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House of Commons

Thursday 2 February 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


British Railways (Penalty Fares) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second Time on Monday 6 February at Seven o'clock.

Associated British Ports (Hull) Bill

(By Order)

Birmingham City Council (No. 2) Bill

(By Order)

British Railways Bill

(By Order)

Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill

(By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 9 February

Hythe Marina Village (Southampton) Wavescreen Bill

(By Order)

International Westminster Bank Bill

(By Order)

Isle of Wight Bill

(By Order)

London Underground Victoria Bill

(By Order) Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 7 February.

Wentworth Estate Bill

(By Order)

British Film Institute Southbank Bill

(By Order)

Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Bill

(By Order)

City of London (Various Powers) Bill

(By Order) Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 9 February

Penzance Albert Pier Extension Bill

(By Order) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 7 February.

Redbridge London Borough Council Bill

(By Order) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 9 February.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Shotgun Licences

1. Mr. Speller : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many shotgun licences are issued currently to young people below the age of 15 years ; and if he will make it his policy to raise the basic age to 16 years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg) : Information on the number of shotgun certificates held by persons below the age of 15 is not held centrally, and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost. In relation to shotguns, there are no specified age restrictions, but age is one factor which the chief officer of police concerned may take into account in deciding whether to grant a certificate. We have no plans to introduce a statutory age limit.

Mr. Speller : I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful answer, but is he aware that at present it is an offence to sell or hire a shotgun to anyone under 17, or to make a gift of a shotgun to anyone under 15? A youngster under 15 may not purchase a shotgun and may not carry an assembled shotgun in a private place. Is he aware that in the west country a shotgun is a tool of trade for many people in the agricultural profession? I do not suggest any change, but is it not logical to have a base limit so that we can clean up a particularly uncertain part of the law?

Mr. Hogg : We have no plans to make further changes. As my hon. Friend has already made plain, there are a number of existing safeguards which we think are sufficient.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my hon. Friend agree that as youngsters can fire a shotgun only under the careful supervision of an adult, they should be taught to use guns early, and therefore learn the importance of safety from an early age?

Mr. Hogg : My hon. Friend makes a very important point, with which I agree. As he has made plain, persons under the age of 15 can use a shotgun only under the supervision of someone who is 21 or older.

Private Security Firms

2. Mr. Lofthouse : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what guidance his Department issues to chief constables about the use of private security firms in roles previously filled by police officers.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd) : My Department issues no such guidance to chief constables.

Mr. Lofthouse : Is the Secretary of State worriedabout creeping privatisation of many traditional police functions? Is he aware that chief constables are deeply worried that there is no proper control on that burgeoning industry and that many cowboy operations have been set

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up? We now have the Guardian Angels. Will he urgently consult the police and provide a properly regulated framework?

Mr. Hurd : I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would object to the contracting-out of some police services, such as cleaning and catering in suitable cases. I do not know of any forces that contract out or are made to contract out to private security firms. However, the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right. The Association of Chief Police Officers has sent us a report on the private security industry. It has expressed some anxiety, but we still believe in the principle of self-regulation by the industry--it would be difficult to proceed in any other way. We are examining with the police the reports that ACPO sent.

Mr. John Greenway : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the potential use of private security firms to police our streets arises from the fact that the public do not believe that there are enough policement on the streets? My right hon. Friend's announcement of extra officers for most forces in England and Wales was welcome, but it has left many chief constables disappointed. Will he assure the House that he will pursue with vigour further increases in police establishment over the next two or three years?

Mr. Hurd : My hon. Friend will have been pleased about the increases for north Yorkshire, about which he and others made representations to me. My hon. Friend follows these matters and will know that my announcement of an additional 1,100 officers for England and Wales related to this year only. I have announced that there will be substantial increases--further record totals on top of record totals--in future years. The details and amounts of those increases will depend on the discussions that we shall have with police authorities and chief officers.

Mr. Hattersley : Is the Home Secretary aware, and, if so, will he confirm, that the Police Federation has been officially informed that tenders are being invited from private security firms to provide security at docks and ports? Does he regard private security firms as appropriate for this sensitive task, and are they likely to do it as well as the police?

