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Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During your Speakership, you have always been concerned with the proper treatment of the House. I put it to you that it is extraordinary that a senior Secretary of State should come here to make a prepared statement, with the support of three junior Ministers and with eight civil servants in the Box, without bringing the information that we seek. He was asked a very direct question about the cost of the report on which the whole policy seems to be based--the Deloitte report--but no figure has been forthcoming. Is it not most extraordinary that the Secretary of State, who should be prepared in such matters, cannot answer an obvious, factual question?
Furthermore, a great deal of money is involved, as some extremely expensive properties are at stake. Without assuming that there is corruption, the House of Commons is at least entitled to ask questions, as large sums are at stake and as it is not at all clear whether benefit will accrue to the Treasury or to some private interest after privatisation.
Clearly, if everything is above board--
Mr. Speaker : Order. I listened with concern to what the hon. Gentleman said, but ministerial answers to questions are not among my many responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman must pursue the matter by other methods, and may even have other opportunities to do so today on the Adjournment motion.
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : Perhaps I can help the House. As in all these matters, which company was to give advice was a matter of open competition. We do not just choose one company, we have open competition between several. Deloitte was chosen. I am advised that £128,000 in fees has been paid to it.
Column 36the security of the House, for which the Leader of the House has said that you have some responsibilities. It relates to the instructions that were given last weekend to some Members of the House of Commons during a particularly difficult period. I raise the matter as a member of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. At the weekend we read in the newspaper that the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) had given a pass to a Miss Pamella Bordes. I shall clarify the position. The hon. Member for Dover never did allocate a pass to that young lady. I have checked it in the records. The pass was allocated by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham). When he was informed that the pass was being allocated to Miss Bordes, his secretary wrote to the Clerk to the Members' Interests Select Committee pointing our that that person was not in the employ of the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West. In other words, she was not employed by him, yet she had applied in his name for a pass.
The Clerk to the Select Committee then wrote to the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West and told him that, if Miss Bordes did not work for him, he could write to the Serjeant at Arms and give an instruction that the pass be not allocated. That letter was not sent, and the pass is currently in the name of the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West.
Passes cannot be handed around the Commons like confetti. We are dealing with matters of security in the House of Commons. Will you carry out a full inquiry into the affair to establish on what basis that pass has been allocated?
That European Community Document No. 6570/88 on single member private limited companies be referred to a Standing Committee on European Community Documents.-- [Mr. Fallon.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House at its rising on Thursday 23rd March, do adjourn until Tuesday 4th April and at its rising on Friday 28th April, do adjourn till Tuesday 2nd May.-- [Mr. Fallon.]
Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is extremely unusual, but I wonder whether it is in order for the debate to be opened by an Opposition Front Bench spokesman. I thought that it was supposed to be a Back-Bench occasion.
By tradition, the debate on the Easter Adjournment allows hon. Members--all hon. Members--to raise issues which we believe should be dealt with before the Easter recess, and I propose to do just that. I wish to refer to the Government's treatment of two very different groups of senior citizens. One group is badly off, and the other group is well off. I need hardly add that the Government propose to ignore the badly-off group and to make the well- off group even better off. The first of the two groups are war widows whose husbands' service in the forces ended before 1973. We understand that they are to get nothing from tomorrow's Budget. The other group are well-off pensioners who, we understand, are to get tax concessions in tomorrow's Budget to subsidise their private health insurance premiums.
Let us consider first the plight of the pre-1973 war widows. Most of them lost their husbands in the second world war or as a consequence of injuries received in that war. They have been shabbily treated by successive Governments. Many had a particularly hard time trying to bring up their children and are quite worn out with the effort of trying to scrape a living.
From 1 April 1973, changes in the armed forces pension scheme made much more generous provisions for widows of members of the forces, but that scheme did not include widows whose husbands were killed in action or whose service in the forces ended before that date. Today, no fewer than 57,000 war widows are not covered by the 1973 scheme. They still look to this House to redress their outstanding grievances. In particular, they seek parity of treatment with widows who are provided for under the 1973 scheme.
The Government have estimated that it would cost about £200 million to pay the pre-1973 widows the same as the post-1973 widows. But the British Legion and the British war widows are not even asking for all that extra sum to be found immediately. They point out that the widows are growing older all the time and more and more of them are dying. They calculate that the Government are saving up to £20 million per year on pensions which they no longer have to pay out, so they have asked that the money saved on pensions no longer paid out to widows who have died should be shared out between the survivors. That would give an extra £6 or £7 per week to each pre-1973 widow.
