HC Deb 20 February 1992 vol 204 cc463-80 3.31 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)

The business of the House for next week will be as follows:

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 has named opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

TUESDAY 25 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Local Government Bill [Lords]

Motion on the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations

WEDNESDAY 26 FEBRUARY—Debate on inflation on a Government motion

Motion on the Fire Service College Trading Fund Order.

THURSDAY 27 FEBRUARY—Debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 28 FEBRUARY—Private Members' motions

MONDAY 2 MARCH—Until seven o'clock motion to take note of EC documents relating to asylum and immigration; details will be given in the Official Report.

Debate on the report from the Select Committee on Sittings of the House on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

[Monday 2 March

Floor of the House

Relevant European Community Documents

  1. (a) 8810/91 Right of Asylum
  2. (b) 8811/91 Immigration
Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee
  1. (a) HC 24-x (1991–92)
  2. (b) HC 24-x (1991–92)]

Dr. Cunningham

Has the Leader of the House had time to consider the High Court's decision that computer evidence on the non-payment of poll tax is inadmissible in magistrates courts? Is he aware that, as a consequence, local authorities will be denied revenue of about £3 million each week until the Government's belated action to correct this appalling blunder in their legislation comes into effect? Will the Government compensate local authorities and local poll tax payers for their inefficiency in the poll tax legislation, which means that the biggest single cause of non-payment and non-collection of the poll tax is the action of Her Majesty's Government and their appalling and inadequate legislation? May we have a statement on this important issue next week from the Secretary of State for the Environment?

Why does the Leader of the House persist in giving the Government Supply days, as he is planning to do again next week, when he cannot find time for the proper consideration of legislation and introduces guillotines almost weekly? He cannot find time to give the Opposition Supply days, but he can find time—[Interruption.] We are talking about next week's business—but he can find time to allocate to the Government. We are very happy to debate the Government's abysmal economic performance, of course, but should not he think harder about finding time for more Opposition Supply days before the end of this Parliament?

Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance—if not today, certainly in his business statement next week —that, following the Budget on 10 March, we shall have the normal allocation of time to debate the Budget proposals? If there is to be a general election on 9 April, the proclamation will have to be announced on Monday 16 March, so how will the Government allocate proper time for debate on the Budget in that short period? Will he assure us that the Budget debate will not be truncated and that we shall have the normal period to debate the Government's proposals?

Mr. MacGregor

As to the hon. Gentleman's first point, he will know that it was not the Government who caused, in the case of some local authorities, considerable funds not to be paid as a result of non-payment of the community charge; it was the action of those who did not pay their community charge, as most responsible citizens did. It was certainly aided and abetted by the members of the Opposition and the many Labour councillors who actively encouraged them not to pay, so the hon. Gentleman cannot be allowed to get away with that. We must be clear where the fault lies.

On the question of computer evidence in magistrates court cases, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are taking action as quickly as possible by means of an amendment to the Local Government Finance Bill in another place. I hope that we shall have his support for that amendment when the Bill returns to this House. As so many of his hon. Friends have encouraged non-payment, he can now assist us by actively supporting that amendment.

On the hon. Gentleman's second question about a debate next week on inflation, he knows that I have been pressed on many occasions to find Government time to debate the economy. I am happy to agree to that as Second Reading debates are progressing. Incidentally, I have been very fair to the Opposition with regard to Supply days. After yesterday's Supply day, there is a heavy demand from my colleagues for more such days. The Opposition were routed yesterday and their Front-Bench spokesmen were wiped off the floor.

On the question of a normal allocation of time for the Budget debate, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is not a matter for next week's business.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I make the plea which I made last week, the week before and the week before that: will hon. Members confine business questions today to the business for next week? There will be opportunities during next week's debates to make party political points.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 are now quite inadequate to deal with the growing problem of travellers in many constituencies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) mentioned earlier? May we have an urgent debate on this subject next week to discuss ways in which these two pieces of legislation may be strengthened and whether we should introduce a new criminal offence of aggravated trespass?

Mr. MacGregor

I am aware of the concern felt in many constituencies about travellers. I understand that there was a question about it earlier this afternoon. I shall certainly discuss it further with my right hon. Friend, but I will not be able to find time for a debate in Government time next week.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Given the wild enthusiasm for Opposition Supply days that the Leader of the House tell us now exists among Conservative Members, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he recalls that, by this time last year, and in 1990, there had been a Liberal Democrat Supply day? I know that approaches have been made through the usual channels. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure me that he will follow precedent and arrange for a Supply day the week after next?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot give that precise assurance, but I can say that minority parties are normally allowed about one sixth of the Supply days, and that we have had five Labour party Supply clays. I am working pretty well to the normal timetable. I am aware that there has been discussion about the matter, and I shall certainly keep it in mind.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

My right hon. Friend will know of my concern about standards of reporting in broadcasting in this country, and I know that he shares that concern. I wonder whether he read the centre pages of the Evening Standard last night, which were about an extraordinary incident that seems to have taken place on the BBC television "Nine O'clock News". Someone who was interviewed was portrayed—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is just the point that I was seeking to make. Is this question about a debate next week?

