as a resignation fire-break, to ensure that the buck stopped short of her boss or bosses. If the former Under-Secretary was wrong, they were wrong, because they have not corrected her. If she was right, they were negligent, not only in the short-term regarding the crisis that followed the remarks of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South, but for a longer period by allowing this epidemic to reach a stage at which the chief medical officer has had to advise people not to eat eggs in the way that they have traditionally done for centuries.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will my hon. Friend take into account that this has affected not only the poultry industry but manufacturing concerns that have not been mentioned by the Government? In my constituency, a firm that manufactures poultry equipment has not received an order for a fortnight, thereby putting jobs in jeopardy. The Government, with typical concern for the farming industry, have turned a blind eye to this important issue.
Mr. Dobson : The reduction in egg consumption has had a massive knock-on effect. The problem is that this is entirely typical of the Government's short-term approach. They have proposed reductions in research into salmonella to cut public spending. They would have spent far less on research than the £17 million that they are paying in compensation to egg producers. It is entirely typical of the Government's short-term approach to everything, especially safety. Instead of investing to ensure that things are safe, the Government want to save money on every budget. What happened? The public rumbled what was wrong. It is not only the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South who led to the reduction in egg consumption ; people had noticed the subdued efforts of the Department of Health to draw attention to what was wrong. Already
Column 81suspicious people noted what the former Under -Secretary said rather more spectacularly than the press statements of the Department of Health and took the matter seriously.
The Government owe it to the people of this country, including egg producers, to set the record straight and to rid chicken flocks and eggs of salmonella. The Government are doing nothing to achieve that, but are spending £17 million on a random destruction of chickens and eggs that has nothing to do with salmonella but everything to do with compensation. Until we receive specific answers to the questions that I have asked and, more important, until the people of this country are satisfied by straight, well-informed answers from the Government, egg consumption will not return to the levels that prevailed before. Why should people buy eggs when they are being advised by the most senior medical officer that certain aspects of egg consumption are dangerous? The Government owe it to the people of this country, egg producers and the House to give some specific answers before Christmas and put the record straight. The record may be put straight if some of the other Ministers--who are far more involved and have had more protracted responsibility for this matter than the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South--resign. Until that happens, no one will trust anything that any of them says. They have been covering up and have been unwilling to say that the former Under-Secretary was wrong. If they thought that she was wrong, they should have said it in good time, and perhaps the crisis would not have arisen. If they thought that she was right, they have been negligent, and by continuing in this way have extended their negligence. We need answers before the House rises for Christmas. If we do not get answers, the Government will have to talk about further compensation to egg producers, because people will not consume eggs at the previous level until they are satisfied that they are safe.
On occasions such as this, I normally attempt to interest the Government in paying war service credit to overseas Civil Service pensioners--a credit of which they have hitherto been deprived. At last, the Government recently decided to pay pensioners their due entitlement. It will mean the expenditure of about £6 million, and it will benefit about 6,000 former Colonial Service officers now in retirement--including, I am obliged to say, myself. Therefore, I record our gratitude to the Government and to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who I believe was partially responsible for that gesture. It is a matter of justice to people who deserve to have justice done to them after the service that they provided for the British people over the past half century.
The issue that justifies my saying that the House should not rise for the Christmas recess concerns the appalling damage that is being done to British interests by the isolation of the United Kingdom Parliament from the European Parliament. We seem to operate in two watertight containers. There is almost no proper liaison between the two Parliaments. One consequence of that is the British people's apathy towards the European Parliament.
Column 82Today's news of the result of the Hampshire, Central Euro by-election, recording a poll of only 14 per cent. of the population, shows how uninterested British people are in European affairs, despite all the efforts of national political parties, with all that they have to gain by interesting voters in a particular by-election. It illustrates also a new danger that faces us as we move towards 1992 and the operation of the Single European Act.