Column 38Another more generous alternative has also been suggested. It, too, would not cost the full £200 million. Under the 1973 scheme, a widow whose husband dies of causes attributable to his service gets £25 per week more than one whose husband dies of natural causes. So the Government have a ready-made way to calculate how to pay pre -1973 widows equal compensation for the death of their husbands on active service or from causes attributable to that service. They could give them that extra £25 per week each. It is estimated that to pay the additional £25 per week to all pre-1973 war widows would cost the Ministry of Defence about £70 million--not a great deal in these days of multi-billion pound Budget surpluses. The war widows expect some action to be taken.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks. Is he aware of the correspondence of 5 January 1983 from the Prime Minister's office? Before he concludes his remarks, will he make sure that that correspondence is quoted?
The war widows were encouraged in their expectation that some action would be taken by the Prime Minister when she was Leader of the Opposition. On 13 October 1975, a letter sent on her behalf from her office stated :
"Specifically relating to war widows, we promised in our October 1974 Manifesto that we would remove the distinction concerning whether or not the husband had been in service before or after 31st March 1973."
In fact, the Tory election manifesto of October 1974 had promised no such thing, but that mistake was never corrected and, in my view, the letter committed the right hon. Lady to removing the distinction between the two categories of widows.
In case any Conservative Members wish to cavil about basing the Prime Minister's commitment on that letter, a further letter was sent on 5 January 1978--not 1983 as some hon. Members believe--from the office of the Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, which made a clear promise to the pre-1973 war widows. It reads : "However, I quite accept that the present situation is unsatisfactory and Mrs. Thatcher has agreed that it is now our wish to establish as rapidly as economic circumstances permit, a scheme whereby the widows of all servicemen killed in action (or dying from causes attributable to active service) would receive a pension similar to that now awarded to widows of servicemen currently in the Armed Forces".
Clearly the time has come for the Prime Minister to honour her promise. She cannot argue that economic circumstances do not permit the Government to find the money because she constantly boasts how prosperous the country is these days.
We have been told that tomorrow the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes to use some of his Budget surplus to pay off the national debt. Surely he should first pay off our national debt to the war widows. There is no group to whom our nation owes a greater debt. But for the sacrifices of their menfolk and their comrades in arms, we should have lost all the freedoms that we now enjoy. I am sure that most people believe that the Chancellor should pay that debt of honour to the war widows before he starts paying off the national debt.
There is, of course, another priority group of older people whom the Prime Minister has insisted must be helped before the war widows. The Prime Minister has forced the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Health
Column 39to propose that people over 60 who buy private health insurance should have income tax relief. Like most of the changes proposed by the present Chancellor, that concession would benefit almost exclusively the well-off. Figures from the general household survey show that only 4 per cent. of people over 65 years old have any form of private medical insurance cover. However, 27 per cent. of retired professional people and 12 per cent. of retired employers and managers have such cover. At the other end of the scale, only 1 per cent. of skilled and semi-skilled pensioners are covered by private medical insurance and, if the official statistics are to be believed, no unskilled manual worker pensioners at all are covered by any private medical insurance scheme.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : Was my hon. Friend also about to point out that people who have such cover find it astonishingly inadequate as they get older because schemes which have taken their money for 40 years refuse to cover them when they get to a certain age and for certain clear and easily defined groups of illnesses?
As the figures show, only well-off pensioners have the private medical insurance cover to trigger off the tax concession. It is no use the Government arguing that the concession will mean that poorer people, who currently have private medical cover at work, will be able to carry on with such cover when they retire because of the tax concessions. The fact is that in the next youngest age group--the 45 to 64-year-olds--only 3 per cent. of skilled manual workers, 2 per cent. of semi-skilled and 1 per cent. of unskilled manual workers have private medical insurance cover to carry over.
