HC Deb 29 March 1990 vol 170 cc677-91 3.54 pm
Dr. John Cunninham (Copeland)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

The Lard President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 2 APRIL—Second Reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embrylogy Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 3 Aartn.—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Social Security Bill (2nd Allotted day).

Motion relating to the National Health Senices (Charges for Drugs and Appliances) (Amendment) Regulations

WEDNEstiav 4 April—Consideration of any Lords amendments that may be received to the Education (Student Loans) Bill.

THURSDAY 5 April—Adjournment debates.

It may be for the convenience of the House if I indicate that the business for the first week after the Easter Adjournment will be as follows:

WEDNESDAY 18 Anat—Second Reading of the Courts and Legal Services Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 19 April—Second Reading of the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill.

FRIDAY 20 April—Private Members' Bills.

It may be for the convenience of hon. Members to know how I propose that the House should handle the debates on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I should make it plain that I put forward these proposals only after having consulted widely in all parts of the House.

I should like to express my thanks to those hon. Members who have been willing to help me, in particular to the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr.Cunningham).

The Bill is an important part of the legislative programme that the Government have brought before the House In bringing the Bill forward, the Government are responding to developments in human fertilisation and embryology, and their practical consequences.

The key issue at the heart of the Bill's provision is whether certain infertility treatments and research on human embryos should be permitted and brought within a new regulatory regime. In addition, 1 am advised that amendments on the medical termination of pregnancy would be within the scope of the Bill.

These are matters on which there is strong personal feeling, on both sides of the argument, and on which there has been wide public debate. They are matters on which the public have a right to expect the House to reach a clear view, but, equally clearly, there are issues on which the House should reach its conclusions on a free vote, on both sides of the House, as Government and Opposition speakers have made clear on previous occasions.

Against that background. the Government believe it right to do all we can to facilitate the House's consideration of those complex issues. I therefore propose to take certain procedural steps to provide for a structured and orderly debate of the whole of the Bill. Later today, I shall table a motion under Standing Order No. 61(3) to provide for the major issues of conscience on embryology research and on abortion, if and in so far as any amendments are tabled on that subject, to be debated in a Committee of the whole House before the remainder of the Bill is debated in Standing Committee, and a timetable motion covering the Committee and subsequent stages of the Bill. The House will be given an opportunity to consider the motions immediately after Second Reading on 2 April.

I hope that the House will welcome those arrangements, which are entirely intended to enable it to reach dear and orderly conclusions on the important issues, within the scope of the Bill.

Dr. Cunningham

I first thank the Leader of the House for his careful and important statement on how we should deal with the controversial issues in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I personally thank him for the care and time he has taken to consult the Opposition about those matters and I hope that whatever the views of individual Members on the particular issues, his proposals will receive a wide welcome, which they deserve. I confirm what he and the House already know: speaking for the Labour party, there will be a free vote on these matters.

I also thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the week after the Easter recess as well as for next week. Can he tell us when the Government will be publishing the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill?

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman seen the survey published today by the BBC of the financial circumstances of the 214 district health authorities? Is be aware that the survey shows that 42 per cent. of all district health authorities are facing debts; that 24 per cent. of them say that, as a consequence of their indebtedness, they are having to reduce patient care; and that 57 per cent. say that their financial circumstances are worse now than when the Government introduced their new proposals for financing the Health Service?

As Government legislation now in the House of Lord's makes it clear that, after 31 March next year, no district heath authority can lawfully operate with a financial deficit, is not this matter now urgent and should not the House hear as soon as possible, preferably in an oral statement next week from the Secretary of State for Health, exactly what the Government intend to do for the finances of the Health Service between now and 31 March next year to avoid an impending catastrophe in reductions in patient care across the country? I urge the Leader of the House to provide time for us to discuss that most critical of matters.

There are about 10 outstanding orders on the poll tat to come before the House for debate This week we have again seen one of the most callous anomalies of all in the poll tax—the position of student nurses, who qualify for no rebate compared with that of apprentices in the armed services earning similar amounts who do qualify for rebates. I draw the right hon. and learned Gentleman's attention to the editorial in The Times today, which is a damning indictment of the whole barmy idea of introducing a poll tax in Britain—

Mr, Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

It does nor say much about the roof tax, does it

Dr. Cunningham

If I may reply to the hon. Gentleman's sedentary intervention, The Tunes said that property taxes should be reintroduced. The hon. Gentleman got it absolutely and comprehensively wrong Given the damning comments from all quarters about the poll tax, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate after the Easter recess, and preferably, introduce measures to get rid of the whole ludicrous idea?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Let me deal with the last point first. There have been a number of opportunities lately to discuss orders in connection with the community charge. There will be an opportunity to do so again later today. The question of another debate on the subject is best left for handling through the usual channels.

