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Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian) : I want to raise the matter of the decision of the Secretary of State for Scotland to withdraw funding from Newbattle Abbey college in Dalkeith, which is in my constituency. The decision was intimated on Thursday 9 March, in the answer to a written question, to which I shall return later. Parliament must consider whether it is right to adjourn for Easter, in view of the fact the decision to which I refer concerns a national question of importance to the whole of Scotland, which should be debated.
Newbattle Abbey college is an adult residential facility. It has been christened the second-chance college for mature students who, for a variety of reasons, decide to
Column 62undergo a period of disciplined residential study. It is specially equipped for this purpose and has the necessary experience and environment. Its success cannot be challenged. The best parallel I can think of is Ruskin college, Oxford. This is Scotland's equivalent of Ruskin. That is one of the compelling reasons for its being a national question. With the withdrawal of funding, Scotland will lose its equivalent of Ruskin, and there is no similar adult residential college in the country. In educational terms, the blow is the harder to take, in that there are four such colleges in England and Wales. It is easy to understand the anger in some education circles in Scotland at this decision. The manner of its taking must be questioned by Parliament, for it could be a sign that, in decision-making, all is not well in the Scottish Office--that there is evidence of faulty administration, if not maladministration. The Secretary of State for Scotland announced last year that he was considering the withdrawal of funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and I had a meeting with him, and I have kept the notes.
One of the first issues that we raised concerned consultation. We put it to him that it was rather peculiar that there had been no consultation whatsoever with any of the education bodies involved including the trustees and the board of governors. I received a very strange and rather garbled reply. The Secretary of State said that the Scottish Education Department had raised the issue. One wonders who is in control of the Department. We put it to the Secretary of State that there was plenty of time for consultation, as it was anticipated that funding would not end until the 1988-89 academic year. We pointed out that all the statements in his letter to my hon. Friend had a tone of total finality.
That tack was changed very quickly when the purpose of the college was questioned at the interview. We asked why there had been a tone of such finality, why there had been no consultation, although an attempt had been made to imply that the matter just might be given due consideration. The argument advanced was that the college had served its purpose, that there had to be a change and that resources could be better used. If the argument is that adult residential colleges have outlived their usefulness, that is in direct contradiction of the Alexander report. Indeed, to some extent it was argued that there should be no adult residential colleges, whether in Scotland or in England and Wales.
We pointed out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that our arguments deserved an answer. Surely the Secretary of State must consider the issue of adult education in Scotland--in this case what we have described as the last of the Ruskins. One of the arguments that the right hon. and learned Gentleman put forward concerned funding. He criticised other public bodies, such as the trade unions, for no longer assisting. I must nail the lie of the statement at the weekend that the Newbattle Abbey residential college was funded by trade unions and was meant to be funded by trade unions. That is being economical with the truth. It is simply not true. If it was felt that there had to be some new system of funding, surely there should have been some consultation instead of that
shooting-from-the-hip style of Government. Why take a totally arbitrary decision on whether the college should raise its own revenue?
We even had to correct the Secretary of State about the college population. Correspondence had been submitted
Column 63to the Scottish Education Department and we presumed that, because the Secretary of State was interested, he would have seen it. We pointed out that, according to his figures, 45 people had been "lost" and that the typical figure since 1979 was 95. In an aside, somebody said he was quite sure that cannibalism was not practised in the Scottish Education Department. The mature students of Newbattle Abbey had also sent a letter to the Department about the college population. When I asked whether the figures that had been submitted were accurate, I received the reply that the Secretary of State would look into it.
When I mentioned that the students' letter also referred to the annual finances, the Secretary of State fell back on the ploy of saying that the figures had come from the Scottish Education Department. I have been a Minister in my time, and I would say that a Minister is responsible for the figures that his Department give. It is a pretty weak defence if someone as esteemed as the Secretary of State for Scotland blames his Department for the figures. I pointed out that the students had explained the geographical areas from which they came. I was fortunate in having with me the statistical bulletin of the Scottish Education Department. Although I do not want to go into this in any detail, on the argument about students coming from south of the border, I quoted the references in the bulletin to St. Andrews university in the county of Fife. I have great knowledge of St. Andrews because I am a former chairman of the Fife county education committee and some of my family are graduates of the university. The statistical bulletin showed that, on the question of adult residential colleges taking students from south of the border, St. Andrews university should be closed because a preponderance of its students come from south of the border--and they are most welcome.
