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Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I welcome the statement, and the fact that it involves the management and employees of the company, as we recommended in November 1987, when the House first examined this issue. Nevertheless, can the Minister reassure the employees and those concerned in the affected areas that the company's investment plans will be maintained and that there are no present plans for job losses? I also hope that he can tell the House that the funds realised from the sale will be reinvested in British Rail, which could very much do with such a cash injection.
Mr. Portillo : I welcome the hon. Gentleman's welcome. I have observed that it has been the consistent position of his party, or parties.
At the moment, the company has about £400 million worth of orders. There are substantial new opportunities ahead, so there is everything to play for.
The proceeds of the sale are for British Rail, which can use them to reduce its indebtedness or to invest, as it thinks appropriate.
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley) : Does my hon. Friend accept that his statement will be warmly welcomed by both the workers and the management of BREL, who will now have far more control over their own business? Does he accept that any job losses of the past few years have been the result not of privatisation but of inefficiencies inherent in a state-run industry that existed solely on the basis of cosy, guaranteed, cost-plus contracts from an organisation that owned BREL?
Does my hon. Friend also accept that the only way to ensure no job losses in future is to keep the customers happy?
Mr. Portillo : I thank my hon. Friend for his words of welcome. The remarkable thing about the future of the company now is that it can compete for orders in a European market. I do not see much long-term future for a company in nationalised hands existing only on orders handed down by a single railway company in this country without access to technology from abroad.
Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley) : I note the Minister's great enthusiasm when he uses the words "financial advantages". Why is he not prepared to reveal the price to the House, given that public money is invested in these companies? The taxpayers are entitled to know how their money is being used.
Can the Minister give some guarantee that if this transaction goes through there will not be asset-stripping such as took place with the royal ordnance factories--when factories were closed to sell the land off for other uses?
Mr. Portillo : I cannot talk about the price because the negotiations have not been concluded--I hope they will be shortly. I have outlined how I hope matters will proceed. I have also said how I believe that the commitment of the companies involved in this purchase is strong and clear. As it happens, in the event of any property disposals, there are clawback arrangements in the terms of the contract.
Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : Is it not up to Ministers and the House, not the European Commission, to decide whether the financial terms of the sale are acceptable or unacceptable? Can the Minister confirm that today's most welcome announcement will be the prelude to the privatisation, in whole or in part, of British Rail in the next Parliament?
Mr. Portillo : On the first point, I agree with my hon. Friend because I believe there has been a misunderstanding between us. The European Commission concerns itself with whether there has been state finance which could constitute unfair competition in the setting up of a new company.
My hon. Friend knows that the Government are certainly looking with great interest into the privatisation of British Rail as a whole, but I am afraid that I have nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend has already said about that.
Dr. John Marek (Wrexham) : Pursuing what the Minister said earlier about travel concessions and their possible negotiation, will he do what he can to ensure that any changes as a result of these negotiations are made only if they have not only the support of the new BREL management and British Rail, but of the employees? When he answers that question, will he bear in mind the fact that it is because of the Minister and the Government that BREL is being privatised?
Mr. Portillo : The workers who transfer to the new ownership take their contracts with them. The contracts clearly maintain the present terms and conditions of employment. A contract can only be subject to a renegotiation : it cannot be subject to unilateral abrogation on the part of the management. If there is to be renegotiation, it will be a mutual process between the two parties--exactly the same as might occur if the ownership were unchanged.
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield) : Was a stock market flotation or, perhaps more probably, a management buy-out considered for this company? Can my hon. Friend say what effect the decision will have on some independent United Kingdom suppliers that are able to meet British Rail's requirements?
