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Sir Geoffrey Howe : While I would not express my anxiety about this in as dramatic a way as the hon. Gentleman did in expressing his multi- faceted concern, many matters are continuously under the watch of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I agree that it would be appropriate to debate those matters in the relatively near future.
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) : Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate to allow the Prime Minister to mimic herself and present the nation with a visual display of what she looked like when she was fizzing with anger because the banks had withdrawn from the student top-up loan scheme?
Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith) : I am concerned about cheque book journalism, particularly because it encourages individuals to commit perjury. Surely we should have an early debate to discuss press abuse with a view to establishing a statutory right of reply to protect the general public above all else.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I am not sure that I entirely followed the hon. Gentleman's thought process--it is not always easy to do so. I hope that he will find an opportunity of expressing his thoughts more fully on a later occasion.
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : When does the Leader of the House think that we are likely to have the opportunity to debate the National Health Service again? I ask because I have a petition from 500 of my constituents who are deeply anxious about the Government's policy on the Health Service. They are faced with growing queues for many operations, growing need in many specialties and diminishing resources to meet the growing needs of an aging population.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will continue to applaud the massive increase in resources devoted to the Health Service under the Government and give his equally urgent support to the National Health Service and Community Care Bill currently going through the House.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. A number of hon. Members who have not previously risen are now doing so and, therefore, I regret that I shall have to put a limit on business questions. They will continue until 4.10 pm and then, whatever happens, we must move on.
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : Bearing in mind that in Scotland Conservative support runs at 16 per cent., will the Leader of the House, when bringing forward the remainder of the Government's legislative programme, consider Robert Burn's other words : "O wad some power the giftie gie us,
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
And foolish notion."
Sir Geoffrey Howe : It is because of my confidence in that proposition that I have been delighted to see the
Column 419growing success of the televising of the House, which I am sure will continue to present the Government in an increasingly favourable light.
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle) : Is the Leader of the House aware that one bank, let alone the Prime Minister, is fizzing--the Girobank in my constituency? More than a year and a half ago, in June 1988, the Government announced that they would quickly sell it off to the highest bidder. They totally failed in that task, but there is great rumour and uncertainty about Girobank's future. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate so that we can find out exactly what is happening? Will he end the uncertainty by announcing, or getting the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to announce, that the Government are cancelling the privatisation and that corporate customers and others who are worried need not worry any more because there will be investment from the Post Office?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The privatisation process has commended itself throughout the decade during which the Government have been in office. There is nothing to add to that in the light of the hon. Gentleman's point, but, as always, I shall bring his point to the attention of my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) : Is the Leader of the House aware that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) is not alone in seeking a full and frank statement from the Secretary of State for Scotland about the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Lord Devaird and the reported activities of certain other senior members of the Scottish judiciary? If such a statement is not forthcoming, the public will suspect, rightly, yet another establishment cover-up.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The public have the good sense not to share the motivation of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). The whole House will welcome the fact that the Lord President of the Court of Session took prompt action to dispel rumours about certain recent events in Scotland. As I have already said, the conduct of Scottish judges is entirely a matter for the Lord President, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has nothing to say.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will the Leader of the House give time for the Second Reading of the Registration of Commercial Lobbying Interests Bill, particularly bearing in mind the "World in Action" programme broadcast by Granada Television last Monday? Such a debate could encompass also the report made to Parliament in 1976 by the Royal Commission on standards of conduct in public life which was never debated-- a minor scandal in itself. It would then be seen that the Bill would plug a loophole and make the bribery of Members of Parliament a criminal offence, as recommended by Lord Justice Salmon.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The whole question of lobbyists and their relationship to right hon. and hon. Members is under investigation by the Select Committee on Members' Interests, which is as it should be. It is no part of my responsibility to deal with matters that were reported three years before the expiry of the last Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman should direct his complaint against them, for there is a limit to the number of mistakes made by Labour that the present Government can clear up.