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Column 323Until we receive Mr. Bett's report, however, it would obviously be quite wrong for me to speculate about his likely recommendations or to comment on the speculation in the House or by the media.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): The Minister should be assured that this will not be a fatuous snipe. Will the Minister tell us when the Bett report will be published? Will it be available to hon. Members and will the House have an opportunity to debate it, as it deals with important matters?
Mr. Soames: I have never heard anything fatuous from the hon. Gentleman in my life and I totally exclude him from my remarks. The Bett report is not yet with my right hon. and learned Friend. We expect it quite shortly. We will wish to give it the most prudent and careful consideration. Whether it should be debated in the House is plainly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will go to great efforts to ensure that what is in the Bett report is disseminated widely throughout the services and to all those who are interested in it. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's attention to it; if he wishes to come and discuss it when it is published, I should be happy for him to do so.
As well as looking at the time scale of Mr. Bett's review, we are seized of the need for today's pay levels to meet recruiting and retention needs. On 9 February, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was glad to announce that the Government are meeting in full the recommendation on service pay of the Review Body on Armed Forces Pay and the Senior Salaries Review Body.
I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to the claims made in the past few days by the Opposition about the pay of senior members of the armed forces. The figures on which the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has been trying to drum up indignation compare movement in the earnings of the armed forces with rises in average earnings. It is not surprising that the pay of the most senior ranks has risen more and that of the junior ranks has risen less than the increase in average earnings. It is not the same as measuring increases in pay in real terms.
What matters is that the pay of all ranks, except the most junior entrant private, has risen in real terms since 1979. I accept that the most senior officers have seen the highest increases in real terms, but that mirrors the position in the economy at large and they bear great and onerous responsibilities for which they should be properly rewarded.
One of the more idiotic remarks that I have heard recently was from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who inquired whether senior officers received share options. That shows the level of understanding and debate in the Labour party.
I might add that, in its last two reports, the Review Body on Armed Forces Pay has said that its recommendations on pay levels for brigadier and colonel equivalent fall short of broad comparability. To suggest that other ranks are losing out to subsidise the salary of most senior officers is, frankly, ridiculous.
We have always accepted the recommendations of the armed forces review body and the Government are rightly and justifiably proud of their record on armed forces pay. We aim to be fair to the service men and to the taxpayer
Column 324and to recognise that service pay must be sufficient to recruit and retain sufficient people of the very best calibre, including those at the most senior levels.
My hon. Friend has rightly pointed to the demanding range of skills that are increasingly required of our senior people. There is no doubt that restructuring and management reforms within the services have, in some cases, resulted in considerable increases in the responsibilities of many senior officers, but they have--almost without exception--risen magnificently to the tasks that they have had to undertake.
To fill posts at that senior level with people of exceptional calibre, we need in particular to retain our most able men and women. That clearly cannot be done without rewarding them appropriately and fairly. Today, the services are in regular competition with the rest of the marketplace at senior level and, indeed, at every level of expertise and training, not least because they are the best trained work force in the United Kingdom.
Inevitably and sadly, the process of restructuring in the armed forces has involved painful redundancies at all levels. In the longer run, the corporate identity of all three services will be enhanced by measures that have sought to ensure that the armed forces are able to concentrate their efforts and manpower on vital tasks, and on tasks that only they can perform.
As the House knows, that was the thrust of the "Front Line First" exercise: to maximise front-line capability by making prudent, achievable and wholly necessary economies in, for instance, headquarters, infrastructure, administration and stores. However, no one would wish to make light of the upheaval and pain that changes of that nature--and particularly the related redundancies--cause in the short term.
Let me place on record my profound admiration for the way in which both the services and their vital and essential civilian support are coping. I also pay tribute to the work of the resettlement organisation in the armed forces, whose record is outstanding. I propose to say more about its achievements tomorrow.
