HC Deb 28 February 1991 vol 186 cc1134-44 4.33 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Macgregor)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 4 MARCH—Motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuation) Order.

Remaining stages of the Census Confidentiality Bill [Lords] and the Oversea Superannuation Bill.

Motion to take note of EC documents relating to assistance to the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Details will be given in the Official Report.

TUESDAY 5 MARCH—Second Reading of the New Roads and Streetworks Bill [ Lords].

Motion relating to the Sea Fishing (Days in Port) (Amendment) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill.

Motion on the Northern Ireland (Emergency and Prevention of Terrorism Provisions) (Continuance) Order.

THURSDAY 7 MARCH—Debate on the report "The Public Inquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster" by the hon. Lord Cullen on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 8 MARCH—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY II MARCH—Until about seven o'clock, Estimates Day (1st Allotted Day, 2nd part). There will be a debate on class VII, vote 3, Transport Industries, in so far as it relates to London Regional Transport.

Motion on the Northern Ireland (Appropriation) Order.

At Ten o'clock the Question will be put on all outstanding supplementary estimates and votes.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 6 March to consider European Community Document No. 8162/90 relating to Contract Awards (Compliance with Community Procedures).

[Floor of the House:

Monday 4 March

Relevant European Community Documents

(a) 10880/90+CO R1 Aid for Soviet Union
(b) 4120/91

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 29-vii ( 1990–91) and HC 29-xii ( 1990–91)
  2. (b) HC 29-vii (1990–91)

European Standing Committee B:

Wednesday 6 March

Relevant European Community Document

8162/90 Procurement by utilities: Compliance with Community Rules

Relevant Report of European Legislation Committee HC 11-xxxiii ( 1989–90)]

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

I thank the Leader of the House for responding at last to our persistent requests for a debate on the Cullen report into the Piper Alpha disaster. That debate will be widely welcomed inside and outside the House. May I also express appreciation for the provision of time for a debate next week on important aspects of the fishing industry?

The whole House has been grateful for the statement from the Prime Minister about the end of the war i n the Gulf. May we be assured that, as events unfold—there are still important decisions to be taken—Ministers will continue to keep the House fully informed?

Will the Leader of the House explain what has happened to the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Bill? The Government were anxious to have that legislation out of Committee before the end of January. In fact, the Committee's considerations were finished earlier this month. It is about time that the House had the opportunity to consider the Bill's remaining stages. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the Bill is not the subject of major revision and that it is not being rewritten substantially in the Department of Education and Science before it comes back to the House? That would be unacceptable.

Last week I asked the Leader of the House to secure a day to debate the Government's public expenditure plans before the Budget. I ask him to think again about the matter. It would be unacceptable—I believe that it would be a precedent—if those important aspects of public expenditure for the whole of the nation were not considered before another Budget had been introduced. It seems a topsy-turvy way to proceed, and it would create an unacceptable precedent if that were to happen.

As there is much speculation about dates of various kinds, can the Leader of the House clear up at least one question and tell us the dates for the Easter recess, not least because that might give us a pointer to other dates?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the Cullen report and about the motion on the fisheries regulations. He will have noticed that he has hit the jackpot each week in the pressure that he puts on me to announce debates on other subjects, but I cannot promise him that that will continue for ever—or even for every week in the near future. That is relevant to some of his other questions to me.

I will say a little bit more about the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Bill and about the economic debate. The hon. Gentleman will realise that we normally have only four days in the week for Government business. I try to meet the wishes of the House and to get through all the Government legislation.

The hon. Gentleman made a request about the Gulf. I can give him the assurance that we shall continue to keep the House fully informed, as we have done throughout the Gulf issue.

On the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Bill specifically, we have had quite a large number of measures, some of which are major, coming back to the House. I have been endeavouring to get the larger measures through to the other place as quickly as possible. Indeed, we are doing that with one of them next week. It is a question of how much one can get into one week.

On the economic debate, I indicated the position to the hon. Gentleman last week. I cannot undertake that the debate will be before the Budget. He said that it might be a precedent, but we are in a new position in that we have a series of public expenditure White Papers from individual Departments. For the longer term, we will have to consider exactly what arrangements we make in the House to handle those, both because of the need to accommodate the normal business of the House and the fact that these reports have been coming out recently.

