HC Deb 29 November 1990 vol 181 cc1017-26 3.31 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?

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

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

MONDAY 3 DECEMBER—Second Reading of Community Charges (Substitute Setting) Bill, followed by Second Reading of the Caravans (Standard Community Charge and Rating) Bill.

TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER—Motion to take note of EC documents relating to the 1991 EC budget. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Motion on the debts of Overseas Government (Determination of Relevant Percentage) Regulations.

The Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER—Opposition Day (1st Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Abolition of the Poll Tax".

Motion relating to the National Health Service (Local Health Councils) (Scotland) Regulations.

THURSDAY 6 DECEMBER—There will be a debate on development in the European Community on a Government motion.

FRIDAY 7 DECEMBER—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 10 DECEMBER—Second Reading of Atomic Weapons Establishment Bill.

[Tuesday 4 December

Relevant European Community documents

(a) COM(90) 121 Preliminary Draft Budget of the European Communities for 1991
(b) 8182/90 Draft General Budget of the European Communities for the Financial Year 1991
(c) 9865/90 The European Parliament's proposed amendments and modifications to the Draft Budget

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 11-xxxi (1989–90), para 6
  2. (b) HC 29-i (1990–91)
  3. (c) No report.]

Dr. Cunningham

I congratulate the Leader of the House on maintaining his place in the Cabinet, and I look forward to working with him on matters pertaining to the House of Commons.

Has the Leader of the House seen the alarming reports in today's press about large scale redundancies in British Aerospace? If the sad reports are confirmed, and given the devastation to employment that the redundancies will cause, may we have an urgent statement next week from Ministers responsible for the aerospace industry?

Has the Leader of the House had the chance to reflect on the commitment made by his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), and the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, that there would be a full day's debate this autumn on economic and monetary union before the intergovernmental conference? Are the Government now reneging on those commitments to the House and to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee? If not, when do the Government propose to provide the second day for that debate, since the debate next week is about political changes in the Community?

Finally, I urge the Leader of the House to discuss with the new Chief Whip the possibility that, when we table a motion to abolish the poll tax next Wednesday, his right hon. and hon. Friends may have a free vote.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about co-operation on matters relating to the House of Commons. As I told him only a short while ago, I look forward to working with him on all matters relating to reforms and other issues of concern to the House, taking into account the various reports that we receive from various committees. I am grateful for his approach to these matters.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks about British Aerospace are a matter for the company. If there are changed market conditions, it is for the company to decide how to react to them. But I have noted what the hon. Gentleman says and I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I am not sure that there was a specific commitment to a debate on European economic and monetary union, but if it is agreeable to Mr. Speaker it will be possible to refer to some of these matters in next Thursday's debate. I accept, however, that there should be a full day's debate on the subject; when it is held is a matter to be discussed through the usual channels.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that Conservative Members will be united in the position that they adopt in next Wednesday's debate.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to speak to the Foreign Secretary about the tantalising thoughts that he expressed about reforming the business of the House if he were to become Prime Minister? While that is still fresh in his mind, may we begin to examine the timetabling and office accommodation of this place—and all the other aspects that make it an inefficient organisation and not an organisation for the 1990s?

Mr. MacGregor

I am aware of various reports on these matters. Progress is being made on accommodation; as my hon. Friend will know, Bridge street phase 1 is proceeding and I am keen that it should keep on target. A number of reports on matters concerning the House are before us at the moment and I am anxious to pursue them. The Government's position will be made clear in due course. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and I are keen to ensure that we make progress on matters that are the responsibility of the House of Commons Commission as well. I cannot say whether it will be possible to reach agreement on all of them, but I intend to take them forward. I pay tribute, as I did in the Queen's Speech debate, to my predecessor for all that he did in the cause of House of Commons reform.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

The Leader of the House will be aware that yesterday a Foreign Office Minister said that the Department was looking into reports of a speech made by the first secretary at the British embassy in Washington to a meeting in Boston in which he seemed to contradict at least five separate points of Government policies toward Northern Ireland. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore ensure that there is a statement to the House, in view of the detrimental effects of that speech on confidence and on the prospects for investment by America?

