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Points of Order

3.32 pm

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As, for obvious reasons, we have no Scottish Law Officer here, will the Governor-General and his cronies ensure that the ruling in a Sheffield court regarding the protection of Manpower Services Commission trainees will prevail in Scotland? Will compensation be paid to the McCormack family, and to other families who have suffered in the past? This is an important point.

Mr. Speaker : I think that the hon. Gentleman asked that question during Scottish Question Time, although he may not have liked the answer. There are other ways for him to seek an answer, and if he would like to come and see me I might be able to give him a hint.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are worried that as yet the Government appear to have made no statement about the events taking place at Risley. Can you tell us when a statement is likely to be made? This is a matter of concern not only for officers but for those who remain at the centre.

Mr. Speaker : I have received no indication of a statement.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Although you have been given no indication that there is to be a statement, the Leader of the House is present, and I should like, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to associate myself with the request that a statement be made about Risley as soon as possible.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When Risley closes, as we can see that it will, there will be extra problems for the Liverpool area. There must be a statement at the earliest opportunity so that the prison officers and others at the Liverpool prison know precisely what will happen.

Mr. Speaker : I am sure that that will be heard by those who are responsible for making statements.


Housing Act 1985 (Amendment)

Mr. Harry Greenway, supported by Sir Jim Spicer, Sir George Young, Mr. Robert Rhodes James, Mr. John Wheeler, Mr. Henry Bellingham, Mr. John Redwood and Mr. Den Dover, presented a Bill to amend the Housing Act 1985 ; And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May and to be printed. [Bill 132.]


Order for Second Reading read.


That the Human Organ Transplants Bill be referred to a Second Reading Committee--[ Mr. Maclean. ]

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Public Service Contract

3.34 pm

Mr. David Porter (Waveney) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a public service contract, with compensation on failure to supply, between community charge and ratepayers and local authorities ; and between consumers and public services.

Compensation when a service is not supplied is a buzz word. It is high on the agenda of consumer affairs, and rightly so. Compensation from British Rail when it fails to deliver people, even within its scandalous 10-minute margin of error, will strike a chord with passengers everywhere. Compensation from the Post Office when the much heralded special deliveries do not arrive the next day or when first-class post does not achieve the Post Office's national 90 per cent. target will create a value-for-money and redress-for-grievance concept almost undreamt of by long-suffering customers inured to monopolies.

This Bill is about quality of service contracts linked to penalties where those are not met. Penalties provide the motivation to the industry or service provider to meet quality standards and provide compensation for individuals who suffer sub-standard service. I am grateful to the National Consumer Council for its helpful advice in preparing for this motion.

I submit that compensation from the Land Registry or the Passport Office-- the average wait at the six passport offices in response to straightforward applications is still 28 working days--from agencies and from Government Departments would warm the hearts of many individuals who have found that frustration and impotence can lead to that terrible state of banging one's head against a brick wall when lapses of service occur. Compensation might even render the parliamentary answer, "I will answer my hon. Friend as soon as possible," a fob-off of the past.

A serious application of the Bill might occur where health authorities have not treated patients for specified operations within a contracted period. Compensation could be used to allow the patients to go private. That kind of incentive could be effective where management is for or against private health care and the proposed changes.

The Bill is equally applicable to local authorities. Until a few years ago, local authorities were monopoly suppliers. They determined their own levels of service. Now increasingly, through competitive tendering, the focus is on customer service. Local authority managers are more arrangers of a mix of cost-effective options to deliver to their communities the service and care increasingly demanded of them. Public service contracts are a logical evolution from that. They can cover everything from a council's statutory obligations to emptying bins and keeping streets free from litter. The local government ombudsman already investigates reports of maladministration. If maladministration is found, he should be given powers to order compensation for the consumer, community charge payer or ratepayer. Customer complaints about British Rail rose sharply in the 1980s from 60,000 a year to 92,000 a year. The figure was rising until 1986 when the publication of the figures was stopped. The Central Transport Consultative Committee states that complaints from area committees are still increasing. It believes that British Rail abandoned publishing complaint figures because such information "might be used to its disadvantage."