I cannot imagine what dates the hon. Gentleman has in mind apart from the dates for the Easter Adjournment. I assure him that I am dealing only with the business of the House. I cannot today give the full dates for the Easter Adjournment. I will do so as soon as I can, but I remind the House of what I said early in the Session—I think, in the debate on the Queen's Speech—that the Easter recess would take place after Easter, not before.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on a topic of great importance which otherwise will not be heard here? I refer to the EC draft directive on computer software and its impact on the copyright legislation. My right hon. Friend will know that computer software is one of our largest export industries and that in the European Community the industry is worth £36 billion. I and others are immensely concerned that the Copyright Act 1956 may be turned into a competition Act on the lines of the American model if the draft directive, as presently framed, is implemented in the United Kingdom.

Mr. MacGregor

I am well aware of the importance of the computer industry and of the issue which my hon. Friend raises. I will have to look into it, because I am not sure of the stage which the draft directive has reached. As my hon. Friend will know, we have before us a number of directives which are likely to make slow progress through the European Community. That is relevant to the time when we deal with them in the House. I will look into the point which my hon. Friend has raised, although I cannot promise a debate next week.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

May I add to the thanks which have already been expressed for the debates next week on the tie-up rules for the fishing industry and on the Cullen report. Perhaps the Leader of the House, as a former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will agree that the fishing industry, particularly in its present state of crisis as it affects Scottish coastal communities, would be a wonderful subject for a Scottish Select Committee to discuss. Perhaps one day he will announce the double jackpot, with the setting up of a Scottish Select Committee.

Mr. MacGregor

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is grateful for the fact that we are dealing next week with two of the issues on which he has been pressing me. I am well aware of the difficulties facing the fishing industry. As he knows, largely because of over-fishing in Community waters, which has an impact on fishing communities, the issue has to be addressed. I have been well aware of the problem for some time. The fact that we debated it recently and will debate it next week shows that Scottish issues get a good deal of attention in the House. I cannot add to anything that I have said previously about a Select Committee.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

On this day of victory and joy which owes everything to the valour and sacrifice of our armed forces and those of our allies, is my right hon. Friend aware that British thoughts will be very much with the British prisoners of war and the service personnel who are missing? Will he ensure that a statement is made to the House about their safety and their fate as soon as information is received from Baghdad?

Mr. MacGregor

I should like to pay my tribute to the valour, skill and professionalism of the armed forces. I assure my hon. Friend that, whenever there is anything to tell the House on these matters, we shall do so.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

In conformity with United Nations resolution 666, 50 tonnes of medical supplies were sent to Baghdad last week by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation. They have reported serious cholera and typhoid because of sewerage problems in Baghdad and Basra. Will those issues be discussed in the House or may we have a statement about them? Will the British Government assist in overcoming those problems in Iraq, so that there will not be more deaths?

Mr. MacGregor

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman had hoped to raise that issue a few moments ago with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the point. I have to repeat that we have given many opportunities to the House to raise Gulf issues by making whatever statements and reports we felt were necessary. That will continue to be the position.

Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel)

Will my right hon. Friend also draw to the attention of the Prime Minister and of the whole Government the role of the unsung heroes of the Gulf action among out fellow citizens? I am thinking particularly of the Gulf support groups, organisations such as the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association, and all the British citizens who continued working overseas in the defence and telecommunications industries, often at risk to their own lives. Will my right hon. Friend give us an opportunity in the near future to discuss the needs of all those groups and of the Government's continued support for them?

Mr. MacGregor

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend on the excellent and dedicated work that all those groups have done all over the country and overseas. As to an opportunity in the House to debate their interests and what they have achieved, I cannot promise a debate in Government time. I am sure that my hon. Friend will find another opportunity to make sure that his point is fully aired.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Should not further Government time be set aside to allow hon. Members to question Ministers on the welcome ending of the war, not least to enable hon. Members to express the relief felt in many homes about the light casualties on the British side, although each one is deeply felt? I am thinking particularly of Lee James Thompson and Jason McFadden from Coventry, whose families must be feeling not only sadness but perhaps anger at the manner of their passing.

