HC Deb 08 November 1990 vol 180 cc137-46

4.9 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)

As the House is aware, the debate on the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech will be brought to a conclusion on Wednesday 14 November.

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for the remainder of next week:

THURSDAY I5 NOVEMBER—Motion to take note of EC documents on indirect tax rate proposals, technical proposals for VAT, statistics and mutual assistance, and technical proposals for the control of excise movements. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Motion to take note of EC documents on the conservation of fishing resources and improvements to structures in the fisheries and aquaculture sector. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 16 NOVEMBER—There will be a debate on road safety on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 19 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Statutory Sick Pay Bill.

[Thursday 15 November
(1) Relevant European Community Documents
(a) 6762/89 Indirect Taxes: Harmonisation
(b) 9775/89 Excise Duty Rates
(c) 6641/90 Value Added Tax
(d) 6725/90 Trade Statistics
(e) 8801/90 Trade Statistics
(f) 6642/90 Indirect Taxes (Administrative Co-operation)
(g) COM(90) 430 Excise duties: Regime and Structure
COM(90) 431
COM(90) 432
COM(90) 433
COM(90) 434

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 15-xxxii (1988–89)
  2. (b) HC 11-xi (1989–90)
  3. (c) HC 11-xxxi (1989–90)
  4. (d) HC 11-xxxi (1989–90)
  5. (e) Not yet reported on
  6. (f) HC 11-xxxi (1989–90)
  7. (g) HC 11-xxxiii (1989–90)

(2) Relevant European Community Documents:
(a) 8317/90 Fisheries: Technical Conservation measures
(b) 8240/90 Fisheries and Aquaculture: Structural Improvements

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 11-xxxii (1989–90)
  2. (b) HC 11-xxxii (1989–90).]

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

May I warmly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment as Lord President and Leader of the House? Is it safe to assume that he was quite happy not to be designated deputy Prime Minister, given the fate of his predecessor? We regret the departure of the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) from his position as Leader of the House. I believe not only that he wanted to reform and modernise the House and its procedures but that he sought always to carry the House with him in what he was seeking to do. I place on record our appreciation of that. However, I certainly wish the new Leader of the House well in his new position.

May I reiterate my request for an oral statement at the earliest opportunity on the implications of the Cullen inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster? Will the Leader of the House accept that the comments of certain oil companies on North sea oil safety requirements and request from employees sit ill beside the statement today that Shell profits have increased by 70 per cent? Are the Government content with that level of profit taking by oil companies in all the circumstances of the Gulf crisis? Can we have a statement on that subject, too, from the Secretary of State for Energy? I believe that many people in Britain will be angry, given the increases in prices that they have had to face, to learn that profits have increased by 70 per cent. No doubt similar profit increases will be reflected when other companies announce their returns.

Finally, are the Government happy about the proposed merger of Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting? Are not there some serious consequences for broadcasting in Britain in that proposed merger? Can we have a statement at the earliest opportunity about the proposal from the appropriate Minister, who I understand is the Secretary of State for the Home Department?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about me and for his welcome. I am particularly grateful for the tribute he paid to my predecessor, in which I should like to join, for all the work that he did in the reform and modernisation of the House and in so many other ways while he was Leader of the House. I look forward to co-operating with the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) in dealing will all matters that are of interest and benefit to the House, including reform and modernisation.

I note the hon. Gentleman's request about Piper Alpha and I know that he raised the matter with my predecessor. I can confirm that it is the intention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement in the near future. I hope that that will be next week. As we have an important debate today, he will forgive me if I do not comment on his particular remarks about the oil industry, but I shall convey the issues he has raised to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.

On the question of Sky Television, the creation of British Sky Broadcasting offers the prospect of a satellite service capable of operating on a profitable basis and offering real competition for terrestrial broadcasters and quality and choice for the viewer. That prospect is entirely consistent with the Government's broadcasting objectives. I understand that the Office of Fair Trading is currently considering whether the merger raises issues that might warrant its recommending a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I shall convey the hon. Gentleman's request to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

Conservative Members and, I suspect, hon. Members in general will join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend on his elevation and wish him well in the post. Has he had time to consider the implications of the absence of a debate on the environment in the Loyal Address, given that such debates are determined by the Opposition? As a result, does he conclude that presumably the Labour party sees no advantage in debating the environment because of the Government's excellent record? Will he therefore take early steps to arrange such a debate?

