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Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Does the Secretary of State realise that the credibility of this morning's story in The Times is greatly enhanced by the fact that it is entirely consistent with the leaks that have emanated from the Irish Government in recent weeks? Does he realise that its credibility is also enhanced by the fact that his statement today contains nothing which is in any way inconsistent with what was said in the story? Furthermore, the story is corroborated by the statement that his hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) made during the most recent Northern Ireland questions.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman further agree that it is totally disingenuous to say that there will be no joint authority when it is proposed that legislation from Westminster will go over the heads of the Northern Ireland assembly to set up a body which people will have a legal duty to attend, with default and enforcement powers if they fail to carry out the Irish Government's will? That is joint authority and it cannot be described as anything else. The Secretary of State's failure to be frank both in his previous contacts and today--particularly his prevarication in answering the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux)--robs him of credibility.

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I do not follow what the hon. Gentleman said about there being legislation over the heads of the Northern Ireland assembly. There will be no Northern Ireland assembly unless and until there is

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legislation, and there will be no legislation unless and until we secure the agreement of the parties and of the people of Northern Ireland. I thought that the hon. Gentleman, with his democratic credentials, would welcome that.

I also thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome proposals for establishing a Northern Ireland assembly which thereafter would provide the staff to discharge the functions of a north-south body, if that is what the people have shown they want in a referendum, and it is what the parties want also. That is the position.

If we can achieve agreement to restore democratic responsibility to Northern Ireland--again, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that-- I hope that he will then encourage his right hon. and hon. Friends at least to discuss the principles in the document. Mr. Trimble indicated dissent .

Sir Patrick Mayhew: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I do not see why he should be so reluctant to discuss the issues that are raised in that way. If he is reluctant to do so, that must remain his position. However, I think that many people will regret his decision.

Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North): Have my right hon. and learned Friend and his Cabinet colleagues learnt a wider lesson from the events of the last 24 hours? While it is obvious that the democratic process cannot operate satisfactorily without a free press, is it not the case that those newspapers which peddle half-truths--seemingly for circulation purposes-- perform no valuable task in the public interest? Was my right hon. and learned Friend given the opportunity at any stage to point out to The Times the damage which would flow from the half-truths about which it intended to write?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I was not given that opportunity. I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was given an indication very late last night that something of that character would be published, but the content was not disclosed.

I do not think that I shall say more than I have said to the House already this afternoon in answering my hon. Friend. The partial and distorting publication of parts of the document which have come into the hands of the newspaper is damaging. However, I think that the principal damage is done by those who, for whatever purpose, seek to make public something of this character at this stage of complex, delicate and rather dangerous negotiations.

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Points of Order

4.29 pm

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter of some importance--the selection of Members to serve on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill Select Committee. I understand that it has always been the custom, if not the rule, of the House that such Committees be seen to be as objective as possible. That is presumably why Members representing Kent, for instance, were told that they could not serve on the Committee, even though their constituencies were not directly affected.

I have learnt to my surprise, however, that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson)--I notified her that I would be mentioning her name; I also notified the other hon. Member whom I shall mention later--had been appointed to the Committee, even though she stated, clearly and frankly, on Second Reading that her borough was directly affected by the high speed rail link. One can imagine the embarrassment that would be caused if a petition was received from her borough. She will not be seen as totally objective. No doubt she would be a splendid member of the Committee, but her membership of it hardly seems to conform with my understanding of the traditions of the House.

Even more surprisingly, another Member has been appointed to serve on the Committee, even though on Second Reading he spoke robustly about certain points relating to important aspects of the Bill that are likely to be the subject of petitioning. I refer to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). We all know him to be a splendid Member of the House, but on this subject he is about as impartial as I am. He certainly does not seem capable--on this issue--of fitting the mould of independence, impartiality and open-mindedness that has long been required by the traditions of this House.

It seems to conflict with the customs, if not the rules, of the House that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East should be a member of the Select Committee. Decisions of the Committee of Selection are not debatable on the Floor of the House, so presumably the rules have been observed--if not the practice and custom.

