HC Deb 09 December 1993 vol 234 cc485-96 3.30 pm
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?

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

Yes, Madam. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 13 DECEMBER—Estimates Day (1st allotted day).

There will be a debate on external relations, in so far as they relate to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's support for peacekeeping operations, followed by a debate on measures relating to individual industries, in so far as they relate to the Department of Trade and Industry's aerospace support. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Money resolution relating to the Statutory Sick Pay Bill.

At 10 o'clock the House will be asked to agree the civil and defence votes on account and the outstanding winter supplementary estimates.

TUESDAY 14 DECEMBER—Timetable motion on the Social Security (Contributions) Bill and the Statutory Sick Pay Bill.

Debate on the common fisheries policy on a Government motion.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

WEDNESDAY 15 DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Statutory Sick Pay Bill.

Ways and Means resolution relating to the Social Security (Contributions) Bill.

THURSDAY 16 DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Social Security (Contributions) Bill.

FRIDAY 17 DECEMBER—Debates on the Adjournment.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committees will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 15 December to consider European Community documents as follows:

Committee A, document No. 6888/93 relating to the Court of Auditors' Report on Fishing Fleets capacity; and document No. 7378/93 relating to the Fishing Fleet Transitional Guidance Programme 1992.

Committee B, document No. 9268/93 relating to own resources.

[Monday 13 December:

Estimates Day

1. Class II, Vote 2, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: other external relations, in so far as it relates to support for peacekeeping operations. The Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 1992–93 on The Expanding Role of the United Nations and its Implications for United Kingdom Policy (HC 235) and the Government Observations thereon (Cm 2382) are relevant. The Fourth Report from the Defence Committee of Session 1992–93 on United Kingdom Peacekeeping and Intervention Forces (HC 188 and 369) and the Sixth Special Report from the Committee of Session 1992–93, containing the Government's observations on the Committee's Report (HC 988) are also relevant.

2. Class IV, Vote 2, Department of Trade and Industry; measures relating to individual industries, in so far as it relates to aerospace support The Third Report from the Trade and Industry Committee of Session 1992–93 on the British Aerospace Industry (HC 563) is relevant. Wednesday 15 December: European Standing Committee A-Relevant European Community documents: (a) 6888/93, Court of Auditors Report on Fishing Fleets Capacity; (b) 7378/93, Fishing Fleet Transitional Guidance Programme 1992. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: (a) HC79-xxxvii (1992–93); (b) HC 79-xxxvii (1992–93) HC 48-i (1993–94). European Standing Committee B-Relevant European Community document: 9268/93, The Communities' Own Resources; Relevant report of the European Legislation Committee: HC 48-i (1993–94).]

Mrs. Beckett

Will the Lord President confirm that his announcement means that the Government are not only guillotining the Statutory Sick Pay Bill and the Social Security (Contributions) Bill but intend to deal with all stages of those Bills in the House and in another place by giving precisely one day for the consideration of each Bill?

Since the Government decide the dates of the recess and the timetable for business here and in another place, does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that no one will believe that it is not because the Government want the minimum public scrutiny and awareness of these proposals that they are making arrangements for the debates that are as extraordinary as they are disgraceful? Does he acknowledge that the Statutory Sick Pay Bill loads extra bureaucracy on employers and that the Bill about national insurance will raise taxes for every working person, resulting in revenue to the tune of £2,000 million a year? Is not that one of the worst examples yet of the Government's insolence and utter contempt for the democratic process?

Mr. Newton

As I told the right hon. Lady in one of our exchanges in different capacities about 10 minutes ago, the combined effect of what we propose on employers' contributions and on statutory sick pay will reduce, not increase, the burdens on industry.

On the main thrust of the right hon. Lady's points about the timetable motion, I naturally regret that it did not prove possible to reach agreement through the usual channels on ways of handling those Bills. Such agreement would have corresponded to what we, and I think industry, believe to be the need to make speedy progress with these aspects of my right hon. and learned Friend's Budget so that the necessary arrangements can be made and put in place in time for industry to operate them in an orderly fashion from April. That is a sensible purpose.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

In view of the fact that a successful conclusion to the GATT negotiations is just about the most important issue for the next decade and must be reached next week, can my right hon. Friend confirm that, whichever way it goes, a statement will be made to the House—hopefully, a successful one?