The Secretary of State produced the strangest argument of all--when I said that Newbattle was the equivalent of Ruskin college at Oxford or of Coleg Harlech in Wales and that those colleges will still be allowed to function although the Secretary of State is proposing to put Newbattle Abbey to death. I received the weak answer that the Secretary of State for Education and Science finances those colleges but that he, the Secretary of State for Scotland, finances Newbattle Abbey.
The final decision was the most distasteful of all and it is why I raise this issue today. I tabled a written question on 1 February asking the Secretary of State what response he was making to the letter from the governors and the chairman giving him a short outline scheme of how the college could be retained. Despite the fact that that was a priority question, the written reply was that the matter was still being considered and that the Secretary of State would let me know. I waited for a while and then did what hon. Members often do--on 16 February I tabled another question, pursuant to the first. The answer was that a response would be made soon.
Then, last Thursday, 9 March, the Secretary of State announced his decision, by what we must assume to have been an arranged question, tabled by his hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart). A civil servant came to my home with the letter on Thursday afternoon but I was not at home as I was attending a meeting in Sheffield. The chairman of the governors received a letter announcing the decision at 2 pm, half an hour before the
Column 64governors' meeting. Incidentally, the letter was delivered to the wrong college, to Eskbank college in Dalkeith. Not only was there indecent haste in reaching that decision, but the procedure followed would not score high marks for Government efficiency.
It is with great regret that I have to say that I have already had occasion to question the administration of the Scottish Office. I have had occasion to write to the Secretary of State for Scotland, asking for a meeting--the subject of the meeting does not matter now--but it took him a month to reply--and the reply refused the meeting. A month later I received an apology about the length of time that he had taken to reply to my letter. The Secretary of State admitted that that was a disgraceful way to treat an hon. Member. That story proves that there is an element of maladministration in the Scottish Office ; perhaps that is one reason why the Scottish Office is treated with such political contempt in Scotland at present. Indeed, it is predicted that the Conservative party will probably be wiped out in Scotland at the next general election, which is not surprising if the Government carry on in this manner towards hon. Members and respected figures in education in Scotland. The central issue is whether there should be a change in the organisation of Newbattle Abbey college. The governors' request was reasonable. They asked that there should be a five year leading-in time if there were to be any changes. As we know, there is nothing more constant than change. A strange irony that will not go unnoticed in Scotland is that, if the college came under the Department of Education and Science, a minimum two-year period would be required before any change could be made.
This is a sad and disgraceful case, and the Scottish Office has not come out of it very well. The issue must be debated before the House adjourns. It is in the Government's interests, never mind the education interests that I have mentioned, that the maladministration of the Scottish Office be investigated.
I shall conclude with a quotation :
"We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into two teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation." That is a quotation from Petronius Arbiter in 210 BC. The Scottish Office is doing a wonderful job trying to ape that statement. 6.30 pm
Mr. David Porter (Waveney) : I was lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, during last year's Easter Adjournment debate. I began by saying that the House should adjourn so that I could remind my wife and children that they are not a single-parent family. I repeat that on this occasion, as it is so good it deserves wider currency.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend at the beginning of his remarks, but would it not be appropriate to record that, since that event, his family has increased with the gift of a further daughter, whom we all welcome?
Column 65I should like to raise the subject of education in so far as it relates to recent developments. My assessment as I go around my constituency is that many teachers--perhaps most--are beginning to accept the changes that we have introduced. Recently, a trade union activist at a school in my constituency said, rather sadly, that it was a tragedy for the Labour movement that a Tory Government had introduced the GCSE, as it was exactly what was needed.
There was much scaremongering about governors during the passage of the Education Reform Act 1988. It was wondered whether there would be enough of them and whether they could cope with the amount of work that they would have to do. There is no shortage of volunteers to be school governors in Suffolk.
We are hearing more nationally about governors' opportunities and less about their problems. We have much public relations work to do to convey our aims to the public, such as those for assessment, standards and the national curriculum. Much harm is being done by some governors who have taken office even though they are fundamentally against what we are doing.
In general, parents are accepting that schools take more local decisions and have more local responsibilities and that they have a part to play. However, there is still a credibility gap, when we remove surplus places through school closures in rural areas, especially at a time when the young population of schools is increasing.
