Madam Speaker : I undertook, in response to a point of order yesterday, to make a statement on the rules relating to the use of the House emblem for party political purposes. Those rules are clearly set out in the "Members Handbook" and in a separate leaflet published by the Serjeant at Arms. They make it clear that the designs and symbols of the House should not be used for purposes to which such authentication is inappropriate or where there is a risk that their use might wrongly be regarded as having the authority of the House.
In particular, neither the crowned portcullis nor the royal arms, whether or not associated with the words "House of Commons", may be used
"in connection with . . . supporting the return of any person to public office."
The application of those rules rests on the good sense of individual Members. Where they have any doubt about their application, Members should consult the Serjeant at Arms.
Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have listened carefully to your statement, and I have received the letter that you sent to me. I am grateful for your response and for your defence of the rights and privileges associated with being a Member of this House.
However, can you confirm that, in 1986, the then leader of the Liberal party gave the same explanation for an exactly similar breach of the rules in an election campaign, and was reprimanded in the same way ? I ask for your guidance as to whether that conduct could be construed as a deliberate and calculated campaign to distort the rules of this House, and whether it is a contempt.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) : Further to my point of order yesterday, Madam Speaker. Can you confirm that, having received the letter in which you asked me for evidence that the breach of the rules was on-going, I have given you today the names and addresses of constituents in Liverpool who have received the same letter with the same letterhead since the undertaking given to you ?
Madam Speaker : I received the later undertaking some time around lunchtime--at about the same time as the hon. Gentleman sent me a letter. I believe that the dates in his letter are not clear, but I have not yet had an opportunity to examine his correspondence. Several hon. Members rose
I think that I have made a very clear statement today. If any Members have any criticism of another Member of this House, the usual procedure is to refer the matter to an appropriate Committee or to table a substantive motion about the Member's behaviour. That is the way in which we have always proceeded. If the two hon. Members who represent Liverpool are not satisfied, that is the way in which they must proceed.
Several hon. Members rose
Madam Speaker : It had better be a different point of order, because I have just made a statement to the House and the hon. Gentleman is not entitled to raise that matter again. Is he going to rethink ? I shall ask him to resume his seat if he is raising that same point of order again.
Mr. Burns : As it is a general point of order, I will try not to test your patience, Madam Speaker. If it is perceived that an hon. Member has, unintentionally or otherwise, made a mistake according to the rules of the House, is it customary for that hon. Member then to apologise to the House for the mistake that has been made ?
Madam Speaker : That is a rather hypothetical question. I hope that most hon. Members would have sufficient good manners to do that, but I am afraid that during my Speakership they have not always done so.
Mr. Faulds : Madam Speaker, as you know, I have been a long-time supporter, colleague and admirer--I love you dearly. But I do have a simple resolution to the problem. There has been persistent misuse of this emblem over my many years in the House. There is one way that it could be satisfactorily resolved. The House of Commons emblem should be branded on the left or right haunch of hon. Members, depending on their party affiliation, when they have offended.
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I have taken into account what you have said, but I would like you to clarify one point. If, before the local elections, I sent a letter on House of Commons paper to the constituents of another hon. Member with the intention of ensuring the election of, say, a Labour candidate over a Liberal Democrat candidate, would I be in order ?
Madam Speaker : Perhaps I should repeat the words so that they are very clear. In particular, neither the crowned portcullis nor the royal arms, whether or not associated with the words "House of Commons", may be used
"in connection with . . . supporting the return of any person to public office."
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On this historic day in South Africa, would it not be a good idea to get hold of one of those pieces of paper with the House of Commons crest and send congratulations to Nelson Mandela on behalf of those of us
Column 245who supported him in his long campaign to end apartheid and to get the vote ? You would be doing a wonderful job if you sent it on behalf of those who wish to send such a letter. I will find you such a piece of paper if you do not have any--or I will borrow it from the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Given the point that you have already made about the politicisation of the portcullis and crown, do you not believe that there could be a saving to the House--and indeed a depoliticisation--if we just stuck to using paper with a green emblem instead of having blue and red also ?
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to ensure the publication of information relating to the payment of company creditors and to encourage prompt settlement ; and for connected purposes. This is not a new subject-- indeed, over the years it has received a great deal of parliamentary and outside attention. One of the purposes of my Bill is to try to ensure more prompt payment within commerce, particularly to small companies, where prompt payment may actually determine their long-term viability.
