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New clause 2 --

Public inquiry on reduction in number of police areas

-- After section 23 of the 1964 Act there shall be inserted

"Public inquiry on reduction in number of police areas 23A.--(1) This section has effect where

(a) the Secretary of State has proposed an alteration to the area of a police force which would have the effect of reducing the number of such areas in Schedule 1A to this Act ;

(b) an objection has been duly delivered in accordance with section 21A(4) above ; and

(c) that objection has not been withdrawn within three weeks of the Secretary of State having given notice under that subsection that he does not accept it.

(2) In any case to which subsection (1) above applies the Secretary of State shall cause a local inquiry to be held in respect of any objection by a person appointed by him (who shall not be an officer of police or of any Government department).

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(3) The Secretary of State shall consider the report of the person holding the inquiry before determining whether the proposed reduction in the number of areas should be made and if so subject to what modifications, if any.

(4) Where a proposal has been subject to a public inquiry in accordance with this section, the Secretary of State shall not lay a draft order under section 21B(3) above until 7 days after he has laid the report of that public inquiry before Parliament.".'. -- [Mr. Michael.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : With this it will be convenient to discuss also the following : New clause 5-- Metropolitan Police Force

.--(1) The Secretary of State shall by order made not later than 30th June 1997 provide that there shall be a police authority for the metropolitan police district.

(2) A police authority established under this section shall be a body corporate to be known as the Metropolitan Police Authority. (3) A police authority established under this section shall secure the maintenance of an efficient and effective police force for its area.

(4) A police authority established under subsection (1) above shall have a scheme of membership specified in accordance with section 3A of the Police Act 1964 and the Secretary of State shall before issuing any order setting out such a scheme consider the exercise of his power in subsection (2) of that section.

(5) For the purposes of this section, a council is a relevant council in relation to a police authority if it is the council for a London borough.

(6) Schedules 1B and 1C to the 1964 Act shall apply with respect to appointments to a police authority established under this section.'. Amendment No. 2, in clause 13, page 7, line 25, at end insert and where a reduction is proposed section ( Public inquiry on reduction in number of police areas ) shall apply.'.

Amendment No. 3, in page 8, line 42, at end insert

provided that a further notice of the revised proposals shall have been given to the recipients of the original notice under subsection (1) of this section and that the recipients of the further notice shall have a further period of four weeks beginning with the date of the further notice within which to lodge objections with the Secretary of State, who, on receipt of such objections, shall follow the procedure outlined in subsection (4) of this section.'.

Mr. Michael : The new clauses and amendments relate to the accountability and independence of the police. The House should be aware that that accountability and independence are under threat as a result of the Bill. The essence of policing is that the police are the police of the people, not of the state. That is the message of the Association of Chief Police Officers, but those words should have a resonance with every hon. Member and with the general public. Policing is not through imposition from the centre, but by the consent of the local community who are represented for policing purposes by the locally elected members who sit on the police authority. It is through the police authority, constituted with a majority of elected members, that a legitimate relationship exists between the police and the community.

With regard to the office of chief constable, and again according to ACPO,

"The Chief Constable of the police force is accountable to the community through the police authority, but is operationally independent. That independent role is vital if the integrity of policing in this country is to remain."

Those words should also have resonance for every hon. Member. Accountability and independence are threatened by a Bill which places great powers in the hands of the

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Home Secretary to influence and undermine the independence of the chief constable and to influence and undermine the independence and accountability of the police authority.

New clause 2 seeks to ensure that if a local authority or a local police authority objects to a proposal to merge police forces, there will be a local inquiry and, as a result of that local inquiry, the Home Secretary will be required to consider the report of the independent person holding the inquiry before he reaches his conclusions. According to the new clause, the Home Secretary shall not lay a draft until he has had time to consider the views of that individual and the outcome of the inquiry before he places his conclusions before Parliament. That basic principle is contained in the Police Act 1964, but the centralising Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill seems to remove that principle from the statute book. That is wrong and we seek to restore it through the new clause. Through new clause 5, we seek to ensure that, not later than June 1997--a date which is not far distant, but far distant enough to allow for planning--there shall be a police authority for London. It is wrong that there is no police authority for London. The Home Secretary does not fulfil that function except in relation to statute. He does not fulfil it in reality. It is right that we should state today that there shall be a police authority for London. The amendments grouped with new clause 2 seek to ensure that notice shall be given of revised proposals. There are also minor amendments to improve the quality of the Bill and the accountability and independence of local police forces.

