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Column 954Member does and I take delight in encouraging my constituents to come to the Palace of Westminster. I passionately believe that we should open this place as much as possible to the people who put us here. A visit to the Dutch Parliament by the Catering Committee made us realise how poor we are in presenting ourselves to visitors. We can do much better, but there are limitations that the Palace imposes upon us.
Something that gives great delight to visitors is the opportunity to buy some little souvenir of their visit to the Palace. None of us should underestimate the thrill that people feel about visiting the Palace. I will own, without, I hope, being silly, to feeling a thrill about being here anyway, as an hon. Member. The thrill is all the greater for our constituents, who may visit the Palace just once in their lives. We should give them the opportunity to make a simple purchase. That may seem trivial, but it is important.
We all know that the current kiosk is situated out of place for the needs of the many people whom we have the pleasure to escort around the building. Logic dictates that there should be something at the end of the tour and the end of the tour, logically and inescapably, is Westminster Hall. We must take a broad view about its use, bearing in mind, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford said, that its history is colourful. It has embraced a great many functions, not least as a market stall site, so, as a temporary measure, we should not eschew the idea of providing a facility there for visitors to buy souvenirs.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham that we should be rightly concerned that we are not frivolous in our expenditure of money. In the same breath, we should acknowledge that if we expose those thousand or more visitors a day to the possibility of the simple pleasure of purchasing a souvenir at the Palace, that will help the finances of the operation. That will tend to reduce the taxpayers' burden for all that we seek to provide.
I honestly believe that we can tell the public that we are not being frivolous. Yes, there is a large price tag attached, but it has been thought through. The proposals are an attempt to represent the needs of all the people who use the Palace, not least the public. We owe it not just to ourselves and to all who work and visit here, but to future generations to make some sensible decisions and to get on with it.
I know from personal experience what a thankless task it is serving on the Catering Committee. I therefore congratulate the Committee's Chairman, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), and other hon. Members on their work. Some progress has been made given that we are debating the report.
We have heard a lot about whether spending money on essential work is wasteful. If the Government were prepared to pass legislation to remove Crown immunity--I have been promised that by Ministers in answers to parliamentary questions--we would not be having a debate on whether it is right to spend a certain amount to bring the House up to the standards that comply with existing health and safety legislation which applies to the rest of the country. I hope that the Leader of the House will acknowledge that the Government are prepared to
Column 955introduce such legislation, because it would then be as clear as clear could be that the money has to be spent, otherwise we will have to pay a high price.
As has been said, we must remember that we are talking not just about the Members who work here but about our staff, the Officers of the House and the thousands of people who visit this place on special occasions to lobby their Member of Parliament. I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of that.
If we complied with existing health and safety legislation, I would never see another mouse in the Pugin Room, as I did a couple of weeks ago. There is a mouse in the House and that is unacceptable. This Victorian Palace is completely outdated and our kitchens would be closed down if the Crown immunity legislation was enforced. We must spend the money necessary to bring the House up to an acceptable standard.
I return to the issue of environmental health officers. I have no doubt, from incidents in which I have been involved, that, if Westminster were prepared to allow environmental health officers to visit and carry out inspections, this place would be closed down--and closed down from tomorrow, never mind anything else.
Mr. Stephen : Does the hon. Lady agree that many catering establishments throughout the country are absurdly and grossly overregulated, and that many of them have been forced out of business by the oppressive bureaucracy which goes with the regulations ?
