HC Deb 02 May 1991 vol 190 cc438-47 3.50 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

Will the Leader of the House tell us the business for next week?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

  1. TUESDAY 7 MAY—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 3) Bill followed by progress on Committee stage of the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Maintenance Enforcement Bill [Lords].
  2. WEDNESDAY 8 MAY—Completion of Committee stage of the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Bill [Lords] followed by remaining stages of the Agriculture and Forestry (Financial Provisions) Bill.
  3. THURSDAY 9 MAY—Proceedings on the Social Security (Contributions) Bill.
  4. FRIDAY 10 MAY—Private Members' Bills.
  5. MONDAY 13 MAY—Opposition Day (11th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject for debate to be announced.
The House will wish to know that European Standing Committee A will meet on Wednesday 8 May at 10.30 am to consider European Community documents Nos. 4084/91 and 4548/91 relating to environmental protection.

European Standing Committee B will meet on the same day at the same time to consider European Community document No. 8597/90 and COR 1 relating to unfair terms in consumer contracts.

[Wednesday 8 May

European Standing Committee A

Relevant European Community Document

(a) 4084/91 Environmental Protection of Baltic, Irish and North Seas and of North-East Atlantic
(b) 4548/91 Environmental Expenditure

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

(a) HC 29-xii


(b) HC 29-xvi


European Standing Committee B

Relevant European Community Document

8597/90+COR 1 Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee HC 11-xxxiii (1989–90) and HC 29-xii (1990–91)]

Dr. Cunningham

Why does the Leader of the House persist in refusing, as he has done again for next week, to nominate a day on which the House can have the opportunity to debate the Government's public expenditure plans? We have been pressing for a debate on public expenditure for three months. A debate on these important matters is long overdue. The Government cannot indefinitely refuse the House the opportunity to debate public expenditure, even though they seek to hide their embarrassment about the recession and the deepening crisis that was reported again in the newspapers today. There have been reports of possible further cuts in the Government's proposals for investment in the public services. The House is entitled to a long-overdue opportunity to discuss these matters. I urge the Leader of the House to find a day for a debate at the earliest opportunity.

There are reports in the press today that, having withdrawn its original proposals for a route from the channel tunnel to London, British Rail is about to make almost identical proposals, but this time for an overland route rather than a route partly underground. If the proposals are confirmed, they will cause widespread dismay in many communities in south London, Kent and elsewhere. May we have an assurance from the Leader of the House that, if the plans are published and confirmed, the Secretary of State for Transport will come to the House and make an oral statement about the implications of the proposals for the many communities that will be affected? Finally, will the Leader of the House find an early day for us to debate the deepening crisis in the national health service?

It is clear that not only nurses, paramedical staff and unions representing workers in other occupations, in the national health service, but doctors clearly recognise that the NHS is in crisis. That is the view of the British Medical Association. Despite all the evidence, the Prime Minister is apparently impervious to the circumstances, which are causing widespread national concern.

We should have an opportunity to debate the situation in the NHS in Government time—the Opposition have already provided one of their Supply days for such a debate, so there can be no criticism of our determination to have the matter on the agenda—not least so that we can debate the implications of the formation of trusts and opt-out hospitals and question Ministers about why, for example, Ministers in the Welsh Office are writing letters to hospitals pressurising them to opt out of the NHS—[Interruption]—as a Minister in the Welsh Office has done recently. The public do not want the developments that are now occurring. Parliament wants an opportunity to debate the issues, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will find time for us to do so soon.

Mr. MacGregor

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question of my refusing a debate on public expenditure. I want one—I have made that clear on a number of occasions—not least because it would be an excellent opportunity to contrast what we have achieved with the position of the Labour party on public expenditure. One reason why that cannot occur next week is clear. We have two days on the Finance Bill and. as the hon. Gentleman is aware, largely the same speakers would be speaking in a public expenditure debate as will be taking part in the Finance Bill debates. So there is a difficulty in trying to fit in everything immediately.

Dr. Cunningham

Many hon. Members who are interested in Finance Bill issues will be upstairs in Committee, anyway.

Mr. MacGregor

The Committee does not sit four days a week. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no embarrassment whatever on the Government side. We are very happy indeed to defend our position on public expenditure. It is just a question of having an orderly procedure on our legislation and finding the necessary time.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about British Rail's proposals is that we must wait and see what—as I understand the position from the papers this morning—the British Rail board decides to do. After that, the proposals must go to my right hon. and learned Friend, who will obviously consider them. I have noted the hon. Gentleman's request for an oral statement when my right hon. and learned Friend has had a chance to do that—if I am right in my understanding of the position—and I shall communicate his request to my right hon. and learned Friend.