The hon. Gentleman did not, of course, disclose that the majority of health authorities are proving able to manage their budgets within the resources available; that must, in the end, be an essential feature of National Health Service management. Even if the resources were to be doubled, and whatever the resources available to health authorities for a given period, a system of management needs to be put into place for managing them within those resources.

One of the purposes of the Health Service reforms is to enhance the quality of management so that the resources that are available, which will and must be finite under any Government under the sun, are managed so as to avoid end of the year problems of that kind. That is the object of the reforms and the hon. Gentleman's analysis was wholly ill founded and astonishing.

Dr. Cunningham

It was the analysis of the BBC.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The fact that it was the BBC's analysis does not make it any more commendable.

The British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill will be published next week and will therefore be available some time ahead of the debate that will take place in the week following the Easter recess. Finally, I was grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about the arrangements that I propose for discussing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

When will the House have an opportunity to debate the proposals for the change in the regulations relating to housing allowance for police officers so that it can deliver its verdict on what most people would consider to be a breach of faith with the police?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am of course aware of the interest on both sides of the House in those matters. However, the timing of a debate on the police regulations must be left to discussions between the usual channels.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

When the Leader of the House has dinner here in the House of Commons in the evening and he is sitting at his table being served by staff in the Refreshment Department, does he ever stop to wonder how they manage to live on little more than £100 a week? What does he think about that?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have one thought in that context: I am reminded of the tenacity with which the hon. Gentleman pursues that matter on every occasion—

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Make us pay more for our meals.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself for a second, I will answer him. Of course the matter can be considered by the House of Commons Commission, as it will be in so far as the points that the hon. Gentleman has advanced should be considered.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend share the growing anxiety in this country about the state of the British press? Is he aware that hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a settlement for some unfounded libel and never a day passes without the invasion of the privacy of people who in no sense are in public life? Does he agree that the balance to be struck between the freedom of the press and the rights of the individual is a vital constitutional issue? If he does agree, will he provide time for a debate on the matter?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am aware that that is a topic of interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and it has been the subject of debate before, although perhaps not this year. My hon. Friend will have the opportunity to raise it in a debate on the Adjournment. I have no plans for arranging a debate on the subject.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Has the Leader of the House had a chance to study early-day motion 736, signed by hon. Members from all parties, about the entitlement of fishermen to unemployment benefit?

[That this House views with concern the effects on share fishermen and fishing crews of new regulations, introduced on 10th December 1989, covering benefit payments, which establishes a £43 earnings limit in a seven day benefit week; regrets that the new rules were introduced without consultation with the industry, and despite the existence of a 42-year-old agreement that higher national insurance contributions would be paid by share fishermen on the understanding that they would be able to claim unemployment benefit for the days they cannot go to sea; and calls upon the Government, who have now imposed a compulsory lay-up scheme with the intention of reducing catching effort, to amend the Department of Social Security regulations to allow fishermen to claim benefit payments when they are prevented from going to sea.]

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it is disgraceful for the Government to breach a 42-year-old agreement at precisely the time when they are preventing fishermen from going to sea? Is not it time for an early debate in Government time to discuss that and the other injustices being visited upon the Scottish fishing industry?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered a question bearing on the more general issues on that topic on Tuesday. On this matter, the Government are aware of the concerns of the fishing industry, and we are monitoring the effects of the changes to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Although I appreciate that there was a short debate in the early hours of the morning a few days ago about the exchange rate mechanism, would it be possible to have a proper debate on that subject in the not-too-distant future so that we may consider how far the Madrid conditions have been satisifed and how far they are still relevant?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I certainly understand the interest that my hon. Friend expresses in that matter. There will be opportunities to discuss it in the course of our regular debates on Community affairs, but I will bear his points in mind.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, at 1 o'clock this morning, many hon. Members on both sides of the House were deeply concerned that Ministers were still trotting out the same excuses that they have been trotting out for the past decade for not paying compensation to nuclear test veterans, and that they did after only a 45-minute debate? So that we can put the case properly and give justice to those ex-service men, such as is being given in the United States and in other countries, please may we have a full debate next week?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot respond to the right hon. Gentleman by acceding to his request. As he has said, that matter was debated last night and was the subject of a long answer from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security a day or two before. The arguments that were advanced on behalf of the Government still deserve to prevail.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

