§ Motion made, and Question proposed,
§ That this House, at its rising on Thursday 28 March, do adjourn until Monday 15 April and, at its rising on Friday 3 May, do adjourn until Tuesday 7 May.—[Mr. Kirkhope]5.12 pm
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
This afternoon, we have heard about some grave matters. It will be difficult to bring the House back to other issues, but the Adjournment debate exists for hon. Members to raise issues that they think should be considered by the House before it rises for Easter. I support the motion with enthusiasm, as I suspect the majority of hon. Members do. I hope that the House will forgive me if I now move to other issues and especially to one which is of great importance to my constituency. It is an issue that I have never had an opportunity to raise before and one that I regret having to raise now.
I wish to discuss the attitude of the Eastern Arts regional association, which is funded by the Arts Council with money provided by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts but has used that money in a way that has caused deep distress in my part of Essex. In the past few days, it has withdrawn the grant from the Palace theatre in my constituency, which is now at grave risk of having to close. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House may know the work of Eastern Arts as well as I do. Perhaps he has been more fortunate than I in his dealings with it. I hope that he has. Paradoxically, when I was Minister for the Arts, I was fond of regional arts associations and did my best to promote them. I am not sure in retrospect whether that was a good idea.
The theatre in my constituency has been in receipt of subsidy from the Arts Council for many years. Recently, it has been jointly funded by the Arts Council and the regional arts association. Until devolution two or three years ago, it received funding from both but now it is funded only by Eastern Arts and Southend council. Eastern Arts provided about £100,000 for a couple of years and then reduced the grant to £93,000. A few weeks ago, it announced that it was cutting the grant completely, apart from one payment of £50,000 as a sort of farewell.
There have been disputes between Eastern Arts and the theatre, but as there are only two subsidised repertory theatres in Essex, the decision to take the extreme step of closing one down is absolutely extraordinary. The result of the withdrawal of the grant is that the theatre is in grave danger of closing. It receives generous support from Southend council, and Essex council is now making a modest grant for the first time and is alarmed about what is happening. The theatre has had to place a surcharge of 50p on seat prices. I hope that it will survive. If it does, it will be no thanks to public money.
The debate raging in Essex is about the quality of the performances, which was the excuse given for the withdrawal of the grant. I have examined the repertory of the only other subsidised theatre in Essex—the Mercury theatre in Colchester. There is very little difference between the repertories. Quality is a matter of opinion. I do not see all the productions, but the last one I saw was very good.
The House will be interested to know that attendance at the theatre has gone up in the past 12 months from 55 per cent. to 67 per cent. Very few theatres could achieve such a record at a time when theatre as a whole is going through 1128 a difficult patch. I think that the Palace theatre deserves congratulations. Its deficit has also been slowly reduced. Again, I suspect that many theatres have deficits that are increasing, so I believe that the theatre is well run and well managed.
It is very sad that the theatre's grant has been withdrawn. It is especially perverse as it was withdrawn in the same week that the theatre began a new scheme to benefit the blind. I quote from a letter written to me by a blind constituent:only last Wednesday…I helped to launch the Audio Description Facility for blind people in the theatre. I am totally blind, aged 50, and for the first time in my life I had the opportunity to listen to the thrilling…play…and feel on an equal footing with the fully sighted people present…it is the first theatre in the U.K. to be totally accessible for all disabled people. It has level entrances, a ground floor toilet for disabled people, it has signed performances for the deaf and now it has this new facility for the blind and partially sighted. With ten per cent. of the population being disabled, and with very few opportunities for entertainment if this theatre has to close because of lack of funding, it would he a disaster for the people of Essex. I would urge you to find out why the money you give to the Eastern Arts Council is not reaching the Palace Theatre.My constituents, those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) who support me will be deprived. I hope that I shall also receive the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) whose constituents will be luckier than mine. My constituents will be deprived of live theatre if the Palace theatre is forced to close, although it will make every effort to stay open. The theatre has enormous support in the town, and hundreds of letters have poured in. Incidentally, the theatre is beautiful and has recently been done up.
It is ironic that the theatre is under threat because of the actions of a Government-funded body. I understand the arm's-length principle, I have often argued for it and I strongly believe in it. I welcome the efforts of Essex county council to examine the matter to see what can be done. I do not ask the Minister for the Arts to intervene directly. He does not have the power to fund the theatre and I understand that because I have been in such a situation before. However, I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ask our right hon. Friend, who has been helpful, whether he can knock heads together. I urge that in the interests of the thousands of people in south Essex who go to the theatre, who like it very much and who will otherwise be deprived of it. The purpose of public money for the arts cannot be to deprive people of existing arts organisations except in exceptional circumstances.
There may be things that should be changed, and there may be faults on both sides. However, I am speaking moderately today. I could say far stronger things about Eastern Arts than I felt that I should today. I ask my right hon. Friend, before we rise for the Easter Adjournment, to turn his attention to the matter. It may be a narrow matter, but in south—east Essex it is deeply felt. It is ironic that an agency which has money from the Government, and which lobbies Members of Parliament in East Anglia for more money, is engaged in the destruction of an extremely popular theatre. I hope that the House will feel that I have not wasted its time by raising the matter briefly. It is a constituency matter of the highest importance and I hope that something can be done to save the theatre before all is over.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
An issue that has been of deep concern to me should be the subject of a statement, and perhaps even a debate, before the House goes into recess. This afternoon, we have listened to an extremely important statement about six people who tragically served sentences that they should not have served. I want to put the reverse situation before the House, as I have stumbled across a remarkable saga in which many people who should be serving sentences are not doing so and in which the Home Office is apparently conspiring—I hate to use that word—to keep that information from the House of Commons, as I hope to demonstrate. The matter is even worse than it sounds, because many of the people concerned are convicted drug pedlars or drug offenders who have left prison after serving only a fraction of the sentence. They have literally walked out of open prisons.
In his role as protector of Members' interests, the Leader of the House will recognise my frustration as a Back Bencher that, for three months, I have had to battle with blocking answers from the Home Office as I tried to obtain the information that I wanted to put to colleagues today. It has been a clear example of a determined effort by the Executive to deny the House the information to which it is entitled.
In those three months, as a result of a series of questions, I have managed to establish that, in the past two and a half years—information is not available for earlier than that—more than 2,000 convicted criminals have escaped from open prisons. However, the Home Office will not tell us how many have been recaptured or how many are drug offenders. I have faced a series of blocking answers. That silly situation, which has developed a new dimension because of the difficulties created by the Home Office, could have been avoided if the Home Office had been open with the House at the beginning.
At the beginning of December, I tabled a question based on a casual piece of information that I had received and which sounded incredible to me—that drug offenders were walking out of open prisons. I tabled a question to the Home Secretary asking how many drug offenders had escaped from open prisons in the previous three years and how many had been recaptured. To my surprise, I received a clear blocking answer from the Department, saying that it would be too expensive to provide that information. The House could not be told how many had escaped or how many had been recaptured.
I then went to the Table Office. I want to emphasise that the Table Office has been helpful, but it has to work within the rules that the House lays down. Nothing that I say here is intended as a criticism of the Table Office. Indeed, I have been able to make my present progress only because of the kindness of the officials who work there.
I had to find a way round the blocking answer. The block was that the question was too expensive, so I broke it down into nine component parts. For each year, I asked how many had escaped, how many had been recaptured and how many were drug offenders. I was told that the Home Office could not tell me the figures for 1987 or for the first half of 1988. However, the Department told me that 311 had escaped in the second half of 1988 and that 682 had escaped in 1989. It would—lo and behold—be too expensive to tell me how many had been recaptured and how many were drug offenders. With the support of many 1130 colleagues, I tabled a motion asking whether the Home Office did not bother to count the number that came back in. I asked whether it was possible that the Home Office was trying to hide something.
On one of the occasions when fortune smiles on lonely Back Benchers, a piece of paper fluttered into my hand. It was headed "Heathrow Cases". I do not know about cases at Gatwick, at Dover, at Folkestone, at Birmingham airport or at Manchester. The piece of paper referred to cases at Heathrow and was a list of 26 mainly non-British-sounding names. Delighted, I went to the Table Office and said that I wanted to table a question asking the Home Secretary about the 26 prisoners and what had happened to them. I was told, "You cannot table a question about 26 individuals. That is running a campaign through the Order Paper. You can put down only small groups of them and you can put another group down when you have had answers to the first group." Week by week, I have tabled questions about four or six individuals at a time.
I eventually elicited from a reluctant Home Office the information that all 26, 25 of whom were women, were convicted drug offenders and that all 26 had escaped from open prisons. Only two had found their way back again. It took a series of questions to obtain that information, and in the meantime, we had moved into 1991, so I was able to ask how many had escaped last year. I found that the figure of 682 for 1989, which had horrified me, was an achievement by the Home Office. The figure had hit a low. Last year, more than 1,100 escaped from the Home Office —[Laughter.]Literally: that is the point. The police capture them and the Home Office mislays them. I do not need to tell hon. Members that it would be too expensive to tell me how many of those 1,100 were recaptured and how many were drug offenders.
As an intrepid Back Bencher, I decided that other ways must be open to me. I had the information about the 26, but another 2,000 were still missing from the past two and a half years. Even if a wedge of paper with the 2,000 names descended from on high—and I was lucky enough for it to miss me and to pick it up—and even if I then tried to pursue the Home Office about the other 2,000 people missing, it would take me five parliamentary years on the procedures available to us to obtain the answers. There would be a backlog problem. In that same five years, another 5,500 would have escaped.
I am the parliamentary equivalent of the man who paints the Forth bridge. As I am a Welshman, perhaps my reference should be to the Severn bridge. Stretching ahead of me is a career that will involve chasing all these people that the Home Office apparently does not chase—or if it does chase them, it does not find them—or if it finds them, it does not know how many it has found.
§ Mr. Conal Gregory (York)
I am following the right hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest. The most recent estimate of the cost of answering a parliamentary question is £54. Has the hon. Gentleman done a calculation on the basis of that figure? How much is it costing the Government to answer all these questions? Would not rather more forthright answers be easier?
§ Mr. Williams
In view of what I am about to say, the hon. Gentleman's point is most apposite.
Eventually, I found the secret. I decided to try yet another tack. There are 13 open prisons—three for 1131 women, and 10 for men. I went to the Table Office, and the people there were not pleased when I said that, over a period of three years, I would table nine questions about each of the 13 prisons. The total number of questions would be 117. I let the Department know that I was thinking of tabling 117 questions—all because it would not answer one question on 4 December. I am sure that the Leader of the House will be pleased to know that I have gone up-market.
When I threatened to put down 117 questions, I was told that I could not do so. It was suggested to me that I might try tabling questions about one of the prisons first of all. I did indeed put down nine questions about one prison—Drake Hall. If the Home Office is forthcoming in respect of those questions, I may be able to table the remainder of the 117 about other prisons from which people have been going walkabout.
Perhaps Departments, in answering questions, must keep within their cost ceiling. My going up-market must have created alarm in the Home Office. No longer am I being answered by the Minister of State—a Minister against whom I have no complaint as an individual. Today I have gone all the way to the top—the Secretary of State himself has actually called the case in and given me the answers.
It is absurd, ridiculous, that a Member of Parliament should have to go through such a process. Had I not been given that list, I might never have received the information that I have put before the House today. The whole matter would probably have died in December, because of the blocking answers given by the Home Office. It is appalling that, police officers and customs officers having worked industriously to capture drug pedlars and abusers, and our courts having, at high cost, tried and sentenced them, the Home Office should mislay them. I asked how long 10 of these people had served. The sentences ranged from three years to eight years, but none of the prisoners deigned to remain guests of Her Majesty for more than 16 months. Some of them served only 10 months before going walkabout.
Would not it have been far better if the Department had provided the information in a sensible way? If it were only half as assiduous in looking after its prisoners as it is in coveting and cosseting its information, I should not be making this speech today. I submit that this matter, while I have treated it in a relatively light-hearted way, is serious. It is indeed serious that 2,000 people should disappear from open prisons. It is not a matter to be treated lightly that drug pedlars, having served minute fractions of their sentences, should disappear. The House is entitled to information. The Minister should make a statement and allow us to ask some questions.
§ Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). The fact that his questions are not always answered—and I hope that that does not happen too often—gives him the excuse to make, and the rest of us the chance to listen to, a most amusing, worthy and very relevant speech. It is perfectly proper that this matter should be raised on the Adjournment.
I hope that the subject that I want to raise, which is very different, is also appropriate for the Adjournment. I do not think that we should go away for our Easter recess until we 1132 have had a statement from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the hostages in the Lebanon. I hope that my right hon. Friend has heard from the Foreign Office about my intention to raise the matter. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary, and provided my right hon. Friend with a copy of the letter. I do not want to criticise; I simply seek information. I should like to be given an indication of continuing intent on the part of the Government to do all they can for those in captivity.