Mr. Portillo : On my hon. Friend's latter point, it was the clear view of British Rail that apart from the financial advantage of this offer there was the advantage that it would increase competition in the railway supply industry. British Rail believes that that is also an important factor. On my hon. Friend's first point, the consortium that is taking over BREL is to the extent of 20 per cent. a management buy-out and it says that it plans to have an employee share ownership plan. That will be broadly welcomed in the House.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : Has the Minister noted that, for a statement vital to the industrial future of Scotland, no SNP Member is present to ask questions, let alone to protect the future of industry in Scotland, which that party keeps shouting about north of the border? Will the Minister say precisely what guarantees he has received that Sprinter maintenance will continue in Glasgow, and that all other operations in Glasgow will not be subjected to the process of rationalisation that we are now used to that moves operations to the south or, indeed, abroad, thus jeopardising the 300 jobs that remain for the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) and those of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars), who does not seem to have the time to turn up occasionally?
Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly right to say that a matter that affects the railway supply industry should be of interest to hon. Members from every part of the country. As I understand it, my statement about BREL affects only Crewe, Derby and York, because the plant that the hon. Gentleman refers to was taken out of BREL prior to the sale and now operates within British Rail. Nothing in the statement affects that.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Does the Minister understand that many of my colleagues feel concerned that by not revealing the bid price offered by the consortium and Trafalgar House he has prevented Parliament from measuring whether the taxpayer is getting a fair return? Is it not true that at some stage all that information will be revealed to the Public Accounts Committee? It could be asked for by shareholders at annual general meetings of the acquiring companies and could also be published in the annual reports of the companies. Why can we not be given some indication now? Does the Minister want once again to hide these matters from Parliament because someone has picked up a £400 million order book company on the cheap?
Mr. Portillo : No. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, in due course this information will become available, not least to the Public Accounts Committee representing Parliament. I do not want to give the price now because I do not want to give the half-time score.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) : In welcoming this statement and especially my hon. Friend's two answers about employee share schemes, may I ask him whether he
Column 170can give any more information about the scope that there will be for individual employees and managers to participate in shareholdings and in profits? Does he agree that a generous scheme would be one of the best guarantees of a prosperous future for the new company?
Mr. Portillo : I am as delighted as my hon. Friend at the plan of the management to offer an employee share ownership plan. It is too early to say what the conditions of that might be, but I share my hon. Friend's wish that it should be as good and as attractive as possible, because that will be a good way to motivate the work force under the new circumstances.
Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East) : Where does the Minister get his confidence in Trafalgar House? Is he not aware that Trafalgar House has an appalling record in the buy-outs in which it was involved? There is evidence of that at Scott Lithgow on the upper Clyde. May I be nosey and ask the Minister a nice, friendly and gentle question? Has he noticed that one of the features of Government privatisation is that the Secretary of State responsible for the privatisation usually finishes up as a non- executive director of the company that buys the privatised company? In view of the Secretary of State's recent troubles, may we have a guarantee that this is not likely to happen in this case?
Mr. Portillo : I had not noticed that trend. I have already said in answer to other questions that it seems to me that Trafalgar House has a substantial interest in transport matters covering the Manchester light railway, for which it is a bidder, the Channel tunnel link and the proposal for a railway line from Waterloo to Docklands. I have also alluded to the fact that the management of BREL sees the contribution of Trafalgar House as being especially important in trying to win turnkey contracts, which can be important in the export field.
Sir David Price (Eastleigh) : For greater clarity, will my hon. Friend place in the Official Report the precise details of the works covered by these deals so that there is no doubt that maintenance works that were previously owned by BREL and that have reverted to railway ownership, such as our railway works at Eastleigh, are not covered? It is important to get clear what is and what is not covered by this deal.
Mr. Portillo : This concerns BREL (1988) Ltd., but I shall certainly do as my hon. Friend suggests.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : Is the Minister aware of acute anxiety among all the work forces involved, and not only those work forces that have been mentioned so far? They include the GEC workers in Preston, for example, who fear that this will lead to foreign control of this vital sector. Their fears are based on the fact that 40 per cent. goes to a Swiss -Swedish firm and that the rest depends largely on the good will of Trafalgar House. The Minister has said that it seems to him that Trafalgar House has a commitment. Can he tell us whether he has received from it a firm commitment that it will not simply sell and take its profit and go quickly? Can he tell us what he has done to safeguard British jobs and what steps he will take to prevent the involvement of ABB, leading to excessive imports at the expense of British products in rail traction?
