Mr. Foulkes : I am grateful, Madam Speaker. The Minister of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), refused to answer a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) on some spurious grounds. Would he, on the same grounds, refuse to answer a question from the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) ? Would he refuse to answer
Madam Speaker : Order. I did say I did not want a bogus point of order. The hon. Gentleman might have something to say about the manner in which questions are answered, but that does not constitute a point of order.
Madam Speaker : Order. That does not constitute a point of order. If there is a point of order, I will listen to it. I have to deal with the point of order. It has to be something that I can deal with.
Mr. Foulkes : I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker. Members of the House, are elected, represent their constituents and have every right to have their questions answered. Is it not within your power to direct Ministers to answer those questions ?
Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman knows that the Speaker of this House cannot direct Ministers--or Back Benchers for that matter. All Ministers, all Back Benchers, are responsible for the comments that they make.
Mr. Tony Banks : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The ballot for motions and the box and book are kept in the No Lobby from half-past 2 and the normal closing time should be half-past 3. Do you not think that the latecomers' queue that forms in front of you and obscures our view of you should now be ruled out of order because it also militates against the more assiduous of us who get in there and put our names down earlier?
Madam Speaker : That is the most-- [Interruption.] I must answer that because it is the best point of order I have had for a very long time. I have always been annoyed when Members like this-- [Interruption.] -- interfere in the business in the Chamber. I believe very firmly that the box should remain out until half-past 3, and at half-past 3 the procedure should be finished with. As those are the procedures at the moment, I have to allow Members to do this, but I certainly deprecate what is happening at the present time. I understand I can now stop it. In that case, I am going to. Finished.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I was standing for virtually every question during Question Time. I was the only Conservative Member standing at the last question and you had not called an end to Question
Column 944Time before the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) got up on a point of order. Is that correct parliamentary procedure ?
Madam Speaker : Yes, I watch the clock very carefully. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very assiduous at Question Time. It is not possible for me to call all Members, but I know how keen he is. It had reached half- past 3. There was nothing further that I could do.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Does it not say in "Erskine May" that a Minister has a responsibility to give an answer, and did not the junior Minister at the Foreign Office give the impression to the House that he would not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) ? Surely he has to provide an answer. Some people may not like that answer, but I think that he has a duty to provide one.
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I know that you will not comment on the rudeness and the lack of parliamentary manners shown by the Minister of State, which is legendary among Members on both sides of the House. However, if you consult the record you will see that the answer that the Minister of State gave was a stricture that I should abstain from asking questions in the House. Will you confirm that I have as much right as any other hon. Member to ask any question that is in order on behalf of my constituents ? Leaving aside the question of manners, will you confirm that I have that parliamentary right and that you will uphold it ?
Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman certainly has that right and that is why I call him on what may be regarded as a number of contentious issues --I want to hear all points of view expressed in the House.
Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East) rose
Mr. Faulds : Invariably, Madam Speaker. There is another aspect. By what right does the Minister claim that he can refuse to answer a question because he disagrees with an hon. Member's views ? In the House of Commons
Column 945that is wholly unacceptable and although, of course, you cannot reprimand this little Minister, perhaps he will have heard what I have to say and listen to my wise advice.
Mr. Riddick : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I want to get back to this box. The box for the ballot for motions is always placed in the No Lobby. That might give an unfair advantage to Labour Members because at least some of them enter the Chamber via the No Lobby whereas we on the Government Benches enter through the Aye Lobby. Will you consider putting the box in the Aye Lobby next time ?
Madam Speaker : I think that that would be far too confusing for hon. Members. The box will remain in one Lobby. Most hon. Members have been here long enough to know where to find it, so it stays in the No Lobby. We have the ballot now ; let us see who is lucky.
Mr. Richard Alexander
Sir Jim Spicer
Madam Speaker : I wish that hon. Members would write more clearly. The third name looks like "Nicholson", but the Clerks are good at reading hon. Members' writing. It looks like David Nicholson ; he should write better next time.
Mr. David Nicholson
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend sections 9 and 10 of the Severn Bridges Act 1992.
The Bill would freeze tolls on the Severn bridge at the January 1994 level. An observer standing on the English side of the Severn crossing will quickly notice that traffic going out of Wales moves freely, motoring as it should, whereas vehicles going in the opposite direction grind to a halt, belching out their fumes while drivers queue up to pay their tolls for the privilege of entering Wales. I am reminded of the words of the Welsh poet Harri Webb, who said :
"Two lands by a span connected
By a bridge o'er the waters wide
And all the tolls collected
Are on the English side."
