HC Deb 12 March 1992 vol 205 cc983-90 4.13 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the rearranged business for Friday 13 March and Monday 16 March.

FRIDAY 13 MARCH—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 3) Bill.

Timetable motion on the Finance Bill and the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill.

Proceedings on the Finance Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill.

Supplemental timetable motion and consideration of Lords amendments to the Education (Schools) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Army Bill.

At the end of business the Question will be put on all outstanding estimates.

The House may also be asked to consider any other Government business and any Lords messages that may be received.

MONDAY 16 MARCH—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

Committee and remaining stages of the Friendly Societies Bill.

Proceedings on the Charities Bill [Lords].

The House may be asked to consider any Lords amendments that may be received to the Transport and Works Bill and the Competition and Service (Utilities) Bill.

The House may also be asked to consider any other Government business and any Lords messages that may be received.

Warm and thoroughly deserved tributes have just been paid to Mr. Speaker. Although he has now left the Chamber, I put on record as Leader of the House how much I support and endorse those tributes and how much I wish to thank Mr. Speaker and Lyn, his wife, for their many kindnesses to me. I wish them a very happy and long retirement.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

I begin by associating myself with the remarks of the Leader of the House. The greatest tribute that can be paid to the Speaker is that throughout his time he has enhanced the reputation of the Chair. That, above all else, has been the best guarantee of the proper and orderly conduct of our business in the House.

How typical it is that the Government should conclude this Parliament by introducting three guillotines on the penultimate day of our consideration of business, and how appropriate it is that one of the guillotines applies to the Finance Bill—a reckless economic misjudgment and a huge political misjudgment.

Can the Leader of the House assure us that another Bill that is subject to the guillotine tomorrow, the Education (Schools) Bill, will be made available in the Vote Office today? That Bill, as amended in the House of Lords, which is to be debated and guillotined tomorrow, is not yet available in the Vote Office. That seems an appalling way to conduct the affairs of the House. Opposition Members and, I suspect, even some Conservative Members would like the opportunity to consider the Bill in its latest form and to table amendments before it comes before us for debate. Will the Leader of the House assure us that that will take place?

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the centenary version of the Conservative publication, "The Campaign Guide 1992"? I am not sure whether it has yet been published. May we be assured that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or perhaps the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, speaks on the Finance Bill tomorrow he will draw the attention of his right hon. and hon. Friends and of the House generally to page 10 of the section of "The Campaign Guide 1992" on the economy? Will he point out to the House that in the campaign guide the Government say: The Government expects the PSBR in 1991–92 to turn out at about £10.5 billion"? Does this not make the Conservative campaign guide somewhat out of date?

Will the Leader of the House also draw his right hon. Friend's attention to the sentence in the same section which says: The result was an accumulation of debt, with interest charges being met by taxpayers of later generations"? During tomorrow's debate, may we have an explanation of that inclusion in the Tory campaign guide?

Mr. MacGregor

As usual, the hon. Gentleman has it all wrong. If he thinks that we could end this Parliament without a Finance Bill, he must face the fact that the House would be moving into a general election without allowing excise duties and revenue from income taxes to be raised for the forthcoming year. Given the high-spending programmes that the Labour party is putting before the country, that would be highly irresponsible and would mean an enormous borrowing requirement. That is one reason for the business tomorrow.

The other reasons, first in relation to the Finance Bill, are that we are keen to see tax levels reduced for the lower paid rather than imposing additional burdens on them with unemployment such as a national minimum wage would involve. We note that it is likely that the Opposition will vote against that reduction in tax.

We are keen, as are all the higher education institutions in Scotland, to see the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill on the statute book. We are keen to see the extension of parental choice, with information being given to parents, which will come through the Education (Schools) Bill. We shall arrange for copies of that Bill to be available in the Vote Office—depending on whether any changes are made in the other place—as soon as is practicable.