Mr. Portillo : The strength of this arrangement is the combination of these works, which have substantial orders
Column 171and considerable expertise, and the much broader expertise and technology that is available through ABB. I would be repeating myself if I stated again the reason why I think that Trafalgar House is strongly committed. The hon. Lady says that she is worried about foreign ownership. She should recognise that the consortium bid is 60 per cent. British and that the alternative was a 50 : 50 bid.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Now that the Minister has revealed that the Government do not know the selling price of these organisations and has said that there is no point in giving the half-time score, may we assume that the Government have agreed to privatise on the basis of selling off while not being prepared to tell the country at large? Has it been sold on the cheap? Is it one of those old-fashioned Rover type deals in which the taxpayer hands over large sums of money and a small amount comes back? Can he tell us how many acres of land are involved and how many of those acres are within city centres? What guarantees have the Government received about property and asset-stripping in connection with this sale? If he is not prepared to give the answers to all these questions, including the price, we can come to only one conclusion--that it is a massive cover-up.
Mr. Portillo : It was my judgment that the House would want to know the Government's attitude to this proposed sale at the earliest opportunity. Of course it would have been possible to wait until all the negotiations were concluded before making a statement, but during that period the House would have been impatient to know the Government's attitude. It is right to tell the House the Government's view, even though at this stage there is the disadvantage of not being able to reveal the selling price or to say whether the sale will proceed because there are certain conditions that need to be fulfilled. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the offer from the consortium was clearly superior to the other offer.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Does the Minister accept that the Government's record on railway matters is disgraceful? They have underfunded and under-invested in the railway system and because of that its performance is inferior to that of any other railway system. Now the Government propose to sell BREL by
Column 172private treaty to some group, and they have no guarantee that it will not be just an asset-stripping exercise or will lead at the end of the day to a weaker railway system, a lack of expertise in railway technology and an inability to invest in what, I hope, will be a good future for the industry when the Government have finally left office.
Mr. Portillo : The sale was not by private treaty but by competitive bid, as I explained. There were two bids and the superior bid won.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about investment is that, since 1983, £2 billion has been invested in the railways. In the coming five years, we intend to invest £3.5 billion. This is the biggest renewal since the transfer from steam to diesel and by the end of the decade BR will have renewed over 85 per cent. of its diesel passenger trains and electrified 60 per cent. of its inter-city network and 30 per cent. of its total network.
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford) : My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) spoke about the concerns of the employees of GEC lest the consortium bid, if successful, led to GEC and the jobs there being frozen out, as we see with the transfer of supply to ABB. May we be informed what guarantees the Government have obtained from the BREL consortium about continuing to accept supplies from existing United Kingdom suppliers?
Mr. Portillo : Whichever bid had been accepted we would have ended up with an international solution, and that is entirely appropriate because many orders are to be won in Europe and, equally, it is important that groups have access to technology from all European sources. So that would have occurred in either case and, I believe, would have been welcomed in either case. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that, because of the investment programme, the details of which I gave when answering his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), it seems likely that there will be many orders in the offing, and fortunately we shall now have a healthy and competitive situation with a number of bidders in the United Kingdom able to apply for those contracts.
Following are the premises involved in the sale :
Derby carriage works ;
Derby loco works ;
Crewe works ;
York works ;
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that yesterday the Home Secretary chose to announce his decision to refer the Guildford and Woolwich case to the Court of Appeal in an eight-page written answer rather than make a statement to the House on which he could have been questioned, as happened on the previous occasion when he considered the Guildford and Woolwich and Birmingham cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and I went to the Library at 3.30 yesterday afternoon to obtain a copy of that eight-page written answer. It was not available there. We then went to the Lower Press Gallery where we were immediately able to obtain a copy. In other words, it was available to the Press Gallery--whose members seemed aware of the decision four or five hours before it was announced in the House--but not in the Library.