Mr. MacGregor

I shall certainly look into the matter and discuss it with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

When will the Government announce the repeal of the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend knows of my interest in these matters. I think that it will be a beneficial Act, so the answer, as far as I am concerned, is that it will not be.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to welcome the report published yesterday by Sir Robin Ibbs and to announce a debate on the welcome prospect of the House being able to take control of the building in which we work?

Tomorrow is St. Andrew's day and marks the publication by the Scottish constitutional convention of its blueprint for a Scottish Parliament, so will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the new Secretary of State for Scotland to come to the House next week with his response, and to show a welcome change of heart by the Government? Without such a change of heart, his party's policy is liable to be the one that leads to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Mr. MacGregor

I entirely reject the hon. Gentleman's second point, and I therefore see no need for a statement. I am grateful to him for drawing attention to the Ibbs report; because of other events this week, it did not receive much prominence in the press, and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will read it and let us have their views. I think that it has important implications for the future administration and financing of the House, as I have already made clear in a written answer, and I hope that we shall be able to debate the report when the process is complete.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my right. hon. Friend aware that, as one of those who voted consistently against the community charge on Second and Third Reading of the legislation, I strongly welcome—as do many of my colleagues—the Government's new commitment to review the charge fundamentally?

Do not both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) agree that the House should be able so to manage the politics of this country that we can find a method of local government finance that has nothing whatever to do with party politics and reaches across the political divide? Will my right hon. Friend at least give me an assurance that he will try to achieve that objective?

Mr. MacGregor

I see little chance of that; but my hon. Friend knows what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has just said about further consideration of the community charge. He will also know that we have already spent a great deal of time reviewing the charge, and that measures are in the pipeline. There will be a number of opportunities to debate those matters next week.

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

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether, with the change of Prime Minister, there is any change in the prospects of haemophiliacs who have contracted the AIDS virus through contaminated blood products in the national health service? Is this not a wonderful opportunity to end the legal battle and to seek a fair and honourable settlement? May we have a statement next week, please?

Mr. MacGregor

As I have told the House before, we have always accepted the strong moral argument in favour of the haemophiliacs, which is why we have made £34 million available for ex gratia payments and promised to keep that figure under review. I should stress again, however, that the Government do not accept liability, and will resist any settlement that implies admission of negligence.

Sir Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Following yesterday's statement about the Gulf, will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to arranging a full-scale debate on that subject before Christmas?

Mr. MacGregor

As my hon. Friend has said, a statement was made in the House yesterday. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would wish to come to the House in the event of any developments that required further statements or other methods of discussing the matter in the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement about industrial relations in the coal mining industry? Is he aware that, since the end of the strike, the National Union of Mineworkers—which is the largest trade union in the mining industry—has been refused permission to negotiate with British Coal? If the Government are talking about equality of opportunity, surely it is high time that a directive was issued by the Secretary of State allowing negotiations to take place.

Mr. MacGregor

I do not think that that is a matter about which I should ask my right hon. Friend to make a statement next week.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Further to the matter raised by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), is the Leader of the House aware that the statement attributed to the first secretary to the British embassy was most damaging and has done great harm in the United Kingdom in relation to business investment in Northern Ireland? For the secretary to say that the Government were pushing the Fair Employment Agency to bring sacrificial lambs to the altar was an insult to every employer of labour in Northern Ireland.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Foreign Secretary makes a statement to the House on this vital subject?

Mr. MacGregor

I have not seen the statement so I do not know what was said and do not wish to comment on it. However, as I said earlier, I will discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend.

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

Will the Leader of the House set aside time at an early date for a full debate on the condition of the voluntary sector social services organisations? The Government are always praising them. This week, however, three groups—the Hornsey centre, which provides conductive training for children with cerebral palsy, the Royal National Institute for the Blind's braille service and Tower Hamlets advanced technological training centre, which does wonderful work in an area where there is 25 per cent. unemployment—are all in serious financial trouble. The latter organisation receives funding from the European social fund. As the regulations have been changed, the cheque has to be processed by the Department of Employment. It has already waited for 11 months but has still not received its money.

