HC Deb 31 January 1991 vol 184 cc1126-34 4.41 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 FEBRUARY—Until seven o'clock, private Members' motions.

Second Reading of the Coal Mining Subsidence Bill.

TUESDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Until about seven o'clock, consideration of Lords amendments to the Statutory Sick Pay Bill.

Second Reading of the Namibia Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day (5th allotted day). Until about seven o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "The Crisis in Training".

Afterwards, there will be a debate entitled "The Neglect of British Science and Science Education".

Both debates arise on Opposition motions.

THURSDAY 7 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Disability Living Allowance and Disability Working Allowance Bill.

FRIDAY 8 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 11 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the British Technology Group Bill.

At seven o'clock the Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee A will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 6 February to consider the unnumbered explanatory memorandum dated 18 January, submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, on proposals relating to rules for the application of levy in the milk and milk products sector.

[European Standing Committee A Wednesday 6 February

Relevant European Community Document

Unnumbered Milk Quotas: definition

Relevant Report of the European Legislation Committee HC 29-vii (1990-91)]

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

May I first thank the Leader of the House for arranging the important statement that has been made today by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and ask him for an assurance that the House will have the benefit of regular statements bringing us up to date about circumstances in the Gulf—not just for the benefit of hon. Members, although that is very important, but also for the benefit of the public at large?

When can we expect a debate on the Scottish Rate Support Grant Order? We have debated the proposals for England and Wales already. It is very important to Scotland that we should have an early opportunity to debate the impact of poll tax there. I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to assure us that such an opportunity will be provided soon.

In June last year, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor as Leader of the House published proposals on the means of dealing with private Bills in the House, and called for comments. Has the Leader of the House had a chance to assess the responses that he has received? Can he give any indication as to when we shall have an opportunity to consider any proposals that he may make for new ways of dealing with private business? I understand that this will require primary legislation. Can the Leader of the House give any indication when the House may expect such proposals?

We now know that Budget day will be 19 March, but we have not yet had an opportunity to debate the Chancellor's autumn statement of last year. It would be rather odd—indeed, unsatisfactory—if we were to debate the Chancellor's autumn statement just a day or two before the presentation of his Budget. I understand the Government's reluctance to arrange such a debate, particularly as the country slides deeper and deeper into a damaging and debilitating recession, but I must press the Leader of the House to arrange a debate on the autumn statement as quickly as possible. It is a matter of great importance to us all.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about statements on the Gulf situation. As I have told him, we are all anxious to ensure that the House is kept fully informed—I take his point about the wider audience—whenever appropriate. I hope that the fact that this week we have had two statements and lengthy periods of questions on them shows that we certainly intend to fulfil that commitment.

With regard to the Scottish RSG order, I have to be careful about making any predictions. In this job I have learnt quite rapidly that things can arise that upset what one originally intended to do. I hope that it will be possible to deal with this matter in the week beginning 11 February.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question of private Bills procedure. This is an important subject, in which a number of hon. Members take an interest. I welcome the opportunity to make the position clear. As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, the Government published last summer a consultation document entitled "Private Bills and New Procedures". This resulted in over 100 responses broadly in favour of a new system. The primary legislation required to implement the proposed changes will be complex, and it will not be ready for introduction in the present Session. However, subject to the usual reservations about anticipating the contents of future Queen's Speeches, I can say that such a Bill should be ready for introduction at the earliest opportunity.

I have also been discussing with the Chairman of Ways and Means a number of possible changes to Standing Orders for the handling of private business. It is our agreed aim that these should be put before the House by Easter and that, if approved, they should come into operation at the start of next Session. This will, I hope, give all involved and interested in private Bills adequate notice before new Bills are prepared and deposited. In conjunction with the Chairman of Ways and Means, I shall ensure that the House has time to study the proposals before they are moved.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about the autumn statement, I can tell him that there is certainly no reluctance to debate these matters. Indeed, in recent weeks we have had a number of debates on the economy. However, now that the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service has reported, I recognise the importance of getting on with that debate, and I hope that I shall be able to cover it in my next business statement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that there is important business before us today and considerable pressure from Members who want to speak. I shall allow questions to continue until 5.5 pm, and then we really will have to move on. I hope that those hon. Members who were called to put questions on the statement about the Gulf will not seek to participate again at this stage. That would help.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had an opportunity to take a preliminary look at the experience of the two European Standing Committees this week. If not, may I draw his attention to two potential problems? The first concerns the availability of documents, in view of the fact that these Committees will do tremendously important work. The second concerns the composition of the Committees. Given the nature of their work, I wonder whether he might consider increasing the size of the Committees. I think that this will be an important matter.