Mr. Speaker : Order. It certainly should have been available in the Library. I say again that I deprecate the press getting information before we do here.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is surely a serious issue here in that the Home Secretary announced in advance that he was giving a written answer--to a question which was planted in the first place by one of his hon. Friends-- on an important issue, thus avoiding him having to face the House on that issue. He then apparently leaked--or it was leaked by his Department--the entire contents of that reply at 10 o'clock in the morning to The London Standard newspaper and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) pointed out, it became available to Members at 4 o'clock that afternoon. Many of us welcome the fact that the case is to be referred to the Court of Appeal. We should have liked, and still would like, an opportunity to speak directly in the House to the Home Secretary on this issue and question him about further details of it. Do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that such an opportunity should be made available to us?
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Home Secretary is in his place and will have heard you deprecating his conduct and that of his Department, do you agree that the least he should do is to come to the Dispatch Box and give an explanation?
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely the most important point is that the Home Secretary has decided that the Court of Appeal may decide this issue. Nothing that might be said in the House can make any impact on what the Court of Appeal will decide. Surely my right hon. Friend's decision should be welcomed by Members.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. We have a heavy day ahead of us--an open-ended debate on a Committee stage and a three-hour debate thereafter.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Although I came into the Chamber after the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) made his comments, I have the general gist of the point.
Column 174I do not need to make an apology to the House for dealing with this matter in a written answer, partly for the reason which my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) gave. I have no knowledge of the source of the report in The London Standard, which I saw and which I regret. My intention was that it should be dealt with in an orderly way by informing the House first.
Mr. Alan Williams : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Home Secretary said that in some mysterious way these documents reached the Press Gallery without his knowledge, a situation which you deprecate, Mr. Speaker. Yet the right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say to the House about how it could have happened.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been in the Chamber on several occasions recently when you have deprecated the process by which it appears that written answers, and on some occasions even the contents of oral statements, have reached the press before being given to the House. I realise that when you say that you deprecate something, that is a strong rebuke to the Government that it should have happened. But that does not seem to be having any effect. Would it be possible for you, Mr. Speaker, through the usual channels, to take the matter a little further and get the practice stopped so that we do not find material being handed to the press before it is put through the correct channels for Members to obtain as a written or oral statement?
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker--
Mr. Speaker : Order. Allow me to deal with the matter, please. I heard the Home Secretary say that he had no idea how it occurred. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) made a sensible and helpful suggestion, and I shall certainly do as he suggested.
Mr. Skinner : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Home Secretary's comments about what appeared in the The London Standard gave me and other Opposition Members the impression that he did not know what had happened. There can be no question but that the Home Secretary answered by way of a written reply. He seemed to convey the impression that he was not sure how it got to the Press Gallery several hours before the written question was answered. If that is the case, it is important for the right hon. Gentleman to discover how that leaked information reached the press. Perhaps Bernard Ingham did it for him. If so, we should be told who is running the Home Office--Bernard Ingham or the Home Secretary. Who is running the show?
Mr. Speaker : Order. We should get on with today's show. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : We have to follow an open-ended debate on a Committee stage and a three-hour debate after that. Points of order take up a great deal of time and do a grave disservice to the hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He may get an advantage out of raising points of order in this way, but his hon. Friends suffer.
Mr. Mullin : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that on reflection you will accept the seriousness of this issue, which is of some public importance, as a glance at this morning's newspapers will reveal. The point I made, which the Home Secretary did not address, was that the copy, which I am holding, of the written answer was obtained by me from the Press Gallery because it was not obtainable in the Library.
Mr. Speaker : Order. I have already said that I shall be discussing the matter through the usual channels. I cannot help any more than that.
Mr. Corbyn rose --
Mr. Speaker : Very well, Mr. Corbyn, if the hon. Gentleman must waste the time of the House.
Mr. Corbyn : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not wasting time--remembering that this is an important issue. One of the four people concerned is a constituent of mine who has wrongly spent 14 years in prison. That is a matter of great importance, and I am glad that the case has been referred to the Court of Appeal. If parliamentary answers are given in a written form, they are clearly the property of the House at the time they are given, which is supposed to be at the start of public business each afternoon at about 3.30. I am rather suspicious of the way in which the usual channels' operation goes on in this building. I would prefer you, Mr. Speaker, to give a clear ruling from the Chair that at 3.30 each day--or at the same time, whatever time that may be--all written answers are placed in the Library so that they are available to Members and are not deliberately leaked to the press in advance. While I accept the Home Secretary's assurance that he himself did not know that
Column 176this one had got into the hands of The London Standard, clearly his office knew that it was in the hands of the Press Gallery well in advance of being in the hands of Members.