Hardly a day goes by when I do not receive a protest about this iniquitous system. The Severn crossing is merely a short stretch of the M4 motorway and there is an increasing tendency for traffic entering Wales, especially heavy lorries, to divert around Gloucester and thereby avoid toll charges.
In a letter to me dated 7 February, Mr. Richard Wigginton, the Gloucester county surveyor, mentioned the results of surveys that he had conducted from April 1992, when tolls began to be collected only for entry into Wales. The latest monitoring report of September 1993 shows that, on the A40 west of the Highnam roundabout, there has been a 59 per cent. increase in lorries travelling into Wales, compared with a 33 per cent. increase in traffic travelling in the opposite direction.
Similar trends are occurring on the A48 and on the A4136. Mr. Wigginton states that the issue has a very high profile in Gloucester. The effects of heavy lorries chugging through Gloucestershire villages can be readily understood.
Mr. M.S. Owen, the Gwent county surveyor, has complained of what he calls severance problems in Chepstow-- people being unable to cross the road because of heavy traffic that is diverting from the Severn bridge.
The monitoring of traffic bears out the findings of the influential Lex report, which was published on 19 January 1994. The report shows that most drivers feel that they should not have to pay motorway tolls, and they divert accordingly.
The difficult position has been aggravated by the decision that Severn River Crossing plc took about six months ago to end the concession agreement for bulk ticket discounts. An electronic tag system has been introduced that requires substantial payments up front of more than £200 per account and £30 per vehicle. Mr. Brian Colley, director general of the Road Haulage Association, said in a letter dated 30 October 1993 that the company did not initiate any consultative discussions about the new arrangements. The system enables the company to bypass the Severn Bridges Act 1992 and to increase substantially its income in the process.
Mr. John Whitehead, the local secretary of Transport 2000, volunteers the suggestion that the arbitrary ending of the concession agreement is directly linked to the loss of revenue due to heavy goods vehicles travelling into Wales via Gloucester. He said that a more equitable arrangement
Column 947would have been to wipe out the £120 million debt on the existing bridge. After all, it is only a notional figure on the consolidated fund and no bank charges are involved.
Mr. Brian Colley compares the actions of the Severn Bridge River Crossing company with arrangements for the Dartford crossing, where there is no tag charge, tags are interchangeable, and there is a substantial discount of 7.5 per cent. for tag holders. Why is there that discrimination against Wales ?
For toll purposes, there are three categories of vehicle. Lorries coming into Wales pay £10.10. A lorry coming to unload a ship in Newport docks would pay that toll, yet if the same lorry crossed the Clifton bridge into Avonmouth docks it would pay nothing. That is another illustration of discrimination against Wales.
The second category of toll is £6.80 for a small van. That charge is punitive for small business enterprises. A plumber or an electrician may need to cross the river two or three times a day, and that exorbitant cost is a disincentive to enterprise.
The third category is £3.40, for a car. Some years ago when Lord Tebbit was a Member of the House he urged people who were out of work to get on their bikes. Many redundant steelworkers in south Wales have followed his advice and secured employment in Avonmouth. But for showing a bit of initiative they are charged £3.40 per day on top of their normal motoring costs. All those charges increase annually at well above the rate of inflation, and even the right to a public inquiry to contest the increases has now been arbitrarily withdrawn under the Severn Bridges Act.
Tourism must be affected on both sides of the channel. After all, in economic terms everything is decided at the margin. The burghers of Bristol, too, must be concerned about the hundreds of Welsh people who, because of those iniquitous tolls, no longer cross the channel on shopping expeditions. In that context, I am glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) and for Kingswood (Dr. Berry) have agreed to be sponsors of the Bill.
Why should south Wales be discriminated against in that way ? We have to compete for new jobs with towns and cities in England, and all we ask for is a level playing field. My Bill will be a step towards ending that discrimination, and I appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the House to give it full backing.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roy Hughes, Mr. Paul Murphy, Mr. Win Griffiths, Ms Jean Corston, Dr. Roger Berry, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. Alan W. Williams and Mr. Ray Powell.