I totally reject the way in which the hon. Gentleman framed his request about the national health service. Our record is extremely good. He will know of the considerable increases in expenditure, of the excellent progress that has been made in the general practitioner area, and of the excellent ways in which the reforms are proceeding and he will have heard what my right hon. Friend said about, and the great interest he takes in, the NHS. There was a private notice question this week about two of the trusts, so there are plenty of opportunities for the issues to be debated. Because of pressure on the legislative timetable, I cannot promise, in Government time, a day to debate those matters in the near future.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Following Tuesday's decision by the Court of Appeal on the B and Q appeal on Sunday trading, may I ask my right hon. Friend for an early debate on the law in respect of Sunday trading? May we have an assurance that there will be a sense of urgency in the review that is taking place on Sunday trading, as many of us regard the present law as bizarre and out of date?

Mr. MacGregor

I know well my hon. Friend's views on those matters and I believe that next week he will pursue one aspect of them by way of a 10-minute Bill. Although the Government have not yet had an opportunity to study the judgment in detail, I understand that the Court of Appeal decided that a local authority seeking an interim injunction to restrain Sunday trading contrary to the Shops Act 1950 must, like any other body except the Crown, give a cross-undertaking in damages as a condition of the grant of the injunction. That was the court's position and I cannot comment on it further, as the matter may be sub judice. However, local authorities and their legal advisers will no doubt take that into account when considering how to fulfil their duty in enforcing the law on Sunday trading. My right hon. Friend asked when the Government will pursue the reform of the law. He knows that the Government's policy continues to be to achieve agreement on proposals for reform of the Sunday trading laws in England and Wales which are workable and enforceable and enjoy sufficient public and parliamentary support.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 791 in which my hon. Friends and I have drawn attention to the fact that the Secretary of State for Scotland has announced that he is overruling the wishes of Highland regional council on the test borehole hole at Dounreay for the disposal of nuclear waste?

[That this House condemns the decision by the Secretary of State for Scotland to sustain an appeal by the UKAEA against the refusal of planning permission by Highlands Regional Council for the test drilling of holes and the use of explosive charges for a seismic survey at Dounreay; regards this decision as a contemptuous dismissal of the democratically expressed rights of locally elected representatives to defend their communities; and sees the continuing threat of nuclear disposal as a direct threat to the security and development of industries based on the need to retain a pure environment.]

Will the Government find time to enable the House to have a full debate on that matter, given that the Secretary of State for Energy and the Secretary of State for Scotland, who have responsibility in those matters, successfully fought against such action in their own constituencies? The people of Scotland find it difficult to understand why they are being treated as second-class citizens.

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Lady will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister refer to that matter at Question Time. She will know that the decision of the Secretary of State for Scotland on the Atomic Energy Authority's application for the seismic survey was based—as it had to be—on the planning merits of the proposal. It does not pre-empt a decision on the establishment of a nuclear waste repository at Dounreay. Ministers have given an assurance that any proposal to construct such a repository will be subject to a full public inquiry at which all arguments about its possible impact can be aired. In view of that, if the hon. Lady wishes to pursue the matter relating to the decision about the seismic survey, there are ways in which she can do so. I cannot give Government time to debate that matter, for the reasons that I have just given.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week to debate early-day motion 788: [That this House believes that the War Crimes Bill should not be presented to Her Majesty for Her Assent.]

Although I have the deepest respect for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and for the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), I suggest to them that no Government of the day should invoke the Parliament Acts. Rather, the matter should be put to the House, because no Executive should be able to railroad through the legislature legislation that it wishes to pass, regardless of its merits. It is quite proper—indeed, it is of the greatest importance, constitutionally—that the House should have an opportunity to vote on the provisions of the Parliament Acts rather than any Government—albeit this one—in their wisdom deciding that the Bill must be pushed through.