Mr. Newton

I accept my hon. Friend's remarks about the importance of the GATT negotiations, which is universally recognised in the House. Further progress will be among the objectives of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Brussels. I cannot at this stage give a definite undertaking about the formal timing of any statement, but as matters develop I shall bear my hon. Friend's request in mind.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Having regard to various factors that have affected the farming income of livestock and arable producers, will the Leader of the House urgently find time to debate on the Floor of the House the hill livestock compensatory allowance changes and cuts, against which a prayer has been laid? The Government owe the industry an early debate on that very important subject.

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise to add an extra debate to the business that I announced for next week. However, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that next week's Consolidated Fund and Adjournment debates will present a number of opportunities for such matters to be raised. Apart from that, I shall bear the hon. Gentleman's request in mind.

Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Given that the intention of the so-called unified Budget was to produce more focused debate—although at one stage members of the Opposition Front Bench thought that the House was still debating the Loyal Address—may we have an early debate on the report of the Procedure Committee which published the Government's comments on the Budget procedure and its rebuttal of them so that the House may learn from the experience of the past few days and reach a more sensible arrangement?

Mr. Newton

After studying the Procedure Committee's report and responding to a number of questions in the House, it seemed sensible to me and to the Government to review that procedure in this cycle before reaching conclusions about further changes that might be made. I doubt that there will be time for that in the next week or two. We should see how the process works with the Finance Bill and the like, but I have it in mind that we should at some appropriate moment take the opportunity to review the position in the light of this year's experience.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early day motion 218. [That this House, recalls that after the Marchioness disaster, and despite widespread and continued calls for a public inquiry, Her Majesty's Government refused such requests, but instead referred the inquiry to its own Marine Accident Investigation Branch; congratulates Channel 4 television on its "Despatches" programme concerning those events, which demonstrated the secret, inadequate and incomplete nature of that investigation; and thus calls on Her Majesty's Government to initiate forthwith a public inquiry into the disaster, comparable to those held into the King's Cross and Clapham tragedies and, after consultation, to make proposals for an investigation into the failure of public procedures, bodies and persons in respect of those events and into the means of ensuring safety of navigation on the River Thames.]

Consequent upon last night's programme on Channel 4, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the official report into that terrible happening was published two years after the event and that the programme showed it to be inadequate, incomplete, incompetent, inefficient and probably incorrect? In view of Government policy relating to open government, if that early day motion were debated next week, what possible grounds could there be for opposing it?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman knows that there has been a comprehensive inquiry by the marine accident investigation branch, and another was undertaken under the chairmanship of Mr. John Hayes. They made a number of recommendations that led to changes on the River Thames and other United Kingdom waters. I am advised that no new evidence has been produced to warrant a further inquiry and that the evidence cited in the television programme covered no ground that was not examined during the MAIB investigation.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the villages of this country are facing a growing crisis? Warwickshire county council, for example, has produced a plan that would virtually eliminate rural schools—and last night's decision on Sunday trading, about which I make no complaint, will place extra pressure on village shops. In view of those and other factors, does not my right hon. Friend think that it is time to examine that matter in detail?

Mr. Newton

As can be seen from what we said when concern was expressed about rural sub-post offices, the Government attach great importance to these matters, and I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week to debate the incredible and already discredited report by the National Radiological Protection Board into the effects of radiation on veterans of British nuclear tests? Does not he think that it is disgraceful and scandalous that the Secretary of State for Defence has had neither the courtesy nor the courage to come to the House today to hold himself accountable for the ridiculous position in which it seems that American, Canadian and Australian service men can contract cancer when exposed to nuclear bombs, but British service men cannot? The House and those service men surely deserve better than that shoddy treatment.

Mr. Newton

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's long-standing interest in these matters, and I am not accusing him of being irresponsible, but I am not quite sure on what grounds he based his suggestion that the report has been discredited. It has not yet been published, but is due to appear in the British Medical Journal this weekend. I suggest that he and others concerned with this unhappy and difficult matter should read what is said before jumping to conclusions.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Will my right hon. Friend find time soon for a full-scale debate on the subject of drug abuse? There is growing concern in my constituency about the number of burglaries and serious crimes against old people in their own homes which are linked to the crime of drug abuse. It is leading my constituents to question whether we are doing enough about this serious subject, which is causing a great deal of increased crime.

