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Column 640converter or similar device. I am about to replace my car, and I shall make sure that my new car is appropriately adapted. We know that our cars poision people, animals and trees, but we scarcely seem to care. Tax incentives to buy lead-free petrol are one small step in the right direction, but the hill of poison on which that little step has been taken is growing so steep so quickly that such a little step will scarcely be noticed.
Protecting the environment makes sense, not only in humane terms but in financial terms. Many of the hundreds of millions of pounds now being spent on rehabilitating the inner cities are needed because hundreds of millions of pounds were spent by earlier Governments on bribing businesses to leave the inner cities for green field sites outside. Their work forces followed and left behind only those least able to make a success of inner-city life.
One of the most exciting projects of which I have heard recently is one in which the Government have given Professor Alice Coleman a sum of money to put into effect her idea that many of the features that cause crime and anti-social behaviour can be designed out of housing estates. She has for a long time been a passionate champion of building more houses in the inner cities rather than on green field sites outside.
Just as families contain more than one generation, so does society. We have no business to condemn our grandchildren to an overheated, aluminium- saturated world of fishless lakes and treeless forests where no birds sing. If that is true--I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me in principle- -it means that every development needs to be looked at with fresh eyes.
Take British Rail's proposal to run a new high-speed rail link to the Channel tunnel. Of course, I have a constituency axe to grind. My constituency contains a large part of Kent's only area of outstanding natural beauty--the national designation which stands second only to a national park. Through it runs the Pilgrims' way, hallowed for centuries by pilgrims visiting Thomas a Becket's tomb in Canterbury and still a resort of those seeking physical recreation or spiritual solace.
The villages along that face of the north downs are distinguished by their beauty and antiquity and the fierce pride with which they are cared for in the face of all modern pressures to deface them. For millions of people all over the world they represent the spirit of Kent : ancient settlements built on a human scale. Now they are all threatened by British Rail's proposed corridor for routes 1 and 2. New trains are intended to race along new tracks at 186 mph, emitting a sound comparable to that of a low-flying jet, well in excess of the highest noise levels permitted in factories by the Health and Safety Executive. The hope may be that we shall get used to it. Perhaps we shall. The trains will run every seven minutes.
We do not know how much noise the new trains will emit, because, six weeks away from deciding which route to follow, British Rail still has not been able to tell us. As far as I can see, it retained its expert only a few short weeks ago. I shall not weary my hon. Friend with details of the incompetence with which British Rail has presented its proposals to the people of Kent. It is well enough known for even British Rail's chairman to admit to me in a letter that it has led to a loss of confidence in British Rail.
To describe it in such mild terms is like describing the fall of Jericho as a case of wall fatigue. Suffice it to say that those living alongside routes 1 and 2 will not accept a
Column 641high-speed train weaving in and out of an area of outstanding natural beauty, slicing through their villages on tracks that will often be a considerable distance from existing lines, wrecking houses, and destroying not only areas of special landscape importance but also a site of special scientific interest.
We are profoundly sceptical of British Rail's traffic projections, and contemptuous of its admissions that it has neither walked the route nor consulted modern maps. It will be remembered that in my constitutency there is a new housing estate of whose existence British Rail was so unaware, because it had not bothered to walk the route, that it is now having to negotiate compensation terms with the estate's builder. We are angered beyond belief at the way in which British Rail presented its proposals for a £1.5 billion project, using techniques so amateurish that they would bring public contempt upon a small shopkeeper were he to use them to allay anxiety among his neighbours in the village street.
If Kent is not to be defiled by intolerable noise, physical disruption and unplanned consequential development, we need help--and we need it fast. For five months, thousands of home owners have lived under blight. We now face the prospect of being forced to accept British Rail's largest ever capital project, not on its merits but to rescue a number of home owners blighted by the proposal.
I remind my hon. Friend the Minister--and of all the Ministers in this Government, with his record in local government he scarcely needs reminding --that British Rail's proposals have been made by a state monopoly that has not thought them through, but that may get away with them because there is no alternative source of advice. What a strange situation for this Government, of all Conservative Governments, to find themselves in.