The effect of clause 13 would be to repeal schedule 3 of the Police Act 1964. That schedule requires the Home Secretary to set up a local inquiry to be held by a person appointed by him--so the Home Secretary still has that choice--if a police authority or council objects to a proposed scheme for policing or, in other words, a merger. Mergers threaten the police forces of this country. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer was Home Secretary, he was part of the centralising tendency. There is an influence which is seeking to bring police forces under the greater control of the Home Secretary--which is what this Bill does--and to merge local police forces into large regional police forces in which the character of individual areas and individual police forces will be lost and submerged. We wish to resist that. If the Minister is true to the comments that he made in Committee when he insisted that there was no plan to merge police forces, and to the comments of his ministerial colleague in the House of Lords where an assurance was given that there was no intention, within many years, to merge police forces, he must accept the new clause.

The Government's position as expressed in the House of Lords is that the Home Secretary would not propose to alter police areas unless he was satisfied that that was in the interests of police efficiency and effectiveness, but we cannot take that for granted, because the Home Secretary during his period of office has taken many steps which have not been in the interests of police efficiency and effectiveness.

If the Home Secretary does not accept the objections, he must give reasons. If he wishes to proceed, an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament is necessary. That is true. The argument that we heard in Committee from the Minister was that public inquiries would cause delay. I repeat the point that I made to the Minister in Committee :

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delay occurs only if the Government want to go ahead with mergers. If they do not wish to go ahead with mergers, there is no need for the expedited course for merging allowed for in the Bill. Let us consider the hurdles that the Home Secretary would have to overcome. According to the Minister, the Home Secretary considers proposals for amalgamation or alteration of police areas carefully and is bound to give reasons for rejecting objections. We expect that. Is the Minister suggesting that the Home Secretary should not have to give serious thought to proposals ? However, it would be desirable for the Home Secretary to expose his reasoning to open discussion in a public inquiry, which would allow people to express the views of the locality and would allow the views of the police in that area to be heard.

The Government have expressed enthusiasm, which we heard again from the Minister a few moments ago, for the involvement of the local public in policing. The Government support, as we do, neighbourhood watch, other kinds of watch, parish constables, increasing the number of special constables, multi-agency crime prevention and police-community consultative groups. The interests of local democracy in those approaches should be preserved in any change to police areas, and that requirement should outweigh the requisites of administrative convenience.

An affirmative resolution in Parliament is required for a change to be made, but that is not a safeguard because an order would contain a mass of detail and would be unamendable. There would thus be a dilemma if a particular point--such as the siting of headquarters, which can be a very important element in local decision making--needed attention. Members would be under pressure from Ministers to approve the order, and not to reject it so that the procedure has to be started again. Moreover, it is extremely rare for an order not to be approved.

With regard to delay, it seems that some public inquiries in the 1960s took several months and the Minister used that point to great dramatic effect in Committee. In fact, the inquiries took several months, but implementation took two to three years or longer. The greater part of the delay was caused by implementation rather than by the period taken up by the public inquiry. In one case cited by the Minister it was conceded that the public inquiry lasted only 13 days.

It is the quality of proposals that matters, not the quantity of proposals. The Minister made a case for making public inquiries more effective and targeted, and we agree with that. However, he has not made a case for sweeping away public inquiries and trying to still the voice of the police and the community when considering decisions on the future of a police force.

Amalgamation orders last a long time. The period of reorganisation of any organisation, particularly the police, is a period of great disruption to the service and the quality of the service provided locally. It should therefore not be entered into without great thought. That is why a period of uncertainty is a price well worth paying to be sure that we get the answer right. The basic principle should be, "Don't reorganise unless you are absolutely certain." Consistent with that is the requirement to have a public inquiry so that the public as well as the Minister can be fully informed and take a balanced view of any proposals.

It must be helpful for the Home Secretary to hear any case against amalgamation argued through an inquiry which offers the possibility of oral discussion and

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exchanges of views. With today's police forces--irrespective of mergers--we are dealing with larger areas and populations than was the case after the Police Act 1964. Cleveland has an area of 59,000 acres and Dyfed Powys has more than 1 million acres, despite being the smallest police force. Gwent has a population of nearly 500,000, while the West Midlands area has about 2.5 million. We are talking about much larger police forces than those which were merged in the 1960s. The arguments that applied in respect of delay, of which the Minister made great play, therefore do not apply.