Through the arrangements that he has announced for the Human Fertilsation and Embryology Bill, my right hon. and learned Friend must be aware that he has brought to an end years of wrangling and uncertainty on a difficult subject. Is he aware that that will have earned the gratitude not only of those of us in this place with strong feelings on the matter, but of many people in the country who have wanted to see that wrangling and uncertainty brought to an end, and, indeed, of many other hon. Members who do not have strong feelings on it, but who have been vexed for many years by the wrangling and pressures that have been involved?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for the generosity of what she has just said.

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

Will the Leader of the House be good enough to ask the Minister for Health to investigate the functioning of the Tower Hamlets social services and housing committee, especially in relation to its arrangements for the care and financing in the community of severely disabled people, with special reference to the case of—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not certain that that is the direct responsibility of the Leader of the House. Is it a question about a debate, a statement or a question?

Ms. Gordon

Yes, I want a statement. I refer especially to the case of Corporal William Blackburn, who has been in the Queen Elizabeth military hospital in Woolwhich ready for discharge for the past 19 months. Will the Leader of the House please make a statement to the House next week?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot promise to make a statement about that, but I can undertake to bring the matter to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland Melton)

Is the Government's statement about whether or not to charge-cap any local authority coming next week; and if not, why not?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot give a precise answer to my hon. Friend's question, but I expect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will be in a positon to make an announcement next week.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will recall that last week I asked for a Minister from the Northern Ireland Office to be brought to the Dispatch Box this week to give a statement about the uprating of the ceiling for rate benefits in Northern Ireland in line with the uprating for the community charge here. Do I take it that silence gives consent and that we shall be able to read about it in the newspapers in the next few weeks?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should draw any particular conclusions from that. He knows that Ministers from the Northern Ireland Office were at the Dispatch Box earlier this afternoon.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time after the recess for a full debate on tourism? There has not been one for some considerable time, and the tourist industry, which is this country's largest earner of foreign currency, is in a state of crisis, partly because of the introduction of the uniform business rate and because of the elimination of any transitional arrangements for people who purchase new hotels.

I also refer my right hon. and learned Friend to the 100-day limit that has been introduced on bed-and breakfast accommodation, which exempts such accommodation from the uniform business rate. Finally, may I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to the fact that the standard spending assessments do not give any recognition to the expenditure on tourism that my local authority in Torbay spends every year, which amounts to about £1 million? Will my right hon. and learned Friend please find the time for a debate after the recess?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend has understandably drawn attention to certain matters affecting the tourist industry, which is of importance in his constituency. I shall bring those matters to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, but I cannot promise to offer a debate.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I understand that, in the light of the programme on the Birmingham Six last night, the Home Secretary issued a press statement. Many of us thought that, before he did that, he should have come to the House to answer questions about what happened. In view of that and of many of the allegations made in that programme-especially the allegation that the police have had the names of those involved for no less than 15 years-does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary should come to the House as soon as possible—certainly during next week—to say what he thinks and to allow us to question hire about that whole business, which is now part and parcel of the thinking of all our people?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The fact that one of the relevant documents referred to in that programme has been in the possession of the police and other authorities for some time tends to support the view that the programme did not contain a great deal of new material. However, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has said today that, as always, he is willing to look at fresh evidence. That is the appropriate course in respect of this matter.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, apparently, there are at present about 25,000 empty council properties in London—10,000 of them in just five Labour-controlled authority areas? Does he know that uncollected rents in five Labour-controlled authority areas amount to £58 million? Does he agree that there is a need for an urgent debate on local authority housing in London, so that the slur about "the plight of the homeless" may be fully exposed?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend, as so often, has drawn attention to two important facts that underline the extent to which Labour-controlled authorities in London are failing to meet the needs of their populations in respect of housing.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Will the Leader of the House accept that his announcement about the guillotine on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is about the only guillotine announcement that will be widely welcomed on both sides of the House? Will he give the House credit? The public are fed up with our failure to come to a decision and with our appearing to mess around with an important issue.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman at the same time confirm that no guillotine will be imposed on the Education (Student Loans) Bill when it comes back from the House of Lords next week? Following the question from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham), can he remove any doubt that there will be an early statement next week on any capping of councils? The system will come into operation next week, and councils need to know whether an upper limit will be fixed by the Government.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I have said clearly that I expect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will make a statement next week. We shall have to consider, as the days unfold, the most appropriate arrangements for dealing with student loans. I wish to express my gratitude for the hon. Gentleman's appreciation of the arrangements that I announced concerning the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