My hon. Friend mentioned compensation for senior officers who are made redundant--that subject prompted the recent question from the hon. Member for Carlisle about whether they were given share options. We have been reviewing the matter during the past 12 months--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that this is not a point of debate rather than a point of order. It is important to clarify that, as points of order have been abused on the Floor of the House recently. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is thinking of doing that, but it is an important point that he should bear in mind. Does he wish to proceed with his point of order? Is it a point of order for the Chair?
Column 325Mr. Martlew rose --
As I was saying, we have been reviewing compensation during the past 12 months. It is discussed in the recent report of the Senior Salaries Review Body. There are differences in career structures, and thus in retirement policies, among the three services, reflecting differing manpower structures and requirements. In the past, severance compensation for senior Royal Navy and Army officers has been paid only when an officer, having been promoted with the expectation of serving for a particular period, has been compulsorily retired before completing a specified tour. At present, however, we do not envisage paying compensation when the inability to offer an individual further appointments does not arise from structural causes-- when the individual is not truly redundant.
Although my hon. Friend did not allude to it, a great deal has been written recently about the life styles of, and so-called perks for, senior officers. I must make it clear yet again that it is not for the individual's benefit that some official residences are provided for senior commanders; it is to enable them to fulfil their crucial command duties and their responsibilities for representational entertainment.
I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of the review that Sir Peter Cazalet is currently conducting for us; Sir Peter's terms of reference ask him to examine the requirement to entertain, and the means of discharging it. In particular, they ask him to consider whether it could be discharged more effectively than through the use of official service residences and other quarters and, in the light of that, whether any properties can be disposed of. Sir Peter will also make recommendations on how entertainment should be funded and on the levels of assistance that should be provided if the concept of entertaining in officers' own homes is retained. A statement of the Government's reactions will be made as soon as we have given detailed consideration to Sir Peter's report, which is expected later this month.
Column 326In the light of the report, we may well want to change some aspects of the current arrangements in the future. The fact remains, however, that our existing arrangements are intended solely to enable senior officers to fulfil their official responsibilities, which are of great importance to the interests of the country and the dignity of the service that they represent.
I agree with those who point out that, in many instances, the burdens placed on senior officers by the representational and social aspects of their duties are considerable, and often constitute a thoroughly unwelcome intrusion into their lives and the lives of their families. As my answer of 10 February made clear, we are determined--as are the services--that provision should be limited to what is absolutely necessary for the undertaking of those duties. We are taking appropriate steps to improve the control and visibility of expenditure on residences.
We are also anxious to ensure that the assistance given to occupants of official service residences and other married quarters is provided in a cost-effective and sensible way, and is no more than is required to enable officers to carry out their representational and command duties and conduct official hospitality to the standard rightly required by the high responsibilities of their post. My right hon. and learned Friend and I look forward to receiving Sir Peter Cazalet's findings.
My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the distinguished career of Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson, who ceases to be Air Member for Personnel at the end of April. I join my hon. Friend in acknowledging the valuable service that Sir Andrew has given his country and the Royal Air Force, and I agree with the sentiments that he expressed.
My hon. Friend also rightly remarked that we expect a great deal from our serving officers. He should be aware that the United Kingdom is unbelievably lucky to continue to have such truly remarkable people at the most senior level in all the services. By achieving high rank, they will have had to demonstrate the highest levels of reliability, self-discipline, self-reliance, loyalty, leadership, integrity, decisiveness and self- motivation, which mark them--and all other service men and women--and set them apart from any other organisation in the land. They are of a quality not to be found anywhere else, and they deserve our thanks and respect.
Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am delighted that the Minister for Transport in London is to reply. I hold the Government responsible for the care and maintenance of the Forth rail bridge, and I am pleased that a United Kingdom Minister is present.
