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Column 428Friend Margaret Thatcher. She was perceived, rightly, in many quarters as being hostile to the railways. That is not the case with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He was generous with his time with me before the general election. Therefore, I give him and his Government the benefit of the doubt, certainly about the motives expressed in the Queen's Speech. Few hon. Members would pretend that British Rail is perfect. In passing, I declare a commercial interest only in that it lets me know that some parts of the British Rail empire are urgently in need of surgery if they are to make the best use of the national assets at their disposal.
The railway is an essential component of the modern industrial state. One cannot judge a railway by normal commercial criteria. It is not a monopoly ; it must compete with road transport where all the track costs are funded by the taxpayer. Moreover, the private motorist does not cost-in his own time. As I suggested in an intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), the Government should assess their plans for the future of our railways not by comparing the railways with other industries that have been privatised, but by the experience of our competitor countries, Germany, Japan, France and Switzerland, many of which have considered railway privatisation and found it wanting. I turn straight to methods and that second sentence in the Queen's Speech. We must define the need. We must weld private sector discipline and management expertise on to the public service obligation of the railways. It would be ridiculous to create conditions under which British Rail would be disadvantaged in its access to funds vis-a-vis the private sector. This afternoon we have heard few comments about safety being paramount. Whatever happens there must be no question of any reduction in the high level of safety which has always been imposed by this House on the operators of railways, whether in the public or private sector.
There must be a continuing role for Her Majesty's Government in both rail investment and rail subsidies. Some of the methods not even considered in this country are applied by many of our international competitors. They have a determined policy to promote the role of rail travel. What thought is being given to utilising the tax system to encourage the use of rail freight? What time is being spent on examining incentives to use the railway, or disincentives to use the road? I hear little of that, yet in Germany, for example, that is a standard way of generating the utilisation of the state railway system.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) discussed the need to allow British Rail to borrow funds from the Treasury. The SNCF has been doing that from the French Treasury for years. The excuses or reasons not so to do from Treasury Ministers, however one looks at them, are almost beyond my comprehension. We need to invest more in our transport infrastructure. If the French railways can borrow money without a French Government guarantee, we should be able to do the same here.
People ask whether we need any legislation on the railways. We do. Shortly SNCF will want to run trains on British Rail tracks. If the Government were a little more frank, they would tell us that to enable SNCF to run trains on British Rail track through the channel tunnel there will need to be an amendment to primary legislation. If ever the
Column 429private sector manufacturers get round to producing the necessary rolling stock to enable channel tunnel trains to be run, we shall need to legislate.
This is not the time to examine the paving Bill in detail, but the Committee will need to consider clause 1(5) which states : "The powers conferred by this section in relation to any proposal shall be exercisable whether or not Parliament has given any approval".
I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is to reply to this debate. Let me use a Scottish example to make a point about investment criteria. After 20 years in this place I managed to secure a debate on 23 March 1990 on railway investment criteria. It is little less than scandalous how investment in roads is given such priority by the Department of Transport in relation to investment criteria. Why did we not build a rail bridge across the Dornoch Firth when the road bridge was built? That is a classic illustration of failure to create a level playing field for British Rail.
Earlier in the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) spoke about the Southend line and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) mentioned it today. That line has been starved of investment and has a rotten service. Compare the service on the Southend line with the service on the Chiltern line, which was recently extensively modernised with new track, new signals and new rolling stock. The customers are satisfied, revenue is up and passenger numbers are rising. Investment is essential.
My main question is : do the Government think that any forthcoming Bill will generate private-sector investment into our railways and, certainly, our commuter railways? Nobody in his right mind who runs a business will invest heavily in capital equipment, use it for four hours a day, five days a week and leave it idle for the rest of the week. That is no way to run a business, but that must be done if we are to enable commuters to get into and out of our major cities. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon will not hold his breath until Richard Branson comes along and provides a new railway service on the London-Tilbury-Southend line. That gentleman is very good at public relations, but his ambitions for the east- coast main line seem to be to piggyback on a major slice of public investment. In the past few years £500 million has gone into that line. To cherry pick a few of the juicier bits and pieces of the railway system does not help us to judge whether private operators will invest capital in our railways.
We have a complex rail system. [Interruption.] The lights are flashing and I must conclude. The BR timetable has 1,392 pages and costs £5.50. That is good value for money. I urge my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State for Scotland to suggest to his colleagues that before they risk tearing it up and destroying one of the best railway systems in the world, whatever its faults, they should read the timetable and see what is involved.
Column 430As this is my maiden speech, I should like to pay tribute to my predecessors who formerly represented Midlothian in the House. Alex Eadie served here for 26 years. He was a Minister in the Labour Government, a Front-Bench spokesman and an able Back Bencher. I am sure that he earned the respect of Conservative colleagues as well as Labour colleagues and I hope that the House will join me in wishing him all the best in much deserved retirement.
In the past, three miners represented Midlothian : Jimmy Hill of Musselburgh prior to Alex Eadie, and David Pryde of Bonnyrigg prior to Jimmy Hill. They were all men of the people and active trade unionists in the National Union of Mineworkers.
