HC Deb 16 January 1992 vol 201 cc1099-113 3.31 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

Will the Leader of the House please 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 for next week will be as follows:

  • MONDAY 20 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Local Government Bill [Lords]
  • Proceedings on the Stamp Duty (Temporary Provisions) Bill
  • TUESDAY 21 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Asylum Bill.
  • WEDNESDAY 22 JANUARY—There will be a debate on a motion to approve the Chancellor of the Exchequer's autumn statement.
  • Motion on the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order.
  • Motion on the Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Order.
  • THURSDAY 23 JANUARY—Opposition day (3rd allotted day). Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate described as "The Growing Incidence of Poverty" followed by a debate described as "The Government's Failures over Ravenscraig". Both debates arise on Opposition motions.
  • FRIDAY 24 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.
  • MONDAY 27 JANUARY—Motions on the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order and the Electricity (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order.

Dr. Cunningham

First, I welcome the announcement that there is to be a debate on the Chancellor's autumn statement. Will the Chancellor, as is usual, take the opportunity to announce the date of the Budget—a matter that, this year, is of more than passing interest to hon. Members and to people in the country? May we have an assurance that when the debate is held next week it will be in order for hon. Members to discuss the Government's proposals on, for example, VAT? Will the Chancellor make it clear what he intends to do in the coming months about VAT?

During the debate on the autumn statement, will the Chancellor finally say whether, given the appalling rise in unemployment, which continues—indeed, the rate of increase is now worse than that in almost any other country in the western world, and certainly the worst in Europe—he still believes that that is a price worth paying? Is it not clear that, every week the Prime Minister stays in Downing street, several thousand of our fellow citizens lose their jobs?

Can the Leader of the House tell us when he intends to bring forward the revenue support grant orders for England and Wales? People throughout England and Wales are anxious to know exactly what the Tory poll tax will cost them and their families this year; and of course local authorities, which have the responsibility of trying to administer this fiasco and are now apparently recording more than 7 million cases waiting to go before the courts because of the inadequacy of this legislation bounced through the House, are also anxious to know what is in the revenue support grant orders.

Why have the Government been so reluctant to discuss the implications for Scotland of the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks? We had to force Ministers to the Dispatch Box on Monday because the Secretary of State refused to make a statement on a matter of such vital importance to Scotland. The Government refused to provide time for a debate. The people of Scotland will not have missed these points and they will know that it is only because the Opposition are providing time on a Supply day that we shall have the opportunity to discuss the implications of the closure for employment and jobs in Scotland.

Mr. MacGregor

On the first point, I am certainly delighted that we are to debate the autumn statement next week, when it will be possible for us to put forward yet again in considerable detail the Government's spending programmes and the high priorities that we attach to all sorts of key areas, such as law and order, transport, defence, education and housing. It will also be possible to restate that these public expenditure plans are contained and are affordable within existing tax regimes.

That is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's point about VAT. The charge that he makes on VAT ignores completely the fact that the main increase in VAT took place in the early years of this Government in order to deal with the very substantial fiscal deficit that we inherited.

The debate will also enable us to probe the Opposition's spending and tax policies, because it seems that they fluctuate day by day. There is total confusion and a huge gap between spending commitments and the tax proposals to fund them. We look forward to hearing the Opposition make their position clear in the debate next week.

With regard to the Budget date, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that it is usual for it to be given in the autumn statement. Indeed, it was not done in that way last year. But we shall make clear the date of the Budget at the appropriate time.

On the question of the revenue support grant orders, the hon. Gentleman knows that the position on revenue support grants has been made clear in other statements. However, I agree that it is important to have the orders, and I hope to be able to make a statement about a debate on the orders in my next business statement.

The Government were absolutely clear about the position on Ravenscraig and announced straight away their intention to set up an enterprise zone, so we shall be able to talk next week about the effects of that in creating new jobs in the area. I believe that what the whole House, the country and, in particular, the people of Lanarkshire and Scotland will want to know much more clearly than has been spelled out so far is exactly what the Labour party's position is on the Ravenscraig issue.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I say that, despite the temptation to initiate an election campaign on the Floor of the House, the object of business questions is to ask about the business for next week. I therefore urge hon. Members to confine their questions to next week's business, bearing in mind that we have an important debate today for which there are no fewer than 16 groups of amendments.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is a new and urgent need for a debate next week on defence? Does he understand that, despite the debate earlier this week, new uncertainties have emerged? They are illustrated in early-day motions 474 and 487.