Mr. Newton

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government share her concern that we should be as effective as possible in these matters and we are currently reviewing various aspects of how they are tackled. I cannot promise her a debate in quite the terms that she seeks, but I draw her attention to the fact that it sounds like a good subject on which she could bid for a debate on the Consolidated Fund.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Will the Leader of the House consult his right hon. Friends with a view to a statement being made before the end of next week which will reassure the United Kingdom engineering steel industry that it will not be allowed to suffer further harm as a result of sharp and official practice by the Governments of other member states?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have consistently argued for policies that I think are in line with what he wishes. I cannot promise him a debate or a statement next week, but I can assure him that the Government will continue taking what we believe to be the right stance on these matters in Europe.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on education in view of the recent chief inspector's report which reveals that, although standards are generally good, they suffer in some minority areas? The debate might provide an opportunity to underscore the importance of the Government maintaining performance league tables to ensure that standards are increased.

Mr. Newton

I should like to direct my hon. Friend to the possibility that he, too, could apply for a debate on the Consolidated Fund. Also, he may have an opportunity to make his point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education who is due to be in the House on Tuesday. My hon. Friend will have been pleased at my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's indication earlier in the week that we now intend to move on to tables which will cover the number of hours taught each week in each school, which will be further useful information.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman raise with the Prime Minister the conduct of certain of his Ministers? Is he aware that there is a long-standing tradition in the House that any Minister, or Member, who reveals any aspect of the Budget before the Chancellor has spoken had to resign? That was in the good old days when conduct of government was more honest. More recently, such people have had to apologise. Will the right hon. Gentleman point out to the Prime Minister that the Secretary of State for Education, having been summoned to the House by Madam Speaker to hear her reprimand, did not have the courtesy—[Interruption.] You silly boy.

Madam Speaker

Order. I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Faulds

I am glad that you are listening, Madam Speaker. I wish others would join in.

In view of the reprimand, instead of slinking away—undistinguished gentleman that he is—the right hon. Gentleman should have had the courtesy to come to the Dispatch Box and apologise to the House. Will the Leader of the House try to resurrect some form of proper conduct towards the House in Ministers?

Mr. Newton

My right hon. Friend behaved entirely properly. He explained what had happened and acknowledged what you, Madam Speaker, had said. Of all my colleagues, he is the least appropriate to be described as "slinking", which I think was the word that the hon. Gentleman used.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May we have a debate early next week on the draft EEC proposal concerning the transport to slaughter of horses? The French proposals—which will have to be considered by the Government by the middle of next week—are that horses should be watered only every 15 hours and fed only every 22 hours. Bearing in mind that equines need to be fed and watered little and often if they are to survive in good health, ought we not to debate the matter so that the Government can be pressed to support horses, as they have always done?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend has good reason to know that the Government have consistently sought to advance the cause of animal welfare in Europe. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend is made aware of what he has said this afternoon.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate next week, for greater clarity and the avoidance of ambiguity, about what the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), as chairman of the British-Irish inter-parliamentary group, said when he was speaking to journalists in Dublin last week? He gave the impression that it was his view that there should be a united Ireland, but that the Unionists should be brought gently along that road. May we have a debate to clarify that that is not the view of the Government or of the House, and that it is certainly not the view of the majority of people in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that my hon. Friends will note the hon. Gentleman's comments. Despite the seriousness with which the hon. Gentleman views the matter, it would be difficult for any Leader of the House to get involved in promising debates about what was said by individual Members, as distinct from Ministers. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster will note what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I will bring it to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it was possible to debate statutory sick pay last week? The Government cannot be accused of refusing sufficient time to debate it because the Budget debate was a day longer than usual. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will arrange a seminar on procedure for the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Newton

It might be worth arranging a seminar in view of the Opposition's failure to table the right amendment at the right time. As to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, he is right: the statutory sick pay proposals, being public expenditure proposals, were absolutely in order during the course of the debate.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) about the Marchioness, will he look again at the question of safety at sea, instead of waving the banner of deregulation every day of the week? Will he also look at the question of safety on our rivers, where some of the most basic requirements are obviously being ignored?

