Previous Section Home Page

Column 1407

I have carefully considered Lord Prior's observations. I think that he set out the right approach. I have endeavoured to follow that approach and I have reached the same conclusion that he reached and, indeed, the conclusion reached by the right hon. and noble Gentleman Lord Jenkins of Hillhead after the escape of George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): My right hon. and learned Friend will understand that, like all hon. Members, I am concerned about the report, especially following my own visit to Whitemoor. Nevertheless, does he agree that the report makes it clear that it is the Prison Service which is to blame, not him?

Mr. Howard: I have announced to the House that I am setting up a disciplinary inquiry to see what evidence exists that would enable disciplinary proceedings or other action to be taken at all levels in the Prison Service so that those who were responsible on a day-to-day basis for the appalling state of affairs at Whitemoor can be brought to account.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley): Did the Home Secretary share my difficulty when reading the two reports in deciding whether they were talking about the same prison? In other words, why did Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons say that he considered the prison to be "virtually impregnable"? Why did he decide that he would make "no recommendations" whatever to the Home Secretary? Why did he recommend the scaling down of certain key security measures, such as searching visitors, and terminating the use of guard dogs?

Mr. Howard: The right hon. Gentleman will understand my difficulty in answering that question. I can tell him that the recommendations in the chief inspector's report on the scaling down of staff in the secure unit and the elimination of the use of dogs will not be implemented. The view that Whitemoor was virtually impregnable was widely held within the Prison Service and widely held by the prison officers at Whitemoor. It contributed substantially to the regime that the Woodcock report makes clear existed there.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, although there may be a cessation of violence at present in Northern Ireland, there will be no cessation of the attempts by IRA terrorists to try to break out of prisons wherever they may be? As it is a well-established practice of the IRA to seek psychological domination over prison officers, whether by intimidation or by "honey traps" outside the prison, which is also a well established practice in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that every prison governor concerned sees the importance of one particular recommendation in the report, especially for the safety of prison officers themselves, which is the frequent rotation of prison officers in their duties?

Mr. Howard: Yes, I certainly will. My right hon. Friend, with all his experience of these matters, is absolutely right to draw attention to that especially dangerous feature of the

Column 1408

situation at Whitemoor and elsewhere. He is absolutely right to say that it is essential that that recommendation is drawn to the attention of all governors.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West): When the Home Secretary re- examines security measures, will he look at the disgraceful overcrowding in prisons, which results in prison officers having to look after prisoners in impossible circumstances? At Leicester prison, the number of people certified as the normal accounting level is 194. I am told that today, the prison has 345 inmates, and that there have been seven suicides in the past year or so. What does the Home Secretary intend to do about the overcrowding which results from his Government's scandalous failure to deal with prison conditions all these years?

Mr. Howard: There is no suggestion that there was any connection between overcrowding and what happened at Whitemoor. Moreover, there has been a substantial reduction in overcrowding in the prison system in recent years. At the beginning of 1987, there were 5,000 prisoners in our prison system who were three to a cell designed for one. Now there is none. There has been a substantial reduction in overcrowding in our system. There is no basis for any suggestion that there was a connection between that and Whitemoor.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South): Given what is obviously a bad business, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the Learmont inquiry, which he has set up with admirable promptness, is the largest inquiry of its kind since the Mountbatten inquiry, which was set up with equally admirable promptness by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead? Contrary to the arithmetic of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), that inquiry was less than 30 years ago.

Mr. Howard: I can confirm that point to my right hon. Friend. I emphasise that the Learmont inquiry will have two purposes. First, it will look at security across the prison system generally and secondly, it will specifically report in a year's time on the progress that has been made in implementing the recommendations of the Woodcock report. I have undertaken, subject only to security considerations, to publish the report of Sir John Learmont's committee in a year's time.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): Does the Home Secretary agree that he has been warned time and time again by the Home Affairs Select Committee and various other bodies of the necessity of installing appropriate electronic search equipment at Brixton, for example, where it was installed after the gun had arrived, and at other places throughout the prison system? That, coupled with the continuing deterioration in conditions and standards for prison officers through decreasing training, overwork, over-hours and decreasing numbers, has contributed to the appalling state that we now see in our prison system.