The proposed tax relief is estimated to cost more than £200 million and it is designed to put money into the pockets and handbags of the better off. It will also add in its small way to the north-south divide and to the overheating of the economy in the south-east. Although the national average of people covered by private medical insurance at the time of the last national household survey was 8 per cent., that national average masked enormous regional variations, ranging from just 3 per cent. of the population covered in the north, 4 per cent. in Wales and 5 per cent. in Scotland and Yorkshire to 10 per cent. in what the statisticians call the outer south-east, 12 per cent. in Greater London and no fewer than 17 per cent. in the outer metropolitan ring around London. It is therefore the prosperous south-east that will predominantly benefit from the tax concession. During the general election the Prime Minister justified her use of private medical treatment on the grounds that she was spending her own money in her own way. Now, as a pensioner, she is demanding a subsidy from other taxpayers to go with it. In some cases that subsidy will exceed the average sum spent by the National Health Service on hospital services for each pensioner. Therefore, there will be no saving to the National Health Service even if those privately insured pensioners were to obtain all their medical treatment privately. However, they will not.
More than half of the people of all ages who have private medical insurance obtain in-patient hospital treatment from the NHS when they fall ill rather than from
Column 40some of the dodgy private hospitals on offer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, when it comes to the pensioners, the private health insurers specifically exclude most of the pre-existing medical and chronic conditions from which pensioners suffer--such as arthritis, senile dementia or loss of mobility-- and 60 per cent. of people aged between 65 and 74 have such a long-standing illness. That figure rises to nearly 70 per cent. for people aged 75 or over.
The tax relief will reduce the funding available to the NHS while doing little or nothing to relieve the demands that the beneficiaries will make upon the NHS. Moreover, we understand that the tax relief will be available not just to the old people themselves but to relatives, such as sons or daughters, who pay more tax but wish to contribute to private medical cover for their parents. Under this Government, the motto is not so much "Honour thy father and thy mother" as "Turn thy father and thy mother into a tax break". If the Government want to give priority in the Budget to the health needs of the elderly, the answer is not to give tax relief on medical insurance premiums for the well off. The priority should be to provide funds to cut NHS waiting lists for all elderly patients, to increase investment in district nursing, health visiting, chiropody and physiotherapy and to devote more attention to chronic illnesses. On its own admission, the private sector offers no help in the area of chronic sickness. The latest Private Patients Plan brochure targeted on the elderly specifies what treatment is covered. It defines treatment as
"A surgical or medical procedure, the purpose of which is to cure a Medical Condition and not to alleviate long term illness". If anyone has a long- term illness, there is no point in looking to the private sector for help. Not to be outdone by PPP, a BUPA representative recently said that chronic illness was
"not a suitable subject for insurance. You've got to find another way of tackling it".
Only the public purse will find the money to tackle that problem for all our pensioners. Tomorrow, however, the public purse is to be used not to help all pensioners, but to single out for special treatment an already privileged group.
That brings me back to the other group of pensioners whom I mentioned earlier--the war widows. After the second world war in which most of their husbands served, this country established a National Health Service on the basis that the best health services should be available to all and that money should no longer be the passport to better or quicker treatment. The Government have no intention of finding the £200 million required to do justice to the war widows. Worse still, adding insult to injury, they propose to spend at least that amount to help an already privileged group of pensioners to receive quicker treatment than the war widows who cannot afford private health care.
Finally, a Private Patients Plan advertisement addressed to pensioners reads :
"Today the dice seem loaded against older people when they need hospital treatment private medical insurance is not generally available to them and the alternative the National Health Service already has around 800,000 people on its waiting list. And more than half these people are over the age of 55.
This could mean six months or more waiting for an operation. Don't risk it apply for membership"
Column 41"Like most people you will probably be quite willing to be treated under the NHS but because of the heavy demand on its services this may not be possible unless you wait months even years in some cases.
With Retirement Health Plan you can get the hospital treatment you need when you need it. Here's how it works!"
That is indeed how it works in Thatcher's Britain--no £200 million to redeem our debt to war widows, but £200 million to help the healthier, wealthier pensioners to jump the queue for hospital treatment in ront of those widows.
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : I wish to postpone the Adjournment of this House for the Easter and May recesses until the Central Electricity Generating Board gives a categorical undertaking not to import any more Russian coal now or in the future.
Last week's disclosure that 25,000 tonnes of coal had recently been imported to two power stations in Nottinghamshire shows, I believe, a commercial misjudgment and an insult to the miners there, whom, lest we forget, were the very people who kept up the supply of coal to the CEGB during the miners' dispute in 1984-85.
