HC Deb 13 February 1992 vol 203 cc1111-29 3.32 pm
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

May we have the business?

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

The business for next week is as follows:

MONDAY 17 FEBRUARYU—Until about seven o'clock, motion to take note of memorandum relating to the European Economic area agreement between the EC and the states of the European Free Trade Association. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Timetable motion on the Local Government Bill [Lords].

Motion to take note of EC documents relating to agreements between the European Community and Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Details will be given in the Official Report.

TUESDAY 18 FEBRUARY—Debate on Industrial Relations on a Government motion.

Motion on the Additional Grant Report (England).

WEDNESDAY 19 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day (5th Allotted Day). There will be a debate described as "The Government's Responsibility for the Recession and Unemployment" on an Opposition motion.

THURSDAY 20 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Transport and Works Bill and the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 21 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 24 FEBRUARY—Motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order.

Proceedings on the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Bill.

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

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committees will meet on Wednesday 19 February at 10.30 am to consider European Community documents as follows: European Standing Committee A will consider document No. 8918/91, relating to Community strategy to limit carbon dioxide emissions and to impose energy efficiency. European Standing Committee B will consider documents Nos. 10089/90 and 9490/91, relating to free movement of medicinal and products in the European Community.

[Relevant documents:

Monday 17 February

Floor of the House

Relevant European Community Documents

(a) Unnumbered European Economic Area
(b) Unnumbered Association Agreements with Central and Eastern European States
(c) 10561/91 Trade with Central and Eastern European States

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 24-vii (1991–92)
  2. (b) HC 24-iv (1991–92)
  3. (c) HC 24-v (1991–92)

Wednesday 19 February European Standing Community A

Relevant European Community Documents

8918/91 Carbon dioxide Emissions and Energy Efficiency

Relevant Reports of the European Legislation Committee HC 24-v (1991–92), TIC 24-ix (1991–92) and HC-xi (1991–92)

European Standing Committee B

Relevant European Community Documents

(a) 10089/90 Medicinal Products
(b) 9490/91 Medicinal Products

Relevant Reports of the European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 29-xxvi (1990–91)
  2. (b) HC 24-vii (1991–92)]

Mr. Grocott

I cannot believe—I do not think that the House can either—that there will be yet another guillotine motion next week. That shows that the Government's business is in a complete shambles. We need to get the facts on the record, so will the Leader of the House confirm that this will be the Government's 36th guillotine motion? I shall repeat that: this will be the Government's 36th guillotine motion. That is more than twice as many as any previous Government have introduced, despite the Government's parliamentary majority of more than 100. We know that they cannot run the country, but one would have thought that they could run their own business.

It is time that the Leader of the House told us what the guillotine motions are all about. We all know that they are the Government's shambolic attempts to clear the decks for a general election on 9 April—provided that the Prime Minister does not lose his nerve, as he has done three times previously. We want an election on 9 April, and we should be happy to talk to the Leader of the House about facilitating business, which, of course, needs proper scrutiny. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not tell us what everyone knows—that there will be a quick-fix Budget on 10 March and a general election on 9 April?

It is high time that we had an explanation of another aspect of next week's business. In the light of today's appalling unemployment figures, to which the Prime Minister was quite incapable of giving a sensible response, will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government have not initiated a single debate on unemployment in their own time during this Parliament? I do not want to hear any nonsense about debates on the Budget and on the Queen's Speech. I am talking about a specific debate on the crisis that is causing anguish in millions of families. The Government do not think that crisis important enough to initiate their own debate on it—we are always the ones who have to do that. The Prime Minister cannot give an answer, but it is time that the Government did. They should give us a date for a debate on unemployment, and it should be next week.

Mr. MacGregor

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the Government have had many debates on economic policy, which have much to do with unemployment. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that the debate next Tuesday on industrial relations is a debate on unemployment, and on the huge improvements that there have been on the employment scene—the number of days lost is at a record low—he does not understand employment issues. That is why the Opposition have advanced policies which would undoubtedly greatly exacerbate unemployment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the timetable motion. There is now clear evidence of deliberate Opposition delays affecting the Local Government Bill. On Tuesday night, and overnight into Wednesday morning, there were considerable delays. More than 32 hours have been spent considering the Bill, many more hours will be spent on it.

The Bill is important. Many local authorities throughout the country are anxious for the Local Government Commission to be established so that it can get on with its job. When going round the country, I have had such requests from many areas. We are engaged on the sensible management of Government business, and we are ensuring that priority Bills have every opportunity to be passed in this Session.

I note that hon. Members on both sides of the House now call for timetables on all Government Bills—[Interruption.] Not everyone in the House agrees, but there has been a wide range of requests for such action. We must await the conclusion of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), but 1 hope that in future we shall be able to timetable more Bills from the outset so that we do not have long delays considering their early provisions while the later parts are not properly considered.

