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Column 1420Local businesses, not to mention the emergency services, find that it can take an hour or more to travel just a mile or two across Newbury. That is just not acceptable. The environment in our lovely old market town is being wilfully destroyed.
Let me remind the Minister for Railways and Roads what he and his colleagues have said. In a letter to me of 27 October this year, the Minister said:
"I recently visited Newbury and saw for myself the pressing need for a bypass. The tail back of traffic was nearly back to the M4 . . . a bypass is needed to remove the noisy smelly traffic from the town."
That is what the Minister himself said. The Highways Agency, in a letter dated 4 August, wrote:
"The need for an improvement of this stretch of the trunk road, which carries a high percentage of goods vehicles, was identified as long ago as 1971 and the requirement is now urgent."
The Minister for Transport in London, in a letter as recently as 28 November, said:
"By-passes often bring considerable environmental benefits to the villages, towns and cities from where traffic is removed." The Highways Agency, again in a letter dated 28 October, wrote: "Without this much needed new road, delay and congestion in Newbury will continue to increase."
It is not just the destruction of Newbury which will make the people of Newbury so angry about this decision; it is also the way they have been promised again and again that the by-pass is on the point of being built. The Highways Agency wrote to me on 1 November to say:
"Your constituent will be pleased to know that tenders for the construction of the bypass have now been received and are currently being assessed. We expect to be in a position to appoint a contractor very shortly for a start of construction as soon as possible this winter."
On 19 October, the Department of Transport confirmed to a local newspaper:
"There is no change in the road priority programme that was set out in April and Newbury is at the top and already has funding. It is going ahead as planned."
During the by-election in May of last year, the Conservative party literature argued that local Conservatives, led by Judith Chaplin and Sir Michael McNair-Wilson, my predecessors, had already won the A34 by-pass, and that it would
"substantially reduce congestion through our towns and villages. It will be a major boost for West Berkshire businesses and local people alike. Building it is a great step toward solving traffic problems in Newbury. The Conservative Government has given the go-ahead and found the money."
So much for the Conservative claim. As I said at the beginning, Newbury has been betrayed by this Government, according to whose arguments the A34 by- pass should have been given the highest priority. Instead, it has been cut out of the programme, overturning all the promises made by the Conservatives over many years. In Newbury we have grown used to Conservatives who break promises, but seldom can so many promises made over so many years by so many different members of that party have been broken so suddenly and recklessly. The people of Newbury will be furious at this cynical betrayal of their hopes.
Column 1421school, in my constituency. Parents and relatives of pupils of different religions come together each year in one of the major churches of Bangor to celebrate the birth of Christ.
This year, the service was held in St. Comgall's church, and the Salvation Army junior band led the praise. It was a touching and emotional event, because the pupils at the school, all of whom participated in the service, either have profound and multiple learning difficulties or exhibit challenging behaviour. I pay tribute to the principal and staff of the school, who are completely dedicated to their pupils, some of whom suffer from grave mental and physical handicaps.
I am also deeply affected by the manifest dedication of the parents, who shower their love, time and efforts on their handicapped children. For me, this annual carol service, organised by Clifton special school, signals the start of the Christmas season. For that season, if it is about anything, is about the misfortunes of others and about giving without restraint.
It would be natural to assume in such poignant and dire circumstances that every help would be given to the school and parents and especially to the boys and girls. Unfortunately, it is not. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult to find places for the school's leavers in training and resource centres or in intensive support units. Failure to find a place for a student, or finding one only at the last moment, causes unnecessary and terrible stress for the school and the parents. Yet it seems that this intolerable situation is set to worsen.
The school received a letter in October from the North Down and Ards community trust. In it the manager apologised and assured the principal of the school that he had
"done everything possible to keep his line management informed of the shortages with regard to day care places, particularly the Intensive Support Unit."
In a letter sent recently by the principal of the special school, Mrs. Ray Cunningham, to the chief executive of the health and care centre, Newtonards, she informed him that the officer in charge of the Ards training and resources centre had confirmed that no place was available in an intensive support unit for an 18 year-old pupil who was due to leave the school. She stated:
"Needless to say, both the parents and members of staff at Clifton special school were devastated at this news, particularly as the boy has very special needs."