If we could question Ministers, we might find out whether the Prime Minister was aware two hours ago, before he made his statement, of the Press Association report on tape that 100,000 Iraqi soldiers—not civilians, just soldiers—were dead or wounded. Despite what the Prime Minister said, in many parts of the world this will be seen not as a victory but as a massacre. It is not a case of peace, stability and freedom being brought to the region. Martial law in Kuwait and the military occupation of Iraq will lead probably to a rise in terrorism and certainly to resentment in that area because kings, emirs and unelected rulers have been backed by the west while thousands and thousands have died.

Mr. MacGregor

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has raised any question about the business statement for next week. He has simply expressed his own views, which he has done before in the House. I agree entirely with his expression of sympathy to the relatives of all who have died and to those among our troops who have suffered injuries during the conflict. That was made known earlier when the Prime Minister was answering questions.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

The finest memorial possible to those who have given their lives in the middle east will be lasting peace in that area. My right hon. Friend will be aware that, following earlier conflicts, some families had difficulty in obtaining recognition for their loved ones who had fallen. When the Prime Minister next makes a statement in the House on the Gulf, will my right hon. Friend ask him to assure the House that the names of all from this country who have fallen will be placed upon the roll of honour as soon as possible and recorded on war memorials before Remembrance day this year?

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend is considering those matters. I shall draw to his attention the point that my hon. Friend has made.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

When will we have a debate called, "General election, spring or summer 1991?" Shall we have on the agenda for that debate a statement which says, "Now that we are able to find a way of spending billions of pounds on a war economy, we will use the same expertise to get rid of cardboard city, to reduce hospital waiting lists and to get rid of the dole queues." If it is possible to drop bombs from 4,000 ft down a ventilation shaft 20 ft wide, why cannot the Government do something for peace in Britain and elsewhere?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman will have to be tantalised a little longer on the question that he asks and the debate that he wants. I can assure him that we shall be ready for the occasion whenever it comes. But he will have noticed the overwhelming support among the British people for the efforts that were made recently by our armed forces.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

My right hon. Friend has announced a debate on the prevention of terrorism Act on Monday and he will have heard the question put during Question Time to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) about the importance of that measure. As there are many points to be discussed, particularly given the rumours that there may be some attempt to water down the measure, may we have a three-hour debate?

Mr. MacGregor

I think that the debate is likely to be of that order of time, and I hope that, as my right hon. Friend said, we shall have the Opposition's support in putting forward that measure because I am sure that it is necessary and it would be highly desirable to have greater support for it in the House.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House please explain why no debate has been planned for next week or the week after on the situation in the Gulf and the outcome of the war? Casualties have, regrettably, been high on the Iraqi side, but it is necessary that we be given details of them, and they have been low on the allied side, and that is good news for those who have survived, but bad news for the few who have died.

Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the end of the war will not bring peace to the region, it will not solve the Palestinian problem and it will not bring democracy to any country in that region which has not had it before? All it demonstrates is the wish and power of the United States, Britain and France to wage a high-technology war in which thousands and thousands have lost their lives while, less than two hours' flying time away from the Gulf war zone, 27 million people in the Sudan, Ethiopia and Mozambique are threatened with death from starvation, yet no substantial aid of anything like the amount that has been spent in prosecuting the war is being made available for them. Is not the message to the rest of the world that western nations are prepared to get together to fight war but are apparently incapable of getting together to save lives from famine?

Mr. MacGregor

Not at all, because we gave early and substantial relief to the famine areas. The hon. Gentleman's views on the Gulf conflict represent a minority view in the House, and he has had many opportunities to make them known.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about next week is simply that we have already devoted a great deal of time to issues relating to the Gulf and, as I have said, we will make a statement and find other time when it is appropriate to do so.

Sir Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the whole House is encouraged by the efforts of our troops in the Gulf, including the Life Guards, a Windsor-based regiment of the Household Cavalry, but will he give consideration to organisations such as the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance and others who assisted in co-ordinating efforts to free hospital facilities for potential casualties?

Mr. MacGregor

I am glad to pay tribute to all those to whom my hon. Friend has referred. Fortunately, the numbers returning to be hospitalised here will be slight, but I am sure that everything possible will be done to ensure that they are properly looked after.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

The Minister must know that bombing natives in the middle east comes naturally to the Government because the latest bombshell to hit my constituency of Leith is that ICI has today decided to close one of its subsidiaries, SAI, making it clear that many people will lose their jobs. Camira, a Finnish-owned company, is willing to take over, but it is denied that right because it is a state-owned company; that is disgraceful. If we are talking about the enemy, the real enemy is not Saddam Hussein, for all his sins; the real enemy is at home. The real enemy is the Tory Government who are creating unemployment throughout Britain.