Mr. MacGregor

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about me. As he rightly says, debates on the Queen's Speech are chosen by the Opposition. I agree that they must recognise that we are carrying forward the most powerful and constructive proposals on the environment. I cannot say when we shall be able to have an early debate.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I again draw the attention of the House to the fact that we have a very important debate later? I ask that questions be particularly directed to business next week and not general topics. Hon. Members who were not part of my deal but who nevertheless were called might bear it in mind that other hon. Members wish to speak later in the debate.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept my congratulations on his elevation to the dignified office that he now holds? I am glad to hear that he will continue the modernising and reforming ways of his predecessor. He will no doubt make a good start as a Scot if one of his early achievements is the establishment of a Scottish Select Committee. As a former Agriculture Minister, he must be aware of much concern among farmers, not least with falling prices and higher costs, about the implications of the 30 per cent. reduction in subsidies which was agreed at this week's European Council meeting. May we have a statement next week from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in which he could fully explain what was decided at that meeting and the implications in the shorter and longer term for British farming?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks. I am aware that there is much interest in the discussions that took place in Brussels and obviously it is an important issue. I cannot promise when we shall be able to discuss it, but I shall convey the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend. I am willing to consider the possibility of a debate on the general GATT issues, of which agriculture is a prominent part.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the mounting traffic chaos in Greater Manchester as a result of the guards' strike at Piccadilly station? Will he have a word with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport so that we can have a statement on the matter next week, which would allow Conservative Members to express the outrage of our constituents at the considerable inconvenience that is being caused by those activities to their lives, their businesses and all aspects of commercial life in the north-west?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot promise a statement next week, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend has already made clear his own views about the matter.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the anguish of people with haemophilia who were infected with the AIDS virus in the course of NHS treatment. He will know that more than 130 have already died and that 1,000 more lives are threatened. May we have a statement next week on this appalling tragedy, more especially in view of Mr. Justice Ognall's plea for an out-of-court settlement of a case which, he says, is bringing the law into disrepute? Why cannot we follow the humane example of Canada and West Germany?

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. and learned Friend the former Secretary of State for Health has made the Government's position clear on many occasions. We have always accepted the strong moral argument in favour of haemophiliacs, which is why we made £34 million available for ex gratia payments, and we promise to keep that figure under review.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May we have a debate next week on fair employment policies, so that the House can investigate the finding of an industrial tribunal in Ealing of blatant racism by the former Labour Ealing council, in its failure to employ Mr. Terry Deane in its housing department, and the bad race relations of that council?

Mr. MacGregor

If my hon. Friend manages to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, he can elaborate further on his views on this matter in the debate on the Queen's Speech in the next week.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

We on this Bench offer our sincere congratulations and good wishes to the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment to his present post. Does he recall that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told the Procedure Committee that there was no need for a Select Committee on Northern Ireland because he hoped to establish devolved government shortly? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the proposal has been completely torpedoed by others, so the need for that Select Committee grows with each passing day? Will he carefully consider making a statement next week about setting up such a Committee?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his remarks. I have not yet been able to brief myself on a number of matters that come within my sphere of responsibility, and this is clearly one. However, I cannot promise a statement next week.

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Thursday's business, which deals with fisheries management, will not be the only opportunity before the end of the year for the House to discuss the important issue of fishing?

Mr. MacGregor

There may be other opportunities, but next Thursday is an important opportunity for hon. Members who have various fisheries points that they want to raise to do so.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman, as a fellow Scot, to his new job. As a Scot, will he look at the report by the Procedure Committee—if not the whole report, at least that paragraph dealing with the fact that it is his duty to see that a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs comes about? I do not wish to tell the right hon. Gentleman his duty, because I am sure that he will carry out his duty as a Scot. Will he look at the possibility, through whatever channels, of setting up a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs? The House desperately needs to look into Scotland's affairs. Had we had a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, perhaps the debate which we are shortly to have on the collapse of the steel industry might not have been necessary.

Mr. MacGregor

I am, of course, aware that this matter has a considerable background. I am aware also that we Scots are very tenacious—[HON. MEMBERS: "Wee Scots?"]—"We Scots", with one "e". This matter has already been raised with me, and it is clearly one which I shall wish to consider.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

May I also welcome my right hon. Friend to his new job? I am sure that the House understands me when I say that education's loss will prove to be the gain of the House. When may we have a debate on grant-maintained schools? My right hon. Friend will be particularly aware that it is difficult for grant-maintained schools to emerge. The process should be much simplified.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am very proud to have played my part in helping to carry forward the Government's major reforms of the education system which are promoting choice and greatly improving standards. There will be an opportunity to discuss grant-maintained schools in Tuesday's debate on education and training. That is one of the opportunities that I had hoped to have to defend the Government's educational programme robustly and to reveal the deficiencies of the Opposition's policies.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new job—a very nice little number and not very demanding. For him, of course, it is a welcome relief—no more mad cows, no more mad teachers, just mad Members asking things of no great import. Of course, longevity is not part of the job either.

