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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) : I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on managing to establish cross-party support for privatisation in the form that he has outlined--employee buy-outs and participation--but will he say something about how his plans will affect the growth of competition in the industry, which is vital to improve services for the customer?
Mr. Rifkind : Under existing arrangements, the Scottish Bus Group, which owns all the companies that we are to privatise, if not a monopoly, is in a very dominant position. The replacement of that group by no fewer than 10 or 11 separate companies, each of which will compete with existing private sector companies and public transport companies, including the soon to be privatised PTC in Grampian, will undoubtedly give a substantial boost to real choice and real competition, very much to the benefit of the travelling public.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Can we have an assurance that the highway hoodlum, Mr. Souter of Stagecoach, will not be allowed to buy any part of the Scottish Bus Group? Is the Secretary of State for Scotland aware that Mr. Souter dumped nearly 50 buses in the bus station in Keswick, having bought Cumberland Motor Services earlier this year? In effect, he blockaded the town to tourists and cost shopkeepers in my constituency millions of pounds because of his foolish actions, which he took only because the planning authorities refused to give him a planning permission? Is that the kind of man who will be allowed to run the Scottish bus industry in the future?
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : What evidence does the Secretary of State have for his statement a few moments ago that employees of the Tayside public transport company support privatisation of that company? There is no such support among workers in the Strathtay company. There is simply a recognition that they would prefer a management-employee buy-out to a takeover by a cash-rich predator from the south. Will the Secretary of State help those workers by giving them an assurance that, if their management-employee bid is realistic and commensurate with the value of the public assets involved, he will accept it and not sell out to a higher bidder elsewhere?
Mr. Rifkind : I have already explained the basis on which bids will be considered. I have said that, subject to these general criteria, we want to give preference to employee and management buy-outs. I cannot at the moment anticipate what the difference might be between proposals from the management and employees and from other applicants. We will apply exactly the same criteria as the regional council of which the hon. Gentleman was once a member.
Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West) : I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on this announcement. Does he agree that, by breaking down the 3,000 buses into 11 units, he has avoided the predatory pricing which could have arisen? The likely outcome of my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals is an increase in services to rural areas, not a decrease. What plans does he have for privatisation of depots?
Mr. Rifkind : Depots are part of the individual companies and will be privatised as part of the larger privatisation. There were some suggestions from certain quarters about whether it would be desirable to privatise individual depots. We have to bear in mind the likely viability of a depot. It is probably in the interests of employees and all who use these services for us to use the companies to which I have referred as the units on which privatisation is based.
Mr. Bob McTaggart (Glasgow, Central) : The Secretary of State has said more than once that it is unacceptable for subsidised routes to be the same as unsubsidised ones. It is often the case, however--especially with the Scottish Bus Group--that subsidised routes are partly the same as unsubsidised ones. That fact has been reported to the traffic commissioners, who have found in favour of the private sector. Can we have an assurance that the same strict criteria will not apply to Caledonian MacBrayne or to any subsidised ferry routes to the islands, bearing in mind the severity of what could happen as a result?
Mr. Rifkind : As the hon. Gentleman knows, with regard to ferries, at Gourock-Dunoon there are two routes that are identical, for all practical purposes. The terminals are a few hundred yards apart on both sides of the route, and that is the point that I was making. I was saying not that there would be a law to prevent that, but that as a matter of policy it seemed an unnecessary use of public money to provide a subsidy so that such a situation could continue. The hon. Gentleman mentioned bus services. I share his view that it is not desirable in principle for a subsidy to be used to enable a company to compete
Column 718effectively with another that is not subsidised. We shall have to find a way in which such abuses--if they are abuses--can be resolved properly.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : Will the Secretary of State accept that his statement, insofar as it concerns the Borders region, will be warmly welcomed, for two reasons? First, Lowland Scottish will be offered for sale as a free-standing entity. Secondly, his comments about the provisions for employee participation will be welcomed. That reflects the broadly based representations that were made by the trade unions, the local authorities and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel). Will the Secretary of State now return to the question of the financial assistance that will be available to management-employee teams? He would help them to prepare their bid better if he gave more explanation about the financial assistance involved.