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I therefore seek your guidance, Madam Speaker, on what steps can be taken to ensure that the Committee is selected on the usual criteria of the openmindedness and objectivity that we have come to expect in respect of all private and hybrid Bills.

Madam Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has had to say, and have done so with great interest. I am afraid, however, that I am not in a position to assist him. In the first place, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate was appointed to the Committee by the decision of the House last Friday, 27 January. It was at that time that an objection could have been raised.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East was appointed by the Committee of Selection at its meeting last Wednesday. The House has delegated this power to the Committee of Selection, and such appointments do not subsequently come before the House for confirmation. I am therefore unable to take the matter further, as the House gives me no authority in these matters to do so. But I take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously; I shall give it some thought for future occasions.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: No, I am sorry: I cannot take a further point of order. I have ruled the point of order already. I know that the hon. Gentleman is equally concerned, but once I have given a ruling, it is not my intention to go further. I have done the best I can. I shall not let the matter rest there, but I want to give it further consideration.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): On a different point of order, Madam Speaker. What advice can be given to witnesses who come before Select Committees? I have in mind Sir Iain Vallance, who yesterday told the Select Committee that he worked harder than junior doctors do. He then immediately retracted the remark outside the House. Does he not owe an apology to the Select Committee, and more particularly to the junior doctors?

Madam Speaker: I hope that the gentleman in question worked extremely hard when he appeared before the Committee, and that the Committee made him sweat.

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Births and Deaths Registration (Amendment)

4.33 pm

Mrs. Angela Knight (Erewash): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 in connection with the procedures relating to the registration of deaths in England and Wales. The Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 allows a death to be registered only in the district in which it occurs. My Bill proposes that that procedure be modified, so that the necessary details and declaration of death may be made with the registrar of any district. That registrar would then forward the details to the district where the death occurred for registration to take place.

That which I propose may seem to be a small, superficial and rather obscure change, but it is one that would make a substantial difference to the difficulties that some find themselves in now when a death occurs. The difficulties add to the distress at a time of grief.

Last summer, a family of mother, father and baby daughter--all constituents of mine--went on holiday to Skegness. One morning, the parent woke up to find their seven-month-old baby daughter dead in her cot. All parents will know how such a death, and fear of such a death, worries them. We all know how many times we check our sleeping babies to ascertain that they are still breathing. Surely we can all imagine what the mother and father felt at that fear becoming a reality.

Given the suddenness of the baby's death, the coroner who covers Skegness was notified. He directed that a post mortem should be performed by the specialist paediatric pathologist who is based at the Queen's medical centre at Nottingham, which is a hospital of considerable renown. It is one that is used extensively by Erewash, and it was therefore close to the home of the family.

The mother and father returned from Skegness to Nottingham, the post mortem was undertaken, cot death was confirmed, and arrangements for the funeral were set in hand. It was only then that the parents found that, to register their daughter's death, one of them had to return in person to Skegness. That is the requirement of the law as it stands. The 200-mile round trip was bad enough, but having to revisit the place of the tragedy added to the grief that my constituents were already experiencing.

Such a procedure can be changed. One way would be to allow the registration of the death to take place in any district. Although that has the immediate attraction of simplicity, it would cause other complications, about which registrars and coroners have expressed their

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concern. If the present system continues without change, however, it will inevitably continue to add unnecessary upset to many people each year.

My Bill would allow the necessary documents required for death registration to be received by any registrar, who would then forward them to the appropriate district. My constituents would have been able to go to Nottingham, Derby or Ilkeston. The documents would then be sent by post, fax or electronic mail to Skegness. Thus, while maintaining the continuity of the place of registration, the parents of the baby would at least have had the process made emotionally and physically easier for them.

The 1990 White Paper on registration contained proposals for change similar to those that are set out in the Bill. The White Paper met with approval from doctors, coroners and registrars. The Derby registrar and coroner, whose districts cover Erewash, have expressed support for the changes that I propose. I am grateful to them for their assistance and advice as I am to the registrar of Ilkeston. The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths has advised me of its support. It was my constituents' general practitioner, who wrote to me initially about the case to which I have referred asking for a change in the law, who prompted the Bill.