I have written to the Scottish Office, to no avail. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has been more successful, however. He received a letter, dated 2 February, from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas- Hamilton), the third paragraph of which states:
"As agreed, officials have also sought the views of Railtrack and ScotRail. You also wished the views of the Bridgemaster to be sought. As you will appreciate, the Bridgemaster is an employee of British Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd, who are contractors to Railtrack for the day to day management of the Bridge and for carrying out the maintenance programme. It is Railtrack who determine the maintenance strategy for the Bridge and have overall responsibility for it." I do not want the Government to hide behind any organisation, whether it be Railtrack or British Rail. I hold the Government responsible for the maintenance and safety of the bridge and its funding.
Everyone knows that the Forth bridge is an engineering wonder of the world and a tourist must for people visiting Scotland. In Scotland, we consider that it belongs to the people and not to the persons who are its caretakers. Funding must be found, but that funding should not be for an industrial museum. That is not the intention of my speech. I want the Forth bridge to be an integral part and working model of communications between Fife, Lothian and the rest of Scotland.
We hope that rail commuting and freight levels will be increased on that route and that the proposal for a second road bridge which has been mooted by the Government will be put aside. One of the problems with the second road bridge is the fact that the problem of the bottlenecks will not be solved. One will get over the water more quickly, but one will hit a bottleneck more quickly as well, especially in and around the city of Edinburgh. If the Government wish to build a bridge, they should consider the Kincardine area. The bridge there has too much traffic. The savings from dropping the proposal for the alternative bridge could go into maintaining the Forth bridge properly.
I have visited the Forth bridge as a guest both of Railtrack and of ScotRail. I have sailed below it with my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe). We have examined it in detail and it is in a deplorable condition. Again because of the good offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow, I have a letter dated 14 February from the Health and Safety Executive. It spells out in the third paragraph:
"In effect the situation is that the Railway Authorities have been moving since the early 1980s from a short term cycle of repainting to a long term cycle. The short term cycle involved manual abrasion of the structure followed by 2 coats. The long term cycle is involving shotblasting which is a lengthier process requiring more robust access equipment--including scaffolding to give a firmer base for this heavy work. Five coats of paint giving a 25 year life is being applied."
That is absolutely fantastic. We saw the effect of that work. We have no criticism of that. The organisation is
Column 328tackling the trellis work, but when asked how long it would take to do the that work, it said that it would take 10 years.
In the meantime, what do we do with the bridge? Does the rest of it deteriorate? I submit as visual evidence an article in the Independent on Sunday , which was published on 23 October 1994. It contains pictures of the bridge. It shows a rusting hulk. It is a not a ship that has been tied up in Lerwick or a Bulgarian klondyker that has been ignored and that has not had funding. It is a part of the bridge. Anyone who looks at the picture can see actual rusting of the structure, and that it is in a deplorable state. That is a scandal for such a bridge.
If hon. Members think that I am exaggerating, let me tell them that I have a letter from a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), Mr. L. Mackenzie. I shall not read the letter--it contains far too much detail for that--but I would be happy to submit it to the Minister at the end of the debate. On a fishing expedition near to and below the bridge, Mr. Mackenzie saw a girder and rivets fall off into the water. He was so worried that he put on his helmet, which he used when riding his motor cycle. Since 1993, Mr. Mackenzie has tried to talk to the people who are in charge of the bridge. He has listed in detail all the people whom he has contacted. He reckons that, at a conservative estimate, he spent up to £200 on telephone calls. He has had the runaround. I submit that as an example of an ordinary member of the public who is worried about the state of the bridge, and who is getting nowhere because the authorities are dodging the issue.
The repair and maintenance of the bridge is too little, too late. What is being done is admirable. A first-class job is being undertaken, but a massive area needs to be covered. A structural, financial and, yes, independent inquiry into the bridge is needed, with action from the Government and funding of it.
I am aware that the Treasury has put the dead hand on many activities of the Government and of people connected with Government spending. Short- termism seems to be the policy of the Government. That will not be tolerated by the people of the United Kingdom. I re-emphasise that I hope that the Minister will not hide behind, and, in some way, hand over total responsibility to, Railtrack. If Railtrack continues with its current expenditure, the rest of the bridge will fall to bits. Why put a new engine in an old car if the old car falls to bits? It is admirable to put in something new to bring part of the bridge to a high standard, but if the rest of the bridge falls to bits, it is no use.