Mr. MacGregor

The Government have constantly drawn attention to and supported the work of the voluntary sector. Moreover, there has been a substantial increase in funding for a large number of charitable bodies and voluntary sector organisations. Significant tax changes have also greatly increased the amount of money that flows from voluntary and corporate giving to the voluntary sector. Ours is a record of strong support in ways other than just making statements of support. We provide material support as well.

I know that there is a problem about braille. Nevertheless, having looked at the demand on resources that is faced by the Department which funds braille, and having taken into account the fact that the Royal National Institute for the Blind has been successful in raising funds, it did not seem to be a priority to continue to fund that operation as it had been funded in the past. There does not seem to be a case, therefore, for a debate on the subject next week.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend do his utmost to ensure that we have a debate as soon as possible on a motion of confidence in the Government to tempt the Leader of the Opposition back to the Dispatch Box? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the more exposure the Leader of the Opposition gets the better it will be for Conservative Members? Does he not also agree that, judging by the looks on the faces of—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not the purpose of business questions.

Mr. MacGregor

I can see why my hon. Friend is tempted, but we recently held a debate of that kind which resulted in a resounding victory for the Government.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South East)

I support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) about the need for a debate on British Aerospace's disgraceful announcement today of 4,500 redundancies. In that debate we ought to be able to question the Ministry of Defence on the need for alternative work and contracts so that defence workers do not have to pay the price of defence cuts. In preparation for such a debate, may I ask the Leader of the House to read an article in the last edition of the Sunday Times in which remarks were made by Professor Roland Smith, the chairman of British Aerospace? He said that, unless Government policies were changed, by the end of next year 10 per cent. of United Kingdom plc would be in receivership. Who is responsible for that—the former Prime Minister or the former Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Mr. MacGregor

I have already dealt with the business of the House on that matter, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is completely hypocritical in his approach to this matter. From the rumours that I have heard, it would appear that if there were to be changed market conditions they would relate to the fact that, with the ending of the cold war, there was not need for the same degree of expenditure on defence. That is the problem that will face the company, if it goes that way. Given all the hon. Gentleman's remarks about defence, he really cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Nellist

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must allow me to get my bit in first.

Mr. Nellist

Policies can be hypocritical, not people.

Mr. Speaker

Of course policies can be hypocritical, not people; the hon. Gentleman is quite right. However, the purpose of business questions is to ask the Leader of the House whether he will consider making time available next week for a debate or for a statement. It is not the purpose of business questions to make speeches that might be made if that debate were granted. It takes up a lot of time. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] I am sure that the Leader of the House did not call the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) a hypocrite.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall,North)

He did.

Mr. Speaker

If he did, will the Leader of the House withdraw it, please?

Mr. MacGregor

I shall certainly withdraw on that point. Perhaps I can phrase it more accurately: attitudes to policy can reveal hypocrisy.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

In view of developments in the Gulf crisis and further to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn), will my right hon. Friend guarantee time for a debate, when it is appropriate and as things evolve, if only to allow hon. Members on both sides to stand up and be counted?

Mr. MacGregor

We had better wait and see what happens. It will be a matter for discussion through the usual channels, if the need arises.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the negotiations taking place between Yorkshire Water and York health authority about the possibility of transferring pathology services from the health authority to the water authority? Will he arrange for the Minister responsible to investigate that and put an end to this crazy system? May we have a statement about it next week?

Mr. MacGregor

I am not sure about a statement, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. As the hon. Gentleman knows, if he wishes to bring that issue before the House, there are other opportunities for doing so.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Will my right hon. Friend look more urgently into the speech made by the first secretary in Washington? It was reported in the British press on Monday and I drew it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the same day. If it is correct, surely it should have been the subject of an immediate statement to the House because it represents a change of Government policy. If it was not correct, it should have been disavowed immediately. Why has there been no action until now?

