HC Deb 10 May 1990 vol 172 cc395-409 3.30 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

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

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

The business of the House for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 14 MAY—Private Members' motions.

Second Reading of the Pakistan Bill [Lords].

Second Reading of the Town and Country Planning Bill [Lords], the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Bill [Lords], the Planning (Consequential Provisions) Bill [Lords], the Planning (Hazardous Substances) Bill [Lords], all of which, the House will be glad to know, are consolidation measures.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at Seven o'clock.

TUESDAY 15 MAY and WEDNESDAY 16 MAY— Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

At the end on Tuesday: motion relating to the statement of changes in immigration rules (HC 251).

At the end on Wednesday: motion relating to the Personal Equity Plan (Amendment) Regulations.

THURSDAY 17 MAY—Remaining stages of the Employment Bill.

FRIDAY 18 MAY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 21 MAY—Opposition Day (12th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject for debate to be announced.

Dr. Cunningham

Is not it abundantly clear that the House was persistently misled over the British Aerospace-Rover deal? Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement as soon as possible by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, so that the House may be given some frank answers about what exactly has been going on? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that to continue to cover up the facts of that case will do no credit to Parliament or to the Government?

Why has the Leader of the House introduced a new policy of denying debates on orders against which the Opposition have set down prayers, particularly when they relate to the poll tax? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman reconsider his decision not to allow a debate on the Police (Amendment) Regulations 1990, which relate to the implications for policemen of the poll tax? Ought not the police to have a clear view of the Government's position on that question before their annual conference begins in a few days' time?

Would not such a debate have the additional benefit of allowing the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to explain to the House why he believes that the poll tax is so unfair and far too high? As the right hon. Gentleman has so much support on the Government Back Benches, would not a decision to hold such a debate, and to allow him to speak, be widely welcomed by Conservative Members too?

Does not the report of the Select Committee on Social Services provide a damning indictment of Government policy towards the poorest people in Britain? Does not the report expose as totally bogus the persistent claims by the Prime Minister and other Ministers that people on low incomes have been doing well and have been fairly treated by the Government? Does not their treatment contrast starkly with the hugely favourable treatment given to people on high incomes, who have had major reductions in their tax bills?

Will the Leader of the House provide early Government time for a debate on the report of the Social Services Committee and the widening gap in treatment between the poorest people in Britain and those who are very well off?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Let me first of all reject absolutely the hon. Members's suggestion that there is any question of a cover up in relation to the British Aerospace-Rover affair. He knows perfectly well that that matter is subject to investigation by one of the Select Committees of the House at present—quite apart from the separate matter of possible leaks of the reports of that matter, but the issue is being investigated by the Select Committee on behalf of the House.

As regards the arrangements for debates on prayers the hon. Gentleman is also being unusually and unjustifiably severe. Last week, I said that the Police (Amendment) Regulations 1990 were likely to be raised in an Adjournment debate next week. As a matter of fact, I now understand that, because of his commitments overseas with the Home Affairs Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) will not be able to be present to initiate that debate. However, next week the House will debate two Opposition prayers, as I announced a moment ago. The Opposition will also have an Opposition day at their disposal at the end of next week, and if they wish to do so, they can make use of that day to give an opportunity to the House to debate the community charge and for my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to take part.

As for the report of the Select Committee on Social Services, of course the Government are concerned about the mistakes in statistics discovered in that context. The Government moved openly and swiftly to correct those figures in the public domain. The fact is that even those figures show that there has been an increase in the living standards of the poorest people, and that would not have happened were it not for the general prosperity of the economy under the Government.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

In the light of the representations made by the Liaison Committee regarding the importance of maintaining the link between Departments and the Select Committee system, could my right hon. Friend say whether he is yet in a position to take steps next week to facilitate the division of the Select Committee on Health and Social Services into two component parts, so that they continue to maintain individual Departments?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not in a position to add anything to what I told my right hon. Friend last week on that matter.