Ms Walley : I speak as vice-president of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, although I have no pecuniary interest to declare. I must tell the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) that two wrongs do not make a right. People who visit this place are entitled to expect high standards, and we should be leading the way. Let me raise another couple of health and safety issues. It is an outrage that the staff employed by the Catering Committee do not yet have all the facilities which they should have, and which the law requires staff elsewhere to have. The fact that they do not have proper rest room accommodation--that they must go down to the ladies' toilets and lock themselves in the toilet for a lengthy period if they want a cigarette, and also go there to change--is unacceptable. It is something which we could change if we were prepared to undertake a comprehensive review of the accommodation in this place ; we could give these issues the top priority that they deserve. As for the small matter of whether we could perhaps change and reorder the different facilities that we have, frankly, I am disappointed that the report does not address the banqueting facilities. I believe that our constituents have a right to come and visit us and lobby us. As we have heard, they want to come and look round the building : they want to see this important Palace, which is so rich in history. When my constituents travel down from Stoke-on -Trent, it is difficult for them to find toilet facilities, never mind a basic cup of tea. I resent the fact that we have all those banqueting rooms which can be booked at great expense, yet constituents who come down to participate in the democratic process do not have access to basic facilities. I would like to see that matter addressed. I am pleased that there is some reference to remedying that with regard to the so-called policemen's cafeteria in
Column 956Westminster Hall, and the changes that could be made there. However, I am disappointed that we have no time scale for that.
I have a sense of de ja vu from my days on the Catering Committee : we are talking about exactly the same issues three, four or five years on. Although we have some proposals which could, in the fullness of time and subject to this and that, bring about some change, we do not have any firm guarantees. I must tell the Chairman of the Catering Committee that I would like a firm guarantee that our constituents, rather than all the activities that take place in the banqueting rooms, will be given priority.
Ms Walley : Regardless of what the hon. Gentleman says about bringing in money, I think that my constituents who are not able to pay £35 for a special lunch have as much right to visit this place as those who pay huge amounts of money.
Finally, I turn to the issue of St. Stephen's tavern. I have long advocated that that building should be seen as part of the Westminster complex--it should be seen as part of the Palace. I do not know the best use for that building. I have always taken the view that it is a place where schoolchildren, groups of pensioners and groups of constituents could go. I see from the report that my recommendation has not been accepted, and I am disappointed about that. But I still feel strongly that, given all the demands for extra accommodation, not least day care, creche and child care facilities for the thousands of people who work here, we should keep St. Stephen's. We should send not only the Catering Committee but the Accommodation and Works Sub-Committee, or whatever it is called these days in its revamped form, on some sort of exercise ; it could come back with positive proposals for St. Stephen's so that we can start to address the lack of facilities. Then the whole thing would slot into place.
I appreciate that time is brief, so I shall confine myself to those few points at this stage.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : I am proud to be one of the seven members of the Catering Committee. I recognise that many of the myriad kitchens that we have are antiquated and that most of them need an injection of funds. The only question is : how much money is needed, and where should it come from ?
Do we really need an army of staff and caterers on the payroll--more than 300 of them--to provide the catering in the Commons ? Or should we do something different, and not cater under our own flag for the police, the security staff, the researchers, the secretarial staff, Officers of the House and Library staff ?
The reports are thorough, and I pay tribute to the Committee's Chairman. But I do not believe that we have yet dealt with the problem of how to pay for its chief recommendations.
Conservative Members are committed to deregulation and contracting out. We insist that local authorities privatise and open their services to competition, but we do not do that here in the Palace of Westminster. It is a closed public monopoly, paid for by the taxpayer. Instead of contracting out our canteens and cafeterias, as the British Airports Authority does so successfully at Heathrow, we insist on keeping control and paying an army of staff--of
Column 957whom we are proud and who serve us well. We really should consider alternative ways of operating our catering establishments. At Heathrow the catering outlets were losing a mint before Sir John Egan arrived to do the splendid job that he does. He said, "We are airport operators, not caterers." Here at Westminster, we are legislators, not caterers. Sir John cleared the available space at Heathrow, and then said to certain well-known outlets, "Why don't you come in and put in all the equipment you need ? You pay for it, and operate your business here free of charge and rent. In return for the franchise, we will share the profits with you." I believe that the BAA takes about 20 per cent. of the profits.