Mr. MacGregor

I said when we debated these Committees recently that it was important that we be ready to review them. I referred not only to a major review of how things have been going but also to a preparedness to review things that occur in the Committees from time to time. I shall certainly look into my hon. Friend's point about documents. The composition of the Committees is a matter on which we shall have to keep a careful watch.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Despite the fact that my Northern Ireland colleagues and I have supported fully the Government's policy in relation to the Gulf, we deplore the fact that we have not had sufficient opportunity to ensure that proper tribute is paid to Northern Ireland service men—Catholic and Protestant—who are serving loyally with British forces there. I trust that such an opportunity will be afforded at the earliest possible date. We also want an early opportunity to learn whether the Leader of the House is satisfied with the Irish Government's contribution to the campaign.

Mr. MacGregor

I note the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I am sure that he will have an opportunity to repeat his comments in future debates on the Floor of the House. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence would want to join me in paying tribute for all that is being done by the forces from Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) that the operation of the new European Standing Committees should be reconsidered. Given that we are trying to improve scrutiny procedures, will my right hon. Friend re-examine the question of right hon. and hon. Members being able to make telephone calls on dedicated lines, and of being able to send mail to the European institutions at the usual postage rate, using official envelopes? I remind my right hon. Friend—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One question would be fair. There is great pressure on time today.

Mr. Dykes

Other long questions have been asked, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I know, but the hon. Member must have consideration for his colleagues.

Mr. MacGregor

The European Standing Committees are a new experiment. They are important not only in maintaining close scrutiny over European legislation but in relation to working late hours in the Chamber. I accept that, because they are new, it will be important to monitor them carefully to ensure that we continue to get them right. As to my hon. Friend's second point, the question of communications facilities will go before the Services Committee shortly.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the Leader of the House provide an early opportunity for a debate on small firms, particularly in view of the record number of liquidations and bankruptcies, and of the penal and punitive interest rates, which are forcing them out of existence? I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to a letter from the president of Bradford chamber of commerce to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which he refers to the increasing and damaging pressure being put on small manufacturing firms". It is clear that the concern expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends is more widespread, and that there should be a debate on that topic.

Mr. MacGregor

I would love to go into the whole argument about small firms, but I will not do so now in view of time constraints. Right hon. and hon. Members had an opportunity to discuss that issue in economic debates in the past, but I do not doubt that it could be raised again in future debates.

Mr. Chris Butler (Warrington, South)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the second debate next Wednesday will provide an opportunity to discuss the possible threat to nuclear physics in the United Kingdom, as a result of our ever-increasing contribution to CERN, the European centre for nuclear research?

Mr. MacGregor

Obviously, any matters relating to science can be raised in that debate.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the Leader of the House urgently arrange a debate on the prosecution of the Gulf war? A business motion on today's Order Paper will allow right hon. and hon. Members to remain in the House all night to debate the burning topic of ministerial salaries and pensions, yet the time allowed for questions on the statement today by the Secretary of State for Defence was insufficient to allow all right hon. and hon. Members who wanted to contribute to do so.

A further debate on the Gulf would provide the Secretary of State for Defence with an opportunity to re-read yesterday's Evening Standard, which publicised a report, obviously cleared by military censors, in which Colonel Reisch, who leads the American pilots, said that the bombing of Iraqi soldiers as they prayed by the roadside was "a fun mission". Is that what the war is about—having fun by blowing up people at prayer?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman knows full well the seriousness of the situation, and the objectives of allied action have been spelt out on many occasions. There have been two recent debates, but I am prepared to consider another when the need arises. The two long statements made this week should indicate that we are making every effort to ensure that the House is kept fully informed.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

Last night, the Government forced through the House, with a miserable majority, the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. That legislation, for which only 90 minutes of debate was allowed, will radically alter Northern Ireland's health service, to its detriment, and to that of the people who use it. Will the right hon. Gentleman make time next week for a debate, in which I could urge the Government to give people the right to vote in a local referendum before a hospital is permitted to opt out of the health service? I am thinking particularly of the Ulster hospital in Dundonald, in my constituency.

Mr. MacGregor

Right hon. and hon. Members had more than one and a half hours to consider such matters last night. There are considerable pressures on the business of the House, so debates must be contained. I must tell my hon. Friend that I see no possibility of a further debate next week.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Will the Leader of the House seriously and urgently reconsider giving Government time to another debate on the Gulf? Members of Parliament number more than 650, yet the overwhelming majority of them have been denied an opportunity to express their views about that serious war. Today's statement and questions lasted more than an hour, yet several hon. Members were denied an opportunity to speak—notably the dissenting voices among them. Given that 8 million or 9 million British people oppose the war, if the objectives change and it becomes clear that the destruction of Iraq—with all the casualties that would involve—is the Government's new policy, support for the war will disappear like snowflakes on a boiler. For God's sake give us a chance to express the views of the men and women who are against the war. The Leader of the House has a responsibility to do that, and I hope that he will grant that request.