The reasons for that apathy can be shown in several ways. One dates back to the time when the House mistakenly voted--I admit that I was one who voted for them--for direct elections to the European Parliament. The result was to deprive individual Members of any knowledge of or experience in the European Parliament and the European dimension of British politics. We returned about 81 British Members to the European Parliament, none of whom, apart from three Northern Ireland exceptions, was a Member of this Parliament or had any direct connection with it or with British parliamentary elections. Apathy is due also to the hostility and blind prejudice of a minority of politicians in this country, especially those in the Labour party, towards the European Parliament. The European Parliament has immense, increasing power over our livelihoods and destinies in Britain. Another reason for apathy is Government inaction in attempting to cure the problem.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend is present, because this matter concerns him. We have made too few attempts to make Members of the European Parliament welcome in this place. They are treated like members of the public, having to queue up to come in and not being allowed to use the facilities that should be extended to Members of not merely another Parliament but a Parliament that is supposed to subsume within it all the affairs and interests of this country. We treat them abominably, and we should do something about it. We deprive ourselves of much parliamentary talent, knowledge and experience by sending our Members to serve on the Council of Europe and on the Western European Union, where, no doubt, they learn a great deal. They may be of some benefit in debates in this House when they return. I am talking about a Council of Europe that is more or less a talking shop. We have no direct representation in the European Parliament, which has so much power over this country. The Single European Act has changed matters. It is no longer possible for any member of a national party to pretend that we are not affected by decisions of the European Parliament. The problems of liaison, connections, joint consultation and negotiations have become urgent, and we must tackle them. They are primarily a House of Commons matter.
We must compare what has been done in this House with what has been done in the other place. We have one Committee, the Select Committee on European Legislation, led, at the moment, by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who is an excellent Chairman. However, the Committee only scrutinises the legislation and other documents that come to us from the European Parliament, and assesses their relative importance. That is all it does. It is just one Committee of a few hon. Members, and it receives little attention in this place. The House of Lords has a Committee with a much broader brief on the affairs of the European Community. It has six sub -committees which, judging by their membership, are pretty high-powered. Most of that Committee's members
Column 83are experienced, qualified persons who know a great deal about the European Community and the problems that are common to us both. We must examine our arrangements and future liaisons. For that purpose, we need an all-party approach. I do not just mean that all hon. Members should be involved in the arrangements ; I mean that each political party in the House should consider how to get closer to our colleagues in the European Parliament to discuss how our party objectives can be strengthened and made more realisable. We need joint parliamentary and party committees in the sense in which we have Select Committees and party committees in the House. We need joint Committees with Members of the European Parliament representing British constituencies. They should meet regularly on fixed dates both here and in Brussels. They should examine, with proper back-up and research staff, matters that will ultimately be dealt with in the European Parliament, especially matters affecting the internal market.
At present, we do nothing to prepare ourselves for the great onslaught, in a parliamentary sense, from Europe. We need Joint Committees of Members of this House and of British Members of the European Parliament so that they can meet to consider those problems and to offer advice to the House, and to the parties within it, on how to tackle those matters and any questions that arise. Such Committees could report back to us both directly, through publications and through subsequent debates.
This matter has been wholly ignored until now. That is not the fault only of the Opposition, who are determined to ignore Europe and the Community, and it is not the fault only of the Government, who must provide the initiative. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) is not keen on the European Community, but he is keen on British interests and the improvement of Britain's prospects in every forum in the world. Joint Committees would give us a chance, and a duty, to take the opportunities in Europe to our advantage. We cannot afford to behave as though the Community does not exist or as though we shall come out of Europe. Some hon. Members argue that we shall eventually come out of Europe. Nevertheless, they are wrong to think that we can ignore Europe completely.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : My hon. Friend knows far more about these matters than I do. Can he give one example of a way in which the European Parliament affects his or my constituents, given the powers that it has?