I speak not just as a Back-Bench Member of this House but also as co-chairman of the all-party freedom for the hostages group. The other co-chairmen are the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who represents the Labour party, and the right hon. Member for Tweedale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), who represents the Liberal Democrats. As I go through the full styles and titles of those two gentlemen, it strikes me that our Scottish colleagues might consider making their constituency names somewhat easier.
The names of the hostages are very familiar. On 17 April, John McCarthy will have been in captivity for five years, and will be beginning his sixth year. Terry Waite was taken in January 1987, so he is in his fifth year of captivity. Jackie Mann is fast approaching three years in captivity. I do not want to be emotional about these things. Suffice it to say that many hon. Members may, like me, have listened, in whole or in part, to the very moving press conference given in Dublin castle by Brian Keenan after his release. I do not think that anyone could have listened to Brian Keenan without feeling sympathy for the appalling conditions that these people are no doubt suffering. Indeed, "captivity" is a very polite term in these circumstances. To be a little light-hearted about the matter, I might say that I only wish that we had an opportunity to put down parliamentary questions about these people going walkabout. May they be able to do so fairly soon.
Another person in captivity, although not a hostage in the Lebanon, is Roger Cooper. As a result of a closely related matter—closely related, in that Iran has power to contribute towards a solution—he has been locked up in Avin prison in Teheran for more than five years. There has been no proper trial, and when, from time to time, his release has appeared imminent, our relations with Iran have deteriorated, and he has not been released. I mention this person specifically because I hope that Iran will make the first gesture towards the normalisation of relations by releasing him. The fact that he is entirely under their control puts him in a category different from that of the hostages in the Lebanon.
I am not suggesting in any way that my right hon. Friend should do any deals—open, covert, shabby, or otherwise. That has never been the policy of Her Majesty's Government—and quite right, too. Nevertheless, we very much welcome the practical opportunities that now exist, with the overdue restoration of diplomatic relations with Syria and with Iran. Our relations with Iran are crucial to the release of Roger Cooper.
The case of Mr. Kokabi is now over. That gentleman was released yesterday, the prosecution having offered no further evidence against him. He was an alleged conspirator in arson attacks on book shops in the aftermath of the Salman Rushdie affair. That gave rise to difficulty with the radical elements in Iran. Mr. Kokabi will be deported, and I hope that the Iranians will see fit to release Roger Cooper.
1133 This is not an occasion for a speech on foreign policy, but we have to bear in mind the fact that, if we want people's help, it is counter-productive to be critical of them. There are serious difficulties in Iran because of radical elements there. The Government there are trying to help, and it is up to our Government to recognise that and, in pressing them, to realise also that they are a formidible potential ally of the West in that region.
I have dealt with the restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran, and parliamentary contacts with Iran provide another avenue. The British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union is trying to set up an exchange of delegations with Iran and its Parliament, the Majlis. That can but be helpful. The advantage of that is that a delegation goes out to Tehran not just in order to talk about hostages, but to discuss a range of bilateral relations between the two countries to which parliamentarians can often contribute in a way that Governments cannot.
There are also governmental contacts. I hope that ambassadorial relations can be restored as soon as possible. They are at chargé d'affaires level at the moment. Finally, commercial contacts should be increasing more than they have been. It is no accident that Germany and Japan have been evident in Iran throughout its difficulties and are now reaping the benefit.
I do not forget the gradually improving situation in the Lebanon and our relations with Syria. Syria is now back in the dialogue with the west and more generally. The Secretary of State was there only yesterday. All those countries can help.
I should like some assurance from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that the four people whom I have mentioned will not be forgotten and, more importantly, that every possible effort will be made to secure their release.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
I wholly concur with the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), as I am sure will all hon. Members. A few weeks ago, during a gala occasion at the Fishmongers hall, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf awarded its first communicator of the year award. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's speech, it is particularly appropriate to tell the House that it was awarded to Jill Morrell, who has been the leader of the Friends of John McCarthy group and ceaseless in trying to secure his release and the release of other hostages.
That enables me to move on to the matter about which I wish to speak. Cases which have been brought to my attention and my own activity demonstrate that the needs of deaf people in further and higher education are not being adequately and urgently addressed. Many people are losing out because they do not have adequate provision.
As somebody who has worked with organisations for the deaf for the past few years, I predict that the House will see growing militancy by deaf people in pursuit of their rights to the same education and training opportunities as hearing people.
I have introduced, but not secured time for, a Bill which was published last week and which has all-party support entitled Deaf Persons (Access to Further and Higher Education and Training) Bill. It is very much modelled on 1134 the practical legislation that exists in the United States. When that legislation was introduced in 1975 in the United States, it led to a tenfold increase in the number of courses for deaf people and the number of deaf people pursuing further and higher education within the United States. Matters are improving in the United Kingdom, but we are way behind that level of participation.
It is difficult to obtain figures showing how many deaf people are participating and how many are being shut out. A survey carried out by the RNID suggested that there are only about 20 deaf people in each academic year in further and higher education in the United Kingdom. That represents about one fifth of what might reasonably be expected given their profile within the population. It is worth saying that those statistics hide and disguise a great deal of personal frustration and misery of which I have evidence. Some students who secure entry to colleges or universities are forced to drop out through lack of adequate support, and many others—we do not know how many—are deterred from even trying, and are forced to settle for training and subsequent employment well below their capabilities.
I freely admit to a little plagiarism from a lecture delivered at the end of last year by the professor of education at Reading university, Professor Brian Palmer, who is active in trying to promote the interests of higher education for the deaf. Unusually, I shall follow his example and ask hon. Members who do not know what it is like to be deaf to watch my lips while I mouth words without using my voice. I then said, "This is unfair because it is difficult to lip-read at a distance. But deaf people watching an interpreter would know what was being said because they would see what was being signed." That demonstrates the frustration that deaf people will have in trying to participate in full-time education, as intelligent as any hon. Member but unable to do so because they do not have the support and assistance that they need.
Only a limited number of institutions in Britain provide for the deaf. I have already mentioned Reading university; Durham university is another. Lancashire and Sheffield polytechnics, Derbyshire college of higher education, the Open university and Doncaster technical college also make such provision. But, across the board, provision remains abysmal.
My Bill proposed the establishment of an education and training council for deaf people which could produce statistics which are not available and co-ordinate the development of provision. It would also give deaf people an absolute right to the support that they need to pursue courses. It would block discrimination and recognise British sign language, the right to interpreters and all support aid at no cost to the student.
The Leader of the House may be interested in what I am about to say given his former role as Secretary of State for Education and Science. I genuinely welcome the recent changes that the Government introduced to the allowances which provide for £3,000-worth of equipment per course and £4,000 per annum towards interpreters. Those sums are necessary and they are welcome, but they remain means-tested, and that is unfair. They do not secure the co-ordination of development which the proposed council would achieve. Not only that, but before I came into the House this afternoon I was advised that they were not working in the interests of deaf people, as the 1135 Minister, when he announced them, assured us they would. Deaf people are not getting access to those funds as they hoped they would and believe they should.
Rather than just giving bald statistics, I will cite some cases to show what that means to individuals. There is the case of a female student taking a BA in sociology at a university, who received the disabled students' allowances, but they were not sufficient to cover all interpreter and note-taker costs. She needs an extra £1,000 this year. Under the existing provisions, she should be getting that, but she is not.
A male student taking an MA in environmental planning has been refused funds by his local education authority, and he needs more than £4,500 to cover interpreting and note-taking costs for the year. A female student doing a three-year qualification in youth and community work at a polytechnic does not qualify for the disabled students' allowances because she is part-time. The voluntary organisation by which she is employed as an assistant youth worker can pay only her fees and she needs just under £4,000 to pay for an interpreter this year.
That means that deaf people are effectively doubly disadvantaged. It is more expensive for them to take a course and, if they are not funded, other organisations which raise money for the deaf have to divert money to support them. There is also a severe shortage of interpreters for the deaf throughout Britain. The director of the National Deaf Children's Society, Harry Cayton, told me that when he needs an interpreter for a meeting at his office it takes his secretary an average of 14 phone calls to find one. It must be borne in mind that deaf people do not have the same facility with the telephone as a hearing person.
Those examples show the problems that deaf people face. I shall not detain the House with other examples that the Royal National Institute for the Deaf gave me that show the shortfall in funding.
My Bill has all-party support and the backing of all the major organisations for deaf people—the RNID, the National Deaf Children's Society and the British Deaf Association. It would help in improving the role and aspirations of deaf people. When I meet deaf people abroad, it is a source of shame to me that Britain is regarded as the poor relation in providing facilities for deaf people.
I am glad that some of the campaigning has had an effect, which I acknowledge, but there is more to do. I pray in aid Professor Brian Palmer, who said in his lecture that, if my Billwere enacted, it would largely achieve in legislation what is necessary to equalise opportunites for deaf people in post-school education.I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject. I appreciate that, as the House is preparing to adjourn, many people may regard it as a narrow, esoteric issue that does not justify detaining the House, but the problems of many deaf people require urgent attention. I have been given examples of deaf people being accepted for courses of higher education and training who have experienced difficulty in keeping up or have been forced to drop out. Many others do not even try, because they know that, without support, they would not cope.
As many hon. Members will know, I have a direct personal interest, as my daughter, who is 14 and is profoundly deaf, may go on to further education in the 1136 next two or three years. I am not making a special plea on her behalf, but because of her I have encountered so many other people who face this deprivation.
The Government have moved in the right direction, but they should take on board that the deaf community are not satisfied with the support they are receiving or the way in which the additional support that was recently offered is working. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science to ensure that more applications from deaf people for educational support are granted so that they meet the need for which they were intended, because that is not happening at present?
§ Mr. Conal Gregory (York)
Before we rise for the Easter adjournment, I should like to mention the problems that are facing tourism, particularly following the crisis in the Gulf. Those problems present an opportunity for the Government to assist, perhaps as never before, those working in and dependent on tourism.
When agriculture experienced difficulties with BSE, the Government paid £587 compensation for each mad cow. In 1989, the last year for which statistics are available, each overseas visitor to the United Kingdom brought £397 into this country, yet I am afraid that the Government have given the British Tourist Authority a derisory £800,000 to promote the United Kingdom out of the tourism crisis. We are not giving good value to those who are employed in Britain's fastest-growing industry, and are risking the long-term future of tourism.
The position nationally and in York and Yorkshire is extremely worrying. I should declare an interest as the parliamentary consultant to Consort Hotels, which is based in my constituency and is the largest consortium of independent hoteliers in this country. It is appropriate that it keeps me in touch with developments.
I have calculated that as many as 20,000 jobs in tour operators, airlines and hotels could be lost, representing an estimated whole-year cost to the Treasury of £6,000 per job.
The knock-on effects of that on jobs in retail and other sectors have begun to show. Overseas earnings are very important but are often neglected when commentators consider invisible earnings. Of whole-year earnings of £8 billion, £700 million has been lost in the first quarter, and of £1.5 billion of earnings from the United States, we expect £500 million to be lost. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor must take into account the dramatic effect of that on tourism when he prepares the Budget for Tuesday. I should not be surprised by a year-end loss in earnings of £1.5 billion unless—this is the important opportunity for the Government—the Government support a major promotion of tourism.
Those who reside in London during the week are aware that 38 per cent. of London's theatregoers and 44 per cent. of people who attend London art galleries are overseas tourists. Sadly, the figures for the first three months of this year are down. The retail sector derives up to 20 per cent. of its income from overseas visitors, and the Treasury derives more than £60 from each visitor in value added tax.
The earnings and jobs of every constituency are affected by tourism. In Yorkshire, there has been a worrying fall in bookings by overseas visitors. Tour operators, hoteliers and coach companies have all received cancellations. But our message should he that Britain is a safe destination for 1137 business travel or recreation. We have increased security at our airports, ferry terminals and railway stations. We must follow that with a high-profile marketing campaign targeted on north America, the far east and Australasia, so that we have not just quantity but quality of visitors.
Tourism is worth £14 billion in England and £994 million in Yorkshire and Humberside. Investment must continue. York has been fortunate in attracting new construction and venues such as the museum of automata, and other sites have been imaginatively developed. I would welcome my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to Fairfax house and the Yorkshire museum, both of which have been extensively developed in recent years. However, more hotels are being built in Paris than in London.
Too many local authorities are unsympathetic to tourism and will not carefully interpret planning applications which seek to turn former warehouses that are of no use into potential hotels.