Mr. Speaker

May I make the plea that I made last week and, I think, even the week before? The object of business questions is to ask about business next week. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to confine their questions to that and not to make electioneering points. There will be other opportunities for that.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the front pages of this morning's Daily Express or this afternoon's Evening Standard? Will he confirm that there is nothing in next week's business which is of such importance that it will prevent a statement being made to the House, either by Ministers or by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, about the circumstances in which papers appear to have been stolen from the Department of Health and passed to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), and about the hon. Gentleman's involvement in those matters?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot make an announcement now about statements next week. I agree that it is a serious matter and deserves a clear announcement, whether it is in this House or elsewhere, about the Opposition's position. There is widespread concern about leaked or purloined documents. I believe that the official authorities have now detected the source of one leak. I hope that the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who has been publishing the documents, will now recognise that he is responsible for causing difficulties for the individual who has leaked them. It is the wrong thing to do and is wholly misleading about the position in the national health service. It is a cloak for the Opposition's complete absence of policy on the health service.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Will the Leader of the House accept that the Prime Minister's response and his response today will be cold comfort to unemployed people? Cannot unemployed people justifiably expect that next week, in view of the figures, the Government will give time for a debate on unemployment?

Mr. MacGregor

I have already said that there will be a debate on industrial relations, in which all employment matters can be raised. I reiterate that, of course, we regret the increase in unemployment and we very much regret the situation that people face as a result of unemployment. The hon. Gentleman knows, as so many industries tell us, that the problem is that there is worldwide recession and that the same trends can be seen in many other parts of the country. It is crucial that we continue to pursue policies to ensure, as will happen, that as the recession clears Britain has one of the most competitive economies to take advantage of that.

Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the teachers' pay settlement that was announced this week has serious implications for local authority finance, both nationally and in Shropshire? Is there a possibility of the matter being debated under any of the items of business which he has announced for next week?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, I am glad to confirm to my right hon. Friend that, as he knows, the Government are making available a further £60 million to deal with the review body's award. The matter will be debated on the motion entitled "Additional Grant Report (England)" next week. The additional grant is required entirely for that purpose.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

May we please have an early debate on road safety, especially as it affects children, both as pedestrians and in cars? Three days ago, 10-year-old Yvette Barr was killed on one of the awful roads in my constituency that hack through so many of the great estates in our constituencies. Surely the House should consider how children can be kept safe. More and more children and young people are being maimed or killed because they sit in the centre of the rear of cars, which have dangerous lap seat belts instead of crossed three-point seat belts. Surely we should not have to wait for the EC to act or to initiate debate on the matter. The House should consider that danger without delay.

Mr. MacGregor

I very much regret the death of the constituent to whom the hon. and learned Gentleman referred, as one regrets any such road accidents. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman will know that we have pursued many road safety measures, including some in built-up areas such as the one that he described. We are constantly pursuing road safety education and other matters under the national curriculum and in other ways.

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that central lap belts are an improvement on travelling unrestrained. A three-point belt provides better safety, but it is technically difficult to fit them to the centre rear seats of many cars.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the debate on the timetable motion for the Local Government Bill gives us plenty of time to debate why the motion has become necessary and, in particular, to examine the Hansard report of the Committee? The Committee has been treated to enormously long speeches, including one that lasted an hour and a quarter by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). The speeches were completely empty and showed that the Labour party has no strategy on local government other than wasting hon. Members' time and throwing buckets of money at its problems. Labour Members will not tell us where that money will come from. Their conduct is a disgrace and people should understand that.

Mr. MacGregor

I assure my hon. Friend that there will he plenty of opportunity in the timetable motion debate to raise those matters. It is becoming clear from the evidence that has been given to the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) that restrictions on the length of speeches are necessary and that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked for them. They are necessary not just in the period in which we now have them. Many points may be made effectively in a short time. The timetabling of Bills has become necessary to avoid the situation to which my hon. Friend refers and to ensure more effective consideration of Bills.

It is notable that the Local Government Bill, which we shall debate on Monday, contains several measures relating to a citizens charter to improve local services and to ensure better value for money. That is one of the reasons why we are anxious to get the Bill on the statute book.

Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Hugh McCartney.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope the hon. Gentleman's father is better.

Mr. McCartney

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I, for the next 20 minutes or so, advise you exactly about what went on in the Committee? The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) is telling porky-pies, as is his wont on such matters. There have been no delaying tactics from the Opposition. Since the Bill entered Committee, there has been only one full day of debate because the Government, on numerous occasions, have curtailed debate. On one occasion, they ended a whole session without debate so that the rate support grant settlement could be debated on the Floor of the House. The Government kept us up until 5 am the other morning—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] I do not object to that because one of the problems is that the Committee should he able to respond to the Bill. The Government are trying to curtail debate on major issues affecting local government services. They are afraid of proper debate on and scrutiny of the Bill so that we can see what is happening to local services as a result of privatisation.