I should declare a kind of interest, as a former high school teacher. It is nearly seven years since I finished teaching in classrooms, but it has become a different world. The reality of our entrepreneurial world, business and commercial realities and education reforms has fundamentally shaken secondary schools and colleges. Enormous changes have been absorbed. The same will happen in universities and primary schools, which are beginning to get to grips with new realities. In some ways, it will be painful for them, as it was for secondary schools.
The changes are not all related to money, although it has a place. Historically, the needs of and funding for primary schools has too often been under-estimated. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has frequently stressed the importance of the primary education sector. The primary and home phase are crucial. If, when children start primary education, everything is not quite right or on target for their development, it can be put right. If it is not, by the time they reach middle school it is sometimes too late, and by the time they reach high school it is a damage limitation exercise.
The modern practice in primary schools demands much more equipment. Many primary school teachers believe that the position is deteriorating. The Education Reform Act set up a new formula to determine the funding of primary schools, about which they are quite worried because they believe that the historic under-estimate will be perpetuated. They believe that all pupils of statutory school age should be treated similarly and cite what may seem silly examples, but none the less they illustrate the point. Infants use more materials than older children, which is self-evident. Infant library books are brief and read in a day or two, so a larger selection is necessary. Frequent handling by less-skilled hands means that equipment must be replaced more frequently. In many primary schools, that view is perfectly valid.
Valuable teacher time is sometimes wasted on trivia, such as collecting and locating scrap materials instead of
Column 66stock-cupboard supplies, mixing paint, cleaning equipment, tying shoe laces and all the things that are an ancillary's job. Teachers believe that it is time that discrimination against young people was ended. I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to pass to the Secretary of State for Education and Science that concern about the primary sector. What I have said may not apply in London, where priorities are often different.
There is talk of teacher shortages, both in subjects and geographically. Answers to questions that I tabled last week gave the figures for Suffolk, but they appear to be out of date. I am asking for more up-to-date figures from local teacher representatives rather than anecdotal evidence that there is a teacher shortage in some areas. Reports vary, but clearly teachers are still applying for jobs. House prices, especially in East Anglia, where they have doubled over the past 18 months, are a serious problem. Golden hellos, regional differentials and individual deals with teachers under the new school powers should help enormously.
The problem of subject shortages must be addressed. The national curriculum is at risk if we cannot recruit quality teachers and the necessary number of them. I caution against differentials of salary whereby secondary school teachers are compared with primary school teachers, which would further devalue the primary sector. I hope that the period of upheaval, confrontation and dispute of a few years ago has passed. We must maintain an all-round partnership if reforms are to work and to stick between teachers, parents, taxpayers and children.
I urge praise from the Government for those who have adapted and a period of encouragement and self-value that can be cultivated among teachers, on which public esteem can be built. Without public esteem, education will be relegated and we cannot afford, with fewer and fewer young people, to allow that to happen.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I wish to raise the pressing problems experienced in my part of the world with water. We have problems with our beaches, flooding, our water supply and especially sewage treatment.
I especially wish to address my remarks to water quality. Most frightening is the question mark still hanging over the Camelford incident in north Cornwall, in which 20,000 people were affected by aluminium contamination of their water supply on 7 July 1988. At that time, South West Water said that there was no risk to health, but there followed reports of sickness, blue bath water, people's hair turning green and, far more serious, implications for long-term health regarding sulphuric acid contamination of the water supply. On 5 August--almost a month after the original incident-- it was admitted that the contamination had been caused by 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate being pumped into the wrong tank at Lowermoor treatment works. Over a month later, South West Water finally accepted full responsibility for poisoning the water supply. It was not until mid- December 1988 that it was admitted that the level of poisoning was nearly double the level originally disclosed. Health tests are still continuing on the people of Camelford, but the Government are about to remove themselves from a responsible role by selling off the water authority.
The secrecy surrounding this incident is unforgivable and the Government have colluded in trying to sweep it
Column 67under the carpet by refusing to hold a proper independent inquiry. I have called for such an inquiry before, and I do so again now in the strongest possible terms. It is a disgrace that no inquiry has been held. The issue should be debated by the House because it has implications generally for water treatment, the protection of consumers and the Government's privatisation strategy. The Government are about to wash their hands of yet another responsibility, but they have failed to solve many of the problems of the water industry in Cornwall or in the running of South West Water.