Mr. Stanbrook : That misunderstanding is shared by many of our colleagues. The European Parliament has a different perspective on the problems of this country. Under the Single European Act, the whole country will be affected by decisions taken in Strasbourg or Brussels, because this country's economy is strongly affected by the decisions of the European Parliament, which has control over the budget and over economic policies. My hon. Friend demonstrates that he would rather that it had not, or that he believes that such control does not exist. It does exist, and it has existed for many years. It is getting stronger and it is time that we recognised that and made the best of our connections with the European Parliament.
Column 848.4 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : When I heard the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) talk about the European Parliament and elections to it, I was tempted to use the opportunity to talk about direct elections by means of proportional representation, but I resisted the temptation on this occasion. No doubt the House will be grateful for that.
The issue that I want to raise relates to the provision throughout the country of Post Office counter services, and especially the provision of sub-post offices and community post offices. I also want to talk about the decision by Post Office Counters to regrade many Crown post offices to the level of sub-post office, which will affect many constituencies and which has had a particular effect in my own constituency in recent weeks. I should welcome some time to discuss that before the Christmas recess. We await a response from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the report from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
It would be helpful to debate the matter because many hon. Members have had the experience of approaching the Post Office with particular queries and being told that, as the Post Office has to operate within the parameters set down by the Government, the argument is not with the Post Office but with the Government. When one takes the argument to the Minister, one is told that such matters are daily operational matters with which the Post Office must deal. I should therefore welcome an opportunity fully to air these matters, which are of serious concern to many of my constituents.
Over the past 18 months, community post offices have developed. Many of us believed that that development was being used to disguise the fact that part-time sub-post office facilities were being introduced, with a consequent reduction in salary for sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and reduced opening times. Another effect was to reduce the market value of existing sub-post offices. The Post Office has argued that a reduction in hours has been necessary to ensure the continuation of post offices in particular communities and that must be a matter of concern to the communities involved. It is important to continue to monitor the impact of these changes to ensure that the Post Office is fulfilling its statutory social obligation to preserve a comprehensive network of post offices throughout the country, especially in remote rural areas where post office facilities are a necessary strand in the fabric of rural life. Post offices in such areas fulfil not only a service function, but an important social function. Many people are concerned that, although the Post Office has been trying to ensure the continuation of such a network, the Department of Social Security has sought actively to woo customers away from sub-post offices by encouraging them to use banking facilities, such as direct credit, for their benefits, especially pensions and child benefit. Much needs to be done to persuade people that it is in their interests to keep the service provided by local post offices and that if they do not use that service, they may lose it.
Another worrying aspect of the exercise has been the so-called consultation process. I have received one letter from a community council in my constituency which says :
"to call such exercises consultation is a sham. We still fear further reductions and withdrawal of services, which could seriously damage local communities."
Column 85It is widely felt that, far from being consultation, it is merely passing on information. It would be interesting to know in how many cases the consultative process has led to significant changes in the original proposals, rather than tinkering with matters such as an hour here or changing from a Thursday to a Wednesday there. Has the process ever helped to retain an existing service?
People also fear the regrading of Crown post offices. I draw attention to the word regrading. In practice, that means the downgrading of Crown post offices to sub-post offices. In its submission to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Post Office Counters said that it intended to downgrade 750 Crown post offices in the near future. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission advocated that it should go further than that. The fear about what will happen not only to the service but to jobs has led to the recent industrial action. Such industrial action is understandable, although I cannot readily see that it advances the argument for trying to keep the present status of Crown post offices.
No doubt the problem of Crown post offices has been experienced by many hon. Members in their own constituencies. In my own constituency, the Crown post office at Stromness in Orkney is under threat. Stromness does not have a large population but it has a distinctive character and serves a wide hinterland. As the Post Office generally accepted in its discussions with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, local communities see the change in status as being an attack on the status of the town itself. The question of public service arises. Stromness post office is purpose-built and centrally situated, so people found it strange that the Post Office should argue that one reason for moving it would be to find a position where it might benefit more people. There is no location in the town that local people consider to be an improvement on the present site. The Post Office has argued :
"the proposals do not involve office closures nor do they involve any reduction in the full range of facilities we offer to our customers."