[That this House recognises that the defence of the realm and the maintenance of international order through alliances are the prime duties of Government; notes the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the instability and uncertainty in many different areas of the world; welcomes Her Majesty's Government's determination to retain a viable and independent nuclear deterrent through the Trident programme and to provide balanced and fully equipped conventional forces; and regrets that the commitment of 130 honourable Members, over half of the Parliamentary Labour Party to CND, and of their Party Conference to massive cuts in conventional armaments, makes it impossible for the official Opposition to sustain a credible defence policy.]

Many people, especially shipyard workers in Barrow, are utterly bewildered by the Opposition's defence policy. It has been made absolutely clear that many members of the shadow Cabinet and defence committee say one thing but believe another.

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That seems to be happening not only in defence: the Labour party seems to be saying one thing one day and another the next. It was made clear in the defence debate this week that many members on the Opposition Front Bench, as well as all the officers of the Opposition Back-Bench committee, subscribe to unilateral nuclear disarmament. My right hon. Friend is right to say that exactly what the Labour party's is on the fourth Trident still needs to be clarified, because it ducked that question completely last week.

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate on defence next week. We have debated it this week, but as we have received such unsatisfactory answers this week and the Government's position is clear, I am sure that we shall return to it before long.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Does the Leader of the House agree that a debate compromising a review of the present arrangements for the government of Scotland and any proposals that the Government wish to put forward to improve them, the proposals for a Scottish constitutional convention and a review of Scotland's relationship with Europe would provide a full and comprehensive agenda reflecting all views on the Scottish constitutional debate, and would fit the great debate called for by the Secretary of State? Will he table an appropriate motion next week to enable the Scottish Grand Committee to debate those important items?

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has suggested that those issues could be debated in the Scottish Grand Committee. I believe that that would be useful, because some aspects of the proposals that have been put forward, not least on the Scottish convention, bear a great deal of scrutiny and the real choices have not been put forward. I shall discuss with my right hon. Friend whether it would be right for me to arrange a debate next week, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the future of grant-maintained schools? Is he aware that Hendon school, in my constituency, was under-subscribed when it was under the control of the local authority but is now over-subscribed? He may remember his visit to that school 18 months ago.

Mr. MacGregor

I do recall that visit, and I remember the great enthusiasm with which the governors, head teacher and staff were embarking on grant-maintained status. I also noted the way in which parents have responded. My hon. Friend is right because many grant-maintained schools already have a high degree of support. I cannot promise a debate next week, but I am sure that there will be opportunities to debate the matter in the coming months.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

May we have a debate on early-day motion 458?

[That this House is deeply concerned that (a) in October 1991, the Inspectorate of Pollution issued an improvement notice plus additional requirements upon Coal Products Ltd., Avenue Works, Wingerworth, Derbyshire, arising from problems of airborne pollution, (b) in November 1991, the North East Derbyshire District Council rejected a planning application for the installation of a plant for the regeneration of active carbon on the same site and (c) in December 1991, the National Rivers Authority issued a report showing that following partial treatment at lagoons in a country park, 40 million gallons of toxic effluent is seeping into the ground near homes at nearby Grassmoor; and calls upon the Secretary of State for the Environment to undertake an urgent environmental audit of the plant and its neighbouring communities with an immediate project of protecting the health and well-being of both the workforce at Coal Products Ltd. and residents in the surrounding communities, whilst seeking ways and means of safeguarding jobs in an area of high unemployment.]

A serious problem has emerged in the area over a period of months, and a series of reports have been issued, concluding with a report by the National Rivers Authority on effluent that is poured into the lagoons at Grassmoor—40,000 tonnes of it a year. The problem with trying to investigate such matters without an overall consideration by the Department of the Environment is that people are shunted between different authorities, such as the pollution inspectorate, the county councils, the district councils and the health authorities. A drawing together of all those authorities is required, as well as a debate that would have some significance to environmental development generally.