The mother of the baby girl said to me two weeks ago, "Make my case public." She added, "I will do whatever is necessary, so that no one else finds themselves in the situation that I did." I agree with her.

The House is in a position to do whatever is necessary. We spend much time on the great affairs of state, as we have this afternoon, and rightly so. Yet it is often the smaller things of life that most affect, for good or ill, people's lives.

I am proposing a small change. The Bill is only a modest measure. However, the small change could make a significant difference to many people. The Bill would change the registration process so that no longer would it add to people's hurt at a time of great personal distress. Instead, the procedure would help them. That is why I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Angela Knight, Sir Timothy Sainsbury, Sir Ivan Lawrence, Mr. James Clappison, Mr. Peter Butler, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Mr. John Heppell, Mr. Gyles Brandreth, Mr. Nick Hawkins, Mr. Alex Carlile, Mr. John Greenway and Mr. David Lidington.

Births and Deaths Registration (Amendment)

Mrs. Angela Knight accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 in connection with the procedures relating to the registration of deaths in England and Wales: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 24 February, and to be printed. [Bill 42.]

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Orders of the Day

Local Government Finance

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Before I call the Secretary of State to move the Government motions, I must announce that Madam Speaker has put a 10-minute restriction on all speeches except those made by Front- Bench spokesmen and the spokesman for the Liberal Democratic party.

4.40 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer): I beg to move,

That the Local Government Finance Report (England) 1995-96 (House of Commons Paper No. 161), which was laid before this House on 30th January, be approved.

I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following motions:

That the Special Grant Report (No. 12) (House of Commons Paper No. 162), which was laid before this House on 30th January, be approved.

That the Limitation of Council Tax and Precepts (Relevant Notional Amounts) Report (England) 1995-96 (House of Commons Paper No. 163), which was laid before this House on 30th January, be approved.

Our proposals this year are rigorous, as they need to be if local government is to play its part in fighting inflation and to increase prosperity and jobs in commerce and industry. They are also, inevitably, more complex this year because of the establishment of the new police authorities. We have worked with local government to minimise any turbulence resulting from that change, and I am particularly grateful for the practical help that local authority associations continue to give, even where we may differ on the political judgments that have to be made.

On 1 September, I issued my settlement proposals for consultation. They included the total provision for local authority spending, the central support for that expenditure and my proposals for calculating standard spending assessments. I also announced provisional capping criteria. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary announced his proposals for police grant on the same day. Since then, my colleagues and I have met many delegations from local authorities and received many written representations.

We considered carefully all the points that were made during the consultation. My final decisions in respect of grants and notional amounts are embodied in the reports before the House. Of course, final decisions on capping criteria are taken after local authorities have decided their budgets.

Local authorities account for about a quarter of Government spending. Any Government who are serious about controlling public expenditure must, therefore, take real account of what councils spend.

I announced on 1 December my proposal for total standing spending for England for 1995-96 of £43.51 billion. I hope that the House will recognise just how large that figure is and how important, therefore, it is in the general consideration of the health of the economy. It included the English element of police grant, which is distributed on a formula basis in England and Wales. In the light of

consultation--the details of which I shall come to later--we have decided to adjust slightly the

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balance of police funding between England and Wales, with the result that the final TSS figure for England for 1995- 96 will be £43.507 billion. That represents an increase of £843 million--or 2 per cent.--compared with last year's figure. It includes £647.6 million transitional community care special grant.

Leaving aside the increase in provision for community care, my proposals still amount to an increase of just under 1 per cent. in provision year on year. The total aggregate external finance for England will be £34.686 billion. The revenue support grant element of that total will be £18.314 billion.