Mr. Hurd : That is not a matter for me. [Hon. Members :-- "Oh!"] No, the policing of docks and ports is not a matter for the Home Secretary, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. I was speaking within my competence, as the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) asked me to. I shall look into the accuracy or otherwise of what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Anthony Coombs : I welcome the valuable contribution that security firms make, but will my right hon. Friend consider the representations made by a number of people in the industry for a compulsory system of licensing, registration and adequate monitoring and back-up facilities to raise standards where they are too low?

Mr. Hurd : We believe that self-regulation by the industry, which, as my hon. Friend knows has made significant advances, is right. It would be extremely difficult to define someone who is offering a security service and to put that into law.

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Police Records

3. Mr. Sheerman : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps he is taking to protect the confidentiality of police records.

Mr. Douglas Hogg : It is for individual chief officers of police to decide the measures needed to protect the confidentiality of police records.

Mr. Sheerman : Is the Minister aware that private security firms cannot wait to get their hands on the police national computer? Does he agree that it would be dreadful if that happened? Is he aware that the police are worried, because not only criminal convictions but highly sensitive criminal intelligence are held on the computer? Will the Minister stand up and fight privatisation of the computer records and stand for what we want from police services--a mixture of accountability and security?

Mr. Hogg : We have no plans to privatise the police national computer.

Mr. Arbuthnot : Will my hon. Friend confirm that private agencies are not necessarily less secure than public ones?

Mr. Hogg : That is true, but the information held by the police is confidential.

Mr. Madden : Will the Minister confirm that it is possible for any detective above the rank of detective constable to obtain, within five seconds, from terminals located in every police station, information from the police national computer, including that about unspent convictions, which can be and is passed to security firms and the Economic League? Will he urgently investigate the possibility of introducing a scheme whereby any police officer requesting information from the police national computer is required to record the reason for the inquiry?

Mr. Hogg : The information held by the police is confidential to the police and is disclosed only in tightly drawn circumstances. An unauthorised disclosure of information by a police officer would certainly give rise to disciplinary procedures in appropriate cases and might constitute a breach of criminal law.


4. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received following the publication last November of his Department's White Paper on broadcasting.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : We have received many representations on our proposals from the broadcasting industry, from hon. Members and from individual viewers and listeners. We should welcome any further comments during the consultation period, which ends on 28 February.

Mr. Taylor : Will my hon. Friend urge the BBC to take seriously the suggestion that it experiments with subscription rather than the current, rather incongruous and outdated licensing fee which may, in any event, not be payable by those who opt to receive only satellite television?

Mr. Renton : I note what my hon. Friend has said. The BBC is, of course, already experimenting with subscription

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and is using its night hours to download technical knowledge to doctors, a service for which they are starting to pay. My hon. Friend is right. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that the licence fee is neither immutable nor immortal and will become increasingly difficult to justify in the 1990s. When there are many more channels available, why should somebody pay a licence fee to receive only two channels? That is a matter which the BBC must take seriously.

Mrs. Clwyd : Why does the White Paper mention children only in terms of what they must be protected against, rather than what services they might expect or deserve? Surely, when the Government are talking about quality and choice, that must apply equally to children and adults. Why have children been excluded from the White Paper?

Mr. Renton : The hon. Lady is not quite right to say that they have been excluded. She will notice that there is a specific duty on Channel 4 to continue to produce and supply high-quality educational programming. It will be up to the Independent Television Commission, when bringing in bids for the new franchises and setting the quality menus for those franchises, to decide whether there should be a prescription on Channel 3 or Channel 5 also to include educational programming.

Mr. Hind : What will my hon. Friend's attitude be to Members of Parliament who are involved in consortiums bidding for independent television franchises or the terrestrial channels? Will he give an undertaking to inform the Leader of the Opposition should any of his Front Bench become involved?

Mr. Renton : That question needs serious consideration. I agree with my hon. Friend. If the Labour party sacks a senior shadow Minister every time a satellite channel is born, its Front Bench will soon look even more threadbare than it does at present.

Sunday Trading

5. Mr. O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations his Department has received from interested parties on ways to amend the Shops Act 1950.

13. Mr. Watts : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received in response to his request for views on the reform of Sunday shopping.