There should be established immediately an independent, multi-disciplinary body, possibly with advice from Swiss or German railways, say, who have at least built railway lines this century, to evaluate British Rail's proposals and the objections to them. At present, there exists only a process whereby angry, frightened laymen--albeit that they are often intelligent and well informed--try to take on a state monopoly that controls the flow of information and has a vested interest in getting its own way.
I remind the Minister that the last large-scale technological project in which British Rail was involved was the advanced passenger train--a project that tilted into extinction after years of work and the expenditure of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. I ask my hon. Friend urgently to consider my suggestion. It would be usuable for other future rail projects and perhaps for other purposes. My hon. Friend may say that those matters are for his right hon. and hon. Friends responsible for transport and not for him. I beg to differ. They are almost as much a matter for him as for Transport Ministers. I am dismayed that questions about the environment have been referred to Transport Ministers for attention only because they concern a train.
The Secretary of State for the Environment has a direct responsibility for areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest, and for the quality of the environment in general. He has, or he ought to have, an interest in how much noise is allowed to defile the countryside and in whether an undertaking shall be allowed to destroy natural springs--perhaps up to 10 per
Column 642cent. of Kent's water supply--or threaten the purity of the water supply with track-cleaning chemicals and other pollutants. I return to the point with which I began. My hon. Friend must take a direct interest in the nature of the world that we shall hand to future generations. British Rail wants its new train to travel at 186 mph. That will save a bare five minutes on the journey between London and Dover, but those five minutes demand a much noisier train running on tracks that cannot deviate to avoid a building, a natural feature or a collection of homes of especial value. How shall we account to our grandchildren if, as we travel ever further and faster to broaden our experience, the very devices that we use to achieve those speeds and distances ensure that there is nothing left to experience when we arrive at our destination?
I should like my hon. Friend to declare, on this last parliamentary day of the old year, that he is prepared seriously to consider taking five minutes longer on a journey if by doing so he will help to preserve the environment in which we and our children live. Let me take this opportunity of wishing my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department a very happy Christmas and an environmentally conscious new year.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : May I reciprocate my hon. Friend's good wishes immediately? I hope that 1989 is also a good year for him and his constituents.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these important issues. The state of the environment is very much in the forefront of people's minds at present, but it is not something to which the Government have only just turned their attention. We have consistently demonstrated our concern to protect the environment during our time in office, and in the past two years have quickened the pace of our environmental initiatives to tackle such problems as atmospheric and marine pollution. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reaffirmed the Government's strong commitment to the protection and enhancement of our environment in a speech to the Royal Society on 27 September, in which she described it as "one of the greatest challenges of the late 20th century". In this country, we are fortunate in enjoying high standards of environmental quality, not least because of the significant improvements that have been secured in recent times. That does not mean that further improvements must not be secured. My hon. Friend referred to the reduction of lead in the air as a result of cars being converted to take unleaded petrol. He said that he was setting an example by opting for unleaded fuel, and I am able to tell him that I have made a similar transition already this year. Most Government cars will be converted to take unleaded fuel. That is just a small example of the changes that must be made if we are to continue to enhance our environment.
We live in an industrial world, and to maintain and improve our standard of living we need factories, roads, power stations and, indeed, railway lines. It is naive to suggest that they can be provided without some consequence to the natural environment. Almost all development is subject to the planning system, and I can assure my hon. Friend that that system is not blind to its duty to balance the need for development with the need to maintain the natural environment. An essential task for
Column 643Government, local authorities and all public agencies concerned in the planning system is to ensure that adequate provision for development and economic growth is coupled with the effective conservation of the landscape, its wildlife and natural resources. An important part of our natural heritage is safeguarded by a network of statutory designations : national nature reserves, sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the like. In built-up areas local authorities can designate conservation areas where special attention must be paid to the desirability of preserving and enhancing the area's character and appearance. We have introduced the requirement for environmental assessment of major development projects, and our system of public inquiries ensures that the environmental implications of major schemes are fully considered before decisions are made.