Mr. MacGregor

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case. The Bill aims to ensure the efficient delivery of local services—it is one of many measures for that purpose. I understand that many Committee members now feel that deliberate and co-ordinated attempts have been made to halt progress. Hon. Members' speeches have contained much repetition and my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibilities for lcoal government had to move the closure motion twice to ensure that proper consideration could he given to later clauses.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Has the Leader of the House taken note of the remarks made in the House yesterday about the conduct of business relating to the European Community? He and others seem to be trying to keep those matters of great importance from being debated properly in this assembly. Will he assure us that he will give time shortly so that the House can—at the proper time and before decisions are made in Europe—express its mind about the disgraceful suggestion of Mr. Delors that this country will have to pay for other countries that are, in parts, even better off than us? Parts of the Republic of Ireland, in particular, are now demanding £6 million a day, while Northern Ireland has been rejected for cohesion fund payments.

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman will know that yesterday's vote was in accordance with all the normal procedures of the House; the matter had been debated the week before, which is the normal way to proceed. As the House approved the resolution the week before that, we took an automatic and normal vote on the issue yesterday. There is nothing strange about that.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made the Government's position on the Delors programme clear, both inside and outside the House. There is no doubt about where the Government stand on that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I raise a matter of some urgency for next week's business. If the general election is called for 9 April, the last date when people can register on the electoral roll will be next Thursday. The new registers will become publicly available from next Sunday. Existing electoral registers show that 1. million people are missing from them in England, Scotland and Wales.

On Monday, will the Government publish the figures for the registers, constituency by constituency, so that we are aware of the current position? May we have a statement, or a debate in the House, on the issue, as we are approaching the election with crooked electoral registers?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman knows that his remarks about crooked registers are completely untrue and unfair. He has raised the matter before and he knows that electoral registration has been declining since before the introduction of the community charge. There is no specific evidence to suggest that its introduction has had an adverse effect on registration. Indeed, the Government have gone to great lengths to make it clear that there is no connection between the two. Perhaps Labour Members who encouraged people not to pay the community charge led the public to think that there is a connection, but there is not.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

As the Prime Minister confirmed this week that about 180,000 teachers have learnt that they will earn more than £20,280 per annum, will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House reconsider next week's business to include a full-day debate on taxation so that Conservative Members can show their support for teachers being paid more, as the review body report, which was published this week, recommends? We would also be able to show that the Labour party's proposal would cut teachers' take-home pay by abolishing the upper limit on national insurance contributions.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I hope that it is not necessary to have a full-day debate to make that point time and time again. It is instructive and interesting to note that, even before the review body on teachers' pay made its recommendations and the Government accepted them, many teachers suffered considerable overall tax increases as a result of the Labour party's proposals for national insurance contributions. Those teachers are suffering even more now. It is significant that 180,000 teachers will come into that category, but I cannot promise a debate on taxation. My hon. Friend knows that there will be an opportunity for that before long.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

When will we have a debate on Lloyd's? How much longer can we tolerate the scandals that emanate from Lloyd's month after month, with the result that we now know that some of its insiders have been lining their pockets to the tune of about £800,000? In that posh betting shop, some people are placing bets on less risky ventures, while giving the more excessive risks to those outside. If it were a working-class organisation, it would have secret ballots up to its earholes, but because it is an elitist organisation, close to the heart of the City and to the Tory party, it is allowed to regulate itself. It is high time that the Augean stables were cleaned out and the matter was dealt with properly by the law.

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue of Lloyd's has been debated by the House in the not too distant past. It is a self-regulatory body under statute approved by the House. Any allegations of the sort that the hon. Gentleman has in mind—I have seen his early-day motion—are the responsibility of the Lloyd's authorities in the first instance. Any evidence of those allegations should be given to the Lloyd's authorities. My hon. Friend the Minister for Corporate Affairs has spoken to the chairman of Lloyd's, who agrees that the regulator must move as firmly and as swiftly as possible.

Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourhridge)

Will my right hon. Friend make time next week for a most important debate on a most important subject which is hardly ever debated here—immigration—given the recently published fact that in 1990 more than 250,000 people entered this country for settlement, the highest number since 1964? If this goes on, England will no longer be England.

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate next week, although I recognise that this is a most important issue, not least because immigration issues in relation to economic migrants have been recently discussed in the House in debates on the Asylum Bill. I am keen to get on with the business of the House to ensure that if anything comes back to the House on this Bill we can deal with it while the House is in session. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, by introducing that Bill, we are showing our concern about one particular aspect of immigration.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Before next week, will the Leader of the House have a word with the Secretary of State for Employment and ask him to make a statement on what the Government are going to do about policies that have resulted in the 22nd successive monthly rise in unemployment? Will he also ask him to comment on the junior Minister who said that those being made redundant by British Aerospace were being liberated? Or, on reflection, is it all due to the fact that the Government have been conducting a national liberation campaign to make people unemployed, with all the misery that unemployment brings?