Mr. Howard: No, I do not accept that. There was equipment at Whitemoor, although the report criticises the way in which it was used. As to the hours worked by prison officers, there has been an enormous reduction in the number of hours worked on average by every prison officer in recent years.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that an overwhelming majority of the public cannot understand

Column 1409

why hardened villains should have any contact with visitors other than through bars and under supervision? Does he agree that, if drugs or weapons of any sort should be discovered in a prison, all visits should be stopped until the matter is cleared up? Will the Learmont inquiry be able to address those matters?

Mr. Howard: The Learmont inquiry will certainly be able to address those aspects to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention which deal with security. Certainly with regard to dangerous prisoners, I am specifically asking for Sir John Learmont's view and certainly, the inquiry will address the possibility of identifying guns in prison. Indeed, it is now the case that the kind of investigation which takes place in the few instances when guns are found in prisons involves the suspension of visits.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): Can the Minister recall any event about which a statement was made to the House which was bizarre as this, other than the Canadian mailbag fiasco at Wandsworth prison? Is there no honour left in politics at all? Does he accept no responsibility whatever? Will he tell us something about the shopping that prisoners have been doing? Was it with their Barclaycards? If he is refusing to resign, will he at least claim to be guilty but insane?

Mr. Howard: I have already dealt with the question of responsibility. It is perhaps an interesting reflection on standards--a charge made by the Opposition very frequently--and perhaps relevant that, when there was the escape from the Maze to which I referred earlier, the Labour shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did not call for the resignation of my right hon. Friend Lord Prior, and when there was the escape from Wormwood Scrubs, the Conservative shadow Home Secretary did not call for the resignation of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. And on both those occasions, the prisoners actually got away.

Dame Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden): May I take the opportunity to thank my right hon. and learned Friend for setting the record straight on my behalf? May I also urge him, in the light of my experience as a Minister with responsibility for prisons, to look very closely at determining the roles of Ministers, the agency headquarters and the prison governors, even before his special unit is set up? It seems from what Sir John Woodcock has said that clarification is urgently needed, so that people who are at the grass roots--the prison governors and prison officers --know precisely to whom they should be responsible.

Mr. Howard: I am not entirely certain that I agree with my right hon. Friend about that. I am not under any confusion as to the line of command and the allocation of responsibility. It is set out very clearly in the framework document. The director general is not under any confusion either about the relationship, which is set out very clearly in the framework document. It is the duty of those in the Prison Service to comply with the instructions which they are given. So I do not entirely go along with my right hon. Friend on that point.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): Is the Home Secretary aware that Wandsworth prison is in my constituency, and therefore I have close association with boards of visitors in many prisons? Is he aware that the reply that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)

Column 1410

about the role of the former chairlady of Whitemoor board of visitors and the concerns that she expressed will not been accepted by her and will not be accepted by that board of visitors? Nor will it be accepted by boards of visitors throughout the country, because the right hon. and learned Gentleman was repeatedly told by those boards of visitors of the very deep--

Mr. Howard indicated dissent .

Mr. Cox: It is no good the right hon. and learned Gentleman shaking his head. He was told repeatedly of the deep concern of the board of visitors. Will he give the House an assurance that any prison governor who is concerned about security will have whatever funding he or she needs to bring security up to standard?

Mr. Howard: I dealt earlier, and rather fully, with the contents of the reports from the board of visitors. That is the basis on which such allegations should be tested. I can tell the House that the implementation of the 64 recommendations in the Woodcock report will not be inhibited by any resource constraint.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the principal conclusion of the Woodcock report was that the Prison Service failed systematically to observe its own rules? Is he able to give me, the House and constituents throughout the country a categorical assurance that the Learmont inquiry will address itself to the problems of running our prisons, that he will ensure in future that there is no further intimidation of prison officers by dangerous category A prisoners, and that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has recommended, officers will be rotated regularly?