Mr. Tracey


Mr. Speaker

It does not sound like it.

Mr. Tracey

Somebody who was interviewed on the news was portrayed as being deprived but was subsequently revealed to be far from that, and was possibly a "plant". May we have an urgent debate on bias in broadcasting in the BBC news?

Mr. MacGregor

I am aware of the newspaper report, and, although I did not see the news programme, it seemed to me that it not only gave a distorted impression of the whole student situation but failed to make the point that we have one of the most generous student support systems of all equivalent countries. Furthermore, a single example was given—a sample of one—and it turned out to be highly distorted. I agree with my hon. Friend that the programme was an example of highly biased reporting which should not have happened. I cannot promise a debate on the subject next week, but I hope that the authorities in the BBC will consider the case carefully. I am aware of the concern among my hon. Friends.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Leaving aside the continued Tory vendetta against the BBC, when business is due to be announced and the Secretary of State for the Environment is due to speak, will the Leader of the House make it clear that the right hon. Gentleman's speech will be a renewal of his leadership campaign to decide who will be Leader of the Opposition after 9 April?

Mr. MacGregor

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to yesterday's debate, I notice that there is a renewed campaign about who should be shadow Chancellor.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Now that we have been given the opportunity to see that the national health service reform proposals are working extremely well, and that the only suggestion from the Opposition is that the whole lot should be reversed and the monolithic NHS, which worked so patchily in the past, should be restored, may we have a debate in which the poverty of the Opposition proposals could be exposed and the very good story that we have to tell about the NHS reforms could be fully told?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend that a debate would be desirable. Labour's so-called health policy amounts to a wrecker's charter, wrecking so many of the benefits that the NHS reforms are already bringing, and makes it clear that they would bring back trade union domination, putting union demands before patients' needs. I agree with my hon. Friend that we may wish to debate the issue, but I do not think that I could accommodate a debate next week.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to come back to the Chamber this afternoon and make a statement on this morning's High Court ruling in favour of my constituents David and Eleanor Bullard, and against the Government's persistent illegal use of uncorroborated computer printouts in poll tax cases in magistrates courts? The ruling puts a question mark over 11 million liability orders in England and Wales—[Interruption.] Tory Members may shout, as if we were talking about a minority of people, but this matter affects more than one in four of all adults in this country.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to conduct from today an urgent review of each of the 170 people, including 13 pensioners, 35 people who are unemployed and four whose only income was invalidity benefit, who have been put in prison on the basis of uncorroborated computer evidence, so that their cases may be considered and compensation can be paid?

Mr. MacGregor

I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that the vast majority of people are incensed by the fact that some people have not paid their community charge when they are perfectly able to do so. Within the community charge system, there are benefits and rebates for those on lower incomes and for those most in need. The fault lies with those who do not comply with the law as everyone else does. On the point about magistrates courts, I have already made plain what the Government are doing.

Mr. Malcolm Thornton (Crosby)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is many, many months since the tragic events at Hillsborough. He will equally be aware that, for many of the relatives of those who lost their lives—11 of my constituents died at Hillsborough—the anguish goes on, because they are still not satisfied that the truth has come out of the inquiry. For them, that is the only way in which they can put their loved ones finally to rest. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Attorney-General to address the issue as a matter of urgency? Every day it goes on brings renewed anguish to those tragic families.

Mr. MacGregor

I understand, of course, the concern that my hon. Friend expresses on behalf of the families. We all recall that tragic day. Without commenting on the details, because I do not know them, I will raise the case with my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that yesterday, Mr. Malcolm Edwards, the commercial director of British Coal, informed the Select Committee on Energy that, if the present energy policies of National Power, PowerGen and the Government continued, the outlook would be more pessimistic than suggested in the Rothschild report which suggested that the number of pits would go down to about 14? Mr. Edwards suggested that the figure would be 12.

Is the Leader of the House also aware that, when the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill was in Committee, Associated British Ports, through its mouthpiece, Mr. Frank Layfield QC, misled the Committee? In those circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman consider arranging an urgent debate next week on the future of the mining industry?

