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Cormorant Alpha Platform (Explosion)

3.30 pm

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the explosion on the Cormorant Alpha platform, the consequent reduction in Britain's oil production and the implications for the price of petrol.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Cecil Parkinson) : Cormorant Alpha is both a production platform and the gathering platform for the nine fields in the Brent system, from which the oil is exported to Sullom Voe.

On 18 April, when fitting an emergency shut-down valve on the platform, in accordance with the recommendations of the interim report on the Piper Alpha incident, a gas leak occurred. Shell notified the Department and evacuated non-essential personnel from the platform in accordance with emergency procedures. The leak was repaired but an explosion occurred at 1820 hours. There was no fire or loss of life or injury. The Brent system was shut down as a result of this incident. My inspectors and officials from Shell are now on the platform assessing the damage. Until they have completed this assessment, we cannot estimate how long the system will be shut down.

As a result of this explosion, the loss of production is some 400, 000 barrels per day. This amounts to 17 per cent. of United Kingdom daily production.

Petrol prices depend primarily upon crude oil prices and other factors in the world market. Obviously the crucial factor is the total free world oil supply, which runs at approximately 50 million barrels a day. Even though Brent is a crude oil commanding a small premium, production from the Brent field is therefore less than 1 per cent. of world production, and it is impossible to calculate the effect of any temporary shortfall from this field on petrol prices. Safety is and will remain the first consideration. I can assure the House that every precaution is being taken to ensure that the installation is safe and that my safety directorate will not agree to production start-up until it is satisfied that all safety measures have been taken.

Mr. Doran : I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The Opposition welcome the fact that the evacuation of the platform was, apparently, efficient and that there was no loss of life or injury. Will the Secretary of State publish his report on the investigation that is being carried out into the causes of the explosion so that the lessons that are to be learnt can be learnt? There is obviously a great deal of speculation as to why there was an explosion three hours after the gas leak was noticed at about 3 pm. It is important that we discover the causes.

The Secretary of State will be aware that there have been a string of disasters and accidents in the North sea in the past year, many of which have resulted in substantial losses of production. There have been the Brent Alpha explosion and the Piper Alpha disaster, with tragic loss of life ; the Fulmar Auk and Clyde fields were closed at Christmas ; the Brent Delta was closed in the new year ; the Dunlin platform was closed in February ; and now the Cormorant South platform and the Brent system have been closed. I am advised that nearly 40 per cent. of the

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total oil production in the North sea has been lost as a result of these accumulated breakdowns and shutdowns in production. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the loss of 40 per cent. of oil production is the direct consequence of the cuts in maintenance and safety applied by the oil industry after the fall in oil prices in 1986, and an inadequate inspection of safety by his Department? Is he prepared to allow this state of affairs to continue? Has he considered the cost to the country of those failures in the North sea oil industry? On my estimate, the result of the loss of 40 per cent. of the United Kingdom's oil production will be to add £300 million to £350 million to our monthly balance of trade deficit. That is a huge figure by any standard.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the considerable fears of the consumer who has experienced steep rises in petrol prices since the beginning of the year? Since January, the price of petrol at the pump has risen by 24p a gallon. That is a massive increase in anyone's terms and there are genuine fears that there will be further increases as a result of the latest loss of production.

Will the Secretary of State accept that, as a result of the huge loss of production in the North sea, there is no justification for further increases in petrol prices? Does he recognise that the loss of production and consequent increase in oil price is caused by inadequate safety procedures or negligence on the part of the oil industry, and that the industry should bear the cost as part of its normal commercial risk? The cost should not be borne by the already hard-pressed consumer. We know that, if the temporary increases in prices resulting from this shutdown are used by the oil industry to increase petrol and other prices, it is very unlikely to reduce prices when oil prices stabilise. Will he use his good offices with the oil industry to protect the consumer against unnecessary price increases?

Mr. Parkinson : On the first question, we shall make sure that any lessons to be learned from the incident are widely disseminated throughout the industry as quickly as possible, but I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking to publish the report. As he knows, such reports can be used as the basis of prosecution if that is necessary. I cannot prejudge that, and I am not suggesting that there will be prosecutions, but that is a reason why we do not publish. But we shall publish any lessons and make sure that the information is disseminated as quickly as possible.

May I put the hon. Gentleman right, marginally, on the figure that he quoted? We have lost a great deal of production, but it is not 40 per cent. We calculate that it is about 31 per cent.