Few people believe that one gets something for nothing, so few people believe that there can be a change in status that involves cutting costs and yet enables the wide range of services to continue to exist.
I have been assured that the wide range of services will continue to exist. To the extent that that means that on day one of the operation of the downgraded system services will be the same as on the previous day, I accept that, but many people are worried about what the level of service will be one year or five years hence. What will the change mean in terms of employee training? No doubt some sub-postmasters will incorporate their sub -post office within their shop, and some people fear that if that happens the quality of training and the service provided by staff will suffer. If someone behind the counter is selling ironmongery products at one moment and dealing with driving licence applications the next, he will not necessarily provide the same quality of service as the person who has been purpose trained to provide post office services.
There is also the fear that, once a post office has been downgraded to sub- post office status, it will be much easier to change hours, cut services or go part-time at some later date. It is important to take a stand at this stage to try to ensure the continuation of the full range of services that a Crown post office can provide.
Column 86I sought reassurances from the local area manager that if Stromness were downgraded it would still be providing the same level of service as the Crown post office in Kirkwall, five years from now. He replied that he could not guarantee any services in perpetuity but said : "By way of assurance, there is no precedent for clients reducing the size of the network used ; as I said, they and we want more business and the tendency is for increases in outlets. What I can say is that no service will cease because of the regrading exercise." However, it was apparent from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report that the Home Office insists on Crown office facilities alone being used for the issue of British visitors' passports. That conflicts with the assurances given about guaranteeing the service. The report also said that another reason for maintaining the Crown post offices was to ensure the security of location. That is a pertinent argument, as it is feared that security of location would be lost if the post office were downgraded. What it boils down to is that many people feel that the Post Office is no longer providing a service as such but is having to focus its operations on a profit and loss account. Increasingly the concept of public service--to which many Post Office employees have given much of their lives--is being lost. In 21 paragraphs of conclusions and recommendations in the section of the MMC report concerning the activity of the Crown post offices there is only one mention of the customer. Sadly, the needs of customers are constantly overlooked. Let me conclude with a positive observation. The Post Office repeatedly tells us that it is carrying out its operations in an increasingly competitive climate. Section 58 of the British Telecommunications Act 1981 sets a limit on what the Post Office may and may not do at its various places of operation. It appears, however, that the statutory restrictions on the business that the Post Office can transact mean that in this increasingly competitive market the Post Office is trying to act with one arm tied behind its back. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has suggested in the past that he will do something about that at some stage, but as yet nothing has been forthcoming. It would be welcome if the Secretary of State could announce before Christmas that he proposes to relax restrictions on the Post Office so that Post Office Counters can make better use of its space and sites--many of them prime sites--to expand its activities so that it can operate in a more commercially competitive manner.
Finally, what can the Post Office do to assist in the implementation of the poll tax? I accept that it is rare for Opposition Members to suggest ways of helping with the collection of the poll tax but we accept that, once the tax is law, we should obey the law and we feel that we should seek ways of making it work to the advantage of another service. Using the network of sub-post offices, with computers linked into a terminal at the local authority headquarters, we could provide an on-the-spot facility for people to pay their poll tax by regular instalments. That service could be on hand for the payers of the community charge. It would also provide a new source of revenue for the Post Office. It has been suggested that the Post Office has not been as enthusiastic and quick as it might have been in picking up that possible extra source of business. I hope that--in the early months of the new year, if not before Christmas--the Post Office will consider that proposition, which would enable it to underpin its existing
Column 87network of services which many of us-- especially those who represent rural areas--look forward to its providing for many years to come. 8.15 pm
Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton) : Before my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) leaves the Chamber, let me say this to him. He mentioned the Government's concession on overseas pensioners. It should not go unrecorded that he played a major part in achieving that concession. Several of my constituents have written to me to say what a great part he played in this matter, and I pay tribute to him now.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) talked about the Post Office, and I intend to follow him briefly on that matter. All of us who know and respect the Post Office and know what vital work it does for our people are disturbed by the state of its industrial relations recently. I do not attribute a reason to that. In my own town of Melton Mowbray, there have been three extremely damaging disputes in the Post Office this year, one of which was the national strike. Not long ago no mail was delivered in Melton Mowbray for two and a half weeks.