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The service offered to and from Liverpool street station since Easter can at the most charitable be described as a shambles. It typifies the problem. Vandalism on overhead lines and teething troubles with the new signalling are unavoidable. However, guards not giving information and journalists and photographers being escorted off station premises if they attempt to report the travelling public's fury is quite a different matter.

British Rail is reluctantly being forced to give the odd refund here and the occasional token compensation there. It should be dragged kicking and screaming, if necessary, into extending season tickets and paying compensation automatically. Under the rights of carriage regulations, it has no responsibility or obligation to deliver passengers in a seat or on time. Under the Bill, when a ticket is purchased a public service contract is entered into for that journey. Failure to deliver would bring agreed compensation. If a guard inspecting a ticket on InterCity found a passenger standing because no seats were left, he would issue a voucher for compensation for that service failure.

The same fundamental idea of delivery within an agreed, contracted time and within accepted comfort levels could apply to London Transport. Public service contracts, varying during the day to reflect the reality of customer use, would help London Transport management keep the paying, travelling public at the forefront of their minds.

Compensation and limited liability are now watchwords and an incentive within British Telecom. From 1 April this year, when British Telecom fails to restore a service within two days, or to provide a new service within two days of the agreed appointment date, it pays the customer £5 for every extra day of delay. Alternatively, British Telecom accepts liability for claims for loss up to limit of £5,000 for business customers and £1,000 for residential customers. That is a superb example of the private sector responding to public clamour for a better deal. That service obligation is very welcome--even though it did not apply years ago.

The Water Bill, now being considered in another place, will establish a customers' charter. Each company is required to draw up an individual code of practice about

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services, terms and conditions and how to complain, together with an entitlement for domestic customers of £5 cash or credit each day that certain basic and, in effect, contracted standards are not met. In what will be a private sector industry, there is expectation of good consumer practice and compensation. The regulation and enforcement of contracts is crucial. Be it electricity, water, gas, telecommunications or whatever, the regulator must be able to intervene in the quality of supply and service standards. The obligation to supply individuals from a monopoly advantage is not covered by the Bill but should be noted as part of the process of dealing with utilities from the consumer's viewpoint. In the United States, most states have a utilities commission that can refer to the district attorney any cause for believing that a utility has violated a lawfully enforced service standard. The attorney files either a criminal prosecution or a civil suit for compensation against the company. That leaves the individual in a position to take civil action, knowing that the company has already been found guilty of breach of service regulation, and the individual usually gets out -of-court compensation.

That is a lengthy process, and we do not need to go down that road. We can have a simpler and a far more effective right to compensation. My Bill would complement the Consumer Protection Act 1961 and a tranche of consumer legislation. Compensation in private and public services is an idea whose time has come. I commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Porter, Mr. James Cran, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Anthony Coombs, Mr. Nicholas Bennett, Mr. Timothy Kirkhope, Mr. John Bowis, Mr. David Martin, Mr. Alan Amos, Mr. James Paice and Mr. Tim Boswell.

Public Service Contract

Mr. David Porter accordingly presented a Bill to establish a public service contract, with compensation on failure to supply, between community charge and ratepayers and local authorities ; and between consumers and public services : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 7 July and to be printed. [Bill 133.]

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Glasgow, Central By-election

4.44 pm

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan) : I beg to move,

That Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the burgh constituency of Glasgow, Central in the room of Robert McTaggart, Esquire, deceased.

Mr. Speaker, may I-- [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn wish to intervene?

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn) : The behaviour of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) in this instance has been shameful. Robert McTaggart's family still live in the constituency. Members of the hon. Gentleman's party have been running around the constituency looking for a seat, and the man is not yet cold in his grave.