Mr. Renton : Since I last answered a question on this subject from my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) on 21 July 1988, we have received a number of specific proposals for amendment of the present law, which we are now considering, and 87 written representations broadly in favour of Sunday trading and 1,344 against.

Mr. O'Brien : Is the Minister aware that there is some statutory deregulation in the majority of EEC countries? May I assume that it is the Government's intention to reflect the views of EEC countries or will they diverge from the way that the EEC is proceeding on Sunday trading?

Mr. Renton : No. The point is that a number of district councils have been told in the courts that their requests for

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injunctions against Sunday trading will not be granted until the European Court has taken a decision on whether our Shops Act 1950 is against EC law in terms of restriction of trade. The issue about the Shops Act is not that it is a general restraint on trade, but that it is anomalous, out of date and full of provisions that are now generally unenforceable. I noted that the hon. Gentleman voted against our Shops Bill last time and I suggest that when he next goes shopping on Sunday, he buys an old-fashioned tin of humbugs. When will the day come when Labour Members who shop on Sundays vote with us to deregulate?

Mr. Stanbrook : Is my hon. Friend aware that most members of the British Retailers Association, which represents the retail industry in this country, do not want deregulation between 12 noon and 6 pm on Sundays and that the employees of the small number of large firms that want deregulation certainly do not want it?

Mr. Renton : I do not agree with my hon. Friend. Two recent polls taken by MORI and Gallup show that approximately two thirds of those polled on the general question whether they would like more shops to open legally on Sundays voted in favour. I appreciate my hon. Friend's strong feelings on this subject, but I suggest that since our 1986 Bill there has been a general move in favour of a compromise that will enable us to modernise the present provisions, while preserving a different rhythm of life on Sunday.

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I apologise to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts), whose question was linked.

Mr. Watts : It remains my view that deregulation is the only satisfactory course for us to follow, but does my hon. Friend agree that in the light of the recent public opinion surveys to which he has referred, all of which show a substantial majority in favour of a measure of relaxation, a realistic compromise should be sought as a matter of urgency- -perhaps based on limited hours of opening on Sunday afternoons?

Mr. Renton : In general terms, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Over the past two or three years there has been a general move-- even among those who voted against deregulation last time--towards the view that a compromise is needed. It is difficult to find a compromise that will have general backing and achieve consensus among the different parties, but that is precisely what we have been trying to do in all the consultations that we have undertaken in recent months.

Mr. Duffy : Does the Minister recall his recent correspondence with the Sheffield chamber of trade, which endorses the REST proposals of the National Chamber of Trade--the recreation, emergency provisions, social gatherings and travel proposals? Those proposals are intended to iron out some of the anomalies, but, in the main, to preserve Sunday and keep it special. Can the Minister tell the House of a single chamber of trade that has come out broadly in favour of Sunday trading?

Mr. Renton : I know that the REST proposals suggest a very careful revision of the exempt list--dividing shops into very tight categories and allowing only those that sell 80 per cent. of their turnover in those categories to open.

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I think that those proposals would be very difficult to enforce. I note the hon. Gentleman's support for them. Last time, he voted against our Shops Bill. I hope that on the next occasion he will abandon his party Whip and vote with us for a compromise on regulation.

Rev. Martin Smyth : Does the Minister accept that a greater anomaly arises when the courts, which are supposed to uphold the law of the land as made by Parliament, set it aside waiting for an extraterritorial decision?

Mr. Renton : As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is simply not the case. The DIY stores in particular have pleaded their case under an article of the treaty of Rome holding that our present Shops Act is a restraint of trade and against imports from the Community. We believe that that is the wrong ground on which to fight, because the argument has nothing to say about the anomalies in our Shops Act. Treasury counsel will be briefed to defend the British position in the European Court and we expect decisions to be reached this year.

Mr. Anderson : Is it not clear from the events of the past weeks that a co-ordinated campaign is being conducted by well-heeled commercial interests in collusion with the Government for fundamental change and that the Minister's favoured option of a six-hour period on a Sunday is but a tactical staging post on the way to total deregulation.

Mr. Renton : No, Sir.