I very much welcome next week's debate on fishing. Although whales are not fish but mammals, will we have a statement next week by a responsible Minister protesting about the slaughter of porpoises and dolphins by the Japanese and the launch, again, of their whaling fleet into the Antarctic? This is an important matter; I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can arrange for us to have a debate on animal conservation with particular reference to whales.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will ensure that my current job is less demanding, at least in terms of the pressures that he puts on me. However, I cannot promise a debate on those matters next week, because we have a full programme, but I shall certainly bear his points in mind.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1 on the future of the multi-fibre arrangement.

[That this House acknowledging that trade cannot be free unless it is also fair, is unwilling to contemplate a timetable for phasing out the Multi-Fibre Arrangement without the coming into effect of a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade agreement incorporating greatly strengthened enforeceable rules and disciplines and the elimination of barriers to United Kingdom textile and clothing exports.]

Is my hon. Friend aware that 480,000 people are still employed in the textile and clothing industries? Is he aware that many of them are concerned about the meeting which will be held at the beginning of December by European Community Ministers to negotiate their stance on the Uruguay round of GATT, and that they are worried that Britain appears to be moving towards a much less robust position than that taken by many of our partners on linkage between the phasing out of the MFA and a much tougher and enforceable GATT? Could my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate before the beginning of December so that these views can be forcefully expressed?

Mr. MacGregor

I am aware of the views on the matter previously expressed in the House. I must point out to my hon. Friend that it has always been known that ending the multi-fibre arrangement is an essential part of the general lowering of trade barriers by all parties which we are pursuing in the Uruguay round. I am considering whether we can find time to have a debate on the GATT Uruguay round before the time to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I welcome the debate on fisheries next week. However, I ask that it is not used as an excuse not to have a debate in December when the quota allocations for next year are known. Does the Leader of the House accept that fishing is a critical industry which faces major problems and that it merits more than one solitary parliamentary debate in a full Session?

Mr. MacGregor

I am very well aware of the importance of the fishing industry to many parts of the United Kingdom and I am also well aware of its importance to certain parts of Scotland. As a former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who had to deal with such matters, I well recall our debates on the annual review of the common fisheries policy. I will certainly consider whether it is possible to have a second debate on fisheries matters in relation to that review, but I cannot make any promise at this stage.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend and I am sure that he will serve the House extremely well in his new position. During next week, will it be possible to have a review of the planning procedures for public motorways? A bureaucratic process is built into the system. The M3 will go from London to Southampton, but it has taken more than 20 years to get to its present stage and it will probably be another three to four years before it is completed to the borders of Southampton. During the planning procedures, why cannot the numbers of accidents, deaths and injuries be published each month? Some of the protesters would then be aware of the need for improved motorways and it would probably lessen the opposition of those who are in sympathy with delay for delay's sake.

Mr. MacGregor

I do not think that it would be right within the terms of our debate on the Queen's Speech next week to include my hon. Friend's point. However, I am sure that, during the course of this Parliament, there will be other opportunities to do so. I will ensure that my hon. Friend's latter point is drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will also draw it to their attention.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

The Leader of the House will recall my Rape in Marriage (Offence) Bill last Session, and he will also have read this week the Law Commission report which recommended that its provisions should be enacted. Will the right hon. Gentleman have a word this week with the Home Secretary and suggest that its provisions should be included in the Criminal Justice Bill when it comes before the House?

Mr. MacGregor

The Criminal Justice Bill will be published shortly. Clearly, it will not be possible to include these matters within it. We have only just received the Law Commission report and it will need a great deal of reflection. I hope that there will be other opportunities to raise the matter, but I do not think that there will be such opportunities next week.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Notwithstanding that we have today a broadly based debate on Europe and defence and that we have had a narrow debate on our recent entry into the exchange rate mechanism, does not my right hon. Friend feel that it is high time that we had a full day's debate on Europe, which would allow us to find out just how many Opposition Members still support their original manifesto commitment to withdraw from the European Community? Such a debate would also help us to find out whether the Leader of the Opposition does or does not believe in a single currency, which was far from clear from his remarks yesterday at the Dispatch Box.

Mr. MacGregor

If we can move swiftly to today's debate, we might find out the answers today.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Would the Leader of the House reconsider his reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on the possibility of a debate on the environment? Last weekend saw the conclusion of the world climate conference at which the British Government were once again dragging their heels over the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. This month, the British Government will send a delegation to Santiago for the Antarctic minerals convention and the Antarctic treaty conference. I hope that the delegation will go there to say that it supports the idea of a wilderness part in the Antarctic.

Does the Leader of the House think that those two matters alone merit a special debate in the House on the Government's policy towards world climate and the environment as a whole? If we do not address such matters and take them seriously, we shall all be the losers.

