HC Deb 21 May 1992 vol 208 cc497-506 3.31 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

Will the Leader of the House tell us the business for the first week after the recess?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

The business for the week following the spring Adjournment will be as follows: TUESDAY 2 JUNE—Until about seven o'clock, Second Reading of the Finance Bill, followed by Committee and remaining stages of the Non-Domestic Rating Bill.

WEDNESDAY 3 JUNE AND THURSDAY 4 JUNE—Progress in Committee on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

FRIDAY 5 JUNE—Debate entitled "Tenants' Rights, Opportunities and Participation" on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 8 JUNE—Second Reading of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill.

Dr. Cunningham

May I ask the Leader of the House to think again about the business that he has just announced? Is it not clear that from all sides of the House there is tremendous pressure and a legitimate demand for a debate in the House on the plight of the Maxwell pensioners? There is no conceivable party political motive. It would simply enable the House to consider the difficulties in which many people have been placed as a result of the Maxwell fiasco.

Will the Leader of the House also think again about the business that he has announced and find time for a debate on the Earth summit in Rio? Is it not astonishing that the Government, in the form of the Prime Minister, are to be represented—and rightly so—at the United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro but that this House has had no opportunity to debate the hugely important world affairs that are to be considered there? It is regrettable that a debate should be held in the other place before the Rio conference but that the Government have not found time for a debate here. I urge the Leader of the House to think again, to reconsider the business, and to arrange such a debate.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only a few moments ago about the very difficult Maxwell case. I cannot add very much to what he said, except to underline the point that it will not be very long after the recess before my right hon. Friend expects to respond to the Select Committee and to announce details of the inquiry which has been promised into the framework of pension law.

As for the Earth summit in Rio, I have to repeat a point that I made when a similar request was made to me last week: that it is not very long since we had a six-day debate on the Gracious Speech, including a full day when environmental matters could have been discussed. That provided an adequate opportunity for the time being, but most certainly these are matters to which we shall need to return.

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

Will my right hon. Friend find time after our return from the recess for a debate on the GATT negotiations? He will be aware how much our textile industry depends on the outcome of GATT and, although we realise that the main stumbling block is agriculture, it is nevertheless important for the Government to make a statement or for us to have a debate on the issue.

Mr. Newton

I note what my hon. Friend says. I am well aware of her justified concern about the matter but, at this moment, I cannot promise a debate immediately after the recess.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

May I make a strong plea to the Leader of the House to reconsider the business on the Committee stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill? He must know that virtually no hon. Members will be here after tomorrow, which leaves us literally no time to consider amendments or to use the Library's facilities in advance of a debate due to begin on Wednesday of the following week. Surely it would make sense to postpone the debate until the week after or at least to ensure that we have no more than one day in the following week.

Mr. Newton

Of course, we are talking about a period very nearly two weeks—not one week—ahead, although I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. However, I think that there is adequate time for those who have expressed so much interest in these matters, as he has done, to consider what they would wish to do, especially with regard to the Committee stage.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

In view of the welcome just given to the cost-cutting draft measures to reform the common agricultural policy, is my right hon. Friend aware that it causes a great deal of confusion when there are widespread rumours in Brussels that we shall end up spending an extra £3,000 million? Could we have an early statement from a Minister saying whether the cost-cutting reforms will cut costs or add to expenditure, because it is very important that we know before the recess?

Mr. Newton

I do not think that my hon. Friend can expect me to speculate about the final outcome or financial implications of talks which, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only a few moments ago, are still continuing in Brussels. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will wish to make a statement to the House as soon as possible about the outcome.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Does the Leader of the House accept that his reply to the official Opposition's request for a debate on the Earth summit was inadequate? It seems strange that we have had two full days and most of one night on one debate—albeit an important debate on the future of Europe—but that, at the same time, the House will not be able, in advance of the Rio discussions, to express its views to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Newton

As I have said—I suppose that I should apologise for repeating myself, although that at least has the merit of consistency—in my judgment, the House has had opportunities to express its views on the issue. That is not to say that there will be no need for further debate in due course, but I cannot promise a debate in the week after the recess.