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have already referred to the hon. Gentleman's point. There will be plenty of opportunities to discuss employment and unemployment next week, and to discuss the policies that are most likely in the competitive world of the 1990s to ensure as many jobs as possible. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noticed reports that Germany has 3 million unemployed people and that French unemployment is at record levels. I believe that the policies that we are pursuing will ensure that we are in a competitive state as the world recession clears.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Given the widespread interest in the demand by Mr. Delors for more spending in Europe, will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate to give the Government an opportunity to point out that this is an inevitable consequence of the move towards a single currency, and that as long as weak economies deny themselves the right to vary their exchange rates they are bound to ask for compensation in increased payments from what they call a regional fund, a cohesion fund or a convergence fund? By any other name, there will still have to be a massive transfer of wealth from the rich countries to the poor.

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that there will undoubtedly he opportunities before too long to discuss matters such as the Delors budget and the cohesion fund, but I am afraid that they will not arise next week.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford. West)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement next week by the Secretary of State for Energy on electricity prices? Is he aware that one of the largest companies in Bradford is warning that further redundancies will have to be made if it is forced to pay 30 per cent. more for its contract electricity? Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Secretary of State to intervene immediately to stop the privatised electricity industry imposing excessive and exorbitant electricity prices? Will he also arrange for the matter to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission so that this rip-off of manufacturing industry can be halted?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman will know that there are already regulatory arrangements to deal with those issues and that, overall, there has been a reduction in real terms in electricity prices. He will also know that millions of consumers and small, medium-sized and other businesses have benefited greatly from that, and that there is some adjustment in the tariff structure for larger companies.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Will the Leader of the House explain, when he is so obviously unable to allow time for a debate on important and urgent European matters, why on earth we are to have a three-hour debate on Monday on the European economic area when the agreement has already been vetoed by the European Court?

Mr. MacGregor

Because on that issue I think that matters are moving on, and because I have been asked by the Scrutiny Committee and the House to have the debate on the Floor of the House rather than in the European Standing Committee.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a written answer on Thursday by a Northern Ireland Office Minister? The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) asked about physiotherapy services and the Minister directed him to refer the question to the chairman of the health and social services board. That was an inadequate and inappropriate response because the board is not an independent body—it is not even a quango—but is entirely a creature of the Minister. For the Minister to refuse to answer that question is wholly inadequate. Would it be possible to arrange a debate on the matter?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot comment on the question because I have not seen it. I shall certainly look at it. suspect—and I repeat that I have not seen the question and hope that I am right—that it may be as a result of the changes that we have been making to deal with written questions in relation to next steps agencies. If that is not so, I shall certainly have a look at the matter.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the European Parliament has decided to ban tobacco advertising? Is he aware that 3,000 people are employed in the tobacco industry in Nottinghamshire, and that firms trading at the margins, such as corner shops and publishers of respectable magazines, will be at great risk if the ban is put into effect? May we have a debate on the matter, and one that is somewhat more than a 90-minute debate in the middle of the night at the instigation of European countries, many of which receive taxpayers' money to promote their tobacco interests and ban the advertising of tobacco products in their own countries? Should not we attend to that issue?

Mr. MacGregor

As I think my hon. Friend knows, there has been a debate on this in European Standing Committee B. The Government remain to be convinced that a total ban on tobacco advertising is necessary for the operation of the internal market. That is one of the key issues for the draft European Community directive.

The Government's policy on tobacco advertising is clear. My hon. Friend drew attention to some of the implications of an advertising ban. I agree that the proposed action by the Community is totally illogical at a time when hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is used to subsidise the tobacco industry in other parts of the Community. When I was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I fought against that.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

What about the Leader of the House initiating a system of secondary statements, perhaps next week, so that hon. Members can recall Ministers to the Dispatch Box to correct statements that they made earlier, such as when the Prime Minister told us that he had solved the problem of the repossession of houses? A month later, we find that nothing has been done or achieved. Houses are still being repossessed, and the poor people of this country believe that they have been completely misled. Should not the Prime Minister return to the Dispatch Box and explain why it was necessary to mislead people in the first place?

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already said today that we took action before Christmas, which has been debated in the House. For the hon. Gentleman to say that nothing has been done is totally misleading. The other place is passing the Social Security (Mortgage Interest Payments) Bill, which has been considered in this place. We have passed stamp duty legislation. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong to say that nothing has been done. He must also know that two building societies— think that it may now be three—have announced specific plans. Before Christmas, they agreed on the arrangements and they have now worked them through and are implementing them. The hon. Gentleman will also know that a number of other building societies are already following the spirit of that agreement.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on local government in London? Is he aware that those councils with the worst record in rent arrears, those with the worst school results and those with the largest stock of unlet council houses are all Labour?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is right, and that is a point that he could make on the Local Government Bill, because some of the clauses will empower the Audit Commission to make comparisons of performance and to ensure that the points that my hon. Friend makes are fully drawn to the attention of the local public.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Would it not be a useful enhancement of the position of Back Benchers if an early-day motion that had attracted 175 Back-Bench signatures from both sides of the House became a subject for debate in Government time on the Floor of the House? May I draw attention to early-day motion 503 on the Japanese slaughter of minke whales, which, by coincidence, has attracted 175 signatures from both sides of the House? That this House condemns the fact that Japanese whalers are slaughtering minke whales for spurious research purposes in the Antarctic Ocean; is outraged that Japan is still undermining the world-wide, indefinite ban on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986; is appalled that Japan has slaughtered nearly 7,000 whales and over 100,000 dolphins and porpoises during the ban despite the repeated criticisms and recommendations of the International Whaling Commission and the entreaties of the international community; calls upon Her Majesty's Government to make the strongest possible protest to the Japanese Government demanding their full and immediate compliance with the indefinite commercial whaling moratorium; further demands an end to the slaughter of dolphins and porpoises in Japanese coastal waters and asks Her Majesty's Government to press for the permanent extension of the ban at this year's International Whaling Commission meeting in Glasgow.]