Mr. MacGregor

I am happy to have debates at the appropriate time. We have recently debated environmental questions generally. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government recently produced a progress report on the first year following the White Paper which shows, on a wide variety of fronts, considerable progress on environmental matters.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific point relating to the early-day motion, Coal Products Ltd., like any other company, is governed by strict environmental regulations introduced by this Government. I cannot, however, promise the hon. Gentleman a debate next week on the specific issue that he raises.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

May we have a debate on junk mail as soon as possible, to discuss a mailshot sent to many of my constituents by an organisation that is partly funded by Maxwell money which is so full of falsehoods that it would make the average time-share salesman blush; which redefines the term "junk mail" and peddles dodgy, old-fashioned and out-of-date remedies which have been banned in most countries and which have passed their sell-by date; and which bears the signature of an obscure Welsh politician, best known for losing his rag with Zimbabwean soldiers and for nutting people in public lavatories?

Mr. MacGregor

I have not seen the leaflet to which my hon. Friend refers, so I do not know the details. I cannot promise a debate on it next week, but perhaps he will find his own opportunities to discuss it in greater detail.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early statement from the Lord Chancellor on the workings of the Civil Evidence Act 1968 following the collapse yesterday in Liverpool and Gravesham of several hundred poll tax cases because the Government have so far refused to introduce a commencement order to allow computer evidence to be used in the magistrates court under that Act? I drew that fact to the attention of magistrates—albeit unsuccessfully—in my cases in Coventry and Wandsworth. What option do the Government now have? If they do not introduce the commencement order, will they tell every council that there must be a council officer with personal knowledge of all the billing arrangements of every individual who is brought before the courts? There are millions of outstanding cases. If the Government do introduce the order, will that not mean that the 5 million liability orders already granted and the 200 imprisonments that have already been made are illegal? Surely all poll tax cases should be stopped until the matter has been sorted out.

Mr. MacGregor

The Government are urgently considering whether there is any need to change the law governing proceedings in the magistrates court to deal with problems in the effective presentation of evidence in community charge enforcement cases. However, there is no bar on the institution of enforcement proceedings by local authorities where evidence of non-payment can be brought before the court, and proceedings continue to be brought successfully in many other areas.

Nothing that has happened in the recent cases provides any reason whatsoever for people who are liable to pay the community charge failing to do so. There is strong feeling among those who do pay the community charge about those who should pay but are not paying. There are exemptions and benefits for people on low incomes. There is very strong feeling about this issue and, although the Government are urgently considering the matter that has recently arisen, the vast majority of people expect those who are supposed to pay the community charge to do so.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week to debate the issue covered in today's editorial in The Birmingham Post entitled "So much for 'Buy British"? The editorial deals with the Opposition's topic of encouraging people to buy British and points out that the Opposition's deputy leader has just bought a foreign car. Should we not, in conjunction with the very misleading Labour party political broadcast, call to account those who advocate buying home-produced goods but then buy foreign ones?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I think that it would be legitimate to raise it during the debate next week on the motion to approve the autumn statement, when I hope it will be pointed out that that party political broadcast was a gross travesty of the facts of British manufacturing industry. It was also a clear attempt to talk Britain down.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has written to the Leader of the Opposition drawing attention to the many ways in which it was a gross distortion and to the fact that, for example, one in 10 personal computers sold in the world—let alone in this country—is now made in Scotland and that no less than 85 per cent. of the kitchens sold in this country are made by British firms. The highly selective description of individual items in a kitchen which was contained in the broadcast did no credit to British manufacturing or to the enormous improvement that it has made, and it was a gross distortion of the facts.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Will the Leader of the House bear in mind the fact that there has been no debate on Northern Ireland for a long time? There are 10,000 British soldiers in Northern Ireland. We are debating everything else in advance of the general election but not Northern Ireland, so will he answer two questions? First, are talks taking place? I am advised that the press says that they are but that in practice they are not. Secondly, is it true that, in order to maintain a parliamentary majority, the Anglo-Irish Agreement will be ditched?