In 1987, when the South West Water corporate plan was submitted, 196,000 of the authority's customers received at some time water that failed to comply with the bacteriological standards set by the European Community, 129,000 received water that failed the aesthetic acceptability test and 20,000 received water containing excessive undesirable chemicals. By that time, 33 supply areas had been granted delays in coming up to the standard required- -and that was before the Camelford incident.
In 1988, 23 of the 109 designated beaches in the South West Water region failed to meet European standards. The Sunday Times yesterday revealed that one in five of Britain's sewage works was breaking the law by discharging sub-standard waste into rivers, often by storm overflows, which were cited as one of the worst culprits. Almost one fifth of the beaches in the South West Water area have failed to meet the EC standards and experts have said that it will cost at least £150 million to clean up 14 beaches, including Marazion and Mounts bay. Yet the Government plan to privatise the company and the question mark that hangs over that privatisation is whether a future private company will be able, willing or interested to make the necessary investment.
It is no wonder that there is a problem, for South West Water has admitted that 55 out of the 75 main sea outfalls and 129 out of 134 main estuary outfalls have been judged unsatisfactory. That does not even take into account the storm overflows and minor discharges, which could bring the total number to more than 2,000. The result is that, although we live in an area that relies heavily on tourism to raise money, many of our beaches have failed to reach the safe bathing standards. In the borough of Restormel, for example, Readymoney cove, Fowey, Charlestown-Duporth and Pentewan beaches have failed to reach those standards. Pentewan was found to be pollluted at four times the European limit.
My colleague, Councillor Malcolm Brown from St. Austell, attended a recent structure plan meeting and roundly condemned our sewage problems. He said :
"As a country we are way behind our neighbours in Western Europe." He was right to highlight that tragedy and we should debate public investment in the water supply before we pack our bags for the Easter holidays. I suspect that many hon. Members will go to foreign climes where such problems do not exist and hope they can quietly forget about them.
I have received many letters from constituents on the same issue. Gorran and District residents association wrote to me saying :
Column 68"raw untreated sewage flowing down the main street on to the beach and into the stream which also flows across the beach must be a health hazard."
The Pentewan Sands sailing club, which relies on a clean sea for its income, wrote :
"This year we are holding the World Division 1 Board Sailing Championships. We are greatly concerned over the increasing level of pollution which is adversely affecting the attractions it would be a tragedy if due to the continuing and growing discharge of effluent into the bay, major sailing events were directed away."
The experts back up that concern. A report issued by the Marine Conservation Society and the Coastal Anti-Pollution League says that 300 million gallons of raw sewage are disposed of every day in our coastal waters, much of it in the wrong places and untreated, contrary to the Prime Minister's recent comments on television. She seems to be unaware of the fact that untreated sewage still goes in to our coastal waters. A survey by environmental health officers revealed that 52 per cent. of the beaches in England and Wales failed to meet EEC standards, whereas the Government claimed that the figure was only 38 per cent.
Many of our rivers are deteriorating as well, as a result of changes in farming practice. In 1980, 88 per cent. of rivers were in classes 1A or 1B. By 1985, the figure had dropped to 66 per cent., with only 58 per cent. of monitored river lengths satisfying the river quality objectives.
Part of the problem for Cornwall has been that it has the least dense population, with only 132 people per sq km in comparison with 328--the average for England and Wales. I come from a rural area, where the cost of transporting water and sewage per person is far greater than elsewhere. I am concerned that people in Cornwall will have to pay to clear up the mess after privatisation simply because successive Governments have failed to invest properly in clean water and proper sewerage systems.
Although only 1.5 million live in the South West Water area, at times there are up to 500,000 tourists supplementing that number. Local people therefore have to pay for the infrastructure to support a heavy influx of visitors. Those visitors are welcome, but I am sure that they expect the beaches to be cleaned up through national intervention and Government money, rather than depending on an over-stretched local private company which will not be able to find the money for investment. South West Water is trying to clear up the problem, but the Government have restricted its borrowing powers and, as a result, it is unable to spend any more than its charges. It has no permission to borrow. South West Water must have the opportunity to increase its programme, but the restrictions on borrowing make that impossible.