Mr. Sillars : That would be fair comment if it were not for the fact that the Labour party has gone through the perfectly legitimate process of picking its candidate and holding its initial press conferences. The Labour party candidate's photograph appears in The Scotsman today, in which he looks sound. I intend to ignore absolutely the double standards of the hon. Member for Springburn. All of us, irrespective of party, regret that a by- election was caused by the death of Bob McTaggart, who was one of the kindest people to me after my victory in the Govan by-election. He went out of his way to tell me that, although we represented different political parties and had our differences, we represented adjoining constituencies and that there would be no differences whatsoever on matters affecting people. Like every other right hon. and hon. Member, I valued him as a human being, and it is a matter of regret that a by-election has been caused by his death.

No one in Scotland will be worried by the fact that we are debating a by- election writ which takes precedence over a guillotine motion on the so- called Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Bill, particularly a guillotine motion which allocates only one day for the majority of Scottish Members of Parliament to discuss the Bill on Report and Third Reading and when six English Tory Members have had ample time in Committee to pass judgment on Scottish education and, in the view of many people, to damage it. However, this debate takes precedence.

Before I explain in full my reasons for suggesting that a by-election should be held--I am open to argument that a by-election should not be held, such is the character of these debates--I cast my mind back to the 1970s when the Labour party offered tough opposition to a Conservative Government not only on such matters, but on other procedural devices, and talked away the day and the night, together with the business and the following day's business. No doubt that opportunity will arise later.

There are several reasons for suggesting that the motion for a writ should be moved and accepted today for the by-election in Glasgow, Central. My research was stimulated by the significant speech made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on 20 January 1989, when he moved the writ for the Richmond by-election. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not present, but I understand that this is an important day for England and Wales in electoral terms. The hon. Gentleman explained :

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"Once one gets to know the rules and procedures in any walk of life"--

and the hon. Gentleman has been here for a while--

"that knowledge can be very handy. Some of us are very thorough about doing so."

I thought that on Budget day, but I was not as thorough as I should have been. The hon. Gentleman went on to say :

"To get a writ through from the Back Benches, as opposed to moving it from the Dispatch Box, the first point one discovers is that it is the first item of business and should precede everything else. If a writ is to be moved on a day when there are parliamentary questions, it must be done at the beginning of business. If it is objected to, then it can be dealt with after Question Time. It can take up a considerable amount of time."

We shall prove that. He continued :

"It is no bad thing for the House to discuss a writ. It may be that in future, given that Back Benchers as well as Whips can move a writ, that device will be used extensively."

That is hypothetical and remains to be seen.

I read that out because it is astonishing but true that many Members of Parliament do not know a great deal about parliamentary procedure because they are looked after by the Whips. I say that not in any pejorative sense, but because we come here as brand new Members and there is no primer to tell us anything. Someone says, "Here are the Standing Orders, here is Erskine May'. Go and read them." But that is extremely difficult.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : About time.

Mr. Sillars : The hon. Gentleman says, "About time."

Mr. Campbell-Savours : It is bedtime reading.

Mr. Sillars : It is rather heavy bedtime reading.

If an hon. Member is elected in the summer, it is difficult for him to pick up parliamentary procedures. It would be a good idea if your Department, Mr. Speaker, ran seminars for Back Benchers explaining Standing Orders and their cross-references with "Erskine May". We would all know more than we do and would be more effective when dealing with the nice gentleman, the Leader of the House. During the debate on the issue of the writ for the Richmond by-election, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) made a confession to the hon. Member for Bolsover. He said :

"I just want to thank my hon. Friend because by his deep reading of Erskine May', he has revealed that there are things in it which he wotted not of. We have not a lot of privileges on the Back Benches, but I now gather that we have privileges that we did not know about. My hon. Friend will remember that I said to him this morning that I did not know that a Back Bencher could move a writ. We have a tendency to convey to people that we Back Benchers know everything, but it is obvious that we do not. My hon. Friend has taught me that I can move a writ. I should like to try some time, so I shall study the procedure."