Mr. MacGregor

We have already had a number of debates affecting the mining industry, so I cannot promise a debate next week. I am aware of the view that one individual put to the Select Committee yesterday. The Government's aim is to create the largest economic United Kingdom coal industry that the market can support in the longer term. We do not accept that the industry will be reduced to 12 pits. The future size will depend on the performance of the industry itself. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is encouraging that Boyds, the United States mining engineers, has found great scope for further productivity improvements, so British Coal should be well placed to compete in price with imported coal and to secure the lion's share of the electricity market by offering competitively priced coal.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement either today or on Monday on the London Docklands Railway (Lewisham, etc.) Bill, and on the Government's response to the debate in Committee and on Second Reading on the Transport and Works Bill? The Minister for Shipping said in Committee that that was not the place to talk about the level of alcohol that a public service driver of a train or of a national bus could take.

Given the level of debate on Second Reading on 2 December and the Minister's comments in column 45 of Hansard, and given the comments made in Committee, it would be appropriate to find some way of ascertaining the Government's attitude on that important issue. At present, the Government say, in effect, that it is all right for a train driver to have five glasses of wine before driving a train. I raise the matter especially because it is almost 20 years since the Eltham Well Hall crash, when six people died and 126 were injured. It was one of the rare events in which a public service driver was over the limit.

Mr. MacGregor

I know that the London Docklands Railway (Lewisham, etc.) Bill has been recommended by the Chairman of Ways and Means for consideration on Monday evening. I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my appropriate right hon. Friend.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the great interest that has been created in Northern Ireland about the on-going constitutional debate—that is, whether there should be devolution to Scotland and Wales? Will the right hon. Gentleman give some advice on what procedures my hon. Friends and I should follow and what facilities he will make available to us and to hon. Members from elsewhere in the United Kingdom to attend debates of the Grand Committees in Scotland and Wales whenever those Committees discuss the constitutional position of Scotland and Wales?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman knows the position in relation to the Scottish Grand Committee, but I very much agree with what is behind his question: there is considerable interest throughout the United Kingdom in those constitutional matters, and rightly so because the implications go much wider than Scotland. I cannot say how that matter might be taken forward at the moment. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are four half-day debates being given to the Scottish Grand Committee. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make clear those wider implications in the debate.

Sir Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the accommodation that is given to servants of the House who must stay overnight in this Palace, and will he examine the facilities that are offered to them? Will he also consider a change so that we ourselves, rather than the Department of the Environment, have responsibility?

Mr. MacGregor

As my hon. Friend suggests, under the Ibbs proposals, we will have responsibility for that matter from 1 April. I do not think that a debate is necessary. My hon. Friend can raise the matter through the appropriate committees that we are now setting up.

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

May we have an assurance that we will be given the opportunity of having four full days to consider the Budget statement, in particular because one of those days must be given to the debate on industry? I shall want to expose Volvo Bus of Sweden's secret agenda for the United Kingdom, which is to close down the British bus industry and switch its production to plants principally in Sweden.

Mr. MacGregor

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I have frequently said to him that he must find his own way of raising that matter, and I notice that he has not yet done so. On his first point, he will know that I have not announced the Budget for next week. I must obey your strictures, Mr. Speaker, and not deal with that matter now.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will my right hon. Friend find time next week for a debate on national health service trusts? It has just been announced by the Opposition that they would abolish such trusts. A debate would give us an opportunity, among many other things, to mention the independent survey of 900 patients in eight national health service trust hospitals who had been in those hospitals before and after they became trusts. Those patients were asked, "Is the hospital better, the same, or worse?" Forty-eight per cent. said that the hospitals were better as trusts, and about 42 per cent. said that they were much the same. Nearly 90 per cent. said that trust hospitals are either satisfactory or very satisfactory.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes his point very well, and I entirely agree with him. Indeed, it is one of the features that I hope that we will be able to debate, certainly in the coming weeks and months, the Opposition's health policy. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the fact that all the efforts and enthusiasm of the many thousands of people making a success of NHS trust status and GP fund holding would come to naught under Labour. The patients who have clearly said that they would benefit would also find that those benefits did not continue.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I know not whether the Leader of the House heard the Radio 4 programme this morning concerning Mr. Payne, who was convicted of murder 20 or more years ago and who has served increasingly lengthy periods in prison although he has always denied the offence. On that programme, it was said that instances of interference by political appointees, either the Secretary of State for the Home Department or the Minister of State, in the decisions of the Parole Board have risen from 3 per cent. to 30 per cent. over the past five to 10 years. Bearing in mind the liberty of the citizen, will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on whether decisions on life sentences should be made by Parole Board officials or whether they should be made by the Secretary of State of the day or his officials? Often the liberty of the individual is denied for no reason at all.

