HC Deb 16 December 1993 vol 234 cc1283-95 4.21 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for the first week back after the Christmas Adjournment.

TUESDAY 11 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Money resolution relating to the Non-Domestic Rating Bill.

WEDNESDAY 12 JANUARY—Proceedings on the Non-Domestic Rating Bill.

Motion on the Insider Dealing (Securities and Regulated Markets) Order.

THURSDAY 13 JANuARY—Opposition Day (First Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 14 JANUARY—Private Members' Motions.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday, 12 January to consider European Community document No. 6625/93 relating to special rehabilitation support programmes in developing countries.

In the spirit of Christmas, not to say Jopling, even though neither has been much in evidence this week, it may assist the House to know that, subject to the progress of Bills, it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Easter Adjournment on Thursday 31 March, until Tuesday 12 April.

[Wednesday 12 January:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 6625/93, Overseas Aid.

Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: HC 79-xxxiii (1992–93); HC 79-xxxix (1992–93).]

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

I thank the Lord President for fulfilling his undertaking to give us an Opposition day in the new year, and the dates of the Easter recess. Will the Lord President warn the Home Secretary that, when it comes to debating the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, Members on both sides of the House, with the exception of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), will be anxious to discover whether—contrary to assurances that the Home Secretary seemed to give in the Queen's Speech—the Government intend to use that Bill to make sharp cuts in the compensation paid to victims of criminal violence? It will be of particular concern, at least on this side of the House, if we discover that Ministers have misled the House on such an issue.

Will the Lord President confirm that his announcement about the handling of the Non-Domestic Rating Bill implies that the Bill will be put through all its stages in one day without agreement? The Opposition regard that as a further dangerous precedent, all the more so because it is completely unnecessary.

We recognise that the Bill may not be controversial —although, as it has not yet been published, we must trust the Government on that matter. However, it will affect every British business. Whatever problems hon. Members may have in scrutinising such legislation, people outside suffer most when Bills are not handled properly.

I remind the Lord President that, of the last two Bills on this subject, one was given 13 days in this place and six weeks in all, and the second 15 days and two months in all, from start to finish. There are still three months before this Bill needs to be on the statute book, so, on the basis of experience, the argument that there is some pressure does not stand up.

I am convinced that many people in local authorities and in business will not thank the Government for this speed. The Bill will hardly be here before it is gone again, and they will have had no time to look at it.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, finally, to press the Secretary of State for Social Security to come here as soon as possible to respond to the Select Committee report on the Child Support Agency? Does he realise that Christmas is being ruined for thousands of British families because of fear and uncertainty caused by the operations of that agency? It really is not good enough for the Government to drag their feet over this.

Mr. Newton

I assume that the right hon. Lady's thanks for the Opposition day debate were also made in the spirit of Christmas, for which I am grateful.

The White Paper giving details of the new tariff scheme for criminal injuries compensation—to answer the right hon. Lady's point about the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill—was published yesterday, and doubtless she will have studied it. Our scheme is the most generous in the world. I understand that we pay more than all other European Union countries put together.

As for the Non-Domestic Rating Bill, local authorities are under a duty to send out their bills in good time, and it is important that they know in good time what bills they are to send out, so as to avoid uncertainty for businesses and to avoid the risk that authorities might send out bills on one basis and then have to send out another set of bills on another basis. I do not accept the right hon. Lady's presumptions about the leisurely way in which the House can deal with this matter. It is our hope that the House will deal with all stages of the Bill on Wednesday 12 January.

The last such Bill took only two and a half hours on Second Reading and 20 minutes for its remaining stages—that is to say, less than three hours. On the proposal that I have announced this afternoon, there would be about twice that much time. We shall see whether the Labour party wishes to proceed in a way that meets the convenience both of business and of local authorities.

The right hon. Lady will know that the Secretary of State for Social Security is carefully and urgently examining the report of the Select Committee on the agency—and other representations that he has received but —I cannot at this moment give an undertaking about the timing of a statement.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Is the Leader of the House aware that it is now nine months since we had a debate on agriculture? Did he note that, during the Prime Minister's statement on GATT and subsequent questions, there was no mention of the effect on farms, farmgate prices or farm incomes? Is he aware of the considerable concern among all hon. Members about the likely impact on agriculture of the GATT deal, whatever its other benefits?

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us of an opportunity to debate early-day motion 134, standing in the names of members of my party and dealing with the hill livestock compensatory allowances?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Hill Livestock (Compensatory Allowances) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 2924), dated 29th November, 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th November, be annulled.]

He will know that many Members from the hill areas are anxious about the effect of all these proposals on hill communities.