An hon. Member of such a long experience did not know that he could move a writ for a by-election. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)--

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman as I know that some of my hon. Friends do not want this debate to continue--nor do I particularly. Some hon. Members who were elected to the House in 1964 listened to people such as Emrys Hughes, Sydney Silverman and many others. We learned much about parliamentary procedure from them. Hon. Members who are newly elected to the House learn by listening and participating in debates. I make that point

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because Emrys Hughes and those from whom I learned helped me to understand "Erskine May"--a great tome that I should not want to carry to bed with me. The hon. Gentleman should take that into consideration.

Mr. Sillars : One of the difficulties is that "Erskine May" is occasionally amended. Indeed, your rulings, Mr. Speaker, can amend it. There is the further problem that Standing Orders change frequently.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) mentioned Emrys Hughes. I most remember him for his remark in the 1966 general election that the only difference between a Tory Government and the great train robbers was that the great train robbers forgot to be elected. I remember Emrys Hughes saying that from a platform in Ayrshire.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : As Emrys Hughes said, never trust a traitor.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Emrys Hughes was never a traitor to the Labour movement.

Mr. Sillars : That is right ; and I am not a traitor to the Socialist movement.

There is a danger of my being drawn outside the parameters of the debate. I shall be careful about that ; I do not want another expulsion. I am trying to read the wise words of the hon. Member for Billericay, who intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Bolsover. This shows how wide, and at the same time how narrow, this debate is. The hon. Lady said :

"I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that by-elections are generally seen as a barometer of public opinion."

That is an important point.

There is another important matter. What happens if a writ is moved and defeated? The hon. Member for Bolsover has done a great deal of reseach and I compliment him on that. He said :

"At least one Conservative Member has spoken of dilatory action. It was suggested a few days ago that the moving of a writ was a means of developing such action. The Clerks were unsure of the ground here. This has been a learning process for me, my hon. Friends and those people who advise the Chair, because that point was a matter for consideration. I shall not name names, but there was a complete blank on the question as to whether it was possible for a further writ to be moved within days of another having been moved and not dealt with satisfactorily. That very question was a puzzle for at least a week. So far as I understand it--I shall be on the record in Hansard --the matter has been resolved."

So far as I am aware, there has been no correction to that authoritative statement by the hon. Member for Bolsover. He said : "The writ can be moved again. However, a writ cannot be moved again--this is another part of the learning process--if it is defeated. That is why I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow that I am not hereabouts trying to get it defeated. I would not attempt to do that, because I want to win over the House and get the writ accepted ; but, if I thought for one moment that I could not carry a majority, I would make absolutely sure that it was not defeated. If it is defeated, that is a different question. That would mean that the writ would fall for the rest of the Session, and none of us want that."--[ Official Report, 20 January 1989 ; Vol. 145, c. 592-601.]

Mr. Campbell-Savours : What has that to do with the price of haggis?

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Mr. Sillars : I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's intervention is intended as an insult, but I do not take it as such. That is the position on whether the writ when moved can be defeated and on when it is moved but does not reach a vote. May I refer also--

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Hesitation.

Mr. Sillars : There will be one or two hesitations.

In column 634 of the same debate, the hon. Member for Bolsover is reported as noting the number of political issues that can be raised, which is part of the drawing of parameters in a debate of this kind. It is worth having a look at "Erskine May". I hope that no one objects, but one must start at page 26, move on to page 27 and then go much further. Under "New Writs" on page 26 "Erskine May" states : "Whenever vacancies occur"--

[Interruption.] I am not saying anything that differs from the statement of the hon. Member for Bolsover in the sense of explaining the background to this writ and the procedural basis upon which I am moving it. "Erskine May" states :

"Whenever vacancies occur in the House of Commons from any legal cause, after the original issue of writs for a new Parliament by the Crown, writs are issued out of Chancery by a warrant from the Speaker, which he issues, when the House is sitting, upon the order of the House of Commons. The causes of vacancy are the death of Members or their succession to a peerage, the acceptance of a disqualifying office, the elevation of Members to the peerage, bankruptcy, lunacy, the establishment of any other legal disqualification for sitting and voting in the House of Commons, and the determination of election judges that elections or returns are void."