Mr. Howard: My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to those features. The purpose of the 64 recommendations in the Woodcock report is to achieve the objectives to which my hon. Friend referred. The Learmont inquiry will consider what more needs to be done across the Prison Service. The purpose of the these exercises will be to ensure that there is never again a recurrence of the events and the situation at Whitemoor.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North): The problem for the Home Secretary is the scale of the scandal. Does he not have responsibility for putting in place policies and procedures to ensure that scandals in prisons on such a scale cannot happen, and has he not failed in that responsibility? He should accept the consequences of that.

Mr. Howard: If there were any evidence that my policies were in any way responsible for what happened, the hon. Gentleman would be right. But there is not a word of criticism of policy in the Woodcock report. Nor is there any basis for the suggestion that my policies were in any way responsible for what happened.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his frank statement? I ask him to assure the House that nothing said to the Woodcock inquiry will inhibit the bringing of criminal,

Column 1411

civil or disciplinary proceedings, should the Yardley inquiry or anyone else find that there is evidence that makes it appropriate to bring such charges.

Mr. Howard: Yes. I think that it was right of Sir John Woodcock, whose principal objective was to get at the truth of what happened, to say that the evidence which was given to him would not be used as the basis of disciplinary proceedings. That does not mean that the disciplinary investigation that I have set in hand will be unable to pursue these matters. It will pursue them, and if evidence is revealed that would justify disciplinary proceedings or other action against anyone at any level in the Prison Service, that action will ensue.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): If the Home Secretary is as eager as he claims to change the culture of the Prison Service, will he, as a guarantee of good faith, demand that the director general of the Prison Service pays back the £35,000 performance bonus which he granted him last year?

Mr. Howard: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record of the Prison Service during that year, and especially the substantial reduction in the number of escapes that took place during that year, he will have cause to reflect on his question.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): My right hon. and learned Friend is clearly right to opt for a tougher and harder internal regime in the category A prisons. In so far as this induces among resourceful but violent and desperate prisoners the attitude of "death or glory", is not the implementation of his tough regime something of an exercise in sophistication as well as determination? Does he agree that the subtleties of constraining those desperate men are scarcely appreciated in respect of the comments that we have heard from Labour Members?

Mr. Howard: I agree with my right hon. Friend's last point. In addition, I agree that one should never underestimate the difficulty of having in place an effective regime. The task on which the Prison Service is engaged is very difficult. It was described in a previous inquiry as one of particular complexity. My right hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to those aspects of it.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North): Will the Home Secretary confirm that the reason why he has not been directly criticised in the report is that, as the report implies in paragraph 9.29, it was beyond the inquiry's remit? Is it not true that the Home Secretary himself determined the inquiry's remit? It is therefore hardly surprising that he was not directly criticised. Will the Home Secretary address the criticism in paragraph 9.28--

"There exists at all levels within the Service some confusion as to the respective roles of Ministers, the Agency Headquarters and individual Prison Governors. In particular, the Enquiry has identified the difficulty of determining what is an operational matter and what is policy, leading to confusion as to where responsibility lies"?

Surely, as Home Secretary in a Government who have been in power for 15 years, it lacks credibility to say that the Home Secretary was not responsible for what happened. Has not the confusion in responsibility arisen

Column 1412

directly from arrangements which the Home Secretary put in place, or is he not now even responsible for his own mistakes?

Mr. Howard: I have already dealt very fully with paragraph 9.28 of the report. I am not under any confusion about the respective roles of Ministers, the agency headquarters or individual prison governors, and nor is the director general. As for individual prison governors and others in the service, it is their responsibility to comply with the instructions that they are given.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) is entirely wrong about the report's remit. It was not in any way beyond Sir John Woodcock's remit to criticise me were he of a mind to do so.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): Look at paragraph 9.29.

Mr. Howard: Paragraph 9.29 says nothing of the kind. If the hon. Lady, who is mouthing inanities from a sedentary position, were to read the report, she would understand that paragraph 9.29 says nothing of the kind. Sir John Woodcock's report was very wide in its terms of reference and very wide in its remit. It was entirely within his remit, if he wished to do so, to make criticisms of me. The fact is that he did not do so, and the Opposition cannot bring themselves to accept that.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. We will now move on.


The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:

Ian Phares Pearson Esq., for Dudley, West.