Amazingly, the many catering outlets at Heathrow now make enormous profits, and are open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Mr. Steen : We do not have to go for those chains. There is a wide variety of outlets at Heathrow, including wonderful Italian restaurants, health food restaurants and other restaurants declared by Egon Ronay to be among the best in Britain. I do not know whether my hon. Friend considers him a good judge of quality, but I certainly do. We should consider the lead that has been given at the BAA in the context of this report.
The BAA has turned space that it ran at a loss--to encourage passengers to fly from Heathrow--into profitable outlets where millions of people enjoy the best food ever ; and the BAA makes enormous profits as a result. Why not do something similar here, even if not in all our outlets ? We may need to keep the Members' Dining Room and the Strangers' Dining Room, but why cannot outlets in some of the places occupied by canteens, such as the Churchill Room and the Press Restaurant, be contracted out ?
There are many talented men--and women--on the Catering Committee. I hope that the members of the Catering Committee, rather than the officials, might choose some of the outlets. We might even taste the food. I have been a member of the Catering Committee for two years, and I am desperately waiting for the opportunity to speak about food, let alone taste it.
I would welcome an opportunity to contract out to private enterprise some of the canteen and cafeteria space. If I may say so to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), that would be a most sensible way of considering the funding of some of the expensive and important work in this very important Palace, which we could fund not through the public purse but through the private purse.
Mr. Stephen : Does my hon. Friend agree that the standard of catering in some of the cafeterias is sometimes appalling ? Is there any reason why private sector caterers should not have an opportunity to show that they can do better ?
Mr. Steen : I pay tribute to the work that is done by the staff in the Palace, in difficult circumstances, but it is also true that some of the tiny Italian cafe s dotted around the capital produce magnificent food in space in which one could not even swing a cat. I have great difficulty in understanding why the quality that one can obtain in commercial outlets cannot be provided here, where we have much more space.
The Members' Tea Room is a good example of an enormous amount of space, yet it is always argued that we cannot improve the quality without new facilities. I question that. One does not always have to spend more money to produce the quality items. I agree that considerable work needs to be done in the Palace, but I question whether it must be funded from the public purse.
My idea is that the report might be accepted, with certain modifications, but that the way that it is funded should be considered. If we went down the route of privatisation and the contracting out of some of the outlets, there might be a 20 per cent. return of profits, which would be paid to the Exchequer, whereas at the moment we have to fund those outlets ourselves.
The food would also improve dramatically. We could have health food. We could have all the types of food that have been mentioned by Opposition Members as well as Conservative Members. The catering could be run commercially--not in house by our enormous work force. I shall not discuss the phasing of that, which would need to be decided by the experts, but I am worried about the amount of money that the taxpayer is asked to pay to run the Palace, and that is one of the ways that we could find to inject funds from outside. One criticism might be made about contracting out--that the Serjeant at Arms might well say that the question of security would prevent him from accepting that proposal. I believe that there are many ways round the question of security. I believe that the running of the Palace of Westminster can be done equally well if we inject private money and private enterprise. The Catering Committee's report is an important step in identifying the work that needs doing. I am sure that, with the Finance and Services Committee taking a new approach to funding, we can do that without any criticism from the taxpayer, and we can make great progress by bringing in the private sector. 11.58 pm
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : Although I should like to be associated with all the congratulations that have been given to the Catering Committee, in the few minutes that are available to me I want to make an argument that has yet not been made, although to an extent it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). It is the alternative that I presented to the Catering Committee in a letter in October which I do not think has been given a great deal of consideration. The groups that need our prime attention are those on the Line of Route, the 100,000 people who come to the House every year. When we decide, how can we put into some kind of hierarchy those who most deserve the resources of the organisation and those who least deserve them ? We do not have the information. Although the suggestions about the Line of Route are worth while, we
Column 959are told that they will not be implemented for about six years, if then. There is an alternative that should be implemented. We have all had the experience that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) so vividly described, and it is a disgrace that that continues. Prime attention should be given to those who have been neglected, the parties of schoolchildren and elderly people who come here. I suggested to the Catering Committee that the Line of Route be reordered so that it ends up on the Terrace where people might spend a few moments and then use the banqueting facilities there.