Mr. MacGregor

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there will be a full day's debate on one aspect of Northern Ireland—not the talks, but electricity—a week on Monday. We do debate Northern Ireland matters frequently.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has expressed the view that, unless the outstanding issues are resolved in the near future, it is unlikely that political talks could begin before the election because of a lack of time; but the Government very much hope that the obstacles will be overcome and that the talks can then begin.

I can confirm that stories about meetings at the party-political level are pure invention.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in the debate on the autumn statement, it will be within the rules of order to constrast Government spending policies with the extravagant spending policies of the Opposition and to mention the taxes that will be necessary to pay for them? My right hon. Friend will agree that there is great anxiety about higher taxation and increased national insurance contributions. Surely it is right that the House should be able to question the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer about his apparent differences of opinion with his hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett).

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that, subject to Mr. Speaker's ruling, it will be in order to discuss these matters—I know that they have been raised in previous autumn statement debates. The country will certainly be looking to the Opposition to clarify their position on taxation and spending. It seems as if the Opposition flounder almost every day in their responses to the charges and questions that we put to them, and I very much hope that they will clarify their position on national insurance charges on high and not so high incomes—and on whether any increases will be phased in. If so, we should be told how they will meet their spending commitments on child benefit and pensions. These are legitimate issues on which it would be perfectly in order for the House to spend a good deal of time next week.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Will it be possible for the Lord President of the Council to ask the Department of Transport to make a statement or to initiate an early debate on the proposed review of coastguard services, a matter of serious concern to all of us who represent maritime constituencies? Fears have been raised about a reduction in manpower, and we should like to explore the matter further.

Mr. MacGregor

I do not think it will be possible to have a debate in Government time, but I shall discuss the matter with my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Can my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on local government finance in London, so that we may discuss the growing evidence that Labour councils, far from struggling to provide services, cannot even be bothered to collect millions of pounds of rates and of community charge still owing to them? These councils do not collect their rents and have lost control of their rented housing stock. In short, they do not want to provide services; they just want to blame the Government.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that there is considerable maladministration among Labour councils, as witness the discovery of what went on in the council of Brent when it was under Labour control. I should think that it would be in order to discuss these matters when we debate the revenue support grant orders for England.

Mt. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is great concern in the mining industry because, in the midst of important negotiations between British Coal, National Power and PowerGen on the future contracts on which mining depends, British Coal's commercial director, Mr. Malcolm Edwards, has been sacked? Given that it is only a few months since the Secretary of State appointed him under a two-year contract, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House next week on the matter?

Mr. MacGregor

We had a full debate on the coal industry yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I will raise the point with my right hon. Friend, but 1 doubt whether a statement next week would be appropriate.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Will my right hon. Friend find time next week to allow the House to debate health, specifically the recently published report which shows the great success of GP fund-holding practices and trust hospitals? Could the debate be held in Government time to allow us to congratulate the people who work in those facilities and the GPs who are now strongly supporting the reforms? A debate might allow the Opposition the opportunity to withdraw some of their more outrageous allegations about those reforms.

Mr. MacGregor

As my hon. Friend will have seen in the recent report on the first six months of the NHS reforms, substantial progress is being made by the NHS backed by our reforms and the record resources that we are making available. The report also shows that the NHS is treating more patients than ever before and placing much more emphasis on quality of services. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to all the staff in the health service. The report clearly shows that Opposition warnings about what would happen after the reforms have proved to be completely false. I would welcome a debate, but in the next few weeks many issues have to be fitted into the timetable, not least progress on Government legislation. I shall look for an opportunity for a debate, but I cannot promise one next week.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

May we have an early debate on the Government's determination to prevent part-timers from having the same rights as people who work full time? is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Leicester almost a third of all women workers and almost 20 per cent. of all workers are part-timers? It is disgraceful that they should be refused even the residual rights that the Government have left for those who work full time.