Column 1413

Orders of the Day

Adjournment (Christmas)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House, at its rising on Tuesday 20th December, do adjourn until Tuesday 10th January.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

4.34 pm

Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North): I should like to detain the House for a few moments to put to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House some of the problems arising from the provisional revenue support grant for the county of Shropshire. The matter will be taken further forward on 3 January when a delegation from the county council, which I will accompany, will discuss the matter with a Minister from the Department of the Environment.

The provisional standard spending assessment and the level of rate capping that has been proposed is causing great anxiety in the county. I recently had the opportunity to meet senior officials of the county to discuss the matter, accompanied by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott). I have also been in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who has naturally taken a keen interest in developments which will as acutely affect his area of Shropshire as my own.

The Shropshire problem has a certain unique characteristic because it compounded by previous difficulties, in that between 1990 and 1991 and 1994 and 1995, Shropshire had the lowest increase of all counties in SSA and between 1991 and 1992 and 1994 and 1995 it had the next lowest capping increase. To that inherited pattern of difficulty has been added the current stringent proposal for the 1995-96 settlement.

The figures at the heart of the problem will be discussed in detail on 3 January and I do not wish to detain the House by arguing about them now. At heart, the issue is a proposed permitted spending increase of about £0.8 million or less than 0.5 per cent. when the county judges that to maintain its current spending would require an increase of £14.8 million. The shortfall of £14 million is equivalent to 5.8 per cent. of the budget.

Those are formidable figures and I would greatly appreciate it if my right hon. Friend would relay to the Department of the Environment my great anxiety that they represent a gap--as judged by the DOE and the county council--which cannot be reconciled, with any degree of equity, with the services provided in Shropshire.

Education will be first in line for cuts, of course, given the enormous difference in the budget, but it goes much further than the services covered by statutory obligation. Those where the county council spending is to some extent discretionary are the subject of the greatest anxiety, because the providers see themselves without any statutory protection for their work. That is particularly true of youth services, and officials in those areas have made their views known to me in the most compelling fashion at my weekend surgeries. I appreciate that according to the conventions of the House contributions to the Adjournment debate are the more welcome--and, I hope, the more persuasive--the briefer they are. I see my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House nodding in agreement, but I am not sure to which part of my proposition.

Column 1414

My speech is made ahead of the meeting on 3 January and I make an appeal that that occasion should not be used to rehearse the time-honoured positions of the combatants across the fiscal field, but to discuss the hard practicalities of public spending and the protective and legitimate role that public spending performs. 4.39 pm

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East): Before we adjourn for the Christmas recess, I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members would like to see issues that affect their constituencies resolved. It is proposed substantially to increase tolls on the Severn bridge from 1 January next year. They will rise to £3.70 for a car, by 60p to £7.40 for small goods vehicles and by £1 to £11.10 for lorries. Those figures represent an increase of 177 per cent. since the bridge was privatised in 1992 and are a blatant example of the unacceptable face of privatisation.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): My hon. Friend may be surprised that I wish to intervene, but I am grateful to him for allowing me to do so. Is he aware that if the amendment in the next debate is not carried--it may not be called--this will be the last debate when Members will be able to raise matters on the motion for the Adjournment? Perhaps Members will bear that in mind. When they realise how important this debate is, they may wish to stay in the Chamber and ensure that such debates continue.

Mr. Hughes: I appreciate the relevance of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Severn bridge tolls are a scandal. The so-called Anglo-French consortium is simply bleeding Wales dry. South Wales still suffers from heavy unemployment. Black spots have been caused through closures and redundancies--Ebbw Vale, Merthyr and Cynon Valley spring to mind, but even Newport on the eastern seaboard with favourable geographical advantages is put at a distinct disadvantage by toll charges in its quest for new jobs.

Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one reason why the tolls are so high is that they are charged only for traffic going in one direction?

Mr. Hughes: That is an irrelevant intervention. They must still be paid, whether they are paid only by vehicles coming into Wales, as is currently the case. It still amounts to doubling the charge. In a recent survey of companies, Bristol came out as the most attractive area for new enterprises to relocate. Newport, just 20 miles further along the M4 motorway, came 28th. The toll charges are a barrier to industrial development. We have the labour, prime land and some kind of grants available, yet the Government have sold south Wales short. When will the Secretary of State for Wales speak up against the iniquitous toll system?