There is no evidence whatsoever to support the hon. Gentleman's smear on the industry in saying that the accident was a result of cuts in maintenance and safety. I further repudiate the idea that the rigs are not being properly inspected. The rig involved, and all the others, have been inspected, some within the past few months. The hon. Gentleman grossly exaggerates the effect on the balance of payments. Our best estimate--it is not possible to give a particularly accurate estimate as we do not know how long the platform will be out, but assuming four to six weeks--the effect on the current account could be up £800 million this year.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, price increases are being investigated by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission,

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which will look at the recent price increases as it looked at the increases earlier this month. Prices have moved broadly in line with the increase in world oil prices in the past few months. World oil prices have risen by about 70 per cent. during that time, and prices have moved in roughly the same direction. I am not prejudging that, as it is a matter for the MMC which is investigating the matter, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it would be impossible to eliminate risk completely in an area like the North sea where oil is being extracted? The important thing is to learn the lessons and to implement the measures that result from the inquiries. That the Government have pledged to do. Those of us who are interested in the North sea are appreciative of that. Will my right hon. Friend take note of the comment of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) about concern in the Highland area of Scotland, where it seems that the £2 per gallon price for petrol will happen tomorrow? That is causing great concern. The oil companies claim that problems in the North sea lie behind some of the price increases.

Mr. Parkinson : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that it is not possible to eliminate all risk from operations in the North sea, any more than it is possible to eliminate them from the coal industry or any other energy industry. That is no excuse for not making every effort to ensure that a dangerous job is carried out safely. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran), petrol prices have moved broadly in line with the increases in crude oil prices. There are other pressures on the market. There is an especially large increase in demand from the United States, which is putting further pressure on gasoline prices. I am sure that petrol companies will hear what my hon. Friend has said and will recognise that price increases are extremely unpopular.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : Can the Secretary of State say anything more about the disruptive effect of the explosion on work at the Sullom Voe terminal in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace)? On petrol prices, the Secretary of State will remember that it is only a few weeks since the Chancellor, at the Dispatch Box, told us that he would not increase excise duties because of the effect on inflation. Since then, the price of petrol has gone up by about 8p a gallon. When do the Government expect to get the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? Will the Secretary of State, together with the Chancellor, seek to intervene to make sure that the price of petrol does not go through the £2 barrier?

Mr. Parkinson : As to Sullom Voe, the loss of production represents a flow of oil that will not get there and will not be processed. We hope that the loss will be temporary and that production will be back on stream as soon as possible. A period of a few weeks has been mentioned. There can be no certainty about that until the full scale of the damage has been investigated. My officials spoke to the inspector on the platform less than an hour ago. It does not appear that there is any structural damage, but it is too soon to give a full assessment of the damage and therefore to be able to assess when it will be back on

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stream. Obviously everybody, subject to the demands of safety, will do everything possible to get it back on stream quickly.

The MMC will report when it has finished its work. I cannot put a date on it. The commission recognises, as do the oil companies, that there is great public interest in the matter, and it will make every effort to report as soon as possible.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, since the Budget, the oil companies have given every impression of operating a cartel on retail prices? If it is true, as my right hon. Friend says, that retail prices are following the price of crude oil, and if, as a result of the incident in the North sea and the consequent increase in the price of Brent crude to $20, there is another increase in the retail price, will he try to ensure that, when the price comes down, as it surely will, there is a corresponding fall in the retail price of petrol?

Mr. Parkinson : The MMC is investigating precisely the cartel whose existence my hon. Friend alleges and the oil companies deny. I do not think that I can anticipate the report.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : Recognising the series of grave and potentially dangerous incidents on North sea oil platforms and rigs, with the Piper Alpha disaster leading to vast loss of life, is it not time that the Department of Energy handed over responsibility for safety to the Health and Safety Commission? Is the Minister aware that nearly all the serious tragedies that have occurred recently--in the North sea, at Zeebrugge and at King's Cross--have been in areas where the Health and Safety Commission has been barred from looking into safety until there has been an accident? It has only been brought in afterwards.

Mr. Parkinson : Surprisingly and unusually, the hon. and learned Gentleman has misled the House about the legal position. The Health and Safety Commission has a responsibility for safety and delegates it by agreement and under contract to my inspectorate. Moreover, there is no evidence that separating the inspectorate from my Dapartment would change matters. Although the Opposition consistently say that the same Department should not be in charge of both production and safety, they then draw our attention to the Norwegian arrangements, which are precisely the same : the Norwegian operator is responsible for both production and safety. We do not accept that there is any substance to the hon. and learned Gentleman's allegations. This matter is being considered by Lord Cullen and I have committed the Government to accepting his recommendations. I suggest that the hon. and learned Gentleman awaits that report.