Dame Jill Knight : Will my hon. Friend continue to bear in mind that, as he said in the first part of his answer, many thousands of people outside the House and, indeed, a substantial number inside it, still wish to keep the peace and quiet of Sunday? Will he bear in mind that unless a compromise is very carefully drawn up there will be some fairly solid opposition in the House to the abolition of our Sundays?

Mr. Renton : My hon. and good Friend reminds me of precisely the point that I was making earlier, against the background of a law that is increasingly seen to be shot with anomalies, about the difficulties of finding a compromise that will bring together all those who recognise the impossibility of the present law. But as I said, this compromise must respect the fact that many want to see a different rhythm of life on Sundays.

Mr. Corbett : Can the Minister clarify what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien)? Is it now his advice that local authorities should seek to avoid prosecution for alleged breaches of the Sunday trading laws until the issue is settled by the European Court, or will he rather insist that our national laws are enforced, unless or until they are changed?

Mr. Renton : I have already dealt with that point twice. But can the hon. Gentleman clarify why the new member of the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who presumably finds it in order to shop in Edinburgh on a Sunday, finds it necessary to vote in Westminster on a Monday against our doing the same?

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Motor Vehicles (Theft)

6. Mr. Harris : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will list the most recent figures for thefts of motor vehicles in England and Wales.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten) : In the 12 months ending September 1988 the total number of recorded offences of theft or unauthorised taking of motor vehicles was 371,800. This represented a fall of 6 per cent. compared to the corresponding period in 1987.

Mr. Harris : I welcome that fall, but does my right hon. Friend agree that auto crime of this sort still accounts for about 40 per cent. of all recorded crime, and does he think that the British insurance industry could do more to encourage motorists to make their cars safer, for example by giving a reduction on their insurance premium if they fit some anti- theft devices?

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend has put his finger on a very important point. The British insurance industry and the Association of British Insurers are already doing a lot to encourage motorists to fit better security devices, by giving them better advice. On the other hand, I hope that increased competitive pressure within the British insurance industry will perhaps lead to more opportunities for motorists to shop around to get the sort of insurance premiums that recognise the fact that they take care of their motor cars.

Mr. Tony Banks : Is the Minister aware that in Forest Gate, in the London borough of Newham, we have the highest incidence of car theft in, I think, the whole of Europe? In parenthesis, I might tell him that we also have in Newham the highest birth rate in London, so I assume that I know what everyone is doing in the back seats of those cars they have stolen.

Given the serious problem that we have in Newham, will the Minister give an undertaking that a major campaign will be launched in the borough to prevent car theft?

Mr. Patten : I shall not comment on one part of the hon. Gentleman's question. The possibility of a campaign is certainly something that the hon. Gentleman would wish to bring to the attention of the Metropolitan police. For example, a recent six-month campaign in the Northumbria constabulary area brought about a substantial reduction in car thefts by targeting. I think that it can be done.

Mr. Mudd : Is my hon. Friend aware that although his Department wrote to a Manchester firm on 16 December, that firm is still advertising the availability of skeleton keys at £30 a set, capable of opening 95 per cent. of all foreign and British cars, including those with high security locks? Not only does the firm continue to trade, but it is canvassing for trade by picking buyers spasmodically and at random from the Yellow Pages. Will my hon. Friend do something to curb this abuse of security?

Mr. Patten : The Department is continuing to look into it at the moment.

Mr. Hattersley : On the subject of figures that are calculated and kept on the police national computer, why did the Under-Secretary of State tell the House a moment

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ago that there were no plans to privatise the national computer when the Home Secretary himself wrote to me on 20 January telling me that there were?

Mr. Patten : I think that the right hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said. My right hon. Friend will undoubtedly place a copy of the letter in the Library.


7. Mr. Pawsey : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what progress he has made in securing greater international co- operation against the illegal drug trade.

Mr. Hurd : Effective international action is crucial to our efforts against this trade. In December, with 42 other countries, we signed a new United Nations convention providing a comprehensive framework for international co-operation against illicit trafficking. In the past year we have signed eight important bilateral drug co-operation agreements, and more are under negotiation. I exchanged the negotiated text of an agreement with the Spanish Minister of the Interior on Tuesday, dealing in particular with the confiscation of assets. Under our chairmanship, a ministerial meeting of the Council of Europe's Pompidou drug co-operation group will take place in London in May. I believe it will underline our strong commitment to combat drug misuse throughout western Europe.