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the Leader of the House make a statement next week on the question of disappearing silver? Is he aware that some years ago the Prime Minister managed to get away with a number of pieces of silver from Belton house, near Grantham, which was once in private ownership but which is now owned by the National Trust? She still has 22 pieces of that silver locked away in Downing street. Some of us are worried about whether any more silver has gone missing. The Leader of the House ought to examine the property into which he moved recently, because he might find that the Prime Minister has taken some silver from there also. Some right hon. and hon. Members are convinced that the Prime Minister has erected the pearly gates at the end of Downing street to stop people fetching that silver back.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : When may the House debate the subject of right hon. and hon. Members' interests? Is the Leader of the House aware of a statement that I made the other day, based on my conversation with Mr. Ian Greer of Ian Greer Associates, who told me directly that, through his company, he had paid Members of Parliament for making introductions to his firm? They were using their parliamentary position to make money. That matter is not only for the Select Committee on Members' Interests but for Parliament as a whole. It should be debated on the Floor of the House so that we can hear what every hon. and right hon. Member has to say.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The House is not impressed by the way in which the hon. Gentleman continues to return to that topic on the Floor of the House. The general question of lobbyists and their relationships with right hon. and hon. Members is under investigation by the Select Committee on Members' Interests, to which any general questions should be referred. Any specific allegations made either by a right hon. or hon. Member or anyone else about a Member of Parliament would also, in the ordinary way, be investigated by that Committee. It is high time that the hon. Gentleman took advantage of those existing procedures instead of referring back to this House.
Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath) : I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the BBC radio programme "Face the Facts" that was broadcast this morning, which dealt with the problem confronting many steel workers who, throughout their working lives, had their lungs damaged by noxious materials and gases emanating from their workplace. Can a statement be made next week by the appropriate Minister on that matter?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I do not have the advantage of having listened to that broadcast, but if it raised a serious question of industrial health, as the hon. Gentleman describes, I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend.
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the future of electricity generation in the United Kingdom by both nuclear and coal-fired stations? Is he aware that 200 employees of GEC Alsthom in my constituency and a further 20 in Manchester have been given notice of redundancy because
Column 421of cancelled orders? Future policy should be declared as a matter of urgency so that those redundancies and others may be prevented.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I cannot promise a specific debate on the general subject or on the examples given by the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), but I shall bring them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Mr. Harry Cohen, supported by Ms. Diane Abbott, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mrs. Maria Fyfe, Mr. Frank Haynes, Mr. Eric S. Heffer, Mr. John Hughes, Mr. Peter L. Pike, Ms. Dawn Primarolo and Mr. Eddie Loyden, presented a Bill to amend the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 and the Local Government Finance Act 1988 in order to protect an individual's privacy : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February. [Bill 57.]
Mr. Eddie Loyden, supported by Mr. Allan Roberts, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Robert N. Wareing, Mr. Eric S. Heffer, Ms. Dawn Primarolo and Mr. Harry Cohen, presented a Bill to amend the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 to require local authorities to publish annual reports on the steps they have taken to meet the information needs of disabled persons : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February. [Bill 58.]
Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Official Secrets Act 1989 (Prescription) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the draft Employment Protection (Variation of Limits) (No. 2) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the Non-Domestic Rates and Community Charges (Timetable) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 2436) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the Standard Community Charge (Scotland) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 2437) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 2462) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Electricity Act 1989 (Fees) Order 1990 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Sackville.]
Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention, and to the attention of the House, the fact that this afternoon, in the Manchester Crown court, criminal charges which had been laid against Mr. Kevin Taylor were withdrawn at the request of the prosecution, who accepted that the Greater Manchester police had misled the judge and the jury during the course of the four-and-a-half- months trial. Mr. Taylor was a friend of a certain Mr. Stalker. Therefore, I request that you, Mr. Speaker, consider whether this is a fit and proper subject to be debated in the House at an early date.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will agree that we are here to represent our constituents and not special interest groups, especially when we serve on a Standing Committee. I do not know whether you are aware that a meeting was held before the Committee stage of the National Health Service and Community Care Bill started at which the Confederation of Health Service Employees decided which Labour Member should represent that union on the Standing Committee. The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), who is here today, is complaining that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was picked instead of him to represent the union. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Workington will be partial in Committee as he is sponsored by the union and apparently it pays his election expenses.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) said the other day, Members of Parliament who are sponsored by trade unions receive nothing from the union. At election time a portion of their election expenses is paid to the constituency party and not to the hon. Member.