We have had to make tough decisions on all areas of public spending this year, and this settlement is no exception, but I believe that, seen against the background of low inflation, low pay settlements and the scope for efficiency, the provision is fair and realistic.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): How can the settlement be fair to school children, parents and teachers in Bolsover and in other parts of Derbyshire, when the level per pupil in Surrey is £272 higher than in Derbyshire and when the figure in Hertfordshire is £248 higher than in Derbyshire? That means that if teachers get more than a 1.5 per cent. pay increase, there will be reductions in staff and schools will suffer even more. On top of that, the Minister told Derbyshire that, if it spends more than £550 million, it will be capped, so there is no way out for the children, parents and teachers and others who use its services. Why does not the Secretary of State change the criteria and stop favouring people in the south? Why does he not look after those in the north as well?

Mr. Gummer: Spending per pupil has increased by nearly 50 per cent. in real terms since 1979. We are spending considerably more on every child than we did then.

The figures are decided according to a formula that is discussed in detail and thrashed out with local authority organisations. At the very time when the hon. Gentleman asks for more money for Derbyshire, other counties are asking for more for themselves; but they admit that a common formula that is as objective as humanly possible cannot direct money towards specific councils. Every county would like more money, but I fear that they cannot give good enough reasons. Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) asked a perfectly respectable question, and I want to answer it fully. Derbyshire has a considerable advantage as, unlike many other counties, it does not have a long history of lean administration. Its budget includes many areas in which other counties have already found ways of saving money. Derbyshire, perhaps of all counties, will be able to examine its overheads and expenditure carefully with the aim of helping school children directly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to assist his council.

Several hon. Members rose --

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Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden): You acknowledge in correspondence that Solihull loses out as a result of the changes in education standard spending assessment methodology. In the light of what you have just said--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that we do not use personal pronouns.

Mr. Mills: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How much care did the Secretary of State take in calculating SSA for councils such as Solihull, which, unlike Derbyshire--

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Hon. Members: Sit down!

Mr. Mills: The councils to which I refer have an extremely good record on cost-effectiveness. The Secretary of State says that there has been a redistribution of funds--

Mr. Olner: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) has had quite enough time to ask a simple question.

Mr. Gummer rose --

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Will the Secretary of State bear with me for a moment? I will take the point of order.

Mr. Olner: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it right for so many Conservative Members to seek to intervene with what appear to be prepared scripts when many of them may not be called later?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: This is a democratic Chamber. The Chair does not control the number of hon. Members who seek to intervene; whether the Secretary of State gives way is entirely up to him.

Mr. Gummer: I am happy to say that I have a piece of paper relating to every authority in the country, as many hon. Members may ask direct questions and all of them will be serious.

I examined Solihull's position very carefully. I do the same in regard to every authority, particularly those whose case hon. Members wish to put to me. As I have said, about 100 different groups have asked me specific questions. I cannot see any aspect of the objective methodology bearing on Solihull that gives me cause to investigate whether it could immediately be altered. However, the small but nevertheless important amount that is available for education in Solihull gives rise to considerable concern. I have told Solihull authority and a number of other Conservative and Labour- controlled authorities that I shall carefully consider their fears about the methodology when we decide with local authority associations what changes I can make in the coming year. I cannot do so at the moment because there is nothing to suggest that the methodology has been improperly applied. If it had been, I could have a look at it, but I cannot look at a particular authority on its own.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Gummer: I should like to make some progress and thereafter give way as much as I can. I am trying to

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make a fairly short speech to allow time for hon. Members to ask questions. I know that that is unusual for me, but I shall try to answer as many points as I can.

I have said that the settlement will allow most authorities to increase their spending year on year. [Interruption.] It will allow them to increase their spending, but the difficulty is that most of them would like to increase it by more. That is a difficult issue. Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Gummer: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) as she was the first to rise in the area of the Liberal Benches.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale): Is the Secretary of State aware that Rochdale will lose £163,000 in the community care grant, over and above the other cuts in community care and in education. What is the council supposed to do? Is it supposed to cut services or put up charges?