I recognise the particular concerns of the people of Kent. Their proximity to London, the M25 and the Channel tunnel means that they are subject to a unique series of development pressures. It is clear that many people wish to live in Kent, and it is not possible to respond to all those development pressures without some changes affecting both the built and the natural environment.
My hon. Friend is aware that the future of development in Kent came under close scrutiny in July, when the second review and alterations to the Kent structure plan were examined in public over a period of four weeks. The existing structure plan contains policies for the protection of the countryside, and the coast and the built environment. Amended built environment policies are included in the second review of the structure plan. While my hon. Friend will appreciate that it is too early for me to comment on the outcome of the structure plan review at the present time, he will of course take comfort from the fact that Kent's proposals left the countryside and coast policies unchanged.
Now, on top of other development pressures, Kent finds itself the subject of proposals for a high-speed rail link between the tunnel and central London. It is particularly unfortunate that the publication of British Rail's report on long-term route and terminal capacity for Channel tunnel train services should have given rise to a detailed discussion of the effect of specific track alignment and the effect upon individual properties, rather than British Rail's intention that the discussion should be broadly based and concerned with the relative merits and the environmental importance of three route corridors.
As my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport said in an Adjournment debate on 2 December, to which I was pleased to be able to listen, the routes shown on the map should be taken not as representing specific alignments but only as a general indication of the areas through which the alternative routes might pass. The choice of which route should be adopted and its precise alignment cannot be determined without further detailed design work and wider public discussion.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that any more specific discussion at this stage would be premature and inappropriate. British Rail is some way off deciding which route corridor might be chosen, but even when a route
Column 644through one corridor is firmly proposed, there will still be the opportunity for further discussion on precise alignment within the corridor.
Inevitably, the publication by British Rail of its report has given rise to the utmost anxiety, and in some cases to distress and hardship, for people in Kent, including many of my hon. Friend's constituents. I can understand why some people may think that British Rail was wrong to publish its report in the way that it did, but had it not done so it would have been justifiably criticised for lack of openness and consultation. The fact that British Rail chose to reveal the options that it had under consideration and to consult widely among local authorities and others is in line with a process of open consideration of major planning issues that has been widely encouraged by all those with concern for the environment for more than two decades.
It is the process of prior consultation that exposes to rigorous examination the effect of development proposals of all kinds upon both the built and the natural environment. Of course, as in this case, it can be highly unpleasant for all those affected by one of the alternative routes proposed by British Rail. Nevertheless, British Rail must ensure that it has taken into account in considering the impact and relative merits of the three routes all relevant matters before it comes to a conclusion on a preferred route. In particular, it must be in a position to demonstrate that adequate weight has been given to environmental factors, including the effect upon the people of Kent.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport noted with regret during the earlier debate that, for a large number of people, their anxiety will prove to have been unnecessarily caused, in that only one line will be proposed, whereas at present the worry is spread along three route corridors. I support wholeheartedly his determination that the present uncertainty that is affecting parts of Kent should not be allowed to last any longer than is strictly necessary.
Mr. Rowe : I put to my hon. Friend a specific point, to which he may turn later. British Rail, which is a monopoly supplier in this country, has proposed the various routes and is also the holder of the criteria against which those routes are being evaluated. British Rail is the supplier of all the information, and as far as I can see it is the only major source of technical advice available to the Government. In those circumstances, those who have any reason whatsoever to be sceptical about some of British Rail's arguments feel powerless. Before my hon. Friend closes his helpful remarks, I hope that he will address the suggestion that another method of evaluating British Rail's proposals might be found.
Mr. Chope : I had intended to turn to that point. My hon. Friend can rest assured that British Rail will not be judge and jury in its own cause. One of my hon. Friend's points was whether a very high speed train rather than a slightly less fast train is justified. That is one of the balancing factors that will have to be taken into account when assessing whether the rail link has to be at the maximum speed or at a lower speed so that noise is reduced. The balancing factors will have to be assessed in this case and in all planning applications.