There will be plenty of time tomorrow and on succeeding occasions to debate the point that the hon. Gentleman raised about the borrowing requirement. I look forward to doing that with him tomorrow morning. We are ending this Session in excellent order, completing the vast majority of an extremely good Government business programme, and I hope that by the end of Monday we shall have got most of our Bills on the statute book.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on managing to pack in so much legislation. May I be assured that the Charities Bill, which shows the Government's concern for the millions of people in the United Kingdom and overseas who are served by Britain's extensive network of non-governmental organisations, will continue to be a top priority for the succeeding Conservative Government?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. I assure her that charities issues will continue to be a top priority for the succeeding Conservative Government, just as we have devoted a great deal of time and attention to charities matters in this Parliament. I hope that it will not be necessary to deal with the Charities Bill in the next Parliament, because it is very much my intention to get it on Monday.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for including the Charities Bill in the legislation that he hopes to get through quickly, and he is aware of the representations that I and others have made on that matter. It is noteworthy that the Asylum Bill does not feature in any of the proposed legislation; that, too, is welcome.

At Question Time, the Prime Minister said that the appropriate forum for a debate between himself, the leader of the Labour party and my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) was the House of Commons. One wonders when and where that debate could take place, bearing in mind the business that the Leader of the House announced. In the absence of any reference to such a debate, might we use the mock-up Granada studios?

Mr. MacGregor

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has participated in many debates in the House and has won all of them hands down. The hon. Gentleman made representations to me yesterday about the Charities Bill, and I hope that we shall complete all its stages on Monday. We believe that the Asylum Bill is right as it stands, and if the Labour and other parties would accept the measure unamended, it would reach the statute book. We—and, I believe, the country—would regard that as desirable.

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that as a result of the change of business on Monday I shall not be able to move my ten-minute Bill to grant city status to Basildon? My constituents and probably the country will be deeply disappointed about that. I had intended to talk about the marvellous achievements of Basildon, about our plans to build a cathedral and possibly the appointment of a Bishop of Basildon. In the light of that missed opportunity, I hope that my right hon. Friend will pass the message to the appropriate authorities that Basildon deserves to be made a city.

Mr. MacGregor

I thought for a moment that my hon. Friend was going to spend 10 minutes telling us about Basildon. I am well aware that Basildon is the oldest and largest new town in the country and I am sure that the appropriate authorities will have heard what my hon. Friend said. I assure him that we all look forward to his having another opportunity in the next Parliament to present his ten-minute Bill.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Does the Leader of the House accept that, in view of the extra hours that he proposes for Friday's business, it makes him seem somewhat foolish, given that he is the architect of the proposal to diminish Parliament's hours? That is in direct contravention of his proposals for tomorrow— [Interruption.] Well, the right hon. Gentleman was the architect of the Select Committee report to curtail sittings of the House, yet he wants longer hours on Friday.

As we shall have extra time on Monday, could we have a debate on the homelessness crisis created by the Government? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to announce, even at the last ditch, the release of some revenue from the sale of council houses so that local authorities such as Bradford, where thousands of people are on the housing waiting list, can gain some hope of having houses built again by local authorities at rents which they can afford? If the right hon. Gentleman will not announce that, it will be one of the first priorities of the new Labour Government after 9 April.

Mr. MacGregor

The reason why I looked slightly surprised at the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks was that I was not Chairman of the Committee which made the proposals; I simply set up the Committee. It will be for the new Parliament to decide how to proceed with the recommendations made by the Committee of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). I stress yet again that those recommendations do not involve a cut in the amount of work that Members of Parliament will do, but reflect the desire that we all share to reduce the sitting hours of Parliament so as to enable hon. Members to attend to their constituency interests on Fridays more than they have been able to do in the past and, at the same time, to cope with the large amount of business.

Mr. Cryer

What about tomorrow's business?

Mr. MacGregor

I think that tomorrow is slightly exceptional.

On the hon. Gentleman's point on homelessness, he will know that local authorities can spend a proportion of their receipts from the sale of council houses and other assets each year and that we have a £2 billion housing programme currently being taken through via the housing associations, which is an appropriate way to deal with the matter.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Would my right hon. Friend be kind enough to confirm that there will be a vote on the Asylum Bill and therefore a chance for it to be legislated in this Parliament? Many of my constituents, although flattered, are deeply concerned that hundreds of thousands of foreigners with no proper right in this country now seek to come here. If the Bill is passed before the election, or even if it is not, my constituents will want to know about and discuss the issue, and they should know that the Labour party does not share their concern.