Mr. Newton

I will take this opportunity to make it absolutely clear that, while the Government wish to deregulate wherever possible, there is no question that we intend to do so in ways that would be seen as jeopardising people's safety. That is not our purpose at all.

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his decision to apply a timetable motion to the national insurance contributions legislation will be welcomed by businesses in my constituency, who will welcome the opportunity to plan with certainty for next year's contributions in an orderly way? Further, does he agree that the proposals can hardly be said to have been rushed through the House because they were announced in the Budget nine months ago?

Mr. Newton

It is true that the proposal was in the last Budget, although it is also part of the judgment made in the current one.

My hon. Friend's first point was absolutely right. As I tried to explain to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), we need to make speedy progress with the legislation if the changes are to operate from April in an orderly way.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

In view of today's Public Accounts Committee report, may we have a debate on why £40 million that should have been spent on patients was wasted by Wessex health authority; why the Government ignored the fact that the authority had broken its own rules, the Department of Health's rules, the Treasury's rules, EC rules and GATT rules—its behaviour was ultra vires, and verging on the corrupt; and why its chairman, who, having given a commitment to his Secretary of State, then told the authority's solicitor to ignore that commitment, was "punished" by being knighted and being promoted to the chairmanship of a £4 billion national health service executive?

Mr. Newton

We welcome the PAC's very thorough report on the so-called RISP project in Wessex regional health authority. It will be considered very carefully, and in due course a formal response will be issued in the appropriate way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that a considerable amount has already been done to put matters right, in the wake of what happened in the Wessex authority.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

The World Health Organisation has recognised the crucial importance of targets in relation to the "Health of the Nation" strategy that the Government have rightly put into practice. There is increasing concern about the greater incidence of asthma nowadays: it kills some 1,500 people each year. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate in which we can discuss whether asthma should be included in the health target policy?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend may wish to raise the matter next week; he will have several opportunities to do so. I shall, however, draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I have had some experience of the problems of asthma in my own family.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Members of all parties will welcome the opportunity next week to discuss aspects of the common fisheries policy. Is the Leader of the House aware that, earlier today, the Minister responsible for fisheries said that a statement would be issued indicating the Government's stance on particular aspects of that policy, including the days-at-sea issue? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is vital for such a statement to be made before the debate, and before the deliberations of Standing Committee A? Otherwise, hon. Members will be debating in a vacuum, and we shall do a gross disservice to a vital industry and to the communities and families who depend on it.

Mr. Newton

I am glad that I have been able to respond to some of the representations made by the hon. Lady, among others, asking for such a debate. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the hon. Lady's request about the timing of any announcement that the Government are able to make in response to the court case.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows that the British Waterways Bill—an opposed private Bill—was in Committee for 13 weeks during the last Session. However, because it has appeared on the Order Paper in the current Session and has been opposed on each occasion, there will be no opportunity to debate it in Committee. Is that not unfair to its promoters, and expensive for people who are, ultimately, taxpayers? Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Floor of the House so that the Bill can make progress?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will know of the responsibilities of the Chairman of Ways and Means in respect of private Bills, but I will certainly look into the point that he has raised.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Given the enormous importance of the matter and the nearness of the holiday season, will the Leader of the House give us an absolute guarantee that hon. Members will be given at least 48 hours' notice before the Government's decision on THORP—the thermal oxide reprocessing plant—is announced?

Mr. Newton

My colleagues in the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are still considering the issue in the wake of the further consultation that was undertaken. I cannot yet give the hon. Gentleman specific undertakings in regard to the timing of any announcement that they are able to make.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate next week about the application of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry for objective 2 status for areas of the United Kingdom under the European Community's infrastructural funds? In that debate we could highlight the underhand attempts of Labour Members of the European Parliament to knock out London and north Kent from the applications.