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

Who is responsible for determining the pay of people in the Refreshment Department of the House of Commons? Is it the Head of Establishments? Is it the House of Commons Commission? Is it the Services Committee? Or is it the Leader of the House? And is it true that this year the staff will only get a 4 per cent. pay increase?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I have told the hon. Member many times, there are proper and established mechanisms for staff and unions to put their grievances and concerns about pay and for those to be properly considered by the management, the staff inspectors and the House of Commons Commission. As I have also told the hon. Member on more than one occasion, the House of Commons Commission will consider aspects of that matter at its next meeting.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider the possibility of an early debate on defence matters, particularly as they apply to the unification of Germany, and the enormous implications that that will have for NATO and the Warsaw pact in coming years?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not sure that I can precisely meet my hon. Friend's request, but I hope that we can arrange a debate on the Army shortly, and that before too long there will be the opportunity for a debate on European affairs in one way or another.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Has the Leader of the House received an invitation to Denis Thatcher's 75th birthday party tonight, and will he be taking the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) with him?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not feel obliged to comment on that question.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

In view of the amount of interest in political union within the European Community, will my right hon. and learned Friend grant a debate on that subject in the near future?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I have already said, I shall be looking for a chance for the House to debate European affairs before too long.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is the Leader of the House prepared to make arrangements during the next few weeks for a special debate on the future of Antarctica, bearing in mind the fact that the Antarctic treaty nations will be meeting in Santiago in Chile to discuss the future of the continent? There have been a number of proposals for an environmental assessment to be made of the impact of mineral exploration on Antarctica and very loud demands from many countries for a wilderness park to be created in that very important continent. As the British Parliament is the only one which voted to support mineral exploration, which has been rejected by nearly every other signatory to the Antarctic treaty, does he agree that it is essential that the House debates the matter before the British Government representatives go to Santiago, so that they can represent the views of all of us in the House?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot offer the prospect of a debate on that, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are concerned about the need to protect the Antarctic environment and believe that the policies they have been following are well directed to that end. They were set out by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in a written answer on 4 May.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that, on I May, the King of Belgium issued a royal edict endeavouring to override the European Community directive on the use of non-hush-kitted aircraft in an endeavour to circumvent European law and to allow Ostend to continue to act illegally? Will he create an opportunity for the House to discuss the matter so that we can send a clear message to the European Commission that we are no longer prepared to allow mainland European countries to flout European law?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

While I am not aware of that precise point, I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government will certainly look into the matter, because we attach importance to compliance with European Community obligations and have the best possible record in that respect.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

May we have a discussion on the state of the franchise? The estimated population figures for over-18s compared with local government registration figures for England show that there could be 500,000 people missing from the electoral register. Is it not the case that the poll tax is not reformable because it disenfranchises people?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There is no evidence whatsoever to support the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give further consideration to the pertinent question raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) on the future of the Select Committee on Social Services? Is he aware that strong rumours—in fact, more than rumours—are going around the House that the Government intend to separate that Select Committee so that it can properly monitor the two separate Government Departments. Bearing in mind the important work of the Committee, it is important that the current Committee can complete its inquiries. Will my right hon. and learned Friend reach an early decision on to how the matter can be resolved, to ensure that the Select Committee structure can work according to the procedures laid down by the House?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for offering what I understand to be a different point of view on that important matter. As I said, I cannot add anything further to what I said last week.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his earlier answer about the lack of a debate on the workings of the poll tax? Does he recognise that it is desirable that discussions should take place in the House as well as in the columns of The Times? Will he enable the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to have a chance to explain to the House how it was that he resolutely opposed inflicting the tax on his constituents in Henley, but voted twice the previous year to inflict it on us in Scotland?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not have the impression that the House has lacked opportunity for airing its views on the community charge. As I have already said, the Opposition have an opportunity to bring the matter before the House on Monday week.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend remind the shadow Leader of the House that the Select Committee on Social Services did not accuse the Government of fraud or dishonesty on the low income statistics and that a genuine mistake was made? It is rather irresponsible for the Leader of the Opposition to accuse the Government, who have kept their promise to pensioners and who are spending more than any other Government on benefits, of fraud and dishonesty. The Select Committee did not, and we conducted the investigation.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The Government acted as swiftly as possible to publish correct figures in respect of those found to be mistaken. More generally, under this Government, pensioners' average total net income increased in real terms between 1979 and 1987 by 31 per cent.