Mr. Speaker : I remind the House that these motions must be disposed of by 10 o'clock. Therefore, I propose to allow a general debate on the five motions on the Order Paper. As a large number of right hon. and hon. Members want to take part in the debate I urge hon. Members to limit speeches to five minutes, or it will be difficult to include everyone who wishes to speak in the debate. I propose to put a limit of 10 minutes--the only authority that the Chair has--between 6 o'clock and 8 o'clock, but I ask right hon. and hon. Members who are called to speak before that time to bear the time limit in mind.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder how you will conduct this debate. On other occasions it is relatively easy to call one hon. Member on the Government side and one from the Opposition, but, according to various press reports--I do not know whether they are true--a substantial number of Tory Members oppose the Government on this issue. How will you choose one Member who is for the measure and one who is against?
That the Population Report (England) (House of Commons Paper No. 48), a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th January, be approved.
I understand that it will be convenient for us also to discuss the following :
That the Revenue Support Grant Report (England) 1990-91 (House of Commons Paper No. 47), a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th January, be approved.
That the Revenue Support Grant Distribution Report (England) (House of Commons Paper No. 49), a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th January, be approved.
That the Revenue Support Grant Transition Report (England) (House of Commons Paper No. 50), a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th January, be approved.
That the Special Grant Report (House of Commons Paper No. 128), a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.
The reports that we are debating form the basis for local government grant settlements for next year. They are similar, although not identical, to the proposals that I reported to the House in an oral statement last November. They are different in two respects. First, we now take account of actual rather than notional capital allocations ; secondly, we take account of the number of community charge payers registered with their local authorities, rather than guessing at a figure gauged from the work of the registrar general.
When I announced these decisions last week, I also announced that we intended to pay 25 per cent. of local government grant in the first two--
Mr. Patten : I announced that we would be paying 25 per cent. of the grant to local authorities in the first two months of the year. That does not fundamentally alter the architecture of the settlement, but it brings forward our grants to local authorities. It provides them with about £2.4 billion in the first two months of the year, about £800 million more than they were anticipating, and is worth about £180 million to them in, for example, increased interest payments.
These debates are a fairly familiar way of beginning the new year in the local government calendar, but my guess is that their nature will change somewhat in the future, for two reasons. First, whatever our views of the new system of financing local government, I think that there is little doubt that local government spending will involve more clarity in future than it has in the past. Secondly, I believe that it will involve more accountability than in the past. I think that one of the reasons for the fuss that we have experienced in the past few weeks is precisely that greater clarity and accountability.
Mr. David Gilroy Bevan (Birmingham, Yardley) : Would my right hon. Friend be kind enough to explain something, for the sake of clarity? If the £248 figure that he announced last week for the community charge in Birmingham is correct, why does Sir Richard Knowles, the council's Labour leader, predict the hugely inflated figure of over £420--nearly double that? My constituents in Yardley are appalled. Will my right hon. Friend supply me with figures under the eight element headings for both this year and next year, explaining where the appalling under-budgeting and discrepancies lie?
Mr. Patten : Birmingham is one of the authorities that will do best under the new system, in relation to both standard spending assessments and aggregate external finance. If there are reasons for the kind of increase to which my hon. Friend refers, one of them is the fact that Birmingham is apparently considering a 20 per cent. increase in expenditure next year. If it increases expenditure by that amount, the pain for the community charge payer will be considerable, and I very much hope that it will have second thoughts.
