HC Deb 01 April 1993 vol 222 cc504-11 3.57 pm
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

Will the Leader of the House state 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)

Yes, Madam. The business for the first week after the recess will be as follows:

  • WEDNESDAY 14 APRIL—Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill [Lords].
  • THURSDAY 15 APRIL—European Communities (Amendment) Bill: progress in Committee, 20th day.
  • FRIDAY 16 APRIL—There will be a debate on the partnership between the public and private sectors in delivering local government services, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
  • MONDAY 19 APRIL—European Communities (Amendment) Bill: progress in Committee, 21st day.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement and I am sure that everyone will be pleased to know that we have another two days on Maastricht ahead of us after Easter.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on the efficient and effective use of public money? Does he appreciate that on the day we are seeing at least the partial disappearance of the poll tax, on which £14 billion to £16 billion worth of public money was wasted, we are also seeing reports of millions being wasted on computerisation in the Wessex health authority, money wasted in the Ministry of Defence and money apparently wasted on the activities of the Inland Revenue as a consequence of the rushed privatisation of its postal deliveries? As all this waste and mismanagement flows from actions related to Government policy, it is appropriate that such a debate be scheduled in Government time. May I press on him that that debate should be over and above the debate for which the Labour party has repeatedly pressed, in which the House is allowed to examine the details of the Government's public expenditure programme? He knows that the debate is outstanding and that we are anxious to have it.

Does the Leader of the House recall that we pressed for a debate on London affairs? Again, in the light of the recent announcement on what is happening in the London ambulance service, it is important to give scope for further debates on a number of issues of concern to those in the capital city.

Finally, I again remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are pressing for a day of Opposition time.

Mr. Newton

I am rather relieved that the right hon. Lady started by welcoming the two further days on Maastricht. I am sure that that view is widely held on both sides of the House, but it is perhaps in conflict with her later demands for a whole series of debates on other matters, to which I am not in a position to respond as fully as she would like, despite the great good will with which I approach the Easter recess. I note her various requests. I am not sure whether it was in her list today, or whether she left it out, but she has before asked for some general Opposition time as well. I tried to respond in a reasonably forthcoming way about that last week. I will rest on that relatively friendly point.

I should point out, however, that two of the debates that the right hon. Lady demanded will take place later tonight—albeit, I accept, not formally in Government or Opposition time. By kind permission of Madam Speaker, there is no less than three hours on Government policies in greater London and the south-east, which should be reached at a reasonable hour of the night, and a little later on—possibly at a less reasonable hour, or even close to breakfast time—a debate on the conduct of Ministers in relation to the London ambulance service. If the right hon. Lady is willing to lose a little more sleep than she did the other night, when I was still here, she can join in those debates.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

I am sure that the House appreciates the constraints on my right hon. Friend and the good-hearted way in which he approaches them. However, it is four weeks today since the end of the Committee stage of the National Lottery etc. Bill and there are many good causes outside the House waiting for Report and Third Reading. Could we have a date for that soon?

Mr. Newton

I am mindful of the fact that my hon. Friend asked me about this last week or the week before. I am looking for time to complete the remaining stages of the Bill. Without making further extensive reference to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, I hope my hon. Friend will understand that I have to make finely balanced judgments about the order of events.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

As someone who has been trying to facilitate a bit of progress on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, may I ask the Leader of the House to confirm that he will be able to announce at an early stage that there is to be a summer recess, never mind the dates for it? On a more serious note, after Easter will he arrange for a statement or a debate in Government time on the general agreement on tariffs and trade because the American Government and the new French Government will have an impact on that matter, which is regarded as important by Members on both sides of the House?

Mr. Newton

On the hon. Gentleman's latter question, I confirm that that is an important matter. He will know that there are continued efforts, in which the British Government very much play their proper part, to ensure a successful outcome of the negotiations. I cannot promise a debate, but I will bear the hon. Gentleman's request in mind. As to his first question, I thank him for the constructive role that he and many of his colleagues have played in our proceedings. He deserves a holiday, perhaps more than some others in the House.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I still have another statement to call and private Members' time is precious. Therefore, in order that we might proceed swiftly, will hon. Members put one brisk question which can be given a brisk answer?

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

May we have an early debate on the cost and quality of water, a subject which would be of great interest to all hon. Members and our constituents? I ask for that against the background of the paper issued by Mr. Ian Byatt, the director general of Ofwat, and the open letter that he has now addressed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Newton

I have not yet seen the letter addressed to my right hon. and learned Friend, but I think that I know what is in my hon. Friend's mind and I well understand that. He will know that the EC will be considering the revision of the water directive later this year. I can assure him that the United Kingdom Government will be making their view known as part of that process and ensuring that the Commission is made aware of the cost of meeting any new standards which might be considered in the course of that review.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Oldham, Central and Royton)

When we have the debate on the use of taxpayers' money for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) pressed so eloquently, may we debate ministerial perks? How can the Secretary of State for Social Security justify a sum 10 times the cost of a flight from his holiday home in France to return to ministerial meetings at Westminster?