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

Has the Leader of the House seen today's report by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which shows that many disabled people are not applying for their benefits because they are humiliated before the boards? That is due to the structure and to some shocking behaviour by doctors. Is not it deplorable that the people who badly need those funds are denied them because they are treated in this shabby, shocking fashion? Can we have a debate on this next week, please?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have not seen the report to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, but I will bring his point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the amendment passed at the end of the Committee on the abortion provisions in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill relating to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 means that there is now no time limit on certain abortions, such as those for mothers who might be considered likely to be physically handicapped or who might bear children who would be either mentally or physically handicapped? Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that that was the intention of the House? Will he find time for a debate on the Infant Life (Preservation) Act in view of that amendment, which is causing so much concern?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am certainly not going to answer a question about the implications of an amendment which I do not have before me and which I have not considered, save to say that it was one of many decided on by the House during those proceedings. Most of those who have commented on the way in which the proceedings were conducted declared themselves impressed by the accuracy and consistency with which the results were recorded. There will be an opportunity to consider the matter again when the House considers the Bill on Report.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

I know that the Leader of the House will recall the debate nearly four months ago, on 17 January, about the parliamentary contributory pension fund when I spoke as chairman of the managing trustees of the fund. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the deep concern among hon. Members of all parties for a statement and, in particular, about the pensions paid to the widows of our former colleagues? Will there be a full response next week to the submissions made on behalf of the trustees and can we expect a further debate soon?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have been keeping him in touch with the progress of our various considerations on the matter, including the point to which he has referred and which concerns us all —the standard of benefits available for widows. I hope to be able to bring before the House proposals and the Bill itself before too long. I shall keep the right hon. Gentleman informed about the matter.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that a small—I hope —minority of the charge payers of Shrewsbury and Atcham who are aggrieved at the level are keen to get their hands round my throat by the 1992 general election? Is my right hon. and learned Friend further aware that they are even keener to get their hands around the throats of the Labour-Liberal alliance which controls Shropshire county council and that they will not have the opportunity to do that until 1993? Will he therefore give the House an opportunity to consider amending section 7 of the Local Government Act 1972 to enable one third of the county councillors in England and Wales to retire annually, so that the community charge can be truly accountable for those presently suffering?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I can understand my hon. Friend's anxiety to enable his constituents to make their feelings known to those who apparently represent their interests so inadequately, but I do not think that at this stage I can offer a Bill that would amend the structure of local government with the speed that he desires.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the far-reaching changes that the Government are making in the machinery of government? Having spent a decade slaughtering quangos, they are now setting up scores of partly independent Government organisations or "pingos"—the so called next steps agencies. The changes will have far-reaching effects on the conditions of service of civil servants and could have substantial implications for the accountability of those bodies to the House. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman allow a debate on that apparently technical matter, which is in fact a fundamental question of public and parliamentary accountability?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am sure that the Government will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his close interest in the matter. The changes that have been proposed along those lines have been pretty widely welcomed inside and outside the House, but I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's interest to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the civil service so that the House may better inform itself about the matter.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

In view of the serious anxieties that have already been expressed this afternoon from both sides of the House, will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake to arrange an early debate on the safety crisis in the channel tunnel? Is he aware that many of us who have warned about this matter feel that it is nothing short of scandalous that it has taken six unnecessary deaths for the channel tunnel bosses to get a carpeting for their deplorable safety standards? Will he at least arrange a statement next week on this afternoon's meeting between the Secretary of State for Employment and the head of the construction consortium?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot say precisely how the matter may best be reflected in the House, but the fact that it has been raised and dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by more than one hon. Member during business questions underlines the importance of my bringing it to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, and I shall certainly do that.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

May we supplement the work of the Select Committee on Members' Interests by having a debate on Members' outside interests, especially in view of the parsimonious attitude towards members of the staff? We have a set of double standards, with Tory MPs busy getting as many outside interests as they can but supporting the Government in their decision to give only 4 per cent. to the staff.