Mr. MacGregor

I am also aware that the Opposition's proposal for a national minimum wage would destroy many part-time jobs.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate next week on the principle and number of live animal exports which, we hear, have reached record levels in the past year? Does he accept that the conditions in which live animals are exported must be humane? There is considerable doubt sometimes about whether live animals are exported in humane conditions and a debate is urgently required.

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes the steps taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the Agriculture Council on this matter, especially in relation to the export of live horses. I cannot promise a debate in the near future, but no doubt my hon. Friend will find opportunities to raise the matter further.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, in the past four days, since we returned from the Christmas recess, I have heard more from Conservative Members about Labour party policy than I have heard on the national executive committee in 12 months? Will he listen to the pleas of those who have occupied the Waterloo ambulance station, using it for 70 homeless people who in a blaze of publicity over Christmas were helped by the Government? Now they need food. By whatever means possible, will the right hon. Gentleman get in touch with Ministers to ensure that, if it is right for the Government to gain publicity over Christmas for looking after a few hundred homeless, it should be right to do something about them now so that they are not turned out on the streets?

Mr. MacGregor

I shall look into the hon. Gentleman's second point. On his first point, I am grateful to him for his confession. Now we know why Labour policies are in such a mess.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Will my right hon. Friend consider rearranging next week's business to enable us to have an urgent debate on industrial relations, bearing in mind that our reforms over the past 12 years have brought industrial relations to a new level of success? The number of days lost through strikes is lower than at any time since 1979, and people ought to know that Labour policies would sweep all that away and bring back the sort of industrial anarchy that existed in 1978–79.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is certainly right about the number of days lost through strikes. The figures announced today for the most recent month are the best for a long time and continue the trend of recent months. They are certainly better than 1979. In terms of the Government's general strategy on economic policy matters, it would be appropriate for some of those issues to be raised in Wednesday's debate.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the seventh report of the Public Accounts Committee on the privatisation of Harland and Wolff was not available to Members in the House until late yesterday evening and that it had been made available to others some time previously? That enabled the Belfast Telegraph, for example, to carry a huge article on the real cost of the sell-off. Northern Ireland Members were disadvantaged because they did not have the information and could not comment. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that this sort of thing does not happen again?

As we are to have a debate on the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order, will the right hon. Gentleman seek to have the report of the Select Committee on Energy on the privatisation of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland available to us before the debate takes place?

Mr. MacGregor

I shall have to look into the second matter. There is a need for a debate on the privatisation of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland fairly soon.

I shall look into the availability of the PAC report. I am not clear about what was made available in the report last night and what was published in newspapers earlier. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is important that we have a debate soon on Kashmir, especially bearing in mind that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), in his capacity as deputy leader of the Labour party, has pledged his party to support self-determination for Kashmir? Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends take a more measured view, which I think would be much appreciated by our many Indian constituents.

Mr. MacGregor

I shall make the Government's position clear on Kashmir yet again. We believe that the dispute can be resolved only by peaceful agreement between India and Pakistan. That remains the best way to proceed. We have offered help if both sides want us to intervene. What the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said is a matter for him.

Mrs. Ray Mitchie (Argyll and Bute)

Yesterday we heard a statement on environmentally sensitive areas in England. I think that it is generally agreed that a positive way forward is to have a partnership between farming and environmental interests. As the Scottish islands await progress on the matter, can the Leader of the House tell us whether the Secretary of State for Scotland will make a statement early next week on ESAs for Scotland?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support in general for the policy. I entirely agree with her in that respect. The early experience of ESAs that I had when I was Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food showed the policy to be important, helpful and constructive. As for a statement on ESAs in Scotland, I shall have to raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, which I shall do.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read early-day motion 316, which stands in my name and is supported by about 40 right hon. and hon. Members?

[That this House is appalled at the mistreatment and murder of street children in Guatemala; and calls on President Serrano and the Guatemalan Government to urgently deal with this problem and in particular to support the work of the Casa Alianza and other agencies working to bring education and support to these children.]