The sooner that British Rail is able to identify the preferred corridor the better. In reaching a decision on the
Column 645preferred route, it will need to weigh in the balance the views of the local authorities and other consultees. I understand that Kent county council, which has appointed consultants to advise it, hopes to come to a view on its preferred route corridor in January. Although the proposals for the Channel tunnel rail link raise matters of exceptional importance in respect of the built and the natural environment, I should remind the House that the high-speed rail link is primarily a matter for British Rail and not for the Government or the affected local authorities. British Rail will eventually have to justify the proposal to Parliament. But that does not mean that the Government in general nor the Department of Transport in particular are not taking a keen interest.
We shall ensure that environmental matters are properly taken into account in selecting the preferred route. I assure my hon. Friend that my Department has not sheltered behind the Department of the Environment in terms of parliamentary questions. Although the Department of Transport takes the lead in regard to new long-distance railway lines, issues involving the environment are concerns for my Department.
The Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations, which came into effect this July, covered proposals for long- distance railway lines authorised by way of planning Acts. At present there is no formal requirement for environmental assessment of development proposals which proceed by way of a parliamentary Bill, but the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure has given consideration to how the EC directive on environmental impact assessment can be applied to projects which would otherwise have required planning consent and environmental statements.
The Committee has recommended that each House should incorporate environmental impact assessment into the private Bill procedure by making new Standing Orders which would require promoters of any Bill which authorises the carrying out of works for which planning permission has not already been obtained to seek a determination from the appropriate Secretary of State as to whether it should be the subject of an environmental assessment with an environmental statement containing specified information. The suggested procedure would be for promoters of Bills to produce an environmental statement in advance of the Committee stage and for the Department of the Environment to comment to the Committee on the proposals contained in the Bill.
My Department is at present discussing with the Department of Transport standards for environmental assessment of new long-distance rail routes appropriate to that procedure. In advance of the adoption or implementation of those recommendations by Parliament,
Column 646British Rail has voluntarily appointed consultants to undertake environmental assessment and produce a full environmental statement in respect of any future proposals.
The Government will expect British Rail or any private sector consortium putting forward proposals for a new rail link to spell out its approach to environmental protection when proposals for a new line are announced. It is expected that Parliament, in giving consideration to proposals before it, will attach considerable weight to the environmental implications alongside commercial, economic and other social factors, and will wish to be satisfied that it contains appropriate provisions to ensure that those matters are dealt with properly.
I assure my hon. Friend that environmental issues are very much to the fore in consideration of the high-speed rail link, as they were in consideration of the Channel tunnel. As a Minister for the Department of the Environment, I sit on some of the committees relating to the Channel tunnel in order to safeguard environmental interests. I represented my Department's interests at an earlier meeting which my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport held with Members of Parliament representing Kent constituencies. British Rail's study, published in July, made it clear that a new rail link from London to the Channel tunnel would be needed some time in the future. Without it there would be a risk of excessively overloading the Kent rail network to the detriment of existing rail users. It is self-evident that no new line can be built without some detriment to the environment.
I welcome the fact that British Rail has employed independent consultants to undertake an environmental assessment of the present proposals and has committed itself to a full environmental assessment of the preferred route. Clearly, it will be in British Rail's interests in developing and progressing its proposals to ensure that it can demonstrate to Parliament that it has given adequate weight to environmental factors in selecting its preferred route corridor and further that it has given the closest attention, in finalising the design, to minimising and mitigating the environmental impact of the rail link on the people of Kent.
I conclude by quoting from a speech that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made at the Conservative party conference this year. She used a quotation which may be a candidate for the quotation of the year when she said :
"No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy- -with a full repairing lease."
She assured the party, and I assure the House today,
"This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full".
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : I believe that we need a constitutional convention to equip ourselves to create a new democratic system that will take us into the next century and prepare us for the challenges that lie ahead. The most obvious aspect of our democracy is a ballot held once every five years. For many people, it is their only participation in the democratic process. Even that ballot takes place after scant preparation in a four or five-week campaign. Thereafter, it is business as usual. After the fairly sharp inpact of the democratic process, Governments of all colours, once elected, become anti-democratic because they must get their political programmes through. They force through what they want and everything that stands in their way, regardless of political colour, is regarded as an obstruction.