Mr. MacGregor

I understand my hon. Friend's feelings on the Bill, but the position is clear. I do not think that the Government are railroading the Bill through. It was fully discussed in the last Session of Parliament in both Houses. There were two debates—one on procedure and one on Second Reading—a short while ago in this House. On all three occasions when the Bill was discussed in the House and there was a major decision of principle—two Second Readings and one debate on the principle of the Bill—the House, on a free vote and by a large majority, showed its view. That was the position in March this year, when we debated the Bill on Second Reading. The Government then made it clear that, although we hoped that it would not be necessary to invoke the Parliament Acts, it would depend on the actions of the other place. If the other place rejected the Bill, the Parliament Acts would be invoked as a last resort. That is the position that we are now in. Therefore, I have nothing to add to what I said yesterday and to what you said, Mr. Speaker, in explaining the automatic process of the Parliament Acts.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The Leader of the House will recall that last week I asked him to take up with his colleague the Foreign Secretary the issue of making available to the House of Commons the draft treaty on political union deposited by the Luxembourg presidency. That matter is of immense concern to hon. Members as the treaty affects the rights, voting rights and powers of the House. The Leader of the House will know that, in response to that request, I received a telephone call from a Minister offering to show me the treaty on a confidential basis. That is quite inadequate, inappropriate and positively insulting to the House of Commons. Will the Leader of the House take up the matter again and ensure that that important draft treaty document is deposited in the Library?

Mr. MacGregor

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is a draft treaty and document—a presidential draft—which changes as the situation unfolds so there will not be one, single, definitive document. I immediately took up the request of the right hon. Gentleman last week with my hon. Friend the Minister of State. The right hon. Gentleman responded to my hon. Friend's telephone call with a further letter making the point that he has made today, and I am in discussion with my hon. Friend the Minister about that.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Can my right hon. Friend help a simple fellow like me and explain the nature of next Tuesday's business? What is the business on the Consolidated Fund (No. 3) Bill, which precedes the Finance Bill? What will we be discussing, and how long will that discussion last?

Mr. MacGregor

I shall not be misled by my hon. Friend, who is not a simple fellow but understands such matters extremely well. However, I am grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to explain the matter a little more. The Consolidated Fund (No. 3) Bill refers to a debate that we had this week on the estimates for community charge expenditure. For reasons which I think were explained this week, the Bill must be taken automatically following this week's discussions.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Reverting to the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), will the Leader of the House confirm that the draft treaty to which reference has been made is within the public realm in at least one capital of the European Community states? If that is so, would not it be appropriate for it to be fully in the public realm in this country? Will the Leader of the House confirm that he and the Foreign Secretary, while responsible for the royal prerogative, are using it in negotiation for a treaty that reduces it and could lead to its destruction, and consequently to the reduction of the powers of the Crown, of the House and of the British people?

Mr. MacGregor

No, I certainly do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point in this context. I confirm that, as I understand it, the document is somewhere in the "public realm"—whatever that vague phase means. The position is not precise, in relation to Community or parliamentary procedures, but I believe that the document is available to some. However, as is inevitable in negotiations, I suspect that the document will regularly undergo various changes. I understand the interest in this issue, which is why I am discussing with my hon. Friend the Minister of State how to proceed on it.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

My right hon. Friend responded to a suggestion that the Government were railroading things through the House. The House will understand that, because of the Government motion on the Second Reading of the War Crimes Bill, there was no opportunity to change the Bill. He will also understand that the procedure has not been used for 50 years and the House has not explicitly voted on the use of the Parliament Acts. I hope that he will reconsider whether it will be possible for you, Mr. Speaker, to sign the certificate because you said that the only thing that would prevent you from signing the certificate and carrying out the Parliament Acts procedure would be an explicit instruction from the House not to do so. The House should have that opportunity.

While we are on the subject of railroading, my right hon. Friend will realise that it was not possible to debate the instruction that clause 50 of the Finance Bill be taken on the Floor of the House. Some people have been more successful in volunteering for places on the Finance Bill Committee than others. I am not certain that the Government side on the Finance Bill has yet had so many successful volunteers that all, bar 25 per cent., are on the payroll, even though many of the Private Parliamentary Secretaries are not in receipt of money. Is it possible to ensure that, if clause 50 remains unchanged in Committee, we could have a full debate on it, if necessary, when the Bill returns to the House on Report?

Mr. MacGregor

On the first matter, as my hon. Friend knows, the Bill is unchanged from Second Reading. It was in the hands of the other place to decide whether it wanted the opportunity to amend the Bill, as it could have done, but their Lordships prevented themselves from doing that by the decision that they took on Tuesday evening.

The House voted on Second Reading in March by a large majority—knowing that the Bill might or might not be changed in another place—and the decision of the House was very clear. The procedure under the Parliament Acts is that, once Mr. Speaker has certified that a Bill has been rejected in another place, it follows automatically that we move to Royal Assent unless time is given in this House to go over all the ground again. I judge from the general reaction that the House believes that it made a clear decision on that matter in March.