Mr. Rifkind : I am grateful for that welcome for the terms of my statement. In reply to the second part of the question, we envisage that we may be able to give--although we cannot quantify it--financial assistance to employees and managers who are contemplating a bid. That financial assistance will enable them to obtain professional advice on how to put together a proposal, what is required to make a credible proposal and what the parameters should be, to ensure that they are not disadvantaged through lack of experience in the necessary mechanics for competing with companies or others who may wish to put in a bid.
The second form of assistance will apply to the time when the bids are being considered from the various applicants. We have said, although we cannot yet quantify it, that we shall give preference to management- employee buy-outs. The scale of that preference has yet to be determined.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : When is the first unit of the Scottish Bus Group likely to be privatised? I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his emphasis on employee participation in the privatisation of the group. Does he accept that many regard that emphasis as the acceptable side of devolution in Scotland? As a former convener of Aberdeen municipal transport committee, I congratulate the Socialists of Aberdeen on securing the objective that I failed to achieve--privatisation of that service.
Mr. Rifkind : I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's generous compliment to his one-time political opponents. I am sure that he never expected to live to see the day when the Socialists of Aberdeen would join those of other parties in support of privatising the local bus service.
I cannot give a specific timing for these disposals, but the Transport (Scotland) Bill, which provides for the flotation, is to be tabled today and, subject to Parliament's approval, we hope that the necessary legislation will be enacted during the current Session.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : Does the Secretary of State recall his weasel words about rural routes at the time of deregulation? Is he aware that many communities in my constituency have lost services, particularly at the weekends and at off-peak times? It is no use for him to rabbit on about route mileage when all the buses are running on the same urban routes,
Column 719with different operators. We want to talk about rural routes. Can the Secretary of State give any guarantee that services will not be decimated under privatisation as they were at the time of deregulation?
Mr. Rifkind : There is no need for the hon. Gentleman to become apoplectic. The route mileage has gone up, not down. If the hon. Gentleman becomes upset when I agree with him, God knows what he will be like when I disagree with him.
As he knows, Strathclyde regional council is perfectly able to provide public funds to support the continuation of routes that individual companies do not want to provide. The regional council is the appropriate authority to decide whether there is a social need for a bus service on a particular route.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : As far as Caledonian MacBrayne is concerned, will the Secretary of State accept my welcome for 80 per cent. of his statement, which represents retreat? Perhaps in this context we can magnanimously and temporarily forgive him the 20 per cent. that is an ideological figleaf. Will he confirm that his rather patronising remarks about value for money do not suggest a further cut in the CalMac subsidy? Will he accept that a move to Oban should be a matter for debate rather than diktat?
Will the Secretary of State accept that, if the status quo is not an option for buses, an employee buy-out is the best means of common ownership, which will maintain jobs, standards and services? Will he assist that option with substance, rather than mere hope? Will he note our apprehension about predatory bids and will he note that there are plenty of Scottish cowboys, some of them on board stagecoaches?
Mr. Rifkind : I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box for his maiden appearance. I am glad that he has used the occasion to welcome the Government's statement--or at least 80 per cent. of it. I hope that that is a useful precedent that he will follow in the weeks and months to come.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the level of subsidy for Caledonian MacBrayne. Naturally, we shall ensure that the subsidy is at the level required to ensure a lifeline to the islands and that the good quality of service that there has been--particularly in the past nine years--is maintained.
As for employee buy-outs, the hon. Gentleman heard what I had to say on the matter and I am glad that he too seems to be joining those who, under certain conditions, are delighted to welcome privatisation.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday afternoon the Prime Minister abused Question Time to make a statement on the extradition of Father Patrick Ryan. She said :
"The failure to secure Ryan's arrest is a matter of very grave concern to the Government. It is no use Governments adopting great declarations and commitments about fighting terrorism if they then lack the resolve to put them into practice."--[ Official Report, 29 November 1988 ; Vol. 142,
That is quite right. We wish that the Prime Minister would follow the example of her own words. The basis of the Prime Minister's claim is that the warrant was sent to Dublin, with additional documentation, on Friday night. We now know from the Crown Prosecution Service that that was not the case. The Prime Minister has misled the House. The Prime Minister also failed to mention the dilatoriness of the Government in dealing with the Ryan case. Ryan was arrested on 30 June, but the Government failed to serve warrants until 5 September. On 25 November a decision was taken. [Interruption.] It is a point of order. The Government obviously do not like being taken to task when the Prime Minister misleads the House.