Mr. MacGregor

I do not think that many people in Britain share the hon. Gentleman's approach to the Gulf conflict, and the way in which he sometimes expresses it is offensive to many.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

What is my right hon. Friend's intention with regard to implementing the proposals in the report from the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure? That is a matter of great importance and someone is needed to put some impetus behind making those changes. Am I right in saying that that will have to be done in a number of stages, including changes to Standing Orders and including primary legislation? When will he implement part of those proposals, and what are his intentions generally with regard to implementing the whole range of proposals which are of such tremendous importance to our procedures?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of these matters to our procedures. I made a fairly lengthy statement on the matter at business questions not too long ago. My hon. Friend is right to distinguish between the two. Some changes can be made by amending Standing Orders and I hope to bring those before the House before too long so that we can have them in place for the next parlimentary Session. Those changes that involve primary legislation cannot be introduced in this Session, but I hope to be able to do so as soon as the parliamentary timetable permits thereafter.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Is the Leader of the House yet in a position to make a statement on the establishment of Select Committees for all Departments? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, while there are Select Committees for all the Departments relating to England and Wales but not for the Scottish Office and the Northern Ireland Office, many will draw the inevitable conclusion that there are first and second-class Members of the House.

Mr. MacGregor

The Government are considering their response to the Procedure Committee's report on Select Committees, including those for Northern Ireland. But my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has often made it clear that any proposal which had the support of elected representatives on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland would merit serious consideration.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Labour-controlled council of Fulham and Hammersmith increased its community charge by 20 per cent. earlier this week, that the London borough of Merton, also controlled by Labour, increased its charge by 46 per cent. this week, and that the Labour party is holding an inquiry into the controlling Labour group of the Lambeth borough council? Is it not clear, therefore, that Labour-controlled local authorities damage the health of the people whom they serve? May we have an urgent debate on the subject?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate next week, but it is clear that high community charges tend to occur in authorities run by the Labour party. I am sure that we shall have opportunities to bring out such points in detail on a number of occasions in the weeks and months ahead.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

May I reiterate the demand for a statement about casualties of the Gulf war, particularly during the past few days? Does the Leader of the House realise that, if President Bush and the Prime Minister had not been so hell-bent on overkill, and if they had called a ceasefire at an earlier stage when the Iraqi forces were already clearly retreating from Kuwait, nine British soldiers would not have been killed by American forces?

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already expressed his great regret about that incident and his sympathies to the relatives of those affected. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman's remarks about my right hon. Friend and President Bush will be shared by very few people in Britain. There has been strong support not only in the House but throughout the country for the manner in which they have conducted the issue. On a debate, I cannot add to what I have already said on a number of occasions.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

In view of the European Commissioners' rejection yesterday of Mr. Delors' proposals for increased agriculture spending and their agreement to a further round of cuts in farm price support, will my right hon. Friend find time at an early opportunity for a full debate within Government time on agriculture and its implications for farm incomes?

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food set out the Government's position on this subject in a very recent debate. I know that he is well aware of the views of my hon. Friend. The Agriculture Council will meet again next week to consider these proposals. My experience is that the Council very often takes a long time to come to conclusions on price review proposals. We shall have to wait for an appropriate time to have a further debate on agriculture.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The Leader of the House is aware of my interest in and my opposition to the fishing tie-up regulations. While I welcome the debate that is scheduled for next week, I must point out that the time for considering of such an important matter will be very limited. Will the right hon. Gentleman please consider an extension of the time allowed for the debate? Does he know that, in my constituency, three fishing boats—the Ocean Dawn, the Morning Dawn and the Excelsior—were forced, under the provisions of these regulations, to proceed to port through a force 8 gale? The right hon. Gentleman, as a former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, must know how dangerous that is, and how great is the possibility of a fishing tragedy. May we have a statement about the promised flexibility of these regulations before we are faced with the tragedy of a boat going down as a result of the tie-up provisions?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not want to underestimate the importance of these matters; indeed, I am well aware of their importance. However, many important subjects have to be debated in this House, and I have to try to fit them all in. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we had a debate on the fishing industry recently, and we shall be dealing with fishing regulations next week. I cannot promise anything beyond that. I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I cannot give an undertaking as to timing.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate next week on the British defence procurement industry and on the part that many civilians played in ensuring that our forces in the Gulf—in particular, our armoured vehicles—were capable of fighting? The House should be given an opportunity to consider the next generation of main battle tanks. These are currently under consideration, both at the Treasury and at the Ministry of Defence. I refer to the tanks built by Vickers, whose engine is manufactured by Perkins, which is in my constituency. As that engine is three times more efficient than any of its nearest competitors, we urge the Government to place the order as soon as possible, not only for the sake of our own troops, but for the sake of the balance of trade.