Do the Hastings, Folkestones or Cliftonvilles have the infrastructure that we expect and see in Blackpool and Bournemouth? Sadly, they do not. Devolution from London to the regions will need a co-ordinated national campaign.
The Gulf crises will help in other respects. Many more British people will take short breaks not only in the delightful constituency of Norfolk, South—my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council was my Member of Parliament when I lived there—but in centres such as York. Given the strength of the United States dollar, we must look further afield. Anyone in Britain can enjoy our theatres and, except for "Phantom of the Opera", which I have been unable to see, can get into any London theatre. That is a very worrying development.
To achieve a boom in tourism, there must be a campaign. The uniform business rate is not helping small travel agents who wish to move from one site to another and sell their premises. The stepping-stone principle, which particularly affects the constituencies of City of Chester, Bath and York, effectively cripples the ability of small businesses to move, which is a great problem.
We must also abolish red tape. I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment for securing the removal of visa requirements for visitors from the United States and for those travelling from this country to North America. That improvement must spread to other countries. Far too many youngsters do not know on which continent a certain country is to be found. If they want to visit, for example, Aruba on a package holiday, they do not know on which continent it is to be found. I hope that before too long they will pass their GCSE in tourism—at the moment offered by only one examination board—and that they will then know where such places are. I hope that they will also learn to appreciate the benefits of tourism in the United Kingdom and the opportunities that this country provides for them.
All too often, a person who goes into a Chicago or Tokyo travel agency when considering booking a holiday in the United Kingdom does not receive correct information. If that person books his holiday with a particular airline, he may find that it is locked into a hotel group, which may result in him not visiting the United Kingdom. Paris is increasingly becoming the central 1138 attraction for people coming to Europe. If they go to Paris —and shortly to Disneyland—will they then come to London and the rest of the United Kingdom?
Tourism is an international issue. Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend is unable to discuss it with the World Tourism Organisation. We are one of the very few developed countries that is not a member of the WTO, though I have yet to discover why. By the payment of a very small sum of money, we could have a major influence, in terms of British consultancies, on world tourism. The WTO is based in Madrid. It has master plans, apart from environmental issues which include blue tourism—a reference to safe beaches—and green tourism. If we are to have a major voice in world tourism, I hope that in due course my right hon. Friend will announce that this country intends to play a leading role in the World Tourism Organisation
We should place emphasis on attracting quality markets. We should not attempt to exert pressure on eastern European visitors to come here. Many coachloads of people already enter Venice with their packed lunches. Those many thousands of people use its public facilities and see some of the wonders of Venice, but they spend not a single lira there. That form of tourism would be an unwelcome development here, though it would be nice to see people from Poland, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia coming to this country on "fam" trips, as they are termed, to visit friends and relatives.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will discuss with the Secretary of State for Transport the environmental problems that assail north American and Japanese visitors to this country. I refer in particular to coach parking. When the changing of the guard takes place at Buckingham palace, we see coaches there belching out diesel fumes. That is an improper use of coach facilities. Coach parking has been neglected, but that problem could be tackled if a Minister were to be given responsibility for tourism throughout the United Kingdom.
Junior members of the Government—usually in the other place—are responsible for tourism. I want elected Members of Parliament to be given that responsibility. They ought not to change their portfolio every 10 months or every year. They rush around at a great rate of knots, but by the time they have scoured the whole of their territory, they are promoted to another job.
The facilities available at our ports of entry are still poor. At our busiest port of entry, Dover, people have to find the road out of England en route for France if they want to visit the tourist information centre.
I could give many other examples, but I realise that this is not I April—All Fools day. Sadly, such examples ought more appropriately to be given on that day. People's jobs are at risk from such inefficiencies. I hope, therefore, that before Easter the Government will give a strong lead to this key industry, having recognised the jobs that depend upon it, and that, from Easter onwards, the tourist industry will enjoy a substantial revival.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South East)
The House of Commons ought not to rise for Easter until it has fully discussed the Gulf war. I do not intend to trespass on the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow 1139 (Mr. Dalyell) will raise in the debate that he has secured. However, I wish to refer to a few consequences of the Gulf war.
For many families, the ending of the war has been marked this week by funerals, not least by the funerals yesterday in Coventry of two teenagers—Lee Thompson and Jason McFadden—who were killed in the Gulf war. Such deaths are deeply felt in Coventry and throughout the country. Those two teenagers will not be forgotten by their families, by their friends or by people in general. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) will, I know, want me to place on record the fact that we intend to ensure that the Ministry of Defence conducts a full public inquiry into the deaths of Lee and the other eight teenagers who, we were told euphemistically, died as a result of "friendly fire."
The war ended with light casualties on the allied side, and there is relief among people throughout the world that the war is over. However, that relief has been soured by growing realisation of the enormous number of deaths and the scale of destruction in Iraq. Some of us complained for many years about the vicious, repressive regime in Iraq. It imprisoned, tortured and murdered many tens of thousands of trade unionists, socialists, communists and sordinary people. However, Iraq has not been "liberated" by mass bombing on a scale that has not been seen for 50 years. According to information provided to me by the Library, during the 39 nights of allied bombing, half the tonnage of the bombs dropped on Europe during six years of war was dropped on Iraq.
Specific instances of that bombing ought to be examined. For example, 400 women and children were killed in the Al Amerieh bunker. That, too, has been euphemistically described—as "collateral damage". That number was surpassed by the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands who died in soft-topped lorries, cars and other vehicles at the Mutlaa gap on the road to Basra. Those people were retreating or fleeing from Kuwait. There was a seven-mile line of vehicles at that point. At about 12.40 pm on Monday last, there was a report on ITN, which I have not seen repeated, of a column 60 miles long north of Kuwait city. Tanks and armoured cars were reported to have been burnt out and no survivors were to be seen.
After 30 armies knocked seven bells out of Iraq, why are the Americans and everyone else still imposing sanctions on Iraq? What are they supposed to achieve? If the B52 planes that dropped the bulk of the 900,000 tonnes of bombs on Iraq did not achieve what their role in Vietnam was said to be—to knock that country back into the stone age—they certainly bombed Iraq back into the 19th century. There is little or no power and clean water, or health and emergency services. Raw sewage floats in the Tigris. Massive international relief must be organised for the country. Cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and polio outbreaks are already to be seen. Unless something is done quickly, they will reach epidemic proportions.
The right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) announced on Tuesday that Britain is giving £420,000 —worth of aid to the International Red Cross. That compares with £3 billion spent on the war, and an estimated £50 billion to be spent on the restoration of Kuwait. One wonders how much of that will go on building palaces and luxury dwellings for the unelected al-Sabah dictatorship; I give the figures merely to put the amount of aid in its context.
1140 For the people inside Iraq, the war has not stopped. The Iraqi intifada goes on—in the north in the Kurdish areas, and in the south and south-east of Shia areas. Saturday marks the third anniversary of Saddam Hussein bombing the village of Halabja, an incident in which 6,000 or 7,000 Kurds died when chemical weapons were used against them. In October that year several thousand marsh Arabs north of Basra died under the same chemical weapons. To the shame of our Government, within days of the second attack the present Secretary of State for Social Security, then in charge of trade and industry, announced an increase of £340 million in trade credits—almost as a reward—for the Saddam Hussein regime.
In the past 10 or 12 days, the eyes of the world may have been turned away from the affairs of Iraq. That is understandable perhaps given that, following the expulsion of many media personnel, it is becoming more difficult to see what is happening there, but a deliberate policy to leave Saddam Hussein in place is emerging. In The Guardian, a senior United States diplomat is quoted as saying:Better the Saddam Hussein we know than an unwieldy weak coalition or a new strong man who is an unknown quantity.It is, however, possible to get news of what is happening in Iraq. Today, for instance, I met people, including constituents, who are naturalised British citizens who originated from Iraq. They gave me two faxes from Iran dated yesterday. The first was an appeal from the people of Basra to everyone:We are fighting for all Iraqis and for all humanity everywhere. We are in full control of Basra, but your families, children, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers from Basra —they are in great need for food and medicines.Much more follows in this handwritten fax.
The second fax is a letter from Mr. Hakim, head of the supreme command of the Islamic revolution in Iraq, a group based in Iran and fighting in the south of Iraq. The letter is addressed to Perez de Cuellar, head of the United Nations, and it speaks of the republican guard in Iraq —this has not been carried elsewhere, so it is news for those who will hear it—tying women and children on tanks and using them as human shields so that the Iraqi insurrectionists cannot defend what they have gained in Basra. According to that fax, in Basra's Sa'ad square, 45 resistance fighters have been executed, and in two areas outside Basra, chemical hand grenades have been used. Napalm has also been used and its victims have been taken to Iran for treatment for their injuries. So it is possible to find news from Iraq, given the will to do so.
Food, medicines, equipment and chemicals to purify water are all desperately and urgently needed. That is why I believe that sanctions should now be lifted by the British Government. My speeches on the subject in the past few months show that I have never agreed with sanctions, but no Member of this House can now defend their continued use against the ordinary people of Iraq.
I make only one exception to my view on sanctions, and it concerns the arms trade. A couple of weeks after the war ended articles in newspapers and television programmes have begun to claim that "showcase", "combat-proven" weapons used in the middle east are now on sale elsewhere. "Newsnight" carried an item yesterday which spoke of a possible $50 billion to $150 billion-worth of United States arms sales to the middle east. It is worth recording that half of all the oil wealth accumulated in the history of middle eastern oil extraction has been spent on battlefields.
1141 For the millions of people in the region, let alone the hundreds of millions more close by in north Africa, that is a tale of misspent money, which could have been better used in other ways.
We need a full examination of the arms trade. Who armed Saddam in the first place? This House does not even have what the United States Congress has—a Javits amendment, under which arms sales of more than $7 million have to be reported to Congress. Had such a measure been in place in this country, the £12 million sale of lathes to churn out shell casings which went from Matrix Churchill, via Chile, to Iraq a couple of years ago would have been exposed. Had such a measure been in place, we could have questioned the Department of Trade and Industry when it allowed the same firm, Matrix Churchill, to be taken over by the Iraqi secret service three years ago. When sanctions were imposed, the Department allowed that firm almost to collapse. No one would trade with the firm given the uncertainty surrounding contracts with it, and more than 100 workers in Coventry lost their jobs because of the Government sanctions imposed on the firm.
Defence jobs have never been secure. There have been about 150,000 redundancies in the industry in the past 10 years. Workers at the Filton plant in Bristol must be worried that their plant may be threatened in the same way as Preston and other British Aerospace plants have been in the past couple of months. My party is beginning to come to grips with the issue. When we look into ending arms sales, we must parallel that activity by guaranteeing defence workers alternative jobs, through diversification, so that they and their families do not pay the price for the cuts in defence spending that we want. We should end arms sales to repressive regimes, and we should stop promoting arms.
In the meantime, we should ask why, in July 1979, days before Saddam Hussein was promoted from vice-president to president, Lord Carrington went to Iraq to sign deals. We should ask why, in October 1979, the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), then a Trade Minister, was in Iraq doing business. We should ask why, in July 1981, the present Foreign Secretary was in Iraq selling arms—and why, after the war, the present Secretary of State for Social Security allowed Iraq more trade credit. Why did the Government sponsor the arms fair in Iraq, in Baghdad itself, in 1989—a fair which 13 British firms attended? Why, after 91 Opposition Members from six parties tabled an early-day motion opposing Government help for the fair, did not a single Tory Member sign it? Since 2 August we have been subjected to lectures suggesting that the Opposition support dictators because we opposed the war.
My final question is why, on 14 May in the national exhibition centre in Birmingham, there is to be a British arms fair of defence components and equipment. Countries no less repressive than Iraq are due to attend it—perhaps, for example, new-found "allies" of ours such as Syria, with its vicious police force; or old "allies", such as Indonesia, where 200,000 people—one third of the civilian population—have been murdered in East Timor since 1975. Perhaps such countries will show up for two or three days to buy equipment——
§ Mr. Nellist
I am afraid that I do not have time.
I am against such exhibitions, as are many of my hon. Friends who have signed the early-day motion to that effect. It is not as though we are against war. We are not pacifists. Plenty of regimes in the middle east and elsewhere need toppling. To paraphrase the Prime Minister, I shall not shed any tears if the al-Sabah royal family goes, if all it promises to do is to restore the 1962 constitution which allowed only 8 per cent. of men, and no women, to vote. We did not go to war for freedom and democracy on that basis.