Mr. MacGregor

I did not hear the broadcast this morning, so I cannot comment on it. There is no time for a debate in Government time on the matter next week.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House consider discussions through the usual channels on whether, instead of a debate on the Adjournment, the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House could be on a positive motion? That would perhaps allow us to agree to the report generally so that, after the election, a Government could proceed in the knowledge that the House had agreed, not on every aspect but in principle, to reform the sitting hours of the House. Many people in the House wish to see such reform.

Mr. MacGregor

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that point; it enables me to make clear the position on the debate that I have announced for a week on Monday. The report of the Select Committee will be published tomorrow. I am sure that the whole House will wish to see it and to join me in expressing warm thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and the members of his Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), for the extremely hard and swift work that they have done to enable the report to come before the House.

My hon. Friend is entirely right in intimating that there is great interest in the report. I am very much aware of that from the many representations that I have received. That is why I thought it right to give the House an early opportunity to express its views on the report and its recommendations and why I acted particularly swiftly. I hope that the House will have enough time to study the report. It is not particularly long so it should be possible for the House to do so. The form chosen for the debate —a motion of the Adjournment—is the best way to ensure an open and full debate. Thereafter we can consider how the House should move forward to take decisions on the report's recommendations.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

The Leader of the House will be aware that there is considerable interest in Wales, too, in the constitutional issue. We understand that the Secretary of State for Wales is agreeable to the Welsh Grand Committee meeting in Wales, possibly on 9 March, to discuss that very issue. Will the Leader of the House inform us whether, in the course of next week, as required under Standing Order No. 98, he will table a motion to amend the Standing Order to enable the Committee to meet on Monday 9 March? If it does not happen next week, will he give an assurance that it will happen before the appropriate date?

Mr. MacGregor

I am well aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is keen to have a debate and has suggested that it should be held in Wales. In principle, I see no objection to that; indeed, I see advantages in it. The difficulty is that it involves a change in Standing Orders. I was not aware of the deadline to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We shall have to consider that matter.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that anyone who had been holding his breath for the appearance of the Government's White Paper on railway privatisation would long ago have expired? May I assume that the reason for the delay is that sanity is beginning to prevail and that the Government intend to seek to define the problems of the railways before proposing a specific solution? That being so, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to announce that the Government have no intention of producing a White Paper containing such solutions before the election? If he did so, he would save demands on valuable time next week.

Mr. MacGregor

I can make no such statement. All I can say is that the Government are considering the whole matter thoroughly. They are right to do so, because the issue raises major matters. Therefore, it is right for the Government to spend a good deal of time on it. I cannot give the precise timing. The matter does not need to take up a great deal of time next week.

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider initiating a debate next week on the important issue of the Government's reforms of the national health service, with special reference to the 13.8 per cent. reduction in fees for NHS treatment paid to dentists? In Bristol, 180 dentists—virtually all the NHS dentists in Bristol and Avon—met last Tuesday and took the decision that, if the Government force the 13.8 per cent. reduction in their fees for treating NHS patients, they will restrict new health service patients from 1 March arid some practices will terminate the treatment of new NHS patients. Obviously, that is of great concern throughout the country and not merely in Bristol, where the Secretary of State for Health is a Member of Parliament, because dental hygiene is vital.

Mr. MacGregor

The Government continue to negotiate with dentists' representatives. A further meeting took place this afternoon. As part of those discussions, my right hon. and hon. Friends agreed to re-examine, in association with the dentists' representatives, detailed elements of fee levels. At the next formal meeting in May, the results of that work will be considered and fee scales set accordingly. Meanwhile, the proposed reduction in fees will not be implemented, so a debate next week is not necessary.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Can my right hon. Friend make room next week for a debate on European Commission legislation which, it is rumoured, will allow domestic animals to be imported and exported across the channel without any check for rabies? That concerns my constituents in Southampton, where there is a large port and several marinas. The Government should do anything they can to restrict that legislation, as rabies is a killer disease for humans and for animals.

Mr. MacGregor

I share my hon. Friend's concern. I think that he knows that the Government have no intention of supporting any proposal which would increase the risk of rabies being introduced into this country. Scientific evidence on rabies control measures is being reassessed at Community level. Formal proposals from the Commission will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the usual way.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

A week on Monday there will be a debate on the report by the Select Committee on Sittings of the House. Would the Leader of the House consider making a change so that we might debate facilities in the House for disabled people? I remind him that last summer I brought a group of blind students from Temple Bank school for the visually handicapped in Bradford to the House. There is nowhere for them to sit and nowhere for them to have a meal, so they had to walk out, leading each other to a nearby park to have something to eat. At the same time, the private dining rooms were full of corporate hospitality, with Members wining and dining chums and using the facilities there. Those dining room bookings are not published, to maintain a cloak of secrecy.