Mr.Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will my right hon. Friend please find time after the recess for a debate on the vexing question of under-age smoking and under-age drinking because parents are very concerned about the ease with which youngsters can get their hands on cigarettes and drink? As my right hon. Friend knows, much of today's crime is committed by youngsters and, therefore, a debate to explore that avenue and to get the message across to the Home Office might be valuable.

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate in quite the form for which he asks, but he will be aware that the Government are working on an important statement on prevention policy and health promotion generally. I hope that it will not be too long before my hon. Friend has an opportunity to express his views in that context.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

In view of the Prime Minister's commitment to open government, will the Leader of the House undertake to reverse the trend whereby an increasing number of agencies reply to hon. Members by individual letters and do not publish in Hansard the answers that have previously been available not only to hon. Members but to people outside? That is a specific and clear attempt to hide basic and important information. Will the Leader of the House reverse that trend immediately?

Mr. Newton

Until a few weeks ago, I was the Minister in charge of one of the largest agencies and I can, at least, assure the hon. Lady, as I suspect she knows, that in no sense is there a deliberate attempt to hide or conceal information. Such answers are placed in the Library of the House and the Public Information Office, which puts them in the public domain. The Government wish to improve access to those letters and we have put proposals to the House authorities for their publication. I hope that an early decision can be taken once the House Committees are reconstituted.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that the Earth summit is not just about the environment; it will cover the environment and development? The agenda is infinitely wider and has far more policy implications than a simple debate on the Queen's Speech on the whole of the environment, including that of this country. If we do not have a debate on the Earth summit before that conference takes place, we should have a statement on the Government's objectives so that we can measure their achievements while recognising all the difficulties involved. The issue is bigger than the environment; it involves the environment and development.

Mr. Newton

I hope that my hon. Friend, whose interest in these matters is well known to the House, did not take my answer as in any sense one intended to minimise the importance of the wide range of issues that will be discussed in Rio. I meant no more than that the House has had ample opportunity for a general debate, including a day devoted to environmental matters, in which it would have been perfectly in order to touch on development. I acknowledge the importance of those issues, and I note my hon. Friend's request for a statement.

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

Does the Leader of the House realise that 12 Members of Parliament spent more than 200 hours in the Select Committee on Members' Interests, producing three reports, none of which has been debated by the House or led to resolutions being passed, yet they deal with lobbying conflicts of interest of Chairmen of Select Committees and a revision of the rules relating to Members' interests? Why do the Government keep ducking this issue? Why can we not debate those reports and bring about the changes which we in the House want and which the public demand of Parliament?

Mr. Newton

I note the hon. Gentleman's question, but I am afraid that I cannot add it to the business in the week after the recess.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate after the recess on a vexed law and order issue—the continual infringement of planning laws by traveller families throughout the country who continue illegally to occupy public and private property?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will be aware that some commitments were made by the Conservative party on that issue during recent debates, as I will describe them, before the country a few weeks ago. I cannot give an undertaking about when proposals will be brought forward, but my hon. Friend can have no doubt of the importance that we attach to the issue.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Although I welcome the assurance of the Leader of the House that there will be an early debate on the Select Committee report on the Maxwell affair, he will acknowledge that the report refers to the future protection and security of occupational pension schemes. However, the Government do not seem to be aware that people in Leeds who worked for E. J. Arnold have had their pension cheques stopped and that, by the time we return after the recess, people who receive pensions from Petty's will have had their cheques stopped. When will the Government bring proposals for action to the House to help those totally innocent victims; or are the Government saying that those people will have to pay the price for weeks, months or perhaps years to come until the matter is legally sorted out?

