Mr. David Harris (St. Ives) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek your help on a matter that concerns all hon. Members ? It is the general question of how on earth Members can question Ministers about what they are negotiating in the European Union, and what arrangements and agreements they have reached. In particular, has the Minister of Agriculture given you notice of a statement on what was agreed
Mr. Harris : Indeed--on fishing in the Fisheries Council in Luxembourg yesterday. That is a matter of prime importance to fishermen in the south-west and all around the coast, yet we have no knowledge whatever of what was agreed. There are conflicting reports in the media.
Will you, Madam Speaker, use your great office to impress on Ministers the need to report regularly and promptly to the House on such matters ? Moreover, should we not look at the great gap in our procedures which means that we cannot get at Ministers effectively immediately before or after such crucial negotiations ?
Madam Speaker : I have a good deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am sure that those on his own Front Bench have heard it. May I refer him to written question 117 today, which may partially answer his point ? Perhaps he can take the matter from there and pursue it through parliamentary questions.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : I rise on a point of order, Madam Speaker, to ask your assistance on a matter that concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House. At 2.30 today, you announced, in accordance with normal practice, the death of a good friend of ours, Bob Cryer. Members do die from time to time, but there is no opportunity, save for famous Members of the House, for tributes to be paid.
In three weeks' or a month's time, the Chief Whip will move, That Madam Speaker do issue her warrant to the Clerk of the Crown for a by-election in the room of Bob Cryer. The matter concerns not just him, although it occurs to me now as he was a good friend of mine over a long period. But it would be friendly if the House could find an opportunity at 3.30 so that, when our colleagues pass away, Members who knew them well can stand up and say something about them. Will you consider that, because it would be in line with the feeling of hon. Members ?
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Yes. May I raise just one additional point to what my right hon. Friend has just said ? Only a few months ago, a statement was made--it was on the agenda--about the retirement of the head Librarian. Various people took part in paying compliments to the head Librarian.
I should have thought that, taking a line through that, it would make a lot of sense, in the case of people like Bob and others, for those who wish to pay him a compliment to be able to do so. Will you also consider, Madam Speaker, the precedent of making a statement regarding somebody's passing away, like Bob's, after Question Time when the House is full ?
I do not think that the current procedure is quite appropriate ; I have always considered that to be the case. I think that, if you take on board that suggestion and the one advanced by my right hon. Friend, it would suit everybody in the House on future occasions.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) : On the same point of order, Madam Speaker. I associate myself, from the Government side of the House, with the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I am sure that you are aware that there are too few House of Commons people who are prepared to challenge the establishment and the Executive. Bob Cryer was one of those people, and the House will miss him. I hope that there will be an opportunity to pay tribute to a very distinguished parliamentarian.
Madam Speaker : I am pleased to hear such remarks from both sides of the House. The House will be interested to know that I have been approached privately by a number of hon. Members in the last few hours about this matter. It is a highly sensitive and emotional matter and I hope that the House will allow me to reflect upon it. I think that I have caught the spirit and the feeling of the House in the last five minutes.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that, on 29 March, the Prime Minister made a statement about various undertakings which had been given by the Commission of the European Communities in respect of the treaty of enlargement. The next day--the 30th--it was reported in the press that Mr. Delors had said, "No, no, no." I took the opportunity of asking the Foreign Secretary--the question appears in column 921--how he reconciled these matters, and he said that the assurances had been "reconfirmed".
I then put down a written question, which was replied to today and appears in column 20 of the current Hansard . The hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), a Minister in the Department, replied to my question concerning these undertakings : how they were written down, where they could be seen and by what means this reconfirmation had been made.
The answer he gave is as follows :
"The additional confirmation from the Commission to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred in his oral answer on 30 March took the form of contracts between his office and the office of Mr. Delors."
That is strange, because the rest of the answer states : "The undertakings in the social field announced by my right hon. Friend . . . were oral assurances and are not recorded in the documents. They will not therefore be incorporated, in whole or in part, in the draft treaty."--[ Official Report , 12 April 1994 ; Vol. 241, c. 20 .]