But there are wars to be fought—against poverty, ignorance and disease. One Tornado costs the same as 80 hospital wards, one Lynx helicopter costs the equivalent of 880 hip replacements, and one Warrior infantry fighting vehicle of the kind in which Lee Thompson and his eight teenage colleagues were killed by "friendly fire" costs the same as training 200 ambulance personnel
Before we rise for Easter, the House should debate the international trade in arms to repressive regimes, which must be stopped. The House should lift the sanctions that Britain is still imposing on Iraq. If we want peace and stability in the middle east, as I and my hon. Friends certainly do, it will come about only when democracy and socialism are brought to the people of those countries, allowing them to determine their own future. That has not happened through a war waged by 30 countries against Iraq; it will not happen as a result of the sanctions still being imposed on Iraq and the Iraqi people; and it will not happen if America is allowed to sell $50 billion to $100 billion-worth of arms to the middle east. Who will be next after Iraq goes down?
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
I am tempted to take issue with some of the arguments that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) advanced, but in the interest of brevity I shall not do so. The House will at least be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlining the appalling atrocities that are still being committed in Iraq. Many of us feel deeply unhappy that, although the war is over and, relieved though we are at that, that evil man, the butcher of Baghdad, remains in power. There will be no semblance of democracy or freedom and no semblance of humanity in that terribly torn country until that man has gone.
I wished to contribute briefly to the debate, because I wanted to give support to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris). We had a pact that whoever was called first would raise the subject, and whoever was called thereafter would endorse. I too wish to talk about the plight of the hostages. Over the past weeks, we have all been preoccupied with events in the middle east, and during that understandable preoccupation, we have not spent enough time, perhaps, discussing the fate of the three men—the four, if we add Mr. Cooper. Although Mr. Cooper is not strictly a hostage, he is held in similar and terrible circumstances.
I well remember attending a meeting organised by Christian Wives before Christmas 1986, when the guest of honour in Mr. Speaker's house was Terry Waite. It was a moving occasion, attended by Members and their wives of all parties. I think that everyone who met Mr. Waite and 1143 listened to what he had to say was greatly impressed by what he had achieved and deeply troubled by the fact that he was returning to the middle east. He made it plain in his public remarks to those of us who were at the meeting, and privately to some of us afterwards, that he was returning with a sense of foreboding. We all know what happened. It is proper that, before the House rises for the Easter recess, we should remember that Terry Waite has been incarcerated since a few weeks after the meeting to which I have referred in Mr. Speaker's house. We should remember also that John McCarthy has been incarcerated for even longer, and that Jackie Mann has been incarcerated for about three years.
I am talking of three men who were guilty of no crimes, who have been sentenced without trial to the most appalling form of imprisonment. The events of the past few weeks have made us all conscious of the need to try to work for stability in the middle east. Although there has been a genuine and respectable difference of opinion in the House on what specific methods should be used, I believe that there is universal relief that the war is over, and a universal desire to see peace and stability in the middle east.
Peace and stability in the middle east demand various preconditions. One of those is that the countries of the middle east—this is why it is impossible to conceive of proper peace and stability while Saddam Hussein remains in power—should accept certain basic civilised values. I would like to think that, before the Easter recess, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will communicate specially—I know that he has done it many times before —with middle east ambassadors in the United Kingdom and with our representatives in the middle east to stress that it is incumbent upon us all to bring whatever pressure can be brought to bear upon those who hold the hostages.
We cannot move into a new era while people are allowed to behave like those who hold the hostages. I am not making any criticism of the Government's general stance; because I believe that they have been wholly right not to talk about deals. Terry Waite impressed upon us in his moving speech that, if he fell victim, he did not want deals to be done. He told us that he did not want his position to weaken the resolve of the west. The Government have been right not to do deals but as we move, perhaps, to a middle east peace conference, we must intensify the pressure upon all those who have any influence to recognise the uncivilised nature of those who hold the hostages.
I am sure that it is not very often that a Member of this place feels that he speaks for everyone who is present in the Chamber and for most of those who are not present, but I am sure that I speak for all those who are in their places now and for most of those who are not when I say that those outside who think that we have forgotten about the hostages are wrong. Those who think that the hostages are out of our minds are wrong. They are very much in our minds and on our minds. Many of us received special cards at Christmas that were sent by the friends of John McCarthy to remind us of the hostages. I say with great respect and understanding to those who sent the cards that it was a nice gesture, but we did not need reminding of the hostages in that sense.
Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster presided at a meeting in the House which was organised by a committee set up to secure the release of the hostages, of which he is a joint chairman and of which I am an officer.
1144 Many hon. Members attended the meeting, although it was a day when we were not whipped and there was not heavy business in the House. Those who attended included the shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and the foreign affairs spokesman of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Tweedale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel). Also present were many of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
We were brought together because we had one overriding concern, which was to see the three men and Mr. Cooper, reunited with their families. It must be understood that the families have gone through hell while not knowing but knowing at the same time. They have not known precisely what was happening, but they have known that their loved ones have been in darkness, with little or no opportunity for any dialogue. They know that they have been subject to the most intolerable pressures. We all learned that when Mr. Brian Keenan ceased to be a hostage last year. I am sure that we were all greatly moved by what he said.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will heed the message from my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster and myself. I hope that he will recognise also that we are speaking on behalf of colleagues of all parties in the House of Commons and for both Houses of Parliament in asking that everything possible should be done to intensify the pressure and to bring home to all parties in the middle east the fact that there can be no move towards a stable, secure and civilised middle east while those who behave in a barbaric manner are tolerated in any way.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I would echo everything that we have heard this evening about the hostages. It is tragic that they remain incarcerated and separated from their families. I hope that the hostages will be released before Easter. The problem for their relatives and friends is not knowing. It is not only those people who are in that position, because many thousands of people throughout the world have relatives in Iraq and have no knowledge of what is happening to them. Many of us have constituents who are in that position. It is to be hoped that all those who have friends and loved ones in Iraq about whom they have no information at present will receive that information as quickly as possible.
It is ridiculous that the House should go away for 18 days at Easter and an additional day for the spring bank holiday. I understand why the Government are keen to get us all away; there is so much ferment on their Benches and so much in-fighting in the Conservative party that they prefer to send hon. Members to their constituencies to simmer down. It is nonsense for the House to go away for 18 days when we should be getting to grips with so many important issues. For example, we should spend time trying to find a solution to homelessness. We should try to deal with the problems of people who are sleeping in the streets of London and the homeless within our constituencies.
It is ridiculous that we cannot have a proper debate to assess the military implications of what is happening in the Gulf. We should get to grips with the points stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. 1145 Nellist). We need a proper debate about arms sales and the whole question whether the middle east is to be re-armed. We should face up to the fact that we should be stopping arms sales to other countries and seeking alternative jobs for those involved in arms manufacture.
I would willingly give up all 18 days away from the House over Easter if we could have legislation to get rid of the poll tax and to put something else in its place. I am sure that all Opposition Members would willingly give up their time to deal with such legislation.
The House might debate less dramatic issues. I raised at business questions the reform of the procedure on private Bills. Again, I should have thought that it would be a good idea for the Leader of the House to give us only a week off at Easter and to devote one day to that subject.
I regret particularly that we shall not have a chance to debate satanic abuse and the cases that have appeared in the newspapers in recent weeks. I shall not deal with what has gone on in Nottingham, Rochdale or the Orkneys; I leave that to the hon. Members who represent those areas. Unless we have a proper debate on the matter, we shall find that the same problems will crop up elsewhere. I plead with the Leader of the House for an early opportunity to debate the Government's guidelines and to make sure that there is proper debate in the country on the whole issue of satanic abuse.
We should try to ensure that teachers and social workers put the issue into the context of the normal behaviour of normal children and into historic perspective in relation to the way in which such allegations have recurred century after century since Roman times. We should also learn from the witch persecutions of the middle ages. If there were to be a debate, I should want to emphasise that teachers, social workers and others should be aware of children's behaviour in relation to the telling of scare stories.
I am concerned that not enough parents, teachers and social workers understand the phenomenon. I have been aware of it as a parent and as a teacher. I have also had the opportunity to listen to a tape recording made by a folklorist of a group of children telling scare stories. Once an adult is involved, that changes the behaviour of the children, but it is important to understand that children tell scare stories.
As a child, I was conscious of the practice. I remember that, when I was about seven, a group of children used to congregate at every playtime in a corner of the playground to tell stories. The whole question was whether one had the courage to stop and listen or was too frightened and would run away during the telling of the story. Later, I was aware of a group of older girls telling similar stories, with young boys hanging around to listen to them. Later still, when I was in the scouts, I remember my first camp when scare stories were told until someone got upset.
Sometimes I still wake up at night, remembering a story that horrified me as a seven-year-old at the end of the war. People had in mind Hitler as a bogeyman. The story was that, to celebrate his birthday, he cut off children's fingers to stick on a birthday cake; then he lit the fingers and watched them burn away. That story was told, by older children to scare the younger ones. I remember other stories that the girls told about babies with two or three heads. In the scouts, we heard various ghost stories.
1146 As the stories were being told, someone would say, "You must be kidding." That is an interesting phrase. Half the time the children knew that a story was being made up as the teller went along. When someone interjected, "You must be kidding," the other youngster would say, "No, I'm not. My brother told me." Very often, the child would call on a brother or an older person to justify the story. Most of us knew that the story was being made up, but some children were in the odd position of not knowing whether it was true. I suspect that horror films and videos come into the same category, between fantasy and reality.
The problem is that the moment an adult enters the scene, everything changes. If a child is so frightened by a story that he tells it to an adult, he is almost forced to believe the story and it ceases to be fantasy. Most children listen to the story and go away, but the odd one ends up repeating it to an adult. Once that happens, the danger is that the adult asks the child to justify it, and the child gets caught in a mechanism of trying to say that the story is true. He cannot admit that it was fantasy because, if it was fantasy, why should he be frightened by it? I make a plea to social workers, teachers and others to spend a little time considering how children normally tell horror stories and not to be taken in by the idea that behind the story there is reality rather than fantasy.
Social workers should bear in mind the way in which people have been writing recently about satanic abuse. I asked the Library to dig out for me all references to satanic abuse in a national daily newspaper over the last two or three years. I chose The Independent because I was aware that it had published quite a few articles. The computer produced well over 100 entries about satanic abuse. Having looked at the headlines, I got the impression that at the beginning the reporters on the whole believed the stories. As time went on, the accounts showed a growing disbelief among reporters. Eventually it became clear that that newspaper's reporters did not believe the stories.
I will not go through all the articles, but it is worth drawing attention to one which appeared on 13 January in The Independent on Sunday, by Rosie Waterhouse, on the spread of charismatic Christianity in Britain under the heading:Hungry for Souls: The evangelicals are on the march—out of the church, down the corridors of power and on to the air waves. But is their fervour bringing with it a dangerous intolerance'?Rosie Waterhouse observed:Evangelical Christian groups are also largely responsible for spreading stories lat year that children were being sexually abused by satanists in black-magic ceremonies, and that teenage girls were being used as 'brood mares' to produce foetuses for sacrificial rites. No evidence in support of these allegations has been found by the police".That seems to be a carefully worded reference to cases that were recently published in newspapers. The article concludes by suggesting that there was a conspiracy to put across such allegations.
The same allegations have appeared over many centuries in folk lore. They have particular resonance as traditional libels that were pinned on a variety of minorities by often powerful groups that the authorities or the Government of the day considered to be deviant, subversive, or otherwise dangerous. I recommend to any right hon. or hon. Member who takes an interest in the subject Norman Cohn's book, "Europe's Inner Demons". 1147 He traces such accusations with great thoroughness. from Roman times to the present day, over 2,000 disgraceful years.
Norman Cohn's book points out that the early Christians and dissident Christian sects, Ca thars, Templars, and those persecuted for witchcraft in the middle ages were all accused in turn of engaging in orgiastic sex, baby killing, and cannibalism in the service of evil. Originally, those who followed the Christian Church were accused of such activities, but gradually that situation reversed, so that the Church came to accuse other groups. Descriptions of so-called satanic activities go back to the year 1000.
Century after century, the same allegations were made of satanic abuse, yet evidence was never produced to substantiate them. One thinks also of the blood libel legend, which was a regular element of anti-Semitic folk lore in medieval times. It appears in Chaucer's work., "The Prioress's Tale" and in the traditional ballad, "The Jew's Daughter". Blood libels have no sexual element, but sometimes involve cannibalism. In 1255, Jews in Lincoln who were the victims of blood libels had to be taken into protective custody against the mob.
I plead with social workers to be aware of the continuing retelling of such myths in presenting a particular point of view in society, as a means of criticising or attacking a particular group. Before we rise for the Easter recess, time should be found for a proper debate on satanic abuse, not only to help devise guidelines for the Government in dealing with such allegations, but so that when they are made, social workers also will have at the back of their minds the fact that it is a natural activity of children to fantasise and to manufacture scare stories, and that we try to force children to justify them at our peril.