I have the same background. I was a miner who worked underground for 26 years prior to the 12 years that I served as a trade union official. In addition, I have 16 years' experience in local government as a county councillor and regional councillor for Lothian.
I am proud to be a socialist and a trade unionist, especially as a member of the National Union of Mineworkers, an organisation brought about to protect miners and their families from the coal owners of the past, the bad legislation that came from this House and I might say the present bad legislation that may happen but I hope will not. Victimisation of miners was rife in the past and we still have victimised miners in Midlothian and elsewhere who cannot get work in the industry. It was because of the trade union that we protected many of these innocent people and raised the much- needed standards of safety required in mining underground. It is a sad day when the Government propose to privatise the British coal industry. Mrs. Thatcher wanted us to return to Victorian values ; the Prime Minister wants us to return to the dark ages of the coal owners.
At present, miners working in private mines are worse off than those working in British Coal mines. The accident rate per thousand shifts is three and a half times worse in private mines than in British Coal mines. The statistics are exactly the same as the accident rates in the United States of America. Private enterprise is not beneficial to miners as far as the accident rate is concerned. Miners in private mines have no "self rescuers", a small apparatus carried on the person of every miner underground which is used in a fire to protect them against smoke inhalation and could have saved many lives. They were introduced as a result of the disaster at Michael colliery in Fife, but private mines do not supply them to their work force. In most cases, private mines have no pithead baths and no work wear system as of right--the free issue of laundered overalls and underwear to men who work underground. The redundancy agreement for those in private mines is the basic minimum industrial agreement on the statute book and it is a pittance compared with that for people covered by the British Coal scheme.
Privatisation does not just affect miners and their families ; it affects this country. The short-term profit motives of extracting coal, as against the long-term protection of all potentially workable coal measures within a colliery, is the priority of the private coal owners. We have had hundreds of examples throughout every coal field of short-sighted exploitation of such measures, spoiling and sterilising millions of tons of coal for ever.
I am pleased to see that the two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State for Scotland are present. I am worried about the situation in Midlothian and what will
Column 431happen to Monktonhall colliery on privatisation. It is a colliery on "care and maintenance", so will it be included in the overall Scottish sell-off? Will Scotland's coal assets-- opencast and deep-mined units--be sold as a package? If the Government really care about the future of the Scottish coal fields, I propose that they sell off the coal industry as a package in order to create wealth for the owners to develop the deep-mined coal measures and resuscitate Monktonhall and Frances collieries in Fife and provide much-needed employment in the areas. As someone who really cares for the coal industry and its people, I hope that common sense will prevail if privatisation takes place.
I have read with great interest the maiden speeches of my predecessors, which contained pleas to the Governments of the day for the protection of indigenous industries--for example, the Scottish shale oil industry, the paper-making industry and obviously the coal mining industry. There is no longer a shale oil industry in the Lothians because of the withdrawal of subsidies to the industry, causing many people to become unemployed in the past. There is only one paper-making mill left in Midlothian when there were many in the past and there is only one colliery, Monktonhall, which is on a "care and maintenance" basis. The deindustrialisation of Midlothian can be repeated throughout the whole of the United Kingdom and Government after Government, not the representatives of Midlothian, are to blame We, as a country, are left with the uncertainty of importing goods and materials which will result in mass unemployment throughout the country.
We must protect our indigenous industries, we must expand job opportunities based on high-tech industries and new ideas. We are internationally famous for discovering new ideas and processes, but we are woefully bad at manufacturing them. We need training for high skills and diversification from our defence industries and we need to retain and retrain a highly skilled work force, which is being made unemployed. The Government must intervene. We need help to encourage firms to diversify and we need money to be put into training establishments to bring about such a highly skilled work force. I will continue to repeat, whenever the opportunity arises, that the people of Midlothian and elsewhere must be given the right to work and should have a standard of living equal to that of those living in any other area of the country. It is not for them the double standards of having a few who are rich and the vast majority who are poor.
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), who spoke from his own hard experience and from the heart. I congratulate him on his speech and we all look forward to hearing more from him.
It is my particular pleasure to congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your assumption to the famous office of Chairman of Ways and Means. We shared one part of the route to Westminster when we both stood, I after you, as, I regret to say, the unsuccessful candidates for the old Islington, North constituency--not a constituency known today for returning Conservative Members of Parliament. I congratulate you on your new office and I wish you well in it.
Column 432There have always been two key reasons for privatisation. The most important is that it removes the burden of financing investment programmes from the public sector to the private financial markets. The second reason is also of real significance. The management of privatised industries can no longer look to Government to bail them out of loss-making activities. That same management is no longer directly constrained or supported by Members when it makes changes of national significance such as the decision to close a plant or to run down production in response to the market force of customer demand. Nationalised industries become very inflexible in responding to market demands--they were often discouraged from such flexibility by demands made in the House for the protection of constituents' jobs--and that did not help them to remain competitive in the world markets. I am thinking in particular of the steel industry of the past. Such inflexibility caused that industry great problems when it was forced to change its structure as a result of changing markets in world demand. Those problems have continued until today.