I have no intention of apportioning blame in this matter. I have suggested to the chairman of the Post Office, Sir Bryan Nicholson, that he ask ACAS or the Industrial Society to undertake a proper impartial investigation of industrial relations in the Post Office. We need to know why the difficulties exist and how they can be properly and effectively addressed so that we do not have more industrial disputes which are ruinous to business. If Sir Bryan Nicholson does not reply soon, I shall have to press Ministers, because we cannot allow this disruption to continue.
The second matter that I want to raise with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House concerns the complete mess into which the Government have got themselves over the provisions in the Education Reform Act dealing with school visits and trips. I am extremely disturbed by the number of head teachers and other teachers in my constituency who have discussed with me the proposals for charging. I also received a worrying letter from the director of education of Leicestershire county council. Teachers have suggested that, because of the prohibition--with which I suspect most of us would agree in the abstract and which was introduced for a good reason following a court judgment--school swimming trips will have to be stopped at rural schools and museum trips and so on will be increasingly difficult to arrange.
When I wrote to the Secretary of State, I received a disappointing reply from a junior Minister, and as a result I have written back. I implore my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ask the Secretary of State to discuss the matter immediately with the organisations representing teachers --especially head teachers, as they are the most worried. Rural schools cannot give up educational and other important trips simply because one person refuses on principle to pay a charge and because the schools have no money to finance them. Head teachers have made it plain to me that they will not hold trips if people exercise their right not to pay ; they will not put a child in that embarrassing position. The Government have
Column 88got themselves into a muddle, and the sooner they get it sorted out, the better. The new regulations do not come into force until 1 April, so there is still time.
Rural maternity units are immensely important. Leicestershire health authority, in an extreme lack of wisdom, wants to close all the rural maternity units there, including two in my constituency. Trent region has already closed too many and is well in the lead of an extremely unhappy league table of regional health authorities closing rural maternity units. Leicestershire wants to close them in Melton Mowbray and Oakham, in my constituency. I went into all this in an Adjournment debate on 9 November which was answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who was then Under-Secretary of State. Neither I nor my constituents were happy with her reply.
Rural maternity units are absolutely essential for women who live in rural areas. They do not want to travel 30 or 40 miles on foggy or snowy roads to have their babies in large units in general hospitals in large towns. It is not that they have anything against large towns or hospitals, which are good, but they regard their rural maternity units as personal, local and friendly. They want to see the Government stick up for them and not agree to proposals to close them. I must warn my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), the new Under-Secretary, that I shall nag him as much as I nagged his predecessor until he reprieves those two units. What is happening and when will the ombudsman report on Barlow Clowes? I read carefully, as I am sure most hon. Members did, the report prepared by Sir Godfray Le Quesne. I did not agree with the view of the Department of Trade and Industry that that report cleared the Government. It did not. The Department of Trade and Industry has much to answer for regarding the handling of the matter. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that, as soon as the ombudsman's report is available, it is brought before the House and decisions are made. The handling of the matter does the Government little credit and I still believe that they have a duty to pay compensation. I shall watch this matter closely and press my right hon. Friend for early action.
My final point refers to a matter which I have raised several times at business questions and which involves all hon. Members. We all have the honour and duty of showing our constituents round the House. Let it be remembered that this is their Parliament, not ours. We are here as trustees for them and on their behalf. They have every right to see their Parliament appropriately. It is of great regret to me and hon. Members on both sides that our constituents have to queue in the rain, cold and snow for a considerable time to get into the House of Lords through the necessary security arrangements.
