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Column 458assurance that at Easter, next summer and at future peak periods we will not have the mess and chaos that we have experienced in recent years?
Mr. Lloyd : I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we have taken the steps that I have described. We have the situation very much in mind and have every reason to believe that the performance of the passport department will be excellent next year-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) should stop shouting across the Chamber. If he looks at the Order Paper he will see that it contains another question on the Birmingham Six.
7. Mr. Colin Shepherd : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what further steps are proposed, in the light of recent incidents in Greater Manchester and elsewhere, to impose tighter controls on gun clubs.
Mr. Peter Lloyd : Subject to the advice given to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary by the firearms consultative committee, he proposes to withhold his approval from clubs that operate day or temporary membership schemes. Probationary members would also have to be sponsored by two existing members of the club, both of whom hold firearms certificates. They would have to be constantly supervised while on the range and would need to receive instruction in the safe handling of firearms. The number of probationary members of a club would not be permitted to exceed the number of full members.
Mr. Shepherd : I thank my hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that while the public are justifiably concerned about the use of firearms, gun clubs are valuable places in which this reasonable sport can be conducted with safety? I am glad that he agrees that gun clubs must be circumspect about the credentials of probationary members. Does he accept that when considering the granting of a firearms certificate for probationary members there is no substitute for an in-depth investigation by the police and that the relevant chief constable should pronounce himself satisfied?
Mr. Lloyd : I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. Anyone seeking a firearms certificate will be subject to a full police investigation and there is most definitely no question of a certificate being granted simply because a person is a club member.
Column 459will stipulate that the people holding them can shoot only on a range issued with a safety certificate and, therefore, almost invariably clubs will decide that they need one.
Mr. John Patten : Yes, Sir. Copies of the confession statements made by those convicted of the Birmingham public house bombings were provided to the Home Office as part of the inquiry into the case carried out by the Devon and Cornwall police in 1987.
Mr. Corbyn : Does the Minister accept that those confessions were obtained after beatings of the six prisoners concerned and that serious inquiries are now going on into the conduct of the West Midlands police who obtained those confessions in the first place? Does he agree that six men have been wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years for crimes that they did not commit, that they were abominably treated at the beginning, and that the important thing is for him to take the simple decision to refer the whole case back to the Court of Appeal so that the men's innocence can be declared and at last they can be set free?
Mr. Patten : All these matters have been before the courts on more than one occasion. They have been fully investigated and they are being further examined now. If the hon. Gentleman or any of his right hon. and hon. Friends comes forward with new evidence, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will consider it again. Until that time, I try to remember as much as I can--care though I do for the quality of justice and ensuring that no one is wrongfully imprisoned--the Birmingham 21 who were murdered and the Birmingham 162 who were injured.
Mrs. Currie : I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about remembering the devastation in Birmingham that was caused by the atrocious bombing. Will he accept that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are thoroughly fed up with sniping attacks on the police? We have the best police force in the world, and it is about time that somebody said so.
Mr. Patten : It is entirely right that if any policeman or woman does anything wrong, an investigation should take place and the individual should be brought to justice. On the other hand, I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will agree that, as my hon. Friend says, we owe a great deal to the police who conduct themselves in difficult circumstances and often face violent attacks.
Mr. Mallon : However one describes them, surely the Minister will agree that there are new factors that are common to both the Guildford case and the Birmingham case, and that many in this country and elsewhere believe that these factors are a good reason for the Home Secretary again to consider the matter. Does the Minister accept that there are compelling reasons to question the validity and the justice of the original trial verdicts?
Column 460matters--I respect that care--that if he writes to us and presents new evidence, we shall consider it most carefully. I appeal to all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to come forward with their evidence. I only wish that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is not in his place, but who persistently tells the House that he knows the names of the people who really carried out the bombing, would write to my right hon. and learned Friend and give us the names.
Mr. Beaumont-Dark : I am most obliged to you, Mr. Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that I was the first elected official to visit the scene of the Birmingham pub bombing? I was there within an hour of that dreadful experience having taken place. No one is soft upon this dreadful offence, but the Birmingham people are concerned with justice, not with vengeance. If it is true that four members of the serious crimes squad were involved-- we all accept that two trials were held, one in the Court of Appeal and one at the Crown court--would it not be good if the assistant chief constable of the West Yorkshire police, who is involved with the serious crimes squad, at least investigated the four to clear up the problem? Justice is what this place is about, and justice is what everybody should be satisfied we have had.
Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend speaks with great power about the important balance between justice and retribution, and justice for those who might be wrongfully convicted. I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is nothing to prevent Mr. Shaw, the assistant chief constable of the West Yorkshire force, from conducting an investigation with the oversight of the Police Complaints Authority. There is nothing to prevent him from examining any matter of an earlier date if he has grounds for suspicion.
Mr. Mellor : No, Sir. The cost of so doing for all pensioners would be £400 million, and would increase the price of the licence fee for the rest of us to over £100. Since many pensioners are not poor and most other television licence payers are not rich, that would not be equitable.
Mr. Skinner : If the Government can find sweeteners for British Aerospace and are able to make handouts to their friends in the City, why cannot they find £400 million to ensure that pensioners on one side of the street who have to pay for their television licences are in the same position as those on the other side of the street who do not ? Why should the Prime Minister have 13 television sets and not have to pay for a licence? She has one in every room. Even Boris has one free. Now that this place is televised, some pensioners are having to pay to watch the proceedings in the palace of varieties while some get it for nowt. Surely that is the utmost degradation. Why do the Government not make everyone equal in this respect?
Column 461is suggesting that she should have an additional concession by having a free licence as a lady of pensionable age. That identifies precisely why he is advancing a bad idea. There are plenty of pensioners who are well off and do not require a state subsidy for their television licences. There are plenty of other non-pensioner, non -disabled licence payers who would resent, and rightly so, having to pay £100 instead of £66 to provide for a concession that is merely an electoral bribe for some and a fine for others.
Mr. Andrew MacKay : Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that most reasonable people would say that there is no justification whatever in giving free television licences to every pensioner, including many who are extremely well off, while at the same time a large number of young families on limited incomes have to pay for a full and increased licence, which is hardly fair?
Mr. Mellor : My hon. Friend is right. It is interesting that, notwithstanding the stridency of Opposition Members, when they come to formulate their policy proposals they do so with great care, simply saying that it is their
"intention to move towards a funding system which will permit"-- presumably an open-ended commitment that could well be ignored in any Parliament that so chose. Those are weasel words, but if any right hon. or hon. Member on the Opposition Front Bench wished to toughen them up a bit and give a categorical assurance that would delight the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I am sure that he will catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.
11. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what decision he has made regarding the privatisation of the police national computer and the passing of control of the police national computer into the hands of an executive agency.
Mr. Waddington : The police national computer organisation is engaged in work to replace the existing computer with a new system-PNC2. This is planned to become operational by the end of 1990. I have not yet considered the longer-term role of the organisation. That will depend on a number of factors, including the programme of work on the provision of further information systems for the police. Plans for those systems are presently being developed.
Mr. McFall : Does the Secretary of State realise that the Police Federation is passionately opposed to the privatisation proposal on the ground that private security firms will now have access to information which they have historically been denied, destroying the relationship between the police and the public on confidentiality? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that programmes such as "Crimewatch" would no longer be able to carry the message that the police will keep confidential any information that they receive, which in effect will increase crime? If the right hon. and learned Gentleman hands over the police national computer to the executive agency, will he state unequivocally why?
Column 462out, executive agency status, or a combination of the two. I fully agree that two matter that we must consider are security and confidentiality, but executive agency status is not incompatible with the security that the hon. Gentleman wants.
Mr. Darling : The Home Secretary seems to be telling the House that he will spend public money on improving the police computer before deciding whether it should be privatised. What benefits could possibly accrue to the detection or prevention of crime from privatising the police national computer? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that if it were privatised, confidentiality and security would be prejudiced? How on earth does the privatisation proposal assist us in the fight against crime?
Mr. Waddington : I do not see the logic of the argument that executive agency status need necessarily prejudice security and confidentiality. I agree that we must look into all the relevant matters, but at the end of the day we want an efficient system which represents good value for money.
Mr. Peter Lloyd : Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which makes it an offence to be in possession of a knife in a public place without good reason, came into force on 29 September 1988. In the remainder of 1988 in England and Wales, 150 people were prosecuted under this section, of whom 130 were found guilty.
Mr. Tredinnick : Given the low number of prosecutions, is my hon. Friend satisfied that the Act is working effectively? What was the number of prosecutions and convictions in Leicestershire during 1988? Is he aware of the great popularity of the legislation that bans stars and other martial arts weapons?