Although the marginal note to clause 13 is "Alteration of police areas", it is obvious that mergers and amalgamations are intended. They will make the police service more remote from local communities. I repeat my question to the Minister because he did not answer it successfully during the hours we spent debating these issues in Committee. If there are no plans to make amalgamations or to merge police forces, or to have vast and remote regional police authorities, why introduce such drastic streamlining methods in the Bill ? The Government's continued resistance to incorporating a provision for a public inquiry is ominous. I must tell the Minister that, pleasant though his responses often are, we distrust the Government's intentions and those not only of the present Home Secretary but of future Home Secretaries--following the imminent reshuffle--as to the way in which they could use the powers in the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : The hon. Gentleman is speaking while the Local Government Commission is sitting. Whatever the outcome of the Local Government Commission, there will be a marked change in the boundaries. Is it not prudent of the Home Secretary to take powers which would allow the police authorities to be adjusted to the new local authorities ?

5 pm

Mr. Michael : The hon. Gentleman was not a member of the Standing Committee, and I can forgive him for regarding that as a valid point. The changes to local government in Wales, for instance, have been decided by the Local Government (Wales) Bill, which was passed by the House. Later tonight, the Minister will seek powers--this will undoubtedly be subject to a little debate--to deal with the new local government boundaries in Wales.

That is different from the power that I am contesting here, which is the power to merge police forces without the need to have regard to new local government boundaries, without a public inquiry and without having to take account of the views of local people and the police who deal with a particular area. That is the point, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) for giving me an opportunity to make that absolutely clear. The point is that if there is a change to police boundaries which has everyone singing and dancing in the streets because it will improve the standard of policing, a public inquiry will not be necessary. The issue arises only where there is an objection by the appropriate bodies. The problem is that we must deduce from the Government's resistance to the minor improvements which we have sought that further centralisation and further increases in the size and remoteness of police forces is intended. Those considerations place in context the denial

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of natural justice, including the removal of the provision for a public inquiry, especially when significant changes to the most sensitive of public services are intended.

As for the situation in London, it is outrageous that democratic accountability does not exist in relation to the police in London. I should make it clear that our criticism is not of the police or of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, but of the Home Secretary for failing to take the opportunity to create an accountable body. I know that my hon. Friends have taken the opportunity of meeting police in various parts of the capital recently, and those who represent London feel particularly strongly on this point.

The police seek a partnership approach, which includes working with the boroughs in London as well as with the local community. The police respect the important role of local government. Unfortunately, however, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said in a previous debate, that respect is not shown by Tory Members. The missing players in such local partnerships are, as usual, the Government.

Technically, the Home Secretary is the police authority for London, but that cannot and does not work. In effect, accountability is in the hands of Whitehall for most of the time, apart from the odd annual occasion when the Home Secretary comes out of the box to speak to the House. That shows disrespect for democracy. In a decade of democracy--I think that it can be characterised in that way--when accountability is extending widely in society, particularly to police forces in the former Soviet Union, in South Africa and on the west bank, it seems odd that London does not have proper accountability and democracy. The former Chancellor promised it and then snatched it away from us within a short period. That shows a disgraceful lack of confidence in the people of London.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : I am following closely and understanding to some extent the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I accept that there is a case for making police authorities accountable to elected representatives. However, one of the things that has always irked me is that, like hon. Members representing London, I can table parliamentary questions and raise debates about policing in London before the ultimate arbiter of democracy--this House--but when I want to question the operational conduct of the Humberside police, I cannot do so. There is no opportunity for me as an elected representative to ask the Humberside police to account to me ; yet perversely--ironically, I would argue--London is the only case in which hon. Members, through the Home Secretary, can ask the police authority to account to us. We cannot do that in the counties. How does the hon. Gentleman explain that ?

Mr. Michael : As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) pointed out, it is a fat lot of use the Home Secretary being accountable, as he refers operational matters to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. He is not accountable to the House for operational matters.

If the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) has trouble contacting the chief constable in his police authority, I would be happy to tell him how to go about it. I know that my hon. Friends spend a considerable amount of time talking to members of their police

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authorities and to chief constables, and find that they are ever responsive to our concerns. If the hon. Gentleman has the good fortune to be in an area where the majority of members of the police authority are Labour, he will have an excellent police authority--I have every confidence in that. Indeed, I visited that police authority and discussed some of the policing issues which I believe are important in every part of the country.

Two issues are paramount : there should be a body that is accountable to local people, and the Home Secretary should be accountable to the House for his actions. We get a fat lot of answers on many of those issues as well. We need that accountability, and it is wrong that it does not exist for London, as it does for other parts of the country.