It is alleged that the street children of Guatemala City are being killed by police officers and others. My right hon. Friend may know that one of my constituents, Bruce Harris, is in charge of the mission called Casa Alianza. Even he has been threatened with death. May we have an early debate on foreign affairs and aid and on the encouragement that should be given to President Serrano, who now says that he is keen to see the problem sorted out? The United Kingdom's full attention should be focused on the problems in Guatemala City.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I have read the early-day motion, and the Government share the concern that is expressed in it. We and our European partners have made clear to the Guatemalan Government the importance that we attach to human rights, and expecially to the rights of street children. I do not know when it will be possible to have a general debate on foreign affairs, but I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said. If we have such a debate, it will be possible for him to raise this matter, as he will be able to do on other occasions.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Obviously I welcome the opportunity to debate next week Ravenscraig and the Lanarkshire economy. I hope, however, that it has not escaped the attention of the Leader of the House that one of the most famous companies in Scotland, Armitage Shanks of Barrhead, is facing closure because of the parent company's axe. May we be given the opportunity to debate the economy of Renfrewshire, which has suffered 35,000 job losses since the Government came to power? As I have said, we are facing the closure of a world-famous company in Scotland. The Government are not lifting a finger to help the economy of Renfrewshire. They are not investigating why the company wishes to move from Barrhead. Why is it that the Government do not want to debate what is happening in Renfrewshire? We have only their failed policies and an enterprise zone in Inverclyde. They are not doing anywhere near enough for Scotland. Do something now.

Mr. MacGregor

I was sorry to hear about the possibility of job losses at the company concerned, and I recognise the company's creditable history. However, this is a matter for the company. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have done a great deal to assist the Scottish economy. There have been particular measures in north Lanarkshire, but the matter goes way beyond that. It is the Opposition's choice to confine next week's debate to Ravenscraig and north Lanarkshire.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that high taxation is poor for inward investment and many other things? Will he assure us that next week's debate will be far-reaching enough for us to explain that in the early days of the Conservative Government—1979 and 1980—we had to repay massive debts incurred by the previous Labour Government and that since then we have religiously cut taxation? So, for high taxes vote for the Labour party. and for low taxes vote Conservative.

Mr. MacGregor

I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point; he is right. I hope that there will be plenty of opportunity to debate those matters next week. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is laughing. He knows that the country now recognises that his party has been, is and always will be a party of high taxation, because it cannot resist spending other people's money. If the hon. Member for Copeland is complaining about the level of tax now, the country wants to know why he proposes to add considerably to it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As it was tabled. on 17 December, has the Leader of the House had time to reflect on early-day motion 424 in the name of a former Law Officer, a former Home Secretary, myself and 41 colleagues?

[That this House welcomes the public announcement by Her Majesty's Government of the identity of the new head of MI5; but calls on Her Majesty's Government to make a full statement about the role of Stella Rimington, in particular in connection with the activities of Mr. David Hart during the 1984 miners' strike.]

It welcomes the public announcement of the identity of the new head of MI5, but calls on the Government to make a full statement about Stella Rimington's role, particularly as it related to the activities of Mr. David Hart, during the 1984 strike. Also, as the first signatory of the motion, may I say that since it was tabled statements have been made to me about the involvement of Stella Rimington and Mr. Roger Windsor of the National Union of Mineworkers. The motion raises serious issues and calls for some sort of response.

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman knows, following the passage of the Security Service Act 1989, the Government judged that it was right to announce the appointment of a new director general of the Security Service and I am pleased that that has, rightly, been seen as a positive step. The hon. Gentleman asked about the new director general designate's previous work. It has been the long-standing practice under Governments of both parties not to comment on operational matters, and we do not intend to depart from that precedent.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although nominal interest rates are falling, real interest rates are rising, causing even normally prudent businesses to fail, with increased job losses and mortgage foreclosures? Is it not economic nonsense that our interest rates should be dictated not by our own grave economic needs but by the interests of the German economy? In the absence of a revaluation of the deutschmark within the exchange rate mechanism, will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us are deeply concerned about our continued membership? Will he please grant an urgent debate on the specific subject of the exchange rate mechanism?

Mr. MacGregor

No. We have debated the exchange rate mechanism and general economic policy on many occasions and it will be possible to refer to that issue in the debate on Wednesday. I would not wish to have a debate on only the ERM because many other matters need to be raised. On the general principle, I believe that the vast majority of my hon. Friends are strongly in favour of the benefits that the United Kingdom economy and British business have received as a result of our membership of the ERM.

