Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that between 1 October 1988 and 1 April this year no restrictions have been placed on the number of research assistants or secretaries that Members of Parliament may employ and that any hon. Member who leads the general public to believe otherwise is doing the House a disservice?
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to draw the attention of the House--and in particular of you, Mr. Speaker--to the incident yesterday which led to the naming and eventual suspension of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars). As you know, my hon. Friend tried to raise a point of order with you, Mr. Speaker, at 3.30 pm. You said that points of order could be taken only immediately after Question Time and, because you had already called a private notice question, you could call my hon. Friend only after that.
May I remind you, Mr. Speaker, that during Scottish questions on 21 December my hon. Friend raised a point of order and you called him. When your action was queried by the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan), you ruled that any matter that needed immediate action should be raised with you there and then. I can assure you that the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Govan wished to raise yesterday needed immediate attention--it related to the abuse of the procedure of the House by the Leader of the Opposition. Why did your ruling change between 21 December and 14 March?
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Lady was correct in what she said about the point of order which was raised at Scottish Questions. However, when her hon. Friend the Member for Govan rose yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition had not begun to ask his private notice question. When the private notice question began he had not said anything.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When I raised this matter yesterday, you asked me to consult "Erskine May" to discover why the Leader of the Opposition could raise a private notice question, and why the 12 o'clock rule did not apply in this case. I have now done so, and "Erskine May" contains no provision exempting the Leader of the Opposition from the 12 noon rule. Page 346 of "Erskine May" states :
"Questions which have not appeared on the paper, but which are of an urgent character and relate either to matters of public importance, or to the arrangement of business, may be taken after half-past three or at eleven o'clock on a Friday, provided that they have been submitted to the Speaker before noon on the day on which they are to be asked."
Page 347 of "Erskine May" states that the Leader of the Opposition does not have to establish a factor of urgency.
Given that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) contacted your office, Mr. Speaker, at
Column 4121.50 pm yesterday and was told that no private notice questions had been submitted, and given that no notice was placed in the Members' Lobby and no private notice questions was displayed on the annunciator yesterday, when did the Leader of the Opposition submit his question to you and what precedent was used to accept that private notice question without due notice?
Mr. Speaker : I must tell the hon. Gentleman that my office would not disclose whether any private notice questions had been submitted, because by definition such questions are private. I can tell him however, that I received notice of a private notice question from the Leader of the Opposition yesterday morning. The notice was provisional on the proposed motion for a writ being opposed at 2.30 pm, and I accepted it on that basis. It would not have been appropriate to put such a notice on the annunciator, particularly as it related to a statement that the House was expecting in any case. As is made clear on page 347 of "Erskine May", special considerations apply to private notice questions from the Leader of the Opposition. In my opinion, what happened yesterday was perfectly regular, as I was ready to explain once the private notice question had been completed. I do not think that we can pursue the matter further now.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not the bottom line that anyone who enters into guerrilla activity in this place had better read pages 346 and 347 of "Erskine May" before doing so?
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday I tried to ask the Prime Minister a question, about which I now raise a point of order of which I have given you notice. My question concerned the implications for women threatened with violence of the sentence imposed on my constituent Michelle Renshaw. When I had uttered only 16 words, Mr. Speaker, you interrupted to say :
"Order. The hon. Member knows that the Prime Minister cannot answer questions such as that."
With the greatest respect, Mr. Speaker, I do not think that on the basis of 16 words you, the Prime Minister or anyone else could have known what I was going to ask.
I have been helped by the Library, which has supplied me with five questions put to the Prime Minister on 11 February 1982, 14 December 1982, 20 December 1983, 5 February 1987 and, most recently, 10 February 1987. In all but one instance the Prime Minister replied at some length--and those questions dealt with sentences and their implications and asked her to take action.
With respect, Mr. Speaker, I ask you to reflect on the matter. If you think that I can be granted another go, perhaps I will be lucky enough to catch your eye tomorrow.
"the shameful decision of Judge Pickles to sentence my constituent".--[ Official Report, 14 March 1989 ; Vol. 149, c. 285.] That was clearly a preamble to criticism of the judge, which is not in order on a question, and I therefore had to stop the hon. Gentleman. Let me again appeal to all hon.
Column 413Members to be certain when they ask questions, particularly at Prime Minister's Question Time, that their preamble is in order ; then they will not be stopped.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : On a point of order Mr. Speaker. Will your clarify exactly when you reeceived the private notice question from the Leader of the Opposition yesterday? May I ask you to give a clear ruling on the precedent that you set in relation to private notice question procedure? Will you confirm that the Leader of the Opposition spoke for about 45 minutes, and that none of his questions was answered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Did yesterday's precedent decide the method by which private notice questions will be taken in future, or is it merely an example of the abuse of the private notice question procedure by the Front Benches?