When my right hon. Friend first came to the House there were no such arrangements. People walked in. We know that those days have gone and, alas, will never return, and that there must be security arrangements. But it is absolutely unreasonable for elderly people and children to have to stand for long periods to get into their Parliament. If the House of Lords is making difficulties about this, and if the heritage bodies say that we cannot have awnings because they are too ugly--we have them for the state opening--please let us reverse the line of route and start it in Westminster Hall so that people can stand where it is dry rather than outside in the rain and snow. I know that my right hon. Friend is involved in this and is
Column 89having discussions with the House of Lords. I urge him to get this sorted out and to think if the British people who want to see their Parliament and not get soaking wet while doing so.
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : On behalf of my constituents who travel much further than many on the mainland for visits to the Palace of Westminster, I entirely support the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). We all welcome the good sense of his suggestion and look forward to its implementation for the benefit of our constituents.
I am grateful for this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House before the Christmas recess the concern of all of us in Northern Ireland who care about Harland and Wolff and the continuance of this great and internationally acclaimed modern shipyard. Elected representatives of the constitutional parties, trade unionists, cross-community church leaders, management and workers, together with the captains of Northern Ireland industry, as represented by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, all seek a secure future for the Belfast shipyard.
Past Government investment, skilful management, and co-operation by trade union representatives and workers have transformed Harland and Wolff into a high-tech yard, the products of which, together with those of Shorts, demonstrate throughout the world the skills and enterprise of the engineering work force in Northern Ireland. We are concerned about and almost demoralised by the mishandling of the privatisation exercise of Northern Ireland companies which the Government seek to transfer to the private sector. The uncertainty of the past 12 months must be removed. Business confidence is being eroded by the negative approach to privatisation of Ministers, Government spokesmen and the Department of Economic Development in Northern Ireland.
There is a feeling of outrage and anger at the disgraceful handling of privatisation in Northern Ireland when comparisons are made with the successful transfer of companies from the public to the private sector elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have witnessed elsewhere the building of companies to provide them with a sound financial structure to ease their transition into the private sector, whereas in Northern Ireland there has been almost a destructive campaign of denigration from official sources which has damaged early prospects of a transfer of Harland and Wolff to the private sector. Despite that, the company board has supported privatisation, provided that it is carried out on a sound basis.
Government action to date has not been helpful. The company is excluded from tendering for new Ministry of Defence work until it is privatised and it has been blocked from securing any new merchant orders. More than $550 million of new work has been turned away. That included the Ultimate Dream- -a concept which had wide cross-party support in the House for the largest, most innovative cruise liner in the world--and a £10 million order for a dredger that could have led to orders for a series of such vessels. All those new ships would have resulted in Harland and Wolff placing orders with 1,200 companies in the United Kingdom to the value of more than £200 million. The United Kingdom marine equipment and engineering industries as well as Belfast
Column 90shipyard are losers. Is that obstruction and are the obstacles placed before Harland and Wolff calculated to assist closure or encourage privatisation?
Shipbuilding in Belfast plays a major role in the Northern Ireland economy as a whole. Demoralisation is widespread among the 3,500 employees at the yard, among the thousands employed in 680 small businesses in Northern Ireland which supply goods and services to the shipyard and among the workers' families. Business confidence has been seriously eroded and evidence of a more constructive, positive approach by Ministers and officials in the days ahead is required in order successfully to transfer Harland and Wolff to the private sector.