Information on who uses the banqueting facilities is a state secret, nobody knows. Over a number of years I have asked, "Who are these people ? Are they deserving groups ? Are they cultural groups or charities ?" An examination of the invitations that I have had showed that two out of 20 were charities and that the rest were either lobbyists or commercial organisations.
I tried another way of finding out which groups are entertained there. I asked for a breakdown of the political colour of the hon. Members who book those rooms and I was told that in 1991, Dining Rooms A and B were booked 1,566 times--1,399 times by Conservative Members and 167 times by Labour Members. That is 90 per cent. compared with 10 per cent. Although the letter was written many months ago and has nothing to do with recent events, it is interesting to note that there is an almost exact correlation in the two main parties between hon. Members with consultancies. Some 85 per cent. of Conservative Members who are eligible have outside consultancies and directorships, compared with 14 per cent. of Opposition Members.
That is the only information, and one is tempted to conclude from it that those banqueting rooms are used mainly for entertainment that is commercial in character. We know that some of it is political in character. I have informed an hon. Member that I intended to refer to an organisation that is declared in the Register of Members' Interests. It is called the Vivian Bendall Parliamentary Dinner Club and it exists for
"functions sometimes held at the House of Commons, the financial benefits from which go to the Ilford North Conservative Association."
In l991 there was a celebrated court case in which an hon. Member whom I have not informed was involved. His constituency chairman was a Mr. Andrew Mudd and it was claimed that American visitors paid for the privilege of entertainment in the Palace.
A limited amount of entertainment space is involved, and if we are to cater for the most deserving groups of people who come here in great numbers, there must be a loss. I urge the Catering Committee to consider again not the long-term reordering of Westminster Hall but eating into the banqueting facilities that are used by commercial organisations that could afford to pay for them.
Mr. Gale : The hon. Gentleman is treading a dangerous path. He should recognise that a large number of my hon. Friends book those rooms for entirely worthy charitable organisations for receptions that are attended by large numbers of Labour Members.
Mr. Flynn : I have made the point that I am aware of that, but I asked for transparency and I have not got it. In questions over a period of five years I have asked for a list of the organisations. That information is not divulged. All
Column 960that is available are the names of hon. Members, and that is all that I have to go on. If I believed that they were being hired by charities-- [Interruption.] It is not true. Hon. Members would try other methods to find out. The atmosphere in the House, which has been vividly described by the press in the past few days, is of almost soft corruption. That has become part of the Palace of Westminster : soft corruption has become endemic here, and part of that is the use that is made of the banqueting facilities.
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : I thank the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and the members of his Catering Sub- Committee for the report. I also thank the professional advisors to both the Catering Sub-Committee and the Finance and Services Committee.
The report is a substantial piece of work which deals comprehensively with a range of issues. The approach adopted by the Committee was the right one. It took evidence widely and then approached its task with vigour. It is the clearly expressed wish of the House to comply with hygiene legislation and, separately, with health and safety legislation as though that applied to the House prior to the removal of Crown immunity. Hence the concentration on the refurbishment of kitchen facilities set out so clearly in the report.
Times have changed for this Palace. There is an increase in the numbers working here and the way in which we do our jobs has changed. There are more full-time Members of Parliament, who are serviced by more full-time professional research staff. Hence there is more pressure on the catering facilities. The Committee has responded in the only way possible. Of course, there is a range of disputes about who can use what. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) told us of the extent of the pressures on the facilities of the House. The key--frankly, the only answer--is to make adequate provision and that is clearly what the Committee set out to do.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), who said that we are talking about provision not just for ourselves and for those who work here, but for those who come to see us. We need to make provision for visitors to this place. I like the imaginative idea of a visitors' centre and I congratulate the Committee on it. It has dealt with the matter in the right way. I like the history of the building and I know that many visitors are enthralled by it. Of course there will be disagreements, of course it will not be easy to satisfy everyone, but I think that the Committee has done its best and in a way that is financially prudent as well as encapsulating the scope of all the issues that were in front of it. 12.6 am
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) : I suppose that I could be thought to be wearing a number of hats tonight--as a member of the House of Commons Commission and of the Finance and Services Committee and as Leader of the House. It is principally in the latter capacity that I felt it appropriate to say a few words.