I qualify my gratitude in one respect: I should have expected someone of the hon. Gentleman's enlightenment to recognise that the timetable motion that I propose is not in any sense a guillotine. It is being put in place as a result of very wide consultation, to enable the House to consider the matter sensibly. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the word "guillotine" and accept the word "timetable", which is much more elegant and gentle.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that his decision to give special time for matters that are normally considered matters of conscience is due entirely to the fact that those debates will stem from amendments to Government legislation—amendments that are in order and that there is no change whatever in long-standing Government policy never, ever, to allow extra time for private Members' Bills?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Our position starts and finishes with the premise of which I am reminded by my right hon. Friend. In this context, the Government thought it right—certainly I thought it right—to make arrangements for issues that arise within the scope of this Bill to be considered in an orderly fashion.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House please make arrangements as soon as possible for a statement and debate on miscarriages of justice in this country? I refer in particular to the case of the Birmingham Six, whose innocence has been known for the past 15 years. These people have lost 15 years of their lives. They have been in prison for 15 years for a crime that they did not commit and could not have committed. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make sure that this debate takes place soon? Will he ensure that the Government do not delay on the inquiry by the Devon and Cornwall constabulary but, instead, refer the case rapidly to the Court of Appeal as the most speedy mechanism by which these men may be released, and the sense of injustice removed?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I have said already, it does not appear that any significant new matters were raised in the course of the recent programme. However, the position remains the same: my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is always willing to consider fresh evidence and, in the light of it, to decide whether any further procedural steps should be taken.

Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness)

Bearing in mind an earlier question about the media, and also the widespread concern expressed in the House about the violence which has followed media-inspired and orchestrated demonstrations, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider an early debate on the issue? To help him to determine what to do, may I draw to his attention to two events in my constituency? First, last weekend a media-orchestrated and inspired demonstration broke into my constituency office during my advice bureau: it resulted in the police being called and a Labour councillor and the Labour party press secretary being arrested. Secondly, following an article on Monday calling for a demonstration outside the hotel where my constituency was to hold its annual general meeting tomorrow, the hotel has refused to give facilities for the meeting. There is a climate of fear in the constituency, deliberately orchestrated and inspired by the local media.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

While I cannot undertake to offer a debate on the particular matters raised by my hon. Friend, he is certainly right to draw attention to the need to avoid violence in the expression of opinion on any issue at any time, and to draw attention to the need for the media, like anybody else, not to provoke or incite violence on such occasions.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Can we have a debate on Wednesday on the illegal export of nuclear bomb triggers, instead of dealing with Lords amendments to the Education (Student Loans) Bill? Today we had only a private notice question on the nuclear bomb triggers; a Government statement should have been volunteered. As the Leader of the House knows, the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty is very important and has suddenly leapt into prominence. We should be given time to debate it and to support the 137 non-nuclear nations who support the treaty. We want to strengthen it. We could discuss how the Government are sabotaging the treaty by being in breach of article 6 because of the development and purchase of 10 billion worth of Trident nuclear weapons. We could examine and expose the double standards of a nation and Government who want an increase in the capability to cause mass extermination but condemn other nations that want to follow suit.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The quality of the hon. Gentleman's argument in support of his case is such that it convinces me that his case does not deserve to prevail. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has dealt clearly today with the instant matters. It is also manifest from the success of the authorities in intercepting the equipment that Her Majesty's Government take their obligations in this respect very seriously.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

Grave and valid concern has been felt in all parts of Northern Ireland by the callous call of Northern Ireland Conservatives for the imposition of the poll tax on the people of Northern Ireland. Can we have an urgent debate on the matter so that the representatives of all the constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland may have an opportunity to put forward the reasons why the tax should not be imposed on the hard-pressed people of Northern Ireland?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman is in a position to advance in the House the case that he has just put forward. It would surely be sensible for Conservatives in Northern Ireland to have a comparable and expanding opportunity to do the same.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Further to the point raised by the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), does the Leader of the House recognise that the Police (Amendment) Regulations 1990 are causing a considerable drop in morale in the police forces of the United Kingdom? Can he be more specific about when he will find time for a debate on them? I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Government are not avoiding a debate, for which there is considerable support on both sides of the House, just because the Government are trying to avoid the discussion of thorny and embarrassing matters.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