The threat to Shorts of a potential breakup of that company after its transfer to the private sector is not being ruled out by the Government's financial advisers. That is causing enormous unease about the future of aircraft manufacturing in Belfast. Predators interested in only one segment of the Shorts' business could, alongside the existing threat to shipbuilding jobs, create an industrial wasteland in east Belfast. The last thing we need on top of our other difficulties is discontent in another wide section of the community. More large-scale unemployment could cause further instability in a society already suffering deep social strains. I urge Ministers to be more careful in their stewardship of Northern Ireland and to demonstrate positive action, by which I mean commitment to that part of the United Kingdom and its industries. There is a perception, which I hope will shortly be disproved, that too often appointment to the Northern Ireland Office is but a phase in an hon. Members political career. When Ministers and civil servants appear to speak negatively against our major industries, we are left to wonder who is working for and on behalf of Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland should not be forced to conclude that some Ministers are more interested in self-promotion than advancing causes such as privatisation in a sensible, responsible and positive way.
There has been no word of resistance from the management--of the companies concerned and the proposed management-employee buy-out of the shipyards should be explored constructively. The Government can show good will, good faith and intention successfully to transfer Harland and Wolff, Belfast to the private sector by permitting the company to tender for new contracts, including Ministry of Defence work, by resolving the issue of performance guarantees, and by spelling out whether, after privatisation, intervention funding or additional funding will be part of the financial package offered. The Government should accept the preferred way forward of the management, who wish to embark on the Ultimate Dream project, and allow the company to build its future workload around this prestigious project. Management and workers deserve financial support to protect existing jobs and training opportunities for our young people. Job losses in manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland are difficult to replace. We all welcome the recent achievements in job creation, although we are conscious that those new jobs barely match demand from school leavers.
Our shipyard will be saved if the Government have the will to find a way forward with the workers and management. We trust that that good will will be
Column 91forthcoming and that a satisfactory solution will be quickly found which will have the support of all hon. Members.
I hope that, even before the House adjourns, a statement will be made by the Government which will usher in a bright new year for all those who depend for employment on Harland and Wolff shipyard, Belfast.
Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester) : I believe that the House should not go into the Christmas recess before tackling an important and growing threat to road safety. While I applaud the campaign run by the Department of Transport in relation to drink driving, so far it has neglected to turn its attention to the growing menace of the dangerous use of car telephones. More and more one sees drivers driving along holding the receiver of a car telephone with one hand, while the other hand is on the steering wheel. That is a dangerous practice which needs to be curbed. If the car is equipped with an automatic gear change, it can, of course, be controlled reasonably with one hand until such time as it is necessary to steer round a corner, when it becomes more dangerous. If, however, the car has a manual gear change, a phone in one hand and a gearstick in the other leaves the driver with no hand on the steering wheel.
Some phones are equipped with a dialling facility in the handset. Some drivers will rest the handset on the lower quarter of the steering wheel and dial the digits for the number while simultaneously steering the wheel, which is another dangerous practice that needs to be curbed.
Other phones have a dialling facility on a separate console, possibly fixed near the radio or somewhere near the gear lever. Perhaps the handset does not have to be lifted to dial the number but the result is that the driver's eyes are taken off the road. The problems, therefore, with car telephones are that, first, the driver holds the handset in one hand and steers the wheel with the other ; secondly, a call is dialled in such a way as to take the driver's eyes off the road ; thirdly, bad visibility is caused when the handset is held in the hand, because vision is restricted on that side of the car ; fourthly, there is general distraction and lack of concentration.
I would not wish for one moment to seek to curtail the use of car telephones in any major respect. I believe that they are now widely accepted as a great advantage in business ; in fact, some businesses depend very much on their use. Also, they are often an asset for personal communication, although I would draw the line at those who insist on receiving and making calls during theatre performances. The House should urgently enact measures to ensure that car telephones are used more safely. So far, there have been comparatively few accidents which it could be said to be directly attributable to the careless use of car phones. However, the growth of their use shows that it will only be a matter of time before they are a significant ingredient in more and more accidents. In 1985, 31, 500 car telephones were in use in the United Kingdom. By January 1988, that had risen to 210,000, and by August there were 300,000 car telephones. It is forecast that there will be half a million car telephones by the end of next year and five million in the