I remember when Sir Anthony Meyer, a former Member, spoke of his experience in his constituency when the Shotton steelworks were closed. He regretted the fact that he had opposed the proposal, made in an earlier Parliament, to run down those works because such a rundown would have been much easier had it occurred outside a recession rather than in the recession of the early 1980s. So, when we have deployed arguments here in what we have considered to be the best interests of our constituents, they may not always have been in the long-term interests of the industries. I have never seen a good reason why industries that can run themselves properly within the private sector should unnecessarily be owned by the state. They nearly always end up being a financial burden to the state as well. Two thirds of the state-owned sector of industry has been privatised in the past 12 years and losses in it have been turned into profits. Nationalised industries were receiving subsidies of £2.5 billion in 1978-79, equivalent to more than one third of that year's health service budget. In comparison with the need to fund the health and education services, spending Exchequer money on industries that could support themselves is not a good use of public money. Now that they are back in the private sector, those industries are making profits, and they contributed some £2 billion to the Exchequer in corporation tax last year. That revenue will continue, quite apart from the massive £42 billion raised from the capital receipts of privatisation. Those proceeds have enabled the Government not only to achieve record spending levels on health, education and--despite many of the arguments deployed today--on transport, but to repay substantial amounts of the accumulated national debt. We publicise that fact too little. It has significant bearing on how other countries view the health of our economy against the present higher public sector borrowing requirement planned for the medium term. A healthy pound is evidence of that positive regard in which the overall budgetary structure of Britain is presently regarded overseas.
Through privatisation, share ownership has spread dramatically throughout the population. Thirteen years ago, only one in 20 of the adult population owned shares, whereas today it is almost one in four. Most significantly,
Column 433that increased ownership is far more widely spread. Two thirds of share owners are now to be found outside the ranks of professionals and managers. I represent a constituency in the south-east of England and must point out that 60 per cent. of those shareholders live outside the south-east. The Labour party would do well to ponder that fact as it considers why its policies on renationalisation and its continuing commitment to clause IV may have affected the general election result.
Those are good reasons for privatisation but just as vital to this debate is the fact that the nationalised industries did not give a good standard of service and caused widespread dissatisfaction to customers. We can all remember the telephone installation that took weeks, the public phoneboxes that were filthy and seldom worked and the gas and electricity engineers who missed appointments and often had to make several calls to households before the job was done. The contrast now is obvious and voters know it, even if the Opposition do not. Telephones are rapidly installed and consumers have a lot of choice in the type of installation that they prefer. It is now difficult to find a callbox that does not work and they are clean. Service calls by gas and electricity engineers are reliably organised on a morning or afternoon basis. Acting on its own initiative, East Midlands Electricity has introduced appointment times, rather than just stating that workers will come in the morning or the afternoon, and will pay compensation if appointments are not kept. That places the consumer in a dominant role, receiving a better service from the privatised industry.
The role of the regulator in privatised industries that are still monopolies is still absolutely key. I welcome the example of the gas industry regulator demonstrating that it will use its teeth, as we heard last week. The importance of the regulators cannot be underestimated in the fight against inflation, particularly in those industries where improved technology is making lower unit costs possible each year. I look to the regulators to take that into account when allowing the increases in charges by monopoly privatised industries. We expect them to deliver a better service to the customer at a lower cost.
The Government's approach towards the privatisaton of the railways is sensible and right. We are not going the whole hog immediately but approaching it steadily and cautiously. But the introduction of private capital into the operation of the railways will give passengers a better service and stimulate management, as it has in every other privatised industry, to put the customer first and to do a more effective job.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I join others in welcoming you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to your post this evening. With your interest in medical affairs, I am sure that you will be interested in the fact that, throughout this debate, no place has been given to the medical and social services side.
In the context of privatisation, I acknowledge that there is no intention to privatise the health service but, with the movement that is going on, there is great concern about the setting up of, for example, the Social Security Agency. I am not sure whether it is happening elsewhere, but there
Column 434seems to be a cosy relationship between the agency's main office in Belfast and British Telecom. When people phone up, they are told to hold on. They hold on and on, and are then told that they will be put through to another department. They are then told that their call will be returned, but it is not. People on social security benefit do not like wasting money. It may be a cosy relationship because of the restrictions on chatlines and to help British Telecom make more profits. I do not know, but I should like to think that the Social Security Agency would be more outgoing in looking after people's needs with greater efficiency, as it still comes under some scrutiny from the House.
I pay tribute to the maiden speeches that I have heard, particularly those of the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms. Jackson) and for Erewash (Mrs. Knight). The hon. Member for Erewash commented on competitive tendering. I should like to think that, although we in Northern Ireland may have different problems from others, there will be greater control over what is happening. I was interested to discover not so long ago a company that had been on the list for selective tendering had been removed. I had written earlier to the Department to draw attention to the fact that it was not doing its work properly and was employing people on the double. I had received a letter informing me that that was wrong, that the company was reputable and that it would take anybody who made such allegations to court. I promptly replied that I looked forward to that day. The company was removed from the list because 80 per cent. of the work force on one contract were already being employed by the Department of Social Services-- on benefits. So that is a case of competitive tendering in which the very Department is unware of who is receiving the benefits, and a firm's work force are then in a position to undercut the local council or other firms in tendering for services.