While I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's judgment on the merits of the regulations, I have said that there is widespread interest in the matter among hon. Members on both sides of the House. The usual channels will be considering when a debate can conveniently be arranged.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Further to the questions posed by the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), would my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the innocence of the Birmingham Six was not demonstrated by an emotional and misleading television programme in which one of the most absurd propositions was that a conspiracy was conducted by police officers, solicitors, barristers, judges and Ministers to ensure that a disgraceful miscarriage of justice was perpetrated against six innocent men?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. and learned Friend makes some important points in response to the programme., but he will agree that we do not have to accept trial by television as a means of reaching justice in this country. I assure him and the House that the Home Secretary will continue to consider fresh evidence that is presented on this matter in the proper way, as he has done heretofore.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

The whole House will appreciate my right hon. and learned Friend's care in consulting widely on the Human Fertilisation and Embrology Bill. So that the House can come to a clear view, may we have votes on the subject at a reasonable hour, when the House is well attended, as it will be unwhipped business?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his general welcome for my proposals. We shall be seeking so to arrange matters that they are conducted in a reasonable way at not unreasonable times.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate so that we may discuss the leaked memorandum from the chief solicitor of Barnet council admitting that, over a period of years, Barnet council has illegally discriminated in the rehousing of immigrants and is liable to prosecution under the Race Relations Act 1976?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That is a relatively unorthodox foundation for suggesting a debate. I do not immediately respond to it with enthusiasm.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the situation in Hungary? It would seem that the Hungarian Communist party changed its name to the Socialist party to fight the recent elections. But only 10 per cent. of the population voted for that party, and presumably the other 90 per cent. could not tell the difference between socialism and communism. Does he agree that that would be an interesting subject for a debate?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend makes a penetrating observation about an interesting subject. I am not sure that it carries the matter far enough for me to arrange an early debate.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

When will the Leader of the House announce a debate about Harrods? Such a debate has been made more urgent by the disastrous and disgusting performance of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry yesterday before the Select Committee on Trade and Industry when he refused to answer any questions about why he did not recommend the disqualification of the two villains who are running one of the leading corner shops in Britain. Will he note that there is a demand for an urgent debate on both sides of the House?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Again, the way in which the hon. Gentleman advances that case is not very effective in persuading me to shift from my position. A debate on the matter would not be appropriate while the Select Committee is considering the subject.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the valuable work undertaken by the Audit Commission? Many hon. Members have campaigned, and welcome the decision by the Government, to deploy the Audit Commission in the National Health Service, as outlined in the National Health Service and Community Care Bill. Many of us are also extremely impressed by some of the important reports produced by the Audit Commission.

I think particularly of the report "Care in the Community", which has been widely welcomed on both sides of the House, and the valuable work that it did in respect of the homeless and homelessness. Many other areas might benefit from the attentions of the Audit Commission. Could time be found to discuss the matter on the Floor of the House?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the tribute he paid to the work of the Audit Commission and to the way in which its area of operations has been effectively enlarged. That adds force to the case for its being considered on the Floor of the House, but I cannot give him any promise in that respect.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider the answer that he gave to his hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) about a debate on people in council houses who cannot pay their rent? Will he extend such a debate to a full debate on the issue of poverty, so that some of us on this side can explain to Conservative Members what causes poverty, why people cannot pay their rents, why some people—not all—are suffering more than they have ever suffered in their lives, especially those in a state of poverty who are about to face poll tax demands which they cannot possibly pay? Is it not time that we had a full-scale debate on poverty so that there can be some glimmer of understanding among Conservative Members of why people are in poverty?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My recollection is that, on a Supply day not many months ago, there was a debate on a subject similar to that identified by the hon. Gentleman. He may have the opportunity to play his part in selecting other Supply days for that purpose. I hope that my hon. Friends will make use of the occasion to identify the extent to which poverty has diminished as a result of the successful operation of the Government's economic policies in raising average living standards throughout the country.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May we have an early debate on the policies of Barnet council, in view of the interest in them of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), so that I can point out that our community charge is two thirds that of Brent, that every day 2,000 children come from Brent to be educated in Barnet and that Barnet does not have the rent arrears of Brent or the stock of empty houses of many London Labour councils?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

In the absence of a debate, my hon. Friend has made good use of the opportunity just afforded to him.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

It would be helpful if the Leader of the House could tell us when the Secretary of State for Scotland will respond to the situation that confronts us on the capital offset for the poll tax. May I crave your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, and raise with the Leader of the House a matter that I have raised with you connected with the Select Committee on Defence and the interest of the Chairman of the Committee in SGL? Next week the Committee will spend about £15,000 of taxpayers' money.