Mr. MacGregor

I have already explained the action I propose to take. In addition, I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Will the Leader of the House allow time for a debate on the extraordinary lack of balance shown by the media during the past two or three weeks? Is he aware that night after night we have been bombarded with Tory Back-Bench Members, many of whom we have never seen before in the House? They have been able to make a three-week party political broadcast. The Leader of the House might think that his party was a recipient during that phase, but it is unhealthy in a democracy. It does not make for good debate when the Opposition are not even allowed to appear on television. In the interests of democracy, I should have thought that the Leader of the House would agree that we needed to look at the question of balance.

Mr. MacGregor

It is for the media to decide what they regard as important news events. If the hon. Lady feels so strongly about it, there is a remedy open to her.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

My right hon. Friend has been urged to announce a debate on the community charge. As one who voted for it, may I press him to do that? Clearly, as our new Prime Minister has said it needs to be looked at fundamentally, I am sure that many voters in the north of England would welcome an opportunity for it to be reconsidered.

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made our position clear this afternoon. We shall be spending two days next week debating community charge matters.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

May we have a statement next week on the serious condition of Polaris submarines? There are cracks in the cooling coils of the pressurised water reactors that operate them and they may be causing potential damage to the crew. In spite of a Ministry of Defence cover-up upstairs in Committee, we do not at present have a nuclear deterrent. As the Government are keen on supporting the United Nations these days, will they support the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty, withdraw Polaris and scrap the Trident programme?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman knows that there is no question of that. Our view on submarines has been made clear. No submarine would be allowed to visit a civilian or a naval port or go to sea if it were considered unsafe to do so.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Further to my right hon. Friend's reply to the first question put to him by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) about British Aerospace, 6,500 of my constituents will be worried about the company's announcement on Monday; but they will recognise also that it must decide its commercial future. If a statement is thought appropriate, will my right hon. Friend ensure that it contains a full reference to the many billions of pounds that the Government have already spent with British Aerospace, the support they are giving to export contracts, and the context in which British Aerospace views its future in terms of Britain's future defence policy?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes a number of relevant points, and they would certainly be for consideration in any statement or exchanges in the House.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a statement on the enormous profits announced yesterday by the north-west water authorities, showing that they enjoyed a 667 per cent. increase in profits on the payments made by my constituents and others? Is it not disgraceful that taxpayers' money should be used to subsidise private companies in that way?

Mr. MacGregor

Consumers, shareholders and everyone else will benefit from the privatisation of the water industry, including from an environmental point of view.

Mrs. Dunwoody

But not consumers.

Mr. MacGregor

Consumers too; I made that clear. I see no likelihood of a statement being made on that subject next week.

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

In the light of the statement made yesterday by the European Commissioner responsible for fisheries that the EEC fishing fleet ought to be reduced by as much as 40 per cent., particularly in the North sea, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made next week so that we may ascertain whether the British Government will move on the issue of decommissioning?

Mr. MacGregor

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. As he knows, I had ministerial responsibility for such matters for a number of years, and I well understand the situation. We are concerned about the decline in fish stocks, particularly in the North sea, and I am sure that my hon. Friend acknowledges that it is important to avoid overfishing. It is in the industry's long-term interests that that issue should be addressed.

We have taken the lead in the Community in pressing for improved conservation, and we understand that the Commission has just issued a communication identifying major problems in the Community fishing industry. However, we have no proposals yet, and that is relevant to whether or not there should be a statement next week. The Council of Fisheries Ministers will address the prospects for 1991 at a meeting on 19 December. Although the volume of fish landed this year is lower, its total value is higher. I cannot promise a statement next week, because it is important that we should have something to consider. Nevertheless, I agree that the House ought to debate the matter before the Council meeting on 19 December.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

May we have an early debate on Leicestershire health authority's intolerable decision to stop supplying free incontinence aids to elderly people in residential homes? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that decision has been denounced by Leicestershire Members of Parliament of all parties? Although I fully understand the problems that confront the health authority as a result of the Government's wicked cuts in the county's health provision, does not the Leader of the House agree that its decision is mean, nasty and cruel?