The Secretary of State said that there would be greater clarity and he talked about the debate being part of the local government calendar. Is he aware that something else is part of the local government calendar? I telephoned a Government Department about this at lunchtime. When, in the past, the Secretary of State has made statements in the House about poll tax figures nationally--the last occasion on which he did that was 6 November--the Government, to their credit in the last three years, always deposited in the Library, in answer to a parliamentary question, exemplifications of those figures, gainers and losers by households. As yet, that has not been done following the 6 November figure. Hon. Members simply receive holding answers. It is not as though we have not asked for the details. How can we conduct this debate in a sense of reality and with clarity when we do not have the Government's exemplifications of the poll tax figures following the
Column 4256 November statement, less than a week after the Secretary of State's announcement of these instruments and without an oral statement? When will those figures be available?
Mr. Patten : The final figures on gainers and losers will be available only when local authorities have made their budgets. I have not so far detected among hon. Members the suggestion that we have been providing too little information about the local government settlement. Indeed, a complaint that we have heard time and again is that we have been providing too much information every time we go out to consultation or there is a new set of exemplifications.
Mr. John Townend (Bridlington) : My right hon. Friend said that much more information was being provided. I supported the community charge on the basis that it would be fairer and simpler. Will he explain--I have written to his Department about this and my local authority has written to his Department but has not received an answer--why the standard spending assessment which affects the grant for Hull is £131.70 and for my constituency is £77? I hope that he will not say that it is due to social conditions. I can understand that from the point of view of the county council, with education and social services, but the sort of services with which district councils are concerned--refuse collection, planning, rate collection and so on--do not vary that much. Will he explain the difference?
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : Is my right hon. Friend aware-- [Interruption.] --that, whatever Opposition Members may say, my constituents have already had their rates doubled in two years, and they now face a further probably doubling under the new process, with a community charge of nearly £500, despite unprecedented support from central Government? Will my right hon. Friend condemn Labour councils which behave in such a profligate way, with the encouragement of Labour Members such as those at present seated on the Opposition Front Bench below the Gangway?
Mr. Patten : I totally accept what my hon. Friend says about the consequences of high spending by Labour local authorities--indeed, by any local authorities. My view, given what I said about greater accountability and greater clarity in the new system, is that those matters will have more effect in getting voters to prevent higher spending by local authorities than any amount of ministerial rhetoric. That is an important reason why we should not have these sort of debates indefinitely into the future.
Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth) : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the courtesy that he showed me at two successive meetings. But he will accept that the SSAs are working to the marked disadvantage of many shire counties, with that disadvantage being reflected in the high community charge that will have to be paid by my constituents. It seems that the way in which the
Column 426SSAs are being calculated is fundamentally incorrect, and flawed, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will deal with that.
Mr. Patten : I assure my hon. Friend that I will address the question of SSAs later. He would be disappointed if I did not. Perhaps questions about SSAs could wait until later in my speech. Sir Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead) rose--
Sir Alan Glyn : We are debating five motions. Will my right hon. Friend consider making more concessions, first, on SSAs, and secondly, on removal of the safety nets? I represent an area where it is estimated that the charge will be over £500. If my right hon. Friend would make those two concessions, there would be a considerable difference.
As my hon. Friend knows, there is an increase in the SSA for the district council in the area that he represents, though it is not as large as he and the council would like. Taking the aggregate external finance, both the contribution from the business pool and the contribution from grants to his county and its district, there is a substantial increase of over 20 per cent. Therefore, I find it difficult to accept the community charge figure that has been mentioned for Windsor, because, for example, it would suggest an increase in spending of over 20 per cent. I am sure that local charge payers would not like that.
Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : Perhaps I can help my right hon. Friend. He knows that I am no friend either to the charge or to rate capping, but in view of what some Labour authorities seem to be threatening, is there not a case for capping in this transitional year?
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) rose--
Mr. Patten : May I make the point that, after this intervention, I had better make progress? I want to finish my speech before my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities replies to the debate.