If we are talking about privatisation, we must also consider the way that the privatisation is undertaken. I have no axe to grind : if privatisation would be good for the community, by all means privatise. But I pay tribute to the successful outcome of Harland and Wolff and Bombardier Short in maintaining two industries working in a part of the United Kingdom where there are grave reductions in industrial manpower.
I also pay tribute to hon. Members who have served in Northern Ireland. I have not always agreed with them--a privilege enjoyed by hon. Members--but they have worked for Northern Ireland. Although there are those who think that Northern Ireland is a dead water, I suggest that it is a promotional spot for the governor of Hong Kong, and the Foreign Secretary has discovered that he did not do too badly having been at the Northern Ireland Office. In the context of industrial development in Northern Ireland, I pay tribute to the present Minister for Trade, who worked tremendously hard to bring investment into the Province.
To return to social services in the context of privatisation, I never thought that the problem that some of us envisaged about the arm's length inspection units dealing with the statutory, voluntary and private sectors would be resolved as now seems to be the case : by the abolition of the statutory sector and its replacement by the private sector. I regret that the Department seemed to be putting pressure on social service units, both within the direct management of the Department in Northern Ireland and within local government responsibility, to close
Column 435homes, which meant the opening of more private homes. The time will come when, no matter who are in Government, they will have to introduce amending legislation because of the pressures on the public purse created by the escalating costs in the private sector. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has today been called the Minister for little people. We have heard about the charter of rights, and parental choice in education. My constituents know that that is a myth. The Department closes schools and reduces the size of rolls so that infants intending to go to primary school cannot be taken into the school of their parents' choice in their local catchment area, but have to travel at least a mile to another school which is not necessarily the parents' or the child's choice. The child often has to go to a school outwith the community of his or her friends. I welcomed the Prime Minister's statement on 6 May that consideration would be given to setting up a Northern Ireland Select Committee. It is good to know that fruitful talks on Northern Ireland are in progress. I underline again that the position of a Select Committee is not the responsibility of negotiating parties outside the House, but is the responsibility of the House. I urge the Government to introduce the necessary legislation to set up a Select Committee on Northern Ireland at the beginning of this Session so that we shall not have continued late scrutiny of some of the tragic mis-spending of the finances in Northern Ireland Departments. I remind the usual channels of the understanding that the other Select Committees would be set up, not six months later, but immediately. I hope that, before the summer recess, those Select Committees will be set up. It is the responsibility of Back Benchers to scrutinise the affairs of Government Departments, and a Select Committee is the most efficient way of doing so. Perhaps that is one reason why some people are not in any urgent rush to see them set up. But as a Back Bencher, I plead that they should be set up speedily. Last week, I wondered whether there was any significance in the fact that the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) moved the motion on the Loyal Address in a debate in which the Prime Minister later revealed the name of "C". Did that signify the fact that we would no longer need moles and that there would be open government or was it mythology, with the Government giving the impression of being open, but still concealing?
In future, will the Government answer questions asked by Members, or will the Government respond that the relevant information is not collected centrally, and can be gathered only at disproportionate cost? If there is to be open government, surely hon. Members should be in a position to know what is happening in the community so that they can bring an informed opinion to the House.
I welcome the fact that there has been a movement to improve security. However, I regret that it was not a secret, now revealed. Many years ago, when speaking to a noted officer of the Army in Belfast, I illustrated an incident by saying, "MI5 has been at work." He said, "Not MI5." We have had evidence of a perfect Government answer that tells us nothing that we did not know already. However, we have found evidence of a link, with Government talk about a new movement dealing with Irish loyalists as well as Irish republicans. What does that mean--loyal to Dublin?
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Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : It is a tradition that I should be allowed a word about my predecessor. I have a hard act to follow, and I wish that I had £1 for every time that I have been told that. I follow someone whom this House holds in special affection ; he was one of the most respected Members of Parliament of the post-war period. Sir Bernard Braine was first adopted for the seat that I now hold two years before I was born.
Sir Bernard carried with distinction and dignity the office of Father of the House, a position to which I do not aspire. However, my aim is to follow in father's footsteps, though you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be delighted to hear that tonight I shall not be challenging Sir Bernard's once-held record for making the longest speech in the House. He did so to protect his constituents. Should circumstances arise when my constituents require protection, I trust that I would display all the determination and character, the tenacity and courage that never failed Sir Bernard during his 42 years as a Member of Parliament.
I thank the people of Castle Point for electing me ; they are intelligent and discerning. We are a wonderful community, with excellent schools and increasingly superb hospitals. If only we had a railway line, everyone would want to live in Castle Point. That brings me to the Fenchurch Street line--the so-called misery line--and thenceforth to privatisation.