Could we have a debate on such facilities, coupled with a debate on the report by the Select Committee on Members' Interests on the lobbying organisations which book dining rooms through Members? That report has been in the hands of the Leader of the House for two or three months, yet the report which proposes that our sitting hours should be cut and looks after the selfish interests of Members of Parliament is to be given priority. That is completely wrong.

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman talks total nonsense. The report goes way beyond the question of sittings and deals with a number of other important matters of procedure. I know that the vast majority of hon. Members would agree that many Members wish the subject of sittings to be debated, considered and probably changed. That has been made clear to me throughout my time as Leader of the House, and that is what all the pressure has been for. Therefore, it is right for us to give early consideration to the report of the Committee. That would be the wish of most hon. Members.

On the other matters which the hon. Gentleman raised, it is not necessary to have a debate a week on Monday, because he will know that the appropriate Committee of the House is considering the possibility of extending refreshment facilities for Members' guests.

Mr. Cryer

That is what was said last summer.

Mr. MacGregor

The Committee is actively considering the matter. Also, as the hon. Gentleman knows, some building work will be required, and it is studying that.

On the report by the Select Committee on Members' Interests, I hope to find time for that in due course, but the Select Committee on Sittings of the House undoubtedly takes precedence.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

It has just been announced that the European Community has broken all records by spending more than £1,000 million this year on dumping high-tar tobacco in the third world and in eastern Europe. Although I appreciate that the Government can do nothing about that shameful expenditure, will the Leader of the House ensure that, next week, out of respect for the sufferers from that expenditure in the third world, the Government will not submit any more supplementary estimates to cover excessive and unlawful expenditure by the European Community?

Mr. MacGregor

As my hon. Friend knows, I have been as critical as anyone of the common agricultural policy regime on tobacco. When I was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I endeavoured to get that policy changed substantially. The supplementary estimates were passed in accordance with the procedures of the House, following a debate. That is why they were accepted.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

When the Minister for the Environment and the Countryside returns on Monday from the important weekend conference in Estoril on ozone layer depletion, will he report to the House? There is the possibility of 300,000 skin cancers—that is not an alarmist forecast, but a NASA statistic—and if anything is to be done about that appalling prospect in the northern hemisphere, it must be done early, before the spring conditions of April and May.

Mr. MacGregor

I shall consider in what way my hon. Friend can, if appropriate, report to the House.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

Will my right hon. Friend consider an urgent debate on the Representation of the People Act 1983, in view of the widespread practice in the student community of planning for and voting twice at parliamentary elections? Will he draw to the attention of the House the fact that that offence may result in a penalty of £2,000 as well as disfranchisement? May we have a debate to allow us to consider abuses by the student community at the ballot box?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is correct. Voting twice in a parliamentary election or byelection is an offence and it is subject to a fine of up to £2,000. I am happy to underline that fact, to which my hon. Friend rightly drew attention. I shall consider what other steps we might take to draw further attention to the issue.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

There is widespread interest on both sides of the House on the constitutional issues affecting Scotland and Wales. I wish to encourage that, because such matters should be approached constructively. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether, subsequent to the Scottish Grand Committee sitting in Edinburgh on Monday, he will bring forward an opportunity for the other two half matter days to be taken by that Committee so that we can consider the other constitutional options open to the people of Scotland? Surely we must debate all the options before the general election.

Mr. MacGregor

I know that another two half-matter days have been proposed, but I do not know when they will be taken.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that freedom of speech and the conduct of elections are paramount to the House? Will he find time to debate those issues in light of The Sunday Times court ruling yesterday which prevents local authorities from taking action on libel? Isle of Wight county council threatened my previous agent, John Bull, with libel as a result of pressure from the ruling group of Liberal Democrats, for remarks that he made during the borough elections. The Liberal Democrats continue to use taxpayers' and chargepayers' money to pressurise officers of the county council to try to gag proper debate on the Isle of Wight.

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate on that matter next week, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the point that he makes. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will find other ways of raising the matter in the House.

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

I was very disappointed to hear no mention in the business statement of the remaining stages of the Offshore Safety Bill. The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that it sailed through its Committee stage on Tuesday morning. It has widespread support in the House and among those people who have members of their families working offshore. There is a growing belief in Scotland that the Bill may fall by the wayside because of the forthcoming election. That would be a great shame because we have all been waiting for the Bill, which was born out of the excellent Cullen report. On behalf of all those men and women who work in our offshore installations and standby vessels, I make a plea to the right hon. Gentleman that he bring the Bill to the Floor of the House for its remaining stages as soon as possible.

Mr. MacGregor

As the House knows, I am trying to accommodate as many Bills as possible, as quickly as possible, bearing in mind the need to give them full and proper consideration. I entirely agree about the importance of getting that Bill on the statute book, and I hope that we shall be able to do so.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

Will there be an opportunity next week to debate early-day motion 710?