The result of poor investment in sewage treatment in earlier years has placed an embargo on the building of new homes in many areas of Cornwall. Truro is a prime example. I do not want to seem to be considering only my own patch, so I shall quote from a letter I received from Councillor David Hocking of Penryn, objecting to the embargo in his area. It highlights well the impact that such an embargo can have on local people. He writes :
"The proposed embargo I understand will be a total embargo on all housing, including extensions, which causes great concern. Penryn and Falmouth since 1980 have lost 23 per cent. and 21 per cent. respectively of council owned housing to the private sector with no houses to be built by the District council to replace them the housing problems
Column 69continue to get worse In Penryn I have several housing associations interested in building houses on a shared equity scheme, some to rent and some to sell to the private sector to fill an urgent local need, this I feel is under threat as the embargo could last for 5 to 6 or even 7 years and the figure quoted to carry out the necessary work is in the region of £10 million."
Such an embargo on house building, especially in much-needed shared ownership and housing association housing, is catastrophic, especially in view of the difficulties my county has in housing people who are much in need at present.
The Government's only answer to any of that is privatisation. It is hardly a surprise that this Government take that attitude. They believe that, if the shares belong to someone else, the problems do as well. However, whether it is poisoned water or polluted beaches and streams, the problems are public, not private. South West Water has been boasting that it has been reinvesting its profits to start to tackle those problems, but privatisation will transfer those profits into the pockets of already wealthy shareholders. Prices are already rising for privatisation and the burden is falling on the local population. It is time that the Government started to think about the public good rather than private affluence. After all their words about the environment, they could not do better than to start by investing some of the Chancellor's surplus billions in tomorrow's Budget into cleaning up our water. They would be doing so by public demand and the House should be given the chance to respond.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : I wish to refer to compensation following compulsory purchase orders. I ought perhaps to declare an interest--or should I say a non-interest--because in my farming activities I am currently subject to a compulsory purchase order relative to the construction of the M40. That compulsory purchase order is already in place, however, and in the light of that experience I am looking towards the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his recent response at Prime Minister's Question Time. I am grateful that, following our exchange, our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has published a consultative document, albeit rather low-key and somewhat specialised. In general, the proposals--for example, the proposal to rationalise the payment of interest on deferred compensation for a variety of public purposes--are welcome. It is, however, typical of the thinking of any Government that the document appears to have been triggered off by the rather contingent fact that the abolition of the rating system for the domestic householder left no key in place for the calculation of home loss payments so a new formula has had to be devised. In addition to those detailed considerations, a number of much more general issues of public policy need airing and we should have a full debate on them in due course. The first concerns the very special problems of equity when one privately owned piece of land is taken over by another undertaking which is already, or is about to become, part of the private sector. The House rightly feels that compulsory purchase will be required for public utilities, whether privately or publicly owned. There may be a danger--this is recognised in the consultative document--that one farmer, landowner or householder may have
Column 70his property taken over and used by another private undertaking for profit. For example, some of the land taken under compulsory purchase order in connection with the Channel tunnel was taken for duty-free shops and the like.
There is another anomaly, on which I may have more to say on another occasion--the anomaly in compensation for the fencing of fast roads. If one's land is taken for a motorway one gets a free fence ; if it is taken for a high quality dual carriageway, a fence may be provided but it may be knocked off the calculations. Similarly, there is still a residual problem in the operation of the Crichel Down procedure, which may be of benefit to some landowners but not to others because of different treatments by different public or other requiring authorities.
Those are examples of problems which remain, and a sense of unfairness undoubtedly still pertains. I stress that we have a common interest in straightening out the procedures and in getting things done. We do not say that there is never a case for compulsory purchase--rather the reverse--but the system must be seen to be fair. If it is not seen to be fair, further delays will result in the construction of very necessary works. To cite an example that has arisen just this week, one has only to consider British Rail's experience in trying to construct its Channel link to realise how difficult it is to get proposals accepted over the caucuses of interest in the way.
Such a system will not be acceptable in the future. I will identify three major advances that will be necessary in the planning of any new major infrastructure. First, it will be necessary to show that there is at least some measure of compensating environ-mental benefit for any environmental damage. Secondly, local communities through which the works may run, or which the works may affect, should obtain a measure of compensation for their losses. Thirdly, there needs to be a better deal for the individual. I should like the old philosophy of the compensation law--that one receives market value and no more--altered to allow an uplift of 10 per cent. or some other figure to reflect the fact that the sale is not made with the consent of the seller. In that sense, compensation does not at present reflect the seller's loss.