I join hon. Members in the thanks expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and, indeed, the hard-working members of his Committee from
Column 961both sides of the House. It is an observable fact to anyone who has been here for more than a few years that the pressure on our refreshment facilities has been growing steadily and has put huge demands on people.
I want to place firmly on the record the fact that I think that Sue Harrison, the Director of Catering Services, and her staff have responded splendidly to those pressures against a background of very difficult circumstances. Even the most cursory tour of the facilities that lurk in the basement and behind the scenes--and I have done more than just a cursory tour--rapidly reveals that everything that they have achieved has been despite, not because of, the facilities with which they have to work. There must be a limit to what they can be expected to achieve, whether in quality or efficiency, in working conditions that often leave much to be desired--although that is putting it mildly--which border on the antique and which suffer from some of the deficiencies that my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford emphasised.
There has been a variety of piecemeal and ad hoc improvements over the years. The Catering Committee, after a great deal of very thorough work, has concluded that the problem now needs to be addressed more strategically with an overall modernisation plan, systematically planned and executed over about five or six years. I must say straightforwardly to the House that it would be difficult for anyone to say that, in principle, the Committee has not made an extremely strong case, not only in the interests of Members of Parliament but, as has been repeatedly emphasised, in the interests of staff and those who visit this building.
Within the structure of the domestic Committees as we now operate, if the House agrees the motion, the details of implementing the report will be a matter for decision by the Finance and Services Committee and the Commission. I welcome the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee. I agree that it is right that some of the earlier plans for refurbishment of the Refreshment Department have been postponed, so that some £2 million which would have gone on further short-term improvements, but without resolving the strategic problems, can now be applied to the strategic plan.
I also agree with my right hon. Friend that it is right for the £2.5 million trading surplus to be used to reduce what would otherwise be the cost to public funds. That is a legitimate concern, which some of my hon. Friends and others raised. I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that each year's expenditure will be looked at in the context of that particular year's Estimates, with the aim of finding the remainder of the funds for the project within the normal scale of financial provision of the works vote.
Against that background, I hope that the House will agree to my hon. Friend's motion.
Column 96212.11 am
Mr. Colin Shepherd : With the leave of the House, I thank my colleagues on the Catering Committee for their support during the debate. It is clear that there is much work for us yet to do in seeking to address the many concerns expressed tonight. We were already acutely aware of most of them, and I have no doubt that we will be bending our minds to them.
I see tonight's exercise, as does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, in the light of the Ibbs structure working, with the domestic Committees talking and working together and producing reports that are surveyed and analysed by the Finances and Services Committee, a report going to the Commission, and financially accountable action flowing as a consequence. That is an important improvement in the way that the House runs its affairs.
Because the House did not previously have a structure to the way that it ran its affairs, we had years of what I lightly called deferred maintenance --but I shall now call it botched, unstructured, ad hoc, non-maintenance. It led to a state of chaos below stairs and back of house, with everything in the wrong order and in the wrong place, and needing radical action.
The Committee was acutely aware of the need to be prudent, to phase, and to avoid the expenditure of hunks of money that would be indigestible in the way that the House is run--that it would all flow in a series of bite-size pieces that enable proper planning. One hazard of this building is that, once the structure is opened up, it is not clear what is there. That problem hit the House of Lords, where what started as a £3 million business ended up a £11 million business because no preparatory work was done. We wish to avoid that pitfall.