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to return to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). Since the Budget was delivered under a private notice question, are we still operating under that procedure and will the vote on Monday be taken on the basis of the private notice question?
Mr. Speaker : Well, perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not hear what I said. When the Leader of the Opposition had completed his question, I said that since the subject of the private notice question was debatable on the resolutions I would take no further questions. The Chairman of Ways and Means then took the Chair and put those resolutions to the House.
Mr. Patrick Thompson, supported by Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Andrew Bowden, Mr. Tony Favell, Mr. Conal Gregory, Mr. Charles Irving and Mr. Simon Coombs, presented a Bill to empower local authorities to prohibit in their area the use by children of amusement machines : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 5 May and to be printed. [Bill 100.]
That the draft Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the draft Merchant Shipping (Weighing of Goods Vehicles and other Cargo) (Application to non-UK Ships) Regulations 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the draft Merchant Shipping (Loading and Stability Assessment of Ro/Ro Passenger Ships) (Non-United Kingdom Ships) Regulations 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce compulsory safety standards for equipment, layout and surface in children's playgrounds.
Every parent in the country and anyone who has ever taken a child to a playground knows precisely why the Bill is necessary. They also know that the problems can be substantially solved. They know that in many playgrounds in Britain their children are at risk. The playground to which I take my daughter is dangerous. When I say that it is dangerous, I mean that it has broken tarmac, pieces of metal sticking out of the tarmac and deplorable standards of maintenance. The Consumers Association says that this matter is one of the most important concerns of its members. It is an important concern of all parents in this country.
A playground is different from any other place where children might choose to play because it sends out signals of safety. The National Playing Fields Association says that the presence of equipment acts as a signal or signpost saying, "Come in, you can play safely here." Therefore, where play equipment is provided there is a duty of care upon the people providing that equipment to ensure that it is safe. Regrettably, that is not the case now.
I am certain that hon. Members of all parties care about safety in children's playgrounds and wish to see the highest possible standards. Much progress on setting the standards has been made over the past few years and British standard 5696 gives comprehensive guidance on the design and layout of playground equipment. A new British standard awaiting publication sets out standards for impact-absorbing surfaces. Those documents are commendable, and when they are in operation they make playgrounds safer. The problem is that the British standards are not usually implemented.
Over a year ago the Consumers Association inspected 139 playgrounds in three representative areas. It records that there has been some improvement over the 12 years since its previous survey. However, it found that our children's playgrounds are not as safe as they should be. Seven out of 10 playgrounds have hard surfaces under swings, climbing frames and slides. More than one third have badly placed equipment such as swings placed in the entrance to the playground or squashed between climbing frames. That means that children are at risk from colliding with equipment or each other. In two of the three areas inspected, half the swings, roundabouts and other equipment needed attention. In the other area, that applied to one third. The estimates of the number of accidents caused in our playgrounds vary. The Consumers Association estimated that last year 250,000 incidents occurred in playgrounds causing injuries of all types. Clearly there is some concern in Government, and the Department of Trade and Industry has been collecting statistics. I understand that, when the statistics are published next month, they will show that each year in playgrounds there are 70,000 accidents sufficiently serious to require attendance at hospital.
The Department responsible for play is not the Department of Trade and Industry, but the Department of the Environment. It is of some significance that, when I
Column 415spoke to officials yesterday, they told me that they were unaware that the Department of Trade and Industry was collecting statistics. Sadly, the concern of the Department of Trade and Industry does not appear to be shared by the Department of the Environment. I find that unbelievable.
I find it unbelievable that officials at the Department of the Environment tell me that there is no hard evidence about accidents or types of accidents and that everything they see and hear is anecdotal. That is especially difficult to believe if one looks at Occasional Paper 2/76, "Children's playgrounds", published by the Department of the Environment. I shall read the opening words : "Nobody knows how many accidents there are in children's playgrounds--but there may be as many as 150,000 a year treated by doctors and hospitals."
It seems that the Department knows that there is a problem, but does not want to do anything about it.
I have one request to make of an audience wider than this House. I ask people to provide the Department of the Environment with the information that it claims it does not have.