The reason given by the monopoly industry for the importation of that coal was that it was for a test burn, which sounds dubious when we consider that the stations in question, Staythorpe near Newark and High Marnham, are two of the oldest in the Trent valley. I believe that the purpose of the exercise was to see whether the CEGB could mount an importation of Russian coal without it being discovered. That Russian coal was mined at Donets, south of Moscow, carted a thousand miles across Russia to a Baltic port, and shipped in two Russian ships to the Humber ports. It was then transported through the country lanes by 40-tonne juggernauts to the power stations at a cost of approximately £40 per tonne.
If that coal was cheaper than British coal, it could be argued that it was a good buy. However, the CEGB could have bought the same consignment from Nottinghamshire collieries situated seven miles from the respective power stations at a marginal cost of £30 per tonne. During the past month in Nottinghamshire 250,000 tonnes of coal has been stocked at a cost of £4 per tonne. The House will appreciate the stupidity of the board's actions--25,000 tonnes of coal at an extra cost of £10 per tonne is equivalent to £250,000, a cost which, once again, the poor consumer will have to foot. A small price, one might say, to insult the people of Nottinghamshire. Nevertheless, this folly has serious implications for the future of British Coal. British Coal cannot mothball deep mines and a sudden surge of imports would lead to yet another round of colliery
closures--collieries which could be needed in the mid-1990s, and which could be made viable.
The CEGB may find it amusing to play the international coal market for short-term gain but to force the closure of Nottinghamshire pits and to reduce the home supply leaves the British consumer at the mercy of the international coal barons. Do we really want the lights in this Chamber to be dependent on the vagaries of such overseas supplies? This game of poker which the CEGB is playing with British Coal over price and future supplies has already had its effect in Nottinghamshire. Exactly one month ago today British Coal announced 2,000 job losses and one colliery closure. That, after productivity has risen
Column 42by 75 per cent., a record unmatched by any other industry in the United Kingdom, and with coal prices to the power stations down 25 per cent. in real terms during the past three years.
What more do the people from the CEGB want from the Nottinghamshire miners- -blood? They certainly had plenty of that in the past. When the miners were going through the picket lines and were being called scabs they considered it a compliment, but the CEGB has now stuck its knife straight between their shoulderblades.
What British Coal can offer the CEGB, which no other coal supplier will contemplate, is long-term contracts at known prices. Security of supply gives stability to consumers. Gambling with this country's future energy needs, endangering this country's prosperity and inflicting an insult beyond measure on the Nottinghamshire miners is for empty heads. The empty heads at the CEGB who have caused that must go. I sincerely hope the chairman of the CEGB, Lord Marshall, will make amends and offer an apology to the Nottinghamshire miners. 4.44 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I want to raise another matter about a local colliery, this time in Derbyshire--Arkwright colliery which was closed in early 1988. After making profits for many years British Coal finally put the lid on, just as it is putting the lid on the Nottinghamshire pits now, despite the fact that they were used as doormats during the strike.
On November 9 1988 there was an escape of methane gas and almost all the tiny village of Arkwright was affected--56 houses were emptied, as a result of which the local authorities had to be called in to deal with the matter. In 1988 the Coal Board came along and filled the drift with concrete where it had to apply the closure and left it. That is typical of British Coal and that has been its usual attitude over pit closures.
The Tupton seam of the Arkwright colliery drift mine had been subject to methane gas problems for some considerable time, so much so that one of the miners at Arkwright colliery, who is listening to this debate, raised the matter with the local authority and said that British Coal should be warned, having sealed off the drift, that there might be a chance of methane escaping into the nearby village, a quarter of a mile away.
British Coal ignored the letter from the local north-east Derbyshire district council and said that everything had been effectively sealed and told the council not to worry because everything was all right.
British Coal replied to the council on 19 September, but on 9 November between 40 and 50 families escaped with their lives. It could have been a holocaust, a mass funeral. Somebody, quite fortuitously, happened to notice that gas leak. East Midlands Gas was called in and it found methane.
The following day I raised this matter in parliament and I wrote to the Secretary of State for Energy demanding a public inquiry on that and certain other matters. Those who have heard me raise this issue before, know that I called for a public inquiry because British Coal has, until now, refused to accept total liability for the gas leak. Due to British Coal's lack of control after Arkwright colliery was closed, methane gas escaped. Scores of families could have been gassed or could have been the victims of an almighty explosion.