My hon. Friend will note that German interest rates and ours are closer than they have been for a long time. I am sure that he will also welcome the reduction in mortgage rates announced by the Abbey National today.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement next week on his handling of the planning process within Scotland in advance of the proposed local inquiry into the construction of a bridge to Skye? In a written answer this week, the Secretary of State for Scotland has confirmed that, in advance of the local inquiry, he and the Scottish Office have entered into a commercial contract with the designated builders of the project. That makes nonsense of the planning procedure and adds to the difficulties of the local objectors, which already include the 9 kg of paper produced by the roads directorate in Scotland, so that no proper analysis or preparation of arguments can be done in advance. Will the right hon. Gentleman examine the handling of the process? It is certainly undemocratic, and many people are beginning to feel that it borders on the unconstitutional.

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot comment on the details, and I certainly cannot promise a statement next week. We have much important business to conduct, so I doubt whether a statement will be possible, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for a short debate on the question of Short money? Does he agree that events this week have shown that there may be inadequacies in the funding of Opposition parties? If we can examine the matter in detail, might we be able to find sufficient research funds for the Leader of the Opposition to be able to check the quotations that he uses against the Prime Minister before misquoting them? Might it not also be possible to find the right hon. Gentleman a researcher who can at least draft a simple apology?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not think that that was a failure of finance; it was simply a failure to understand the issues and to do homework.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the Leader of the House take into account early-day motion 452?

[That this House calls for publication of the Register of Members' Secretaries and Research Assistants; notes that the Register includes information on, amongst others provided with access passes, the proprietor of private psychiatric nursing and residential homes, employees of political and economic consultancies, international law firms, company directors, representatives of parliamentary lobbying organisations (including Research and Information Services, Westminster Ltd., Chelgate Public Relations Ltd., Taylor Steingberg Associates, Westminster Communications, Decision Makers Ltd., Charles Barker Public Affairs and others), a parliamentary researcher for parliamentary agents, a Lloyds underwriter and the Managing Director of Charles Barker Watney and Powell; and urges the Leader of the House to place a Motion on the Order Paper to facilitate publication so that the public may be aware of who has such privileged access, and why.]

The motion calls for the publication of the Register of Members' Secretaries and Research Assistants, and asks specifically that something be done about the business of the House—that is, that a motion should be put on the Order Paper to ensure that the register is published, as it contains an astounding cross-section of commercial lobbying organisations. The managing director of one of the biggest of such organisations attached to this place is registered as a Member's secretary or research assistant.

Is it not true that some hon. Members are receiving perks in return for providing passes and conferring advantages on commercial lobbying organisations? Should not that information be open to the public instead of being kept in the Library? Then people outside could know who was being registered and who was getting the passes, and hon. Members could explain the reasons, which may be perfectly valid, why the passes have been given.

Mr. MacGregor

I should not wish to comment on the hon. Gentleman's allegations, but, on his general point, it would not be appropriate to deal with the issue by publishing the Register of Members' Secretaries and Research Assistants. The right way to proceed may be to consider the matter when the House debates—as I hope we shall in due course, when we can find time—the Select Committee on Members' Interests report on parliamentary lobbying, which has now been published.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

Is my right hon. Friend certain that he has allocated sufficient time for next Wednesday's debate on the Chancellor's autumn statement to allow the House fully to ventilate the Opposition's extraordinary shambles on taxation? I ask that in the light of the interview given on the "World at One" today by the shadow Chancellor to Mr. James Naughtie, in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was fully and effectively "kebabbed"—I believe that that is the word. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he has ever known an Opposition in such a state of panic and disorder over such an important issue so soon before a general election?

Mr. MacGregor

We have been saying for a long time that there is a huge gulf between the spending promises that the Labour party has lavished on just about every interest group and its tax commitments. It now appears that the Labour party is reneging on some of those tax commitments, so my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the issue. I am sure that the subject will feature in next week's debate. I cannot promise him any extended time next week, or another day next week, but we shall return to the matter again—by which time, no doubt, the Labour party's position will have changed yet again.