On 25 November the decision was taken that the Government would put forward demands to the Irish Government, and the Irish Government were expected to do in five minutes what the Belgian Government did not do in five months and for which the British Government were responsible because of the delay in issuing the warrants.
Mr. McNamara : With great respect, Mr. Speaker, I am coming to a point of order. The matters that I am describing are the background to it. Has the Prime Minister asked you for an opportunity to come to the House to apologise for deliberately misleading it on the issue of the warrants and--
Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he cannot allege that any hon. Member or right hon. Member has deliberately misled the House. He must withdraw that allegation. [Hon. Members :-- "Withdraw."] Withdraw the allegation, please-- [Interruption.] Order. We had this unhappy business yesterday. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that allegation, please.
Mr. McNamara : With the greatest respect, Mr. Speaker, before I was interrupted by Conservative Members I was immediately going to withdraw that remark if you had said so, because I respect you and the Chair, which Conservative Members do not always seem to do. I was going to ask you, Mr. Speaker, when we could expect the Prime Minister to apologise to the House and what arrangements would be made--this is relevant to what happened yesterday--to have the situation recorded properly in the Official Report.
Mr. John Morris (Aberavon) : Following the precedent set in the case of Patrick McVee, when I gave the Attorney-General my support, has the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked for leave to make a statement on the case of Patrick Ryan? Is not the Attorney-General's proper role to advise the Government and the House, rather than to brief the press through his minions? Would it not be more dignified for proper statements to be made to the House by responsible Ministers, rather than for the Prime Minister to abuse Question Time, so that we can have confirmation of what the Attorney- General said on 14 June--whether it still exists or not--namely, that there was a close and personal relationship between himself and his opposite number in the Republic?
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The point of order that I wish to raise arises out of the exchange yesterday, but is totally different in character. The hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), whom I put on notice that I would raise this matter, said :
"one of the most wanted terrorists has been let free".
In his question in relation to that case he then said : "many still believe that the Irish Republic is a safe haven for some terrorists".
In response--I shall not quote it all--the Prime Minister said : "I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that, although the Government of the Republic of Ireland make fine-sounding speeches".--[ Official Report, 29 November 1988 ; Vol. 142, c.574-75.]
That question and the assent given to it by the Prime Minister raise two points of order. First, legal proceedings have been taken by the Attorney- General in the case of Father Ryan. As he is abroad, the legal proceedings initiated here have been taken up in Belgium and the Republic. It has been a long practice of the House, which you have rigidly enforced in respect of "Spycatcher", where there was a case in Australia, and in the case of the miners' strike, where miners were coming before the courts, that it was not in order for Members of the House of Commons to confirm or to comment on cases that were sub judice, because the process of bringing the case before the court had begun . I hope--
Mr. Benn : With great respect, Mr. Speaker, I am not asking you to resolve today the case that I am putting to you, but legal proceedings have begun, and in this context they are legal proceedings with a view to bringing somebody before a court. If somebody was wanted by the police in this country and was named in the House as if he had already been convicted, I feel certain that you would interpret that as sub judice.
Column 722Secondly, it is clearly a misuse of privilege to use the protection of the House of Commons to make such an allegation. Father Ryan is wanted on a serious charge. It could hardly be more serious. It is in accordance with the practice of the British courts that anyone charged is presumed innocent until convicted. Therefore, when a senior Member of the House says, and it is confirmed by the Prime Minister, that that person is a terrorist, it is impossible from that moment on for that man to have a fair trial. The BBC broadcast those remarks and every newspaper has highlighted them.