It is important that the House should have an opportunity to express its near-unanimous revulsion at the continuing slaughter of minke whales by the Japanese in the Antarctic and the slaughter of dolphins and porpoises. Prior to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Glasgow later this year, the House should have an opportunity to discuss that and next week would be a good time to start.

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the Japanese Government are well aware of the concerns of the British Government, the House and the British people about Japanese whale and dolphin hunting practices. Through the International Whaling Commission, we have consistently opposed unjustified whaling for scientific purposes, and we shall continue to do so. There is no doubt about the stand that the British Government have consistently taken. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been strong in his approach to the matter.

Early-day motions are a means to enable the House to express its view. I have certainly noticed the large number of signatures to that early-day motion. I hope that that in itself will have its effect. The hon. Gentleman is being a little ingenious to suggest that early-day motions which attract a large number of signatures should then take up Government time. I can see how that practice could quickly be abused.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Would it be sensible to have a debate, if not next week certainly before this Parliament ends, on the civil service? In recent years, there have been an increasing number of cases of dishonesty, culminating in the current scandal at the Department of Health. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this goes beyond mere party politics? No matter which party is in power, the proper government of this country depends on Ministers being able to rely on the honesty of their officials.

Mr. MacGregor

And certainly, too, being able to rely on the knowledge that there will not be deliberate leaks and things of that sort, which I think that my hon. Friend has in mind. I believe that it is widely condemned that documents are leaked and that clear use is then made of them when at the same time there are complaints about leaks from other sources. I agree with my hon. Friend but, as far as I understand it, the appropriate action has been taken by the appropriate authorities in that case.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House next week to make a statement arising out of the information given by top doctors yesterday to the Select Committee on Health? They are being forced into the position—arising out of implementating Government policy on waiting lists—of having to carry out minor operations and delay major operations, which could end up costing lives. Surely all hon. Members in the House want the truth. We would like the Secretary of State for Health to come here and clear up this matter.

Mr. MacGregor

We have been having a great number of debates about the health service, in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been making the position clear. As far as Select Committee reports are concerned, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the practice is for the Select Committee first to make its report, and the Government then make their response.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

In the light of the horrific level of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, a bomb being placed in Whitehall this week and IRA demonstrations on the streets of London, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the business that he has announced for Monday 24 February will allow a wide-ranging debate on the prevention of terrorism? If that is not the position, will he provide sufficient time for such a debate to take place?

Mr. MacGregor

I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the business for Monday will allow for such matters to be raised.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Bearing in mind the fact that it was this Government who specifically excluded Lloyd's from the provisions of the Financial Services Act 1986, is not the Leader of the House duty bound to provide time for a debate on naked greed, dishonesty and fraud at Lloyd's, and how best to protect the names from the machinations of corrupt insiders?

Mr. MacGregor

I have already made it clear where the allegations should go in the first place. If there are allegations of criminal activity, those are matters for the police authorities and the Serious Fraud Office.

Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)

Will my right hon. Friend look again at his response to the question about the Select Committee on Health, of which I am a member? Those who gave evidence were not certain of what they were saying about pressure on waiting lists. They said that they thought that there was pressure; they were not certain about it.

Mr. MacGregor

That shows the difficulties of responding to a demand for a statement on a matter that a Select Committee is considering thoroughly in the round, and why it is important to wait until the Select Committee reports.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Fortunately, the Select Committee will print its evidence. At that stage the House can make up its mind whether what the hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) says is true.

The Government intend yet again to tax the sick by raising prescription charges from £3.40 to £3.75. Is it not time that we had a debate on how we exempt from charges those who are just above income support level and those on invalidity benefit, who have to pay out an enormous amount from small incomes for prescriptions that they need every week? The same applies to the chronically sick and the mentally ill, who often cannot afford prescription charges. Instead of taxing the sick, is it not time that we debated what is happening to those who we should be helping?

Mr. MacGregor

On the first point, I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that many people—doctors and others—working within the health service believe that the reforms are already having a beneficial effect.