Mr. Speaker : Mrs. Ewing.

Mr. Janner : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : Not now.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : Although the Secretary of State has referred to the safety checks that are conducted on the platforms and the rigs, how extensive are those safety checks, how long does each one last and what is the expenditure on them? As we are now in the third decade of production in the North sea and the age factor

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must be taken into account, is any emphasis given to the age of platforms? Will the Secretary of State accept that we all welcome the fact that the safety directorate will not open production until it is satisfied that the standard of safety is appropriate, because production and profit pale into insignificance when placed against potential loss of life?

Mr. Parkinson : I entirely agree with the hon. Lady's last point about safety. Indeed, I stressed in my statement that safety is absolutely pre-eminent and no risks will be taken. No permission to operate the platform will be given unless my inspectorate is satisfied.

On the hon. Lady's first point about safety checks, the duty to operate a platform safely 24 hours a day is a duty that Parliament has placed on the operator. My inspectorate is not responsible for safety ; the operator is. My inspectorate makes regular visits to ensure that the operator is carrying out that duty. Therefore, it is not fair to put all the responsibility on an official who visits occasionally when it is the operator's duty to ensure that safety is the prime consideration.

So far as the age of platforms is concerned, quite separately from the regular inspections, the certifying authority, which is an independent body, has to give a regular certificate that the platform is safe. The certifying authority supervises the design and construction and subsequently, at regular intervals, has to renew the certificate. That examination is quite independent of my Department. As the Department of Transport is responsible for the movement of people to and from the platforms, the evacuation equipment is inspected by that Department independently. A series of checks and balances is therefore built into the system.

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Business of the House

3.58 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) : Will the Leader of the House tell us the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham) : The business for next week will be as follows :

Monday 24 April----Progress on remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

Motion on the Food (Northern Ireland) Order, which is a consolidation measure.

Tuesday 25 April----Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Motion relating to the Mines (Safety of Exit) Regulations. Wednesday 26 April----Conclusion of remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

Thursday 27 April----Second Reading of the Children Bill [Lords] . Friday 28 April----Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Dobson : I thank the Leader of the House for that statement. Will he confirm that the Government have today published the Bill to outlaw the sale of human kidneys, which is the product of no fewer than four years of laborious drafting by the Department of Health since we originally asked for such a law to be introduced? When are we likely to get the long- promised debate--in Government time--on the future of the National Health Service, and when will we have the even longer-promised debate on the Government's proposal to substitute student loans for student grants?

Because of the growing concern about the scale and nature of the Government publicity machine and about the propriety of those who are running it, and growing concern among civil servants about the increasing party politicisation of that machine, will the Leader of the House speak to Mr. Bernard Ingham and ask him nicely whether we can have a debate about it in the House?

Mr. Wakeham : The hon. Gentleman asked me four questions. I am 99.9 per cent. certain that the Human Organ Transplants Bill has been published today, but it will certainly be published this week. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to the Opposition for the discussions that we have had to facilitate a speedy passage of that important measure.

We have just had a debate on the National Health Service, but, as I told the hon. Gentleman last week, the House will wish to return to that matter. I cannot, however, promise a debate in the immediate future.

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would not have made the mistake of saying that the Government were proposing to substitute student loans for student grants. The proposal, which is still being discussed, is for top-up loans for students. I believe that the most sensible time for a debate is when the discussions have been completed with the banks and other institutions about the way in which the loans will be administered.

I do not accept the premise on which the hon. Gentleman phrased his last question. I do not accept or recognise the abuses to which he referred. Therefore, the rest of the question does not follow.

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Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South) : My right hon. Friend said that we had just had a debate on the National Health Service, but he must recognise that that three-hour debate, of which the leader of the SDP took up 46 minutes, was highly unsatisfactory and that we need a full-scale debate on the Government's White Paper before the consultation deadline runs out. Will my right hon. Friend take particular note of the fact that Members on both sides of the House have substantial misgivings about certain aspects of the White Paper's proposals, especially as they affect doctors? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, on this occasion at least, the Government will be willing to listen and to act upon constructive suggestions?

