HC Deb 19 December 1991 vol 201 cc469-76 4.25 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for the week following the Christmas adjournment.

  • MONDAY 13 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Bill [Lords]
  • Motion on Tourism (Northern Ireland) Order.
  • The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at Seven o'clock.
  • TUESDAY 14 JANUARY—Debate on nuclear defence on a Government motion.
  • Motion on Ports Act 1991 (Levy on Disposal of land etc.) Order.
  • WEDNESDAY 15 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Coal Industry Bill.
  • THURSDAY 16 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Competition and Service (Utilities) Bill.
  • FRIDAY 17 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

What has happened to Opposition Supply days? Almost a month has elapsed since the Government last gave the Opposition an opportunity to pick a subject for debate. I understand the Government's embarrassment about facing up to challenges on their mismanagement of the economy, but is it not long overdue for the Leader of the House to provide some Opposition Supply time? Under Standing Orders of the House, the official Opposition and Opposition parties generally are entitled to choose subjects for debate. Will the Leader of the House assure us that some time will be allocated when the House resumes?

Has the Leader of the House seen the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee? When shall we have an opportunity to debate the autumn statement on public expenditure, another important aspect of Government policy which the Government seem reluctant to face up to in the House? Earlier this year there was a long delay between the autumn statement and the opportunity to debate it. I would welcome an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that we shall have a debate before too long.

As we have just heard some attempts to smear me and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench in relation to housing repossessions, may we have a debate on Government housing policy? We can then refute the claims that all those who are in difficulty are in that position because of their own errors or those of the building societies. The Government left hundreds of thousands of families no option but to take on mortgages because they stopped local authorities building houses at rents that people could afford.

To set the record straight on repossessions—the Chancellor of the Exchequer accused us of exaggeration—The Observer of 8 December referred to 300,000 repossessions next year, and analysts at Lehman Brothers referred to 250,000 repossessions next year, so our figure of 200,000 can hardly be called exaggeration.

Mr. MacGregor

On the first point, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in a roughly similar position to that of this time last year. and there is no question of our trying to delay Opposition Supply days. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that we have rightly had to accommodate four days debate on Europe and the outcome of the Maastricht summit. Clearly, four days before Christmas were used to debate an important matter that was in the interests of the House. We also have an important legislative programme to get through, and business the first week hack clearly shows that I have had to give priority to that.

Another important point that I am sure the House will recognise is that we shall also have to fit in at the earliest appropriate time the necessary action to fulfil the undertaking on stamp duty given by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his statement this afternoon. I shall seek to give hon. Members notice of how we shall do that as soon as I can. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall use my best endeavours to see whether we can fit in a Supply day in the week following the first week back.

As for the hon. Gentleman's request for a debate on the economy generally and on the autumn statement in particular, he will recognise that there was a considerable delay last year due to specific factors of which he is well aware—not least the amount of time that we had to spend discussing the Gulf. I assure him that I note what he said and, as I have said before, I am keen to have a debate on the economy generally, public expenditure and taxation matters. I hope that I shall be able to accommodate him on that matter fairly soon after we return.

On the hon. Gentleman's final point, the fact that he picks up figures from newspaper statements does not exonerate the Opposition from attempting to be accurate and not trying to scare people.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am always reluctant to curtail business questions, but we have a busy day today. I shall allow business questions until 4.50 pm, then we must move on. I urge hon. Members to ask about business for the week we return, not general matters.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Now that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) has been sent to Coventry so to speak, may we have a debate on the left wing and the Labour party as, despite the best endeavours of Opposition Members, the left-wing element is still there? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in a by-election in St. Martin's ward in the London borough of Lambeth last Thursday, the Conservatives gained the seat from the Labour party on a swing of 20 per cent.? May we therefore have a debate when we return after the Christmas recess to prove that when people see socialism in practice they reject it?

Mr. MacGregor

Comments on one aspect of the left-wing influence on the Labour party could be made during the debate on nuclear defence scheduled for the Tuesday we return.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Will there be a statement tomorrow on the Fisheries Council which took place earlier this week? Will the Leader of the House arrange for a more general debate on fisheries early in the new year, given the 1992 review of fishing? I am not asking for a debate like that last week which related to specific proposals for the Council.

Mr. MacGregor

I well understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The outcome of the Fisheries Council was good for Britain. I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman raised the subject because it enables me to say that we hope to have a statement on it tomorrow. As for a debate early next year, as the hon. Gentleman recognises, we have already had one debate on fisheries. Although it was not quite on the matter that he raised, as a result of that and of other pressures on business, I cannot promise an early further debate on fisheries in Government time.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

When my right hon. Friend considers the business of the week we return, will he hear in mind that some of us will probably not be called in the European debate today and were also not called yesterday? I cannot honourably continue as vice-chairman of the Conservative party in Scotland while unable to support the Government today, and it seems that I shall not have an opportunity to let the House know the reasons for and the logic behind my position.