I ask people to provide the Department of the Environment, either through me or their Member of Parliament, with information about accidents in playgrounds. Let us find out about the record and the hard evidence and put on pressure to ensure that the Bill is passed. The time scale for introducing the Bill must be as short as possible, but I recognise that a substantial amount of money is involved in implementing safe surfaces and proper layouts in playgrounds. I recognise that money will have to be found over a period, so the Bill will set out a schedule under which the Secretary of State for the Environment will consult and produce a statutory code of practice, probably similar to the existing British standard and the draft British standard. The code of practice will be
Column 416compulsory for new playgrounds and over five years, I suggest, compulsory in all playgrounds. I do not under-estimate the fact that money is needed to back up this proposal, but that money must be made available.
I want to thank the people who have helped me to put together the information for the Bill. Apart from a number of hon. Members of all parties, I want to thank the National Playing Fields Association, the Consumers Association, Mr. Graham Tipp, who wrote the draft British standard, the playground equipment manufacturers and the Association of Play Industries. They have given me great help and encouragement. I also want to thank the many hundreds of parents who have written to me and other hon. Members expressing their concern about this matter. I believe that the Bill already commends itself to the nation. It has wide, all-party support, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robert G. Hughes, Mr. Paul Boateng, Mr. Robert B. Jones, Mr. Timothy Kirkhope, Mr. Roger Knapman, Mr. Ian McCartney, Mrs. Gillian Shephard, Mr. Ian Taylor and Mr. Matthew Taylor.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes accordingly presented a Bill to introduce compulsory safety standards for equipment, layout and surfaces in children's playgrounds : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 April and to be printed. [Bill 99.]
Consolidated Fund Act 1989.
Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989.
Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989.
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [14 March].
Motion made, and the Question proposed,
That it is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance ; but this Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to value added tax so as to provide--
(a) for zero-rating or exempting any supply ;
(b) for refunding any amount of tax, otherwise than in a case where the amount has been paid by reason of a mistake ;
(c) for varying the rate of that tax otherwise than in relation to all supplies and importations ; or
(d) for relief other than relief applying to goods of whatever description or services of whatever description-- [Mr. Lawson.] Question again proposed.
Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation
[Relevant documents : European Community document No. 8887/88, Annual Economic Report 1988-89 and the unnumbered document, "Annual Economic Report 1988-89" (final version as adopted by the Council).]
Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East) : Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer presented his Budget for 1989 without a word of apology for the damage done to our economy and to our society by the Budgets--now totalling six--for which he has been responsible. Last year we had a Budget for the rich. It was the most unfair redistribution of income and wealth that has occurred this century. However, it was also more than that : it was foolish as well as divisive and unfair. As is now startlingly clear, it was manifestly wrong in its assumptions about the economy and foolishly complacent about the policies it promoted. The Chancellor was warned by the Opposition and by a few voices elsewhere about the dangers of a deteriorating balance of payments deficit on the current account. His response was to predict--in one of the most massive failures of prediction that has been offered to the House--that the deficit for 1988 would be £4 billion. We now know just how wrong he was. The outturn was a deficit of well over £14 billion, and the Chancellor confirmed that he expects the deficit to be just as bad this year. In an interesting insight on his own embarrassment, the Chancellor did not state the actual figure. Almost as if he could not bring himself to utter the words "£14.5 billion", he took refuge in the circumlocution of saying that the current account deficit would remain at the same level as last year.
The Chancellor's forecasts for the trade deficit are worse than ever before, but they may still be an under-estimate. The latest trade figures for January are running well ahead of the forecast that the Chancellor gave the House only yesterday. The deficit in manufactured goods for last year was in excess of £20 billion. I am forced
Column 418to observe that the surplus--not the deficit --in the balance of trade in manufactured goods when the last Labour Government left office was over £3 billion.
We hear a little less today, but occasionally, in tones of fading echoes, we hear about the economic miracle wrought by the Government. It could, of course, be thought to be a miraculous achievement to turn a £3 billion surplus in manufactured goods into a deficit of £20 billion, all within a decade in which the Government gained the enormous windfall of £78 billion of North sea oil revenues, but, unfortunately, it would be a miracle in the wrong direction. The truth is that it is the Government's pretensions, their glosses on the truth, the hype that modern advertising has perfected to an alarming degree and the absurd claims and exaggerations, which are so faithfully repeated by acolyte organs of communication, that are miraculous. The reality is depressingly not so good.
Let us take as examples three critical and indisputable facts about Britain's economy. We have the highest balance of payments deficit in our history, the highest interest rates in the industrialised world and, with the exceptions only of Greece and Portugal, the highest rate of inflation in the European Community. We clearly have the highest rate of inflation among the G7 countries.