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

The attacks of the Leader of the House on my party are boring the public to tears. If he does not believe me, he should trawl public opinion. People are getting switched off by all this nonsense.

May I ask the Leader of the House a question and receive a straight answer, not an attack on the Labour party? May we have a debate on business services and, in particular, export credit guarantee premiums? Is he aware that companies throughout Britain, and indeed several in my constituency, say that they are losing business and large contracts abroad because they cannot afford the premiums? Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the matter? Can it be debated in Parliament?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on the first point. I get a different reaction as I go round the country: I find that there is a great deal of interest. The Labour party would not apparently hint that it will change its position on national insurance contributions unless it was not greatly worried about the reaction that the public are already showing. The hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong about that. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so sensitive on the matter. We are finding such reactions all the time.

The hon. Gentleman's point about export credit insurance could be raised in next Wednesday's debate because it is an economic matter and the debate is on the economy and the autumn statement.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time, possibly next week, for a debate on unemployment in the north of England? We constantly hear in the House attacks on the Government's employment policy. My right hon. Friend will have noticed that in today's figures unemployment levels in the north-west—in Merseyside, Lancashire and Cheshire—are well over 20 per cent. lower than when the Government were last elected. Perhaps that is one point that should be pushed home hard to the electorate in the north of England.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I think that it would be in order for him to make it in the debate next Wednesday, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. James Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

May I raise a specific point about the debate on the Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Order next Wednesday? Is the Leader of the House aware that that order is not listed today among the Remaining Orders of the Day and Notices of Motions? Is he aware that I have been informed that the order will not be laid until tomorrow and that it is not available at present in the Vote Office? That means that Scottish Members can obtain the order at the earliest tomorrow. They cannot get back in time to discuss it with their local authorities tomorrow afternoon.

There is to be an important debate which relates to Scotland in the House on Monday evening. That leaves about one hour between 9 am and 10 am on Monday morning for Scottish Members to discuss the Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Order with their local authority officials and representatives. That is a complete negation of democracy. I ask the Leader of the House even at this stage to withdraw the debate on the order next week and to put it on in the following week when we have had time to discuss it.

Mr. MacGregor

There is a general desire that we should debate the Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Order. I hope that the House will pass it so that local authorities may know exactly where they stand and are in a position to move forward. I am under the impression that that is generally agreed. I shall look into the point that the hon. Gentleman raises immediately after business questions.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

In view of the belated but welcome interest in the House in occupational pensions, may I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 131?

[That this House regrets that the Occupational Pensions Board has approved the request of Lucas Industries plc to remove £90 million from the employees' pension fund for company use causing a further payment from the fund to the Inland Revenue of £60 million so depleting the pension fund by £150 million; notes that the 35,000 Lucas pensioners do not receive the maximum pensions allowed by the Inland Revenue; is mindful that the company has made no payments into the pension fund for six years; and believes a first call on any surplus in the pension fund should be to existing pensioners up to the maximum allowed.]

It deals with the raiding by Lucas Industries of £90 million from the funds of 35,000 pensioners when it had not paid a penny into the pension fund for six years. British Rail pensioners are unable to be represented as pensioners on the board of trustees of the pension fund.

May we have a debate on early-day motion 131 and the activities of the Occupational Pensions Board, which must rate as one of the least effective guardians of the public interest that the House has ever set up? A debate is long overdue. Millions of occupational pensioners in Britain are worried sick about the future and the stability of their pensions because they have read about disasters and of pension funds being raided. I might add that those pension funds were raided apparently with the official sanction of the Occupational Pensions Board. We need to have the matter opened up on a much wider front rather than merely having fishing expeditions on one incident.

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot promise a debate on the matter next week, but I am told that the Occupational Pensions Board was asked by Lucas to approve a modification of its scheme rules so that the scheme could benefit from a reduced tax liability. As well as transferring funds to the company, the modification also provides a significant package of benefit improvements, totalling £225 million, for scheme members. That is what I am informed as a result of seeing the early-day motion.