Without delving too deeply into current party politics, it is true to say that the Prime Minister has done us a great service, not because she originated the problem but because she exemplifies it. Her Government have thrown into sharp relief the complete dominance of the Executive over the legislature. The great service that that has rendered to our democracy is that more and more people are becoming aware of the reality of our political position and recognise the weakness of our other political institutions faced with an unrestrained Executive.
In that new climate, broader constitutional matters are being debated far more than they were two or three years ago. Unfortunately, the debate rarely takes place in the House, and there is hardly a packed House for this debate. That shows that there has been no serious debate on the constitution, our democracy or the role of Parliament. Of course, the Government do not believe that Parliament should talk in depth about such matters--Parliament is here to pass the Government's programme--but I believe that we should have a wider debate and that Parliament has failed in its duty by not being the forum for that debate.
Unfortunately, Parliament is a political expedient that meets the needs of the Government of the day. A clear example of that--there have been many this week--was the Official Secrets Bill, on which the Minister spoke yesterday. That is an example of how the Government will try to impose their will on Parliament. Another classic example was on Tuesday. Referring to the proposed Scottish Select Committee, the Leader of the House said :
"The Standing Orders of the House are the basis on which the House proceeds, unless the House resolves to do something different."--[ Official Report, 20 December 1988 ; Vol. 144, c. 340.]
It is not the House that resolves to do something different but invariably the Government of the day who want something different, either to meet their own needs or to placate opposition within their ranks or on the other side of the House. Sadly, a Leader of the House from any party could have made that statement.
We cannot rely on the Government to be the ultimate defender of our liberties. It is a matter of some debate whether we can so rely on Parliament as it is so under the sway of Government, as all Parliaments this century have been.
I have been privileged to receive a personal education over the past 18 months--as a naive newcomer, I have found the extent of control exercised by the Executive over
Column 648the House a revelation--but unfortunately most outside the House have not. The concepts about which we speak are often arid, academic and theoretical, and it is difficult to convey to people the reality of political power in the United Kingdom. We need to think more deeply about our democratic politics, but such thought is not given, whatever party is in control, and we become lazy about thinking of democracy. I freely admit that, had recent Labour Governments boldly laid down some of the building blocks of democracy, many of the worst excesses of the Government would have been impossible. The Labour party is at least as conservative as the Conservative party in this respect.
There must be democratic forms in our society that are wholly independent of Government if we are to be genuinely democratic. The first step is knowledge, not merely for a few insiders but for everyone, so that they are aware of their individual rights and the role and powers of our political institutions. The right to know is crucial, and each child should be able to leave school with a knowledge of the political institutions that will govern his or her life rather than vague feelings of deference, trust or a view that politics is irrelevant or unimportant.
If democratic values and practices are genuinely to be built into our society and values and practices, the key educative tool is a democratic constitution--a physical document, a written constitution that would be the property of every member of society. People would feel more competent to judge issues for themselves rather than regard talk of rights and liberties as irrelevant to their lives and those of their families. The creation of such a democracy would be governed by and cross-referenced against people's understanding rather than political expedient, which all too often dominates in the House. That would be the only safeguard against politicians.
Hon. Members who were defeated on the abortion issue have discovered what nonsense the use and abuse of the private Member's Bill procedure can be. Those who are unable or unwilling to organise the victory of ideas or ideals look for short cuts and salvations, the latest of which is proportional representation. Those new converts to a "democratic constitution" are to be welcomed warily. When serious change is adopted as a fad, it will just as easily be dropped and a new solution adopted. It could leave the wider cause of serious, democratic constitutional reform discredited and the political system destabilised. If we do not have the inoculation of a deeply rooted, aware democracy, the virus of Fascism could flourish in such a destabilised political system.