The reason why I draw this to your attention, Mr. Speaker--I make no criticism of your conduct of business yesterday--is that the sub judice rule and the self-limitation on privilege are to prevent the House of Commons from becoming a lynch mob. In my submission, yesterday it became a lynch mob, headed by the Prime Minister, whose remarks are bound to prejudice any jury or judge if Father Ryan is brought to this country.
Finally, the reason why this is important is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said at Question Time, as a result of the Guildford, Woolwich and Birmingham bombings, many people abroad--this was confirmed by what the Prime Minister said yesterday--do not believe that Irish prisoners get justice in British courts.
Mr. Speaker : I advise the right hon. Gentleman that this case is not yet sub judice and I advise the House that every hon. Member must take responsibility for what he says. As I have said before, we have freedom of speech here, but it should be used with great caution. What the right hon. Gentleman has said about any man being innocent until proved guilty is absolutely correct.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) for the courtesy of telling me that he was going to raise this matter. I used the phrase yesterday solely in the context of my outrage at the fact that that person was not being brought here to face trial. It was not intended to be an intimation of guilt. Strictly, I should have said, "Ryan is the man the security forces most want in connection with serious terrorist offences." I am happy to make that plain.
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I believe that yesterday the Prime Minister abused the proceedings of the House in the most disgraceful way imaginable. Essentially, she made a statement during Question Time. I believe that her motive was to grab the headlines from my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), who slaughtered the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government's economic policy. In her abuse of our proceedings the Prime Minister raised the question of the extradition of Father Ryan in the most politically insensitive way imaginable, because that is a matter for the Attorney-General. The Prime Minister also prevented hon. Members from properly questioning the Government on the mess that they have got into on the question of warrants.
Column 723My point of order, Mr. Speaker, is to inquire whether, if the Attorney-General asks to make a statement at 7 o'clock this evening, you will look at that sympathetically.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. As we have a heavy day ahead of us, I ask hon. Gentlemen whether these are points of order that I can deal with, because so far, apart from that of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), they are not really points of order for which I have responsibility.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : This is a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The various points of order have raised what seems to us a potential abuse of Question Time by the Prime Minister, who incorporated into an answer what was, in effect, a statement. As you will recall, Mr. Speaker, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) launched an attack on two Governments--these are serious matters--and the Prime Minister replied in kind. There was no opportunity for Opposition Members to question her, as would be the case if a statement was made.
There is an alternative for you to consider, Mr. Speaker, because Standing Order No. 17 states :
"No question shall be taken after half-past three o'clock, except questions which have not appeared on the paper, but which are in Mr. Speaker's opinion of an urgent character, and relate either to matters of public importance or to the arrangement of business." That Standing Order relates to private notice questions, but fits precisely the circumstances that you could use, Mr. Speaker, if, in your opinion, the Prime Minister or any other Minister abused his or her position. Ministers are in a powerful position, because the media report the comments of the Prime Minister carefully and closely. You know, Mr. Speaker, that if the Prime Minister is determined to draw the spotlight away from the economic disaster of the Chancellor and on to something else, she can do that.
As the Executive is accountable to the House, and you, as Mr. Speaker, are the Chairman of the House, it seems to me that by using that Standing Order you could state that because a matter is of an "urgent character" and relates
"to matters of public importance"
as was clearly the case on this occasion, you could take questions about it after 3.30 pm. Your willingness to be prepared to look at this would be a useful reminder to the Government not to abuse this place as they so badly and blatantly did yesterday.
I realise that the Standing Order gives you that right, but, according to "Erskine May", precedents require you generally to receive an application for a private notice question before 12 o'clock. That is not part of our Standing Orders. It is simply a convention which, if you wished, you could change. I suggest that you reflect on my suggestion, Mr. Speaker, and make a statement--as is customary for the Speaker--so that Mr. Speaker is given a little more elbow room and a little more ability to make a decision when, in his judgment, the Government are seriously abusing this place. We should all be opposed to that.
Column 724least of all the Speaker, knows the question that will be asked or the answer that will be given. I cannot divine that sort of thing. It is true that this matter was in the minds of many hon. Members yesterday. I shall certainly reflect on what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. So that we can put into context today's protests by Opposition Members, can you confirm that if, yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition had thought that this was an important subject and had stood up on Question No. 4, you would have called him?