Between 1986 and 1992, 1,157 carriages have been delivered to nine lines, and 890 are now on order to six lines. But not one single carriage has been delivered or is on order for the misery line, which is why it is a misery line. It needs two things : investment, and sound management. Privatisation would indubitably secure good management, but could only partially help to solve the investment problem.
I am grateful for the £30 million that the Government made available to the line for new signalling, which was secured by my Essex colleagues last year, but there is a need, before privatisation, to make available investment for trains to replace the ones that are on the line now which are unsafe, unrealiable and downright unacceptable. I unequivocally welcome the railways legislation and I call for the misery line to be a pilot for service franchising. Care must be taken to ensure that British Rail does not exercise anti-competitive control over timetabling. We must have a tough regulatory body--with teeth.
To expand this theme, let me add that it is a fact that local councils try to do too much. They are there to provide essential services, not to interfere or to run businesses, farms estates or airports--yet that is what some do, at great, although well disguised, public cost. I therefore come now to two small but important areas of privatisation : first, county farms estates. Their original purpose has long since evaporated in the sands of time ; they are an anachronism. I ask the Secretary of State to consider introducing legislation to divest local authorities of all but the most strategically important land holdings. Farms, like any other business, and like council housing, are mostly better privately owned and managed than throttled in the hands of bureaucrats and councillors. Divestment would release funds and provide more efficient services for the people whom the councils serve.
Regional airports are another small but significant target for privatisation. In 1969, the then Board of Trade
Column 437--now a revitalised title--disposed of some regional airports to local authorities. I ask the Secretary of State to privatise these assets, as a matter of urgency.
I welcome the fact that the Government have a coherent, integrated and achievable policy on privatisation generally. This will help the country through recovery, and to secure the success and prosperity in the 1990s that was enjoyed in the 1980s. In so far as privatisation is successful, and it is, it will help to secure national prosperity and thereby enable us better to care for the poor and the homeless. I understand that it is traditional to say a word or two about oneself. I come from Keighley in west Yorkshire, a place where the weak die young and the strong envy them their fate. Like our honourable Speaker, I worked in the textile mills, as a mill boy, a labourer, so, like the distinguished lady, I have worked for my living and kept myself since leaving school, that is, until arriving in this House.
I do not wish to appear uncharitable, but I will take no lessons about the working class from those on the Opposition Benches and their friends, some of whom have never held down a real job in their lives. I was asked by one Opposition Member whether I was a real doctor. I had to answer, "No, I am just a mill boy made good, a time-served and subsequently educated engineer." That question shows how we as a nation value our various professions. Nevertheless, I advised the hon. Member, "If it's your varicose veins, you need not worry--I understand that David Owen is looking for a job." I hope during my time in this House to take every opportunity to champion the manufacturing sector, and to champion education, which provides the ladder of opportunity on which ordinary folk may advance by their own efforts. I have taken my chances and it has been my good fortune of late to help manufacturing industry to become more vital and to thrive. I therefore well know that Britain must maintain a vibrant manufacturing sector. This is our added-value, our wealth generation backbone, the spine on which the softer service and professional sectors must develop and without which they could not thrive.
Like Jane in the jungle, the service industries are appealing and most valuable to us and to our economy, yet they remain ephemerally vulnerable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) is there, dare I say it, like Tarzan was for Jane, and he will advance our manufacturing sector and thereby secure the economy as a whole. The opportunities are unfolding before our very eyes. Our interest rates, industrial relations and even our inflation rates are looking attractive internationally, as are our political stability and sound government--and the financial markets are responding accordingly. Our privatisation programme is aped around the world, to continue my somewhat dubious metaphor.
Like my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, I will be busy. My constituency needs change to move smoothly towards the millenium. We need to create new jobs for Canvey and Benfleet, and perhaps an enterprise zone will be one of our considerations. We certainly need more further and higher education and training facilities--and a new railway line.
Column 438I wish finally to offer Opposition Members a little comfort at this time of no little confusion for them in their leadership contest. Four weeks ago they stood at the edge of a precipice, since when they have taken great strides forward. They should consider privatising their leadership selection process, bringing in a top-flight team of management consultants to advise them on the procedure, or even offering the job as a school project. That could hardly make their selection procedure any worse.
I end on a warm note, which I anticipate will unify the House. Perhaps this gracious and generous House will join me in hoping that we shall soon see Sir Bernard in a place not far from this Chamber in which he can continue to conduct his fight for human rights and against injustice across the world.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North) : First, I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your election to a new office and thank you for allowing me to catch your eye so that I can make my maiden speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) on his maiden speech, although I reserve the right to disagree with a great deal of its content.
It is a great honour and privilege to be elected to this House by the good people of Doncaster, North. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Michael Welsh, who was first elected in 1979 for the then Don Valley constituency, which is now so ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond). Following the boundary changes in 1983 Mick was re- elected, for the then new seat of Doncaster, North. He served the people of my area well for the past 13 years. He is well known in the constituency and, as a kind and caring man, he has devoted most of his life to politics, having served not only in this House for 13 years but for many years on local authorities--first on Adwick urban district council and then, following the local government reorganisation in 1974, on Doncaster metropolitan borough council. I am sure that all hon. Members, especially his friends and colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, will join me in wishing Mick and his wife Brenda a deserved and long and happy retirement.