The background to the Bill is that, in 1992, the Government said in the Budget that they would be prepared to issue two consultation papers--which were subsequently released in January and May 1993--about how to improve prompt payment of creditors in commerce. That decision followed a 1978 Law Commission report about the rate of statutory interest for commercial debts, a 1986 report about payment by the Confederation of British Industry entitled "A Guide to Good Practice", as well as a great deal of parliamentary activity in the last few years.
That culminated in the Interest on Debts Bill for commercial contracts, which was introduced in 1990 by the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates). It also resulted in an early-day motion, which had the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House--as does my Bill--and was signed by no fewer than 129 Members. That early-day motion was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), who is now Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs at the Department of Trade and Industry.
I appreciate that the Government are consulting on how to improve prompt payment in commerce, because it is a significant problem, particularly for smaller companies. The CBI has estimated that, at any one time, those companies alone are owed £100 million in overdue rather than late debts. The Times recently estimated that the cost to industry of late payment is about £1.5 billion a year, which is equal to the entire amount injected into the venture capital industry in any one year.
The problem of late payment primarily affects small companies, for three reasons. First, they do not have the commercial clout to ensure that creditors pay up. That is emphasised to me time and again by small companies in my area. Secondly, the administration for recovering debt is relatively and proportionately much more expensive for small companies. Thirdly, late payment is a particular problem for small companies because they generate a significant number of the new jobs upon which we rely. The labour force survey has estimated that, up until the end of the 1980s, small companies generated 1.85 million jobs--13 times more than those generated by their larger brethren.
If we are to maintain successful small companies and the investment they make, it is crucial that they are paid on time. It has been estimated that 50 per cent. of British companies rely upon short-term debt, so prompt payment is all the more important for them than it is for German companies, where only 14 per cent. rely on such debt. Prompt payment is a current problem rather than one of the past, because, as we come out of recession, more and more companies want to upgrade their activities, invest in
Column 247stock and additional debtors. As a result of such activities those companies will be subject to a certain amount of financial pressure. Trade Indemnity has blamed late payment for the fact that, despite the economic upturn, there was an 11 per cent. rise in first quarter business failures compared with the previous three months. That is why Trade Indemnity's chief economist, William Simpson, has said : " For two quarters the running, average value of unpaid debt has risen. The scale of unpaid debt threatens many otherwise successful firms, despite economic recovery."
Many possible solutions to the problem have been suggested. One of the most important is the attempt to try to change the culture within which people trade. Richard Brucciani, chairman of the CBI's smaller firms council, has said :
"The problem of late payment requires a change of culture and attitude in business, and a published statement of corporate payment policy"
that is one of the two suggestions in my Bill
"would give suppliers a useful insight into this."
Because of the shortage of time, I will not describe the possible solutions proposed by the Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI and the Government to promote prompt payment. One of the most prominent of those suggestions, however, is the imposition of a statutory rate of interest on overdue debts, but opinion on the desirability of such a solution is not unanimous. It appears that the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors are prepared to support it, although the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants all have reservations. A statutory rate of interest would have many disadvantages. It would require companies to undertake additional administration. It might institutionalise late payment, rewarding it by a statutory rate of interest, in the sense that it is likely to be informally ignored by small companies which want further business from their larger customers. It has not been noticeably successful in encouraging prompt payment in France or Germany, where it currently operates. Hence I make two proposals today, which are simple and which do something to change the business culture in the way that I have described.
My first proposal is that every public company--public companies are generally synonymous with larger companies--should be required to make a statement of its
Column 248payment patterns and its payment policy in its audited accounts. If it is a conglomerate, it would have to do it on a subsidiary or a sectoral basis.
The CBI has suggested a specific form of statement :
"It is this company's policy to negotiate payment terms with suppliers at the outset of the deal and to pay within the time scale agreed."
In a sense, that says everything and nothing. It is peace and motherhood ; it is a statement of good intentions. Although I am sure that we shall all be happy with it, people wish to know not only whether companies sign up to prompt payment, especially the larger companies, but whether they carry it out in practice. That is why my second proposal is crucial if we are to change the culture in the way that we have described.
My second proposal is that every public company should be required to publish an analysis of the aging of its creditors in its public accounts, so that creditors or shareholders or institutions or the general public can see to what extent its practice matches its rhetoric. There are many ways of doing that. The Institute of Chartered Accountants, in its reply to the Government consultation document, mentioned three. They all have different drawbacks and different benefits.