"Erskine May" goes on to deal with "Vacancies during a session". I shall not weary you with that, Mr. Speaker, because you must have read these passages several times, if not in preparation for me, at least in preparation for the hon. Member for Bolsover when he moved his writ.

I shall refer not only to Scottish but to United Kingdom issues. In doing so, Mr. Speaker, I shall be invoking your own good authority. On 6 March, at the start of our proceedings on the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Bill, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) raised a point of order. He said :

"We would be happy--I am sure that I speak for all Scottish Opposition Members--if the House would leave all the proceedings on the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Bill to the individual votes of Scottish Members."

You, Mr. Speaker, replied :

"I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is a United Kingdom Parliament, and long may it remain so."--[ Official Report, 6 March 1989 ; Vol. 148, c. 622.]

You are perfectly entitled to hold that view--I accept that--but your remarks must mean that matters relevant throughout the United Kingdom are relevant to a debate on the issue of a by-election writ in any constituency in the United Kingdom.

When I had read "Erskine May", I read Professor Bradley, professor of constitutional law at Edinburgh university, who is such an authority on constitutional law that Lord Denning has been known to use him when trying to circumvent the rule that judges cannot refer to Hansard when interpreting an Act of Parliament. One is allowed to quote authoritative works of lawyers in court, so Lord Denning has been able to quote Professor Bradley quoting

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Hansard. I say that not so much to praise Professor Bradley as to show that he is an authority on constitutional legal matters. I was astonished to read--we all have something to learn-- that there is no rule about moving a writ. The moving of a writ rests upon the decision of the Government Whips if a seat has previously been held by a member of the governing party or on the decision of the Opposition Whips if the seat has been held by the Opposition. There is no hard and fast rule, so, in theory, we could leave people unrepresented for a very long time.

The convention is that a writ must be moved within three months. That arose when Dick Taverne resigned over the European Community, and the writ for the Lincoln by-election was not moved for six months. There were several rows, and agreement was reached through the usual channels that writs should be moved within three months. That made me think about the relationship of this House and the political parties with the electors and led me to question whose primary interest is at stake when we decide to move a writ. Is it that of the people and their need to be represented, or is it that of the political parties, which need tactics and manoeuvrability? I concluded that it was not the interests of the people. I have some experience of by-elections. As Labour Members constantly remind me, I used to be a member of the Labour party. I was taught under the Chief Whip-ship of Bob Mellish, who was a past master in these matters.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East) : Unlike the present crowd.

Mr. Sillars : I did not say that ; the hon. Member up there said it.

Mr. Faulds : It was not "the hon. Member up there" who said it ; it was the hon. Member for Warley, East.

Mr. Sillars : I apologise, but I have not yet caught up with the boundary changes that took place while I was away from the House. There is no justifiable democratic reason for the practices that have obtained hitherto in respect of by-election writs. The proprietorial instinct displayed in this place is offensive to those democratic principles. Political parties seem to believe that they own seats and, in a sense, people. We talk of "their seat"; it is normal parlance. We hear that a seat is "a Labour seat", "a Tory seat", "an SLD seat" or "an SNP seat". Of course it is not. The political parties are given power by the people for a given length of time. An accident, death or resignation can end the link between the people and the party. It is the people with whom we should be concerned.

The political parties manipulate by-election dates. I have some experience of that and I confess my past guilt. When I was the Labour candidate in the South Ayrshire by-election I was consulted by the Labour party's national agent, Ron Hayward, about the best date for the by-election. We took into account such factors as the compilation of the electoral register, but the main factor was party advantage. On that occasion, I was the beneficiary. Last autumn, in Govan, I was a victim of the political parties' ability to manipulate the dates. The writ was issued on the day on which Bruce Millan resigned. We all know that the Labour party decided that a snap election would be the best way to outflank the SNP.