Mr. Battle : My question is about more information. The standard spending assessment of Leeds has been reduced by £3.5 million, according to the figures that appeared in the original consultative paper. When the Department of the Environment was asked to provide details of the reduction, the reply that Leeds received was that the details of the calculation could be supplied only after the debate. Would it not have been better if we had had the reasons and the details before the debate so that we could have made a proper judgment? What have the Government to hide?
Mr. Patten : I do not suggest that I do not believe the hon. Gentleman, but I find it difficult to believe that answer, because we have been providing an inordinate amount of information about the reasons for particular SSAs. I think that I am right in saying that the SSA for
Column 427Leeds will be more than 7 per cent. above its existing GRE. I shall be content to see the hon. Gentleman and the leader of his council at more or less any convenient time to discuss the reasons for the existing SSA.
Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham) : Can my right hon. Friend come to the case of low-spending local authorities, such as West Sussex county council, which spend considerably less than the standard spending assessment? Is my right hon. Friend aware that if those local authorities were to spend as the Government think they should, they would spend even further below the SSA? What may be done about that?
Mr. Patten : I shall deal with that point when I deal with the transitional relief scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson)--who may or may not be present in the Chamber--and my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) have raised that important point, which I want to address, with me. It will not be debated until we consider the transitional relief scheme orders later this month.
I shall deal with the two simple issues that are at the core of the debate- -first, how we should control local government spending and, secondly, how we raise money for local government in a way that combines efficiency and fairness. Those are not particularly original questions, but they have dominated the debate on the relations between local government and the Government over the past 10 or, arguably, 15 years. They are arguments with which the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), who was Secretary of State for the Environment in the late 1970s, will be familiar, although he and I may reach different conclusions about the answer. None of us doubts that local authorities undertake vital functions and play an important part in the democratic life of our country. None of us doubts that many local authorities--alas, not all--conduct those functions very efficiently and that many act more efficiently than was once the case, but, however many accolades one showers on the heads of local government, it is not reasonable to argue that there should be one rule for financial control on central Government and the rest of the public sector but completely different rules for local authorities. I do not know how one could possibly put that argument.
The argument that has provoked most of the row over the past 10 or 15 years is perfectly simple. Year after year, local authorities say that the Government are not providing them with enough money. They say that they need more money and that they intend to spend more money regardless of the burden on taxpayers or ratepayers. The Government say that they need to constrain local government spending and that local authorities should cut their coats according to their cloth.
That has been the argument, but what has been the record? It is astonishing that, whatever rows we have in the House, whatever the rebellions, whatever the arguments and whatever the petal-soft diplomacy of the Whips, the position is exactly the same year after year : the real level of local authority expenditure, on the whole, increases more rapidly than Government expenditure.
Let me give hon. Members the figures for the past five years ; they are chosen on what I hope is a directly comparable basis and omit matters such as the transfer of responsibility for polytechnics. Government expenditure has increased by 2.4 per cent. and total net current
Column 428expenditure of local authorities has increased by 9.4 per cent. Although the argument is that the Government are attempting unjustifiably to squeeze local authorities until the pips squeak --there are not many signs of pips around town and county halls in this country--local government has taken a larger proportion of total public expenditure year after year.
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : It is true that local authorities have had to increase rates, but they have done so to make up the deficit on the rate support grant, which has been reduced by one third since 1979.
Mr. Patten : The issue at the centre of much of the argument is not how money is raised but how it is spent. Two new propositions enter the argument this year. Local authorities say that the reason for high community charges will be not their spending decisions but something inherent in the community charge or the change from GREs to SSAs. Virtually all the spending increases being suggested by local authorities for next year would mean astronomical increases in domestic rates if we were not going over to the community charge system. It is levels of spending that, above all, determine the level of community charge.
Mr. Patten : I have seen astonishing figures for the amount by which Lancashire county council apparently intends to increase its spending next year. I hope that it will have second thoughts, but I will return to that point later.