Mr. MacGregor

I understand my hon. Friend's point, but I cannot give the assurance that he seeks. Although the Government believe that the Bill is right as it stands, it depends whether other parties in another place will be willing to let the Bill go through. If not, we shall have to consider the position, but we have made it clear throughout that we regard the Bill as a priority in this Parliament.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

How long will the House have on Monday to debate the Consolidated Fund Bill? The Leader of the House will understand that hon. Members will wish to raise many matters in the debate. I should like to discuss the 14 per cent. increase in crime in Leicestershire in the past recorded year, matched by an increase in the police force of only just over 6 per cent. in 13 years. The chief constable says that, in the midst of that misery and the soaring increase, he will have to cut his budget for the year by £1 million. Surely matters of immediate concern to our constituents should be raised in the House, and I hope that the Consolidated Fund Bill will provide an opportunity to do so.

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. and learned Gentleman should know, proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill on Monday will be formal.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I remind the House that we have a heavy day's debate ahead. I hope that hon. Members will put relevant and succinct questions.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

Bearing in mind the devastating news that certain former Maxwell pensioners, including constituents of mine, will no longer be paid by the Mirror Group, and the excellent recommendations of the recent Select Committee report, can we not squeeze in just a little time to debate that report, not least the fact that the report omitted to investigate the huge pay-offs—£200,000 in one case—to senior Labour party members? Should not those people, in all conscience, pay the money back? Is there not a sleaze factor to be looked into before the general election campaign starts properly?

Mr. MacGregor

I understand my hon. Friend's concern for his constituents, but I am afraid that, given the need to complete the Government's legislative programme, it will not be possible to have a debate on that matter in the next two days.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

Will the Leader of the House persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to the House and explain, for the benefit of a lady from the constituency that I have the honour to represent, why it is that, left to bring up two children on her own, going out to work to make things a little better and thus earning £17.48 per week, she has £2.48 taken straight back off her by the Government, with no allowance for the further £3 that she has to spend on bus fares? In effect, therefore, she is taxed at 33 per cent. What does the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget do for that lady—apart from nothing?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are currently debating the Budget.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the £240 million road programme recently announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic is threatened by the Labour party's proposal to declare a moratorium on all road building and its refusal to endorse either the upgrading of the A1 or the A1-M1 link road.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. How can that possibly relate to the statement?

Mr. Batiste

I was about to ask the relevant question, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there will be an opportunity during debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill to raise those important issues so that the differences between the two parties can be made clear during the forthcoming election campaign?

Mr. MacGregor

I understand why my hon. Friend puts that matter forward for debate, and I am sure that he will make that distinction clear during the forthcoming election campaign. I regret that it will not be possible for him to do so on Monday morning on the Consolidated Fund Bill, but he has made the point now, and I am sure that he will find other opportunities to do so.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

While I know that this Parliament is dying, it is to remain in existence for another two days, and during that time we should try to ensure that democracy is not dying. Therefore, before Parliament dissolves, will the registration figures for the election in England and Wales finally be published so that hon. Members can see them? They are available in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the total figure for England and Wales, and the figures for individual constituencies, are not available. We should know those statistics in case we wish to use the procedures of the House to comment on them. I ask the Leader of the House not to give the standard answer, given to me week by week, as my question has nothing to do with my constituency, where the figures are healthy and there has been an increase in the electorate since the last general election. The question relates to the general pattern in England and Wales.

Mr. MacGregor

I note how sensitive the hon. Gentleman is getting about his own position in his constituency. On his general question, as I have repeatedly told him, the electoral figures for as many parliamentary constituencies as are available will shortly be published by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys.

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Secretary of State for Wales told the Welsh Grand Committee on 12 February that he would seek a meeting of the Committee before the general election on the subject of the structure of government in Wales. Why has that debate not been held, particularly as devolution is such an important election issue and the Scots have already had two debates on the issue?

Mr. MacGregor

I know the importance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attaches to that matter, and I hope that it will be possible to debate it widely and publicly during the election campaign. However, we simply did not have enough time to fit in that debate before the election was called.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I thank the Leader of the House for dumping the Asylum Bill in the parliamentary waste bin, which is where it has always belonged. All those who believe that political asylum should be dealt with on the basis of natural justice will rejoice at that. I repeat the question that I put to the right hon. Gentleman last Thursday: will he give an assurance that the extradition treaty between Britain and India, and the bilateral agreement between Britain and India on the confiscation of terrorist funds, will not be laid before the House before the Dissolution of Parliament?

