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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the fossil fuel levy was due to end on 31st March 1998. It will now end in 1996 when the advanced gas-cooled reactors and the pressurised water reactors are privatised. It was used specifically for the purposes of decommissioning. I do not agree that the sale of the nuclear industry would produce derisory sums. The noble Lord will have to wait and see. But I merely advise him of what the chairman of Nuclear Electric said—that he welcomed the acceptance that privatisation was the first step in safeguarding the industry's future.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is the Minister saying that no part of the fossil fuel levy has ever been used for Nuclear Electric's ongoing commercial operations?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I was not saying that. I was saying that the purpose of the levy was to pay for the decommissioning of the nuclear power stations when that comes about.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I agree with the Government's conclusion that there is no economic case for another nuclear power station, and by past experience I have been competing with nuclear power. Nevertheless, it is important from this country's point of view that we should retain an expertise in nuclear power. Can the noble Earl say what measures can be taken to maintain that expertise?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I can understand the noble Lord's concern, which I believe many people share. Nuclear Electric is the operator of a pressurised water reactor and therefore there will be a United Kingdom capability to operate, maintain and upgrade those kinds of stations, so that expertise will remain. The skill base will help to provide the basis for re-establishing a reactor construction capability should that be required.

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Lord Avebury: My Lords, has the money which has been paid by way of levy been retained in a special fund which cannot be touched by Nuclear Electric for any other purposes after privatisation? Can the Minister say to what extent liability which will fall on Nuclear Electric will be affected by variations in the expected life of nuclear reactors, which differ perhaps from the accounting life of 30 years which I believe has been assumed in the accounts of the corporation?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the purpose of the levy was to provide funds for decommissioning the reactors. That money has been paid and is available for that purpose.

St. Pancras Chambers

3.1 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have made any estimate of the cost of restoring the St. Pancras Chambers to a state of repair appropriate to a Grade I listed building, when they expect to conclude their search for a proper long-term use, and what measures they have in mind to prevent further degradation of the building.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the cost of restoring the St. Pancras Chambers will depend upon the future use of the building and the timing and scale of any refurbishment scheme. These will be matters for the nominated undertaker of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, acting within a framework comprising: the normal legislative provisions; agreements with English Heritage and the local planning authority; and special requirements for St. Pancras imposed by the Government.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, will my noble friend seek an invitation to visit the chambers from the present custodians of this unique building; namely, the British Rail Property Board, which does not have the taste, inclination or the resources to put that building into the state of repair which would be proper? While he is there perhaps he would take the opportunity to visit the higher floors where he will find that pigeons have made a home. He can say "Hello" to them and satisfy himself that the building is in fact not suffering that degradation to which he referred last time I raised this matter.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister with responsibility for railways has recently visited the chambers. I shall certainly find it interesting to visit them myself.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the plans used by Gilbert Scott for this magnificent Grade I listed building, which must be preserved at all costs, were originally prepared for the Foreign Office building in Whitehall? Is the Minister further aware that that he used them for St. Pancras only because the government of the day did not accept those plans, their taste being for the neo-Palladian? Incidentally, I do not suppose that it would appeal to the Government to use the building for its original purpose and move part of the Foreign Office there—perhaps that part dealing with Europe—given that when the new line

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is built it will be necessary only to go downstairs to catch the train to Brussels. On a slightly more serious note, would not a private owner be likely to be landed in considerable trouble if he failed properly to maintain a building of this quality?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, indeed he would. That is part of the consideration that the bidders will be taking into account in putting forward their bids, which will have to include their plans for the proper use of St. Pancras Chambers.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, will my noble friend at least join with me in congratulating my noble friend Lord Peyton on his stalwart efforts in helping to restore the fabric of St. Pancras? Will he go further and agree with me that those efforts have been much more successful this afternoon than his earlier ones at restoring the decaying fabric of the European Union?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I hate to intervene in a private argument, but I believe that it has been considerably to the advantage of the House for this Question to be aired this afternoon.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, does the Minister agree that Gilbert Scott's Grand Midland Hotel was, and still is, under the dust and the scaffolding, a masterpiece of Gothic Romanticism and that it is quite inappropriate to pass this building to a private company, even within the constraints that he has announced? Do the Government agree with English Heritage that this treasure should be restored to its former glory and use as a great hotel at the gateway to the Continent?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, it is entirely proper that a private undertaker should be involved in this matter. Of course, the fabric of the chambers will be needed to a certain extent to provide the terminus. The parts of the building which are not required will be subject to the normal planning legislation. We believe that a proper long-term future needs to be established for this building. That will be achieved through a proper commercial environment.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I was interested to hear from my noble friend that his honourable friend the Minister for road and rail, I think he said, had visited the building. Will he let me know whether his honourable friend reached any useful conclusions or made any judgments about the state of the building; or did he keep his eyes tight shut?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I believe that my honourable friend, as a result of his visit, determined that the Government's policy and proposals were entirely appropriate for the building.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, while I obviously have no prejudice against such a building going into the private sector, nonetheless will my noble friend remember the tragic fate which Battersea Power Station suffered when it went into the hands of a wholly unsuitable private developer?

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, and County Hall!

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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, we have put considerable safeguards in place. There is a special heritage agreement as regards this site.