In any case, we are talking about a matter of public prudence, because it is essential to get common consent if works are to be carried out. The M40 was conceived 20 years before construction began. That is far too long a period. This debate is about delaying the Easter Adjournment, but it draws attention to the dangers and costs of delay in the matters to which I have referred.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : One of the themes of our brief debate today has been the need for more public money to be spent. That has been mentioned by Conservative Members, by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and, of course, by Labour Members. We therefore hope that tomorrow's Budget will not be a repeat of last year's Budget, which benefited only the rich and prosperous and held no appeal for the overwhelming majority of ordinary people. I want to leave a few minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), but there are two matters that I wish to raise. The first is the report on toxic waste published last week by the Select Committee on the Environment. That report was an
Column 71indictment of the appalling extent of the dumping of toxic waste in Britain. Paragraphs 264 and 265 and onwards refer to the situation in my borough, where there is much antagonism between the local community, including the council, and a company whose operations involve toxic waste. Everything in the report proves that the people of Walsall have been absolutely right to demonstrate against toxic waste and to protest against the borough being used as a dumping ground for it. I urge that the report should be debated as soon as possible and legislation introduced at any early date. No one can doubt that the report was highly critical of the way in which the dumping of toxic waste operates in Britain and of the Department of the Environment. We need early action and early legislation to deal with the matter.
The second matter that I am keen to raise, albeit briefly, is one that I raised long before it became a subject of great controversy in connection with a certain novel. In recent months thousands of political prisoners have been executed in Iran. Amnesty International has spotlighted the terror in that unhappy country. A few weeks ago--before the international furore over the novel--a number of Labour Members urged the Government at Foreign Office Question Time to protest in the most effective possible way against the terror, and against the executions taking place in Iran.
Young people in their teens--boys and girls alike--are being put to death by the present regime in Iran. An Amnesty report quotes a prisoner in Iran as follows :
"One night a young girl was brought straight from the courtroom to our cell. She had just been sentenced to death, and was confused and agitated. She didn't seem to know why she was there. She settled down to sleep next to me, but at intervals she woke up with a start, terrified, and grasped me, asking if it were true that she really would be executed. I put my arms around her and tried to comfort her, and reassure her that it wouldn't happen, but at about 4 am they came for her and she was taken away to be executed. She was 16 years old."
That happened not in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy but in present-day Iran. The use of torture in Iran is widespread--perhaps worse than in any other country since the end of the last war. All honour to those in Iran who have resisted the terror and the continuing mass murders--the time will come when they will be internationally honoured and recognised for what they are doing, just as those who resisted the Nazi tyranny in the 1930s were honoured. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in the futile Gulf war. I do not say for one moment that Iraq was blameless--I do not have much time for that regime either--but Iran more than any other country was determined to keep that war going and not to allow peace negotiations to take place. It agreed to end the war only at the last moment, when it knew full well that it could not continue because it did not have the manpower to carry on after all the loss of life over the years, and it knew that the regime would be endangered if it continued.
To some extent, Iran has used the controversy about the novel to try to improve its own image, but most Islamic countries as well as Europe and the United States recognise that Iran is a murderous tyranny. Its rulers have been keen to continue to allow torture and murder. Just as in Nazi Germany the first victims before the war broke out were Germans, so today in Iran most of the victims and
Column 72those who continue to be tortured--boys and girls as well as adults--are devout Moslems. In their last moments before they are executed, they say the prayers of their religion.
It is not for the Iranian regime to make out that it is the sole defender of the Moslem religion--far from it. That is why most Islamic countries recognise Iran for what it is. I hope that we shall have further opportunities to debate the subject after the recess. The regime in Iran has been a party to mass murder, torture and kidnapping and its rulers have shown the same contempt for international law as they have for human rights. There is no need for the United Kingdom to apologise to the Iranian regime. Above all, the Iranian regime should apologise to its own people.
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) : The House should not adjourn for Easter unless hon. Members have had a full debate on the poll tax--not a clinical objective debate on the pros and cons of the measure but an opportunity for hon. Members who wish to see its defeat make an unashamed attempt to convince working people, as an act of solidarity and defiance, to join the mass campaign for non-payment.