I received a letter dated 5 December from Mr. Sandy Blair, chief executive of Newport borough council, who wrote to me in his capacity as secretary of Gwent District Councils Association. He said that concern had been expressed about yet further increases in Severn bridge toll charges and asked me to make the strongest possible representations in Parliament regarding them. That is what I am trying to do this afternoon.

Column 1415

Mr. D.B.H. Colley, director-general of the Road Haulage Association, wrote to me on 23 November saying that road hauliers were incensed by the electronic tag system introduced in October 1993. He said that the Anglo-French Consortium had infringed the Severn Bridges Act 1992 by abolishing

"the discount of between 10 and 20 per cent. which applied to the pre- payment tickets. Under the tag scheme, savings will only accrue when more than 20 crossings per vehicle are made monthly by using a season pass. In addition, a refundable deposit of £30 is to be made for each tag, which is not transferable between vehicles." Mr. Colley tells me that the new system, too, was introduced without consultation and that the following major issues detrimentally affect road hauliers: first, a requirement for a £30 deposit on each tag; secondly, the need for each vehicle to have its own individual tag; thirdly, the replacement of the discounted ticket system by a non-discounted electronic tag, except where that is used as a season pass by the same vehicle.

By comparison, the Dartford River Crossing Company Ltd. has no tag charge. Its tags are interchangeable between vehicles of a similar classification and there is also a substantial discount of 7.5 per cent. for tag holders. Under the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act 1988, tolls increased by less than 10 per cent., and since privatisation in 1989 they have increased by approximately 33 per cent. When we compare those figures with the 177 per cent. increase in toll charges on the Severn bridge since privatisation in 1992, we must ask why there is so much discrimination against Wales and why the Secretary of State for Wales is not speaking up for Welsh economic interests. The Severn bridge is the key access point linking England and Wales. It is only a short stretch of the M4 motorway. A constituent of mine in Redwick, Mr. Jerry Jones, a major road haulage contractor, pointed out that it is normally a criminal offence to stop on a motorway, and I understand the point that he made. There is now persistent protest in the Gloucester area about heavy lorries travelling through villages to avoid paying tolls. Public meetings have been held and civil disobedience has been openly advocated. What I fail to understand, however, is where the west country Conservative Members were when the pernicious Severn Bridges Bill was being pushed through Parliament two or three years ago. Labour Members opposed the legislation, but there are fewer than a handful of them in the west country--although I venture to suggest that after the next general election there are likely to be considerably more.

The regular defence of Severn bridge tolls is that the money is needed to build a second crossing, but that is just a load of eyewash when we consider the massive motoring taxation revenue that the Government receive. Some of that could surely be used to ease the burden of Severn bridge toll charges.

On 2 March this year I introduced a Bill to amend sections 9 and 10 of the Severn Bridges Act 1992. Had that proposal passed through Parliament, it would have had the effect of freezing tolls at the then existing level. The Government should now introduce such a measure.

Column 1416

Contracts that are negotiated can also be renegotiated, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), when he was deputy Leader of the Opposition, said in south Wales at the time of the Monmouth by-election.

I warn the Government that the issue of Severn bridge tolls will not go away: it is a running sore, and privatisation of the Severn bridge was a madcap scheme that south Wales could well have done without.

4.49 pm

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South): The House might forgive me for not following the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) over the Severn bridge, but I should like to say how much I support the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen). Staffordshire is in a similar position to Shropshire, and I wish my right hon. Friend every success on 3 January because, in battling for neglected shire counties, he will do a service to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I was tempted to speak about the apparent inadequacy of the inspection system in prisons and the apparent incompetence of the Director General of the Prison Service. Many similar subjects tempt me, but I have an opportunity to discuss once again a subject that I have brought to the notice of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House many times--the continually deteriorating position in the former Yugoslavia.

It is not to our credit as a House that we have devoted so little time to debating the most serious crisis in Europe since the second world war. I shall not weary the House by repeating arguments that I have previously advanced, save to say that I have, for more than three years, sought whenever possible to mention that issue, and I believe that, if the powers that be had heeded the call for effective action at the time that Vukovar was being razed to the ground and Dubrovnik bombarded, we might not have had to witness the appalling tragedy of Bosnia.