"It is essential that a place be available for him as soon as he leaves the school."
I believe that, as a result of all the pressure that that lady brought to bear, and after lengthy deliberation, a temporary place will be found for the boy. That is all wholly unacceptable. The principal of the school has told me that social services have been given, by the school, a minimum five -year projected list of needs, together with a simple profile of each student, including the dates when each boy or girl will be leaving the school. Management can thus anticipate the number of places required and know whether any special needs attach to each place. The principal of the school has emphasised that the situation is so serious that all plans for induction courses for pupils have had to be abandoned, as the school has not been guaranteed places early enough to set such courses in motion.
Column 1422Apparently the board has in mind a project that entails building another intensive support unit in the Bangor area. I say "in mind" because I have had no assurance when or even if it will be built. The places are desperately needed now, even if it is to be built in a year or two.
All decent people will be scandalised by what is going on. They will feel that the parents of children with special needs or with mental or physical handicaps should be given special attention by those responsible for their children's further care. I therefore demand that the Government intervene to ensure that the trust provides the places that are vital for these students and for their loving, hard-pressed parents.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): I believe that the House should not adjourn for the Christmas recess until we have had the opportunity to discuss county hall on the other side of the river. It was built as a home for the London county council and paid for by Londoners. It was built for the local and strategic governance of London. Following the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986--an act that still smacks far more of political spite and personal malice on the part of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, than of a respect for the needs and wishes of Londoners- -county hall was used by a number of bodies, including the Inner London education authority. On the abolition of ILEA in 1990, county hall became empty, and so it has remained ever since. What worries me is how the building has become the centre of what one can only describe as a fiasco bordering on the scandalous. As I have suggested in the House before, the scandal is now moving in the direction of some form of criminal conspiracy.
The facts are fairly straightforward. In 1989, there was a bid from a consortium--the County Hall Development Group--for the site, of around £200 million. It was, of course, made to the London residuary body, the body set up by the Government to administer the disposal of the assets of the Greater London council and to disperse the receipts across the London boroughs. That deal hit the deck, as one suspected that it would because of the dive in the property market in London and around the world. Because it was impossible to renegotiate the terms of the original deal, the £20 million deposit, which was put up as a bond by the development group, was forfeited.
We then move on to another proposal. One of the partners was the Shiryama hotel group from Japan, the owner being Mr. Takashi Shiryama, who made a bid for a 600-bedroom hotel at county hall. That bid, for £60 million I understand, was accepted by the LRB and the Government. At that point, a number of hon. Members, on a cross-party basis, went to see the then Secretary of State for the Environment, now the Home Secretary--the man with such a wondrous record in terms of carrying out his departmental responsibilities--and suggested that the bid from the London School of Economics would be far more appropriate to county hall, given its previous use and, indeed, to the wishes of Londoners as a whole. It seemed far more appropriate that one of the great international seats of learning should sit in county hall than some second-rate Japanese hotel group.
The then Environment Secretary, now the Home Secretary, turned it down. I think that that was a mistake. I warned him at the time that he could, if it went wrong,
Column 1423end up with the equivalent of another Battersea power station, but this time right opposite the Houses of Parliament. That is the way in which we still seem to be going. The development came from an organisation with big ideas and, it turns out, rather small pockets. It is scandalous--I know that that word has been used a number of times this evening, and I make no apology for using it again-- that county hall still remains empty. The 600-bedroom hotel proposal has suddenly been dropped by the Shiryama group. It is now talking about an Asia-Pacific centre and an aquarium. It has not even sought a change of planning use. What sort of fiasco is taking place just a few yards across the river opposite the Houses of Parliament? It is amazing that Ministers should allow that to happen. I do not believe that Ministers or the LRB ever looked carefully at the proposal of the Shiryama organisation, because ideology, as ever, was ruling the roost.