Mr. Newton

Both the relevant parts of London and Kent that the Government put forward in that context have a good case, otherwise the Government would not have put them forward. I believe that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry is pressing the case in Brussels this very day.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the Leader of the House assure us that the debate on Monday on the estimates will be wide enough to go beyond the subject of peacekeeping operations so that we may raise the question of human rights in Turkey and ask what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is prepared to do for British citizens such as the three lorry drivers, one of whom, Mr. Tony Quinn, a constituent of mine, was detained without charge for eight days on matters for which he had no responsibility and in appalling conditions? Indeed, he still remains in prison. His family is extremely worried. It is important that we should have a debate so that his family know what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is able to do to get those people reunited with their families for Christmas.

Mr. Newton

I am aware of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers and can assure him that our consular officials are doing what they can to provide advice and establish precisely what the position is. As to his question about a debate, I would want to take advice before advising him on your behalf, Madam Speaker, on what might or might not be in order during the estimates debate. If by some chance it is not in order, the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the opportunities afforded by the Consolidated Fund and Adjournment debates.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, earlier this week, the Select Committee on Social Security published its report on the Child Support Agency and said that the Government's general policy was correct and right and proper in ensuring that the children of this country are properly supported, if need be by absent parents, with adequate maintenance. In consequence, it was favourably received by the Secretary of State for Social Security. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there is enough time in the timetable next week before Christmas for an urgent statement, by the Secretary of State for Social Security if necessary, announcing that he will accept, or partially accept, the recommendations of the Select Committee?

Mr. Newton

I cannot give my hon. Friend an undertaking about the timing of the Government's response to the Select Committee report, but he is certainly right to say that the Government welcome its support for the general principles on which the Child Support Act 1991 is based and that the Government will consider the recommendations carefully.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Before the House rises for the Christmas recess, may we have a statement next week about the German general who is held responsible for the massacre of many British prisoners of war in France in 1940 and who will not be brought to justice? Is not it a very odd situation—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has raised the matter many times—that a notorious Nazi mass murderer can get away with that, be a successful business man in Germany, have an army pension of more than £20,000 a year and not be brought to justice for a notorious crime against humanity, a crime against our fellow citizens? What sort of British Government will not put the utmost pressure on the Germans to ensure that that Nazi is brought to justice at long last?

Mr. Newton

I must make the basic point that Britain has no jurisdiction over foreign nationals unless they are in the United Kingdom. The German authorities have been investigating the incident to which the hon. Gentleman referred and the British Government have given them every assistance, including full access to all the British files on the subject.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

In the light of recent reports that four out of every five personal pension plans that have been sold in the country have been based on inadequate information and will leave future pensioners without adequate provision, will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the matter so that we may debate the failure of the Government's policies?

Mr. Newton

It is clear that some poor advice was given, particularly to those transferring from occupational to personal pensions, but that is only a relatively small proportion of the total number of personal pension holders and at least 4.5 million are not in that category. It is not clear on what scale that has happened, nor how far investors have been disadvantaged. The hon. Gentleman will know that the matter is being actively and vigorously investigated by the Securities and Investments Board. Its approach is the right way to tackle those concerns, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has made it clear to the board that those concerns must be investigated and remedies put in place.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Will the Leader of the House find time for the Secretary of State for Social Security to make a statement to the House about his Department's practice in replying to parliamentary questions? In written answers to me, three dated 16 July 1992 and one on 28 October 1992, 16 November 1992, 20 July 1993 and 26 July 1993, I was told, through Hansard, that the information that I requested could be provided only at disproportionate cost or that it was not departmental practice to give information in the form in which it was requested. However, at a meeting that I attended with Mr. McLennan, the head of the Government Statistical Service, and departmental statisticians on 2 December, I was told that the information that I had requested could be made available to me in any form in which I wanted it. Surely, if it is available to me now, it could have been printed in Hansard. Therefore, will the Leader of the House, who represents a Government who profess a commitment to open government, and in view of the public interest aspect of this, arrange for an early statement?