I am absolutely sure that it is not beyond the wit of the accountancy profession to come up with an easily understandable, reasonably consistent, way of describing the aging of creditors and the way in which firms fulfil the pledges they give about prompt payments in their company accounts that would allow potential customers to decide whether it was worth while dealing with those companies in advance rather than after the event, as would be the case with the statutory rate of interest.
My view is that, in the sense that it would give forewarning to small companies of late payment of debt, that would be a valuable measure. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Anthony Coombs, Mr. Michael Colvin, Mr. Nigel Griffiths, Sir Anthony Durant, Mr. Bob Dunn, Mr. Malcolm Bruce, Mr. Keith Mans, Mr. David Evans, Mr. Sebastian Coe, Mr. John Sykes, Mr. David Martin, Mr. Simon Burns.
Mr. Anthony Coombs accordingly presented a Bill to ensure the publication of information relating to the payment of company creditors and to encourage prompt settlement ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 20 May, and to be printed. [Bill 100.]
As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.
In fulfilling the functions specified in section 3 of this Act, staff at GCHQ shall enjoy trade union rights in accordance with Convention 87 of the International Labour Organisation.'.--[ Dr. John Cunningham. ]
Brought up, and read the First time.
This is not a new issue ; indeed, it is a long-standing issue, and one on which Government and Opposition are completely divided. It involves what we consider to be the fundamental right of everyone to belong to a trade union : that is a basic principle in any democracy, and we make no apology for reasserting our view on it today. In 1949, the United Kingdom ratified convention 87 of the International Labour Organisation, which set out this right along with many others. From the time of that Labour Government onwards--through many Conservative Administrations--that presented no problems to us as a nation ; only in 1984 did the Conservative Government led by Lady Thatcher decide to remove the right from a group of workers at the Government communications headquarters at Cheltenham.
Understandably and properly, those people have been fighting for its re- establishment ever since--with the support of the Labour party, the Trades Union Congress and, I believe, the Liberal party, along with other parliamentary parties--in the face of the consistent and obstinate opposition of an obdurate Government. The new clause would re-establish the right unequivocally.
Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth) : The right hon. Gentleman has stated in very broad terms that everyone has the right to join a trade union. Is he seriously suggesting that members of the armed forces should have such a right ? That would go well beyond the terms of the International Labour Organisation convention, quite apart from being rather a startling proposition.
Dr. Cunningham : As usual, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) is intervening from a sedentary position. He says that the action was not arbitrary, but it was taken without consultation. It was pointed out in the courts that the decision was against all natural justice : if that is not arbitrary, I do not know what is.
The matter has been discussed at great length over the years, most recently in 1993. It is to the credit of the unions
Column 250involved that they have been willing to make considerable concessions about ring-fencing the members involved and no- strike agreements ; they have gone as far as anyone could realistically expect them to go in trying to meet the point on which the Government insisted.
Originally, the Government's position was that trade union membership somehow presented a threat to the security of our country, which was patent and absolute nonsense. No one ever explained why men and women at GCHQ who belonged to trade unions were a threat to our security, while members of the First Division Association in Whitehall--an organisation affiliated to the TUC, and probably handling a much greater volume of more sensitive and secret information--remained perfectly acceptable, and presented no such threat. That completely exposed the fallacy of the Government's argument.
The concessions were offered during a series of discussions, first with the Cabinet Secretary and then with the Prime Minister himself. The Prime Minister retreated to the position that being a member of a trade union at GCHQ would present a "conflict of loyalty." That is another general phrase that has not been defined or explained. If a conflict of loyalty is involved in belonging to a trade union at GCHQ, why does not the same apply to the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, the Cabinet Office ?
That was simply another excuse to get the Government out of having to concede that the decision was wrong in principle when it was made, that it remains wrong in principle and that it has become a kind of political totem pole for a Conservative Government, and a Conservative party, with no credible or respectable arguments or evidence to support their position.
That puts Britain in a unique and unenviable position. Alone among western democracies, Britain has been isolated because it is in conflict with not only convention 87 of the ILO but that body's decision in 1991, when the conference voted by 160 to one against Britain. A decision similar to that taken by the Government has not been and would not be contemplated by any of our neighbours and partners in the European Union, by the United States of America or by any other democratic country.