Mr. Wakeham : My hon. Friend seeks to encourage me, but the sting in his tail is not acceptable. The Government listen ; when they have consultations, they mean consultations, and when they issue papers, they expect views. I cannot add anything further to what I have already said. I agree that Tuesday's debate was not an adequate substitute for a full-scale debate, which I will arrange as soon as I can find the time.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent) : I join those who have demanded that there should be a debate in Government time on the National Health Service.

The right hon. Gentleman must have been present in the House a few minutes ago. Does he not recognise how objectionable it was to the House and to its procedures--he must have been a party to it--that, instead of making a proper statement about the Government's proposals for the Football Spectators Bill, the Prime Minister should have chosen to tell us in response to a question? As there does not appear to be a single Member of the Cabinet who is capable of standing up to the Prime Minister on the subject--as she alone appears to be responsible for it--when will the right hon. Gentleman make arrangements for her to come to the House and answer questions from Members on both sides of the House?

Mr. Wakeham : The Home Secretary made a statement at the beginning of the week. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) asked a question and I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave a very full and good answer. The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. When my right hon. Friend does not, in the opinion of the Opposition, give a full answer, they complain ; when she does, they do not like it either.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : May we have an assurance from the Leader of the House that before a final decision is taken on the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into the brewing industry--the consequences of which may be different from those envisaged by the commission--there will be a full debate in this House?

Mr. Wakeham : My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is considering the report ; I have nothing further to add, except that I note what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : May we please have an early debate on the powers of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive? Among other things, that debate would give the Secretary of State for Energy the opportunity to apologise for accusing me of misleading the House when I am sure that

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he did not intend to do so. I stated--as was and is the case--that the Department of Energy has responsibility for safety on offshore oil rigs and that the Health and Safety Commission has not ; that is all I said. That is absolutely correct, but it is wrong that that responsibility should remain with the Department when there have been a series of actual and potential disasters perilous to the life of the people who work on the rigs and dangerous to the production of oil from those rigs.

Can the opportunity be given to the Minister to resign, to apologise, and thirdly, the easiest step, to ask the Health and Safety Commission whether it will resume those powers regarding the inspection of rigs, which would make people and production safer?

Mr. Wakeham : When the hon. and learned Gentleman started asking his question I had some sympathy with him, but, by the time he had finished his speech, I thought the need for a debate was not so necessary. There appears to be a difference between the hon. and learned Gentleman and my right hon. Friend--I am on the side of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of my hon. Friends will have been pleased to hear from our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that the rigid timetable for the Football Spectators Bill has now been dropped? Does my right hon. Friend also accept that many of my colleagues remain somewhat worried about that largely unloved Bill and believe that alternative measures should have been brought before the House in the new Session? Nevertheless, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea to have a debate on football before the Bill's Second Reading, so that all hon. Members have the opportunity to discuss the matter? If the legislation is to be amended as much as anticipated, the House will be far better informed as a result of such a debate on the Floor.

Mr. Wakeham : What my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said was that it would be a grave step for the House to lose the opportunity of putting into legislative effect any proposals that Lord Justice Taylor might make and to cause those recommendations to be delayed for a further 12 months. It is clear that, during the course of this Session, there is time to make progress on the Bill, and not to finalise it until we have had time to consider what it is hoped will be important recommendations.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : I endorse what has been said by hon. Members from both sides of the House about the need for a debate on the National Health Service in Government time. Is the Leader of the House aware that the funding of the Equal Opportunities Commission has not kept pace with inflation, which means that the decline in resources is damaging to women who do not have a full opportunity to use the services of that commission? May we have a debate on that next week, please?

Mr. Wakeham : I cannot promise a debate next week, and I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's strictures on the Equal Opportunities Commission. I believe that it does a good job and that its work should be supported.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury) : Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it is customary to debate a

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White Paper and that, therefore, the White Paper on the National Health Service would seem to be such a subject for debate? Does my right hon. Friend also agree that that particular White Paper has green edges and is something of a consultation document? Therefore, as the consultation period ends at the end of May, we should have a debate before that date.

Mr. Wakeham : I promised the House that we will have a debate, but I have been unable to go firm on when that debate will be. It certainly will be before we introduce legislation to enact any matters that flow from the White Paper.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : Does not the Leader of the House agree that there should be an opportunity to debate how the Department of Transport handles the coastguard service? It is of great importance to all right hon. and hon. Members, given that its efficiency affects the lives and livelihoods of so many of our constituents. Is he aware that, yesterday, the Department of Transport issued a public information bulletin affecting the Aberdeen district of the north-east of Scotland? That bulletin said that the Department was going to downgrade the Lossiemouth coastguard station and change it into a voluntary, part-time unit. Later in the day, the Department had to apologise for making an error in its bulletin. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is now a loss of confidence in how the Department handles the service and that it is important for hon. Members to have the opportunity to raise this matter in the House?