Mr. Roy Hughes accordingly presented a Bill to amend sections 9 and 10 of the Severn Bridges Act 1992 : and the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 11 March, and to be printed. [Bill 63.]
That this House is of the opinion that there are industries, such as the steel industry, the car industry and the airframe industry, which cannot be allowed to fail if Britain is to remain an advanced economy ; believes that the future of the sole remaining British owned and British controlled motor manufacturer, Rover, must continue to be a matter for Her Majesty's Government ; observes that all these views which were expressed by the President of the Board of Trade prior to his appointment are at odds with the continuing redundancies in steel and aerospace and the acquisition of Rover by BMW since his appointment ; notes that, under this Government, employment in manufacturing has fallen faster and that output of manufacturing has risen more slowly than in other major industrial countries ; regrets that Britain has run a deficit in trade in manufactured goods in every one of the past twelve years and has run an unprecedented balance of payments deficit even in the years of recession ; rejects the Government's policies of promoting a low wage, low skills workforce ; and calls for an industrial strategy both in Whitehall and in the regions to achieve competitiveness through a high-tech, high investment manufacturing base.
The motion stands in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself, but I had hoped to be able to move that wording on behalf of the President of the Board of Trade, too, because, in an attempt to achieve cross-party unity on the question, the first quarter of the motion consists of direct quotations from the right hon. Gentleman's writings before he was appointed to his present job. Sadly, however, it is not possible for me to include the name of the President of the Board of Trade in the motion, because he has put his name to the amendment to delete even those passages culled from his own writing. In case it has slipped his mind, I refer him to the passage, which he will find on page 113 of his book "Where There's a Will", where he said :
"The future of the sole remaining British owned and British controlled motor manufacturer of Rover will continue to be a matter for the Government...Otherwise, the British motor industry will find itself further down the cul-de-sac to extinction."
There is no doubt that, when he comes to speak, the President will explain precisely at what point between 1987 and 1994 he changed his mind, because Rover, the sole remaining British-owned and British-controlled motor car company, has ceased to be British owned and British controlled and it happened while he was President. No wonder that at the Tory party fringe meeting in 1989 the President warned the meeting that they should watch for the Conservative's claim on industrial performance in case :
"Your empty words will come back to haunt you."
Perhaps the President will follow the words of the Minister who said, when we discussed the matter in the House, that the purchase of Rover by BMW was somehow a triumph of the industrial strategy of the Government. If that is the case, it is an industrial strategy which the rest of
Column 949Europe does not seem anxious to emulate. Italy still has two volume car manufacturers, France has two, Germany has three and Japan has five. Britain is alone in having, as some hon. Members have already prompted me, only Rolls-Royce and the Reliant Robin under British ownership.
Mr. Cook : They are making cars, they are providing jobs--[ Laughter .] Hang on. They are making cars, they are providing jobs, they are providing exports, they are also providing contracts for the suppliers to those industries and they are fulfilling a vital role in their economies. Part of that role, which is endangered by the loss of British control, is that they provide high technology, high design and the opportunity to take strategic decisions in the car industry. That is now at risk.
I was about to refer to the Conservative research department brief on Rover and BMW because it attempts to put in perspective the purchase of the last volume car manufacturer by a foreign firm, by contrasting it with UK firms that control and own apparently foreign companies and brands. It lists Ha"agen Dazs, Faberge , Courvoisie r and, to bring it to a climax, Jacuzzi. I will not take anything away from those market industry success stories, but they are not in the same league as the last major British car volume producer. Ha"agen Dazs has its virtues, but it does not play the same role in Britain's engineering base. Courvoisie r does not make the same contribution to developing our engineering skills. I suspect that not even Faberge provides the same orders for supply industries in Britain. If I must choose between the British ownership of Rover and Faberge , I can express myself best with another quote from the President. In the past week, I reread the President's speech in the debate on Matrix Churchill and was much taken by a sentence of his which I rediscovered. He said :
"If I must rely on the Attorney-General or the hon. Member for Livingston it is the simplest decision that I have ever had to make in my life."
At the time, in my naivete, I assumed that the decision was simple because he was going to rely on his colleague the Attorney-General. I now understand that that was a coded message that he preferred the advice of even his opposite number to the advice of the Attorney-General. To echo the President of the Board of Trade, if I had to choose between British control of Faberge and Rover, it would be the simplest decision that any of us could make.