Mr. Speaker : Order. I have already told the hon. Member and the House that answers to written questions should be in the Library at 3.30, and I hope that will happen in future.
Mr. Jerry Wiggin, supported by Mr. Andrew Faulds, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the passing and stamping of certain weighing and measuring equipment, as being fit for use for trade, by persons other than inspectors of weights and measures : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 27 January, and to be printed. [Bill 38.]
Statutory Instruments, &c.
Mr. Speaker : With the leave of the House, I will put together the three motions relating to statutory instruments.
That the draft Matrimonial and Family Proceedings (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Matrimonial and Family Proceedings (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendment) Order 1988 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) Regulations 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Mr. John Hughes (Coventry, North-East) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the provision of essential fuel and energy to each home ; to guarantee appliances ; to prevent the entry to premises without prior recorded legally authorised notice ; to prevent the unauthorised removal of fuel measuring devices ; to abolish standing charges ; and for connected purposes.
I welcome the opportunity to bring this Bill before the House once again and I make no apology for doing so. Fuel poverty is a vital issue. Any society that likes to think itself civilised should be prepared to provide all its citizens, irrespective of their circumstances or status, with certain basics--food, shelter and warmth--which are the essentials for living.
I appreciate that the House is used to dealing with the most complex subjects and that hon. Members will leave no stone unturned in their endeavour to become well versed in those subjects. Their strong commitment motivates them, at great public expense and without hesitation, to travel to the furthest corners of the globe and to the most exotic places to slake their thirst for knowledge and understanding.
I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the subject of my Bill, important as it is, is a simple matter and that hon. Members can obtain the most comprehensive understanding of the realities of fuel poverty by the simplest expedient at no cost to the public ; in fact, it would result in financial savings.
So that hon. Members can understand the extreme cold that their poorest constituents experience, I am sure that they would agree to the heating in the Chamber being turned off and left off for 24 hours or, better still, a week or a month. That would equip the House to understand the meaning of cold--cold which cannot be magicked away by the empty platitudes and publicity campaigns that have characterised the Government's response to the issue. It cannot be magicked away by advice from Ministers with a deranged lack of reality.
The cold to which I refer does not belong on a Christmas card. It cannot be discovered in a momentary immersion in icy water after a massage or a hot sauna. It cannot be experienced when the hand is plunged into an ice bucket to grip the neck of a champagne bottle. The cold to which I refer is a public fact and the responsibility for ensuring that people do not suffer as a result of it rests with the House. That responsibility cannot be privatised. That is why I am prepared to bring this Bill before the House at any and every opportunity, year in and year out, if necessary.
It is necessary to be relentless in pursuing this matter because the cold is a cruel, relentless, remorseless enemy, bringing in its wake misery, illness and death. But those evils are not shared equally in our society. The people who suffer most are the poor, the single-parent families, the unemployed and their families, the disadvantaged, those on low incomes, those who are discriminated against, those who are disabled or ill and, most important, the elderly--the people least able to endure extremes of temperature which would be unacceptable in this House.
Ninety-five per cent. of elderly people live in their own homes. For our elderly citizens, those homes, which were once full of joy, were shared with husbands or wives and
Column 178resounded to the laughter of children, can, over the course of the years, or even months or days, become prisons where the warder is the cold. The cold regulates the time of going to bed and the time of rising, denies people the energy needed to prepare food, restricts the choice of what they can buy and restricts their ability to answer the door. It shuts them in a cell where their voice cannot be heard and where the world does not choose to look--a cell which can become a coffin.