I give a warning that I will hold the Government solely responsible if any accident or something else happens to anyone in and around that bridge because of the lack of maintenance and care. I do not think that I am making this statement on my own. The people of Scotland, the people of the UK and many people worldwide genuinely care about the structure. I emphasise that I do not want it to be turned into an industrial museum. That structure is part and parcel of the lifeblood and communications of this country and of the region that I represent.
Column 329and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), I have visited the Forth bridge. One may wonder why a west coast Member of Parliament involves himself in this situation, but, as the Minister will know, I am a member of the Select Committee on Transport and I believe that it is important to focus attention on the shortcomings of Railtrack.
For a number of years, I have been concerned about the bridge's structure. I have made four visits to it to examine it in more detail with some other people. Major implications are involved in the continuing lack of any form of maintenance. Many aspects of the structure require examination.
There are implications for the tourist trade in Scotland, given that the bridge attracts a fair proportion of the tourist trade to and around the South Queensferry area. That is important. The bridge is a landmark of some distinction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian suggested, it is viewed as the Scottish wonder of the world.
The state of the bridge is, obviously, of most concern. I have some experience of steel work. Having worked in a shipyard as a steel worker, and in ICI as an engineer, I have some understanding of how structures start to erode. It was clear from the visit that we made, especially during the boat trip beneath the bridge, that corrosion was at an extreme stage. There is absolutely no evidence of paint on the part of the structure nearest the River Forth. Bulging steel and warped steel plates are visible. In some areas, there is a void of any structure.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian said, the Health and Safety Executive report looks only to the short term. We want to ensure that the bridge is able to perform its function over a long period. In no circumstances would I accept that such an important issue should be left entirely to Railtrack. The current examination of the financing of the railway industry shows that ScotRail has given Railtrack £170 million. The Minister might care to ask Railtrack how that money is spent.
I, too, would back an independent inquiry. Indeed, nothing less would satisfy the Opposition--nor should anything less satisfy the Minister, if he has any understanding of the problems. I know of two reputable companies that have vast experience of painting and repairing steel work that is similar in nature to the Forth bridge. There must be other companies that could also be contacted to give evidence to any inquiry. My hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian and for Linlithgow would be the key to any inquiry.
The Minister is a fairly reasonable person. In the past, he has helped me with the affairs of the Transport Select Committee, and I am grateful to him. We need a commitment from him today that not only will he consider the matter more seriously than the Scottish Office, Railtrack and, over the years, British Rail have done, but that he will agree to set up an independent inquiry. I want my name to be added to the campaign.
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) on securing this debate. Recently, there has been a great deal of publicity about the Forth bridge, much of which I believe has been exaggerated. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Cunninghame,
Column 330South (Mr. Donohoe) in his place. I value his contribution to the debate. I envy him and his hon. Friends their sailing expeditions, which sound quite delightful. Personally, I do not have the time for that sort of diversion-- [Hon. Members:-- "Why?"] There are those who have speculated about why--[ Laughter. ] I repeat, the sailing trips sound as though they are the most delightful occasions.
I acknowledge the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). I am aware that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has had some interest in this matter, and he has recently asked an oral question about it.
The concern about the publicity generated about the Forth bridge has been worrying on two counts. First, it has been worrying for the great many people who are admirers of the bridge as a structure of architectural interest and believe it to be a national monument. Secondly, there are those who claim that it is being run down as part of a hidden agenda to cut train services in Scotland. I hope to be able to reassure the House that the latter proposition is certainly not the case. I hope to put minds at rest about the structure. Sir William Arrol's bridge has been a dominant feature over the Forth estuary for 105 years. However, it is not just a Victorian bridge of historical and architectural interest, or a structure that is aesthetically pleasing. Like any river or estuary crossing, it is primarily a working transport link, currently carrying more than 200 trains a day over the estuary.