The Secretary of State just wanted to get rid of county hall. His attitude was, "Just get it away from me. I don't care what it is, as long as it has nothing to do with the public sector. Oh, a Japanese hotel group? Okay, give it to them. I don't care whether it has any money. Of course we have never heard of these people. Who cares? Get rid of it."
Because that particular proposal was so badly examined by the LRB and the Government, a whole series of bizarre events is taking place over at county hall. Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic, which was inveigled into the group, now proposes to take legal action against Shiryama because he has suddenly been dumped in mid-course. He does not want to get involved in an Asia-Pacific trade centre and aquarium. He has enough problems as it is. He wanted to be involved with a hotel.
We have a ridiculous situation: Mr. Takashi Shiryama's London representative is apparently called Mr. Makota Okamoto, but every time that someone gets hold of him and asks questions, he goes under another name. He has been called Mr. Toyota, when one gets in touch with him, and Mr. Honda. God knows what other Japanese motor car he will be named after next.
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even from his point of view as a member of the Labour party, it is an offence against the spirit of the idea of civic conservatism that an important public building in an important public location should have been treated in that fashion, and that it is highly desirable that the Government think again and find a way in which to ensure that that important public building be given an important public civic use?
Mr. Banks: I could not agree more. Indeed, when we went to see the then Secretary of State for the Environment, I made it quite clear. Everyone knows my political prejudices in respect of the abolition of the GLC and the use of county hall. I said to the then Secretary of State, "Look. I am prepared to give up the campaign, as it were, provided you are prepared to let county hall be used for something that conforms with the dignity of that building, and the bid from the LSE seems to be the most appropriate." It was an all-party bid and the offer still remains on the table. I suspect that that bid can be revived now.
Column 1424I do not believe, as I warned the then Secretary of State for the Environment, that the proposal from Shiryama will come through to a conclusion. I do not believe that the Shiryama group ever had the funds in this country to carry out its proposed development of county hall. Indeed, I say that it was an entirely inappropriate application in the first place.
I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to speak. I do not wish to delay the House. May I leave a series of questions with the Leader of the House for passing on? I am concerned about the terms of the sale struck between Shiryama and the LRB. I understand that £50 million has so far been paid. I am still trying to find out whether that sum included any of the £20 million deposit, which, as I mentioned earlier, was forfeited from the 1989 consortium bid by the county hall development group. That is very important, as not all of it was Shiryama's money.
Secondly, since the 999-year lease--the terms of the sale--was for £60 million, when will the balance of £10 million, which has been deferred, be paid? Thirdly, what is the total development cost of the 600- bedroom hotel? As I have said, I do not believe that Shiryama ever had the resources to complete the development. Fourthly, has there been any application for a change of planning consent? Lastly, what examination did the Government or the LRB make of the original Shiryama proposal?
It is a scandalous situation. It is still not too late for us to rectify it.
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that the possibility of a first-class university occupying that building would be a fitting use for it, as our university education is one of the very best areas of British activity today and is much used by foreigners?
Mr. Banks: Again, I could not agree more. All that I would say to the hon. Members for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), who have made such positive interventions, is: please do not direct those points at me; direct them to Ministers, because they are the people who need to be persuaded. We will give whatever support we are able to give and are asked to give in terms of the LSE getting hold of county hall, because that proposal seems to meet with the agreement and consent of both sides of the House.
Even at this late stage, I say to the Government: for heaven's sake do not make the terrible error of allowing this half-baked proposal to dribble gradually towards some totally unsatisfactory conclusion, leaving county hall resembling the terrible sight of that other wonderful building a bit further down the river--Battersea power station.
I watched with interest the arrival this afternoon of the new hon. Member for Dudley, West (Mr. Pearson). He has a good chance of going into the Guinness book of records for having said more during his victory speech after his election than he did during the whole of the election campaign. He held no public meetings during the
Column 1425campaign and, I think, refused every opportunity to debate with his opponents. I see that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who was one of his minders, is in his place. I hope that we shall get a response from him when he winds up.