My constituency covers a fairly large area. The people are mostly very friendly and caring. The constituency is mainly based around mining communities, agriculture and small townships in which there is a strong tradition of community spirit and friendliness, and I am proud to be their representative.
The proposed improvements in agricultural marketing outlined in the Gracious Speech will, I am sure, be welcomed by those of my constituents-- there are many--who live and work in the agricultural community. Like me, many of my constituents will be bitterly disappointed, however, that the Gracious Speech does not mention unemployment, a problem facing far too many of my constituents who have to live with the daily trauma of neither having a job nor the prospect of finding one. There will be deep resentment at the fact that the Government propose no measures of help for them. My elderly and disabled constituents and their carers look forward to the introduction of community care. If it is to facilitate their needs--and their needs are many--it must be properly funded by the Government. Caring for the elderly and disabled at home is not and should not be
Column 439a cheap option. I urge the new Secretary of State for Health to resolve as soon as possible with the local authorities the problem of funding so that they can confidently introduce their plans for the implementation of community care in 1993.
There is deep resentment and bitterness among many of my constituents at the proposed privatisation of the coal mines. Many were jubilant when the coal industry was nationalised in 1947. Men who gave their lives to the industry will be deeply saddened and its privatisation will be a bitter blow. My constituency used to have six pits but now there are only two. Many thousands have lost their jobs in mining and in connected industries in the past few years and they fear that privatisation will wipe out mining in Doncaster. The men and their families at the two remaining pits, Bentley and Hatfield, are concerned for their future. They do not want to lose the prospects of future employment in the industry for the sake of political dogma. Some of my constituents already face joining the ever-growing number of unemployed following the surprise announcement two weeks ago by British Coal on closing the Markham Main colliery in Armthorpe in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker).
The decision to close Markham Main was ruthless, vindictive and totally unnecessary. I sincerely hope that the new Minister will adopt a hands-on approach and will discuss the matter fully with the miners and their representatives who have worked in and for the mining industry for many years. I hope that he will treat them with the respect that they deserve and not rush headlong into an unnecessary mass closure and privatisation programme that will damage the livelihood of many of my constituents and their families. That would also sterilise one of the country's greatest assets, its massive coal reserves, and throw on the scrapheap our experienced and professional miners. It would be foolhardy and economic madness to close our mines and then import coal.
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) on his able and confident contribution to the debate. I hope that we shall frequently hear him again. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) on his eloquent, persuasive, forceful and humorous speech. I hope that he will be with us for as long as his predecessor.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) who spoke earlier, I cannot presume as a former Member to make a maiden speech, but I hope to be granted some indulgence and be allowed to make some relevant and illustrative points about my constituency. My constituents, who were ably represented by my talented predecessor Sir Philip Goodhart from 1957, would not otherwise benefit from the special praise granted to a maiden speech for more than 35 years and may well have to wait another 35 years. The House deserves some explanation for my silence over the past four years lest some hon. Members feel that I have been unduly lazy or, worse, at a loss for words.
The Government propose paving measures for two privatisations. The ultimate privatisation is that of British Coal, and I thoroughly and whole-heartedly support that proposal. I describe it as ultimate because that industry's nationalisation was the flag carrier for Labour's clause IV.
Column 440It was to pave the way and be the one on which the others were modelled. At the time and for many years after it seemed irreversible. Denationalising coal shows that the tide of post-war socialism has not just been turned but that the red sea has dried up altogether.
Coal privatisation is relatively straightforward and is the simpler of the two proposals. British Rail's privatisation poses a more difficult challenge, which is why the Government are right to approach it with some caution. Apart from other complexities, it causes most concern to ordinary people because they place a heavy everyday reliance on it. That is especially true for the people of Beckenham. My constituency boasts no fewer than 12 railway stations and there are 10 more within a short distance of its boundaries, although the constituency measures only four miles by two miles. I would like to claim that the railways came to Beckenham because the good people there had such a good reputation that the railway companies were eager to serve them. Alas, that would not be true. People came to Beckenham because the private railways were already there and the small villages of that time were within easy striking distance of workplaces in the metropolis. Whether people would have moved to Beckenham if the rail service had been as it is today is a matter for conjecture. They would probably not have built their houses near the track if they had known that it would later be misused for channel tunnel international trains. Perhaps they would not have chosen to commute if the conditions and pressures had been as they now are under nationalisation. What better evidence can I present than the words of Sir Philip Goodhart who said in February last year :
"Normally the service from so many parts of my constituency to the centre of London is, to put it mildly, bad, but in the past five days it has too often been non-existent. It would be difficult to exaggerate the rage which so many commuters in my constituency feel about the way in which British Rail has tried to cope."--[ Official Report, 12 February, 1991 ; Vol. 185, c. 793.]