Mr. Pawsey : I thank my right hon. Friend for that typically helpful and comprehensive reply. Does he feel that the international community could do even more to curb drug abuse? My right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues in the United Kingdom have tackled the problem with substantial vigour. I am thinking particularly of the way in which we can now confiscate the profits that come from drug abuse. Will my right hon. Friend again pursue other countries to try to bring them more on side to adopt some United Kingdom practices?

Mr. Hurd : We are certainly setting the pace on this with the agreements that I mentioned. Confiscating the assets of convicted drug traffickers, alongside long terms of imprisonment, is just about the most effective means of enforcement. With the Pompidou group, when the European Ministers meet under my chairmanship here in May, we shall ram home that point.

Mr. Maclennan : Will the Home Secretary take the earliest opportunity to discuss this matter with the Administration of President Bush and their new appointee in charge of drugs, bearing in mind the necessity to combat drug traffic from Latin America, in particular, through the United States?

Mr. Hurd : I have written to Dr. Bennett, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, and I have already had a talk with the new United States Attorney -General. The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct.

Mr. Soames : Will my right hon. Friend try a scheme that has been effectively used by the Americans? Passengers flying from countries that are designated by Customs as at risk from drug trafficking should be given a piece of paper warning them quite clearly that, upon entry

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into the United Kingdom, they are likely to be searched from top to bottom and that if they are carrying drugs they had better get rid of them at once.

Mr. Hurd : The phrasing of the notice suggested to my hon. Friend might need a little attention, but I will look at his helpful suggestion.

Mr. Darling : When does the Home Secretary expect to share with the House the outcome of his ministerial discussions? In particular, he is discussing not only the international drug trade but freedom of entry into this country and freedom of movement in this country and in European Community states. When will he make a statement about his discussions with the Trevi group of Ministers, rather than keeping his thoughts to a cosy little group without answerability to the House?

Mr. Hurd : The cosy little group includes all readers of Hansard, as the hon. Gentleman would perceive if he looked at the record. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has written to me about the matter. I have no objection to discussing it further. I am pleased with the way co-operation is going both on immigration and on drug matters.

Mr. Gow : Does my right hon. Friend believe that the number of specialist Customs officers at ports and airports is sufficient to meet the growing drugs menace?

Mr. Hurd : My hon. Friend knows that the number of Customs officers is not a matter for me. I believe that the view of the Customs is that by concentrating their efforts more narrowly on drug trafficking, they can do what is necessary with the resources that they have. I shall pass on my hon. Friend's implication to Ministers in the Treasury.

Gaelic Broadcasting

8. Mrs. Ray Michie : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he last met representatives of BBC Scotland and Scottish Television to discuss the future of Gaelic broadcasting.

Mr. Renton : This is a subject on which I had a number of discussions with interested parties from Scotland during the course of last year. I shall be visiting the independent Scottish television stations within the next few weeks.

Mrs. Michie : Is the Minister aware that the technology of the multi video distribution system will not cope with the topography of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and that, therefore, new local franchises will not be able to supply additional services to Gaelic speakers? Why does not the White Paper accord equal status to the Scottish and Welsh languages, particularly as many Scottish programmes have better viewing ratings than does the Welsh Sianel 4 channel?

Mr. Renton : I agree with the hon. Lady that, given the mountainous terrain of much of Scotland, MVDS or microwave television is not likely to be helpful in bringing television to those parts of Scotland not reached by channel 5. As regards her comparison with the Welsh national channel, I must point out to her that about 20 per cent. of the Welsh population speak Welsh and that only about 2 per cent. of the Scottish population speak Gaelic. At the end of the day it is up to the broadcasting

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authorities to decide whether there is sufficient demand for more Gaelic programmes and, if so, how they will cope with it.

Mr. Stewart : I welcome my hon. Friend's announcement of his forthcoming discussions in Scotland. Does he agree that there has been an expansion of Gaelic broadcasting but that it is not of interest solely to people of the Highlands and Islands? Is he aware that an experimental bilingual school south of Glasgow is successful and that many people in the central belt are interested in Gaelic broadcasting?

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