Mr. Newton

I cannot add much to what I said earlier, but it fell rather short of the words that the hon. Gentleman sought to put into my mouth about promising a debate. I referred to the fact that my right hon. Friend will respond to the Select Committee. Its report from the previous Parliament contained a number of points not wildly dissimilar to those that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

Maxwell pensioners will be lobbying the House on Monday 8 June. Although I appreciate that there cannot be a debate, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security make a statement to the House on Thursday 4 June so that we can pass on to Maxwell pensioners in our constituencies the latest Government thinking on this matter?

Mr. Newton

Obviously my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has a considerable amount of work to do to ensure that there is a properly considered reply to the Select Committee and properly considered terms of reference and other arrangements for the review that has been undertaken. He will wish to make announcements about those matters as soon as possible, but I cannot commit him to Thursday 4 June.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

; May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to the early-day motions dealing with the cruelty of whaling? There will be an International Whaling Commission meeting in Glasgow in June. May we have a debate prior to that meeting so that the views of the House can be made known, particularly to the Japanese, who want to restore commercial whaling? Please may we have a debate on this issue, which is of considerable concern to the House and to people outside as well?

Mr. Newton

I suspect that the concern felt by the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members on both sides of the House is well known throughout the countries involved. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have consistently lent their support to a moratorium. They will continue to press the case for proper conservation and protection, and I hope that the further measures that the hon. Gentleman wishes to be taken will be considered when the International Whaling Commission meets in Glasgow at the end of June.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Will my right hon. Friend find time soon after the recess for a debate on broadcasting, particularly in relation to television rights for sport? Is he aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are greatly disturbed by the fact that next year many fans will be locked out of grounds that are being improved, such as those of Arsenal and Leeds United, and, due to the deal with British Sky Broadcasting, will be unable to watch the matches on television? That leads to the prospect of more disorder outside football grounds just when there has been a great improvement in that respect.

Mr. Newton

I note my hon. Friend's concern, but I cannot undertake to arrange a debate in the first week after the recess.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the terms of early-day motion 46 concerning the assassination of Brazilian street children is drawn to the Prime Minister's attention before he goes to Rio for the Earth summit?

[That this House welcomes the visit of Paulo Melo, Brazillian State Deputy for Rio and President of the Parliamentary Commission on the Assassination of Street Children; notes that in 1991 10,800 children in Rio alone suffered from violence and that 306 were killed; expresses concern that up to 20–30,000 children are currently on the streets in Rio, with 1–2,000 sleeping rough; and urges the Prime Minister, during his forthcoming visit to Brazil, to raise these matters with the Brazilian authorities and to assert the belief of this House that the killers of these children should be brought to justice.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, with 300 children being killed in Rio last year and a further 10,000 being tortured, this is an issue that the Prime Minister should draw to the attention of the Brazilian authorities and demand that those responsible—

Madam Speaker

Order. The House will remember that I made a statement last week in which I said that business questions must deal with the business coming before us the following week. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind. Questions must concern only next week's business.

Mr. Alton

On a point of order, Madam Speaker—

Madam Speaker

Order. May I take the point of order later?

Mr. Alton

My question referred specifically to an early-day motion on the Order Paper today signed by Members of all parties.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman was not asking for a debate next week; that is the point. Would the Leader of the House care to make a response?

Mr. Newton

If it will help, I am happy to respond. I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already noted the early-day motion, but I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are drawn to his attention. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are pressing the Brazilian authorities to take effective action to remedy the situation.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend please read the reports of business questions in the period immediately before the general election? If he does so, he will see that the Labour party did not want a debate on the Maxwell affair. It now seems that the Labour party has converted to the idea of a debate.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is now all-party support for a debate on the Maxwell affair which should cover many aspects of the Labour party's performance in this matter, as well as the fact that City institutions have let the pensioners down badly? It is not the Government's fault, and it is not the Government's responsibility to bail out Maxwell pensioners. The City should bail them out as soon as possible.