Sir Philip was well known to many hon. Members for his charm, wit and enthusiasm. In his constituency he was respected for his wisdom and his work in representing the people and their concerns. Sir Philip was an expert on Committee procedure in this place and wrote a book about that and another about referenda. His interest in those subjects and his care for his constituents continued until his retirement and I owe him a debt of gratitude for his constant support.
Despite the tribulations, about 15,000 people commute each day from Beckenham, mostly by rail. Even if they are not British Rail commuters they cannot ignore BR's omnipresence. At least 5,000 people live close to the tracks or stations and almost double that number are within earshot. I am speaking about the leafy middle class suburbs of Beckenham, an area which has been able to resist the encroaching pressures of inner London and retain sufficient of its character and its past to justify those who refer to it as "the village". That is why it is considered so desirable an area for those who need to commute, even by BR.
Beckenham's choice of housing, shopping and other facilities is broad and excellent, but there is virtually no choice for the consumer because there is a monopoly supplier--a state monopoly, inflexible, unaccountable and unpersuadable. The tube system does not extend to the area--that should be corrected--and the roads are slow and choked and cannot handle the volume of traffic. The
Column 441Fees Office offered me air vouchers, but 14 miles from my constituency to central London does not make that an attractive option unless, of course, one owns a helicopter. I understand that one of my constituents has one. Privatisation offers the prospect of transforming the quality of transport for constituencies such as mine. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, if handled right, it would also transform people's everyday lives.
There is a mismatch between consumer expectation and the provider's service. Industry after industry has illustrated that private operation can overcome this obstacle which nationalisation created. A system of regulated franchising would provide the competition and accountability that fails to permeate the labyrinthine structures of a monopoly bureaucracy such as British Rail. The beauty of franchising is that it can introduce a form of competition, or of privatisation, even where there is a so-called natural monopoly. Making an operator bid for the franchise at once exercises a competitive pressure that a provider might otherwise escape, be he private or public. Requiring the franchisee to repeat the bid at regular intervals maintains and enhances that pressure.
Franchising does not just benefit the consumer by providing a form of competition, which itself enhances efficiency and maximises resource use, thus giving the customer better quality and prices. It also enables certain fixed standards of quality to be provided. Alongside the citizens charter is the franchise contract, with inbuilt requirements of service delivery-- reliability, regularity and cleanliness, for example. Therefore, it brings three separate pressures to perform--competition, the contract and the charter. These benefits will operate anywhere on Britain's rail system, but an additional element could operate in Beckenham and other areas that are similarly well-endowed with track--the possibility of direct competition.
One of the factors that makes Beckenham so attractive is its accessibility. It is possible to travel to London by rail by at least seven routes. Even British Rail identifies three different line systems--Kentlink, South London and Thameslink. In the far west, the constituency is dominated by the giant Crystal Palace tower, right on the boundary. Nearby are five rail stations, giving travellers a choice of five routes, some to the same and some to different London termini. In the middle of the constituency, five more stations offer three services and in the east three further stations offer two services. In every case, there is a choice, and therefore, in every case, there is the possibility of some, perhaps limited, competition.
Sometimes one route is quicker or more convenient than another, but often the difference is only marginal. The prospect of real competition exists, and if some of the different lines were run by different franchisees, that would become a reality. I hope that, as the franchise details are worked out, my right hon. Friend will try to avoid franchising whole sets of lines and will encourage the sort of competition that I have outlined.
Competition is a more effective way to bring back real accountability to ordinary people than any other system I know. With that will come enhanced standards, greater efficiency, better value for money. The beauty of this proposed privatisation is that it will retain the
Column 442commitment to huge public infrastructure investment, higher than for 30 years, and leave BR with a role, but at the same time introduce privatisation.
Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : I thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I add my congratulations to those that have been offered by those who have spoken before me. I pay tribute not only to my predecessor, Sir Geoffrey Finsberg, but to his predecessor, Ben Whitaker, who represented my constituency and my party from 1966 to 1970. I mean to emulate his dedication, if not his length of stay in the House. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Sir Geoffrey Finsberg, but he served my constituency well for more than 20 years, and I know that my constituents would wish me to extend their thanks to him, and best wishes to Sir Geoffrey and Lady Finsberg for a long and happy retirement.
My constituency has long exercised a particular fascination for the creative spirit. Many of the greatest artists, writers, musicians and philosphers that not only this country has produced but that the world has ever seen have chosen to make their homes there. My constituency has been blessed with great natural beauties, the glorious expanse of Hampstead heath being but one. The Vale of Health was so named because it was rumoured that the springs that rose there contained mystical power--a rumour somewhat belied by its proximity to that other famous landmark, Highgate cemetery.
There is a popular myth regarding my constituency, one much loved by the press, of a leafy suburb populated solely by millionaires whose only drink is champagne and whose only conversational exchange could be deemed to be chatter. The facts make a rather different picture. The largest single group in my constituency consists of pensioners, and the largest group within that group consists of those on some form of social benefit. This month, 5,000 of my constituents are unemployed. In the borough of which my constituency is part, 1, 000 families have no home of their own. The Royal Free hospital, much loved by my constituents, which was, against their wishes, made into a trust, has announced waiting lists for in-patients running at 2, 500.