We will examine the Line of Route. The advice that we received was that, for security reasons, it is best to keep visitors on the Line of Route and away from the Terrace. We are acutely aware of the need to provide visitor facilities. As soon as the Members and Strangers cafeterias are completed and we deal with whoever lunches in the Westminster Hall cafeteria, we can provide those facilities. We need to crack ahead with the programme as quickly as possible, and then we shall have long overdue visitor facilities.
We shall continue the consultation for which the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) asked. We are consulting the Administration and Works Committee, and we shall examine the relocation of offices It being one and a half hours after commencement of proceedings on the Motion , Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order [11 July.]
Question agreed to.
That this House approves the First Report from the Catering Committee of Session 1993-94, on Refreshment Services for the House of Commons (House of Commons Paper No. 75), and the First Report from the Catering Committee of Session 1992-93, on Refreshment Provision for Line of Route Visitors (House of Commons Paper No. 307).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Arbuthnot.]
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : I wish to bring to the attention of the House the case of Mr. Charles Edward Winter. He is a constituent of mine who, on the face of it, has suffered over the past 12 years from a disturbing combination of incompetence, dishonesty, collusion and suppression of evidence, from 1985 to the present day. He has been as much the victim of circumstances as of malpractice on the part of a host of professionals to whom he went for help.
In 1981, Mr. Winter was a wealthy hotelier. He is now bankrupt. The circumstances of his bankruptcy have driven him to make rash threats against those whom he considers responsible for his present situation.
Mr. Winter owned the Queen's hotel in Bishopton lane, Stockton-on-Tees, with his second wife, Anne Barlow. It burned down in 1981, leaving Mr. Winter to pursue a long and involved insurance dispute. The final settlement fell far short of the value which he attached to the hotel. Furthermore, he feels that the accountant, John Chilton of Chipchase Manners, whom he instructed to deal with his claim, acted negligently. Indeed, Mr. Winter was awarded £100,000 damages against that man.
Similarly, Mr. Winter strongly believes that his legal representation in the matter--Robin Bloom of Jackson and Company--gave him wrong and harmful advice in respect of it and was therefore negligent. He also has a grievance against firms of solicitors--Paul Bennett of Punch Robson for allegedly suppressing legal evidence in the form of documents since 1982, and later Booth and Company in Leeds from 1985. He also alleges perjury on the part of Robin Bloom of Jackson and Company, who did not bring this written evidence to light until 1993.
Mr. Winter attributes his subsequent bankruptcy largely to a threefold negligence. First, he claims that the damages that he was awarded were insufficient and that the accountant, Mr. Chilton, gave him an untrue picture of his own means. He also transferred assets to his wife so as to reduce his legal liability. His house, which was apparently worth only £60,000 last year, when the matter was in the courts, is now advertised in the local newspaper at £300,000. Secondly, the barrister who took Mr. Winter's case acted negligently in failing to apply for costs to be paid by Mr. Chilton and said that if Mr. Winter did not accept the situation he would make a recommendation to the legal aid board that Mr. Winter was being unreasonable, and his legal aid would be withdrawn. Thirdly, there was the suppression of written evidence, which could have helped him between 1982 and 1993.
Mr. Winter believes that these three facts have contributed to his being made bankrupt, which he would otherwise have avoided. From 1982 there followed a protracted period during which Mr. Winter sought justice on the points that I have described, as well as with regard to a large capital gains bill, which was disputed between himself and his second wife, from whom he had become estranged and whom he subsequently divorced in 1982.
To advise him on this latter point Mr. Winter instructed a separate firm of solicitors, Bolsover, Manning and Scott,
Column 964whose handling of his case he found to be far from satisfactory. Lacking all confidence in his legal representation in his divorce proceedings, he instructed a further set of solicitors-- Punch Robson--to deal with matters relating to ancillary relief, and to ensure that the ex-Mrs. Winter met her side of their joint tax obligations in respect of the cash received on the insurance policy on the Queen's hotel. Incredibly, Mr. Winter has reason to believe that these solicitors-- Punch Robson and Harvard and Company--acting for Ms Barlow, his ex-wife, acted in collusion rather than properly on his behalf, and that as a result they strung out the proceedings over 12 years, to the point where Mr. Winter was finally broken, financially and otherwise.