Mr. Newton

I said a number of times when the Select Committee on Social Security published its report—a Committee of which my hon. Friend was a distinguished member and a report in which he played an important part— that a number of its recommendations and points were directed not at the Government but at other bodies and that I hoped that they would consider them with the same care as the Government.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will the Leader of the House take on board the fact that, before a general election, there is natural reluctance in the House to debate the mechanics of electoral arrangements? The ideal time to do so is just after a general election. Given the ignorance that the Prime Minister showed today in not appreciating that it is illegal for anyone to demand a charge to sign any document under the Representation of the People Acts, may we have an early debate on access to polling stations, the right to absent voting and all the mechanics and bureaucratic hurdles that are placed before people exercising their right to vote? There is a good deal of disquiet on both sides of the House, and the time to address it is just after a general election, not immediately preceding one.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points, on which I shall reflect, but at this stage I must give the traditional answer that I cannot promise a debate in the first week back.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

In the week when we return, will my right hon. Friend be able to announce his thinking on the setting up of Select Committees? Is he aware that they are a check on many actions of the Executive, and is it an unworthy thought that the Government are in no hurry to set them up?

Mr. Newton

If, for once, I am allowed to give a straight answer to a straight question, yes, it is an unworthy thought, because my right hon. Friends and I are supporters of the Select Committees and, as I have said many times, I wish to see them set up as soon as it proves practicable to do so. We have set up the Select Committee on Selection. I hope that we shall be able to set up two important scrutiny Committees very shortly—we may table motions today—and to proceed fairly rapidly with the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I cannot predict progress on the departmental Select Committees, but I reiterate that the shadow Leader of the House and I are anxious to see progress made as soon as possible.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the Leader of the House refer to early-day motion 54, on jobs retention in the textile industry?

[That this House notes with alarm the failure of the Prime Minister to give a categorical assurance to the honourable Member for Bradford South that the United Kingdom textile industry would not be sacrificed in return for concessions for agriculture in the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade negotiations, Official Report, column 496, 12th May; recognises the importance of the textile and clothing industry to the country, employing as it does over 450,000 people with 12,000 jobs directly dependent on textiles in Bradford alone; and demands that the Prime Minister assures the industry that his Government will seek retention of this important industry as an essential part of the GATT negotiations.]

Will he encourage the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make a statement next week? The early-day motion refers to the Prime Minister's failure to guarantee to the House that in negotiations on the general agreement on tariffs and trade the textile industry will not be sacrificed to obtain concessions for agricultural interests. That was a serious omission, because our large and important textile and clothing industry employs almost 450,000 people. In Bradford, 12,000 people are employed directly by the textile industry, so a statement on the GATT negotiations and the Government's determination to preserve the textile industry in this country would be important and welcome.

Mr. Newton

I hoped that I had carried the hon. Gentleman with me in acknowledging that the draft textiles agreement put forward by the GATT director general last December has been seen by the United Kingdom's textile industry as providing a satisfactory basis for a settlement. The importance of a successsful conclusion to the negotiations that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been conducting over many days and nights in Brussels—I cannot be sure what is happening at the moment—is that it might make it easier to achieve a GATT settlement, which we would all welcome.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I add my voice to calls from both sides of the House not only for an early debate but for restitution for those who have been defrauded under the sad Maxwell pension scheme affair. Before we debate the subject, will my right hon. Friend look at early-day motion 109, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley)?

[That this House, noting the powerful Evening Standard full page article, 20th May, recognises that whosoever else may have been responsible for preventing the removal of the pension funds' assets the existing and prospective pensioners were properly depending on others to protect their interests, and demands effective action to restore the pensions and the pension entitlements.]

It refers to the admirable article on the Maxwell pension affair that appeared in the Evening Standard yesterday. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, at an early date, the Attorney-General will explain to the House what progress has been made in bringing to justice those who have defrauded Maxwell pensioners, because it was clearly not just the work of one man who is now dead?

Mr. Newton

I noted the substantial full-page article in yesterday's Evening Standard, covering a whole range of matters, and I shall ensure that the attention of the Attorney-General is drawn to what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 107?