Business of the House: Debates this Day

3.6 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debates on the Motions in the names of the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and the Baroness Thomas of Walliswood set down for this day shall each be limited to three hours.—(Viscount Cranborne.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Child Support Bill

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to whom the Child Support Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clause 1,

Schedule 1,

Clauses 2 to 6,

Schedule 2,

Clauses 7 to 30,

Schedule 3.—(Lord Inglewood.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Political Parties: Funding

3.7 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead rose to call attention to the case for an independent inquiry into the present arrangements for the funding of political parties; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I believe that there are few more disturbing aspects of our present-day national life than the low and falling esteem in which politicians are held. That was obviously a revelation which much struck Nolan—I say brusquely, "Nolan" rather than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, to indicate that I am referring to the collectivity rather than the individual—and to some considerable extent that thought infuses his committee's report.

This view may be exacerbated by the exceptional unpopularity of the present Government. But I believe that the causes go a good deal deeper than that. Ministers, despite—to put it at its most charitable—their recent run of ill luck, do not score in the Nolan table all that much worse than the rest of us. In any event, I have a strong feeling that self-righteousness is often as dangerous as it is always unattractive, and that we should all be careful to avoid,

    "Compounding sins we are inclined to,

    By condemning those we have no mind to".

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Nevertheless, it is clear that strenuous efforts have to be made to retrieve the desperately low current standing of the political class, and indeed of the political process, because if that cannot be done, there are grave national and social dangers there involved. The key to such retrieval is thought, hopefully and probably rightly, to be transparency. When the Prime Minister appeared to stand against that current of opinion for a few brief days after the publication of Nolan, he found the wind distinctly uncomfortable, and, like a sensitive feather, quickly moved in response.

The first Nolan Report did not cover the financing of political parties, although it, and associated pronouncements from its members, managed to leave the strong impression that the committee's inability to deal with it left it with a deep hole in the middle. That is my strong view.

The recent actions of a number of Members of Parliament who have provoked the excitement, are squalid and wholly unacceptable if there is to be any chance of the public again looking up to their legislators and representatives. But the events which provoked the excitement have not been likely seriously to pervert the course of government. Parliamentary Questions asked for gain, or even amendments tabled in someone else's name, are offensive peccadillos, but the answers to one are unlikely to divert the course of administration, and the amendments would probably not be carried.

Any malfeasance as a result of the corrupt financing of political parties could be of an altogether different order of magnitude. I hope and think that it is rare that Ministers ever alter their decisions in accordance with an awareness of those who subscribe and those who do not. If there is a danger, it will be more subtle than that. Where a decision is marginal, a desire to please those whom it is helpful to please is a natural human reaction. Beyond that, there are other dangers and disadvantages in the present semi-secret arrangements for the financing of political parties and, above all, of one of them—the Conservative Party—because it is, or at any rate has been until recently, overwhelmingly the greatest beneficiary of company and large individual donations.

There are some undesirable aspects—if I may say so—to Labour Party finance. The dependence upon trade union subventions and those of two or three large unions are proportionately bigger than any individual contributions which the Conservative Party receives. Set against that there is the fact that the Labour Party shows considerable signs of being anxious to get away from such dependence, and that even if undesirable, it is at any rate open and not secret. There are also one or two small pools of obscurity in Labour Party private financing, and indeed in Liberal Democrat financing also.

We have offered to clear them fully up on a reciprocal basis. We might be wise—Labour and Liberal Democrats alike—to do so even on a unilateral or, I should more accurately say, a bilateral basis. So we come back to the Conservative Party. Two features stand out from the reading on this issue that I have done in the past week or so. First, the Conservative Party remains dedicated to secrecy. Secondly, it is mostly uncomfortable and defensive about it.

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I had not until recently studied at all closely the proceedings and report on the funding of political parties of the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place, which sat in 1993-94. The proceedings were frankly a revelation to me. There was none of that spirit of cross-party objective inquiry which so often characterises the work of Select Committees.

Every contested decision was taken on a strict party basis and went to the casting vote of the Conservative chairman. Furthermore, the taking of evidence—it is impossible to read it without seeing this—was done much more on a point-scoring than on an information-seeking basis. It was adversarial politics at their worst. It was a striking example of what produces Nolan's starting point—the low esteem for politicians.

I hope therefore that there will be no question of the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal, or anyone else, arguing that this Motion is otiose because the matter was fully investigated last year. You cannot dispose of a serious issue of national importance on the casting vote of a chairman after a straight party vote. You can bring the proceedings to a close by that means, but that is different. You cannot settle it.

However, the reason that I brought in the Select Committee of the other place at this stage was to illustrate the point I was making about the defensive uneasiness which sits alongside the Conservative devotion to concealment on this issue. That was splendidly illustrated when there was a proposition that the noble Lord, Lord McAlpine, as a former treasurer, should be invited to give evidence, particularly as Sir Norman Fowler had several times said that he could speak only for the previous 12 months, because his period of office had only then begun. That proposition for an invitation to the noble Lord, Lord McAlpine, was defeated—again, only on the casting vote of the chairman—with all Conservatives voting unanimously no, which indicated either a great respect for the time of the noble Lord, Lord McAlpine, or a considerable lack of confidence in his discretion if he appeared before the committee.

Apart from that lack of frankness, there are other worrying features to the issue. There is inherent unfairness. It is far from that over-used cliché—as I think—of a level playing field. There is the difficult issue—and it is a difficult issue—of overseas gifts. There is the fact that there have undoubtedly been several big donations from those who have turned out to be very unsavoury figures. There is the entanglement of the issue with honours lists.

I do not want to make too much of that last point which has a certain tradition, although not a high one—in British politics.

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