Mr. MacGregor

I reject absolutely the hon. Gentleman's assertion about the direction in which public opinion will go. I think that public opinion is very clear. As to parliamentary opinion, there have been two votes recently, in which right hon. and hon. Members were able to declare their position. I can add nothing to my earlier remarks about opportunities for discussion and debate in the House in future weeks.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

May I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate soon on early-day motion 372?

[That this House notes with concern that the good work done by the Taunton Association for the Homeless, which has been providing hostel accommodation for 15 years, is in danger because of the Government's decision to withdraw the hostel's deficit grant; and calls on the Government to ensure funds are available to secure the position of this voluntary organisation.]

That motion, which is in the name of several Opposition Members, concerns Taunton Association for the Homeless in my constituency. While I welcome the interest that those hon. Members have shown in that excellent voluntary organisation, such a debate would enable me to point out that I raised the problem with Ministers before the new year. I received an excellent and helpful reply from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), which gives the opportunity of funds for that organisation. I may point out that, in that respect, as in others, the Labour party is out of date.

Mr. MacGregor

I have read early-day motion 372, and my hon. Friend has already made some good points in relation to it. He will know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning announced very early this year new and improved arrangements for the capital and revenue funding for special needs provision by housing associations. Over the next two years, we will more than double the available resources for revenue support, which will safeguard schemes already in receipt of grant and provide support for a continuing programme of new schemes.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a statement next week on the money allocated by Germany to Britain in the mercenary Gulf war? Germany lost the last war, but now the British Government are going cap in hand to the losers—who are now the winners, supposedly—to beg money, grovelling at the feet of the Germans in trying to provide the necessary finances. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, within 24 hours of the ink being dry on that £275 million allocation, the Germans increased their interest rates, with the consequence that they made more money on the exchanges than the value of their contribution? The net result is that, 24 hours later, we are even worse off. Will the Leader of the House also say what the Marquess of Queensberry rules are in respect of B52 carpet bombing?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman asks the most tortuous questions. Earlier this afternoon, he received very clear answers from my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence in respect of the German contribution.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I ask my right hon. Friend to anticipate the return to the Floor of the House of the Road Traffic (Random Breath Testing) Bill, which is aimed at reducing casualties and offending. Given the short ten-minute debate and Division, and the short debate in Committee without a Division on whether or not it would be better to encourage a change of behaviour or to take more police action, may the House have the opportunity for a full debate on Report? That would allow right hon. and hon. Members to decide whether it would be better to reduce bad behaviour, which is my view, or that more police action is the way to stop people offending—which is the view of the shadow Transport Minister.

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important Bill. At this stage, I cannot say exactly what arrangements will be made when it returns to the Floor of the House, but I hope that there will be a full opportunity to debate the important matters that he has mentioned.

Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware from his own experience that British agriculture is facing its worst financial crisis for 50 years. To try to restore confidence in that ailing industry, will he find time to debate Government policies?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman will know that one of the key issues here is the proposal that the Commission is discussing at present relating to further Community reforms. I understand that the Commission is meeting today to finalise its proposals, with a view to presenting them to the Council of Agriculture meeting next week. I think that he will be well aware from the responses made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in questions last week of our attitude to a number of those proposals, and of our determination to try to fight to protect British interests and to remove the discriminatory elements in the proposals, if there are any. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to explore these matters in some form or another when the position becomes somewhat clearer, and I shall bear in mind what he has said.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

My right hon. Friend has said that European Standing Committee A will consider agriculture matters. Will he also find an early opportunity to allow the House to debate agriculture and farm incomes? He knows better than most of the Government's efforts on behalf of farmers but, bearing in mind the uncertainty over GATT and over EC reform proposals, would it not be helpful to have a debate in the House on that subject?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is right to add the GATT round, because it is another major aspect of this issue. We are somewhat unclear exactly what the proposals will be, so it is important to wait and see how matters develop, but I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

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

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 364, "Privatisation for Crown Suppliers Transport", and the allegation that I have made about a prospective buyer, Mr. Bill Pinkney?

[That this House notes a series of parliamentary replies from the Parliamentary Secretary, Department of the environment, dated 24th January relating to the sale of Crown Suppliers transport section and investigations into the activities of civil servant Mr. Bill Pinkney the prospective buyer; notes the evasive nature of the Ministerial reply, Official Report, column 27, which refers to 'the Crown Suppliers following up the matters arising from that audit'; notes that under the general heading of 'Disciplinary matters', the Crown Suppliers after a full investigation in 1990 did find that the level of Mr. Pinkney's behaviour fell below the level which was expected of an official; notes that the investigation found overpayments, dubious entries, unauthorised payments and a failure to declare a conflict of interest with a company called Turnbulls; notes that the Chief Executive of Crown Suppliers did consider formal charges but decided not to proceed with them as Ministers did not wish to prejudice the sale of the transport section to Mr. Bill Pinkney and his associates; notes that attempts by senior civil servants under instruction from Ministers to hide away the nature of irregularities and disciplinary offences were orchestrated so as to avoid embarrassment to the Government; questions the role of Shandwick, the public relations company, in preparing grossly misleading press releases relating to the sell off to a so-called management buy-out which is not a buy-out at all but an offer funded by a North of England second hand car dealer; and unreservedly condemns Ministers for their shameful actions.]