Mr. Gummer: It should first look at the efficiency of its services. The fact that the hon. Lady thinks that there are only two options--to put up the price or reduce the service--shows that she has not considered the issue. I do not want to go too far along this line, but I may have to give some painful examples.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a great many complaints from authorities about underfunding are nothing more than a cynical attempt to dodge responsibility for their failure to manage resources properly? Does he further agree that one of the worst examples of this is Labour-Liberal controlled Suffolk county council? Since taking control in May 1993, that group has splurged £10 million of resources on such loony left fripperies as the appointment of an equal opportunities officer, the payment of councillors--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I appeal to all hon. Members to be brief. I have already had to announce a 10-minute restriction on speeches. There is now a one-minute restriction on interventions.

Mr. Gummer: I am tempted to take a particular path. As I drove home at the weekend, I noticed that Suffolk county council had put up a series of new yellow signs, which are extensive in their vulgarity and cost. Upon the signs, the council had put the name of the village and underneath it put another notice stating "village" in case people did not know that they were passing through one. There is no doubt that Suffolk county council has shown by its actions that it has spent money that could more easily and properly have been spent on police and education.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Gummer: I shall continue with my speech and then, to be fair, I shall give way to an Opposition Member.

The Audit Commission regularly finds ways in which local authorities can save money through efficiency. The best authorities are quick to follow its recommendations.

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In particular, I hope that all authorities will pay heed to the report on white collar pay in local government, and ensure that unnecessary bureaucracy is weeded out.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South): Does the Secretary of State agree that any increase in something that is already sadly deficient is not sufficient? In Newham, which, as he knows, is statistically the most deprived borough in the country, we are £10 million short through the lack of an interest payment on the standard spending assessment that has been approved by the Government. We have £7 million less for housing and we could receive another £25 million if Newham were an inner- London authority. Will he tell his friends in the Treasury, who presumably produced the formula, that that is unjust and is not up to the standards, as he knows, of even the Old Testament, let alone the new? Will he tell them to sin less next year?

Mr. Gummer: I listened with great care to Newham's case on whether it should be an inner or outer-London authority. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that I listened with concern and, as far as one is allowed in what I suppose is inelegantly referred to as a quasi-judicial position, with sympathy in an attempt to see whether I could meet its wish. The hon. Gentleman's position, however, is not entirely supported. Other Labour boroughs in London have made it clear that they would be extremely annoyed if past action by Newham council were rewarded at the expense of more efficient local councils.

There are some prime examples in London of where savings can be achieved. I note, for example, that the average number of non-manual staff in central services is 3.46 per 1,000 in inner-London boroughs, but 7.7 per 1,000 in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Savings could be made there and applied to what is accepted as a less than adequate education service.

Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South): On the question of efficient versus inefficient councils, is there not a case for reconsidering the scrapping of capping, so that taxes increase in local authorities that are inefficient, clearly showing that responsibility lies with those authorities, rather than with central Government?

Mr. Gummer: I find that view extremely attractive for this reason: the capping mechanism was introduced because, in some areas, people were unable to pay the high costs of administrations, which, in all fairness, were mainly Labour controlled. They found themselves in terrible difficulty. As a resident of then Labour-controlled Ealing, I was one of those people who saw exactly what happened when people were suddenly faced with enormous bills. Tower Hamlets supports 7.7 non-manual staff in central services per 1,000. If we compare that with, for example, Wandsworth, which supports fewer than two per 1, 000 of those staff, we understand why Tower Hamlets charges its often poor residents large sums of money. A real problem exists. The capping regime operates to protect those people. I have come down on that matter, not least because, if we add it all up, local government spends so high a proportion of what the

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nation makes that the Government may be blamed, and it would have a serious effect on the Government economic's policy.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Gummer: I should get on with my speech, but, to be fair, I shall give way to the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans).

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North): The Secretary of State consistently insists that the methodology that he adopts for the fixing of grant is fair. He will be aware that the council tax for a band A property in St. Helens is £652, and that it is £245 for a Band A property in Westminster. Does he ascribe that huge difference to the efficiency of Westminster and to the enormous grants that it received, or does he ascribe it to the inefficiency of St. Helens council? If he ascribes it to the latter, will he get that piece of paper out, stand at the Dispatch Box, and tell me so?

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