One day there should be a written constitution but, ever eager to compromise, I should be more than happy to accept immediately merely a Bill of Rights, endorsed by referendums and entrenched beyond the reach of fickle and simple majority in the House of Commons. As one small contribution, I have today given notice that on the first day we return in January, I shall present to the House a Bill or Rights based on the European convention first presented by Sir Edward Gardner in 1978.
A written Bill of individual and collective rights removes the arguments flowing from the will or whim of the Government or their servants. Some may argue persuasively that such a Bill merely transfers the arbitrary interpretation of civil rights from the desks of colourless bureaucrats or colourful politicians to an expensive and often class-riddled judicial system. Having tasted the legal system and the partiality of the judiciary through trade
Column 649union legislation, I can understand why that argument has neutralised many otherwise progressive people into defeatism. This can be overcome only by a deep-seated reformation of the judiciary, a nettle which even proponents of a Bill of Rights have not grasped but which must be grasped, or the constitutional conservatives in the Opposition parties will immobilise us again.
The constitutional convention would need to complete the picture by examining the Commons and the second Chamber. After the abolition of the House of Lords, an elected second Chamber--let us call it the House of Representatives--could exercise independent and legitimate scrutiny and oversight of the Government in the Commons. Once again, the powers of such a second Chamber would need to be entrenched and to be separate from those of the Commons and other institutions. The Commons would then be seen for what it is--the place where Governments propose and carry their business, with a Government-in-waiting on the Opposition Benches. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) wish to intervene? He is shaking, or nodding, his head in agreement--I am not sure which.
Without the Commons losing any of its alleged powers, the serious job of accountability would gravitate towards the elected second Chamber. This is a recipe for conflict, the constitutional conflict of debate, of education and of growing public awareness of the nature of the decisions which face us. It is a recipe for a democracy, one fit to take this nation into the next century.
As we approach Christmas, I am tempted to put the shopping list, which I have hurriedly detailed, up the chimney. Rather than Santa Claus, I shall call upon that equally improbable figure, but one in whom all Members of Parliament believe, Mr. Speaker himself, to convene a constitutional convention to appraise these issues beyond the heat of electoral battle.
The Minister of State, Home Office(Mr. John Patten) : The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) was conversational in style and thoughtful in tone, which I appreciate. Also, he was political only from time to time. I propose to answer the debate in the same fashion.
The hon. Gentleman has not been in the House very long, but I was elected only a couple of elections before him. I have never talked to the House about constitutional reform, and this is the first chance that I have had to do so.
I admire the hon. Gentleman for his daring in that, after his 18 months' apprenticeship, he is giving the House his views in constitutional reform. Not satisfied with the debate, he now tells us that he will introduce a Bill of Rights in January. That is a formidable pace of constitutional change and we look forward to reading the Bill, which I understand is based on the Bill of Sir Edward Gardner.
Mr. Allen : Does the Minister agree that perhaps the longer one is in the House, the less likely one is to assess it as an outsider? Does he agree that we need to assess it, given the changing needs of our democracy?
Mr. Patten : I hope that my political arteries have not hardened too much after 10 years in this place. As my contribution to open government I can give a report of my recent medical check-up. I have the blood pressure of a
Column 650boy of 18 and the electrocardiogram showed an almost horizontal line. The kind doctor said that it demonstrated what he had always known about Ministers--that they have no heart. My blood pressure is no worse or better than it was a few years ago, and I am as keenly interested in constitutional matters as ever.
Most hon. Members--certainly my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport--are keenly interested in reform. That is why I was surprised that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that Parliament was a place for the political expedient. That is wrong. Together with Mr. Enoch Powell and a number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, I believe that the Chamber is the crucible of the nation where we hammer out our disputes and, happily, sometimes forge agreement.
The hon. Gentleman has been remarkably unobservant during the past couple of weeks. He has been present during debates on two substantial constitutional measures. He has barracked me through two successive wind-up speeches. I know that he has been there, because I have heard him muttering across the Chamber. The first measure, the Security Service Bill, was debated as recently as last Thursday. The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that significant constitutional measure. Last night, we discussed the Official Secrets Bill, and I spoke at the end of the debate.