Column 43The consequences of the leak have been as follows : many families have lost large sums of money for household items-- the contents of freezers were destroyed ; many people had to take time off work during the evacuation--they were evacuated for about a fortnight in all ; one person lost his job because he was evacuated with his family and his employer refused to set him back on ; property values have slumped by thousands of pounds. The local authority had to make payments to remove families for that fortnight and payments had to be made to relatives and friends for boarding those families. Families had to be split up and people are still suffering from nerves and other problems arising out of that gas escape.
When I wrote to the Secretary of State for Energy I expected some action, but I did not get it. The Secretary of State for Energy, in typical liaison with British Coal, decided to pass the buck. He passed it to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who passed it to one of his juniors and down the line it went until I got a reply on 31 January. There was to be no inquiry. The Government said that British Coal had dealt with the gas hazard and they would accept responsibility only on the basis of a good neighbour policy, granting £100 per household. That poses an interesting question. The coal mine existed for many years and was liable to escapes of methane gas--all the miners testified to that. The pit was closed and gas then escaped. Whose gas was it? East Midlands Gas analysed the gas and said that it did not belong to it, even though it supplied the gas to tenants. The gas was sent to Harwell to be analysed, to discover whether it was landfill gas, but the Harwell institute found that it was not. Most villagers believed that it was coming through cracks caused by subsidence due to the pit. Most people realised that the gas was pushed up through the cracks as a result of rising water levels and 40 families in the village were lucky to escape.
British Coal officials say that they are not sure that it is their gas. That seems incredible, given that the pit is only a few hundred yards away from the village. It is more incredible that British Coal was willing to bore into the mine to get rid of the methane gas. It drilled down about 60 ft and built a chimney. British Coal has already spent an estimated £1.5 million and has managed to bring down the methane levels, yet its officials still say--having spent all that money and carried out all that work--that the gas leak is not their responsibility or liability. British Coal has refused to deal with the solicitors whom the villagers have collectively employed to fight their case.
This is a green issue which involves the environment--a chimney has been pouring out methane gas. Government Members talk about the environment every time they open their gills, and here is a little village with 40 families involved in an incident--many of them are down here today. They cannot obtain proper recompense from British Coal or justice from the Government because the various Secretaries of State are passing letters between them. A junior Employment Minister went up to the coal mine last week and, supposedly, confided to some officials that British Coal should accept liability. I suppose he will now deny that. In letters to me, both Departments involved say that British Coal is not totally responsible. This is a strange affair, which is all about money. British Coal has made a mountain of money out of Arkwright
Column 44colliery, from the ribs of the miners and their families, but now, when those people are suffering, it refuses to pay them back. The families are subjected to having little monitors installed in their houses and many of them live in fear. Even worse, British Coal refuses to allow Arkwright colliery's records to be given to the solicitors representing those families. They are being treated with arrogance and contempt. They have been subjected to a horror story ; they have been evacuated from their houses for 14 days and they still live in fear. British Coal is acting as it did during most of the miners' strike, and refusing to allow the families' solicitors to see records pertaining to the pit and the period when the gas escaped.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates that, under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946, the Secretary of State has the power to issue a directive to British Coal to release the statistics relating to such a matter. Therefore, the responsibility rests with the Government, not solely with British Coal.
Mr. Skinner : That is one of the reasons why I am raising the issue today. The Government have a responsibility to play fair with these people. The Secretary of State for Energy and the Government have the power to settle this issue and I assure them that the villagers are prepared to take the matter to court. However, I do not want them to spend their money. I do not see why they should have to employ solicitors and spend money in order to obtain the relevant records, a fair deal, a public inquiry and compensation. Why should they not receive those now? The Prime Minister found £500 million to try to save Tory seats in Kent and another £500 million at the press conference at which she gave the wrong figures. We are talking about a smaller amount which is needed in a Labour- held seat.
In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), of course, the Government could tell British Coal, through the Secretary of State for Energy, to play fair. Why do they continue this agony? Why do they not play the game? The Government should demand that the records are released, without the villagers having to go to court. Instead of passing the buck between Departments, Ministers should answer the questions and guarantee compensation.