I therefore infer, hope and believe that the word "contracts" should have been "contacts"--there may have
Column 211been a telephone call. I ask you therefore, Madam Speaker--quite apart from the use of the prerogative which may be involved--whether that was so, in view of the great importance of these matters to the House.
Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. It is just a question of one word. The word that was used was "contracts", whereas the word that should have been used was "contacts". There is a world of difference between the two, and the amendment is now being made.
Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall, as I am sure the House does, the great importance that the Prime Minister himself attached to these assurances given by the Commission during his statement to the House on 29 March. We now know that those assurances were given in an entirely oral form. Surely it is right that the House should have a record of those oral contacts so that we can judge for ourselves just how binding, in practice, they may turn out to be.
Madam Speaker : As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, that is of course a much greater matter than a simple slip of a word. If he wishes to pursue the matter to which he refers, he must do so through the usual channels.
Sir John Hannam
Mr. Michael Clapham
Mr. John Spellar
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to ensure fair treatment for widowers.
I say immediately that my Bill deals with widowers with dependent children. Some 10 per cent. of all lone parents are men. If one discounts those who were never married, there are about 60,000 isolated widowers with children, who are a forgotten minority in our country.
The problem is that the treatment that widowers and their children receive is different from that received by widows and their children. The treatment amounts to discrimination, and results in spiralling poverty and hardship ; it frequently splits the children from their fathers when they are taken into care.
Why do we have the problem ? There are two reasons. The first is the system in this country, and the second is due to history. We have a system that is rigid ; it is ordained by Whitehall on nationally made assumptions. It is inflexible, with little ability to deal with minority hard luck cases.
As for the history, the subject was raised by our much-respected colleague, the late Mrs. Judith Chaplin, who died last year. In 1948, a system was introduced on the basis that widows needed more support than widowers. At that time, one woman was employed for every two men, but that is no longer the case. Now, for every 10 women employed, 11 men are employed. It is no longer possible to assume that, when a woman dies, the children will suffer financially as a result. That was the unhappy position of discrimination and inequality in which Mr. John Kao, who sits in the Public Gallery with one of his children
Madam Speaker : Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is unaware of the fact that we do not refer to people outside the Chamber. There are Members and strangers, and we do not refer to a stranger in the House. We refer only to a colleague in the Chamber.
The wife of one of my constituents died on 3 November 1990. My constituent was left with six children under the age of 15, the youngest of whom was only five and a half months old, and the oldest is still at school now, aged 17. My constituent has had to bring up his children alone in a position that has been not only disadvantageous, but positively discriminatory.
My constituent was unemployed at the time of his wife's death, and the authorities told him to get a job, as he would then be better off than he was on social security. That was wrong. He would have had to find a job that would give him £400 a week. Of course, such a job was not available. His previous employment a few years earlier had provided only £250 a week. My constituent was being asked to obtain the impossible.
What was my constituent receiving from our system ? He was receiving £114 a week. Had he been a widow, he would have received £1,000 on the death of his spouse, and between £198 and £250 per week. That is not the final twist in this unhappy tale. Had he been fortunate enough to obtain a job earning £400 a week, every penny--apart from child allowance--would have been removed. Had he been a widow, none of it, apart from
Column 213the small amount of £10, would have been removed. The benefit would have been ring-fenced and secure had he been a widow, but it was removed because he was a widower. That is further discrimination, and not only my constituent suffered but his children. I went to see Mr. Kao--may I refer to him that way ?
I saw Mr. Kao at his house, and found him to be an admirable manager of a difficult situation. After paying for fuel, he had £64 left to spend each week on the seven mouths in that household. After allowing for clothing, only 80p per day each is left for Mr. Kao and his children--an appalling situation.
I was extremely angry that such a thing could happen in this country. It is an indictment of poverty in a civilised nation, of discrimination against men and their children, and of a social security system that has the laudable aim of targeting those most in need but has failed in this case.
The Government cannot use the excuse that there is no money, or produce figures to show that a huge amount would have to be spent if every widower were to be dealt with. The Government have a policy of targeting those most in need. Mr. Kao and his children are most in need, and they are not being helped.