Mr. Lloyd : The figure for Leicestershire last year was only one, but provisional figures for this year show that the Act is increasingly being used. I expect it to be used even more as the police become more familiar with it and realise the ways open to them to use it.
Column 463meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I shall depart for Strasbourg later today to attend the European Council.
Mr. Buchan : When the right hon. Lady met her fellow Ministers this morning, did she discuss with the Secretary of State for Scotland his astonishing statement yesterday about homelessness in Scotland, when he said that there was no need for money to be included in the public expenditure statement for homelessness in Scotland because additional money was being made available for London and many of the homeless in London were young Scots? Would the right hon. Lady be prepared to spend Christmas in a cardboard box? Does she agree that the Secretary of State made an appalling statement, both about the position in London and that in Scotland?
The Prime Minister : My right hon. and learned Friend will answer the hon. Gentleman as he did very effectively with regard to Scotland. Many bed spaces in London are not used in the evening, especially those available for the homeless. People are sometimes sent to such places but do not receive any attention for their personal problems, which we think is necessary. The amount that is being spent on homelessness will continue to increase. In general, the number of houses has risen. The amount available to the Housing Corporation over the next two years will rise from about £817 million to about £1,500 million.
Mrs. Ann Winterton : My right hon. Friend will be aware of the overwhelming support on both sides of the House and in the country for the cause of the pre-1973 war widows. Will she review the Government's policy as a matter of urgency and place those deserving women, without exception, on a par with their post-1973 colleagues?
The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend knows, most of the advances in war widows' pensions--whether on tax matters or the additional amounts given from the age of 65, again at 70 and again at 80--have been made by Conservative Governments. It is an excellent record that we are anxious to keep. We are therefore considering the matter further and hope to be in position to make a further statement before Christmas.
Mr. Hattersley : When the permanent secretary to the Department of Trade and Industry said on Monday that the terms of the Rover deal were hidden to avoid severely damaging our relations with the European Community, what did he mean?
The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has answered to the House. I firmly agree with the view that the sale of Rover to British Aerospace was greatly in the interests of the British taxpayer, who had already lost about £3 billion, with another £1.6 billion at risk. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we were in danger of losing the deal. It was an extremely good deal for the British taxpayer and it remains an extremely good deal.
Mr. Hattersley : As that answer bears not the slightest relationship to the question that the Prime Minister was asked, let me return to the statement made by the permanent secretary to a Committee of the House this week. When he spoke of severe damage to our relations with the European Community, was he not saying in terms that to have revealed the truth would have done so much
Column 464damage that the Government entered into a calculated deception, and is that view not reinforced by today's revelation that the Government assessed the consequences of such a deception? If there was no deception, why did Lord Young circulate colleagues asking what the price of deception would be?
The Prime Minister : I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation of letters which I understand are now being discussed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry answered questions on the other matters in the House, and answered them satisfactorily.
Mr. Hattersley : Is the Prime Minister aware that, although she may not accept that interpretation, Parliament, the country and the European Community do? That is why she will go to Strasbourg with a tarnished reputation.
The Prime Minister : Parliament, the European Community and, above all, the country, know full well that this was an excellent deal for the British taxpayer, as well as for all who work at Rover and who previously worked at British Leyland. It was good for both workers and taxpayers to privatise both the lorry and the car sectors. Of course the right hon. Gentleman does not like that ; he would much prefer the British taxpayer to have to pay over and over again, as long as the thing stayed nationalised-- and that was bad.
Mr. Brazier : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision by the EEC Transport Ministers to deregulate air fares is a triumph for British diplomacy, and that it is the kind of concrete measure to help ordinary citizens that she called for at Bruges? Will she take it from me that the majority of the British people wish her well on her way to the Strasbourg summit, and would like to hear more in the same vein?
The Prime Minister : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Britain has been pressing very hard to secure cheaper air fares in Europe : we were paying far more per mile to go there than we have ever paid to go to the United States. The agreement is indeed a triumph for British diplomacy, and also a triumph for our kind of Europe. We believe in a much freer and more open Europe, which will break down trade barriers and be of great benefit to the people of Britain. [Interruption.]