This disturbing case could, as I said, have resulted in mass funerals. The villagers were lucky and that is why they have come to London today demanding the treatment that would have been given if the incident had occurred in Downing street. If even a minuscule amount--compared to that in Arkwright--had escaped in Downing street, at Chatsworth, the property of the Duke of Devonshire, or anywhere within the realms of the establishment, there would have been an inquiry. However, it happened near a pit yard where people produced the wealth of Britain for all those years ; the wealth creators have been ignored. The people in the belly of the establishment always get away with it. It is high time that the Government told British Coal to get on with its job and issue the directive referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield.
We are fed up with crocodile tears and British Coal talking about acting as a good neighbour and giving £100 and a little bit on the side. The villagers have come here today to call upon British Coal to shoulder its responsibility and upon the Government to have a fresh
Column 45look at what has happened and to call on the Health and Safety Executive to conduct a public inquiry into the affair. The villagers are calling on the Government to release the Arkwright colliery's records so that their solicitors can deal with the matter. They are fed up with all the talk about the environment and now want action. The matter will not go away. These people have travelled 150 miles to London today and they will not disband as soon as they return to Arkwright. They will fight all the way. However, a great deal of money--such as court costs --could be saved if some fairness and justice were shown in this matter.
Mr. William Powell (Corby) : It is entirely right that we should seek to adjourn in order to celebrate the divine resurrection. I wish to spend a few moments reflecting on a human resurrection that has occurred in the last 10 years. It is right to pay tribute to the many thousands of people responsible for the remarkable recovery that has occurred in the former steel town of Corby--the central town in my constituency.
The House will be aware that, exactly 10 years ago, it adjourned after the Government had lost a vote of no confidence, and with a general election in prospect. On 3 March, 1979, the British Steel Corporation notified the steel unions represented in the Corby steel works that it proposed to stop steel production in Corby in a year's time. There was nothing surprising about that announcement because it was preceded by months of speculation in the press and rumours of Cabinet discussions. I have no idea whether they were true. It was not merely a matter of speculation because it was underlined in the steel White Paper of 1973, introduced in the dying months of the Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The White Paper said that steel production was likely to cease in Corby by the end of the decade--the 1970s--for two extremely good reasons. First, steel production started in Corby because of the local iron ore that was mined by opencast mining. That high-quality iron ore was beginning to run out and it was obvious that there would be insufficient local iron ore beyond the end of the decade to be able to sustain the steel making process, which has been carried on for about 40 years.
The decision to concentrate steel production in the five great plants meant that all the smaller steelworks such as Corby, Consett, Ebbw Vale and Shotton, were likely to find themselves under considerable threat as a result of the concentration at Llanwern, Port Talbot and so on. There was nothing surprising, therefore, about the decision announced in March 1979, but it was regrettable that between 1974 and 1979 so little was done to prepare for the closure. I use those dates deliberately. The House will recall that the steel White Paper that made the forecast to which I have referred came out in the December 1973. At that time, 73 per cent. of people in a town of 50,000 owed their livelihoods to the steelworks. So clearly a body blow of immense proportions was dealt to the principal town of what is now my constituency but was then the constituency of Kettering. There is no question but that a resurrection of staggering dimensions has since occurred. The effect of closure in Corby was an unemployment total of 7,000 ; it has now fallen to 1,800. I am reasonably confident about
Column 46forecasting that by the end of this calendar year it will have fallen below 1,000. I can also predict with confidence that there will be full employment in Corby by the end of 1990--that was not predicted back in 1979-80.
All this has come about as a result of the activities of many human beings. I want to say some words of praise about a wide variety of people--not all of them Conservatives--who have played a considerable part in bringing about this remarkable transformation.
First, I single out the Government's principal agency to have been involved --the Commission on the New Towns. It has worked extremely hard and effectively to construct factory units, to encourage tenants to occupy them and to sell land in its ownership to companies moving in. It has also promoted Corby extremely effectively as a desirable place for inward investment, and has done so with confidence in the future. The commission has turned in a remarkable performance and the Department of the Environment has provided a good many services, too. The Commission on the New Towns is subject to that Department, which has made available derelict land grants on an extensive scale. Much of the land in Corby consisted of old opencast iron ore workings in a most unsatisfactory condition. It would have been too much to expect private investors to have had the confidence to spend huge sums on restoring this land to a condition in which they could begin the construction of new factory units. The public sector has an important role to play in the sort of activities that have taken place in Corby, not least by providing derelict land grants. In the case of Corby, these grants have been generous, continuous and effective--a magnificent example of public sector pump-priming, which has enabled private sector industry to take advantage of what the state, the nation and the taxpayer have provided.