Allegations of satanic abuse have endured for more than 2,000 years with no evidence to support them, but to persecute others either in trying to promote a particular religion or to suppress the beliefs of others. Before social workers are taken too far down the line of satanic abuse, they should see Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible", which presents the background to the witch persecutions in Salem and elsewhere in the world. They will then realise how amazingly easy it is to persuade children to make allegations that have no basis in fact. I urge the House to debate the whole question of child abuse, and of satanic abuse in particular, at an early stage.
§ Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)
I want to raise an issue that affects more than 400 of my constituents—the fact that permanent residents living on seasonal caravan sites are liable to value added tax on caravan pitch rentals. I have raised this issue with successive Treasury Ministers over the past four years. I did so first with my right hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley), now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, then Economic Secretary to the Treasury; then with my right hon. and noble Friend Lord 'Caithness, now Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but formerly Paymaster General; with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), when he was Paymaster General; and with my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), the Minister of State, Treasury now responsible for such matters.
1148 Their replies have a depressing similarity, which bears the imprint more of civil service minds than of independence of mind. However, that has not prevented each of them from being promoted to higher office—probably leaving them greatly relieved that they did not have to deal further with my representations. In case my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House feels that I am picking on him, I may point out that he is the sole remaining Member for a Norfolk constituency to whom I have not presented my case. I do so now, in the hope that I will be third time lucky.
Three years ago, the Government decided to introduce VAT on seasonal caravan pitches to bring them into line with other holiday accommodation and services provided by the tourist trade. It was never the Government's intention that VAT should apply to residential caravan owners. They wanted and meant them to retain relief from VAT, in line with that extended to other permanent domestic accommodation. As the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans, wrote to me on 27 June 1989:I should emphasise that VAT is only being applied to seasonal caravan pitch rentals which, because of the seasonal nature of the site, can only be used for holiday or recreational purposes. VAT will not be charged on pitch rentals where the caravans can be occupied as the owner's permanent residence, i.e. where it can be lawfully occupied throughout the year.However, that is exactly what happens. Seasonal sites can be, and frequently are, used by those whose caravans are their sole permanent residence. The problem arose because the Government decided that the sole and most equitable yardstick for those liable to VAT was the nature of the licence granted to the park owner —that is, whether the site was licensed as seasonal or permanent.
VAT legislation was drawn deliberately to apply to all pitch rentals at seasonal sites, without regard to the precise length of the season or the personal circumstances of individual caravan owners. It also assumed that all permanent residential caravan owners would seek the protection afforded by the Mobile Homes Act 1983 and choose to live on sites licensed under that legislation, specifically designed to accommodate them. In fact, many permanent residents do not have that choice.
In my own constituency, only one site offers permanent pitches for permanent residents who number just 40. In fact, 387 of my constituents are distributed among just three caravan parks—Talacre Beach, Willow Grove, and Point of Ayr—and a few others are spread throughout smaller sites in the area. They would all prefer to live on a permanent site, but none is available.
Talacre Beach caravan park has about 120 to 130 permanent residents, but it is not currently licensed as a permanent site, and must close for about eight weeks each year. That means that the permanent residents can lawfully stay on that site only for about 10 months. In midwinter they have to move to temporary accommodation—this year it was from 5 January to 2 March—which is usually in bedsits or flats in neighbouring towns, such as Rhyl. They frequently have to pay high rents for accommodation—£80 or more. They would also certainly rather not move out of their permanent homes to the seaside in the worst possible weather, when no one else is there. Most of them are retired, many are pensioners and none of them is well off. The Government are aware of the position, but are not prepared to make permanent residents of seasonal caravan parks a special case.
1149 On 6 March, my right hon. and noble Friend the Earl of Caithness, who was then Paymaster General, wrote to me saying:It is our understanding that seasonal sites are not designed or intended for use by residents as their sole home, although clearly this does happen.Indeed it does. It happens to more than 400 of my constituents.
There must be many other constituencies throughout the country, especially those in tourist areas, where this problem occurs. My constituency is predominantly industrial and is on the edge of the so-called north Wales tourist belt. The problem is even more severe in many other constituencies. Thousands of people must therefore be affected throughout the country.
The Government must reframe the law to take caravan owners' individual circumstances into consideration. VAT liability should depend upon the personal circumstances of each caravan owner and not on the planning status of the park.
The Government say that that would cause considerable extra administrative and accounting burdens for park proprietors. I have spoken to many of them in my constituency, and they disagree. Most of the parks are computerised, and proprietors would not have to spend an inordinate amount of extra time dealing with these problems. All the proprietors I have spoken to say that they would be glad to do so.
The Government say that there is a verification problem. Again, park proprietors disagree. They know the residents. They know who are permanent residents, and they know immediately when their circumstances change. Most of these caravan parks are not large, few containing more than several hundred people. The caravan park proprietor and his staff keep close tabs on what is going on within the park, and know immediately if someone ceases to reside there—they certainly know within 24 hours. They can produce lists immediately from their computers to show which people are permanent residents. I am talking about small businesses, not large ones.
The Government say that if they were to change the law and to reframe it to take each caravan owner's personal circumstances into account it would lead to a "plethora of anomalies". Again, park proprietors disagree. They think that anomalies and unfairnesses exist at the moment and they want them to be corrected.
Finally, the Government say that park proprietorshave a right to expect clear, workable guidelines.All the park proprietors I have spoken to would say, "Hear, hear" to that. They do not think that the guidelines are workable at the moment, nor do they think that they are fair.
The Government are wrong to say that it is "impracticable" and "totally unworkable" to grant VAT relief to caravan owners who make seasonal sites their only home.
In conclusion, I quote my right hon. and noble Friend the Earl of Caithness, who said in his letter of 6 March:It is the intention with any taxation system to implement it fairly and impartially whilst giving full regard to any potential injustices which might arise from it.As I have shown to the House, the injustices are not potential but actual. The Government may intend to have a fair and impartial taxation system, but that is not the reality in this case. They are certainly not giving full regard 1150 to this injustice—they are not even giving partial regard to it. More than 400 of my constituents are affected. The local economy of my constituency is not based on tourism. How many more people must be affected in neighbouring constituencies along the north Wales coast, or along the south coast of England and in tourist areas in other parts of the country? I am sure that the problem also exists in the county in which the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is situated.
Many people are affected by this unfairness, by this injustice. Most of them are retired, many are pensioners and none of them is well off. The Government must redress this injustice. I am not over-hopeful that they will do so immediately. Having spent two years shelving it in correspondence with me, it is probably too much to ask the Government to redress it before Easter. Although, technically, those are the terms of this debate, I shall not insist upon that, but will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House bring this matter once again to the attention of the Treasury?
In a recent notable speech in Bonn, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister quoted—I think it was the only Conservative he quoted—his hero and mine, that great Conservative the late Iain Macleod, when he spoke of creating a societymore efficient, more tolerant and more just.The VAT law is unjust to these people. I ask the Government to correct that injustice.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
I thought that the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) about Iraq was tremendously moving. He revealed the massive suffering which has occurred because of the bombing and the war that has taken place in the Gulf, and he stressed the terrible problems of disease, further destruction and destabilisation that still exist in the area.
I feel especially affected by the devastation that has occurred in Basra, which is where I did my national service for most of 1955 and 1956. The sons, daughters and grandchildren of the people I mixed with during that period are among those who have gone through tremendous devastation and destruction.
I wish to deal with the poll tax and electoral registration. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) said that nothing is ruled out and nothing is ruled in in the review of the poll tax, but that does not seem to apply to me. I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman on 10 January, asking for an opportunity to discuss the problems of electoral registration and the community charge. Finally, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) replied:I regret that diary pressures prevent a meeting at the present time.So I have been ruled out, or perhaps the issue begins to be considered as nothing.
I am prepared to meet the Secretary of State, or anyone else within that office, to discuss the key item of electoral registration and the impact that the poll tax has had upon it. Hon. Members should be tremendously worried about that issue.
The community charge undermines the operation of the Representation of the People Act 1983—certainly de facto, and perhaps even de jure. I must also point out that the 1983 Act has a higher legal status than the Local 1151 Government Finance Act 1987 which introduced the community charge; the 1983 Act should be considered as the prior piece of legislation dealing with these matters.
I feel that it is hon. Members' duty to consider this matter closely, and it is the duty of the Secretary of State and of the Government to consider the electoral consequences and franchise consequences of what they have been up to in the past few years, during this review.
The evidence that the Representation of the People Act 1983 is undermined is contained in the Local Government Finance Act 1987. The exemptions from the poll tax register and the electoral register are almost similar. For instance, certain handicapped people are excluded from electoral registration and from poll tax registration—the severely mentally handicapped. Physically handicapped people appear on both registers. They are not excluded from the poll tax register, although they may be badly in need of financial assistance. Their condition is not taken into account, because they are entitled—rightly—to exercise their franchise. Certain concessions have been made—for instance, to monks and nuns—but in general the two registers are almost interchangeable. Some people will be listed on different registers; students may be on the electoral register in one area and on the poll tax register in another.
The other problem relates to the much-vaunted principle of accountability—the principle that everyone living in the same district must pay the same, except those who receive rebates. There is a danger that other legislation will also include that principle, even if smaller payments are involved. One of the worst aspects of the poll tax legislation is the fact that it covers everyone. That does not apply to other forms of taxation.
Obviously, people who find it desperately difficult to pay the poll tax will duck for cover. There is evidence that attainers—those who are about to appear on the register for the first time—are disappearing in large numbers. The fact that those who avoid poll tax will also avoid electoral registration should worry a House of Commons that prides itself on its involvement in the extension of the franchise, and in the battles over the great Reform Acts of the 19th century and the extension of the franchise to women in the 20th.
I am not talking only about theoretical evidence there is increasing evidence of a link between electoral and poll tax registration. According to a circular issued by the Home Office to electoral registration officers on 10 August 1990, people will be removed from the electoral register if they have not yet registered, and if their names cannot be found on the community charge register. That is surely a clear recognition by the Government of the connection between the two.
The Census (Confidentiality) Act 1991 provides, reasonably, that census information cannot be used by poll tax registrars. The aim is to protect the census, but we should be equally anxious—if not far more so—to protect the franchise. Both should be protected, because both are necessary in society; but the franchise has an additional constitutional importance.
The Caldey Island Act 1990 highlighted the exclusion of monks and fishermen on the island from either register. The statistical evidence backs up the evidence in section after section of that Act of a connection between the two registers. In the Finchley constituency, for instance.. there has been a reduction of 8.5 per cent. in the franchise over two years; over the same period, some 600,000 people have 1152 disappeared from the electoral registers in England, Scotland and Wales. That takes into account the number of people aged over 18. There has been no such development in Northern Ireland, which has no poll tax.
I believe that the undermining of the 1983 Act is illegitimate. The Act has an important constitutional status. We have no written constitution, but it is generally recognised by a host of constitutional authorities that certain measures have such status. If time permitted, I could quote such authorities as Dicey, Blackstone and De Smith, but I shall content myself with a reference to the Statute of Westminster, the First. That 1275 statute says:because Elections ought to be free, the King commandeth upon great Forfeiture, that no Man by Force of Arms, nor by Malice, or menacing, shall disturb any to make free Election.The statute does not say who should have the vote, but it establishes the importance of free elections under sovereign authority. Such statutes were used by constitutional authorities such as the 18th-century Blackstone to establish the significance of electoral provision as a cornerstone of the British constitution.
That cornerstone is under serious attack from a measure that should be repealed. I have been refused the right to meet the Secretary of State for the Environment; I therefore hope that the Leader of the House will convey to him what I have said tonight, which should be taken into account in any review of the poll tax. If we are to re-establish and protect the full franchise, the poll tax must go.
§ Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Earlier this evening, Independent Television News reported that the Prime Minister had made a statement in the House to the effect that the poll tax was to be abolished. It is a simple matter of fact that no such statement was made. This may be no more than misreporting by ITN; but reports that a decision has indeed been reached, and that it is a decision to abolish the poll tax, are being carried this evening by the BBC, and also by some of tomorrow morning's newspapers.
What appears to have happened is this. The Prime Minister had intended to make a statement during Prime Minister's Question Time this afternoon, but failed to do so. The obvious explanation is that he had so little confidence in what he had to say that he funked it. He says that no one asked him the right question—notwithstanding the fact that he was asked, on the first question, whether he believed that the poll tax would endure. The statement that he had intended to make was, however, issued in his name later in the afternoon. That statement, of which we have a copy, makes it clear that no decision has yet been reached.