Mr. Wakeham : I agree with the hon. Lady that this is an important subject. If there has been a mistake, I apologise on behalf of my colleagues who might have made it. I will draw the hon. Lady's point to their attention. I wish that I could promise an early debate, but I cannot. Of course, the hon. Lady may find other ways to raise the matter.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South) : May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 499 which refers to the GEC-Siemens bid for the Plessey company?

[That this House notes with grave concern the revised proposals put forward by GEC and Siemens for the dismemberment of The Plessey Company ; believes that these proposals deprive the Government of United Kingdom competitive tendering in the fields of avionics, naval systems, radar and defence systems ; that they will consign the United Kingdom's leading radar and army communications command and control suppliers, not to mention a number of highly secure programmes, to foreign ownership, that they will deprive the United Kingdom's telecommunications manufacturing industry of access to the lucrative West Germany market ; that they will effectively transfer the leading edge of the United Kingdom semiconductor industry, together with its associated jobs and skills to West Germany and that the predator companies have prostituted the principles of the Single European Market in a collusive bid to eliminate a competitor ; and calls on the Secretary of State to give due weight to these factors when he considers the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on this matter in due course.]

My right hon. Friend will remember that I drew third place in the ballot for private Members' motions, but mine

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was not reached on that occasion. I am most anxious that this sort of matter should be debated under the system whereby legislation can be brought in which is inappropriate for an Adjournment debate. In these cases, hostile bids are being introduced very soon after an original bid and that occupies a company in no less than six to nine months of top management effort. If the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has turned down something once, is it right that it should be resuscitated so quickly? That drains a company's resources.

Mr. Wakeham : My hon. Friend raises an important matter involving matters of general principle in addition to the particular case about which he is concerned. As he knows, my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is currently considering the report and it would therefore not be appropriate for me to comment on the matter or to have a debate in this House in advance of publication. The announcement by the European Commission yesterday does not prejudice the position of my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : At the beginning of the year, the Secretary of State for Employment, I believe, suspended section 4 grants for the promotion of tourism, until a review had taken place. I understand that the report has now been completed. Will the Leader of the House ensure that that report is published and that a copy is placed in the Library? Will he ask the Secretary of State to reinstate section 4 grants for the promotion of tourism, as their absence is interfering with the work of the national parks and local authorities? If not, could we have a statement explaining why they are not to be reinstated and why the report is not to be published?

Mr. Wakeham : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an authoritative answer on that point without referring to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. However, I will do that and ask what the position is.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury) : Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the long title of the Football Spectators Bill will actually allow the implementation of the kind of recommendations which might flow from Lord Justice Taylor's report? Is he satisfied, therefore, that the policy that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has put forward is workable?

Mr. Wakeham : These are matters on which there are greater experts than I. The advice that I have received is that, yes, it would be a suitable vehicle. That is on certain broad assumptions about the type of recommendations which might come forward, but I think that the answer is yes.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I wonder whether the Leader of the House can tell us whether he had a long discussion about the Football Spectators Bill at the Cabinet meeting this morning? He need not tell me everything, but did people object or did they just go along with the Prime Minister? Did she just come along and swing her handbag and all the 20 members of the Cabinet toed the line? Is anyone keeping a diary of the events, or is it all left to Bernard Ingham? With the reshuffle coming very shortly and with the Leader of the House having been mentioned in dispatches as one of the likely casualties, I

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suggest that it is time to get something on paper before he is kicked out. There is no point in being sacked with just a whimper.

Mr. Wakeham : I think that the hon. Gentleman has television on the brain, that is his problem. I can understand that the hard work which Parliament does week in week out, with interventions from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--sometimes from a sedentary position, sometimes not, but mostly ill-informed--is not as exciting as me giving details of what happens at Cabinet meetings. I can understand that that would be a more exciting debate, but I am afraid that I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : While we are talking about women, may I ask whether we could have an early debate on self-defence courses for women so that I may raise in the House the objections, on the grounds of discrimination, of a very large number of men and women in my constituency, and in the rest of the borough of Ealing, to the fact that Ealing council is to use ratepayers' money to provide a self-defence course, for six weeks in May and June, for lesbian women only? May we have a discussion on this discriminatory proposal?