On the Finance Bill, we shall obviously have to see what happens in Committee, but my hon. Friend will know that some of these matters can be discussed again at a later stage in our parliamentary proceedings. We had better wait and see what happens.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

May I reinforce the request, or demand, by the official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), for an early debate in Government time on health? Now that self-governing hospitals. have private business plans that are not in the public domain, we are in a new situation. If the Government are as confident as the right hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest, it would be in their interests to allay much of the fear and suspicion in the country by holding a debate, so that some of these matters can be aired on the Floor of the House.

On a point of clarification about Thursday's business: is it intended to take Second Reading and Committee stage of the Social Security (Contributions) Bill then? If it is, I hope that that will not be a precedent for such matters in future.

Mr. MacGregor

On the first point, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I have nothing to add to what I said a short while ago.

On the second point, it is intended to take Second Reading and remaining stages on Thursday. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the single matter to which the Bill refers was in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's Budget, but it was not possible to take it in the Finance Bill because it relates to national insurance contributions and thus requires separate legislative treatment. It is, however, the equivalent of one item in the Finance Bill, which we are also discussing on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Further to the question about British Rail asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), may I tell the Leader of the House that, because the proposal is now for an overland route, between 3,000 and 4,000 homes could lie within 200 m of the track? That will ruin the lives of many people, many of whom are my constituents. People throughout the south-east opposed these proposals when they were before us last year, when the route was primarily underground, so I impress on the Minister the urgency of ensuring that the Secretary of State for Transport comes to the House to make a statement not just about the Government's intentions but to explain how British Rail could make such disastrous proposals twice running, and how it could have failed to take any account of the cross-party consensus that this is a wholly unacceptable route.

Mr. MacGregor

Without going into the issues, and not knowing what is being decided because, like the hon. Lady, I have read only press rumours—unless she has more information than I do—I understand the concern of those who might be affected and the hon. Lady's wish to represent her constituents in this matter. I shall discuss it with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and we shall have to decide whether—and if so, how and when—it is appropriate for the matter to be discussed here.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

May I warmly endorse what the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) has just said and confirm that there is great anxiety in my constituency about the reports emanating about British Rail's proposals? It is imperative that the Secretary of State make a statement to the House at the earliest possible opportunity.

Secondly, will the House have an opportunity to discuss the council tax before a Bill is published? The proposals were embodied in a document issued last week and described as a consultation paper, but we have since heard the Secretary of State say that the bands have been decided and that he has no intention of changing them. Is it a consultation paper, and will the House be consulted on the proposal?

Mr. MacGregor

I understand my hon. Friend's first point and I know how well he represents his constituents' interests. I shall associate him with the requests to my right hon. and learned Friend. I confirm that it is a consultative document. At this stage, I cannot say if or exactly when we shall proceed in the House on the matter. However, I have noted my hon. Friend's request.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

If I heard the Leader of the House aright he said that the two European Standing Committees will meet next week. When can we expect an early statement on the workings of those Committees? If I picked up aright the rumours that the Leader of the House has changes in mind about the Standing Orders that govern those two Committees, will he be good enough to discuss such proposals with the members of the Committees? I remind him that those members are permanent and are not drawn from the poor bloody infantry.

Mr. MacGregor

I am well aware that they are permanent members, because several of them made points to me about the Committees as they progressed. The hon. Gentleman asked about a statement. The appropriate way to handle the matter is in the way that I have suggested on several occasions, by a review at the end of the summer of the way in which the Committees have worked. We may or may not want to make changes at that time and, obviously, at that stage I would wish to hear the views of the members of the Committees. From time to time, there may be a need to make changes, sometimes on minor matters, if that is the general view. I have said that I might wish to do that if it was the general feeling that it would be appropriate to do so. In most cases there would be a proper opportunity, especially if a change to Standing Orders were required, for the House to be consulted and to take a view.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will understand that, at Question Time on Northern Ireland, I welcomed the announcement about the resurrection of a Northern Ireland Grand Committee. However, I am disappointed that there has been no announcement about a debate on the Government's response to the report by the Select Committee on Procedure. When may we expect such a debate, and will the right hon. Gentleman tell us which Department of Government ever welcomed a Select Committee to scrutinise it?