This is the position. The Prime Minister did not make a statement, and the statement that he did not make does not mention any decision to abolish the poll tax. Nevertheless, Lobby and other journalists have been briefed to that effect. A Prime Minister who was too frightened of the House, his own party and of the country to make the statement in his own name has nevertheless found a behind-the-stairs way of making a statement which goes well beyond the statement that he was too frightened to make to the House. If a decision has been made on the most pressing political issue of the day, should it not be made to the House by a Prime Minister prepared to defend it?
If the Prime Minister's explanation of his failure this afternoon to make a statement is that no one asked him the 1153 right question, I am glad to remedy that deficiency right now. Will he now come to the House and answer the many pressing questions about the decision that he claims to have taken?
If the Prime Minister continues to duck and weave, if he continues to refuse to face the House, is this not a fittingly disreputable and cowardly end to the whole disreputable saga of the poll tax? If the Prime Minister has at last nerved himself to take a decision that the poll tax must go, why will he not have the courage to come to the House and face the music?
Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, inquire whether a statement is now to be made either by the Prime Minister or by a senior Minister—the Leader of the House is present—so that the House is not treated in this contemptuous way, so that the people of this country are offered both an explanation and an apology, and so that the Prime Minister can at least explain whether it was a lack of honesty or a lack of nerve which led to that disreputable subterfuge?
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I was almost inclined to say that it was a contemptuous abuse of those of us who have been engaging in a debate in the House, because it really is a tortuous question that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) has raised. However, in view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I will make the position absolutely plain.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may often have the opportunity to say many things at Prime Minister's questions if he is asked particular questions and if he has the time to do so, so there is absolutely nothing significant in that whatever. I made our present position on the community charge clear in business questions. I made it quite clear this afternoon—this is what I think is the guidance that has been given—that the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of ministerial colleagues this morning, that he will chair a further meeting of ministerial colleagues next week, that the committee's conclusions will need to go to the full Cabinet and that we will announce our proposals after that.
Because I have been in the Chamber all afternoon, I have not seen what has been on the news bulletins tonight, but if they are saying either that the Prime Minister has made a statement to the effect that the poll tax is being abolished or that authoritative sources are saying so, I can say that there is no truth in that at all. The Prime Minister has not made such a statement, and nor have authoritative sources.
We seek to achieve proposals which are fair, which will not impose undue burdens on local taxpayers and which will provide a practical and lasting basis for the relationship between central and local government.
I think that I have made the position absolutely clear, and that we should not proceed further with this point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are in the middle of a debate in which other hon. Members want to take part.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I shall listen to the hon. Gentleman in a minute. I remind hon. Members that we are cutting into valuable private Members' time. I deliberately allowed much more flexibility than I would normally allow on points of order.
§ Mr. Gould
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not detain the House long. We have at least established, with regard to the reports based on briefing of Lobby journalists—and there is no question that that has happened, because all the radio and television journalists and the reporters for The Timesand other newspapers have told the same story—we have now had it on the authority of the Leader of the House that the briefing is to be withdrawn and is inaccurate. If we are now to be told that no decision has been taken and the poll tax survives for the time being, we can at least establish that the House still awaits a statement from the Government —from the Prime Minister—when it is taken, on when the poll tax is to be abolished.
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
It is outrageous and an abuse of our procedure, when I and other hon. Members have sat here waiting to make speeches, for Opposition Members to produce that sort of pantomime. Perhaps we can now return to the Easter Adjournment debate.
There are three brief constituency points that I hope the House will consider before we adjourn for the Easter recess. The first is what I describe as the protection of the consumer from unfair and misleading timeshare promotion schemes. Many hon. Members will have received complaints from their constituents about unsolicited mail, but I think that the present level of letters coming through our doors bearing American postmarks and inviting us to attend timeshare promotion schemes has got out of hand, and many of my constituents have made representations to me.
My wife and I have been invited to three such schemes. We are very lucky people. The first letter told us that we are category A winners and that we have won either a Volvo sports car, an Electra sport boat with outboard motor or £2,000 in cash. The next piece of mail told me that I have won a 1991 Ford Escort or a Bahamas cruise or £1,000 in cash. The third, which arrived this morning, tells me that I am a gold card winner and that I have won either a Ford Fiesta or an Electra sport boat. What on earth my wife and I will do with all these electric motor boats I do not know. Perhaps we will be able to sell them off Southend pier.
On a more serious note, my wife and I responded to one of these invitations, which told us that we had both won cars. I telephoned the company to find out if that was the case. I then engaged the company in correspondence and we received the following reply—I shall not mention the company's name on this occasion—I was very surprised to learn you went as far as discussing what colour Fiesta you and your wife would choose and how excited your household were on the morning that you received the letters. I did however detect a certain tongue-in-cheek tone and if you were truly under the impression that you have both won Ford Fiestas, which I seriously doubt, I should bring to your attention two main points included in the letterin very tiny print, of course— 1155Firstly, the opening line begins 'If you bring the number' and, secondly, in the sentence below the first box section, it clearly indicates that this is an illustration.What utter nonsense. Many of my constituents and, I am sure, other constituents represented by hon. Members are deliberately being misled by these promotions.
§ Mr. Amess
At the end of the letter, it says that if one wants evidence from some of these so-called winners one should telephone them. When I asked for the telephone numbers of these individuals I was told,You request finally to take advantage of my offer of contacting Mr. Noakes and Mrs. Aspinall. This is purely a figure of speech, but if the purpose of contacting them is to verify whether or not they were genuinely awarded motor cars, I can assure you that written and photographic evidence has been submitted to the Office of Fair Trading and the Advertising Standards Authority.I have two other brief points to make and do not want to deprive other hon. Members of the opportunity of taking part in the debate, but——
§ Mr. Amess
I am applying for an Adjournment debate, and on that occasion I may very well seek to name the company.
My second point is about hospital radio broadcasting. I have the honour to be the unpaid spokesman for Hospital Broadcasting. There are 312 hospital radio outlets throughout the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) has an excellent radio at his hospital, and I have an excellent one in Basildon. It is the largest national charity to possess no paid workers and the third largest radio network after the BBC and the independents. The therapeutic effect of hospital radio broadcasting is proven.
I plead with my right hon. Friend to pass a message to our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that when he comes to the Dispatch Box next Tuesday, he should say that he will treat hospital radio broadcasting in exactly the same way as he treats talking books for the blind and zero-rate hospital radio broadcasting equipment for VAT. That would mean an enormous saving to voluntary bodies. Currently, the organisers of hospital radio are having discussons with the IBA in the hope of obtaining a separate frequency. I hope that they will make good progress.
My final point relates to dyslexia. I understand that as a five-year-old I was unable to communicate with my peers. My class teacher pointed out that I had special learning difficulties, and I had speech therapy for three years—"How now brown cow," and so on. Dyslexia is a problem which concerns many of my constituents. The Department of Education and Science categorically recognises dyslexia but, sadly, Essex county council does not believe that it exists. It has no clear policy for helping children who suffer from word blindness. It will accept only that there may be learning difficulties. Many of my constituents came to my previous surgery and expressed concern about that.
I am happy to say that this Saturday we are launching the Basildon dyslexia association. The Government are encouraging county councils to provide special tuition for dyslexic children, so it is not their fault that it is not provided in Essex. We intend to lobby Essex county 1156 council until we obtain a centre of excellence within the Basildon constituency to help those children identified as suffering from dyslexia.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
I wish to bring the debate back to the subject of local government finance, and in particular to local government finance in my area. I do not think that the House should adjourn until the question of the poll tax is settled. The issue concerns many people in many ways. I make no apology for speaking emotionally about the poll tax, because it is a broadly based tax that affects people in different ways in different areas, depending on how they live, where they live, and what they live in. It is a more complicated problem than is generally realised.
My local authority has, once again, been capped, and quite unfairly. When the Secretary of State announced the criteria for poll tax capping, my authority complied with them and set a figure just below the capping level. Before that, the Department of Transport was considering a light railway system for Sheffield. The fact that there is a South Yorkshire transport executive affects the finances for the whole of south Yorkshire, which includes Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster. My authority was assured that the provision of a light railway system would not be taken into account for poll tax capping. It came as a complete surprise when my authority was capped, and especially as the reason was the expenditure on the light railway system in Sheffield. It had nothing to do with Barnsley, which simply happened to be the clearing station for the method by which local government finance was determined for the light railway system.
My authority is now faced with deciding between whether to try to save £368,000 in its budget or to say no to the light railway system—a system that the Department of Transport wants and that is essential for Sheffield. I have made my feelings clear. I could not justify to my constituents the closure of six schools so that £368,000 could be spent on a light railway system. I could not persuade them of the justice of so doing. The issue must be examined quickly and clearly.
If the Department of Transport wants the light railway system to proceed, it must remove it from the capping criteria. I have discussed the matter with my colleagues who represent Doncaster, and they are of the same opinion. Of course, the problem is one for local government, not for us, but I felt it necessary to make my position clear, because I have to justify what happens to my constituents. Barnsley has not built a nursery school for five years, simply because finance has not been available. It closed schools in the last session, and it is closing schools this session. In no way can I justify the expenditure of £368,000 on a light railway system.
I want the Government carefully to consider what is happening to Barnsley and Doncaster. We would love Sheffield to have its light railway system—it would be opportune for the world student games. Sheffield is a neighbour in many, many ways, and my local authority will have to consider the matter very carefully. There is need for a light railway system, and that need has been accepted by the Department of Transport because it has approved the finances for it.
The problem is not just that my authority has to find £368,000 this year; the light railway system is a 1157 multi-million pound project. It will affect us not just this year, but next year and the year after. I do not believe that my local authority can go along with that, although that is for it to decide. It will have to reconsider its budget. Before it does so, the Government should think carefully about the way that it is being treated. My authority has been unfairly dealt with, and unfairly and unwisely advised. The assurances given by the Department of Transport have not been honoured, and matters look bad for my authority.
We must consider the whole system of local government finance. I hope that, as has been rumoured this evening, the poll tax is to be abolished, but we will have to wait a week before we have the official verdict. We must examine what has happened to local government finance since 1979, why it has happened, and what system should be introduced. There has been a war between central and local government. They have battled about finance since 1979. Central Government grant to local government has been reduced from 79 per cent. to about 35 per cent. That is why local government is in trouble.
We must ask why that has happened. The only reason is that the Government realised that the majority of local government was Labour-controlled. They felt that if they could turn the blame towards local government and local councillors—which they unfairly tried to do—the local populations would get rid of their authorities. In fact, that did not happen. The local people rumbled what was happening and wisely said to the Government, "Not on your Nellie. We will vote for the authority we want, for the councillors we want, and for the policies we want." It is the local people who, since 1979, have said no to the Government. That is why the Government introduced the poll tax. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), was shooting from the hip. She said, "Get rid of high rates," rather than trying to find out the cause of those high rates. That is why the Government quickly introduced the poll tax.
I attended the first sitting of the Commitee that considered the poll tax legislation. The right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) was taking the Bill through the House. We told him that it was a silly mistake, and that the Government did not realise what they were doing. Conservative Members know that we warned the Government at that time. We asked the right hon. Gentleman to abandon the Bill and, instead, to put our heads together to find a system for local government finance that would not have to be changed year after year. We wanted a system that would last for decades.
We wanted to keep the old system. We wanted to identify the anomalies and remove them without throwing the baby out with the bath water. The right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury decided arrogantly that the poll tax was the Government's flagship and that they would go ahead with it. Once the Government had the poll tax around their neck, they realised that they were wrong and they decided that they had to get rid of it. The Government will have to eat humble pie. They must recognise that they have made a mistake.
The Government must also recognise that there is merit in the argument that everyone must pay according to his or her ability to pay. Clearly the poll tax is not based on the ability to pay. If we accept and recognise that local 1158 government is right and central Government are wrong, that the poll tax is wrong and that there is merit in asking everyone who has the ability to pay to do so, we can put our heads together once the political aspect has been removed and find a sensible way to finance local government.
Central Government must be big enough to say that they were wrong. They must say that the poll tax should not have been introduced and that they will get rid of it. We must then introduce a different system to finance local government.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
Before we adjourn for the Easter recess, I want to raise an issue of great concern to a major community in my constituency—the Sikh community of Gravesend and Northfleet.
My constituents are becoming increasingly anxious about the rising tide of violence and disorder in their homeland of the Punjab. The House will recall that at the time of independence for the sub-continent, it provided for a Muslim state of Pakistan and for an independent India for the Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities. At the time of independence, the Sikh leaders acquiesced to that arrangement following solemn assurances by Nehru and his associates.