My Bill hopes to address that situation. We must help Mr. Kao and other widowers and their children. I hope that my Bill will do so. Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Hartley Booth, Sir John Hannam, Mr. Michael Alison, Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, Mr. Alan Williams, Mr. Michael Bates, Mr. Patrick Thompson, Mr. Gary Streeter, Mrs. Edwina Currie, Mr. David Lidington and Mr. Malcolm Bruce.
Mr. Hartley Booth accordingly presented a Bill to ensure fair treatment for widowers : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 6 May, and to be printed. [Bill 90.]
As amended (in Committee and in the Standing Committee), considered.
.--(1) It shall be an offence for any person to consume any alcoholic liquor in any public place and a constable may arrest without warrant any person committing such an offence.
(2) In this section--
"alcoholic liquor" has the same meaning as in the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976.
"public place" means any place to which the public do or may have access which is not licensed premises in terms of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976.'.-- [Mr. Bill Walker.]
--Brought up, and read the First time.
.--(1) It shall be an offence for any person under the age of eighteen years to consume any alcoholic liquor in any public place and a constable may arrest without warrant any person committing such an offence.
(2) In this section
"alcoholic liquor" has the same meaning as in the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976.
"public place" means any place to which the public do or may have access which is not licensed premises in terms of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976.'.
Mr. Walker : I welcome the fact that present in the Chamber are the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey), for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion). I must also declare an interest, as vice-chairman of the all-party Scotch whisky group. Other officers and members of that group are present in the Chamber, and they support the measures that I have before the House.
Neither I nor any of my supporters oppose the consumption of alcoholic liquor. How could we, when we are members of the all-party Scotch whisky group ? However, we oppose the drinking of liquor in public places, where its consumption creates a nuisance to others. Legislation currently passing through the House seems likely to provide the opportunity for off-licences, supermarkets and distillery shops to open on Sunday. I support Sunday opening, particularly that of distillery shops. Mine is a large rural constituency, where tourism is a vital aspect of my constituents' well- being. It seems nonsense to us that people can go around and view our distillery shops on a Sunday, yet cannot buy the products on display. We should change the legislation.
We must face the fact that the enlightened legislation could be at risk. It might not be well received. If individuals take the opportunity to shop on Sunday and purchase the alcoholic drink, then immediately go outside and consume it outside the door of the shop, supermarket,
Column 215off-licence or wherever, that would create the kind of nuisance that would bring the enlightened legislation into disrepute. As every hon. Member knows, in every city and town, and in many villages, there are public areas--parks, civic squares and other places where the public congregate--where groups of people drink alcohol and create a public nuisance. The experiment conducted in my home town of Dundee demonstrated that, with adequate local supervision and policing, it is possible to prevent that nuisance. Sadly, it also showed that such action can drive the nuisance into other parts of the community. Consequently--I hope that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench is listening--a statutory measure seems to be the only way to address that problem. I suggest that my new clauses are the logical way to do so, particularly, as I have mentioned, with the other legislation that is going through the House.
Another matter of great concern to all of us in our constituencies is under -age drinking. We have seen the problem increase over the years. It is particularly sad to see under-age drinking in public places, and it is an ever-increasing problem. New clause 81 sets out to address that unique problem. Consequently, if my hon. Friend is to tell me that, for technical reasons, he cannot accept new clause 77, he might consider that the under- age aspect of new clause 81 merits much more consideration. I am sure that he will realise and recognise the importance of addressing that nuisance and social problem. It will not be good enough for us to wring our hands and try to wish the matter away. All of us who take an interest in the well -being and welfare of the Scotch whisky industry recognise that it is awfully easy to blame it for the failings of individuals. I have to be careful because, as the House knows, I am teetotal. I do not want be looked on as the "unco' guid". That is the last type of image that I would wish to project.
I believe that social drinking is a huge asset in a community. I must make that quite clear. I believe that alcoholic drink--however and wherever it is consumed, if it is done properly and does not create a nuisance for others--can be beneficial to the well-being of the community atmosphere.