Over the course of these unfortunate events Mr. Winter has tried time and again to pull his life back together again. He has remarried and with his third wife, Linda, he has attempted a number of business ventures. But the cost and stress of his various actions has weighed heavily against him. Consequently he has remained largely unemployed and was declared bankrupt in February 1993, after spending £160,000 on solicitors' fees, being allowed to go into debt for £300,000 and having bankruptcy finally enforced upon him by the Inland Revenue. His losses now total over £1 million according to expert witnesses. He is also faced with the loss of the home he now lives in and the site of the Queen's hotel.
You will not be surprised, therefore, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that these events have left Mr. Winter a very bitter man. He feels that, having paid so many professional people for advice, he should have received the correct advice and should have gone back into business fairly quickly. Instead, he is bankrupt. He has sought to resolve the matter for 11 years, writing to the ombudsman, to the solicitors' and barristers' complaints organisations and even to the European Court.
As a final cry for help, he resorted to threatening to kill Paul Bennett, John Chilton and Mr. Harvard, for which he was duly put on remand in custody for eight and a half months. When the matter came to court the judge, Mr. Justice Hannah, recognised the effect that the collusion of the solicitors had had on my constituent. The purpose of this Adjournment debate is to bring the case of Mr. Winter to the attention of the House. Clearly there is little scope for intervention in the internal affairs of a self-regulating body such as the legal profession. However, I sincerely hope that all the relevant papers from all the firms to have had a hand in Mr. Winter's affairs can be placed before an independent representative of that profession for independent scrutiny. Those documents are all held by Mr. Winter's trustee in bankruptcy, and an eminent Queen's counsel is now being consulted.
I should like to press my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary and the Inland Revenue to review their decision to declare Mr. Winter bankrupt. I should also like them to reconsider the size of his capital gains tax bill. Perhaps in that light they will be able to give Mr. Winter an opportunity to restart in business, and thus to try to get back on his feet and start earning his own living. He has not been able to do that for the past 12 years.
The case is extremely complex. In summary, Mr. Winter seeks justice for himself in five ways. First, he would like the £55,000 that was paid to the Inland Revenue to be returned, plus interest backdated to 1989. Secondly, he would like the Queen's hotel site to be restored to his sole name. Thirdly, he feels that there should be a
Column 965guarantee that no enforcement proceedings will be lodged against his home, thus protecting himself and his new family from homelessness. Fourthly, he would like £160,000 worth of solicitors' fees back on the ground that all the solicitors whom he instructed failed in their duties on his behalf. Lastly, he would of course like the restoration of the £1 million loss that Ernst and Young and his property advisers, Storey Sons and Parker, estimated that he had suffered.
I am sorry to have to tell the House that my constituent has suffered severely from stress as a result of those protracted proceedings, and he is now in North Tees hospital suffering from pneumonia and a blood clot above his heart. That has been brought about by the stress of all the proceedings. I very much hope that Mr. Winter will soon be able to make a full recovery, and I am sure that that process will be greatly helped by anything that the Minister can say to comfort him this evening.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Dorrell) : I shall begin by picking up the last point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). I am sure that the whole House would want to echo what he said about our good wishes for Mr. Winter's restoration to good physical health. The story that my hon. Friend has told is one with which we would all feel deep sympathy. Clearly it is an unhappy story in which a whole series of things have gone wrong with Mr. Winter's life. None of us could listen to it without feeling deep sympathy with him over the turn that his life has taken.
I have discussed Mr. Winter's case with my hon. Friend, and I know that he has taken a long-standing and deep interest in it. He has sought, not only in this debate but in correspondence with a wide range of interested bodies, such as the Inland Revenue and others, to argue that case to the best of his ability, and to offer Mr. Winter advice on how he might be able to improve the position in which he finds himself.