In practice, as soon as India became independent, the majority Congress party broke all its promises of justice and equality made to the Sikhs before independence. The two Sikh representatives to the Indian constitutional convention refused to sign the final draft of the constitution because it contained no guarantee of the rights of minorities. In the Indian constitution today, the Sikh religion is not recognised, whereas Hinduism and Islam are.
The province of Punjab saw two new Hindu-dominated provinces hived off it—the provinces of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The residual state of Punjab no longer has its own Government and is subject to direct rule from Delhi. That has led to a bottling up of Punjabi political pressures. Inevitably, some argue that the only solution is secession from the republic through the creation of an independent Sikh state of Khalistan. Both the Khalistan campaigners and the moderate Sikhs, the latter who want only their human rights and to live in peace and prosperity that they are more than capable of creating for themselves, have no democratic outlets for their views. Their views are repressed within the Punjab.
The House will appreciate that that has led to political unrest, protest, reaction, violence and repression. In Britain we were shocked in 1984 by the terrible violence and desecration at the Sikhs' most holy shrine the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Subsequent events, the violence, murders, emergency laws and detentions without trial have resulted in a torrent of reports of infringements of human rights about which the human rights groups in the House has heard. Those infringements bring shame on the republic of India which prides itself on being the world's largest democracy.
The Punjab has traditionally been the bread basket of India. In recent years wheat production in the Punjab has doubled and doubled again. The province is potentially very prosperous and its Sikh population has been 1159 described as the Scots of India. How sad it is that that land is being stalked by the spectres of death, fear and extortion.
On 5 January, The Economist reported:The death toll in Punjab was almost 4,500 in 1990, the highest for any year. Not all killings should be blamed on the militants or police. With the breakdown of the administration, crime syndicates have come up in a big way.The Punjab needs its own representative legislative assembly which can give democratic expression to its people and appoint its own chief Minister and Government. In particular, it needs law and order. The present rule of gun law must be ended. The militants and the Government must call a halt to the carnage.
The Indian Government must accept that things cannot proceed as they are and that they cannot achieve anything on current trends. The brutality of the police and armed forces is achieving nothing. They are alienating the civil population by providing no protection to the law-abiding citizen and by condoning, and in some instances participating in, murder, rape and intimidation.
The Government of India must also show some concern for the police force. As The Economist reports:The police are demoralised. They unofficially pay bounties to armed freelances willing to take on the terrorists. Officially, any youngster willing to wield a gun can join a police team for 30 rupees"—less than £1—a day. Unfortunately, many youngsters disappear with their guns, and some have joined the militants.The republic of India is to hold another general election in May. I hope that the new Indian Government will learn the bitter lessons of the Punjab's recent history and restore to the state its representative legislative assembly which is a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and restore to its long-suffering people law and order and a respect for human rights.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will ensure that those hopes are endorsed and transmitted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to the incoming Indian Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
On 24 July 1986, I asked 17 specific questions about the forensic evidence of Dr. Skuse in relation to the Birmingham pub bombings. This is not the occasion to pursue that matter, although I sometimes wish that speeches in this place were examined more carefully. The proper thing for me to do is to submit evidence to Lord Runciman and Sir John May in their royal commission inquiry, and I shall do that.
The point, about which I have given notice, that I want to raise with the Leader of the House concerns the bombing on the Basra road. I became concerned about this when I read the news tape which stated:
"WARPLANES SWOOP ON FLEEING IRAQISAmerican warplanes swooped on Iraqi forces streaming `bumper to bumper' north from Kuwait City today picking them off with cluster bombs and other weapons, pilots on the US aircraft carrier Ranger reported.'It looks like the Iraqis are moving out and we're hitting them hard. It's not going to take too many more days until there's nothing left of them,' Captain Ernest Christensen told pool reporters aboard the carrier.The pilots said the Iraqis were fleeing north towards the city of Basra in southern Iraq, presenting a bounty of targets for A-6 Intruders and other war planes.Huge B-52 bombers were also dropping 1,000-lb bombs on the highways north of Kuwait City, they added.1160`We hit the jackpot,' one pilot said.Captain Christensen described Iraqi movements as both 'a withdrawal and a retreat'.I genuinely asked questions about that instead of jumping to conclusions. However, on 7 March the Prime Minister said:Allied forces had instructions to attack retreating Iraqi units which could continue to pose a threat. We have no information on casualties sustained in these attacks."—[Official Report, 7 March 1991; Vol. 187 c. 247.]That needs amplification before the House goes into recess.
In the Gulf war, there were 131 allied dead, an estimated 2,000 people were killed in Kuwait and 150,000 Iraqis were killed. To find an equivalent imbalance, one must go back to the Conquistadores. A large percentage of those people were killed in the land war launched by Washington after Iraq had agreed, in Moscow, to an unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.
Colin Hughes spoke ofthe glee with which American pilots returning their carriers spoke of the 'duck shoot' presented by columns of retreating Iraqis from Kuwait city.That troubles many of us. The American pilots used Rockeye cluster bombs, which dispersed 247 bomblets containing needle-sharp shrapnel designed for soft targets —people. Their targets included many contract workers from the Indian subcontinent—that was discovered from the nature of their luggage—who had no air cover. Did allied aeroplanes deliberately bomb people who were running away on the road to Basra? That question is also asked by the Kuwaitis.
I am indebted to Dr. Stephen Pullger for bringing to my attention a quote by Martyn Lewis, a BBC presenter, who said:The Kuwaitis fear that many of the hostages taken from Kuwait by retreating Iraqi troops may have died in Allied air attacks. Hundreds of the vehicles they used were trapped and bombed at the Mutla Gap as they poured out of Kuwait City, heading north on the main road to Basra.A reporter, Michael MacMillan, was filmed on location as saying:About an hour's road journey out of Kuwait City and heading north, the A1-Mutla Gap is where the Iraqi Army came to a standstill, paralysed by a relentless Allied air offensive.What concerns the Kuwaitis is that buses like these had been used in the round up of people from Kuwait in the last three days of the Iraqi occupation.I shall not read many of the other current reports in my possession.
I am not the only person asking such questions. Sir Michael Howard, former professor of the history of war at Oxford and now professor of modern history at Yale, said in The Times:Ever since the first world war, our primary concern has been to minimise our own casualties by using superior technology and industrial power to inflict crushing losses on our opponents—including their non-combatant populations.Apparently, Sir Michael Howard is among those concerned by the bombing. The consequences of the bombing—not merely probable but certain from the outset—were the opposite of proportional or utilitarian behaviour, even in the context of war.
One of the cruellest ironies of the conflict is that as many Kuwaitis may have died in this grotesque carnage of the allied bombing of that retreating army on the road to Basra as died at the hands of their Iraqi abductors. Would 1161 anyone, on either Front Bench, care to justify the proportionality, logic, necessity or morality of that massacre?
Ruth Wishart wrote a moving article in The Scotsman, entitled "Ashamed of war's offensive aspects" in which she said:I am ashamed of how we have been led to behave in the past 48 hours, and I am ashamed that we no longer appear capable of independent thought. Surely the answer to atrocities and war crimes is to bring to justice the perpetrators, not indiscriminate, wholesale slaughter.That is how it looks. Why were B52 bombers used by generals said to be devoted to pinpoint bombing? They laid mile upon mile of carpets of death. Pilots who dropped high explosives through clouds from 20,000 ft were, on one air force reckoning, achieving "circular error probability" of one or two miles. That means that only half their bombs could fall in that radius.
I refer to a moving letter in The Timesfrom Alison Buirski, who said:There is much talk about Saddam Hussein using civilian buildings, such as schools, for military purposes. I recollect with horror my own experience during the Second World War. At the end of 1943 in West London, I gave birth to my first child in Queen Charlotte's Maternity Hospital, Hammersmith, across the road from where we lived.My baby was barely four-weeks-old when suddenly the area was subjected to a fiercely intensive series of air raids. I spent two nights crouched in my basement flat with my baby and then rushed away to my mother who lived in the country, taking with me a friend and her baby. We were lucky as my mother made room for us. We learnt that the target for this return of the Luftwaffe to our skies over Hammersmith was St. Paul's School just up the road, which was being used as headquarters for General Eisenhower's D Day preparations.I need hardly add that even to write about this memory is hard. It is something I would prefer to leave buried but reading about the air attacks on Baghdad, I know it is forever with me and I must protest against the bombing of all cities, by they London or Baghdad.The House of Commons, at least, deserves an answer. John Lehman, former secretary to the United States navy, said:Pentagon contacts had told him the laser-guided bombs were hitting their targets about 60‥ of the time. If you get a cloud coming between the airplane and the target or a burst of smoke, that breaks the laser-beam.My colleagues and I are not ashamed to be called dogs of peace. The dogs of peace say that someone, some time, must answer those awkward questions.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
Having often had the job of responding to debates such as this, I have come to the conclusion that it is an almost impossible job. This debate has covered such a wide range of subjects that it is impossible to respond to all of them. I shall therefore concentrate on the subject that has undoubtedly been the theme of the week—the poll tax.
Before doing so, let me acknowledge the speeches on the middle east and the Gulf war that have been made by two or three of my hon. Friends including my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), and on the hostages issue, which concerns so many of us and was mentioned by several Conservative Members. Clearly it is appropriate that those issues should be reflected in a debate that is a sort of end-of-term report. The two or three months since Christmas have been dramatic.
1162 I make no apology for concentrating on the poll tax. When I summed up a similar debate at Christmas, I could report with pleasure and pride—with the confidence of knowing that I had the House behind me—that we had managed, in the period since the autumn break, to get rid of the Prime Minister. It is not often that an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman can say that, knowing that he has the support of the majority of the House. All my hon. Friends, plus a fair number of Tory Members, supported me on that issue. I am rather bewildered but pleased to say now that I can look forward with pleasure to the demise of the poll tax. Once again, I can speak, with the majority —perhaps with one or two late converts—of the House behind me. I hope that the Leader of the House will respond to the two or three points that I shall make on the poll tax.
The Government cannot dismiss the poll tax as if it were a peripheral policy they got wrong and for which they now mildly apologise. It has been central to the Government's legislative programme since 1987. They cannot say, "We sold you a second-hand car in 1987 and now we are sorry that a couple of tyres are bald." Rather, they should be saying, "We sold you a second-hand car in 1987 and it is now a total write-off." In any other walk of life, a substantial response would be required for such an error of judgment and such an infliction on the people of this country. The experiment has been a hugely expensive failure. Our estimate is that it has cost £10 billion.
In the past couple of weeks my constituency has been told that we cannot have our education capital allocation of £17.4 million because the financial position will not allow it. Instead, we are to have about a third of that—£6.5 million—which is considerably less than the single capital allocation to the city technology college, the one school which received massive Government handouts in the constituency. When I discovered that frugality was the order of the day on those matters, but that the Government had £10 billion to waste on the ludicrous experiment of the poll tax, I got some idea of the warped values of Conservative Members. I am glad to see that the Leader of the House agrees that so far £10 billion has been wasted on the poll tax in relief payments and implementation costs.
I know for certain that, in any walk of life other than Conservative Cabinets, if an error of the magnitude of the poll tax occurred, heads would roll. If the board of directors of a company or a local authority made a horrendous mess of its financial calculations, or if the management of a football club said that it intended to build a new stand that would cost a few million and that stand fell down after two years, someone would be held responsible. Why is that not happening in the Government? Who is responsible for what has happened? Who will own up and say, "Fair cop, Guy; it was me"? We see no sign whatever of that happening, yet undoubtedly if it happened in any other walk of life the Government would look for a scapegoat. The Government are ducking their responsibility.
It seems that there will not even be any resignations. Conservative Members will do their triple somersaults and stand on their heads and feel no obligation to resign because the principle that they supported has been turned over. I would certainly feel much better if the Government did one simple thing—I am sure that the Leader of the House will not do it, but perhaps someone else will. They 1163 should simply say, "We are sorry. We got it horribly wrong and you in the Labour party—look me in the eye, watch my lips—were spot on in all the criticisms you made."
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay), is a reliable witness. He has stated this evening that he warned in Standing Committee—I was not there, but I am sure that his statement is accurate—what would happen if the Government went down the path they proposed. He said that it would be vastly expensive, grossly unfair and totally unworkable—[Interruption.]Conservative Members are becoming more and more agitated, except those who did not vote for the poll tax throughout.
§ Mr. Grocott
I shall not give way, because the Leader of the House and I have only eight minutes each to reply to the debate.
It is astonishing that the Government could be so dreadfully wrong and we could be so entirely right, but the Government do not apologise. I see Conservative Members' indignation.
§ Mr. Raffan
The hon. Gentleman paints a mythical fantasy picture of the unity of his party, yet we all know that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) resigned because he disagreed with fellow Labour Members on the Front Bench about the Labour party's original proposals, to which we have already had 62 alterations.