Mr. Newton

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will take note of the hon. Gentleman's point. I did not—rather clearly, I think—promise the debate for which the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) asked, nor am I promising it to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

Should the new French Government fail to get to grips with their pirate fishermen, and should the Royal Navy find it necessary to take a dozen of them at random and shoot them during the recess, will my right hon. Friend recall the House so that we can discuss not just that but the failure of the entire common fisheries policy?

Mr. Newton

It would be quite likely that, were the event that my hon. Friend postulates to take place, I should need to arrange a debate. Therefore, for a variety of reasons, including that one, I rather hope that it will not. My hon. Friend will be aware of the action taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to impress on the French Government our concern about these matters. That is perhaps the proper way to deal with them.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

It will not be Frenchmen that oil workers in the north-east of Scotland will want to shoot.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer so that he can retract and dissociate himself from the comments of a senior Treasury official yesterday, who said that for 10,000 job losses we are securing £400 million to £500 million in extra taxation? I know that it is 1 April and that the Chancellor is having difficulty with figures, but is that some sick joke being perpetrated on the north-east of Scotland? Are the Government really arguing that that is a price well worth paying for additional oil taxation? Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate as soon as possible after Easter so that now that those figures are becoming known Conservative Members for the north-east of Scotland who supported the measure and Labour Members who abstained in the vital vote will have the opportunity to reconsider, along with the Government, that damaging tax on the oil industry?

Mr. Newton

I have three comments which I hope, Madam Speaker, will be as crisp as you would wish. First, the hon. Gentleman will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said not very long ago. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has just been here answering questions and I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman sought to ask him that. Thirdly, the Finance Bill is coming rapidly down the track and I should have thought that that would give plenty of opportunity for debate on those matters.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of Members on both sides of the House are grateful to him for arranging a debate on tourism on 19 March? Is he further aware that in that debate the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage said that he would welcome a debate on that subject once a year rather than every five years as has been the case up until now? Can my right hon. Friend find it in his heart to facilitate that in future?

Mr. Newton

One of the things that one becomes aware of in this job is that gratitude for what one has already done rapidly translates into a demand for yet more, but I will bear that request in mind.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

As the Leader of the House will know, yesterday their Lordships endorsed the European Court of Justice judgment that the Shops Act 1950 was and remains valid. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange a debate on the Attorney-General's future action, to determine whether the Attorney-General will now assist local authorities to enforce the 1950 Act or whether he will fold his arms, do nothing and allow massive law-breaking to continue for the next 12 months?

Mr. Newton

I acknowledge the position following the judgment in another place, but the situation in respect of enforcing the 1950 Act remains the same. If a local authority has evidence that the law is being broken, it must consider whether to issue a summons or to seek an injunction. It is neither for me nor for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to tell a local authority the action to take in a particular case.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Should enforcement of the no-fly zone over Bosnia announced this afternoon not have the desired effect, will my right hon. Friend arrange a change in the business of the House in the week when it returns after Easter so that it may debate that extremely important and serious matter?

Mr. Newton

It would be wrong for me to speculate on hypothetical questions, but in considering business after Easter the Government will clearly bear in mind developments on that or any other front during the recess.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

May I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 1563 on affordable housing, signed by 98 right hon. and hon. Members of all parties?

[That this House believes that social housing must be affordable by people on low incomes and views with concern the Government's stated objectives to reduce Housing Association Grant levels to 55 per cent. by 1995; notes that the ability of housing associations to deliver affordable housing could be seriously eroded and fears that a significant proportion of housing association tenants in work will have to pay more than 40 per cent. of their net disposable income in rent and that there will be a growing dependence on housing benefit; commends the NFHA's initiative in launching the Affordable Housing Campaign; and calls upon the Government to make every effort to ensure that the principle of affordable rented housing for those in housing need is upheld.]

Although that subject is due to be discussed tonight, the debate is unlikely to be reached at a reasonable or even an unreasonable time—or even by breakfast time tomorrow. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore arrange a debate as soon as possible after the recess on that vitally important issue, which is of real concern due to steep rises in rents and the affordability problems suffered by thousands of tenants throughout the country?

Mr. Newton

I know that the hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous Member of Parliament, will be in the Chamber in the hope that his debate is reached so that he can develop his points at greater length. For my part, I can only say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has not taken any decisions on grant rates beyond next year and will not do so until proper assessments have been made of the likely impact on rents and the ability to attract private finance.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

Given the imminence of local government elections, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the welcome debate on local government issues the Friday after the House returns will enable right hon. and hon. Members to compare and contrast the efficiency and plain dealing of Conservative councils with the inefficiency and corruption of many Labour authorities?