Mr. Allen : It is important to put on record the excellence of the Minister's speech yesterday. Despite excellent speeches by Ministers and hon. Members on both sides of the House, will the Minister tell us how many such debates have resulted in any serious change to the Government's proposals? Has not the House, even during my brief 18 months here, rubber- stamped almost every item of legislation put to it?
Mr. Patten : I do not think that the hon. Gentleman listened carefully to the debate on the official secrets White Paper on 22 July. Last night, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary demonstrated clearly how much the Government listened to that debate and how, in four significant areas, the proposals in the White Paper published last July were changed when the Bill was drafted. Constitutional reform of various sorts has been debated in the Chamber, even though it may not have appeared on the Order Paper under the headline "Constitutional Change" or "Constitutional Reform". The hon. Member for Nottingham, North has given us his reasons why he seeks reform. There are others who seek reform. For example, the noble Lord Blake in the other place has long advanced constitutional reform from the Tory Benches. I have to say to the House, which is filling up, that constitutional reform is usually suggested by those who see it as the only route to power. I do not believe that many of those who promote constitutional reform do so for any other reason. It is normally argued by those who see the chances of sitting on the Government Benches receding into the far distance. It is normally put forward by those who see that they are losers.
Column 651We have put in front of us the nostrums of an organisation that is called Charter 88, which attempts to bring forward a measure of constitutional reform. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is a supporter of it ; I have seen a list of apparently important signatories to the organisation. I hope that my name will never appear in one of the self-seeking lists of supporters of this or that which appear in our great national newspapers. It is my intention never to add my name to such lists. Generally speaking, those who support such organisations never bring about the changes they seek by securing expensive pages of advertising in national newspapers. Charter 88 is a loser's charter. Those who support it realise that, with present progress, they will never achieve power. That is because they have no big idea. They have no major political concepts to put before the country such as those--here I move slightly into party politics--introduced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she was Leader of the Opposition in 1975 and thereafter. I think that everyone, including the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is not in his place this afternoon, has recognised that those concepts have brought about major and significant changes to the political landscape of the United Kingdom. That is real political change.
Political change is advocated by those who do not like the way that the Conservative Government are running the country, but they will have to come forward with big ideas and market them, and they will have to be ideas for which the British people will vote. Political change will not come about as a result of phoney and self-seeking charters such as Charter 88. Nor will such changes come about through electoral reform--of which more in a moment, after the hon. Member for Nottingham, North has intervened.
Mr. Allen : I am delighted that the Minister is taking up my argument about political expediency. I talked about a substitute set of proposals being put forward, with those responsible for it not being prepared to go out to the public to fight and win over their ideas. I believe that the Prime Minister won some credit because she put forward a big idea, as the Minister has described it. I should add that I do not agree with that big idea. Long-term, deep-rooted constitutional change that is based upon democracy is a bigger idea than any relatively big idea which emanates from either political party. I hope that that concept will win support throughout the House.
Mr. Patten : I believe in democracy, which is why I have given way so often to the hon. Gentleman. In the interest of trying to answer all the issues that he has raised before my time is up, I shall not be able to give way to him again.
We on the Government Benches are entirely against electoral reform. We believe that it is a recipe for weak and divided government. There is enough evidence of that
Column 652around the globe to persuade us that in no circumstance will a Conservative Government be promoting electoral reform via proportional representation. That is something on which the hon. Gentleman and I can agree. I wish to make it clear to the House that what I have stated remains our intention.
I regret the hon. Member's attack on the judiciary. I winced when I heard it. The appointment of judges is a matter for my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor in another place. The Government are fully satisfied with the independent and disinterested performance of the judiciary, which we value. I must urge on the hon. Gentleman the simple fact that judges are selected solely on the basis of personal merit and fitness for the job. There is no convincing evidence that the Bench is biased.