On bright, clear winter days, when the sun is shining on the windows, illuminating Jack Frost's sparkling handiwork, it is hard to imagine that behind the panes of glass in any town or any village a human being may be freezing to death. Hypothermia is difficult to diagnose and there is evidence that doctors sometimes seem reluctant to put it on the death certificate, so the number of deaths directly attributable to the cold is often understated. For 1981 and 1983 the chief medical statistician found that fewer than three out of every four hypothermia deaths in hospital appeared on death certificates. However, even if we cannot always rely on the information provided by death certificates to give a clear indicator that cold weather was responsible for any particular death, we can easily get a clear idea of the scale of the overall problem in this country. It is not merely a crisis or an epidemic ; it is a disaster. The additional number of winter deaths over the past five years has averaged out at 37,740. It is not enough to sit back and say, "Well, of course, it is inevitable that more old people will die in winter--it is a fact of nature and cannot be avoided." If that is so, why is the problem so much greater in Britain than in other countries? A comparison has shown that, in February, whereas the monthly increase in winter mortalities was 24 per cent. in England and Wales and 19 per cent. in Scotland, the equivalent figure for Sweden--a country of civilised standards, not noted for the warmth of its climate--was 6 per cent.
However, death from hypothermia itself represents only a small proportion of deaths in which the cold is a major contributory factor in the progress of other illnesses. For old people suffering from arthritis, rheumatism, with weak hearts and poor circulation, brittle bones and fragile constitutions, the cold gives those conditions a helping hand. Then there is the will to live and the will to get better. Can anything be more bleak and desolate than huddling in front of a single bar of an electric fire or a single gas radiant in the depth of winter out of mortal dread of the bill that will land on the mat one day?
What about the unemployed? Statistic after statistic has confirmed the link between ill health and unemployment. We know that people who, through no fault of their own, become unemployed are subject to severe depression. For those people, the winter cold is an ever-present qualification of their status. Sadly, Government policies are exacerbating the problems. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing, as the interests of the already wealthy are advanced at the expense of the already poor. The Government have funded tax cuts by selling off industries that belonged to this country. Consequently, the people at the bottom of the economic spectrum-- the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled--who have all suffered as a result of recent social security changes must subsidise cut-price bargains for the City and an economic policy that has flooded the country with imports.
When fuel prices are compared with the remaining non-fuel items in the retail prices index, we see that the cost
Column 179of domestic fuel has risen by 32 per cent. in real terms since 1970 despite the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the North sea. With the privatisation of the electricity industry, the Government will make things even worse for people on low incomes. Electricity prices increased by 9 per cent. last year and are set to go up a further 6 per cent. this April. Taken together, that will mean that the industry will have gained a further £15 billion from household bills. As a consequence, the cost to the consumer is growing faster in Britain than anywhere else and many people, once again in the low-income groups, including single-parent families and elderly people, are doubly disadvantaged. Their homes, poorly insulated and with ill-fitting windows and doors, cannot hold the heat. They cannot afford to install efficient, modern appliances to take advantage of off-peak rates. In other words, they are shut out from the developments in technology. As a result, those people pay higher bills for less warmth. The end result is an increase in the number of disconnections.
With privatisation both because of price increases and because of the policy that private companies will adopt, the number of disconnections will be greater than under nationalisation. There is no doubt about that. In the two years since gas privatisation, gas disconnections have risen by 25 per cent. and National Gas Consumers Council figures show that 62,000 households were cut off in 1987-88. That is double the rate for 1983. During the same period--
Mr. Speaker : Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he has been speaking for 10 minutes and should begin to bring his remarks to a close.
Mr. Hughes : Fuel poverty and the material means to have fuel for warmth is the responsibility of every person in this country. William Beveridge said :
"We should regard want, squalor, disease and ignorance as common enemies of all of us--not as enemies with which each individual can seek a separate peace, escaping himself to personal prosperity while leaving his fellows in their clutches. That is the meaning of social conscience--that one should refuse to make a peace with social evil." We can afford to ensure that people do not go cold--it is simply a question of priorities. The Bill is a definition of the highest priority.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Hughes, Mr. Frank Cook, Mr. Dave Nellist, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Martin Redmond, Mr. Alan Meale, Ms. Mildred Gordon, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Tam Dalyell and Mr. Harry Barnes.