The Leader of the House should be aware that yesterday the Select Committee passed a motion to the Select Committee on Members' Interests expressing anxiety that there might be a conflict of interests created by the information received by members of the Committee in connection with their work and which they gain from trips abroad.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Douglas

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but it is a matter for the whole House. Witnesses coming before a Select Committee of the House should have the absolute assurance that the information that they give will be used for the purposes of the Committee and of the House and for no other purpose. There is a conflict of interest between the offices that the Chairman of the Committee holds—[Interruption.] I have given him notice that I intended to raise the matter and the position that he holds.

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, I would welcome the guidance of the House. I am withholding my attendance from that Committee. If I am wrong that witnesses should have that assurance, the House should put down a motion saying, "Dick Douglas is wrong." I believe that I am not wrong, and I await the decision of the House on the matter.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I think that the precision of the request with which the hon. Gentleman closed his observations represents a proposition that I could not be expected to table in the present or any other circumstances. On the underlying substance of the matter, it is the subject of representations between the two relevant Select Committees—the Defence Committee and the Select Committee on Members' Interests. It is best that it is handled in that way, by the two Committees considering it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the hon. Members who are on their feet but I ask them not to repeat questions that have been asked before, in view of the heavy business before us.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement next week and give us a detailed list of the number of Bills that have been passed, but which have not been put fully into practice? I raise that matter in particular because he will recall that he was one of the Ministers who piloted through the Industrial Relations Bill. It became an Act of Parliament, but then the Government put it on the back boiler and never used it. I suggest that it would not be a bad idea if they repeated that practice with the poll tax.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman's insight is uncharacteristically inaccurate in several respects. The Industrial Relations Bill would have had a flourishing and effective life had it not been for the temporary misfortune of the country in electing a Labour Government in March 1974. That Government made the mistake of repealing it, but the present Government have put in place provisions designed to achieve similar purposes, and they have done so to good effect.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Will the Leader of the House consider early-day motion 539, which has been signed by 49 Members and which asks him specifically to separate the issues of human fertilisation and embryology from the emotive issue of abortion?

[That this House believes the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has crucial implications for the future of in vitro fertilisation techniques, diagnosis and treatment of serious congenital disease, advance in knowledge of the causes and treatment of serious congenital disease, advance in knowledge of the causes and treatments for infertility, miscarriage and contraception; further believes that this important Bill deserves serious and detailed consideration on its own merits; therefore declares its intention to resist efforts of anti-abortion hon. Members to introduce the separate and controversial issue of abortion into this Bill, in particular by the moving of amendments to lower the abortion time limit below 20 weeks as the medical and ethical arguments about late term abortions are quite different from those surrounding the treatment of embryos in the 14 days after fertilisation, and believes that this essential debate on embryo research must not be allowed to be distorted and overshadowed by the inevitably heightened emotion which would follow from the introduction of abortion amendments.]

Surely it would have been more appropriate to accept that amendment when my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) introduced her ten-minute Bill, Medical Services for Women, which specifically mentioned abortion. Is not it a shame that the House has allowed a Bill that will give great happiness to many infertile couples to be hijacked by people for the wrong reasons?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am disappointed that the hon. Lady does not share the general view that the arrangements we have in mind are best calculated to handle those complicated issues. It is not for the Government alone to determine the scope of the debate on embryo research, which cannot be separated from the moral issues that underline the abortion question. It will be for Parliament to decide the right approach to those questions on the basis of careful arrangements that commend themselves to people in most parts of the House.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

The Leader of the House is a good Welshman and he will be aware that the Severn crossing is our main access point. Does he appreciate that there is speculation now that the contract for the second crossing will be awarded to a consortium with major French interests, which will take over the existing bridge and all that that entails? May we have an early debate on this vital matter? Meanwhile will he use his good offices to ensure that a solution is found that will at least maintain the tolls on both crossings at their current prices in real terms?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I would be very imprudent were I to respond affirmatively to the last question posed by the hon. Gentleman.