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot promise a debate next week, but I can assure my hon. Friend that, later in phe Session, there will be suitable opportunities to raise all these matters.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the effect of the Gulf war on the economies of countries in that region? I refer specifically to Cyprus. It has been estimated that, because of the fall-off in the tourist industry, and because of the fact that Cyprus is not able to ship its produce to the middle east, about ․1 billion could be lost to the economy of that country. Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on the effect of the Gulf war on the economies of countries in the Gulf?

Mr. MacGregor

There is a much more effective means of dealing with matters such as the restoration of trade and tourism. The cessation of hostilities, which was announced today, is the biggest contribution that could be made.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

May we have a statement on national health service expenditure in connection with the Gulf war? We ought to be in a position to contrast the extra provision that was made for that purpose with the way in which the Bradford hospital trust has been refusing to take on newly qualified nurses. Nurses are being denied jobs as a result of a freeze on recruitment. Contrast the lavish expenditure on the Gulf war with the parsimony and cuts that the system of opting out is imposing on the national health service. The ordinary people of this country are now being provided with a poverty-stricken service.

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman knows that he is indulging in total hyperbole and that his words are misleading. There has been a substantial real-terms increase in provision for the national health service.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

Will the Leader of the House have a word with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and impress upon him the need for a statement on testing in primary schools? At present, there is widespread confusion and turmoil in Scotland over this matter. The Secretary of State for Scotland introduced these plans without the support of the people of Scotland. Overwhelming numbers of parents have objected to national tests. They have received legal opinion that the tests are voluntary, and that the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 makes provision for parental choice. We need a statement to clear up the confusion.

Mr. MacGregor

I shall have a word with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I cannot promise a statement. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there will be other opportunities to raise the matter.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Will the Leader of the House find an early opportunity to consider the apportionment of the cost of the Metropolitan police? Does he know that since the year 1986–87 the cost of policing the London borough of Newham, over which the borough has no control—this being imposed by precept—has increased by 90 per cent? The introduction of the poll tax had a dramatic effect. In the year 1990–91 it has meant an increase of 26 per cent. Quite often, London boroughs are considered to be spendthrift.

Does the Leader of the House know that, since 1986–87, the total expenditure of the borough has gone up by 14.5 per cent., but that the cost of policing has increased by 250 per cent., despite the fact that we have not had a single extra policeman? The cost of policing in London is higher than the cost of policing in the rest of the country, but within London the cost falls more heavily on the poorer boroughs. There is a widespread sense of grievance in the east end about this.

Mr. MacGregor

Obviously, I cannot comment on the Newham issue to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, nor can I promise any Government time for consideration of the matter. The hon. Gentleman will have to find other ways of raising it.

Mr. Greville Janner: (Leicester, West)

Does the Leader of the House recall that the Prime Minister and other Ministers, with the full support of the Labour Opposition, assured the House that the War Crimes Bill would be reintroduced as soon as possible? According to my recollection, the year that has to elapse before its reintroduction will end around Budget day. May we have an assurance that the Bill will be reintroduced as a matter of urgency? As it has already gone through this House with the support of a massive majority, its reintroduction is essentially a formality, but that formality could be interfered with by other dates that were referred to earlier. I think that all hon. Members will want to see that legislation through and done with as soon as possible.

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman has intimated, we have made a commitment to the reintroduction of the Bill. Indeed, it is mentioned in the Queen's Speech. The hon. Gentleman is broadly right—not quite right—about dates. I hope soon to give a clear indication as to how we shall proceed.

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