Finally, the Minister in this House and the Minister in another place have used these words--I quote the Minister in another place : "My right hon. Friend has no intention at present of amalgamating anything, but it is perfectly possible in the course of the next 10, 20 or 30 years that amalgamations will have to take place."--[ Official Report, House of Lords , 17 February 1994 ; Vol. 551, c. 324.]

If there is a belief that mergers of police forces should take place, that should be tested by a public inquiry which gives local people and local police forces the opportunity to have their voice heard before a decision is taken. That is why this debate about accountability, responsibility and the independence of the police force is so important.

Mr. Maclennan : I rise to support new clause 2, the first proposal to which the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) spoke, which calls for inquiries to be retained in the case of expected amalgamations. When the matter was first discussed in another place and Lord Harris of Greenwich spoke about the need for public local inquiries in the event of proposals for amalgamation, he was assured by the Minister that he was looking for slugs under stones.

It was suggested that the prospect of amalgamation was unreal. Earl Ferrers said :

"He says that we are producing arrangements for amalgamations, but we have no intention of doing any. I have no hesitation in telling the Committee what the position is. My right hon. Friend has no intention at present of amalgamating anything, but it is perfectly possible in the course of the next 10, 20 or 30 years that amalgamations will have to take place."--[ Official Report, House of Lords , 17 February 1994 ; Vol. 551, c. 323- 24.]

In the few months that have elapsed since then, the Government's true intentions have become much more clear.

Only this morning, I received a letter only this morning from the chief constable of Gwent constabulary, Tony Burden, expressing alarm about the Government's intentions for amalgamation in Wales. He asked me to agree that the principle that nothing useful can be gained from police force amalgamations, and that policing as a service should remain local, should be imported into our discussions today. He is right to be worried about that prospect in Wales.

The Minister communicated with me--and undoubtedly with other hon. Members, including perhaps the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth--in a letter dated 30 June, outlining intentions to amalgamate forces in Wales. We shall have an opportunity later to consider those proposals in detail. I do not propose to dwell on the matter now, except to say that the Government have not played a wholly frank hand during the discussion of the procedures for amalgamation. Throughout the deliberations, we have

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been told that the Government have nothing so sinister in mind--it was simply that contingency arrangements were being made. Even before the Bill is out of the House, we are being told of the Government's present and, indeed, urgent intentions to do just what Lord Harris spoke of.

Inquiries play a significant part in the argument for amalgamations and in ensuring that local considerations are properly taken into account. Major amalgamations took place in the 1960s when my noble Friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead was Home Secretary. Local inquiries were carried out. No one argued that the major programme of amalgamations was in any significant or serious way damaged or that the police service was adversely affected by the delays caused by the local inquiry system. It was seen to be reasonable and it did not affect the efficiency of the relevant police forces.

The Minister has not so far produced any good reason why we cannot adhere to the practice that I have outlined. It appears to be a strengthening of central authority to dictate the disposition of the police authorities without proper checks and controls of a democratic nature and to exclude from the deliberations precisely the local interests which would be ventilated in local inquiries. I hope that, even at this late stage in the progress of the Bill, the Government will concede the force of the case for the use of local inquiries. The arguments on the other amendments, which deal with the case for a local police authority for London, have been canvassed many times in the House and fought by Ministers of the present Government wearing different hats. There can be no dogmatic view against the desirability of such a police authority. Certain functions of the police in the Metropolitan area might properly remain within the oversight of the Home Office, although I must say that Home Secretaries have not shown themselves to be notably successfully in preventing intrusions into the royal palaces or always to be the most effective police authority to deal with international matters of diplomacy and the protection of the Government. Those cases have traditionally been deployed against a police authority for London. I believe that those arguments have been overtaken by events and that there is now a strong balance of opinion within the police force itself and among the public in favour of the development of a police authority for London. That should be given expression at the earliest possible date. I therefore propose to support that proposal, too. 5.15 pm

Mr. Charles Wardle : I hope that the House will allow me to clarify some remarks that I made in the short debate on new clauses 14 to 17 in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). He asked me whether the new clauses applied to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I made an error. I apologise to the House. New clauses 14 to 17 would apply where English, Welsh or Scottish police officers served with the RUC, but they do not apply to officers of the RUC serving abroad, because the clauses amend the Police Act 1964, which does not extend to Northern Ireland. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that point.