Mr. MacGregor

Political asylum will be dealt with on the basis of natural justice, to use the hon. Gentleman's words, in the Bill. I still very much hope that it will go through. I believe that it gets the balance absolutely right; it deals with the large number of additional economic migrants who are coming here, enabling them to be dealt with speedily, and I believe that it is much wanted by large numbers of people in the country.

I have just written to the hon. Gentleman about his second point. What he refers to will not happen in the course of the next two days.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

While I do not challenge the right of genuine political asylum seekers to come here, may I ask my right hon. Friend to think again about dropping this important measure? There is enormous pressure in my constituency on public housing and much of the demand is not considered genuine by my constituents—indeed, it is probably not genuine. Is my right hon. Friend aware that about 200 units of housing have been given up to asylum seekers in the past year or two, and that the same is true of other constituencies around Heathrow, where we are under enormous pressure? The Bill is urgently wanted.

Mr. MacGregor

I entirely agree, although it is not I who should think again—I want the Bill on the statute book—but the Opposition parties who are opposing it.

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

I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I do not recall seeing you in the Chair selecting people to ask questions at business question time in the past 11 years.

The rising of the House next week means that my Bill —the Criminal Activity (Proscribed Equipment) Bill—to restrict the supply of scanner equipment which can interfere with police telecommunications, introduce a licensing system for such equipment, and restrict the sale of skeleton keys which can he used to pick the locks of motor vehicles, will not have enough time. Would the Government have supported that important little bit of legislation?

Mr. MacGregor

I am afraid that I am not familiar with that Bill, so I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

As about 3,000 secondary school children and several hundred teachers in Southend-on-Sea will be in a state of total uncertainty about whether their schools will be allowed to continue, depending on the result of the election, would it be possible to hold a small debate on Monday to seek all-party agreement to allow certain issues such as school organisation to be left to the people in communities to decide? That would be much better than a great upset for children and teachers every time there is an election. Bearing in mind that 3,000 real kids, including two of mine, depend for their education on the result of the election, would it not be great if we could leave decisions of this kind to local communities so that education is not disrupted by election results?

Mr. MacGregor

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is referring to grant-maintained schools—

Sir Teddy Taylor

No— four grammar schools.

Mr. MacGregor

As my hon. Friend will know, the kind of choice that we are endeavouring to extend in many ways to children and parents would be jeopardised only by the policies of the Labour party. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the right way to ensure the choice which he and I would both like to achieve is to make sure that we win a resounding victory at the election.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the leaders of the parties to address the House in the next two days on the conduct of the coming general election? A month after the last one, I received a written apology from the then leader of the Liberal party for the lies that his party had published about me in a document called "101 Damnations". Could we have the apologies first this time, so that the leader of the Conservative party can apologise to me for the lies printed in the publication, "Who's Left?"? Would it not be a better idea if the Conservative party entirely withdrew this wildly inaccurate and fatuous piece of muck-raking?

Mr. MacGregor

I understand that that document simply refers to the past and present support exhibited by Opposition Members for motions and policies.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

In which debate next week or tomorrow shall I be able to draw attention to the advertisement placed in a national newspaper this morning by the National and Local Government Officers Association, which is paying for part of Labour's election campaign in the expectation that if by some mischance a Labour Government were elected they would pay the bill for NALGO's future demands?

Mr. MacGregor

I am not sure when my hon. Friend can raise that in the debates in the next two days, but I am sure that he will make the point strongly outside the House.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I was quite relieved to find my name in that Conservative booklet. If I had not been in there, it would have quite destroyed my street credibility.

Can the Leader of the House give any estimate of how long the House is likely to sit tomorrow? I ask that not because I want to do a runner from the place, but because I do my advice surgery in Stratford on a Friday evening and if we shall be sitting past half past five I need to know until what time he thinks that we shall do so. Perhaps he and I could escape during the vote so that he can come to my advice surgery and meet some of the many people who have suffered so badly under Conservative policies over the past 13 years.

Mr. MacGregor

I would love it if the hon. Gentleman came to some of my advice surgeries to make known to my constituents some of the left-wing policies to which he has attached his name in that document.

I cannot give a firm time for the end of the debate because it will depend on the number of Divisions and how long each of the debates takes. The hon. Gentleman will have to keep in touch with progress as we work through the day.