Can we have an assurance that, if Mr. Pinkney is a successful purchaser of the transport section, an announcement will be made not in a written reply but orally at the Dispatch Box so that we can ask questions relating to the activities of that gentleman?

Mr. MacGregor

I think that the hon. Gentleman has already been asking questions on that matter. As far as the early-day motion is concerned, I must make it clear that Ministers at the Department of the Environment are not generally consulted about disciplinary matters, and were not consulted about Mr. Pinkney's case. However, appropriate action was taken by the Crown Suppliers' management. Nor have Ministers issued any instructions about the treatment of any irregularities involving Mr. Pinkney.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering a bid for Mr. Pinkney's team for the Crown Suppliers' vehicle hire and maintenance business, and his conclusions will be announced as soon as possible. Members of the team, sources of finance, control and structure of the proposed new company will be included among the factors to be taken into account in assessing their bid for the business. It would, therefore, be premature to discuss the matter in the House.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is about five years since the House had an opportunity to discuss civil aviation policy? Given the current problems facing civil aviation, which have been brought to a head, first by the Civil Aviation Authority's recommendation to the Secretary of State for Transport on traffic distribution rules and secondly by the difficulties facing two major American carriers at Heathrow—which introduces the question of successor rights and negotiations with the United States over the Bermuda 2 agreement on bilaterals—it is important that the House has the opportunity to debate these matters. A ferocious debate is taking place outside this Chamber. Surely it is time that we had the opportunity to debate it within this Chamber.

Mr. MacGregor

The second point to which my hon. Friend refers is one of great concern, especially since the United States' delegation was unable to continue negotiations on 30 January because its instructions did not allow it sufficient flexibility to enable a conclusion to be reached on certain matters put to it. It has been made clear that the Government are willing to resume negotiations as soon as the United States wishes to do so. I am aware of the importance of this matter, and of the concern felt by hon. Members, and I shall certainly discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

When will the Leader of the House fulfil his long-standing promise to let us debate Lord Cullen's report on the Piper Alpha? Can we have two days for that debate, in view of the complexity of the subject and the wide-ranging interests involved? Secondly—

Mr. Speaker

Order. No, at this stage in the evening, one question is sufficient.

Mr. MacGregor

I regret that it has not been possible to agree a suitable time for a debate yet. I shall continue to bear the possibility in mind but, knowing the business in front of the House, and especially the need to enable the House to discuss Gulf matters, I do not think that a two-day debate will be possible.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Mrs. Currie, but very briefly.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Further to the point about the important European Standing Committees, is my right hon. Friend aware that their first meetings this week were a bit of a shambles? Does he accept that we need bigger Committees, we need Whips, we need the papers in time, and, most important of all, we need to know the timetable so that we know when they will meet, and what they will be discussing in future?

Mr. MacGregor

I am aware of some of the problems that occurred this week and, as I have already said, we need to be willing to review them. As regards information about the timetable, I hope that the fact that I announce the Standing Committees in the business statement will help.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Reverting to that very subject, is the Lord President aware that last Tuesday's European Standing Committee B disposed of its business, but yesterday my information is that European Standing Committee A did not, and that it decided to sit again—I believe, next Wednesday? Can the Minister tell us about this? Can he confirm that it will sit again? Can he announce when it will do so, and can he confirm that it will not clash with his announcement about that same Committee meeting on Wednesday next?

Mr. MacGregor

I hope that that can be sorted out and that the European Standing Committee will meet to complete the other business and also to discuss this other important and urgent matter.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

When does the Leader of the House expect to be able to comply with the Standing Orders of the House and set up a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs?

Mr. MacGregor

I have nothing to add to what I have already said about that matter on a number of occasions.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Today the Government tabled a statutory instrument imposing an eight-day continuous ban on the fishing industry. Is the Leader of the House aware that the objections to this statutory instrument by Members with fishing interests involve the fact that it is dangerous, and that it might cost lives? In view of that, will he arrange for a debate in the near future—not in a month's time—so that hon. Members can face up to the question whether it is morally right to impose further dangers upon fishermen at sea?

Mr. MacGregor

I know that the issues involved in this matter have already been debated in the House. I cannot promise a debate next week, but I shall draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Back to