For many years, the bridge was maintained by British Rail, until Railtrack assumed responsibility for it when it was established as a Government-owned company in April 1994. Railtrack has since received some adverse publicity about an alleged lack of maintenance and safety concerns about the structure. I assure the House that those fears are unfounded. Safety concerns are taken extremely seriously by Railtrack. The Forth bridge has been assessed by a wide range of engineering experts, including the independent Health and Safety Executive, all of whom declared themselves satisfied with the structural integrity of the bridge.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): There have been two letters from Mr. John Rimington. Who were the advisers to the Health and Safety Executive? Did they have qualifications in marine environment engineering, or were their qualifications limited to the normal work of Railtrack at Derby?
Mr. Norris: I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question now, but I shall endeavour to do so in due course. I know him well and I have great respect for his experience and for his approach to these problems. I do not believe that either he or I would wish to question the integrity of the Health and Safety Executive. I am sure that that is not in question on either side of the House. Indeed, if I wished to strike a slightly discordant note, I would say that there have been many occasions when evidence from the HSE has been quoted by the Opposition against Ministers, precisely on the basis that such advice was independent and therefore could be relied on.
On the question whether the HSE was suitably qualified to carry out the work, I shall endeavour to find an answer to that, but I would be very surprised were there to be any foundation to an allegation that the HSE was not competent.
Column 331I want to reiterate that the Forth bridge was assessed by a wide range of engineering experts, including the HSE-- which is an independent body--all of whom declared themselves satisfied with the structural integrity of the bridge.
Mr. Donohoe rose --
Mr. Norris: I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's request to the attention of the HSE. It is the HSE's report and, if it so wishes, I would be content for the report to be released. However, the Opposition are straying into unusual territory in questioning the integrity of the HSE. They have frequently used that body as a stick with which to beat the Government. I have no complaints about that in general. However, I do not believe that a case is very strong if it relies on a criticism or implied criticism of the work of the HSE. Therefore, I do not believe that the recent call for yet another independent engineers inquiry is valid.
Railtrack, using HSE-approved access arrangements, regularly inspects the more remote areas of the bridge more thoroughly than ever before. It is able to ensure, therefore, that attention can be concentrated on the areas of highest priority. I know that many people view the Forth bridge as a monument of national importance. The hon. Member for Midlothian rightly said that that was not the way in which he regarded it, and I am grateful to him for saying so, because that is a sensible position to adopt.
However, it is important to recognise that Railtrack's object is to maintain the structure as a working railway bridge, a vital transport artery, and it does not claim--nor indeed does it have a remit--to maintain the bridge as a gleaming national monument or a tourist attraction. Its priority is to maintain the bridge as economically as possible without compromising safety.
Railtrack's present maintenance and painting programme, approved by the Health and Safety Executive, is fully--I emphasise, fully--adequate to protect the structural integrity of the bridge. Railtrack is identifying and prioritising the painting of those areas that are of structural importance, rather than adopting a "quick fix" solution to appease critics which would be only temporary and not in the bridge's long-term interest.
Railtrack's maintenance programme is currently contracted to British Rail Infrastructure Services, which relies on expert metallurgical advice from British Rail Scientific Services in Derby. In the light of that advice, the old painting processes, which involved wire brush cleaning of the metal followed by two coats of paint, have been changed to a more modern technique, which involves shot-blasting the metal and applying five coats of paint. Although it is true that shot-blasting can be used only on a small area of the bridge at a time, the results of that technique together with the new painting method are expected to last between 20 and 25 years, rather than the four to five years' life expectancy of the old method. What is more, the painters, who are meeting Health and Safety Executive requirements in their painting activity, can now gain access to the more inaccessible parts of the bridge, so generally improving the overall maintenance standards.