I am glad that the hon. Lady has talked about prescription charges. Her remarks enable me to say that only one in six prescription items now has a prescription charge attached to it, whereas in 1979 it was one in three.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that on Wednesday, at the end of the debate on the recession, the Government's majority will apply and that the decision will endorse the comments that he made in response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). I hope that he will check his response, because I am quite sure that it was not entirely accurate. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of the most important industries face crippling and insupportable increases in electricity prices, which have been imposed by people who have no interest in the national position, who have voted themselves obscenely large salary increases and who now threaten the very existence of industries which need to continue to export in the national interest? Can we not have a debate that is not disfigured by a Division, during which those who represent constituencies in which there are these important industries can reflect the urgent need to consider this issue, bearing in mind that these insupportable price increases are due to take effect on 1 April?

Mr. MacGregor

I repeat that, if we consider electricity prices overall, since privatisation there has been a reduction in real terms, from which many have benefited. There has been restructuring for some larger companies, and that is a matter for the regulatory authorities. The hon. Gentleman must find other ways of raising the matter than in a debate in Government time next week.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

As rumour has it—presumably through the usual channels—that today's main business has deliberately been made bipartisan so that Labour Members can go to a £500-a-head dinner tonight, it would be extremely helpful for Conservative Members to learn from my right hon. Friend when another of these dinners is taking place so that we can make arrangements to be in our constituencies working hard.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes his own point. I must in all fairness explain that today's Second Reading debate was not arranged for that reason. I think there is general agreement on the Bill—at least with the main Opposition party. Perhaps that is why few Labour Members will be present. I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to make his point about the fund-raising activities to which he referred.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

During next week's debate on employment and industrial relations, could particular emphasis be placed on the nuclear industry, the 120,000 jobs in the north-west that depend on it, and the effect on those jobs of any policy to phase out nuclear power—such as that suggested by Labour?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The impact of Labour policies on employment in several other areas could also be highlighted.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

Does the Leader of the House acknowledge the concern expressed in 10 early-day motions on the Shops Act 1950, and the necessity to change that legislation? If that cannot be achieved in the short time left to the present Government, at least a start should be made. The Leader of the House will have such opportunity to help ensure that next Friday, when my Bill, which is second on the list, could be debated.

If the right hon. Gentleman will use his influence to allow my Bill to go into Committee, a start could be made on changing a law that is the cause of much concern and distress. The present situation allows big business people to tear up contracts, compel workers to volunteer to work on Sunday on ordinary time, reduce double time and enhanced payments to staff employed for 20 years, and illegally open their shops. It is about time that the Government helped—if only by assisting a Back Bencher to promote a Bill that the Government should have introduced since 1986.

Mr. MacGregor

We have debated that issue many times previously, and I do not want to discuss it now—except to say that I am sure that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that right hon. and hon. Members hold many different views on Sunday trading. A private Member's Bill is not a matter for me, and I could not influence its progress. Any right hon. or hon. Member who wants to object to the Bill, for whatever reason—if it has not been fully debated—can do so. It is not within my power to stop that.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

May we have an early debate on the employment of people in the House? The scandal of leaked documents in the health service has already been mentioned, but it seems that the person accused of that action was recommended for secondment to the Department of Health by a man named Mr. Gordon Best, who I understand is the political assistant to a member of Labour's Front Bench. That is a serious matter in relation to the use of stolen material in the House, so may we have an early debate on that important issue?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend may want to pursue that matter in other ways. I cannot give Government time to debating it next week.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the House have an early opportunity to debate the subject of motion No. 33 in the notices of motions in today's Order Paper? In a week in which we are again dealing with terrorism, I am convinced that the establishment of a Select Committee to scrutinise the affairs of the Northern Ireland Office and the activities of Government-appointed bodies in Northern Ireland would be an answer to terrorism, and would deal with the problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) drew attention.

Mr. MacGregor

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that I have given a fair amount of time on the Floor of the House to Northern Ireland matters in recent weeks, and I continue to do so. The draft Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order will be before the House a week on Monday. We discussed before the suggestion for a Select Committee, and I explained why it would not be appropriate to act until there are further developments. There is the additional problem that only a few months remain of the life of this Parliament, and it is unlikely that we would be able to establish a Select Committee in that time.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

Next Thursday we are to debate the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Bill. In the light of the shocking revelations that we have just heard about the research assistant to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), can my right hon. Friend tell me whether the hon. Member for Livingston will be able to use the opportunity of the debate on that Bill to apologise to the House about the disgraceful situation whereby he has been receiving stolen papers? Is it not an absolute disgrace, and should not this matter be explained here in the House?

Mr. MacGregor

My own view is that the hon. Gentleman has been running all these documents because of the lack of credibility of the Opposition's health policy. We know very well that they would not spend any more money on the national health service. We know also—

Mr. Grocott

Let us check it with the voters.

Mr. MacGregor

No wonder the hon. Gentleman does not like this, because he is very embarrassed about it. We know very well that they would not spend any more money. We know that they have no proposals for proper reform of the health service. But, of course, it is a matter for the hon. Gentleman himself to decide what statements he wants to make.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

It will not have gone unnoticed by the House or those outside it that the Leader of the House did not take the opportunity, when answering the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), to deny that the Government have plans to raise prescription charges to £3.75 an item within the next few days. Will he therefore arrange not just for a written answer, if that be the case, but for an oral statement to the House, because that is what Opposition Front-Bench Members normally would have demanded?