No decision has yet been taken about the second crossing provisions, but when that decision is reached, the House will be informed about it. That decision will be reached after a proper assessment of the value and merits of the alternatives.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

May I again ask the Leader of the House whether he is aware of the growing public concern about Members and financial interests, including the Chairmen of Select Committees? I echo the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) and urge the Leader of the House to do everything possible to enable the Select Committee on Members' Interests thoroughly to investigate the complaints that have been referred to it.

That can be done only if the backlog of inquiries facing that Committee are dealt with. I suggest that that Select Committee establishes a number of Sub-Committees so that thorough and prompt inquiries are made into the complaints facing it. As long as the matter drags on, no recommendations are made and the House takes no decision on such matters, public concern will continue and is bound to escalate.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I understand that there is significant interest in the question of Members' interests, but there must be a limit to my capacity or anyone else's to mobilise parliamentary resources out of thin air. The Select Committee on Members' Interests is seized of all the questions. A few weeks ago, in the light of the debate on the affairs of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne), some extra items were added to the agenda of that Select Committee. The Chairman of the Committee and his colleagues are addressing themselves to the issues as expeditiously as they can. The House has proper procedures for such matters, and they are being followed.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the important debate on Hong Kong will not cover the conditions under which Vietnamese boat people are still living there? Is he aware that, in response to my complaint about the filthy, insanitary conditions in the place, I received a reply from the Hong Kong authorities saying that the reason was not that the drains were open, but that people put excrement into them? Can we please have a debate on that, as those conditions are unworthy of us? Will the Leader of the House be kind enough to refer the matter to the Home Secretary, or to someone who can ensure that the people at least have reasonable conditions rather than conditions of which this country should be ashamed?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. and learned Gentleman offers us a glimpse into the obvious when he says that those matters will be outside the scope of the debate on the Hong Kong legislation. He will appreciate that everyone who has addressed the question is bound to be deeply concerned about the conditions in the Hong Kong camps: that is the very reason why the Government are following a policy designed to diminish the numbers forced to face those conditions, and to improve them as far as possible. The real improvement is to be found through reducing the numbers that are obliged to stay there.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

The Leader of i he House will be aware that on 11 October last year the Secretary of State for Scotland announced a transitional relief scheme for householders in Scotland who would be penalised by having to pay £3 per week extra during the transition between domestic rates and the poll tax. To date, no regulations have been made on that.

We are all aware of the speed with which the Secretary of State for Scotland arrived at the door of No. 10 after the foul-up in the Budget. Will the Leader of the House show the same speed? Will he grab his right hon. and learned Friend by the scruff of the neck to make him come here and lay the regulations before the House, so that the people of Scotland receive the just entitlement for which they have waited too long?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not aware of the particular deficiency to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He himself provided an eloquent tribute to the speed with which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland does his work, and I am sure that he will continue to do so.

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

The Leader of the House is probably aware that, on Tuesday this week, I presented a ten-minute Bill containing the proposition that the Abortion Act 1967 should be amended to make the law of England and Wales the same as that in Scotland, where there is no upper time limit. The House gave its unanimous consent to a further debate of that proposition.

May I ask the Leader of the House for a procedural ruling on how the House, which already has a proposition before it on abortion, can make separate arrangements to proceed against another Bill? Is it not the case that the proposition that was passed unanimously on Tuesday is now the relevant Bill before Parliament?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I listened to the eloquent observations by the hon. Lady in support of her Bill, which covered a wide range of matters, including that one. The House was kind enough not to oppose its introduction; however, I do not think that she should assume that it will have as optimistic a prospect of making headway as the Bill that we will be debating on Monday.

Ms. Primarolo

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

No. Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, according to Greenpeace, the United States has today set—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Greenpeace does not organise debates here.

Mr. Cohen

I am asking for a debate on an important matter. According to Greenpeace, the United States has today set a 1,000 yd exclusion zone around its King's Bay submarine base, and the USS Tennessee, armed with Trident D5 missiles, is about to go on operational patrol —the first operational patrol with Trident missiles. Can we have an urgent debate on that huge and dangerous expansion in the world's nuclear arsenal?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not immediately persuaded by the hon. Gentleman's case.