The Prime Minister has spoken of his wish to provide ladders of opportunity for our people. However, a ladder can be a dangerous place if it is not rooted on a solid foundation and leaning against an equally solid wall. If it is dangerous for the most able bodied among us, how much more dangerous is it for the very old and the very young, the frail and the disabled? My constituents welcome the idea of greater opportunities being provided, but the opportunities must be available to all our people and they must be based on the solid building blocks of education, training, health care free at the point of delivery and, perhaps most important of all, decent affordable housing.
What rung of the Prime Minister's ladder will be earmarked for one of my constituents who has been unemployed for five long years? On what rung will be my elderly constituent who has been paralysed from the waist down with her arms and hands crippled with arthritis, who has now been denied bathing facilities in her own home because it has been decreed that such a facility will be provided on medical, not social, grounds? What part of
Column 443that ladder has been earmarked for the young homeless who have no bed but the pavement, the doorway? What about the families who live for month after month in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Some in the private rented sector are suffering harassment and sometimes even violence at the hands of greedy, unscrupulous landlords. Surely the Government must acknowledge that it is time to release capital grants so that a programme of rebuild and repair can begin, and that more effort must be made to relieve the enormous burden that so many councils are having to carry, faced, particularly in London, with the continually rising tide of homelessness. My constituents have always been concerned with the pursuit and obtaining of social justice, not only at home but abroad. My constituents are particularly concerned about the position of the third world. They ask why it is that in 1979 this country was the second largest donor nation of the G7 countries but that this year it is the second smallest. They acknowledge, as do I and my party, that aid alone cannot relieve the almost unbelievable burdens facing the people of the third world, but our country could do more than it is doing, and the aid that we supply could be more efficiently targeted on the poorest countries and the poorest groups within those countries. Our aid should be targeted on the basic requirements of health care--children are dying in their millions-- and on providing clean water.
Another particular concern arising from the Gracious Speech, on which I believe that I shall be joining hands with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms. Jackson), is the Government's promise to reintroduce the Asylum Bill. Many of my constituents came to this country as refugees. They were fleeing the appalling political and religious oppression that existed both before and after the second world war. Within my constituency they found sanctuary, a great welcome and the possibility to create for themselves and their family a future. It would be a tragedy if our nation's reputation for always taking in those suffering from persecution should be lost. It is a great privilege for any person to be called to the House as a Member. It is a particular privilege for me to represent the people of Hampstead and Highgate. I am grateful and deeply proud that I represent them.
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : It is a particular pleasure to be able to congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms. Jackson) on her excellent maiden speech. Of all the new Members, she arrived in the House as the one perhaps best known outside it. We look forward to the contribution that she will make to our proceedings. As one who for some years lived within about 100 yds of Highgate cemetery, may I say that we are especially grateful to the hon. Lady for the tribute that she paid to Sir Geoffrey Finsberg, whom we remember with affection.
I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the other three new occupants of the Chair who will be with us during this Parliament. I congratulate also the many other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches during today's debate. I shall single out one by referring to my next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Devon,
Column 444North (Mr. Harvey). Again, we are grateful to him for the tribute that he paid to his predecessor, Tony Speller, whom we remember with affection.
Along with many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his success against the indications of opinion polls and almost against the odds of winning a fourth term for the Conservative party in extremely difficult circumstances, including a recession, the backlog of the community charge and several other issues that had upset Conservative voters. Our victory was in large part a tribute to the high esteem for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which I believe extended to many thousands of those who nevertheless voted Liberal or Labour in the general election a month ago.
Another factor that helped to bring about that victory was great suspicion of the Labour party. The rather rambling speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) this afternoon will have confirmed electors in that suspicion. I recall the classical villain, I think it was, whose fate in Hades was to push a large stone to the top of a hill. When he had got it to the top, it used to roll down to the bottom. I think of the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and perhaps the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) as those who push the stone to the top of the hill. As soon as they get it there, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East pops out and pushes it down to the bottom of the hill. I fear that that will be the state of the Labour party in the coming months and, perhaps, throughout this Parliament. Turning to British Rail, I welcome the various comments by my hon. Friends that suggest that there must be better ways of running a railway. I listened with great interest, however, to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), and I echo many of his warnings. I begin a critique of British Rail by recalling a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring), who in his maiden speech said "the engine started smoking". As an occasional smoker, I express regret that British Rail should now be trying to prevent even a minority of passengers from smoking. I hope that there will be opportunities to take up this matter in coming weeks.
Another small matter is my regret that the late-night train from Paddington was stopped some months ago from halting at Taunton. This has been an inconvenience to some of my constituents and a subject of correspondence in the local press.
An important matter for my constituency--it is typical of one of the weaknesses of British Rail--is the handling of freight. As a major environmental objective, we should be aiming to transfer as much freight as possible from road to rail, especially with the coming of the channel tunnel. I must report of Taunton Cider, an important employer in my constituency.-- [Interruption.]