However, let us cast our minds back to just one year ago--almost a year to the day. Was there a hint of the danger ahead from our intrepid navigator, who was too busy moving the best furniture in the ship into the first-class cabins to notice the directions in which he was heading? There was not a word. Even after he had been warned in our debates on last year's Budget, in his reply the Chancellor complacently affirmed that we had an economic miracle.
There was no talk then of a soft landing or a hard landing. I suppose that some perception of reality must have penetrated the Treasury over the year, as it now recognises that there must be a landing. However, if we are still involved in an economic miracle, it is difficult to understand why we do not keep on flying. Perhaps we are landing just to refuel or to change the pilot, or perhaps--even more likely--to give an extra seat in the cockpit for Sir Alan Walters.
When, in the period between the Budget of 1988 and now, it became clear that the Chancellor had gravely under-estimated the boom in demand that the huge expansion of credit and his irresponsible tax handouts to the rich had caused, he started the relentless increase in interest rates that moved up from 7.5 per cent. to the current 13 per cent.--and there he is stuck. Interest rates have been lowered on or shortly after the Budget for years past--it is almost an annual ritual--but there has been no announcement of a cut in interest rates this year, nor is there likely to be.
The Chancellor dare not. Higher interest rates are the Lawson risk premium that must be paid to the foreign holders of the short-term money which finances the balance of payments deficit for which this Chancellor is responsible. They are the beneficiaries of the Chancellor's repeated rounds of one-club golfing. However, as is painfully clear, the losers are industry and the British people as the cost of living soars. British industry is saddled with an uncompetitive exchange rate and higher costs for investment as it seeks to compete in the world market place. Industry is being urged to prepare for 1992 with one arm tied behind its back by its own Government.
Column 419Home owners have borne the brunt of the Chancellor's chosen instrument of credit control. They have seen any tax benefits that they received in last year's Budget vanish like snow from a dyke. To be fair, not all those who received tax cuts are worse off--the rich are still well ahead. They have so much that they can finance any increase in mortgage payments--those of them, of course, who need mortgages.
Let us consider those with more modest means. For the vast majority of home owners their mortgage payment is by far their largest domestic outgoing. A family with two children on £12,000 per year--£240 a week-- received £12 per month in tax reductions last year. If they had a modest mortgage of only £25,000, their monthly repayment is up by £42. Last year the Chancellor with one hand gave them £12 and in the course of that year they were relieved of that and suffered an extra penalty of £30 per month. The Chancellor gives with one hand and then takes back with the other. It is a use of the invisible hand that even Adam Smith may not have envisaged. I state those figures in a moderate way, because I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends will tell me of constituents who pay £60, £70 or £80 more in mortgage repayments per month--and they are right. I gave my example to show how at modest levels of income and of mortgage the last Budget was a boomerang.
The Chancellor described his Budget last year--I noticed him in the press doing the same this year--as a milestone, but for the majority of people in Britain the Lawson milestone has become a millstone around their necks. This year's Budget offers no relief, because 1989 will be another year of mortgage misery for millions of home owners. Of course, the high interest rate--the Chancellor's sole instrument to curb demand--increases the cost of living and makes the inflation rate worse. It is little wonder that the Treasury would like to fiddle the figures and take mortgage costs out of the retail prices index. But mortgage bills consume personal income just like any other price rise. The Chancellor constantly makes utterly spurious comparisons with other industrialised countries that do not include mortgage costs in their calculation of retail prices. However, the pattern of home ownership in those countries is very different and other forms of housing costs--usually rents--are taken into consideration in their calculations.
It is invidious of the Government to disclaim the inflationary effects of increased mortgage payments ; and offers precious little comfort for hard- pressed home owners this year. The truth is that, after a decade of Conservative rule, the Prime Minister's anti-inflationary rhetoric is hollow. Her hype about zero inflation is exposed as humbug, and her Government provoke, not prevent, a spiral of rising prices.
The Chancellor's forecast of the rate of inflation has proved only slightly less reliable than his forecast of the trade deficit. Last March he said that inflation would be 4 per cent. Last September he told us that there was only a "temporary blip". But yesterday he confirmed that inflation is 8 per cent. and, even on his own estimation, it will stay high for the whole of 1989. According to the Chancellor, it will fall to 5.5 per cent., which I think even he might view as being relatively high.
Column 420To make matters worse, the Government themselves have created those inflationary own goals. [Interruption.] I hope that Ministers will pay attention, because this matter is one for which they are uniquely responsible. The Ministers seated opposite me on the Conservative Front Bench are responsible for heavy extra charges for water, electricity, public transport and National Health Service prescriptions. Those price rises sharply increase the cost of living. It is within the power of the Government not to have caused them and to reverse them. The Government are responsible for a very large part of the inflation from which we suffer.