Mr. Newton

There must be a good chance of that, but what is in order will depend on the view of the occupant of the Chair.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If the Leader of the House will not tell the Secretary of State for Social Security to come to the House to answer on the question of the £4,000 that the taxpayer is having to foot to allow the Secretary of State to fly from his holiday cottage in France to return to Britain, will the Leader of the House ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to explain his conduct, because that right hon. Gentleman has been to the Secretary of State's holiday cottage and it cost the taxpayer £2,000 for him to fly back—when both right hon. Gentlemen could have flown back for £200 apiece? Why are the Government so arrogant and contemptuous of the British people? They tell those applying for a social security loan that they had better pay the money back, and quick, and poll tax payers are told the same, yet those two Ministers are charging the British taxpayer £6,000 for flying back from France. It is time that they paid that money back.

Madam Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman seeking a debate on that matter when the House returns?

Mr. Skinner

Yes, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

In that case, the hon. Gentleman might like to complete his question, recognising that these are business questions.

Mr. Newton

There are well established rules governing what is reasonable and appropriate in such matters. There must necessarily be some provision of that kind, unless it is to be supposed that Ministers are never to be allowed to leave the country.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree, on the day the council tax is introduced, that it would be appropriate to debate soon regional variations in the charges set? Is my right hon. Friend aware that not only are Wandsworth and Westminster setting low charges but the flagship Hinckley and Bosworth borough council has set the lowest rate in the whole of the midlands? Should not such points be on record and debated?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] My hon. Friends make their point adequately. They are saying that they want to debate that issue.

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House—and, I hope, the country—of a very important point. If I remember rightly what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) said during Prime Minister's Question Time, however, I sense that there may be a certain amount of disagreement in the midlands about which area has the lowest charge.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

May I press the Leader of the House for an early debate on foreign affairs? Such a debate would allow the Foreign Secretary to report on, among other things, what success he has had in persuading the Indian Government to allow Amnesty International freely to investigate human rights violations in India. The matter has been made more important by the murder on 3 March of Mrs. Hamida Mattoo, who was gunned down by Indian security forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir, apparently for no other reason than that she was the sister of Dr. Mehraj Mattoo, the British-based Kashmiri human rights campaigner. Will the Leader of the House urge the Foreign Secretary to make urgent inquiries into the murder, and to report to the House?

Mr. Newton

I shall certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is aware of the case, and of the wider point that the hon. Gentleman has made. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Secretary will be here to answer questions on the day of our return from the recess, although I accept that that will not constitute a debate.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Debate on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill will take up no less than half the House's time during the week of our return from the recess. Would it not show a much better sense of priorities, which would be well understood in the country as a whole, if the House debated either the armed forces or the Royal Navy on the motion to approve the defence estimates? We have not debated defence estimates in relation to the armed forces since October 1991, and we have not debated the Royal Navy in that context since June 1991. Her Majesty's forces are currently operational in the Adriatic, Bosnia and Croatia, and the House needs to debate the strategic context in which they are carrying out their duties.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend raised a similar point with me a week or two ago. I cannot add to what I told him then. I said that I would attempt to find time for a debate on at least some of the matters in which he is interested, but I cannot yet give definite dates. I should point out that we are not spending half the week of our return on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill—it is really one third of the week, as one third of our time will be spent happily in Adjournment.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

Will the Leader of the House be able to make an early statement on the procedure to be used during debate on the Finance Bill in regard to voting on the measure giving extra tax relief to Lloyd's names? It should be borne in mind that nearly 50 Conservative Members, including three Cabinet Ministers, are Lloyd's names. Would it not be right for the right hon. Gentleman to exclude those Members from voting on a measure which could benefit them personally?

Mr. Newton

Such questions are certainly not for the Leader of the House to decide at the Dispatch Box, and I do not intend to try.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

May we have a debate immediately after Easter on the most important and dangerous threat with which the world is now faced—the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 30 unstable small states which already possess ballistic missiles? There is clear evidence that the Prime Minister is changing his view of the British position on testing nuclear weapons and is coming round to the idea of a test ban. May we have a debate, so that the Prime Minister can tell the House that Britain is to stop being one of the only two countries in the world—the other is China—which continue to test nuclear weapons?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise a debate on those matters, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will seek to catch the Speaker's eye at some stage during Prime Minister's questions and attempt to put that point to my right hon. Friend directly.

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

Will the right hon. Gentleman impress on his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security the urgent need for an early statement—if possible, during the first week after the recess—about the Government's response to the judgment made earlier this week by the European Court of Justice in case C-328/91, in which the court found against the Department of Social Security in respect of equal treatment in the payment of invalidity benefit? Many thousands of women aged 60 or more suffered very badly when they lost invalidity benefit, or had it reduced. Many are sick or disabled. The Government should act honourably by implementing the court's decision and paying those women the original amount.

Mr. Newton

I shall certainly draw that request to the attention of my right hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman will know—certainly I do from my experience—that in recent years the Government have put a great deal of effort into improving equality of treatment under the benefits system generally.