When the history of the past three years comes to be written, no one will emerge from it with any great credit. There has been an apparent unwillingness to grasp the seriousness of the situation. Most of all, there has been an inability to bring home to the Serbs the fact that territorial aggrandisement by conquest, and ethnic cleansing and all the barbarities and bestialities that go with that, are unacceptable in a civilised world. That they should be taking place at a time when we are about to commemorate 50 years since the end of the second world war is an indictment of us all.

I wholly exonerate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who has been courtesy itself, and who has met me and my fellow officers of the all-party group on many occasions, from anything other than the most honourable of motives. However, it is a great pity that the western powers especially have not been able to demonstrate a greater coherence of resolve and a more forceful determination in the past three years.

It would be tragic for the present and an appalling portent for the future if a gang of hoodlums, under the direction of some of the most evil men who have strutted the political stage in modern times, were to be able to destroy the credibility of the United Nations and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. I therefore urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to pass on my

Column 1417

words to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and to give them the following message.

Of course we recognise the conspicuous bravery and skill of British troops, and we are all proud of what they have achieved in appallingly difficult circumstances. Of course we do not call in question the motives or the honour of the people who lead our nation or the nations of the west. However, time is running out, and it is essential that, now that even Milosevic, who began this appalling adventure three years ago, accepts the contact group's peace plan, every possible effort is made to ensure that the Bosnian Serbs are brought to heel. It would be tragic, disgraceful and disgusting if the Bosnian Serbs got away with their ill and brutally gotten gains. I do not think that there is a Member in the House who could not agree with that sentiment.

Time and again, people talk and the BBC talks--I have had occasion to write to Mr. Birt about it this week--about the Bosnian Muslims. The Bosnian Muslims are about as fanatical, as someone said on the radio this morning, as most people who identify their religion as "C of E" on their passports in this country. However, the legitimate Bosnian Government are not wholly Muslim. They are supported by Croats and by many Serbs. Not so long ago, the House received a deputation of Bosnian Serbs who support their legitimately recognised Government.

We are witnessing the extinction of a state that we willingly recognised, which has a seat at the United Nations, and which is therefore a member of the community of nations. The United Nations resolutions have been flagrantly flouted and violated time without number, first by the Serbs under Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs, and more latterly almost exclusively by the Bosnian Serbs. It would be an appalling end to the year and beginning of a new one if they were now allowed to flout the Contact group's resolution.

I urge one or two courses of action. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will feel able to pass on my words to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. I have said many times that it would be sensible for this country to take an initiative by summoning a summit meeting of the leaders of the four nations principally involved--Britain, France and the United States, all key members of NATO and of the United Nations Security Council, and Russia, which has many problems of its own, as we are reminded daily, but which also has a significant part to play in that part of the world and which is, after all, a member of the contact group. The situation in the former Yugoslavia is so serious as to merit the calling of a special summit meeting, rather than the addition of the subject to the agenda of a prefixed summit. It is important that the message should go out from any such meeting that, if there is any further violation of safe areas--what a hollow concept that has proved to be in the past few months--the full might of the United Nations agency NATO, which is the way in which NATO is acting at the moment, should be directed at those people who are violating. After all, the Bosnian Government have accepted the plan. I agree that they perhaps behaved rashly and foolishly in Bihac--although I understand why--a few weeks ago, and I would not exonerate anyone

Column 1418

from the type of resolution that I now advocate. I should like a surrender of all heavy weapons into international control. I would like to see the exercise of the United Nations mandate for a period of 12 months while the final details of the contact plan and the map are sorted out. I would like us to behave as an international community with the same resolution to any violation during that 12 months as we behaved toward Saddam Hussein. Would that we had finished him off, but that is another story.