§ Mr. Grocott
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been around to witness recent developments on these matters, but he is delving into ancient history now. We know perfectly well what his party said and did. We know who is culpable.
I make one appeal to the Government, as we are in a mood of conciliation. We shall not be too triumphant about the poll tax; we shall just say, "We told you so." But how about a little fairness in the tactics employed in the pre-election mood which seems to be gripping everyone at present? Let us have a little honesty about the way in which programmes are being costed.
I listened to the Secretary of State for the Environment yesterday. I noticed that, not surprisingly, all his effort was directed at seeking to destroy our policy documents on local government finance. Of course, he has the whole weight of the civil service to cost our proposals. Unashamedly the Government constantly use their civil servants—6,000 of them in Marsham street—to cost and examine everything we do. If the Government want to do that, fair enough. I suppose that we will do it after the next election when we are in government.
I should like the Government to adopt a little consistency. I listened with interest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) about his endeavours in the matter, but I have been trying in vain by means of parliamentary questions to have some of the Tory election pledges costed. One would think that one could do it by means of a parliamentary question. I understand that, if the Tory party wins the next election, one thing that it will do is to allow all schools to opt out, 1164 as it is so fond of schools opting out. Of course, the Leader of the House is particularly well qualified to answer on this matter, because he was responsible for some of the errors made.
I should have thought that it was reasonable to seek to find out from the Department of Education and Science what it would cost if all schools opted out, given that Ministers have told us repeatedly that there are costs associated with opting out. There are many costs, but one of them is the transitional grants which are paid to schools which opt out. I asked what I regarded as two simple questions, and one does not need to be a top-ranking civil servant to answer them. I asked what would be the average cost in transitional grants of schools that opted out. The Government found difficulty in answering that question, but eventually I was given a list of the schools that had opted out and the cost in each case. I worked out the average, although perhaps the Government could not. The average cost was about £25,000 per school.
I hope that the next question is clear to the House. It was obviously not clear to the Ministers or officials at the DES. It was:To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science.…what would be the total cost in payment of…transitional grants, assuming that the present average payment was maintained, if every local education authority school opted for grant-maintained status.Reading between the lines, I was trying to find out what the Tory party's election manifesto, as it developed, would cost us. The answer that I received from the DES was:The levels of these grants arc reviewed annually in the light of the Government's spending priorities for education and other services. It is not therefore possible to project a figure for the total cost if every local authority school opted for grant-maintained status."—[Official Report, 7 March 1991; Vol. 187, c. 229.]My word, I bet it would be possible to determine the cost if that policy was in our manifesto. I have not the slightest doubt that Ministers would be jumping up at the Dispatch Box with the figures. In this slightly frenetic pre-election atmosphere, let us have some consistency in the Government's approach. If they cost election manifestos, let them cost their own as well as the Labour party's manifesto. Let us have a little humility from the Government too.
It would be wrong to sit down without mentioning the other piece of bad news for the Government this week, although they do not seem to be too worried about it. Perhaps they represent seats where there are no problems of unemployment. The bad news this week is the unemployment figures. Again, a central plank of the Government's case is that all the misery they have put us through in the past 12 years can be excused because they are good at managing the economy and can be tough. They are not very good at managing employment in the economy. Unemployment is now 2 million, even on the Government's fiddled figures, and we know well enough how the methods of calculation have been changed over the years.
Representing a constituency in the west midlands where we have been hard hit twice by the recessions engineered by the Government in the past 12 years, I always find it amusing that the Government talk as if the 85,000 people thrown out of work since the previous month's figures were published are not really 85,000 people because the figures have to be seasonally adjusted. I wish that the Government would distinguish between people, who have lost their jobs in the past month who are actually out of 1165 work and the people who are merely seasonally adjusted. It is apparent to the people who have lost their jobs. That is the scale of the economic failure that we have suffered under this Government. Hardly a day goes by without some further evidence arising of the way in which they have mismanaged our affairs in the past 12 years.
We end this Session until the Easter recess with a little election atmosphere in the air, which is reflected in the comments of several hon. Members. We are told that the Prime Minister has been reading the opinion polls and that they tell him that he is the most popular, warm and caring human being since polling began. I hope that he believes those polls. I understand that he thinks that there may be a window of electoral opportunity. If he believes that, I invite him, please, to jump. Perhaps he feels that he will have an electoral opportunity in the next few months. I hope that this is the last time that we shall have a debate such as this under this Government. Like all my right hon. and hon. Friends, I look forward to a general election to put some of these problems right, and the sooner it comes the better.
§ 8 pm
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)
I agree with one comment—and one comment only—made by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott). I have learnt that this is an impossible debate to answer, because so many different points are raised and I do not have the luxury that the hon. Gentleman has of not answering most of the questions.
Were it not for the disgraceful abuse of procedures—not only bogus points of order, but the bogus point made by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) —I should have had longer in which to speak. Several hon. Members specifically asked me to draw certain issues to the attention of one of my right hon. Friends. I shall do so if I cannot deal with all the points tonight.
I shall begin by dealing with one of the points made by the hon. Member for The Wrekin because it was absolutely ludicrous. He mentioned the figure of £10 billion and used the word "wasted" in relation to the community charge. In the same breath, he talked about honesty in figures. I do not think that I have heard a more dishonest figure for a long time. It is typical of the outrageous misinformation campaign waged by the hon. Gentleman and shows how little the Labour party understands about these issues.
How did he reach the figure of £10 billion? It must include much of the money spent by central Government on rebates, benefits to students and others and the transitional relief scheme. Those schemes are designed to reduce the community charge for those on lower incomes. If he describes that as money wasted on administration, he has hit the wrong target. It is typical of the way in which he tries to distort the facts. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that what he calls waste has benefited many people and has been well targeted.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) spoke about his local theatre. I am a strong supporter of local theatre, so I understand why he chose to speak on that subject. As he said, I am familiar with the Eastern Arts regional association. While he was 1166 speaking, I wrote down that I would respond by making it clear that, although I should pass on his comments to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts, it is an issue for Eastern Arts. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West knows that the arm's-length principle applies to arts funding. He acknowledged that and he knows that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts has no direct power to intervene. I hope that the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West will be drawn to the attention of Eastern Arts, and I understand his constituency interest.
The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) raised a couple of points in his entertaining speech. I shall deal first with his comments on parliamentary questions, to which I have two responses. He said that he had experienced some difficulty with the Table Office about what were described as campaigning questions. The Procedure Committee is undertaking an investigation into oral questions—I have given evidence to it—and he will be able to put his points to it.
The right hon. Gentleman also said that he had been told that questions were too expensive. There are good reasons for that, because there must be a limit to the expense of any one question. However, I have told the Procedure Committee that we must have a more accurate figure on the cost of answering questions. Perhaps we shall have to make a few changes.
The right hon. Gentleman's point of substance was about people escaping from open prisons. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who has responsibility for prisons, will shortly discuss it with him directly. I hope that that will help to overcome some of the procedural problems that he encountered.
In their moving speeches, my hon. Friends the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) and for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) referred to the hostages. I fully understand why they raised that important matter on the Adjournment debate. We all hope that progress can be made before we rise for Easter. My hon. Friends were right to remind us of the plight of the hostages and we share their concern. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster that the four he mentioned are far from being forgotten. I shall pass on my hon. Friends' comments, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South said, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs needs no reminding.
I have one or two comments to make about the hostages, because it is one of the most important points to be raised tonight. As the Prime Minister told the House on 28 February, the fate of our hostages is ever present in our minds. We are determined to secure their release and we are doing everything that we can to bring it about. We believe that Iran has decisive influence. We are pressing the Iranians to live up to their undertaking to use their humanitarian influence to achieve the release of our hostages. We have made clear to them the importance that we attach to this issue and we have told them unequivocally that there can be no prospect of developing a bilateral relations until if the hostages are freed. The freeing of the hostages would transform our relationship. We are also encouraging the Syrians to maintain their helpful efforts on our behalf. The extension of their influence in Lebanon lends importance to their role.
1167 My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster mentioned especially the case of Roger Cooper. We remain concerned about his continued imprisonment in Tehran since 1985 and regard it as wholly unjustified. We hope that the Iranians will release him soon. Following reports in the Tehran Timeswhich refer to him, we have been in contact with our chargé d'affaires in Tehran. We have made it clear to the Iranians that further advances in our relations are imposssible unless Roger Cooper and our hostages in Lebanon are released. I hope that that makes our position clear and I am grateful to my hon. Friends for raising the issue.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce). There is currently a substantial expansion in higher education and, clearly, we wish the deaf to be included in that. Several things have been done to help the disabled, including the deaf. Under the loan scheme there was special treatment for people with disabilities. The Department of Education and Science offers a capital grant scheme to enable independent colleges of further education to improve facilities for the disabled. The hon. Gentleman referred especially to the new disabled students' allowance which, when I was Secretary of State for Education and Science, increased significantly from £765 to £1,000 a year. He also referred to the two new allowances—one for equipment of up to £3,000 over the whole course and one for non-medical care costs of up to £4,000 a year. The latter two are likely to be especially useful to the deaf.
I was interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about the allowances not working and about the people for whom they were meant not having access to the funds. I shall draw his comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Science.
My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) raised the issue of tourism. I know of his great interest in tourism, which plays a considerable role in our constituencies. I have seen the effect of the Gulf conflict on tourism in central London and elsewhere. People from overseas had unnecessary fears about coming to this country. However, they are coming back, and I hope that they will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend knows that tourism is achieved by a mixture of public and private expenditure—especially private sector expenditure, and I shall comment on that in a moment. He referred briefly to the grant to the British Tourist Authority, but I am sure that he will acknowledge that direct Government support, through the statutory tourist boards, amounts to much more than he said. Indeed, it amounts to about £74 million. The Government contribute in a number of other ways to tourism. It is estimated that Government support for other tourism-related activities exceeds £380 million. I want to get the figures on record to show——
§ Mr. MacGregor
I am sorry that I cannot give way.
The Government make a substantial contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for York and I know that many of the excellent examples in tourism, and so many of the substantial changes and developments in recent years, are due to the efforts of private enterprise and to entrepreneurial activity. We have done much to encourage 1168 that. The far better facilities and services have come about through a mixture of private enterprise and of public support, especially the former.
I was determined to make the point to the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) that has been made on so many occasions and must be made again when one listens to his remarks. It needs to be rammed home again and again whose fault it was that the situation arose and how many opportunities were given to Saddam Hussein to avoid a conflict after his aggressive invasion on 2 August and before 15 January, which he did not take up.
The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East raised two points about sanctions. It is too soon to say how or when sanctions should be modified. The Security Council will need to consider carefully and will need to see Iraqi compliance with the Security Council resolutions, especially resolution 686. Thereafter, a selective and progressive approach is required. Clearly, that is a condition.
The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East referred to the defence components exhibition. It is organised by the Defence Export Services Organisation, which was set up under a Labour Government in 1966. All proposed arms exports are considered case by case and are subject to stringent licensing procedures. Before a licence is granted, a wide variety of considerations is taken into account. It does not follow that, because an item is exhibited at the defence components and equipment exhibition, an export licence will be granted.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) raised a number of points about homelessness. As I have only another 30 seconds, I cannot give much response, except to say that he will know that substantial sums are now being devoted to that by the Government. The hon. Gentleman also took us into an interesting discourse on the history of satanic abuse. His main point was to draw some of that to the attention of social workers. My hon. Friend the Minister for Health has said that firmer guidance will be issued this summer to local authorities in a new version of the publication "Working Together".
My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) tempted me by saying that I was the only remaining Norfolk Minister to whom he had not made representations on his issue. I will have to give him a different, but equally disappointing, answer tonight. He will know that we are in the period of Budget purdah, so it is not possible for me to say anything on the matter this evening.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 28th March, do adjourn until Monday 15th April and, at its rising on Friday 3rd May, do adjourn until Tuesday 7th May.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order during a debate that is dedicated to Back Benchers for a Front-Bench Opposition spokesman to waste our valuable time in playing silly games for the benefit of journalists?
Is it in order for another Front-Bench Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), to wind up by covering subjects such as city technology colleges and unemployment, which were not raised in the debate, and to ignore important issues, such as the one that I raised about the Punjab, the one raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) and Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) 1169 on the hostages and the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) on the interests of caravan dwellers? Is it in order that our debate should be wholly subverted by the Labour Front Bench?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
It occasionally happens that points of order are raised during private Members' time. The Chair always regrets that, because it cuts into private Members' time, which is especially relevant when debates are timed. This is one of the few occasions in the parliamentary year when virtually any point can be raised as long as it is prefaced by the comment that we should have a debate on it before we adjourn.