In the current issue of "Labour Research", 14 Tory MPs are listed as having failed to register their business interests. I know that the Leader of the House is concerned about the matter because he expressed his view during our debate on the conduct of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne). Those MPs could then explain why they consistently vote for the poorest in the land to be penalised if they fail to fill in an income support form properly while getting away with similar behaviour themselves.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Let me make it absolutely clear that the terms and conditions of remuneration of the staff employed by the House are determined not by the Government but by the House of Commons Commission and other authorities representing the House as a whole. As I have already told the House, those matters are likely to be considered again by the Commission at its next meeting. They have nothing whatever to do with Government policy.

The registration of Members' interests is again a matter for the House. The House has made arrangements to deal with it, and the Select Committee is looking at the matter at present.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend continue to resist what will inevitably be an increasing clamour from the Opposition Benches for a debate on the British Aerospace-Rover matter? That should not happen until the Select Committee has reported. So far as I can see, on the evidence available, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—to suggest that what was in The Guardian has any substance. It was a good deal, well done.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am certainly content to accept the advice that my hon. Friend gave in the first part of his question.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Now that the people of Scotland have had over a year of the poll tax, and as the Conservative party was absolutely decimated in Scotland at the recent elections, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate to take place to give the people of Scotland a referendum on whether they want the hated poll tax?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The fact that the swing against the Government in Scotland was smaller than in any other part of the country shows that the longer the people of Scotland live with the community charge, the better they come to like it.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Mellon)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen early-day motion 942 in my name and the names of other hon. Members about the problems of the Health Service in Leicestershire?

[That this House notes with great concern the proposals of Leicestershire Health Authority to make cuts in services, because of current financial pressures; regrets that the Secretary of State felt unable to offer any help when he met an all-party deputation of honourable Members from Leicestershire on 3rd May; and asks him to reconsider his decision urgently.]

Will he arrange for an early statement next week by the Secretary of State for Health to tell us what he intends to do about health authorities such as Leicestershire and others whose budgets have been badly affected by their inability to sell land due to the collapse of the property market?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot comment on the particular aspect of the matter raised in the last part of my hon. Friend's question. However, I remind him that the allocation of money to the Leicestershire district health authority is a matter for Trent regional health authority. understand that, this year, the district received significantly more money than last year and provided for a real-term increase in its budget of almost 3 per cent. I shall bring the particular point that my hon. Friend raised to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

As a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Leader of the House will know that he and his colleagues have been more than accommodating to the tobacco industry, mainly because it is a large employer of labour. Every Chancellor since the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office has assisted the tobacco industry. Yet today we have had word from the tobacco industry that it intends to close factories in Glasgow, Bristol and Ipswich. The industry claims that the reason for shedding the labour is 1992. I do not believe that, and I am sure that the Leader of the House does not believe it. Surely we should have an emergency debate to discuss the activities of the tobacco industry.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I certainly will not try to pass judgment on the causes of structural change in the tobacco industry. I am sure that neither the Chancellor of the Exchequer nor 1992 is the only cause. I shall bring the general point that he raised to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I recently had a categorical assurance from the consortium that is bidding with British Rail to build the high-speed rail link that it will make no contribution whatever to the costs that would be incurred were there to be a Maidstone parkway station. Can we have an early debate both to enable the distaste of the people of Kent to be expressed at a private organisation levying such a burden on the community charge and to debate the whole way in which private Bill procedure is used to override the norms of planning procedures?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot promise a debate about the specific, relatively narrow point that my hon. Friend has raised. Clearly there may be further opportunities to debate the wider questions that underlie his point. I am continuing my study of the private Bill procedure. Clearly there is a case for some changes. I hope to inform the House of our proposals before too long.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