New clauses 2 and 5 deal with the issue of public inquiries and amalgamations, which was debated twice in another place and twice during the recent Commons

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Committee stage. On all those occasions, amendments were defeated. I believe that the arguments against the new clauses are overwhelming. The procedures in the Bill for altering police areas are thorough but not cumbersome. They involve five separate stages. That gives full opportunity for any objections to be raised and fully considered. New clause 2 would add a sixth stage to all the others by requiring my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to hold a public inquiry which could produce an interminable delay. The House will be aware that previous experience of public inquiries in the 1960s showed that they caused delay and were often convened to consider fairly trivial issues that did not add anything useful to the process of considering changes to force areas. Those delays sometimes had adverse effects on police morale.

We have no plans to change the number of police forces. The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth asked me to confirm the point again. No sensible Government could promise to preserve intact every police force in perpetuity, but we have no plans to make any changes. If we made the promise that the hon. Gentleman a little mischievously sought from me this afternoon and in Committee, the effect would be that there would never be any change in the number of police forces. If that promise had been given in 1964 when the Bill that became the 1964 Act was debated, we would still have 125 separate police forces. For those reasons, I urge the House to disregard the entreaties of the hon. Gentleman.

I mentioned five stages. Before anything else happens, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary must be satisfied that any alteration would be in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness. Secondly, he has to give interested parties formal notice of his proposals. Thirdly, those interested parties have a minimum of four months to consider the proposals. Fourthly, when my right hon. and learned Friend receives any representations from those who have been consulted, he is under a statutory obligation to consider them. If he still wishes to proceed after all that, he must make proposals in an order which must be laid before Parliament. Hence, we do not need a sixth stage.

New clause 5 deals with a police authority for London. Successive Governments of different political complexions have made it absolutely clear over the past 165 years that there should be special and separate arrangements for policing the capital. It is not an accident of history that the Home Secretary is the police authority for the Metropolitan police. We have had a developed system of local government for more than a century, but we have consistently declined to give local government the responsibility for policing. We are talking not about party politics but about questions and judgments of vital national interest which go beyond local government. The differences between the Metropolitan police and other forces are not simply a matter of size--although we should not overlook the fact that it is a huge body of men and women, 13 times larger than the average police force. The differences also arise from the Metropolitan police force's unique functions, which include national functions such as anti-terrorist activities, functions undertaken on behalf of the whole police service, and local functions of vital national concern.

The Government have publicly examined the various possibilities, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said. I make no apology for that. It was right that

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we should do so. In doing so, we decided that we should stick with the status quo. It is impracticable and, in some cases, impossible to draw a clear and permanent line between national and local interests in policing London--hence the arrangements as they now stand. So our conclusion is that the Home Secretary must remain the police authority for the Metropolitan police, to safeguard the national interest in their work and make them fully accountable to Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) reminded the House a few moments ago.

We are not, however, simply maintaining the status quo, because we are establishing a new non-party political body, the Metropolitan Police Committee, outside the Home Office, to help my right hon. and learned Friend and Londoners to get the best from the reforms. We believe that the new committee will add real value to the existing arrangements. It will help my right hon. and learned Friend to apply the reforms administratively to the Metropolitan police without disturbing or confusing the direct lines of accountability from the force to the Home Secretary and Parliament.

For those reasons, I urge the House to reject the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Cardiff,South and Penarth.

Question put , That the clause be read a Second time :

The House divided : Ayes 249, Noes 287.

282] [5.20 pm


Adams, Mrs Irene

Ainger, Nick

Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Allen, Graham

Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)

Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy

Ashton, Joe

Austin-Walker, John

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry

Barron, Kevin

Battle, John

Bayley, Hugh

Beith, Rt Hon A. J.

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, Andrew F.

Benton, Joe

Berry, Roger

Betts, Clive

Blair, Tony

Blunkett, David

Boateng, Paul

Boyes, Roland

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)

Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)

Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)

Burden, Richard

Byers, Stephen

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Canavan, Dennis

Cann, Jamie

Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)

Chisholm, Malcolm

Church, Judith

Clapham, Michael

Clark, Dr David (South Shields)

Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Coffey, Ann

Cohen, Harry

Connarty, Michael

Cook, Robin (Livingston)

Corbett, Robin

Corbyn, Jeremy

Corston, Ms Jean

Cousins, Jim

Cummings, John

Cunliffe, Lawrence

Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)

Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John

Dafis, Cynog

Dalyell, Tam

Darling, Alistair

Davidson, Ian

Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)

Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)

Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)

Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)

Denham, John

Dewar, Donald

Dixon, Don

Donohoe, Brian H.

Dowd, Jim

Dunnachie, Jimmy

Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eastham, Ken

Enright, Derek

Etherington, Bill

Evans, John (St Helens N)

Fatchett, Derek

Field, Frank (Birkenhead)

Flynn, Paul

Foster, Rt Hon Derek

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