[That this House calls on the Secretary of State for the Home Department to take the necessary steps to ensure that all television programmes, including party political broadcasts, on all channels, which report on, or comment on, political matters are signed and subtitled, so that the two and a half million people who are deaf or hard of hearing are put on a par with the general hearing public in the run up to the general election.]

It proposes that all political broadcasts on television be signed and subtitled for the deaf and hard of hearing. Would not such a proposal inflict unnecessary suffering on many people? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while there can be few advantages to the distressing disability of deafness, not hearing party political broadcasts must be one of them?

Mr. MacGregor

I was about to give my hon. Friend a different answer, because I thought that his question would go in a different direction. As he will know, programme content and scheduling are matters for the broadcasters, not for the Government. In this case, it is for them to decide.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Could the Leader of the House arrange, before the debate on inflation next week, for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement on how he proposes to establish the financial arrangements for community-based training programmes? They have done an excellent job in the past, but they are under pressure at present, despite the fact that they have done a great deal, throughout the Province, to help young people and to keep them out of the hands of the paramilitaries.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says about those programmes, and I shall draw his request to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Will it he possible to have an early debate on early-day motion 263 in the name of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) and myself?

[That this House opposes proposals arising from the review of its regional organisation by the Ministry of. Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; considers that the proposal to reduce the Ministry's five regional and divisional offices Eastern England to one regional centre at Cambridge will substantially diminish its service to the farming community in that region, will reduce the effectiveness of such conservation schemes as the environmentally sensitive areas and set aside schemes and will prevent the Ministry from implementing EC proposals for reforming the Comnzon Agricultural Policy; and calls for the Ministry to establish a second regional centre in Norwich.]

It criticises proposals for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to reduce the number of offices in eastern England from five to one. Will my right hon.. Friend particularly bear in mind the fact that the matter needs to be reviewed in the light of the recent volte-face by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office in Truro?

Mr. MacGregor

I am familiar with the situation. The concentration of administrative work at fewer regional centres will significantly improve the cost-effectiveness of the operations of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, including the service that it provides to its customers. The matter has been thoroughly aired, and I cannot promise a debate on it in Government time next week.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

The Home Secretary has written to inform me that 11 million summonses have been issued for non-payment of the poll tax. Can we debate next week the legislation that demands that local authorities prosecute the estates of people who have died for their share of the poll tax, particularly in the case of many of my constituents, whose estates cannot even pay for their funerals?

Mr. MacGregor

I see no way in which that issue can be raised in the business that I have announced for next week.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend consider his reply to the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who asked for more Opposition day debates? Will he consider, in the light of developments this week, having such a debate next week? Is he aware that this week in the Chamber the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) was unable to name a single strike that the Labour party had condemned in the past 13 years? Is he also aware that the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) was unable to name a single economist who approved of increasing taxes as a way out of recession? Would not an Opposition day debate next week give the public an opportunity to see that, when the Labour party has to answer questions on its policies, those answers are about as straight as a right-angled bend?

Mr. MacGregor

I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that a number of the points that he raises can be discussed during our debate next Wednesday. There can be no doubt that the Labour party's policies on taxation and, inevitably, on borrowing—given its high spending policies —will lead to inflation. Therefore, the issue will be directly relevant to next Wednesday's debate. It will be interesting to see which speakers the Opposition choose for that debate. Whoever they are, I am quite sure that we shall have the same resounding victory next week as we did this week when comparing the policies of the two parties.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

According to the best available estimates, including a parliamentary answer, more than 3 per cent. of the population are missing from the electoral register. That is unique in this country in modern times, and it is a serious issue that should concern Conservative Members—indeed, any hon. Member. May we have a statement next week, together with full details of the figures, constituency by constituency, on the current electoral register as electoral returning officers had until last Sunday to return the complete figures, which are now available in the Department of Health, and which it will not reveal to the House? We need a full, frank investigation of the current position before we move closer to the general election. Today is the last day for sending in registration details if there is to be a general election on 9 April. We are now in the final position, so we need the final information so that we can discuss it.

Mr. MacGregor

I have noticed, week after week, the hon. Gentleman's obsession with the electoral register. I think that there must be something other than he suggests behind his concern. He is obviously getting even more apprehensive as the general election approaches. It is entirely up to the individual, who is always encouraged to register for voting. The Government spend about half a million pounds every year on publicity to encourage people to register, so we are doing everything that we can in the way of encouragement.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

My right hon. Friend is renowned for being a fair person. May I refer him to Wednesday's debate on inflation? Does he appreciate that, inadvertently, he will cause the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer to offer his broad back to the knife throwers behind him. I offer my right hon. Friend a solution: he should invite my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to open on behalf of the Government so that we can flush out Her Majesty's Leader of the Opposition and listen to his solutions, once and for all, to our economic problems.