Mr. MacGregor

I am very sorry to hear what my hon. Friend has to say, hut I am certain that if he cannot speak he will be in a small minority this evening. I do not know why the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is laughing as it is noticeable that the Labour party has failed to table an amendment to today's Government motion, for the simple reason that it did not want a vote on its own amendment and thus reveal the big differences within the Labour party.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

As the Government intend to find time for the Bills relating to the statements today, will the money resolutions he broad enough in both cases to allow for an increase in interest rates?

Mr. MacGregor

As I have said, I shall endeavour to ensure that we make the terms of the money resolution known to hon. Members as soon as we can.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the tremendous problem for public houses being caused by the Government's enactment of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the brewery trade—especially in the country, where there is a danger that pubs will be replaced by continental-style bars? Does he not think that if we wait until 1993 for that to be reviewed in the House it will he far too late? Please may we have a debate now or in the near future?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate on that now or in the near future. As he rightly said, in 1993 there will be a review of the action taken earlier on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report, but it will be for each pub to decide what provisions it wants to make in the countryside.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

On the possible statement tomorrow about the Fisheries Council, will the Leader of the House consider asking the relevant Department to provide full written details of what was agreed at the Fisheries Council in advance of the oral statement so that interested Members can examine the fine detail of the agreement?

Mr. MacGregor

The details will certainly be contained in the statement tomorrow. I will see what can be done before that, but the normal practice is for Ministers to give details in the statements that they make on their return from a Council meeting.

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the GATT Uruguay round should conclude this weekend. He will also be well aware of my interest in that matter, and especially in how the decisions will affect the textile industry. When we conic back to the House, will he find time for a statement and possibly a debate on that important subject?

Mr. MacGregor

I am very much aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the GATT Uruguay round, especially in relation to the textile industry. Tomorrow Mr. Dunkel is due to put his resolution to the GATT Uruguay round and there will have to be a final decision on that. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an extremely important matter. When the Uruguay round reaches a conclusion, as we must all sincerely hope will be the case, I shall see what I can do to enable the House to debate it.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the latest crime figures are extremely serious? As the Government gave that matter great prominence and priority in 1979, and as the largest increase in crime in British history has followed, does not that severe problem justify a change in the business of the House so that we can have an urgent debate on it?

Mr. MacGregor

We have debated those matters on many occasions and no doubt will continue to do so. The fact of the matter is that crime in certain areas is rising, as is reported crime in other areas, especially in relation to rape cases. There has been a large rise in crimes involving motor cars. That is why a number of the steps that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has been taking are appropriately directed to motor cars. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have taken many measures on the whole law and order front during our period in office.

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many pensioners feel a sense of injustice over the concessionary television licence scheme. Would it be possible to have a debate in the new year to discuss the anomalies, especially the fact that old age pensioners living in identically constructed old age pensioners' dwellings pay two different levels of licence, depending merely on whether there is a warden in attendance?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot promise any Government time for that in the first week back. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to find other ways of raising the matter, not necessarily in the House.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

Will the Lord President arrange for an early ministerial statement, possibly in the first week back, on a matter to which I have already drawn his attention—the dumping of toxic waste and the secrecy surrounding it, both in my constituency and generally?

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for the new waste disposal authorities, which will have the powers to act on these matters. I cannot promise a debate, but I am sure that he will wish to direct his concerns in the first instance to the waste disposal authority.

Sir Patrick Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Did the Leader of the House notice earlier in the week the announcement by the senior steward of the Jockey Club of a bold, imaginative and widely welcomed proposal for a British horse racing board which will eventually assume responsibility for the industry's future direction? In view of the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee in the spring and the subsequent response of the Home Office, many hon. Members from all parts of the House who were members of the all-party racing and bloodstock industries group, of which I am an officer, are anxious that the Leader of the House should bear those matters in mind and try to fit in a debate early in the new year.

Mr. MacGregor

I have only just seen the report of the speech to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would wish to have time to give it due consideration. I cannot promise an early debate, but I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am afraid that I was deflected and called two Members from one side. [HON. MEMBERS: "Carry on."] I shall call two Members from the other side.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

I wish to raise a matter that I raised a few weeks ago. Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the world recession and on our commitment to Europe and the Commonwealth? Is he aware that the United States, Australia and France, to name but three countries, have recessions rather worse than our own and that it would be useful to make some comparisons?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes the realistic point that there is a world recession. I have already told my hon. Friend that I hope to be able to arrange a debate on economic matters early in the new year. I hope that he will be able to elaborate his point at that time.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

When the House returns, will my right hon. Friend try to arrange a debate on the lamentable practice of other hon. Members intervening in one's constituency? Is he aware that the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) wrote to the chairman of my health authority demanding information about how it was implementing health and safety regulations—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady should ask for a statement when we get back or something like that.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Will my right hon. Friend please try to arrange matters so that the hon. Member for Stretford does not intrude in my constituency again?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes her point forcefully and I am sure that it will be noted. That makes it unnecessary for me to arrange a debate in the first week back.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

It is more than unfortunate that the Leader of the House has failed to ensure that a moratorium on public sector capital spending in Northern Ireland, which deals with almost one third of the financial year's business, has not been dealt with according to the procedures of the House but has been announced in a press statement. In view of the serious repercussions on every aspect of life in Northern Ireland, and bearing in mind that money which is badly needed there is being paid to people who have been questioned at the Castlereagh holding centre—including 58 clients of one firm of solicitors, Madden and Finucane—will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that that aspect of public spending in Northern Ireland is debated in the House at the earliest possible moment?