When can we expect a debate on a statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland on planning permission for test boring for nucler dumping at Dounreay? Will such a statement take into account the fierce local opposition to such dumping, including the 3:1 majority against it in the Caithness referendum last year? Can we have an assurance that such a statement will be made to the whole House of Commons, so that Scottish Members can question the Secretary of State for Scotland on it and that the information will not be sneaked out in the form of a written answer to some toadying Tory Back Bencher?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot say when any statement on that matter will be made. I shall bring the point raised by the hon. Gentleman to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, who will no doubt reach his own sensible conclusion on the matter.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will accept that, because of Rover's great success, there is growing anxiety in the west midlands, and particularly in the Birmingham and Oxford area, about the continual sniping campaign against Rover. Thousands of jobs are at stake. The Opposition seem to think that they can gain some mean-spirited public advantage by attempting to drag Rover through the mud and mire.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that British Aerospace, which is investing £1,000 million in jobs and motor cars for this country, feels that it is fighting with one hand tied behind its back by the Labour party, even though that party says that it supports the workers? Let us have a debate on Rover. I believe that Rover, the public will and the workers will win. Let us have done with all the nonsense about £38 million. The £38 million is not as important as tens of thousands of workers' jobs in the motor industry.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the wider implications of the matter and emphasising the extent to which the way that the House and Parliament consider such matters can have an important influence on the employment prospects of the people of this country.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsbrough)

I am sure —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. A question has been asked, and we cannot have a debate across the Floor of the Chamber from the Benches below the Gangway.

Mr. Flannery

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that an important report from the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts was published yesterday. It was, in many ways, a highly controversial report, which should have been published nine months ago; it could have been, but it was held up by the Conservative party. The report is possibly the most important that the three Committees on which a Tory Member and I have served since about 1980 have published. The education system is moving into some deep trouble because of the shortage, and developing shortage, of teachers, as anybody who visits the staff room and talks to teachers will know. Could we have what will be an important debate on the subject of education, because that report encompasses all the various aspects of education? There is a great deal of argument about it today in the press, but everybody agrees that it is an important report.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

No one doubts the importance of the issues covered by that report, or the report itself, which was received by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science in the past 48 hours. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government's reply to a Select Committee has to be properly considered and given first to the House. That will happen as soon as possible. The delay in the report's completion is no doubt due to the mishaps that befell the Committee during the report's consideration, including a change of Chairman following the leak of some aspects of the Committee's work. That underlines the importance of a proper investigation of such leaks and taking steps to prevent further such leaks.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Bearing in mind the implications of the report of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts for the funding of education and the fact that the block grant system of funding education is not working satisfactorily, may I join those who are calling on my right hon. and learned Friend for an early debate on education funding so that some of us can express our view that teachers' salaries at least should be funded centrally from the Exchequer?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That topic has been debated from almost every angle during the time in which I have been involved in politics—on the basis that whatever system is in place should be changed for something better because the grass is always greener on the other side of the procedure. Detailed comment on the report will have to await proper consideration by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

May I join the appeals to the Leader of the House for a statement next week on working conditions at the channel tunnel? Could that statement include the involvement of the Economic League in the recruitment of labour for the project, and whether that has led to the exclusion from employment of trade union members with a history of agitating for safe working conditions?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot comment on the hon. Gentleman's specific point. I have already said that I shall bring to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment the wide interest in safety conditions on that project so that the matter may be properly considered.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

The Leader of the House will be aware that most hon. Members wish to see a free and democratic Europe stretching from the Atlantic to, and including, white Russia. In the light of that, the House will be concerned as I am about the unfair and unfree elections taking place in Romania. If those elections are deemed unfree and unfair, how can the results be deemed otherwise? In the light of that, will the Leader of the House please arrange for a debate at the earliest appropriate time about the slide into anarchy that is taking place in Romania?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I know that the whole House shares the concern for the future of the country and people of Romania and has high expectations for the electoral process that has been put in place there. For that reason, a number of steps have been taken to ensure the presence of a large number of independent observers at those elections, including, I think, some from the House. A wide interest is being taken in that matter, and the House will want to await with care the outcome of the report by the independent observers.

Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North)

Will the Leader of the House find time to let the House consider the trauma that is suffered by many innocent victims in my constituency as a result of the Stevens inquiry? Does he agree that John Stevens would be better employed concentrating on the problems within his own division, which are now being investigated by the Surrey police force?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot agree with that proposition. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is following closely the progress of that investigation.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend the deputy Prime Minister provide time for a debate on security in Northern Ireland? The matter is urgent in view of the increased IRA activity, which is now worse than it has been for some years. The authorities have warned people about the danger of more and greater atrocities, the likelihood of which is, of course, much greater since the IRA has apparently been able to get its hands on Libyan arms stashed in the Irish Republic. The IRA has also been given encouragement by the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Dublin, which confirmed the Irish Republic's claim to the territory of Northern Ireland.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Those matters will no doubt have been explored to some extent during Northern Ireland Question Time today. I shall bring the matters that my hon. Friend has raised to the attention of our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

When can we have emergency legislation to amend, or better still to abolish, the poll tax, especially now that the issue is being fast exploited by ambitious Tory MPs such as the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) who is after the Prime Minister's job, and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), who is after the job of the Secretary of State for Scotland?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman can always be relied upon to provide some exhilarating speculation, but I have nothing to say about that. The Government propose to complete their consideration of the scope and/or need for any adjustment in the community charge, and we shall do that at a measured pace with all deliberate speed.

Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

Can we have an urgent debate on the specific subject of the effectiveness or lack of it of the European Community in dealing with human rights cases? I am thinking specifically of the failure of the European Community to act in concert in relation to hostages. Why are we all Europeans for some purposes, but the hostages are either French. Belgian, British or Irish? Why cannot the members of the Community act together to secure their release? Why cannot the Community provide a forum to deal with the problem caused by the false imprisonment of the lorry driver in Greece? Why cannot it find a way to work together to resolve such problems? Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate during which we can consider that?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend raises two separate questions. He knows that the Government are represent-ing as vigorously as we can our concern about the continued detention of Mr. Paul Ashwell, and we are continuing to press with sustained effort the case about which we all share anxiety, the case of hostages wherever they may be detained. The members of the European Community have been seeking through political cooperation to enhance the ability of the Community to work together on that, but I readily agree that it still falls short of the ideal.

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

Is the Leader of the House aware that a large number of parents, children and teachers from Tower Hamlets came to Parliament today to protest about the lack of hundreds of school places? Will he call an early debate to consider the position of education authorities which fail to carry out their duty to provide sufficient school places under section 8 of the Education Act 1944 and to consider Lord Justice Woolf's recent decision that that duty is not absolute, and the implications of that for children throughout the country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The duty has been defined in that way since 1944. Of course, it is subject to the rulings of the court from time to time. I shall bring the hon. Lady's point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give serious consideration to the possibility of a debate on Rover's takeover by British Aerospace? That would give the Opposition the opportunity to tell the House why they have had such a sudden change of mind on that issue. Is not it true that, in 1986, the Opposition bitterly criticised the Government when they tried to sell Rover to the highest bidder—Ford or General Motors? Are not they now complaining because we have not sold Rover to the highest bidder? Perhaps we have underestimated the extent to which the Opposition have converted to free market forces.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not think that we should be too optimistic about the Opposition's conversion to any set of consistent policies. They appear to be dominated by opportunism from beginning to end.

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Will the Leader of the House, as the custodian of our interests, help the whole House by investigating the problem of answers —or non-answers—from Ministers? Talking to other hon. Members has shown me that it is a common problem. We are receiving non-answers to our questions, and the standard of reply is declining. Will the Leader of the House consider that problem, for the sake of us all?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not detect any general feeling that there has been any significant variation in the standard of answers for many years. This Government certainly endeavour to provide the best possible information, consistent with the remainder of their duties.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Can we have a debate next week that would allow us to consider the Labour party's record when it was in control of the London borough of Ealing? We could then examine the revelations in today's Daily Mail and other newspapers, and I could express the concerns of my constituents. Some 14 of the 17 new councillors elected were Conservative gains across the borough of Ealing. We want to know why the Leader of the Opposition has consistently said that the Labour-controlled Ealing council gave value for money and was a good council, when it appears to have been guilty of serious maladministration. The people of Ealing wholeheartedly rejected the council's Labour members.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I congratulate my hon. Friend on yet again having drawn attention to the misdeeds of the Labour party in the borough of Ealing. I am glad to congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on being a beneficiary of the efficient electoral decision by the people of Ealing.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