Mr. Newton

Happily, although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not present, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People is and he has heard what the hon. Lady has said and has undertaken, in a whisper to me, to look carefully into what she has said.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange at the earliest opportunity a debate on the west coast main line to allow many hon. Members to welcome the Government's Budget decision on that and so that we may explain to the House that we appreciate that this is a major step forward and a recognition of the importance of that line to all parts of the United Kingdom from the Province of Ulster, through the west of Scotland and down the north-west and the west midlands? There is much to do beyond what the Government have already announced, but no responsible person could do other than welcome that.

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His remarks stand in marked contrast to a question put to me earlier today when I was answering on behalf of the Prime Minister. Even so, I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early debate.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Now that we have seen the total demise of the coal industry in the north-east of England as a result of the Government's policy, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the rising unemployment in the north-east and the situation in which some miners find themselves?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman the debate that he seeks, but, having had some considerable experience of the north-east in the year that I was a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, I think that he might at least acknowledge that the Government have done a huge amount, not least in attracting overseas investment here, to provide new employment opportunities in the north-east.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)

The Leader of the House will have caused grave alarm by the complacency of his answer on the Child Support Agency. Is he aware that thousands of decent people face Christmas going deeper into debt and genuine despair because of the workings of the Child Support Act 1991? On behalf of many lion. Members, I appeal for an early debate on the Select Committee's report. This is a worrying problem to many people.

Mr. Newton

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no complacency—certainly no intended complacency—in my reply. I acknowledged that the report needs to be examined. It will be carefully examined and there will be no unnecessary delay in coming to conclusions.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is not it nothing short of outrageous that the Government have introduced guillotines on two important measures when during the course of the calendar year they have arranged business in only seven months? Does the Leader of the House recall that on Friday we had a vote to ensure that the Session continued a week longer up to Christmas and he got all the Tory Members of Parliament to back him to lengthen the holidays and shorten the time for debate? We could have been debating the social security arrangements for two more days rather than introducing a guillotine. It shows the Government's utter arrogance and contempt not only for the House of Commons but for millions of people who will suffer because of the changes to national insurance contributions and sick pay. They stink to high heaven.

Mr. Newton

While I recognise that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) have persistently made such a point, it is notable that they have not been universally supported by all Opposition Members. Generally, I am under constant pressure in the House to announce recess dates as far ahead as possible and to give Members adequate time for duties in their constituencies, as I have sought to do. As I said earlier, we have just spent six days debating the Budget and those matters could have been discussed in that time. Next week the House will have a chance to vote on two of the proposals.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the health service, especially in the light of the British Medical Association survey published today confirming that patients of GP fundholders, even those who are less seriously ill than patients of non-GP fundholders, are treated first?

Mr. Newton

I do not accept the suggestion about a two-tier service, but, in any event, I cannot undertake to provide time for a debate next week.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent)

Is the Leader of the House aware that in north Staffordshire there is a special orthopaedic clinic that is available only to patients of GP fundholders? May I also draw to his attention the fact that about 70 people who are employed by the ambulance service in Staffordshire are soon to be transferred to the west midlands and are to lose around £65 from their weekly wage? Will he give an assurance that there will be an early debate on the health service in the west midlands so that the Secretary of State for Health can come to the House and be accountable and responsible for the way in which the Government and the fragmented health service are flouting the law in respect of the transfer of undertakings and the European directive?

Mr. Newton

I draw the attention of the hon. Lady to the debate on the Consolidated Fund and other opportunities next week to raise such issues. I cannot promise a debate, but I shall bring her remarks about specific cases to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Has the Leader of the House seen early day motion No. 5? [That this House calls for a change in the regulations affecting the operation of teachers' superannuation schemes so that a dependant's pension can pass to the spouse of a retired female teacher upon her death on the same basis as occurs for the widow of a male teacher; notes that this anomaly has only been rectified in connection with female teachers who retired in 1988 or afterwards; and calls for equality of treatment between male and female teachers, especially as their superannuation contributions have been made on a common basis.] It concerns the equality of treatment in teachers' superannuation schemes and the rights of female teachers who retired before 1988 to ensure that a dependant's pension can pass to their spouse in the way in which it would to any other female teacher who retired after 1988 or to a male teacher. Could he arrange a debate?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise a debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is due to answer questions on Tuesday 14 December. I gather that the position is rather complicated and goes back to 1972 when the facility was consistent with the arrangements for male teachers. I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.