Mr. MacGregor

I assure my hon. Friend that my action was not inadvertent. I am looking forward to hearing what the Opposition spokesmen say in next week's debate on inflation. Perhaps the right solution would be for both of them to speak so that we could spot the differences.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

May we have a statement next week on moving mentally handicapped people from hospitals into the community? Will the Leader of the House urge the Secretary of State for Health to investigate what is happening at Westwood hospital, in Bradford? Is he aware that that hospital is being emptied, and there is widespread suspicion that the local health authority hopes that it will become empty next year when it can be closed without the inconvenience of having to consult properly with the community or obtain the permission and approval of the Secretary of State for Health? Surely that is a scandal, and the clear intention behind the secret closure of the hospital is to enable the community health trust to flog off the hospital and its extensive grounds for an enormous profit. That scandal should be investigated, the patients should be prevented from being removed, there should be a proper investigation, and proper procedures should be observed.

Mr. MacGregor

From the information that is available to me, the hon. Gentleman is wide of the mark. Bradford health authority conducted a full public consultation between August and November 1990 on its proposals for the development of services for people with learning disabilities, and that included the future role of Westwood hospital. It is currently consulting the community health council about the next phase of those plans. The health authority has confirmed that it will continue to consult with the health council and other interested parties on its proposals. There is widespread public consultation, so it would not be appropriate to have a debate next week.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a letter which is circulating in Battersea purports to show that a certain Mr. Phil Brown is a Liberal Democrat councillor for the area? Given that there is not a single Liberal Democrat councillor in the London borough of Wandsworth, and that in the constituency of Battersea there was not even a single Liberal Democrat candidate at the last borough elections, could my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement next week by the Secretary of State for the Environment so that we can discuss the legality of the use of the word "councillor" and so that the Liberal Democrat spokesman on that subject can explain this disreputible, dirty trick?

Mr. MacGregor

I think that my hon. Friend will wish strongly to pursue the matter locally. If I heard him aright, it seems that the Liberal Democrats are trying to establish that they have a presence in that area when they certainly have not.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Has the Leader of the House read early-day motion 713?

[That this House deplores the actions of Dr. Gwyn Jones in obtaining a grant of £16,895 in July 1988 under false pretences from the Welsh Development Agency Rural Conversion Grant Scheme, four months after being appointed Chairman-designate of the Welsh Development Agency; notes that the grant was awarded for converting the Old Flour Mill at Porthmadog into craft workshops, whereas in the event it was converted into residential accommodation; notes further that Dr. Jones has recently made a partial repayment of the grant of £3,395; and urges the Agency to seek repayment in full from its Chairman, lest any other Chairman-designate of any public body follows his example in attempting to defraud the body of which they are about to become Chairman.]

It has been signed by me and seven other hon. Members and severely criticises the conduct of the chairman of the Welsh Development Agency, Dr. Gwyn Jones, for obtaining a grant of £17,000 from the WDA while he was chairman-designate of the agency for building craft workshops in Porthmadog.

Could the Leader of the House arrange for a statement by the Secretary of State for Wales, as I understand from yesterday's proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee that a minor repayment of £3,395 has now been made by Dr. Jones to the agency which he chairs? The repayments started only three weeks ago, whereas Dr. Jones was warned by Mr. Evan Lloyd Jones, the monitoring officer for the agency for north Wales, that the development at the old flour mill in Porthmadog was not craft workshops and did not comply with the terms for a grant under the rural conversion grant scheme.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also arrange for a statement by the Secretary of State on nominated bodies that are staffed and stuffed with Tory rejects and are the means that the Government use to rule Wales? That should shortly come to an end.

Mr. MacGregor

I understand that, at yesterday's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the agency's accounting officer promised a full note.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the hon. Members who are standing, but I ask them to be brief because we need to move on to the next debate.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate next week on the "Can't pay, won't pay" campaign which is being conducted by people who are best described as poll tax parasites? In that debate we could highlight the fact that those people are trying to unload their local government costs and the legal costs that they incur on to their honest, law-abiding tax-paying neighbours.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes a fair point that law-abiding, tax-paying citizens are having to pay for the non-payment by others of the community charge. We have deplored that on many occasions and will continue to do so.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

On Monday's business, has my right hon. Friend received a clear indication from the Labour Opposition that they will support the prevention of terrorism order or, as I suspect, does my right hon. Friend know that they will be soft on terrorism again and will not support the order?