Mr. MacGregor

On the hon. Gentleman's main point, he will know that the Government's response appeared only yesterday and that, therefore, it would be highly inappropriate for me to announce today that we intended to debate it next week. We shall have to reflect and see whether the House feels that it requires a full debate. I should like there to be time for all hon. Members to study the Government's response. I have found Departments very forthcoming in their evidence and in the way in which they respond to Select Committees. As the hon. Gentleman knows, matters relating to Northern Ireland have been debated in Select Committees.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the plight of the Kurdish people, so that the House may have a chance to assess the effects of the aid that has been sent to them and the way in which it has reached people living in the most dreadful conditions on the mountains in Iraq? Such a debate would also enable the House to express an opinion about the need for a long-term settlement based on the rights of the Kurdish people to self-determination, which has consistently been denied since the break-up of the Ottoman empire. Many believe that there will never be long-term peace in the region until the rights of the Kurdish people to self-determination are recognised. That non-recognition is a major factor in instability in the region.

Mr. MacGregor

I think that everyone in the House recognises the seriousness of the plight of the Kurdish people. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have taken the lead internationally both in providing aid through the safe havens proposal and in pursuing other aspects of that through the United Nations. The House is kept fully informed of the Government's thinking and all the action that they are taking on that front. I cannot promise at this stage a debate on the matter. I certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that it is our intention to keep the House fully informed so that hon. Members may question Ministers on the steps that we are taking. I will keep open the possibility of a debate, but I cannot promise one in the near future, because we have a lot of business to conduct.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May I draw to the attention of the Leader of the house early-day motion 744, which points out that the Minister for Sport, although he was appointed in the summer of 1990, has yet to answer a single oral question on sport in the Chamber.

[That this House regrets that the Minister of Sport, although appointed in the summer of 1990, has yet to answer a single oral question on sport in the Chamber, and calls on the Procedure Committee to arrange for sport to have a question time allocation, as do the Arts and Overseas Development.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore arrange for the Minister to come to the House next week and make a statement on the MCC's disgraceful decision to blackball Rachael Heyhoe Flint? Is he aware that Miss Heyhoe Flint has not been defeated as the captain of England's cricket team, which is more than one can say about her male counterpart? Perhaps the Blimps and buffers of MCC do not like being associated with success. That might be one reason why they fast-tracked the Prime Minister's application for membership. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Minister to come and make a statement? If not, will he advise the Prime Minister to resign from MCC in protest against the disgraceful sexist approach?

Mr. MacGregor

It is not for me to comment on MCC's decision, nor is it for my hon. Friend to take responsibility in the House for that decision. I do not think that it would be appropriate for my hon. Friend to make a statement on the matter next week. I know that so far my hon. Friend has not been able to answer a question on sport. I fear that he has been extremely unlucky in the shuffle of questions. I am sure that he would have been only too delighted to answer questions and to defend the Government's policy on sport generally.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)


Mr. Speaker

Was the hon. Gentleman present for the business statement? If he was, I will call him, but it is difficult for me to call him if he has not heard what the business will be next week.

Mr. Powell

With all due respect, I was in for' Irish questions.

Mr. Speaker

That is not what I asked.

Mr. Powell

I heard you groan, Mr. Speaker, when I stood up last, but I was waiting for the Leader of the House to comment not only on Sunday trading but about the War Crimes Bill, further to his comments when the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) requested time next week for a debate on Sunday trading. I share the view expressed on behalf of the Opposition yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and, indeed, the view of the Government.

When I listened to the replies of the Leader of the House to questions about the War Crimes Bill, I could not understand why he did not take the same view on Sunday trading. When the hon. Member for Hendon, South moved his Bill, which I opposed, the House decided by a majority of 2:1 to reject it. I cannot understand why the Government will not accept the decision on the same basis as they accept the decision on the War Crimes Bill. Therefore, we do not need more votes on Sunday trading. We took a decision on it in 1986 and we took another decision recently when my hon. Friend presented his Bill. Why cannot the Government accept that decision and ensure the enforcement of the Shops Act 1950?

Mr. MacGregor

It is, of course, for local authorities, not for the Government, to undertake the enforcement of the Shops Act 1950. The hon. Gentleman was a little muddled in the question which he asked. On the War Crimes Bill, the House has twice—on Second Reading and, last Session, through all the proceedings—voted in favour of the Bill. The Bill is proceeding automatically now under the arrangements of the Parliament Acts because the House has taken a clear decision. When the House rejects Bills on other matters, it is always open to the Government of the day or to individual Members to come forward with further proposals. I do not think that it would be appropriate to have a statement on Sunday trading next week because we have made the position clear, in so far as we have been able to judge it from the recent court decision. The general position of the Government, their policy approach and the steps that they are taking are also clear.