Mr. MacGregor

We are already spending some £30 billion on the health service, and an additional £3 billion will be spent next year. There have been massive increases in health service funding in recent years, so I reject the hon. and learned Gentleman's overall charge.

As to the particular issue that he raised, I cannot promise a statement next week because it is fundamentally a matter for the health authority. However, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has just shown, there are other ways of raising the matter in the House.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the tragic event that occurred in my constituency when a 17-year-old girl died from overdrinking in an illegal drinking den, known as shabangs? Will he find time for the House to debate the prosecution of such clubs, even to the extent of confiscating the property that they occupy? It is difficult for the police to prosecute drinking dens because the proprietors move from place to place, but we must at long last get to grips with this problem.

Mr. MacGregor

I am very sorry to hear of the incident to which my hon. Friend refers. He will know that a Bill relevant to the points that he makes is to come before the House, and it may be appropriate to raise such issues during its Committee stage. Meanwhile, I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but I see no opportunity to debate that subject in Government time next week.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

As there is to be a major debate next week on the poll tax, is it possible for the right hon. Gentleman to establish through the office of the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for the Environment or the Secretary of State for Scotland exactly what refinements the Government have in mind? For example, will there be a facility for a 100 per cent. rebate? Surely it will be important in that debate for us to balance, if not the exact details, then the general thrust of the Government's policy on this matter against whatever variation on the rates to which the Labour party may be adhering at the moment and against the local income tax philosophy propounded by my party.

Mr. MacGregor

We have already announced several changes to the community charge, some of which still have to go through and require parliamentary action. We are taking action on two matters on Monday next week. If there are any further changes, I am sure that they will be announced at the appropriate time. Quite a lot of measures are already going through the House concerning a review of the community charge.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

When my right hon. Friend announced the business for next week, he omitted to mention a debate on tourism. Does he agree that such a debate is long overdue? Although many people, particularly those in my constituency, appreciate the greater weighting given to visitor bed nights in the new calculations for the standard spending assessment, does he not think that it is high time that we had such a debate? Will he assure the House that there will be a debate before the Christmas recess, bearing in mind that this important industry is now the largest earner of foreign currency for this country?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend about the industry's importance and the great successes that it has had under the Government. There is a great deal of business for us to do between now and the Christmas recess—next week's business shows that—and I cannot see any prospect of a debate on that subject in Government time.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

Will the Leader of the House allow a discussion next week in Government time on security and safety at Pinderfields general hospital, in my constituency? On Monday this week, two doctors were murdered in their office at the hospital. It will be difficult to replace them, in their homes and in the service. As my request for a statement could not be agreed to, may we have a discussion on security and safety? If that cannot take place in Government time, will the right hon. Gentleman prevail upon the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement to the House on the question of security and safety at Pinderfields general hospital?

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that the whole House shares my horror at what happened to the two consultants and would wish to offer sincere sympathy to the relatives of both. I cannot say that I can find time for a debate in Government time next week on these matters. I shall have to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health whether a statement in that case would be appropriate. Of course, the hon. Gentleman knows that there are other ways in which he can raise these matters.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May we have a debate next week on housing finance so that the House can consider the serious abuse of the housing budget by the former Ealing Labour council which is forcing unwarranted rent increases on council tenants in Ealing? This is happening because the Labour council totally abused the system, as has been proven. This matter should be brought before the House so that such abuses by the Labour party can be fully examined at local level in Ealing before there is any danger from it at national level.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend has made his point effectively. I know that he will find other opportunities to make it effectively at local level and national level and to draw attention to any lessons that are to be learnt. I regret that the business of the House is pretty full next week, and I do not see much prospect of debating the matter then.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Before Wednesday's debate, will my right hon. Friend have a word with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and ask him to place in the Library a comparative chart showing, by local authority area, total spending this year as against last year and comparative manpower levels? That will enable the House to see for itself that the level and unpopularity of the community charge are related to local government overmanning and over expenditure, principally in areas such as Shropshire that are controlled by Labour councillors.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The vast bulk of overspending takes place in Labour local authorities. I will draw my hon. Friend's suggestion to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.