Clearly, it does matter whether Rover is controlled in the midlands or in Bavaria, for the reasons that the President gave in 1987 : "Foreign investment is of course to be welcomed, but control has its dangers. For the major parts of the British motor industry to fall entirely into foreign hands would leave it a hostage to decisions in foreign capitals."
The threat to Rover is that those decisions will now be taken in Munich rather than the midlands. The risk is of a "headquarters effect" in which there will be a concentration of advanced technical skills and strategic
Column 950management decisions in Bavaria. Youngsters who want to get to the top of motor engineering design will have to go to Munich to get there. There will be a gradual increase in import controls on the content of Rover models and, ultimately, BMW will take the up-market, high value-added models, leaving Rover the low-cost, mass-volume cars that are most vulnerable to competition from low-wage economies.
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : The Leader of the Opposition has now said that the ownership of companies is no longer important. Will the Labour party therefore drop clause 4 from its constitution ? If not, why not ?
Mr. Cook : I am not entirely clear how that intervention arises naturally from the matter that I am rehearsing before the House. However, the issue is adequately and clearly distinguished in the writings of the President of the Board of Trade. What is at stake here is not just the question of ownership ; it is the question of control. Just as Germany and BMW would not dream of letting the control of BMW pass outside Bavaria, we are also right to be concerned about the control of our last major volume car manufacturer. That point is understood in France, Germany and, most certainly, Japan.
Mr. Cook : May I tell the hon. Gentleman that British Leyland was taken into the public sector because it collapsed in the private sector. While in the public sector, it was turned round and the Government passed it on to British Aerospace for a song. Given the profit that British Aerospace has now made on that ownership, Conservative Members would do well to keep quiet about public ownership.
The real disgrace of the Rover purchase is not that it has been bought by a foreign firm but that there was no British bid to purchase it. The real indictment of the Government's stewardship of this nation's industrial financial affairs for the past 15 years is that no company, organisation or consortium had the capability or will to put up the £800 million necessary to keep Rover under British control. The most telling criticism of the Government is their lack of commitment to manufacturing industry and the fact that they made no attempt to put together a British solution.
I presume that the President knew that British Aerospace was trying to sell the whole outfit and about the financial pressures on British Aerospace. I presume that he read the report presented to him last year by his aviation committee, pointing out that levies from the Treasury on aerospace sales now exceed current Government contributions to grant aid for research and technology in aerospace.
Mr. Cook : No, I should like to continue this passage. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall give way to him. I have never failed to do so because it is always highly worth while. If he will be patient, his turn will come.
I presume that the President noticed his aviation committee's conclusion that our level of support has declined relative to other countries, that we are the only country that now deducts EC research funding from
Column 951Government funding for research and technology in aerospace, and that unless we match other country's budgets we shall be
"forced out of key areas of aeronautics".
British Aerospace has advertised that very danger in the past two months by declaring 1,900 redundancies since the beginning of this year. Is there any doubt that there were troubles at Rover's parent company ? They were banished when British Aerospace decided to sack its chairman with a payment of £3.2 million for his year and a half in office. That is enough to meet the redundancy payments of 1,000 ordinary workers. When the Prime Minister was asked about it, he told the House that it was not a matter for him.
The Government cannot insist that work forces should be flexible and on low wages and casual terms and conditions, and then stay silent when top executives take small fortunes when they are sacked by the same companies. That is a double standard which will destroy any attempt to build a common purpose which is necessary to regenerate our industrial base.
Mr. Oppenheim : Does the hon. Gentleman have any recollection of the state of the British car industry when Labour was in power ? Does he have any shame for Labour's record when they were in power ? Is not it true that under the last Labour Government we lost the chance of having a genuine British global player in international car markets ? It is both a miracle and a tribute to what this Government have achieved that we have brought the British car industry back to this state when companies such as BMW are willing to take it over.
Mr. Cook : I remember what the situation was like at the end of the last Labour Government. I remember that we had a trade surplus--and we had run a trade surplus in every year of that Government, in a way that this Government have never managed in any year. I remember that we achieved an investment rate of over 3 per cent. of gross domestic product in manufacturing industry in a way that this Government have never managed to achieve. I remember that we had an unemployment level that this Government would regard as a major triumph if they ever once achieved it.