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Labour thought that we would not have time to get our organisation going because we would have a cold start. That mistake in tactical judgment is irrelevent to my principal point, that the decision was made by reference to the Labour party's tactical need at the time. The electors of Vale of Glamorgan vote tomorrow. We are adult politicians and I do not think that any of us would dispute the fact that the Tory party has tried to bury that by-election among the England and Wales county elections. The Tories fear a defeat and hope that people will lose sight of it among other results elsewhere. It will be seen as only one factor among many in people's assessment of 10 years of the Prime Minister's dictatorship of the country. I think that that is wrong, and that the needs of the people for representation should determine by- election dates. Those needs should be made the highest consideration, and that principle should be formalised either in "Erskine May" or in our Standing Orders so that party advantage is no longer the prime factor.

I worry that the Labour party will attempt--it is normal practice--to set a date for the Glasgow, Central by-election to bury it in the European election campaign, for a variety of tactical reasons. Perhaps Labour thinks that SNP will be overstretched if it has to run European and parliamentary elections at the same time, and that people will not be able to congregate in Glasgow, Central as they did in Govan because they will be trying to win in the north-east and in the south. There is also a wee bit of worry about what the result would be, and it would be quite nice for the Labour party to bury that as well. Everyone in the world leaks, and the political parties are no different. There have been leaks in the Scottish press to the effect that the Scottish Labour party has fixed its eye on 15 June, for that very reason.

Matters of domestic sovereignty over which Parliament still has absolute control--or matters of shared sovereignty involving a decision to cast a vote in Brussels or elsewhere--should not be taken into the context of a European election. Matters of domestic sovereignty should be isolated so that people may understand the issues and may be given the opportunity to decide who they want to represent them and on which issues. I suggest that we should consider the different ways in which a vacancy can occur and fix these matters in relation to that.

Some people do not realise it, but the House still has enormous sovereignty. For example, the Government decide the poll tax, policy in the National Health Service, and the monetary policy that affects interest rates. The Government determine what will happen to the Scottish Development Agency, which set up the Scottish homes organisation, which decides whether there will be legal reform and, if so, what measure we will get. The Government produce social security benefits. That has nothing to do with Europe. Therefore, it is important that the two mandates are separated. There can be a party advantage, but that is not the right way to go about it. Opposed to my point of view, it could be pleaded that I am exercising the countervailing right within the rules to prevent that happening. According to pages 326 and 327 of "Erskine May", a Back-Bench Member has the right to move the writ for a by-election, which would take it out of the European elections as one could have done to take the Vale of Glamorgan out of the county elections.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : The hon. Gentleman is putting forward a powerful

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argument for taking the choice of the date of by-elections from parties and making it a constitutional matter. He could tap an equally rich vein in respect of general elections. They should not be a matter of party advantage, either. Are he and his colleagues in the Scottish National party prepared to participate in the procedures of the House, including perhaps a Speaker's conference or a Select Committee properly to consider those matters in the normal parliamentary way?

Mr. Sillars : That is an interesting point. The hon. Gentleman is an international lawyer and has a great interest in constitutional matters. He made a fair point. A Speaker's conference would clearly be beneficial. He asked whether we would participate. Of course, my colleagues and I would participate. Whenever there is an extension of democracy, the hon. Gentleman will find us participating. If I were to pursue that point, I might go outside the boundaries of order, and I am careful and anxious not to do that.

The hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Lambie) was not given to doing exactly what the Whips told him. I have known him for a long time. He is the sort of chap who, because of democratic issues, would be compelled to move such a writ on his own initiative. However, there are other folk who are not of the same calibre as my hon. Friend. We are all politicians. Some folk would like to become Ministers or reach the Front Bench. Being in my unusual position, I am not subject to that pressure.

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