I want to talk about affordable housing, but before I do so I should like to say one thing about my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I agree entirely with his decision not to give parole to Myra Hindley. I was horrified when I read in The Sunday Times yesterday the in-depth interview that she gave. I find it difficult to understand how somebody like Myra Hindley can have such an in-depth interview with a journalist when the prison governor of Cookham Wood claimed that she played no part in arranging the interview.
There is a great campaign by the friends of Hindley to push for her to be granted parole. From what I have read, accordingly to Hindley all the blame attaches to Ian Brady and that her crime was that she lured the children: she lured them to their deaths, and I do not think that she has shown much remorse.
It is almost 30 years since those terrible crimes were committed, yet they are still fresh in the memories of many people. At least five children were sexually abused and then murdered. Anyone who could commit such a crime must be either mad or evil, or both. Myra Hindley must recognise that there can be no hiding place for her. If she were paroled, she could have plastic surgery, dye her hair, move to a part of the country or another country where she would not be known, but somebody, somewhere, would discover that she was there. We have only to hear what is being said by the relatives of the children who were murdered to realise that the only safe place for Hindley is in prison--for the good of everybody.
If this country cannot have capital punishment for the particularly vicious and evil crimes that Hindley committed, a life sentence must mean a life sentence. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was absolutely right in what he said, and I believe that he has the support of the overwhelming majority of people in this country.
I want now to raise the question of affordable housing--
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): Although I am interested in hearing what my hon. Friend has to say about affordable housing, may I first ask whether he agrees that it is right that the Home Secretary should take responsibility for sentencing matters? Is it not offensive to people both in the House and outside that the European Court of Human Rights should intervene to prevent the Home Secretary from making decisions about parole or incarceration?
I have raised the issue of affordable housing previously, but I do not seem to have made any impact on the Department of the Environment or the Treasury--which, after all, holds the purse strings. Nevertheless, I persevere.
I declare an interest, as my wife is chairman of a housing association and also a member of the Housing Corporation. We have come to accept that housing associations are now the main providers of new rented accommodation. Much as I believe in home ownership, there will always be a need for rented housing. I am
Column 1426worried because the housing association grant rate has fallen dramatically. That leads to a growth in benefit dependency and work disincentive. If the grants are lower, the rents must be higher. People then fall into the poverty trap and find that they are better off under the benefit system than by taking a lower-paid job. I cannot see any sense in perpetuating that sort of situation. As I said, I have raised the issue before, but to no avail. The position is worsening and the recent Budget did not make matters any better--in fact, it made them worse. There has been a huge cut in the new social housing capital programme for 1995-96. It is the second year running that it has been cut. I am saddened because the funding of social housing is one of the Government's major social policy success stories. Since 1988, more than 250,000 homes have been provided under the system. It has proved wonderful value for money, because 50 per cent. more homes have been provided for every £1 of taxpayers' money than was the case in 1988.
We must remember that more than £5 billion of unguaranteed private sector funds have been injected into social housing. Also, the bad debt record of housing associations is far better than any other part of the property sector. The success of housing associations must be seen in the context of a change in attitude among people who need to find somewhere to live and who, initially, were attracted to owner-occupation. They see people in negative equity, which is a terrible problem for many people. At one time, if someone bought a house the chances were that its value would rocket. Not any more--house prices today are not rising. Some people have difficulty in affording the deposit; others worry about long-term job security. All those factors must be taken into account and it is against that background that I cannot understand why the Government chose to single out the new social housing for rent programme for some of the biggest cuts of any expenditure programme. Just before the April 1993 Budget, I believed that taxpayers' investment in new social housing would be £1,800 for the year 1995-96. In fact, the figure is only £1, 200 million, a shortfall of £600 million. If we add to that the private finance going into the programme, it makes a cut of more than £1 billion a year. That is a serious situation. In allocations for new homes for rent, the year-on-year reduction will be an unbelievable 59 per cent.