The Secretary of State for Health should not just give us platitudes about how many items are free from prescription. He should explain why already millions of people in the country should have to pay 1,700 per cent. more for prescription charges than they did in 1979. The Secretary of State ought to come to the Dispatch Box and announce the abolition of this disgraceful charge.

Mr. MacGregor

That is an extraordinary thing for the hon. Gentleman to say, because his party introduced the charges, the Opposition have not committed themselves to abolition of the charges, and in 1979 there were far more items subject to prescription charges than there are now. It is not a platitude to point out that only one in six prescription items is subject to a charge, because it is a very clear indication of what the Government have done to protect all those in various categories who do not have to pay prescription charges at all. It shows the caring approach that we have taken in that respect. The hon. Gentleman will find that the announcement about prescription charges is being made this afternoon exactly as it always has been, by way of a written answer. The position is perfectly clear and, in the normal way, the regulations will be laid shortly and are subject to the negative resolution procedure.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there was grave disquiet on both sides of the House last week when the Government, late at night, in a debate lasting just an hour and a half, tried to slip past 450 million quid extra to the illegal budget of the European Community. That is not counting the additional money that was to go to the illegal budget under the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill.

Will my right hon. Friend agree to an urgent debate next week, taking account of the outrageous demands of Jacques Delors recently published? Can we next week have a full debate on exactly how many countries in Europe are net contributors to the European budget and whether it is simply Britain and Germany that are net contributors, with all the others having their hands in our pockets?

Mr. MacGregor

I can tell my hon. Friend straight away that there are three net contributors; France should be added to the two that he has mentioned. I think that that is fairly well known. Last week, we followed the normal practice, on top of a lot of debates that we have had on European Community budgets. I recognise that this is a most important matter—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made that very clear both this afternoon and in statements yesterday—but I think that it would be premature to debate the matter next week, not least because we have a lot of important business to do. There will be opportunities at the appropriate time, I have no doubt, to discuss these issues further.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

Given that, in a few weeks' time, the right hon. and hon. Friends of the Leader of the House will be wall to wall in the north-west, and in the light of his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) about a debate on the national economy, may I ask the Leader of the House to consider arranging an economic debate about the north-west in the next few weeks?

The Bolton-Bury travel-to-work area, of which my constituency is part, has lost nearly 1,400 jobs since Christmas. Bury has the highest number of mortgage repossessions, and the 10 local authorities of Greater Manchester have been treated very badly in the poll tax arrangements for this year—the standard spending assessments and so forth. I think that that would be a very good subject for a debate that could be held before those Conservative Members start getting in my way in the north-west during the general election campaign.

Mr. MacGregor

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we look forward to debating the respective merits of the parties' policies as they affect the north-west whenever the time comes. When I have been in the north-west, as I have been a number of times recently, I have encountered considerable opposition to the Labour party's economic and tax and expenditure policies. We shall be checking that in due course.

Obviously, we shall be having debates on economic matters, but I cannot promise a debate on a specific region. The hon. Gentleman will have to find another way of securing a debate on the north-west.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Will the Leader of the House look at early-day motion 442, in my name? [That this House recognises with sadness and anger that the latest transfers to flags of convenience by British shipowners, Andrew Weir and Blue Star, will take the number of United Kingdom-registered ships over 500 gross registered tons to under 300 for the first time since records were kept; regrets the loss of still more jobs for British officers and ratings; condemns the flagrant disregard for national interest inherent in the run-down of the Merchant Navy; recalls with respect the service given to this country, in times of peace and war, by a great industry which the Tories have now decided is dispensable; and looks forward to the election of a government which will act to defend and expand upon the pitifully small number of Red Ensigns which the Tory brand of patriotism has allowed to survive on the seaways of the world.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman also look at early-day motion 618? That motion is in the name of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). Both early-day motions draw attention to the fact that the United Kingdom-registered merchant fleet has now declined to fewer than 300 ships. Some of us find it very puzzling that a party that likes to cloak itself in the flag when that suits its purposes should display such consistent contempt for a flag that has served this country well—the red ensign.

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the subject? Does he recognise that it is a disaster for a maritime, mercantile nation to be reduced to having a merchant fleet that contains virtually no oceangoing vessels, and is made up almost exclusively of coasters and ferries? Does he accept that one of the Government's prime legacies will be the virtual eradication of the British merchant navy?

Mr. MacGregor

I have seen the early-day motions. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in recent years the Government have introduced a range of measures, including some financial concessions, to address specific difficulties within the shipping industry. We certainly acknowledge the contribution by the British merchant fleet both to the economy and to our national defence. The Government are considering separately the special role that merchant shipping plays in defence.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

May we have an early opportunity to debate the textile industry? As the Leader of the House knows, Bradford—like other cities—employs more than 12,000 people directly in the industry, which makes it a very important one. Nationally, more than 400,000 people are involved in clothing and textiles.