Mr. Hume : Given the agenda of the Strasbourg summit, will the Prime Minister reflct on some realities on her way there--for instance, the fact that West Germany's interest rate is 5 per cent., Holland's 6 per cent., Denmark's 7 per cent. and Belgium's and France's 9 per cent., while the United Kingdom's is 15 per cent? Moreover, the inflation rates of all those countries are less than half that of the United Kingdom. Given her attitude to the European monetary system, why does the Prime Minister think that all those countries are out of step?
The Prime Minister : Let me point out--citing some of the countries that the hon. Gentleman mentioned--that Belgium's unemployment rate is 10 per cent., Denmark's and Spain's is 16.8 per cent., France's 10 per cent., Ireland's 17.3 per cent., Italy's 10.7 per cent. and the United Kingdom's 6 per cent.
Sir Richard Body : As my right hon. Friend will have an opportunity to express her views on the European social charter this weekend in Strasbourg, will she make it plain that--far from being some document of woolly principles--the charter contains some 43 action points, including 17 directives to the House to change the law? According to an independent study by Liverpool university, one of those directives is in danger of causing the loss of no fewer than half a million jobs in this country.
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is absolutely right : the social charter was accompanied by an action programme embodying 43 proposals and 17 directives, most of which were entirely inappropriate for the Commission. If any action is to be taken, it should be a matter for national Parliaments.
Furthermore, the social charter would cause a great increase in unemployment in this country--and, I believe, in others--and would probably mean a fortress Europe in the end. It is utterly right that the House rejected it decisively in a vote, and we shall do the same at Strasbourg.
Mr. Pike : Does the Prime Minister recognise that millions of people in this country have been losers as a result of her Government's policies during the last 10 years and that increasingly millions of people recognise that they will lose even more next April when the poll tax is introduced, because of its basic unfairness and its failure to take into account ability to pay? Will she do something urgently to rectify that, or does she intend to allow the losers to ensure that she and her party lose the next general election?
The Prime Minister : The overwhelming majority of people in this country have been gainers during the lifetime of this Government. Their standard of living is higher than they have ever known before. The standard of social services is also higher than they have ever known before.
As for the community charge, I imagine that the hon. Gentleman believes that people should bear a fair share of the cost of local authority public expenditure. In England, only 25 per cent. of local authority expenditure is borne by the community charge. About 9 million or 10 million people will get a community charge rebate, at a cost of £2.5 billion to £3 billion, every penny piece of which will be paid by the taxpayer. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not wish people to get out of paying their legitimate dues to the local authority.
Mr. Sumberg : Given the economic revival of the north-west of England as a result of the policies of my right hon. Friend and her Government, would it not be a really good advertisement for Britain if Manchester were to host the 1996 Olympic games? If my right hon. Friend agrees with me, will she join me in supporting the campaign to achieve the objective?
The Prime Minister : I agree entirely that to hold the 1996 Olympic games in Manchester would be a very good way of celebrating the revival of the north-west under this Government. I wish the Manchester Olympic bid team well. I wrote on, I believe, 10 November to the International Olympic committee supporting Manchester's claim for the Olympic games in 1996 to be held in Manchester.
Mr. Shore : --does not the Prime Minister agree that it would make very good sense for Britain now to organise a serious study of the constitutional and economic consequences of economic and monetary union--a study not confined to the governors of the European central banks--and at the same time to ensure that placed at the very top of the European agenda is the future relationship between the European Communities and the emerging independent and democratic countries of eastern Europe? [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister : As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, when the House debated these matters it took precisely the same view as that which he has expressed so clearly on Delors stages 2 and 3 : that it was not right to take away from the House of Commons fundamental rights that are central to our duties. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have already produced an alternative paper on monetary union which will be considered along with the Delors paper. It goes just a little beyond stage 1, but it would not require any central bank or any common currency. However, it would result in more consistent monetary policies.
As for the relationship between the Community and eastern European countries, we shall be considering that matter at Strasbourg. We put a paper to the Commission, following questions that I raised at the Paris summit just a few days ago, about the varying kinds of relationships that we could have with eastern European countries. The matter will, therefore, be discussed at the Strasbourg meeting, and I shall duly report upon it to the House on my return.
Column 467Berlin wall? Does she agree with me that remnants of the wall ought to be kept standing to remind us, and those who follow us, that the wall was built by Socialists, not to keep people out but to keep them in?
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend makes his point effectively in his own inimitable way. After 40 years of that sort of system, people in eastern Europe are making their views very clear indeed. Socialism does not work and they want to have no more of it.
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