I think that we owe an explanation to all those people whose problem is that they cannot afford to buy their own homes and need to live in rented accommodation. I need an explanation of why there was a doubling in investment in social housing in the three years up to 1992-93, followed by a halving in the three years up to 1995-96. How does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on anyone else expect any housing association to plan in such a climate? Of course I appreciate that public expenditure must be contained. All Conservative Members accept that. What I fail to understand is why the social housing budget should have been cut so drastically. I should like answers to certain questions. Where is the evidence to support the huge cuts in new social housing provision for 1995- 96? Why have Ministers shifted the goalposts by referring to lettings and not to homes? The manifesto commitment specifically referred to homes. Why did Ministers increase the share for the much smaller social housing programme
Column 1427for shared ownership? I should have thought that the emphasis would be on trying to help those people who have no choice other than to rent.
I shall repeat what I have said on previous occasions--that I get depressed when I see people sleeping rough in certain parts of London. Of course I know that there are reasons for that: young people today tend to leave home much earlier and the magnet of the big city attracts them, irrespective of the consequences; the number of divorces has increased enormously, so that where previously one home was sufficient for two people, after a divorce two homes are needed; and, of course, we must accept that for some people it is the sort of life that they choose for themselves.
I feel sorry for the genuine homeless who have nowhere else to go. I realise that homelessness is happening not just in this country, but throughout the world, but when we see it in this country it should strike at people's social conscience. If there were more affordable housing for rent, that would help in the fight against homelessness. Therefore, I hope that before we rise for the Christmas recess my right hon. Friend can give me some replies to the questions that I have posed today.
Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen): It is a measure of how much the Dudley, West by-election result has affected the Conservative party that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) felt the need to attack a new hon. Member who has not even made his maiden speech. It is so unlike the hon. Gentleman to make such an attack that I was very surprised.
I was also surprised that he did not find time to mention the performance of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) in dealing with David Dimbleby on the "Newsnight" programme when he was asked what Labour's policies were. When my hon. Friend catalogued the policies that had been stated during the general election, Mr. Dimbleby had to beat a quick retreat. My hon. Friend fairly sorted out the BBC on that occasion.
I want to devote most of my speech to the flooding in my constituency 10 days ago, which caused quite a lot of damage. Unfortunately, although the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland specifically said in the Scottish Grand Committee that my constituency had been badly affected, I did not have the chance to question him.
More than 140 people had to be evacuated from their homes in the Farme Cross area of Rutherglen. Baronald street was particularly badly affected: dinghies had to be used to transfer householders to safe quarters. Even now, eight days later, the Dalmarnock road bridge is still unusable, and we do not when it will be usable again. At this stage no one is prepared to estimate the cost of the damage, for which Strathclyde regional council will be responsible.
In the east Greenlees area of Cambuslang, a large estate was cut off from its entrance road because of flooding--a problem which recurs every time the area is flooded. In the Bankhead ward of my constituency the Quigleys estate, which has a burn running through it--what the English would describe as a large stream--is subject to flooding at times of heavy rainfall; the burn overflowed
Column 1428during last week's flooding, and it was only thanks to the valiant efforts of volunteers on the estate that the overflow did not reach the houses.
Tenants and home owners living on that estate have told me that when they telephoned Glasgow district council to ask for assistance they were asked whether they were tenants or whether they had bought their council houses. I do not consider that relevant, and I shall pursue the matter. Fortunately my brother Eddie, who takes a good deal of case work from that ward, will be able to discuss the response to the flooding with the authorities involved.
Other parts of Rutherglen are also susceptible to flooding. At Burnhill in the west end of Rutherglen, for instance, part of the local burn has been culverted, but other parts have not and can flood at any time.
At last week's meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee, the Under-Secretary of State was asked how much support the Government would give Strathclyde regional council so that it could cope with the disaster. The Bellwin formula was cited; in effect, Strathclyde must spend £3.5 million before the system is triggered, and even then it will not be compensated for the full amount that it spends. It is all down to Government judgment. I do not consider that an adequate response.
In response to pressure from Scottish Members, the Secretary of State for Social Security has allocated £120,000 to some local Benefits Agency offices to help people whose houses have been flooded. Some of the money is supposed to take the form of loans, and that too is unsatisfactory. The Government have been reluctant to advance money to help people whose homes have been horrendously affected.