Mr. Wakeham : As happens from time to time, my hon. Friend brings forth from Ealing some strange matters for the attention of the House. He shares with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) a fervent imagination about what might produce an exciting debate in the House, but I cannot promise him a debate next week either.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) : Now that the right hon. Gentleman has announced the business until, effectively, 2 May, would he care to think again about the timetable that the Lord Chancellor has imposed on the Green Papers on reform of legal services? This means that the Green Papers will not be debated in this House before the initial closure date. Bearing in mind the fact that the Lord Chancellor has agreed to meet the judges in mid-May, obviously time for consultation has been extended. It would be quite wrong if the Green Papers, which are said to be White Papers with green edges, were not to be debated in this House before the matter was considered further. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can give us an assurance that, towards the latter part of May, Government time will be given for a debate on the whole question of the reform of legal services.

Mr. Wakeham : No, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. As I have said in previous weeks, of course this matter will be debated, but I cannot promise a debate on the Green Papers themselves. Obviously, any proposals will be debated. I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : Since today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Herr Hitler, would my right hon. Friend warn Mr. Delors that the last attempt to thrust union on an unwilling Europe was defeated, largely by a combination of the will power of the British Prime Minister alongside the determination of the British people?

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : And the Soviet Union.

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Mr. Wakeham : I do not keep a record of the dates of Adolf Hitler's birthday and events of that sort. I have enough to do to remember my own children's birthdays, without bothering with that sort of nonsense. On reflection, my hon. Friend may agree that he was probably a little unfair to Mr. Delors. Although we may disagree with Mr. Delors's recent proposals, I think that my hon. Friend pushes the point just a little too far.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : May I, from these Benches, endorse the plea for a debate on the Health Service, bearing in mind the response from the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was unable to say that anyone had given an unreserved welcome to the Government's proposals?

Is there a possibility that in the near future there will be a statement or a debate on the armed services? I had understood that there might be one next week, but obviously one has not been arranged. Is there a possibility of our having such a debate in the near future, especially as--this is something that we in Northern Ireland have known for some time-- undermanning in the armed forces, particularly the Army, stems not simply from a recruitment miscalculation but from the failure, over a number of years, to deploy forces at full strength?

Mr. Wakeham : My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered a question about the level of forces, and I recall that the position was not quite as the hon. Gentleman put it. He has asked me whether there will be a debate. Yes, there will be a debate in the not-too-distant future, and I hope that he will have an opportunity then to make his point at greater length.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington) : May I put it to my right hon. Friend that it is desirable that there should be a debate in this House on the reform of the legal services, if only to give a more balanced view than that conveyed by the debate in another place and by the inept behaviour of the judges?

Mr. Wakeham : There are two ways of looking at that. I would welcome a debate, particularly if we could have some level-headed contributions of the sort that my hon. Friend would make. I wish that I could find the time, but I do not think that I can just at the moment.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a number of district councils in the beautiful county of Nottinghamshire, including the county council and my own Ashfield district council, had a massive debate on mining subsidence in the county? A report has now been submitted which shows that hundreds and hundreds of properties are being severely damaged, yet British Coal is not prepared to accept responsibility. We have had discussions on that before in the House, but it is high time that we had a proper debate so that we can sort out the problem once and for all--it affects hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber--so that those who are getting an unfair deal get a fair deal. I am on my bended knees to the Leader of the House to do something about that.

Mr. Wakeham : The hon. Gentleman is always very persuasive, but I have a suspicion that that matter is more properly directed to British Coal's management than to the House. There are occasions when mining matters are raised in the House. There is one next Tuesday, but it does

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not seem wholly appropriate. I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a debate, but I shall check that he is receiving proper answers to his letters from British Coal.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow) : I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has ever had an office in 2 Abbey garden or 7 Old Palace yard, but if he has he will know that crossing Millbank is extremely dangerous. I have taken that matter up with the Department of Transport and Westminster city council. The Department of Transport says that Westminster city council is busy drawing up a scheme for Parliament square and Westminster city council says that in drawing up its scheme it is in consultation with the Department of Transport. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to knock together a head from the Department of Transport and a head from Westminster city council to try to ensure that Members of Parliament and their staff going to and fro between the House and their offices can cross that lethal road in safety?

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