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Earlier this afternoon the Press Association tapes were quoting Government sources as admitting that the warrants issued in respect of Father Ryan were defective. It seems extraordinary that in Dublin the Attorney-General is giving advice very freely indeed. The Attorney-General seems to be briefing the British media very freely. The Prime Minister is criticising the Belgians and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and it seems that the guilty party is the bungling British Attorney-General, who cannot at this late stage get these warrants right. It is extraordinary that he is not even in the Chamber to listen to these points of order.
Could you arrange for the Attorney-General to report and account to the House on why he has been unable to issue correct warrants in respect of Father Ryan? That clearly lies at the heart of this matter. It is the Attorney-General's responsibility to account for the office that he holds, and he also has a responsibility to the House.
Mr. Speaker : I have not had the advantage of seeing the tapes, but I pick up the hon. Gentleman's general proposition. If it is true--I do not know whether it is--that the press has been briefed, in my judgment the House should also be briefed.
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) : May I proffer a suggestion, Mr. Speaker, which you may care to think about overnight on the matter of warrants and the sub judice rule? If the man has been accused and charged in this country, of course, the sub judice rule applies. A warrant is issued when a person is not within the jurisdiction of the court. If, after that, at any time he comes into the jurisdiction of the court he becomes the subject matter of the charge to which the warrant relates. Would it not be sensible, when you review these matters--I do not require an answer today, but perhaps a statement could be made-- [Interruption.] I apologise for the bad manners of Conservative Members. When you, Mr. Speaker, and those who advise you have had time to consider my suggestion, perhaps a statement could be made, or the rules slightly changed so that they cover either the moment when the man is charged or when a warrant is issued against him in this country.
Mr. Speaker : A change in the sub judice rule would be a matter for the House, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks through what he and other hon. Members have been saying, he may feel that the House would wish further to debate the whole matter. At the moment the matter is not sub judice.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point is based on what you said a few moments ago. We appreciate your comment that if the press has been briefed the House should be briefed and, as you would expect, we go along with that. The Leader of the House is in the Chamber and the support that you will get from the Government will perhaps be demonstrated by the way in which they respond to the clear injunction from you that there should be a statement. May I, through you, ask the Leader of the House if he will talk to his colleagues to ensure that we have a statement at 7 o'clock?
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : I have been reflecting upon yesterday's debate on the Queen's Speech. It has been represented to me by several right hon. and hon. Members that there was an attempt to disrupt the opening speeches by co-ordinated interruptions. I hope that that was not the case and that it will never be the case. I entirely accept that there should be cut and thrust in debate in the House and, on occasions, interventions, but not organised interruptions, which are a very different matter. Furthermore, I hope that personal allegations against hon. Members will not be raised again in the way that they were raised yesterday.
The House, in its wisdom, long ago laid down a proper procedure for pursuing complaints about these matters. In relation to what was alleged yesterday, and in order to clear up the matter without any equivocation, perhaps it would be right for me to read to the House once again what was said yesterday, because the letter read out by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) was not addressed to me. It was a letter to him, not to me.
The hon. Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo) drew attention to what he thought had been a "fiddling of the record". He asked me to confirm
"that the record had in fact been changed"
and that I had apologised. The hon. Gentleman said :
"The assurance that I now seek from the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East is"
whether it was or not. I said :
"I subsequently looked into the matter and I had an assurance from the Editor of Hansard that no alteration was made at the specific request of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown). It was a mistake in the Hansard reporting."
I went on to confirm :
"The mistake was not the mistake of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East." --[ Official Report, 29 November 1988 ; Vol. 142, c. 583.] I hope that that puts the matter into its proper perspective.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be in any way impertinent to ask you, as you have understandably dealt very toughly and quickly with some of us on other matters, why yesterday, knowing the background, and with all the information that was available to you, you did not call to order the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary? Some of us feel that if we had tried to do what the Home Secretary's PPS did we would have been shut up, with short shrift, and rightly, by you, Mr. Speaker. Why did that not happen yesterday?