[That this House notes the restructuring of BNFL Capenhurst, in particular the new role of URENCO but is concerned that no statement has been made to honourable and Right honourable Members regarding the effects of re-structuring on the Almelo Agreement, the impact on terms and conditions of employment, in particular the refusal of Government to allow the continuation of Civil Service pension arrangements for the workforce and furthermore the failure properly to resource a study designed to protect jobs by diversification following the much welcomed end of the Cold War.]

Will he arrange for an early statement and debate on the subject, which is of enormous importance to employees in my constituency and to Members of the House, who are, I am sure, as concerned as I am about the Government's failure to make a statement on the announcement, given its impact on the arrangements for fuel enrichment?

Mr. Newton

As I understand it, the restructuring of BNFL Capenhurst is a commercial matter for the company. I cannot undertake to initiate a debate about it in the House.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate during the week after the recess on early-day motion 32, which calls for Polish nationals to be treated on the same level as nationals of Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the issuing of visas.

[That this House urges Her Majesty's Government to end the visa requirement for Polish nationals wishing to visit the United Kingdom, thus establishing the same future entry criteria for Poland as for Hungary, Czechoslovakia and many other countries.]

The House should take account of and discuss the present serious discrimination against Polish nationals.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has no plans at present to lift the requirement, but the Government intend to review the matter again later in the year when the impact on other Community states of having abolished the visa requirement may have become more apparent.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Will the Leader of the House say when the Government propose to introduce the order transferring responsibility for science and technology to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? Will he bear in mind that it was the Opposition who had to find time for six of the previous eight annual debates on science and technology?

Mr. Newton

In response to the hon. Gentleman's first question, I cannot give him an exact date, but I expect that the order will be introduced next month. On his second point, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in view of his new responsibilities, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster now has a 20-minute question slot every three weeks, which will provide an enhanced opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to raise the matters in which he is interested.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Are you, Madam Speaker, aware that, at a well-attended meeting last night your fellow Member for West Bromwich—the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape)—and I were elected joint chairmen of the all-party railways group? Are you further aware that one of the objectives that we have set ourselves is to draw up an all-party response to the White Paper on the future of the railways?

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House admitted that what happened last Monday—the fact that the White Paper had not been produced before we debated the Bill—was unique. Will the White Paper appear as soon as we return after the Whitsun recess? If not, when shall we see it? May we be assured that it will appear well before the summer recess, and that we shall have a chance to study and debate it before the recess?

Mr. Newton

I had not caught up with the piece of intelligence with which my hon. Friend began his question, but I am sure that the news will have been greeted with unqualified pleasure on both sides of the House. We shall look forward to following his activities in his capacity as joint chairman of the group.

I cannot give my hon. Friend undertakings about precisely when the White Paper will appear, but I resist the suggestion that what I said last week was an admission. It was merely an acknowledgement that I could not think of an example of what my hon. Friend described having happened before.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to look at early-day motion 95?

[That this House notes during the first week of Speaker Lloyd's period in office on the Wednesday 39 Oral questions were taken, on the Thursday over 40, on the Monday over 36 and on the Tuesday 32, under Speaker Thomas on the Wednesday 23 questions, on the Thursday 20, on the Monday over 26 and on the Tuesday 23, under Speaker Weatherill 21 questions were taken on the Monday, 18 on the Tuesday, 18 on the Wednesday and 18 on the Thursday, and during the week starting 11th May, 16 questions were taken on Monday, 20 on Tuesday, 16 on Wednesday and 17 on Thursday; and believes all Members of the House have a duty to keep their questions short and concise, and all Ministers to keep their replies short.]

It suggests that, in the past 20 years, the number of questions for oral answer reached each day has about halved. Will the right hon. Gentleman have an urgent meeting with all the Ministers who will answer questions in the week in which we return from the recess and will he stress that their answers should be short and concise? Will he also stress that answers should be addressed to the Chair and that Ministers should be aware of any requests from the Chair to keep their answers short?

Mr. Newton


Madam Speaker

That is a very good question on which to end.