Mr. MacGregor

The general point about public expenditure in Northern Ireland was raised last week, but I have had to take into account the fact that, as the House knows, there have been heavy pressures on this week's business. The hon. Gentleman raises a specific point which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that last month we had a debate in Opposition time on sport which, regrettably, was dominated by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) who spoke for more than a third of the time allocated? Today the Government announced their new sports review, with excellent initiatives for sport in schools, fund raising and sponsorship and other new policies. May we have a full day's debate in Government time so that these matters can be raised and the empty rhetoric of the Opposition exposed?

Mr. MacGregor

I am glad that my hon. Friend has been able to draw attention to the excellent statement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport. I cannot promise a debate early in the new year, but I shall bear in mind the pertinent points that he has made.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

If "there ain't no sanity clause" at least one thing is clear—Robert Maxwell was a crook living off the stock exchange as well as pension funds, which was utterly disgraceful. He also told lies about Scargill and Heathfield and about many other people. With that in mind, will the Leader of the House ensure an early debate to discuss the power of press barons past and present?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that other opportunities to elaborate his points are available in the House.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

If my right hon. Friend gives way to the Opposition request for a debate on housing in the first week of our return, will he ensure that it includes the concept of Wendy houses which are being declared sexist by socialist Kirklees council on the ground that boys are frightened to play for fear of being labelled pansies? That would be fairly precocious at that age. The council has suggested that they should be called pretend corners. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate to remind the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) that since he became Leader of the Opposition his dwelling has been and always will be a pretend corner?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. and learned Friend tempts me as I am sure that the whole House would wish to hear more along the lines of what he has said.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

My first Consolidated Fund debate was on north-east Derbyshire's environment. There are now serious problems in the area, such as dioxin in the Bolsover region and effluent in the Grassmoor lagoons associated with Avenue coke works. As there are many other problems in the area, it would be a good idea to have a debate involving at least my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover and I, so that we could discuss serious environmental issues in that area and argue for an environmental audit.

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the dioxin case has been raised several times recently in the House. I think that there was a question about it earlier and a written answer yesterday. The issue has thus already had a considerable airing in the House. We must now await the review of the matter. There are opportunities for the hon. Gentleman to raise the wider issues in the same way as the dioxin issue has been raised.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

May we have a statement as early as possible on the Government's response to the intention of some large commercial firms to break the Sunday trading laws in 1992? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, contrary to the impression given by the Prime Minister this afternoon, an appeal against the law does not change the law? Until the law is changed, it must be enforced—and that applies especially to the Government. If the Government condone breaches of the law, which is happening despite the silly excuses given by Front-Bench spokesmen on the subject, law and order in areas more important than Sunday trading will also be affected.

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has already clarified his position about any prosecutions that he might undertake. As my hon. Friend knows, it is for local authorities to consider the position in their areas.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 79 which has been signed by more than 60 hon. Members and concerns the disposal of the bodies of aborted babies by macerators into public sewers and drains.

[The this House unreservedly condemns the practice of some private clinics of disposing of the bodies of aborted unborn babies by pulping them through a macerator and discharging them into the public sewers and drains; welcomes the undertaking given by the Minister of State for Health that an inquiry will be held; reasserts the view of the Polk inghorne Committee that the human remains of the unborn child should be treated with respect; and calls on the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health to prosecute those responsible for these degrading practices.]

That motion calls for the prosecution of those responsible and it surely requires a reply. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement in the first week of our return?

Mr. MacGregor

That early-day motion has been drawn to my attention and the Department is aware of the limited use of maceration as a form of disposal of foetal tissue. Although this does not present any public health hazard, we believe that it is not appropriate and steps are being taken to phase it out.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

There are a number of foreign relations issues which, although not encompassed by east-west relations, nuclear disarmament, or Europe, are nevertheless important and in some cases urgent. The parliamentary human rights group has recently looked at a number of them, including East Timor, Iran and Burma. Could time be given for a debate on such important human rights issues?

Mr. MacGregor

I well understand my hon. Friend's concern. He will understand that I am under pressure for a large number of general debates. I am endeavouring to find time for as many as possible, but I cannot give him a promise on that one for the near future.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Obviously, one hopes that this will not occur, but will the Leader of the House give an assurance that if interest rates go up in the next few days there will be a statement or debate on the matter in the week we come back? Is that not extremely important, bearing in mind the further immense hardship that will undoubtedly be caused if interest rates rise again?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman raises an entirely hypothetical question, but perhaps I may go much wider. I have already said that I hope that we shall be able to have a debate on economic matters before long in the new year because I am aware that many in the House would like to have one, just as many would like to compare the respective economic policies of the Government and the official Opposition.