For various reasons, many people who have been forced out of their homes do not have adequate home insurance. The Government may say that that is their own affair, but the insurance premium tax that the Government have imposed helps to dissuade people from insuring themselves against disasters of this kind. The Government's response has not been good enough, in my constituency or in Scotland as a whole.
I am not a Scottish nationalist by any means; I believe that the United Kingdom constitutes the best way of dealing with the needs of all four home countries, and I strongly support the Union. Nevertheless--I know that I risk upsetting some hon. Members by saying this--I am struck by the disparity between the treatment of Scotland and that of England in cases such as this. If a similar disaster had occurred in the south-east of England, the media would have been full of Ministers dashing forward to help--especially in
The continuing bias against Scotland will only help the Scottish nationalists and others like them who are trying to drive a wedge between the two sides of the Union. I hope that Conservative Members will eventually realise that.
The Government have told Strathclyde regional council--the main council trying to deal with the disaster--that there are to be cuts in grant aid. That will mean massive cuts in council services, as well as an
Column 1429estimated council tax rise of between 20 and 25 per cent. The Government maintain that this is a case of crying wolf, but I know that many Conservative councils in both England and Scotland are also affected.
It is disgraceful that the Government should cut the grant of councils such as Strathclyde, which is dealing admirably with a national disaster. Many local people are also trying to alleviate the problems, and I am especially proud of the way in which Strathclyde regional councillors Eddie Thompson and Hugh McKenna have responded to the needs of their wards, and made sure that the council as a whole responds reasonably.
Strathclyde's problems have been compounded by Sunday night's fire at Trinity high school, which has imposed further pressure on the council's budget. Within a couple of weeks Strathclyde has experienced the flood and the fire, and been told by the Government that its grant will be cut. That does not constitute responsible government. Strathclyde's parliamentary Labour group is currently considering the council's request for a parliamentary delegation to ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to review his attitude to the support of Scottish local authorities, particularly Strathclyde. I am sorry to be sombre, especially at Christmas, but I am thinking of my constituents. More than 140 are staying in temporary accommodation. They do not know where the insurance money will come from--if, indeed, they are insured--and they do not know where their Christmas presents are, many of which will have been damaged in the floods.
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North): Last Saturday, after the one o'clock news on the BBC, Northern Ireland listeners were regaled by Albert Reynolds, the former Prime Minister of the Irish republic, telling them what the framework document negotiations were about and describing the amount of agreement already reached between himself and the British Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have repeatedly told the House and the people of Northern Ireland that Northern Ireland's position within the Union cannot be changed until a majority of the people ask for a change, and that no such majority exists now or can be foreseen in the near future. Now Mr. Reynolds asserts that the two Acts which in law constitute the title deeds of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom--the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973--have both been renegotiated in the talks, and that changes in them will be made in the House of Commons. Mr. Reynolds went on to reinforce his remarks, stating that that was the position and the agreement at the framework document discussions before he was removed from office. Two parties were at those talks--Mr. Reynolds and the Prime Minister. Mr. Reynolds has declared that the title deeds of the Union are to be tampered with and, what is more, that articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution will not now be deleted: article 2 will stay in its place and only a slight change will be made to article 3. Surely the time has come for the Prime Minister to make a clear statement in reply to Mr. Reynolds' assertions. The statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Column 1430satisfied no one but is causing ever more outrage among Ulster people. He claims that confidentiality forbids him to reply, but the confidentiality has been shattered completely by Mr. Reynolds. It is surely the duty of the Prime Minister to put the record straight publicly.
The people of Northern Ireland must hear the Prime Minister's answer to certain questions. Are the title deeds of Northern Ireland's place in the Union--the 1920 Act and the 1973 Act--on the table, as Mr. Reynolds asserts? Have those legal documents been placed on a par with articles 2 and 3--which make criminal, illegal and immoral claims to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland--as Mr. Reynolds asserts?