May I reinforce the plea of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) for a debate on Health Service provision in Leicestershire and the deterioration in the services that Leicestershire people receive? It is an all-party matter. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are enraged about their treatment, and not least about the cavalier way in which we were received by the Secretary of State for Health, who refused to reconsider the matter and who clearly had a closed mind. As the editorial in the Leicester Mercury said last week, the Government should take action. All parties are demanding that they do so.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not very well impressed by the style and manner in which the hon. and learned Gentleman has sought to support the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). I have already told the House that there has been a significant increase in the total resources available to that health authority. I shall bring the point, in its more precise form, to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider arranging a debate on the spread of satanism and devil worship in the United Kingdom and the involvement of children? [Interruption.] I well remember the reaction in the House 10 years ago, when I warned of the spread of child abuse. I was greeted with disbelief, but we now know differently. Two years ago, I warned of the spread of devil worship, satanism and black witchcraft—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Dickens

We now know that that is true because of the NSPCC report. Such a debate would help me to identify others in this House who are willing to stand up to those people. In all honesty, I think that the House of Commons is weak on this subject.

Mr. Skinner

There is the first suspect—Mr. Speaker, who wears a wig and is all in black.

Mr. Speaker


Sir Geoffrey Howe

In view of my hon. Friend's self-proclamation of his powers of prophecy in respect of these matters, it would not be wise of me to dismiss altogether the warnings that he utters about devilish-sounding things in the form of satanism, devil worship and black witchcraft, but I cannot promise an immediate debate on the matter.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

I assure the Leader of the House that these days the only people who crucify one are those on the Labour party's NEC, and I speak from personal experience.

More important at this stage, may I voice my support for the demand that we have a special debate to discuss the middle east hostages question? Such a debate would be important for the House, for the families of those concerned and as a matter of principle. Or is the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the British Government still committed to a pro-Israeli policy, remembering that that country is responsible for a lot of the trouble in the area and for much of the terrorism?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not sure that I should accept with alacrity advice from the hon. Gentleman about the hostages question. I assure him—the House must surely be in no doubt about this—that we are all continuously, seriously and desperately concerned about our hostages. Certainly the Government are.

To answer the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raised, I get the impression that he is complaining about the continued application in his party of red witchcraft. That must be a matter for him and his party to sort out.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Did the Leader of the House hear the endorsement that the Prime Minister gave to the Secretary of State for Scotland? Did it remind him of what she said about other Cabinet Ministers just before she sacked them? In view of that, will the deputy Prime Minister give an assurance that the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) will be dealing with Scottish business in the House as Secretary of State next week and for the remainder of this Parliament?

The Minister for Industry (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

Yes, next week and next year and the year after that.

Mr. Foulkes

The alternative being suggested—who is not the gabbier on the Government Front Bench below the Gangway—by certain Scottish Tory Members is causing alarm throughout Scotland.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I can reply even more confidently. I am confident that my right hon. and learned Friend will be continuing to serve the people of Scotland and of the United Kingdom in a ministerial capacity for many years to come, well beyond 1992.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

I, too, was disappointed at the reply that the Leader of the House gave to the question asked by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) about National Health Service funding. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that many health authorities are suffering from underfunding? Many early-day motions are pointing that out, including one applying to Sheffield, which refers to underfunding for mental health. It would benefit Members in all parts of the House to be given time to express our fears and worries about the whole business of underfunding in the NHS.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The total resources available to the NHS throughout the country as a whole during Conservative control have grown by more than 40 per cent. in real terms. If Opposition Members wish to debate the matter more specifically, they can raise it on one of their own days.