Column 332I tell the House, with some sense of personal disappointment, that the popular opinion that British Rail used continuous end-to-end painting methods on the Forth bridge is, sadly, a myth. Key areas of the bridge have always been prioritised for painting, while other non-essential areas have often been left for many years.
The House will also recognise that safety standards are becoming continuously more stringent, and in the past 20 years far more demanding standards have been applied by the Health and Safety Executive--on, for example, specialist scaffolding--than previously. Painting methods have been altered accordingly. We no longer allow the painters to dangle from rope above the structure as they carry out their painting work.
I can assure the House, importantly, that the metalwork of the bridge is, contrary to current scaremongering, in good condition. I will ensure that any allegations made by the hon. Member for Midlothian, or by constituents of his to whom he referred in his speech, are fully investigated, and I shall let him know the results of that investigation.
The metal is not, as some have claimed, devoid of all protective coatings in some parts of the bridge. The elements of tubular sections which appear to be most affected by flaking paint are covered by an undercoat of carboniferous material and black iron oxide, which continues to protect the metal. Surface corrosion on those elements has little significant impact on the structural integrity of the bridge.
Railtrack is concentrating on cleaning and repainting eight lattice tie- members. Those parts of the structure are very important to the integrity of the bridge, but it is difficult for one to see from a distance that they have been repainted. This year, Railtrack will also turn its attention to some of the central cantilever sections of the bridge.
British Rail Infrastructure Services also carries out routine maintenance. It removes the debris--dead birds, litter and so on--from the crevices of the bridge. In spite of recent criticism, there has been no change in that procedure under Railtrack's management. I know that there has been some--
Mr. Eric Clarke: I am not questioning whether the maintenance is going on; I am questioning the lack of maintenance in other parts of the bridge. The maintenance that is taking place is first-class, but it is insufficient. An admission was made about timing, and I have witnesses--my hon. Friends who were with us when the question was asked. That is the question that I want the Minister to concentrate on--how long will it last?
Mr. Norris: I say to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, that I fear that the conclusion that he has drawn is not the conclusion drawn by the Health and Safety Executive in respect of the structure or the conclusion drawn by Railtrack. Railtrack has never disguised the fact that it does not see itself as having a remit to produce a gleaming national monument. I agree, as does Railtrack, that one could, in essence, spend many more millions of pounds on improving the appearance of the structure, but Railtrack has maintained throughout that its real responsibility is to maintain a vital transport artery.
Column 333Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) rose - -
Mr. Norris: The hon. Gentleman knows that the structure is a working structure and part of the railway system. Railtrack maintains it in accordance with its responsibility to ensure the safe operation of the railways. If there are proposals to add to the work that is being done, and which the hon. Member for Midlothian says is excellent work, I have no doubt that my hon. Friends in the Scottish Office would be perfectly happy to discuss such arrangements, but I am saying that the structure must be retained as a safe structure. Apart from the habitual maintenance functions that I have mentioned, which mean that Railtrack incurs regular maintenance
costs--incidentally, spending no less on maintenance than was spent on it per annum by British Rail--a £4 million programme to replace the weighbeams and to renew the rails has been carried out. It was completed in July 1994 and it has meant that the speed of a train crossing the bridge is now 50 mph rather than the 20 mph restriction imposed in the early 1990s because of worn and splitting tracks. No one, as far as I am aware, denies that that is a vast improvement. It emphasises and demonstrates Railtrack's commitment to the bridge's future.
In spite of all that I have said about maintenance and safety aspects of the Forth bridge, and in answer specifically to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), may I say that Railtrack willingly accepts that, from a cosmetic point of view, the bridge could look better. Railtrack has, as I said, explained that it would cost tens of millions of pounds to paint it to the high cosmetic standards that some critics demand. I repeat that Railtrack is not in the business of maintaining a tourist attraction. Even if there were limitless funds, there is a physical limit to the area of the bridge that could be painted at any one time using current painting methods and complying with the Health and Safety Executive's important requirements.