Mr. MacGregor

I should have thought it perfectly obvious that we are taking those matters very seriously. The fact that the Opposition have not chosen to debate them this week shows that—like me—they reject the charges and accusations levelled by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn).

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if he manages to anticipate the needs of hon. Members, he will earn the gratitude of Back Benc:hers and probably deserve the praise of his colleagues in government? Will he recognise that, when the various other bodies have considered the satellite television merger, the House will want to return to the issue? It had the chance to debate the takeover of The Times and The Sunday Times some years ago. Having five national newspapers and the satellite channel in one pair of hands is obviously not desirable.

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on having arranged a road casualty reduction debate for Friday? However, could such debates take place between Monday and Thursday in future, so that something can be done about the 450 deaths that occur on the roads each month?

Mr. MacGregor

I have already commented on the first point. As for the second, it is not only a question of a debate on road safety next week; clearly there will be many opportunities to debate road transport and road safety matters in this Session.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

As the only other Member of the House who is also a member of the Magic Circle, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his levitation out of the illusion of control over education arid into stage management? Does he feel that he could conjure up a suggestion of good will and arrange a debate on the treatment of the aged and, in particular, the closure of old people's homes? Leicestershire county council is proposing, on 13 November, to approve the closure of two homes in my constituency—de Montfort house and Bewcastle house. Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House a chance to express the feelings of aged people who, having put down roots, are now potentially being turfed out of homes where they have found that they can be happy and enjoy a certain quality of life?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I cannot think of a suitable magical allusion to his opening comments, about an illusion, but no doubt one will occur to me later.

I do not think that we shall have an opportunity next week to debate the points that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised. As he will know, health and social security matters have not been chosen by the Opposition for the Gracious Speech debates.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will do an excellent job with his new responsibilities. May I add my voice to the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) for a debate on the future of the multi-fibre arrangement under the negotiations currently taking place in the Uruguay round? That sector of industry accounts for 9 per cent. of manufacturing employment in the United Kingdom and many of those people live in the critical and more difficult areas of the United Kingdom.

Mr. MacGregor

As one who had quite a lot to do, in my earlier ministerial capacities, with issues that arose from the GATT Uruguay round, I am very much aware of the importance of that round. I have already said that I will see what I can do to find time for a debate on all the issues arising from it.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

The Leader of the House may take into account the possibility of a statement or a debate next week—or even earlier—on the role of local authorities in housing provision. Is he aware that very few local authorities are now building houses, and that most are building none at all? Local authorities are in a suitable position to assess their own community housing needs, bearing in mind the terrifying deprivation that still exists and the housing requirements that many families are dying for their local authorities to meet.

That being the case—especially in the urban areas and conurbations where there is still decay—would not it be reasonable for the Leader of the House to suggest to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that we should have a debate or statement, so that the House can review a new approach to housing provision?

Mr. MacGregor

There will be an opportunity to range quite widely during the first three days' debates next week on various matters.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

Many farmers in Lincolnshire bravely accept the necessity for cuts of 30 per cent. in agricultural support levels in the Community if agreement is to be reached in the current GATT round, but that necessity is a cruel one for many farmers and their families. There is a real crisis of confidence; may I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to find an early stage in this Session when we can debate the grave prospects facing agriculture, so that they can be fully understood by both Parliament and people?

Mr. MacGregor

I am tempted to discuss agricultural matters with my hon. Friend, but this is probably not the right occasion to do so. I am well aware of the implications of some aspects of the GATT Uruguay round for the farming community, but it, too, recognises the importance of achieving a successful outcome to that round. It would be appropriate to raise the sort of points that my hon. Friend wants to discuss if we can find time for a debate on the GATT round.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

A Home Office circular has been issued to electoral registration officers taking the vote away from people who have not completed electoral registers or poll tax registration forms, although these are supposed to be two separate registers. That will lead to a massive decline in the number of people on the franchise, in addition to those who have already been lost due to the impact of the poll tax. May we have an early debate to discuss the state of the Representation of the People Act, which is being undermined by the Home Office circular and the impact of the poll tax in general?

Mr. MacGregor

No, I do not think that it will be possible to have a debate on these matters, but I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the remarks made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a statement either by the Minister of State, Home Office, who is present, or by the Home Secretary on a matter which is causing increasing concern: the suicides of young persons on remand in prison? Yet another young man has gone to his death because of bullying, which causes grave anxiety not only to those involved in the prison service but to those involved in the law and the Home Office at all levels. Given that Judge Tumin's report in respect of Armley gaol was suppressed for about eight months, the position has become a national disgrace. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for someone to come to the House to answer questions on a subject that makes us the shamefaced boys of Europe?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not want to enter into the issues, but my hon. Friend has heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I believe that we have Home Office questions next Thursday; I do not know whether it will be appropriate to raise these matters then—that will depend on what questions are asked.