The matter is extremely serious and time is short. As we move towards 1995, we are in a situation that is in many ways strangely reminiscent of 1914- 15. Of course history does not repeat itself, but it teaches us lessons. We could be within not just months but weeks of a full-scale Balkan war, with all the horrors that that implies and would entail--a Balkan war that would have on one side Turkey and, on another side, Greece, two NATO members. There could be a Balkan war that could suck into the centre of Europe--the heart of Europe; a phrase that is often used in other contexts--Muslim fundamentalist fighters to fill any vacuum left by those who might withdraw. My final word to my right hon. Friend is this: there should be an absolute declaration and a total commitment not to withdraw the forces that are there at the moment. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has expressed commendable reluctance to contemplate such a course, and I applaud and admire him for that, but one must go even further than that. To withdraw, leaving our baggage, our weaponry and a vacuum would be the most ignominious of retreats and defeats for the principles of honesty and decency which have been so trampled upon so frequently over the past three years.

I am sorry to have to direct the attention of the House to such a sombre matter in a season of good will, but good will is a commodity that has been conspicuously lacking in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia. When we return to our families to enjoy, I hope, our Christmases and to prepare for a new year, we should spare a thought for the desolation in that land and for the ruined hopes and the shattered futures. We should recognise that, if we are going to commemorate the events of 1945 with any real credibility next year, we cannot have our commemorations accompanied by a pall of smoke over a country in Europe.

5.2 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House, because, earlier this afternoon, the people of Newbury were betrayed once again. There is no other way of describing the appalling news that the A34 bypass around Newbury, or at best, has been postponed for at least a year or, at worst, will never be built. Yet again, Newbury is left suffering from the horrendous traffic problems which have been our lot for years and years. Of course, I welcome the Government's announcement today that they have at last recognised that it is fatuous to go on building more new roads instead of investing in public transport and doing up the present structure, but, if ever there was a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water, this must be that case.

Why have the Government failed to realise that there is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, creating entirely new roads and thus encouraging entirely

Column 1419

new journeys to be undertaken by car, and, on the other hand, removing already existing roads from the centre of some of Britain's loveliest old towns and villages? Interestingly, there are some signs that the Government have recognised that very point.

The Secretary of State, in his announcement today, said:

"Our priority now must be to make the most effective use of the existing network."

But that is exactly what the Newbury by-pass is intended to do. The Secretary of State announced:

"Our priority is road-building to remove congestion and pollution blackspots."

But that is exactly what the Newbury by-pass is intended to do. He announced that he wants to remove major bottlenecks because, as he says:

"They cause congestion and pollution, and damage the economic well-being of the country. They also cause frustration and diversion on to smaller more unsuitable roads."

Of course he is right, and that is exactly why he should have authorised the earliest possible start to the building of the Newbury by-pass.

Newbury is being destroyed by traffic. The problem is that Newbury contains the one remaining section of the country's main north-south route between Southampton and Glasgow which, so far, has not been built up to well-nigh motorway standard. Because the rest of the route is so good, traffic is attracted to that route, even if drivers know that they are guaranteed to be held up in Newbury.

Delaying the Newbury by-pass will do nothing to reduce the traffic load on that road. Instead, it will simply mean more deaths on what is already a notoriously dangerous stretch, and many more children suffering from asthma, with all the attendant problems that that brings. Recent figures have shown that children living near the A34 suffer three times the level of noxious gases and other pollutants compared with children living further away. Businesses, too, will suffer as fewer shoppers are prepared to use Newbury because of the traffic queues.

It is not a new problem. It is not something for which the Government could use the excuse that they did not really know why the by-pass is necessary. It has been going on for years and years. Even if we discount the proposals that were made as far back as 1936 and again in 1965, even the modern proposals date from the early 1980s. Indeed, following traffic studies and public consultation over a number of years, the Department of Transport published its preferred route as early as 1985--almost 10 years ago.

It has now been shown that the A34 through Newbury, linking as it does the M3 at Winchester with the M40 north of Oxford, carries nearly double the percentage of heavy goods vehicles carried by the average trunk road in our country, and it carries them straight through the centre of Newbury. Traffic volumes in Newbury have already reached a level which, in the 1988 public inquiry, were not expected until 2009. Newbury has become a notorious bottleneck, with queues which can extend miles in each direction, and lorries and cars spewing out their fumes and noxious gases all over the gardens, schools and parks where our children play.

Next Section

  Home Page