I appreciate that many people, including many hon. Members, regard the bridge as a national monument, and no one denies that it is a great feat of Victorian engineering, but it is not in any sense threatened. I have
Column 334no reason, and I do not believe that there is any good reason, to doubt Railtrack's evidence that the bridge is structurally sound.
Mr. Dalyell: When did the Health and Safety Executive last conduct its in-depth technical consideration of the problem? In what year did the Health and Safety Executive do that? I understand from Mr. Rimington's letter that it was 1989.
Mr. Norris: I shall advise the hon. Gentleman as soon as I can on whether there is a later date. It would be necessary to ascertain precisely what inspections had taken place, and I would not want to mislead the House or the hon. Gentleman. I understand his argument. However, I emphasise the facts that I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House need to know. Although many millions of pounds could be spent on cosmetic improvements to the bridge, the independent Health and Safety Executive has no doubt that the structure is sound, that it has been maintained at the same cost at which it was previously maintained by British Rail, that there are no structural defects, that reports of flakings or large pieces falling off are--as far as we are aware--as yet unsubstantiated, and that the bridge remains a vital part of our transport network and in an absolutely safe condition for that purpose. I do not believe that it is reasonable to expect Railtrack to paint the bridge simply for cosmetic purposes. It goes beyond its remit and resources. I hope that what I have said has reassured the House that the bridge is being maintained and that it is a safe operational structure. I have no reason to doubt Railtrack's assurances that all the necessary steps are being taken to maintain the bridge in a sound condition. Railtrack has made clear its commitment to the Forth bridge and I am happy that we can look forward to another century of trains crossing it.
Mr. Dalyell: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), the constituency Member of Parliament for the area, I am dismayed at the Minister's answer. We are talking about the greatest engineering structure of the 19th century. Baedeker of 1906 gave half a page to Salisbury cathedral and two pages to the Forth bridge. It is a great monument and it is not being treated as such. All this business of cosmetic --
It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to Order [19 December].
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Northern Ireland. Almost every day there brings new evidence of the benefits of peace. The conditions taken for granted elsewhere in the United Kingdom are gradually returning. But a return to normal life in Northern Ireland requires much more than just a paramilitary ceasefire, important though that step is. It requires a permanent end to violence; and it requires a balanced political settlement under which all parts of the community can live alongside each other without fear or antagonism.
That is the purpose of the talks process, started in 1991. We need to seek new arrangements for the internal government of Northern Ireland, for the relationship between north and south, and for the relationship between the two Governments.
The British Government have discussed these matters at length with the Northern Ireland political parties and with the Irish Government. I should like to pay tribute to the role played by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and my hon. Friend the Minister of State. Today we have published proposals in two framework documents, copies of which have been placed in the Library.
Let me make it clear from the outset that nothing in these documents will be imposed. The aim is to assist discussion and negotiation with the parties in Northern Ireland. It is not an immutable blueprint.
I urge all hon. Members and people across Northern Ireland to read and study the documents carefully. The proposals in them have been the subject of a number of leaks and misrepresentations, which have resurrected old fears. When people study and consider the documents, I believe that they will come to see that those fears are unfounded. They will see that these proposals are based throughout on the principle of consent. It is made absolutely clear that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom for so long as that is the expressed wish of the people of Northern Ireland.
I am a Unionist who wants peace for all the people of the Union. I cherish Northern Ireland's role within the Union. I have no intention whatsoever of letting that role change, unless it is the democratic wish of the people of Northern Ireland to do so.
I turn to the documents published today. I begin with strand 1, which sets out the Government's ideas for restoring local democracy in Northern Ireland as part of a full political settlement. That paper has been prepared after consultation and talks with the main political parties in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government played no part in its formulation.
The circumstances in Northern Ireland are widely recognised to be unique in the United Kingdom. There are two traditions with very different political aspirations. What is needed is a structure of government that combines democratic legitimacy with a system of checks and balances. That calls for mechanisms different from those appropriate in the rest of the United Kingdom.