It was no doubt for that reason, among others, that the Financial Times commented :
"Inflation is simply a headache for Finance Ministers who get things wrong."
As the United Kingdom's inflation rate surges upward, the Chancellor's headache is getting worse. One might imagine that we suffer from a world contagion, but if one examines the inflation rates of competitor and analogous countries one realises that our inflation is significantly higher than theirs. We are not receiving inflation in some contagious way from those other countries, and the Chancellor has had the good fortune to be in office during a period of remarkably low commodity prices. Inflation in this country is a home-grown phenomenon--and we are looking at some of the gardeners on the Government Benches.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a disillusioned monetarist who displays no real understanding of the contemporary causes of inflation. [Laughter.] The Chancellor may laugh, but I can easily demonstrate the extent of his lamentable ignorance. Inflation can either be demand-led or pushed by rising prices. The Government, remarkably, have achieved it with both. The credit boom and last year's tax cuts allowed demand to surge beyond the capacity of industry supply, creating bottlenecks and skilll shortages. Meanwhile, rising charges for public utilities have added price- pushed inflation to fuel the problem even more.
In a celebrated phrase, the Chancellor said that inflation would be his "judge and jury". Let us, in an exercise of charity, overlook the Chancellor's attempts to fix the evidence by arguing that mortgages should be removed from the retail prices index. However much he wriggles, he will be unable to avoid the verdict. It is not for us to suggest an appropriate sentence for the criminal, because the Prime Minister is about to inflict a very severe punishment. Few of us would relish the prospect of daily tutorials in economics from Sir Alan Walters.
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield) : Is there not an element of being wise after the event in all of this? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recall the policies that he advocated in the House on 5 November 1987 when, on an Oppositon motion, he called for significant cuts in interest rates and increases in public spending? Is it not clear that, if those policies had been followed, interest rates and inflation would be back at the levels that we associate with the last Labour Government?
Mr. Smith : I suppose that the Chancellor might be wiser after the event of his daily tutorials from Sir Alan Walters. I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question very directly. Neither I in any speech, nor the Opposition in any motion, commended the Chancellor's credit boom and his irresponsible relaxation of credit. We voted against his
Column 421irresponsible tax cuts for the rich. As we are talking about being wise after the event, I ask the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith)--who no doubt talked about zero inflation--now that inflation is running at 8 per cent., who is wise after the event?
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Major) : It is within my memory and that of the right hon. and learned Gentleman that on "Newsnight" last night he expressly denied that just after the stock exchange crash he called for further public expenditure and tax cuts. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) mentioned a motion moved by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I have several press releases in his name suggesting precisely that. Perhaps he would care to withdraw.
Mr. Smith : The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I said I was in favour of the small reduction in interest rates that was made at that time. That was made perfectly clear, and it does not do the right hon. Gentleman or the House any credit for him to try to change that. We can look at the transcript of the television interview.
Mr. Smith : Treasury Ministers are experts on wriggling. I remind the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that in the debate to which he referred massive public expenditure was called for by one of the leading apologists for the Government on the Government Back Benches.
Of course we have asked for increases in public expenditure. If well- planned increases in public expenditure had been carried out as an alternative to the misguided tax cuts made in last year's Budget, we would be able to spend today, but because the Government failed to spend we now have the ludicrous position of a Government with a surplus of £14 billion or £15 billion who are frightened to spend a penny piece of it.
Having fuelled inflation, the Chancellor now finds himself stuck with the consequences. Surely it is clear that Britain needs to invest. It needs to invest more in education and training to reduce the skill shortages by which many British companies are harmed. It needs to invest more to improve roads and railways to ease congestion, reduce pollution and promote safety. We need to spend more on the National Health Service to retain more qualified nurses and improve the quality of health care.
Every opinion poll shows that the British people want better roads, hospitals and schools. All the evidence shows that this would be good for the British economy. Above all, we need to invest in the talents of our people so that Britain produces quality goods that other countries want to buy. As we approach the 1990s, we need an economic miracle if we are to compete successfully against the Germans, Japanese and Americans in the world market place.
Labour Members make no apology for saying--we constantly insist on it--that our priority must be investment in training, education, research and regional development. The Chancellor and his fellow Ministers fail to understand that such public investment is non-inflationary and counter- inflationary. Investment that releases bottlenecks in skills is clearly counter-inflationary.