However, there will always be people who will ignore and put at risk the well-being of others, and will abuse the system. The Bill gave me and my hon. Friends the opportunity to do something about that. I hope that the Minister will say that he recognises that the problem cannot and will not be wished away, and that he recognises that it will have to be legislated away.
We cannot expect that people whom we wish to change will change simply because we ask them to. Sadly, one of the great problems is that people who are subjected to the ghastly problem of an alcoholic disease are not the kind that one can chat to. Therefore, we must give powers to the local constabulary to remove those people if they are creating a nuisance in a public place.
I recognise that the Minister might ask what would happen in the case of someone sitting outside a pub. If there were a table and four chairs outside a pub in Paris, everyone would know that they were part of the pub or cafe , but, if one sees a table and four chairs outside a pub in Scotland, one knows that a warrant sale is taking place--our pubs do not have tables and chairs outside. I
Column 216therefore believe that there is no risk of the public place, as defined in new clause 81, being mistaken for anything other than what was intended.
New clause 81 has been deliberately worded to fit exactly what I call the Scottish domain :
" public place' means any place to which the public do or may have access which is not licensed premises in terms of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976."
If a country pub has a large garden, that garden will be recognised as part of the pub, which would not be the case with a park or any open space that the public use for recreational activities.
Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside) : I have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend's argument. He mentioned tourism and its importance to his constituency, and he will be aware that many overseas visitors come to our part of Scotland. They sometimes eat picnics on the way, and it is often the continental custom to have a bottle of wine with lunch. How would my hon. Friend deal with a tourist--not the driver of a car, but a passenger--having a glass of wine with a picnic lunch in a public place ?
Mr. Walker : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I have to tell him that such a case could covered with no difficulty. If he examines the new clauses, he will find that they would give policemen the appropriate power.
However, I do not believe that any policemen in Scotland's tourist areas would do anything to upset the tourist industry. More than any other group, the police help tourism in my area by being very helpful to visitors. I do not anticipate any problems in this respect. Indeed, I examined many such issues when considering how to word the new clauses, and it is why I had them worded as concisely and as clearly as I could.
I am assured by the legal brains who know much more about such matters than I do that the new clauses are technically satisfactory. However, I accept that my hon. Friend the Minister must, on behalf of the Government, consider how to fit them in with the legislation as a whole. He may come back to me and suggest that, for some reason, the new clauses do not quite measure up, in which case I hope that he will be positive and say that the Government have something in mind to deal with the problem. I believe that the new clauses would deal with the problem, but I would understand if my hon. Friend the Minister were to tell me that, for technical reasons, he would like to travel another route.
I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) for his helpful intervention. That is all I have to say at this stage, other than that I hope that the Minister will be able to make a constructive and positive reply.
Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) : Perhaps I, too, should declare an interest, as we have just heard the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) disclose his interest as vice-chairman of the Scotch whisky group. I, for my sins, chair the all-party Scotch whisky group, and we promote the industry wherever we can. Unlike my colleague, I have to confess that from time to time, and in moderation, I consume some of our national product, so I am not taking an anti-alcohol stance ; I wish merely to highlight the problems in most of our city and town centres.
Column 217It has already been mentioned that the councils in Aberdeen and Dundee experimented by designating certain areas in which it would be an offence to drink in public. It was successful in those areas, but, as a by-product, it drove the people who had abused alcohol in the streets in those areas into the back streets and the housing schemes. So the inhabitants, especially those who live in housing schemes, have been lumbered with what we removed from the city centres and tourist spots.
It is expected that, in other legislation to come before the House shortly, the laws on opening hours in Scotland on Sundays will be brought more into line with those in England, especially so that off-sales can open on Sundays during certain periods to sell liquor. That means that, in areas in which people are demented for six days of the week, they might well soon be demented for the seventh day, too, so some hon. Members are already expressing opposition to the measure.
We had hoped that, if the Government took the provisions of the new clauses seriously on board, perhaps we could placate at least those hon. Members who fear the nuisance caused by people drinking alcohol in the housing schemes, and especially by under-age drinkers, because they could be controlled and the problem alleviated.