One of the most important lessons to be drawn from Corby's experience is the paramount importance of derelict land grants. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) is present in the Chamber ; he plays a considerable part in drawing this fact to the attention of Ministers. It is important that everyone should understand that derelict land grants are essential if old industrial areas are to be restored and the sort of developments of the past decade in Corby are to take place.
I want to pay tribute to Tresham college in Kettering and Corby. That college of education has done an enormous amount of work with incoming private industry to train the work force in the requisite skills. It is another example of public sector pump-priming which can generate redevelopment and secure and promote a town's future. The work done by the college has been outstanding, and I am proud to represent the constituency in which it has played a pioneering role in the transition from past to future. All the more pity, therefore, that none of the activities I have mentioned were attended to in the mid-1970s--a great deal of suffering would have been avoided if they had been.
I pay tribute to the local authorities that have been working in this area. I said earlier that not only Conservatives had been involved in the regeneration. I pay tribute to Labour councillors and Labour authorities who have done their bit--it has been a considerable bit--to encourage companies to come in and to boost the reputation of the area that they represent. I am glad to report that we have had no loony Leftists ruining the
Column 47reputation of the area for the outside world- -far from it. The local authority and district council immediately set about, not holding demonstrations, but going to the seat of power, even though by May 1979 it was occupied by Conservatives. The authorities tried to work with the Conservative Government for the good of their area. Other Labour authorities have done exactly the same, and I pay tribute to them. The only way out of industrial catastrophes such as my constituency faced is through partnership between all people of goodwill, regardless of their political persuasion. That is what has happened. During the six years or so that I have been a Member of Parliament I have been pleased to be able to work just as effectively with people who are convinced and committed supporters of the Labour party as with convinced and committed supporters of the Conservative party. Such parterships have been entered upon during the past decade. It is important that they should be made in the future in areas that still face recovery from industrial disaster.
The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) mentioned the closure in Kirkby, which was announced over the weekend. Although Kirkby faces disaster and huge unemployment I hope that it will realise that there is real advantage in trying to work with, rather than trying to denigrate and discredit, people who may not be of the same political persuasion. Partnership is essential.
I also pay tribute to the work done by the district council and the county council--the latter has been Conservative for the past four years, was Labour for the four years before that, and Conservative before that. Conservative or Labour, the council has done its bit to build up communications, to secure funds from the EEC and the Government and to ensure that the investment in infrastructure, which is so necessary to improving communications, could take place. In the heat of debate in this Chamber we often hear partisan exchanges which do considerable discredit to the people on the wrong side of them, so it is right that these things should be said from time to time and that people should have the chance to reflect on them.
Over 400 companies have come to Corby in the last 10 years, some of them small, some of them household names. There have been setbacks as well as triumphs on the way. There are many lessons to be learned and applied to areas which have experienced industrial devastation post 1979.
I want to close by paying tribute to two groups of people who have each, in their way, played a unique part. The first of those groups are people, on the whole, private business men, who have invested their own money in the town. Most of the investment which has occurred has not come from the Department of Trade and Industry, the EEC or any other public purse ; it has come from the sources of private industry itself. Huge investment has taken place on an immense scale.
There is absolutely no question at all that the whole range of Government policies has enabled this to happen, and it is too easy to say that the Government, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Employment, local authorities or other public institutions have done everything. They have done an enormous amount to prime the pump, but they have led a huge cascade of investment,
Column 48running into hundreds of millions of pounds of people's own money, and these people deserve public tribute as well. Above all else, as we talk about policies and politics in this country, we should never forget that we are actually talking about people. People are the only resource, the only source which gives us any vehicle or authority for what we do here.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the people of Corby themselves. Every family was affected by what happened 10 years ago and many of them have had to carry the strain in circumstances of the utmost difficulty and poverty. Now prosperity is returning, and I confidently predict that the prosperity will grow and benefit every single family living in the town. I pay tribute to all those people who have taken the strain in circumstances beyond their control, who may well have felt let down by all sorts of things which happened in the past, for which it would not be appropriate to lay too much blame here this evening, when I do not want to distribute blame but to pay tribute. Thousands and thousands of families have taken the strain, have come through it, and they deserve the admiration and approbation of this House.