If the hon. Gentleman stays longer in public life, he may come to feel that he did not quite get it right when he talked this afternoon about the judiciary. In fact, he got it very wrong. I would use a stronger term but I feel that it would be inappropriate to do so, given the tone that the hon. Gentleman has set in the debate. Much of the debate on the constitution seems to proceed on a false premise. It is thought that our unwritten constitution does not guarantee specific rights. It leaves constitutional arrangements to the whim of the party in power. That point was made by the hon. Member. On the other hand, he and others might argue that, with a written constitution, the rights of citizens are fully protected because they have an easily accessible written constitution or Bill of Rights and can invoke them against the Government of the day. That is a mistake.
I may be caricaturing the argument for the sake of illustration, but the truth is that the mere existence of a constitution--written or unwritten-- guarantees nothing. Everything depends on how it is interpreted and applied in daily life. Some of the most oppressive countries on earth have written constitutions or Bills of Rights. They guarantee nothing, just as proportional representation would guarantee government chaos in many parts of the globe.
Equally, we have recently seen some extraordinary examples of improvements in civil rights across the globe, which have come, not through the application of constitutional nostrums such as proportional representation, written constitutions and Bills of Rights, but from the will and ability of individuals to implement existing constitutional guarantees or to use the existing con-stitutional system to greater democratic ends. We see that movement sweeping across eastern Europe at the moment.
I would not seek to have our unwritten constitution altered in any way. I would rather see it evolve. This week's Official Secrets Bill and last week's Security Service Bill have shown the evolution of constitutional safeguards. The justification for our unwritten constitution is simply that it works and is responsible for the degree of personal liberty and general well-being for which this country has long been renowned. We have constitutional safeguards which are second to none.
"7 pages of jobs in the Star tonight"
"Super Sheffield, Boom City of the 90s.
Developments worth £1.3 billion proposed, 77 major projects--30,000 Jobs and 10,000 Jobs in Construction."
It also said :
"The boom in investment over the last three years should result in a major facelift for the City."
Hotels, expansion schemes and industry are all concerned. The city has received assistance from the Government and has been extremely grateful for the funding that the Government have supplied for teh urban development corporation, the canal basin, road improvements at Meadowhall and other schemes.
In a business survey for the third quarter from Sheffield chamber of commerce--which arrived only today--it pointed out that the domestic market
"continues to expand, with almost three quarters of the replies indicating increased orders and deliveries. On the export side, the decline in the previous quarter appears to have been arrested and more companies report increases in overseas business. The high value of sterling continues to present some problems to exporters, although not as much as in the past.
Recruitment of skilled personnel still remains a problem, with almost half the local replies confirming that difficulty had been encountered. The problem is even greater in other regions and effectively highlights the skills gap.
The picture which emerges is one of continuing growth and expansion--there are very few negative indications in investment plans or in the area of recruitment. This, linked to the high level of confidence in the growth of turnover and profit all points to an increasingly prosperous future."
The name Sheffield conjures up, especially to the south, a picture of dark satanic factories, but those days have long since gone. It used to be thought that it was a grimy, grubby dirty place to live in, but those days have long gone. We have a science park and a leisure and retail complex, which could be one of the largest in the country, and factories and new industries are springing up all over. It could be called "good news city", because the development figures have been looked at again and it was discovered that £1.3 billion has increased to £1.6 billion. The world student games in 1991 will be a major fillip, although, sadly, they will cost ratepayers in the city£9 million a year for the next 20 years unless a financial package can be put together.
If we are to move into the 20th century, however, we still need road, rail and air access. Such access is vital if we are to ensure the regeneration and continued expansion of Sheffield. My hon. Friend the Minister recently met a deputation from Sheffield to discuss the road links to Manchester. For environmental reasons, it was decided that no motorway should go through the Peak park, and I fully endorse that decision. That Minister said that the M1-M62 link was under active consideration but that some black spots--at Snake pass and at Woodhead--remained to be dealt with. Lighting is also needed on the M1.
On 12 December, British Rail announced that faster services to Sheffield would be introduced in May, cutting 20 minutes off the journey times. It said that £1 million was to be spent on Sheffield Midland station, which will be in operation by 1991 in time for the world student games. It