The hon. Member for Tayside, North said that he did not wish to be thought unco' guid--to use the term that Burns would use. As the two of us bear the same christian name, that reminds me of "Holy Willie's Prayer". Not only has a Conservative Member introduced the new clause, but now another hon. Member who is interested in the alcohol trade and who confesses to consuming alcohol in moderation, but who understands the problems, especially for householders who have to put up with the menace week after week, day in and day out, is speaking in favour. I understand why such people resist the idea of the off-licence in their housing scheme being allowed to open more. I hope that Ministers will be able to conceive of a way of giving licensing authorities more extensive powers to designate areas--perhaps areas of particular nuisance--where opening should not be allowed on Sundays. In a former life, I was chairman of a licensing committee, and I had the dubious distinction of having managed to award the first licence to a pavement public house, in as much as the owner of the public house also owned part of the pavement and could put out tables and chairs on it. At the time, that caused an uproar in Dundee, because people thought that it would be the ultimate in degradation.
Mr. McKelvey : Not only the weather. But I recall that, one bright summer, there were only three days on which anyone was prepared to sit outside to sip their lager. Anyway, what happened was not the horror story that people feared.
If we dignify and humanise the activities of people who consume alcohol, that will assist the areas of the trade that the hon. Member for Tayside, North described as the reasonable and interested bodies that prepare and sell alcohol. They, too, are concerned about alcohol abuse, and supply not only information but funds to ensure that the information reaches the public.
I hope that the Minister will consider the matter seriously and that, if the new clauses are not acceptable in
Column 218their present form, he will at least accept the spirit--perhaps I should not use that word, so I shall say that I hope that he will accept their intention. The intention is to solve a problem and to ease the passage of a forthcoming piece of legislation, for the sake of those who wish, mainly honourably, for access to alcohol through off- licences and supermarkets on Sundays in Scotland.
Mr. McAllion : May I make a hat trick of hon. Members declaring their interest ? You have heard, Madam Speaker, from the chairman and the vice-chairman of the all-party Scotch whisky group. You are now hearing from the secretary of the group. I probably tend towards the chairman's position in relation to the consumption of alcohol, rather than to the vice -chairman's position.
Hon. Members should understand that we are not trying by means of the new clause to ban social drinking in public places. We are not against people having a drink when they attend a fete, go to the highland games or have a picnic in a park, when they may want a glass of wine with their meal.
We are trying to address the problem of those who cause a nuisance to other people by drinking, whether on the street in the centre of towns or in housing schemes in Scotland, especially in the peripheral housing estates which surround most cities in Scotland. There is a problem there of people drinking outside off-licences and causing a severe nuisance to people who live adjacent to the off-licence. I have always believed that it is nonsense that, in Scotland, it should be an offence for someone under 18 to go into an off-licence to purchase liquor and an offence for an adult to go into an off-licence to purchase liquor on behalf of someone who is under 18, but that it is not an offence for someone under 18 to stand outside the off-licence and consume alcoholic liquor. If some of the neighbours called the police and said that there were youngsters drinking wine--fortified wine, not the French variety--nothing could be done. The police would say that the youngsters were not committing an offence, and that there was nothing that they could do.
Years ago, I brought the problem to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas -Hamilton). He responded by saying that the Government had pilot projects in Scotland, one of which was in Dundee, under which it was an offence for anyone to consume liquor in certain areas. He said that the Scottish Office would see how the pilot schemes worked out and would then make a decision about what changes to the law would be made.
The Minister has peddled that line for a number of years. It is time that we stopped waiting for the outcome of the pilot projects. The Government should get off their backside and start to do something about the problem, which is serious for many people living in cities.
I know that such schemes are not the perfect solution, because I know what happened in Dundee. We were able to clear away from the centre of the city the people who sat drinking strong lagers and fortified wines. However, they went to the top of Hilltown and sat on the benches that were meant for mothers whose toddlers were using the swings. They sat there drinking, and mothers and toddlers were frightened to go into the parks. It is not a solution simply to say that we should extend the area to cover the whole city.