Has the Prime Minister made a promise to Mr. Reynolds that he will advise the House of Commons to change both those Acts? Has he given up the demand that he said he would make, that articles 2 and 3 must go? According to Mr. Reynolds, that would be unfair. I am not passing judgment: I am asking the Prime Minister to answer those vital questions. The majority of the people of Northern Ireland have a right to an answer to now.
The shadow of the still armed IRA murder thugs continues to darken the scene in Northern Ireland. Over the weekend, they beat a man--one of their own co-religionists--almost to death. They broke both his arms and his legs and many other bones in his body. He now lies in an intensive care ward in the local hospital. Another man was similarly beaten up. In Enniskillen today they planted a semtex bomb, but fortunately it was dealt with before it exploded. The security forces have discovered that both the detonator and the semtex were of IRA origin.
With that dark backcloth, it is imperative that the Prime Minister should publicly reply to Albert Reynolds. If he does not respond, the people of Northern Ireland can conclude only that Mr. Reynolds was speaking the truth and that the Union is very much in danger because its title deeds are being tampered with by people who, by fair means or foul, have declared that Northern Ireland must be prised out of the United Kingdom, annexed to the Irish Republic and put under Dublin rule. I say to the Prime Minister: respond immediately and answer those questions urgently.
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): All hon. Members receive in their post reports from national and local housing associations. All tell the same story: the continuing problems of many people seeking to find satisfactory housing and at a rent that they can afford. As we all know, the number of low-cost housing developments being built or converted throughout the country is inadequate. The recent Budget failed to give any hope either to the building industry or to people seeking somewhere to live. I wish to make my comments against that background.
In July this year, the Latham report was published. It was named after a widely respected former hon. Member, Sir Michael Latham. He was asked to consider what were and are major problems in the building industry. He was asked to do so not by the building and construction industry, although it fully supported his inquiry, but by the Government and the Secretary of State for the Environment. One can expect the Government, therefore, to support the proposals in the Latham report.
Column 1431My reason for taking part in the debate is to ask when the Government will respond to the proposals that Sir Michael made in the report. The report shows the size and involvement of the building and construction industry in the economy of this country. Well over 200, 000 companies operate in either building or construction. Well over 750,000 people from the industry are employed in the work force. When the industry starts to take off again, I am sure that many more people who worked in it previously but who lost their jobs in recent years will return to it. The industry produces about 10 per cent. of the United Kingdom's gross national product. Those facts are an indication of the industry's important and valuable role. Sadly, in recent years thousands of small and large companies have gone into liquidation. As all the published reports into the reasons for that have clearly shown, one of the major problems has been the late payment or, indeed, non-payment of contracts. That leads to what is called the domino effect. One party to a contract becomes insolvent, which causes the insolvencies of other groups in the building industry. Money is lost, debts are not paid and jobs are lost.
The Latham committee considered the matter. The main cause of the problem has undoubtedly been the increasing number of disputes between clients--the main contractors and subcontractors. Disputes over contracts have caused delays in work and in payments for work that has been completed. That has done nothing to stop the increasing cost of building and construction work. It can and does lead to less investment in the industry. The amount of training undertaken by companies has fallen significantly in recent years because of those problems. That is the background to the position today and the industry has been in that position for some considerable time. The Latham committee considered that background. All people agree that its report was one of the most detailed studies of the building and construction industry undertaken for many years. Sir Michael Latham's report made some 30 recommendations for improvements across the structure of the industry which would lead to a construction contracts Act. Everyone in the industry agrees that such an Act would provide greater certainty of cash flow and greater payment security. One of the most important recommendations was that there should be an adjudication procedure to examine disputes between clients and companies. The building and construction industry has great scope for disputes over payments and, sadly, such disputes often arise. They can centre on the standard of work done or on delays in completion. That in turn gives rise to the domino effect I mentioned, whereby major companies tell smaller companies and subcontractors that they--the smaller companies--will get paid when they-- the major companies--have been paid.
When the Latham report was published in July it was greatly welcomed by everyone in the industry. As I said, it calls for legislation in the form of a construction contracts Act. That would mean the setting up of secure trust funds to avoid the problems of non-payment. Once a contract with payment provision had been entered into