A further bit of double-speak, if that is the appropriate phrase--it generally is for Ministers of this Government--is that the Government are sometimes moved to express criticism of other countries' human rights records. We often join the Government in doing so, but the reality is that, as long as the ban persists, the Government's own human rights record will always be open to criticism, and that criticism will continue.
It was recently the 10th anniversary of the decision, first, to remove the right to trade union membership, and, secondly, to dismiss a number of people from their employment when they refused to surrender what they regarded as an inalienable right for them, their colleagues and for people in general. That anniversary was commemorated in a rally, and we wish to make it clear--it is obvious, in any event--that those people and the unions that represent them intend to continue their campaign until they have succeeded in their aim.
It is now clear to them, and, I think, to the country at large, that they will succeed only when the Government have left office and been replaced by a Labour Government who will restore rights to people working at GCHQ. We would lose no time in doing so. It is not tenable for the Government to persist in their mulish obstinacy, especially as, following the discussions
Column 251that took place and the concessions that were made, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Britain's security would be threatened in any way if the Government were finally to admit that they had made a mistake, and reversed their decision.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : My right hon. Friend may remember that, on the 10th anniversary of the decision, I was given leave, after a Division, to bring in a ten-minute Bill. Will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to the 14 employees who were sacked because they refused to give up their trade union membership but who defended their principles, as dissidents have done in different circumstances in, for example, the Soviet Union ? Those people continue their campaign to this day. Are they not the very best of our citizens, people who refuse to be intimidated but who stand up for their principles and wait for the time when victory will be theirs ?
Dr. Cunningham : I certainly pay tribute to those men and women, because they are willing to make sacrifices to fight for what they believe to be right. It is exactly such people--those with determination and principles--that our country needs above all others. It is on such determination to defend democratic rights and principles that our long-term survival as a democratic society depends. They deserve a generous and fulsome tribute and they have it from the Labour party as a whole and from its individual members. We shall continue to give them the support which my hon. Friend has outlined, and which was so admirably conveyed to the House when he introduced his Bill.
Both in Britain and in the international community, the Government have no arguments, no friends and no credibility on this issue. They have no reason not to admit that the original decision was wrong, and was a violation of people's democratic rights--one that could easily be corrected without people being further humiliated by the Government's claim that somehow they simply could not be trusted to safeguard the interests of our country.
We regard that as not only nonsense but a real denial of the long and honourable record of so many people who worked at GCHQ, precisely because they were interested in defending the democratic rights of our country and of all its citizens.
Mr. Allason : Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that the Government's decision was not arbitrary, but was a response to a specific request initiated by Sir Brian Tovey, who was then director of GCHQ, that the Government should ban unions if they were unable to give the assurances required following the industrial action taken when the Soviets imposed martial law in Poland and invaded Afghanistan ?
Dr. Cunningham : I have already dealt once with the hon. Gentleman's assertion that the decision was not arbitrary. It was arbitrary, and a judge in court decided that it was. As for the merits or otherwise of industrial action, that matter is behind us now.
Column 252involving the Prime Minister. In those discussions, the unions gave undertakings that they stand by. Even if I conceded that there was a problem in the first place, which I do not, there is no such problem any more.
Far more working time is lost at GCHQ because of sickness and other valid reasons for absence from work than has ever been lost because of industrial action. A previous Conservative Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Nott
Sir John Nott is on record as having said unequivocally that at no time had the operational efficiency of GCHQ ever been in jeopardy.
Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester) : Is the right hon. Gentleman in a position to identify which of the 14 people referred to by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)--the people who declined to give up their trade union membership--took part in the strikes of 1979 to 1981 ?
Dr. Cunningham : No, but I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman asks. This is not a question of who did and who did not take part in industrial action. People have a legitimate right to take part in industrial action ; that is another right in a democratic society. The fact is that those people stuck to their principles, refused to resign their membership of a union of their choice, and were dismissed as a result. That is the issue of principle here, not whether they or their colleagues were involved in industrial disputes. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman's intervention means that he does not believe that people should have the right to take industrial action in a democratic society. If so, we disagree with him about that too.
Having re-read our exchanges on Second Reading and in Committee, and having studied the record of the negotiations and discussions between the unions and the Government, I can say that the Government have not got a leg to stand on. They have no arguments, no justification, no support and no credibility.