If a debate took place, we could make it clear that the textile industry must not be sacrificed on the altar of agriculture during the GATT talks, and that provision must be made to ensure that the industry is retained if the talks break down, as they are currently doing. We could also invoke a discussion about the outrageous and misplaced claims from the Common Market for an increased budget. If such a budget were granted—as the Prime Minister seemed to suggest this afternoon—it would mean money being siphoned off from the United Kingdom, and, potentially, a risk to United Kingdom textile industry jobs.

Mr. MacGregor

What my right hon. Friend was making clear was that there was already scope within the guidelines—the Community ceilings—for increased expenditure. He was addressing the point that the further increases proposed by Mr. Delors were unnecessary. Obviously, we shall debate that issue; I have made that clear several times this afternoon. As the Delors plan has only just been published, however, I am sure that we shall all want to study it further before debating it.

As for the textile industry, I very much hope—as l have often said, and I think every hon. Member feels the same—that we shall reach a successful conclusion to the Uruguay round talks on the GATT. It is vital that we do so. The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that temporary arrangements have been made for the continuation of the multi-fibre arrangement in regard to textiles for the current year to cover the fact that agreement has not yet been reached.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the dramatic increase in unemployment in Northern Ireland, which now stands at 105,000? Does he know that 14.5 per cent. of the work force are jobless, that almost one in five men are unemployed, and that more job losses in my constituency are to be announced soon? Will the debate that has been arranged for next Wednesday be sufficiently wide to take account of the impact of and the responsibility for the job losses and the lack of inward investment that terrorism causes for us all? Will he convey to the Prime Minister the fact that those twin problems—terrorism and unemployment—require that he put his own firm hands to them? Any efforts by the Prime Minister to resolve them will have our full support.

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot say exactly what next week's motion will be; that is, of course, a matter for the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman has made a very fair point about the impact that terrorism has on inward investment. It is very noticeable indeed that, because of the very attractive economic conditions that we have created, Great Britain is a major Community beneficiary from inward investment. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows of the very high proportion of Japanese investment and of the fact that Great Britain is regarded as the best Community area for German investment. There is clear evidence that this is so. Whether the hon. Gentleman's very fair point about terrorism can be made in next week's debate I do not know, but it probably can.

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

May I, for the third time, ask for a debate on Volvo of Sweden's asset-stripping operations in the United Kingdom? Is not it rather odd that Volvo will not tell the people of Workington the full truth about why it is closing the bus plant in Workington? Yesterday, I was able to establish that Volvo has received from London Transport an order worth £5 million. It has not made a public statement about the receipt of that order, as it knows that such a statement would unsettle the people of Workington, who are faced with extensive redundancy as a result of the closure of Europe's most modern bus plant.

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot comment on the particular issue relating to Volvo, as that is a matter for the company itself. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, I cannot find specific Government time for a debate on this issue. It is for him to use the normal means of raising the matter.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Will the Leader of the House consider for next week a statement on the terrible accident at Monkwearmouth pit? Will he join me in congratulating the rescue services, the ambulance service, the hospitals and the doctors on the marvellous job they did?

Mr. MacGregor

I certainly express condolences to all those who have been affected, and I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said. All that I have seen suggests that those services did an absolutely splendid job, as they always do in such situations. I am sure that the whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

As the Leader of the House knows, tax evasion is a growth industry for the rich in this country, and provides jobs for a whole host of accountants and lawyers, yet people who cannot pay the poll tax are repeatedly hounded in Scotland and gaoled in England and Wales. This is an absolute disgrace. Of course, the Government will maintain that people must pay their taxes. If that is the case, will the Government have a word with the monarch and the deadbeats of the royal family and ask them to pay their fair share?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member knows well that we do not refer in those terms to members of the royal family. I ask him to withdraw the word "deadbeats".

Mr. Brown

Hangers-on, the unemployed, unemployable people—

Mr. Speaker

I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the word "deadbeats"?

Mr. Brown

Under protest, I withdraw "deadbeats". I would like to find an equivalent Scots word.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

May I support the plea by the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) for a debate on industry in the north-west? Such a debate would give me an opportunity to point out that in the recent CBI survey business leaders and business managers in the north-west expressed confidence about the coming few months, and we would have a chance to prove the truth of the old adage that what Manchester thinks today the rest of the country thinks tomorrow.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out what business leaders have been saying, and I am sure that he will make the point admirably in the coming weeks and months.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Could my right hon. Friend urgently organise a debate next week on national health service trust hospitals? Would it be possible during that debate for all hon. Members to agree that the trusts have been extremely successful? Some members of the Labour party in my constituency are fearful for their jobs in these trust hospitals and know what a good job the trusts are doing—they want that fear removed in view of the remote possibility of us having a Labour Government.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is entirely right about national health service trust hospitals. The best way to remove that fear is to ensure that we do not have a Labour Government.