However, having said all that, I must confess that I find myself at some disadvantage in trying to suggest how I, as the Minister with direct responsibility for the Inland Revenue, can help in Mr. Winter's case. The reasons for that are various. Not the least of them is the fact that, as my hon. Friend will be well aware, the relationship between Ministers and the Inland Revenue does not allow a Minister to intervene directly in a particular taxpayer's affairs. The Inland Revenue is established by law as an independent body, and it is a responsibility of the commissioners of the Inland Revenue, not of the Minister responsible for the Department, to make individual decisions about specific taxpayer cases.
That being said, I have asked the Inland Revenue to review Mr. Winter's case once again in order to see whether anything can be done to alleviate the situation in which he finds himself. There is not much doubt in my mind --the judgment reached by the Inland Revenue confirms this--that the handling of the case from the narrow point of view of the Inland Revenue does not lend itself to any revision which could help Mr. Winter.
The circumstances are, as my hon. Friend has recounted, that, as a result of the fire in the hotel in
Column 9661981-82, an insurance claim was made by Mr. Winter which represented a substantially larger sum of money than the sum that he had originally paid for the hotel, with the result that, since it was not reinvested in the hotel or in a similar activity, no roll-over relief was available and a capital gains tax liability crystallised. Mr. Winter appealed unsuccessfully against that assessment and the capital gains tax due was confirmed. I know that Mr. Winter feels--I have some sympathy with him--that if he had been properly advised at the time, he might have acted differently, with the result that the capital gains tax liability might not have crystallised. I accept that it is possible to think in retrospect of how different behaviour by Mr. Winter might have avoided the crystallisation of that tax liability, but the Inland Revenue cannot deal with what might have been ; it has to deal within the law with what happened.
The fact of the matter is that Mr. Winter did not act in a way that allowed him to claim roll-over relief, so the tax liability crystallised, leaving the Inland Revenue with a statutory responsiblity to collect the tax due within the terms of the law. I emphasise that I understand how, in retrospect, it is possible to see how affairs might have been differently handled, but, from the point of view of the Inland Revenue, they were not differently handled and it had to deal with the facts as they were.
Then we come to what the Inland Revenue does when a tax liability has crystallised and it has the responsibility to collect it. The liability crystallised during the tax year 1981-82 and it was only earlier this year that the Inland Revenue took action which led ultimately to the bankruptcy of Mr. Winter. No one could conclude that the delay between 1981-82 and the ultimate action to provoke the bankruptcy of Mr. Winter earlier this year constituted anything other than very patient action by the Inland Revenue, reflecting the recognition on the part of its officials of the difficult circumstances in which Mr. Winter finds himself.
However, the task of the Inland Revenue is not merely to be sympathetic to an individual taxpayer, which it has been in this case, but to deliver its broader responsibilities to taxpayers in general to collect tax that is due from people whose actions have led to the crystallisation of a tax liability.
That is the circumstance in which the Inland Revenue finds itself in Mr. Winter's case and, therefore, it is difficult to argue that the Inland Revenue should have acted differently, either in dealing with the assessment of liability on the facts available, or in dealing with the collection of that liability in the difficult circumstances in which Mr. Winter finds himself.
We have considered Mr. Winter's circumstances in detail. We, and I am sure all hon. Members, feel considerable sympathy with him in the sad tale that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South related, but I do not believe that any of the judgments that were reached by Revenue officials in the course of that story were wrong. Even if I did, it is not within the competence of a Minister to instruct or to lean on the Inland Revenue in its dealings with an individual taxpayer.
Having considered the matter, I conclude that the Inland Revenue acted reasonably and within the powers that are theirs and theirs alone to exercise. While I can offer my hon. Friend and, more pertinently, Mr. Winter sympathy on the position in which he finds himself, I cannot offer my