On 10 March, in a debate about lawlessness, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) said that he will not stay within the law and will not pay the poll tax. If Hansard is anything to go by, the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), and for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and others almost had apoplexy. I hope to raise their political blood pressure a little further in the couple of minutes available to me. Their reaction was to my hon. Friend's legitimate objections to the draconian economic and undemocratic attacks of the poll tax by his strategy of "selective non-payment by people who wish to give a political lead".--[ Official Report, 10 March 1989 ; Vol. 148, c. 1151.] Either on my hon. Friend's basis or on my preferred strategy of not paying the poll tax as part of a mass campaign of non-payment, over 10 per cent. of Labour Members have already made a similar declaration since 19 of us drew up a non-payment declaration in July of last year. Important or interesting as that may be, far more important is the reaction of ordinary workingclass families. On Saturday 4 March, 450 delegates and visitors, representing six regional federations and 150 affiliated bodies, attended the founding conference of the All-Scotland Anti-Poll Tax Federation, ranging from the Shetland Islands to the urban heartlands of Lothian and Strathclyde. The federation's affiliated membership is already over 300,000. I searched through every newspaper in the Library, but on Monday 6 March not a word was said in London or Scottish-based newspapers about the conference. The Tory press lowered a cloak of silence on that movement. It may be easy for the Leader of the House to dismiss such observations as part of a conspiracy theory, but I cannot believe that it is a coincidence that there was no report, but no matter. Less easy to hide from the working class of Glasgow will be the 20,000 people on the anti- poll tax march and rally next Saturday 18 March, at a demonstration organised by the Strathclyde federation and the YTURC.
Column 73This is the last opportunity for hon. Members to ask for a full debate on the poll tax before its introduction into Scotland next month. It will be introduced into England and Wales one year later, in April 1990.
Most adults in Scotland are now receiving community charge voucher books-- 12 tear-out slips--to prepare them for their monthly visits to the post office. Despite the severely cushioned and artificially low level of the tax in its first year--the 20th-century version of Danegeld--in a couple of weeks, each single person in employment in Glasgow on a take-home pay of as little as £55 a week will have to pay £25 a month or £6 a week. A man and woman living as a married couple will be jointly considered. If one partner is not employed and not registered as unemployed --therefore, receiving nothing--they will still be liable to the poll tax, even if their partner takes home as little as £110 a week.
In my constituency, the position will be at least as bad. Our city treasurer estimated that, by next April, the poll tax will be £350. I think that it will be nearer £400.
The unemployed, pensioners and students will be expected to pay 20 per cent of the poll tax--that is about £60 a year in Strathclyde or £70 in Coventry. To Tory Members, that may seem to be a minute sum, but no one in the dole queues in Coventry, Scotland or elsewhere can afford to lose the price of two pints of milk, a loaf of bread and a small tin of beans each week. Perhaps that is one reason why, this morning, over 12 months before the introduction of the tax in Coventry, England and Wales, I received a petition from 1,330 pensioners in my area asking for the abandonment of the tax. Millionaire Tory Members and Lords will save thousands of pounds. Perhaps that is how they managed literally to dig up 100 extra Lords to defeat the Mates amendment last summer. That wealth transfusion will result in individuals such as Lord Vestey saving £4,700 a year--perhaps as compensation for his little local difficulty in paying his tax bills a couple of years back.
At least the current rates system has some correlation with income--the higher the value of the property, the higher the income. The poll tax takes no account of ability to pay. It is regressive, its method of registration is draconian, and it attacks basic civil and democratic rights--for example, the right to vote. My hon. Friends have put those arguments.
We are told that the poll tax is the flagship of the Prime Minister's third term. I prefer to think that, in retrospect, we will regard it as her Titanic--the point at which she and her party's political fortunes went into terminal decline.
From next month in Scotland, and from April 1990 in England and Wales, people will have a choice. They can either pay the poll tax and let the Government continue to ride roughshod over working-class people, or they can refuse to take any more and decide to fight back by refusing to pay the tax, not as individual martyrs but as part of a mass, collective refusal such as that being organised by the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation and by the growing anti-poll tax union movement in the rest of the country.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham) : We have had a long haul since Christmasbut, during that time, we have made good progress with the legislation. Sadly, though, we
Column 74have suffered the loss of Sir Raymond Gower. He was widely respected and liked on both sides of the House, and his work for his constituency won the esteem of all. We shall miss him.