Mr. MacGregor

That is not a matter for me, but at the moment I am not aware of what the Opposition's stance will be.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

As he has visited Bristol twice in the past few weeks and has been warmly welcomed by the residents of that great city, my right hon. Friend will be aware that Avon county council has refused to use the criminal law to evict travellers from illegal sites. Consequently, my constituents in Royate hill have for 15 months suffered death threats, violence, crime and squalor. Is it not about time that we had a debate not just on travellers' needs but on residents' rights? May we have a debate on amending the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986?

Mr. MacGregor

I know of the strong feeling that exists in my hon. Friend's constituency. As he rightly pointed out, I have visited it twice in recent months, and on both occasions the matter was raised with me with considerable force and vigour. I sympathise, and understand exactly why that is so.

I am aware that concern is felt about the operation of the Acts that my hon. Friend mentioned. We shall certainly have to turn our attention to that matter, but I am afraid that it will not be possible to debate it next week.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May we have a debate next week on the difficulties experienced by insulin-dependent diabetics? Although they are grateful for the Government's sanctioning of free autolet needles, they are seeking an extension to the free prescribing of pen needles, for which there is an urgent need in particular cases. A specific group in my constituency is experiencing such a need, but I believe that it exists throughout the country.

Mr. MacGregor

The Department of Health recognises that injection pens offer a convenient alternative to disposable syringes, which are already on prescription, but the cost is significant. A decision to make them available on prescription must therefore be made in the light of available resources and other competing priorities. Pens and other needles may be provided free through a hospital when a consultant considers them necessary on clinical grounds.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

May we have an early debate on the gross misuse of stolen Government documents by Opposition Members? Would not that give us an opportunity to discuss the appalling double standards shown by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, who seems content to use and receive stolen property for his own political devices, but who, when his source appears to dry up, suddenly becomes enamoured of the idea of a freedom of information Act that would make his irresponsible and deceitful actions wholly illegal?

Mr. MacGregor

I note that, so far, the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has favoured highly selective leaks. He seems to disaprove of all leaks other than those for which he is responsible.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

May I revert to the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens), who drew attention to the urgent need for a debate on the national health service next week? A debate would give many of us an opportunity to highlight the success of general practitioner budget holding—especially in Longfield and New Ash Green, in the Dartford constituency, which contains one of the first waves of budget holders. Perhaps, during the same debate, we could wish every success to the Dartford East health centre, which will adopt budget holding from 1 April.

Mr. MacGregor

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, the House will have many opportunities to debate the issue, and to highlight the fact that GP fund-holding measures are working extremely well—and that the Labour party is making a great mistake by pledging to get rid of them.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate next week on the administration of justice in Greater London, and, in particular, on the independence of magistrates? A view is circulating in Greater London—it is, in fact, the view of the Greater London Labour party—that magistrates should be subject to party discipline, and should follow what is described as the party line on justice. I do not know what that means, but it sounds extremely sinister. I think that we should establish, and let people in London know, precisely what Labour means by this.

Mr. MacGregor

I do not know what that means, and I do not know too much about it at this stage; but I hope that my hon. Friend will pursue the matter further. Certainly, if what he has described were the case, it would be absolutely deplorable.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

Given the imminence of the general election, may we have a debate, as a matter of urgency, on the funding of political parties so that we can discuss—among other things—the recent £500-a-head Labour party fund-raising dinner? Does my right hon. Friend consider that the main significance of the dinner is the fact that only people who can afford to £500 for a dinner can afford to vote Labour, or the fact that only under a Tory Government can people afford to spend so much on such a daft dinner?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes his point in his own inimitable way. Certainly the disposable income of a large number of people throughout the country would be substantially reduced—considerably reduced—if Labour were ever in a position to carry out its tax and spending policies.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

With the general election not too far away, would it not be a good idea to debate some more substantial issues before it is called? The Prime Minister has said that he believes in a classless society. Why do we not have a proper debate about that before the election? Why do we not have a debate about the fact that if there is to be a classless society we shall need to get rid of the House of Lords, the honours list, tax-assisted private education, private health treatment and queue-jumping? And it would not be a bad idea if we were to have a debate about taxing the Queen's income.

Mr. MacGregor

I should be very happy at some point to have a debate about the classless society. In such a debate, we could point out that the average living standard of people in this country has risen by about one third in real terms during the period of the Conservative Government, that 4 million people have become home owners for the first time, that personal pensions and occupational pensions have been hugely extended, and that the savings of so many people have greatly risen. Such a debate would enable us also to point out that many of the other changes we have introduced have been actively used by members of the Labour party, to their benefit. There is no doubt that the classless and much wider owner-occupying society has been achieved by the Conservative party. The Labour policies about which we are beginning to hear would set that back greatly.