The debate has raised many national and international constituency issues. In all, there have been 16 contributions. I did not detect much feeling against adjourning for the Easter week. I hope that the House will agree the motion after I have responded to as many as I can of the issues that have been raised.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) took the opportunity to open the debate. He is entitled to do that. He seems, at least for the present, to have given up the traditional role of Opposition Front-Bench Members commenting on Back-Bench speeches, which is a pity. It seems to show perhaps one further move from the days when the Labour party had any responsibility for the Government of this country.
The hon. Gentleman raised two subjects. He referred to the Budget. Obviously, he would not expect me to comment on the Budget. A full and detailed account of the position regarding war widows and their payments was set out before Standing Committee F which considered the Social Security Bill on 7 March. It would not be right for me to quote from the proceedings or go into great detail. I shall make just one or two brief comments on the hon. Gentleman's speech. First, if he thought he was quoting from a letter of the Prime Minister dated 5 April 1983, I must tell him that that letter was a forgery.
Mr. Wakeham : I am glad that that has been cleared up, because a number of hon. Members have been talking about a letter dated 5 April 1983 and that was given some currency, when the date was not correct. There was a letter written when my right hon. Friend was in opposition. Of course, since that date there have been a number of changes in the post-1973 position. The tax relief for war widows has changed and there is now age allowance. A substantial number of those war widows also receive full retirement pensions.
As my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security said in Committee, there would be substantial difficulty if we were to apply the post-1973 occupational pensions to war widows because, of course, a number of others would be affected--such as the disabled, other groups of widows and public sector workers--and the cost would be substantially higher than the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras stated.
Mr. Dobson rose --
Mr. Wakeham : I shall not give way, because the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) took more time than it was agreed that he should, and I shall not have time to answer a number of the matters raised.
The Minister for Social Security promised on 7 March in a Standing Committee debate to study the details of any particular cases that are sent to him and to assess them on the basis of hardship and need. He will be consulting members of the Committee to consider some of the cases mentioned.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras also mentioned tax relief on private medical insurance
Column 75premiums. We believe that relief is needed because members of company medical insurance schemes usually lose their benefit on retirement. We shall need to provide help for those who wish to continue with medical insurance when their income falls and premiums rise.
I can understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) about the imports of Russian coal into the Nottinghamshire coalfields. As I believe he recognises, the level of imports is a commercial matter for the Central Electricity Generating Board. I understand that the small volume of coal imported represented less than one day's burn at the stations involved. Those imports hardly represent a major threat to the relationship between the electricity industry and British Coal. We have always made it clear that the electricity industry must be free to buy its coal where it judges best. Coal will, of course, continue to be the major source of fuel for electricity generation for many years to come. Indeed, I understand that British Coal and the Central Electricity Generating Board have recently agreed to an extension of their existing agreement on coal supplies until 31 December of this year. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned the methane gas at the Arkwright colliery ; indeed, we have corresponded on this subject. He wished to have the release of some documents. Of course, those are British Coal's internal management documents and release of them is a matter for the corporation and not for any Minister. We have no statutory power to compel the release of that information. However, I have every confidence that, if British Coal were asked by the Health and Safety Executive, it would make those documents available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) rightly mentioned the resurrection of Corby. It was very much a steel town. I remember with affection his predecessor, Bill Homewood, who sat on the other side of the House. He was a steel man all his life. I was sorry to read in the papers that he has recently died. My hon. Friend mentioned the progress that has been made in Corby and gave a lot of credit for that to many people. Not so long ago I visited him in his constituency and I agree with everything he says, except that I believe that my hon. Friend was too modest to include himself in the people who have shown drive and enthusiasm in rebuilding Corby after the difficulties of earlier years. He is right to point other areas to the lessons of Corby.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) mentioned the concern about the burial of diseased cattle in a landfill tip in her constituency. Incineration and burial are both safe methods of disposing of cattle suspected of having BSE, and local needs and circumstances determine which method is used. I appreciate that it is obviously of concern to her constituents, and I have asked my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to write to her to give her the reassurance that I am sure is available. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) spoke about land use. When he speaks about land use, the House is well advised to listen because he knows much about it. As he knows, we have recently encouraged local planning authorities to increase the coverage of local development plans and to keep them up-to-date, so as to