Mr. Newton

I shall of course bear the hon. Gentleman's request in mind. There may be some opportunity to discuss with his party how to handle the matter, although, at the moment, because of the Labour party's position, it is not open to me to discuss it in the usual way through the usual channels. I understand his point, and I will take it into account.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

May I welcome the announcement that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is to have its Second Reading on the first day back? Is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of us hope to table a Back-Bench amendment to the Bill on the age of consent for homosexual acts, as we wish to see that changed? Could my right hon. Friend tell me whether it will be possible, under the long title of the Bill, so to do with an amendment that will be in order? Can he assist us by telling us whether we can have a full day's clear debate on this important issue, with free votes at the end?

Mr. Newton

Madam Speaker, you at least will have registered that my hon. Friend, in her characteristically engaging way, is inviting me in one answer to usurp your prerogatives and those of the Chief Whip. I hesitate to do so, but I am sure that you and he will take account of her request.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday's GATT announcement, on which we have just spent a great deal of time, coincided with the announcement of further appalling job losses in the special steel works of South Yorkshire, which are among the best in the world? Is he aware of any concern among his colleagues on the Treasury Bench about the fact that those job losses have been caused by the subsidy of our German and Spanish competitors? Those competitors, with their Governments, seem determined to take out our superior capacity, despite the existence of the powerful weapons to which the Prime Minister referred.

Do not the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues understand that, as our vital and strategically important industrial base disappears, this country will become little better than a banana republic, and that most people will not be able even to afford tropical fruit?

Mr. Newton

I do not for a moment accept the points which the hon. Gentleman made towards the end of his remarks. He will know that the Government have made clear their views about the issue of subsidies to other steel industries within the European Union. He will also know of the range of measures which the Government have taken, the most recent being their efforts to achieve a successful outcome of the GATT round. That is designed to improve the competitiveness of this country and the opportunities for our production to be exported.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

In the spirit of Christmas, as invoked by my right hon. Friend, will he save me from being pestered by the press and ensure that the Government give some response to the first report of the Procedure Committee on the Select Committee structure for Northern Ireland, which was published in the first week of December? Would it not be helpful if my right hon. Friend could ensure that the Government did something about it as soon as possible?

Mr. Newton

First, I express my gratitude—and, I am sure, that of the House—to my right hon. Friend and the Committee for the work that they did, not just on that report but on the Committee's earlier reports on these matters.

I am happy to inform my right hon. Friend and the House that, having regard to the report's conclusions, the Government have decided to embark on consultations with other parties on the basis that the time for a Northern Ireland Select Committee has now come. The House will be made aware of the outcome of those consultations in due course. In the meantime, I am sure that the House will welcome the intention to increase parliamentary accountability for the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Since it was the Leader of the House's PPS who prevented the House from debating Ferranti—a tragedy that puts at risk many thousands of jobs—will he arrange for a ministerial statement before we rise? Clearly there would have been a ministerial statement in that debate. Can we have that statement before the close of play tomorrow?

Mr. Newton

I cannot give any such undertaking to the right hon. Gentleman. I would make the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) was also denied an opportunity of debate by the tactics which were pursued by the Opposition earlier in the evening. I understand that the Chair pointed out at the time that what my hon. Friend did—he is as entitled as any other hon. Member to the procedures of the House—was no more than what had been done by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on Friday.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the actions of British Coal at Wearmouth colliery in Sunderland? British Coal closed the pit and offered it to be leased to the private sector. However, British Coal is daily making the pit less attractive to private colliery companies by removing vital roof supports and coal-cutting equipment for which British Coal can have no possible use.

Although British Coal does not understand it, the colliery has a bright future in the private sector, which would safeguard jobs in the mining engineering industry in my constituency, and lead to the re-employment of many colliers in Sunderland.

Mr. Newton

That is an operational matter for British Coal, which has given assurances that no equipment will be removed unnecessarily. In view of my hon. Friend's concern, I will draw his point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 284 concerning the life of Manuel Salazar, who is on death row in the United States?

[That this House is appalled that the death penalty has been passed on Manuel Salazar, a Mexican American, following the death of a police officer at Joliet, Illinois, in September 1984; notes that Salazar was unarmed and had been beaten by the police officer who subsequently died when his own gun went off; notes that after Salazar fled to Mexico he was illegally and forcibly returned to the United States of America where he was sentenced to death in 1985; notes that the Illinois Supreme Court is to hear arguments for a re-trial following the emergence of new evidence but is disturbed that the Attorney General is opposing this and asking for an execution date to be set; is further disturbed that his case is also before the Mexican courts for violation of his rights there by US agents; and therefore requests his release and return to Mexico.]

Does he recognise that many people in Britain are revolted by the prospect of the execution of a man who was illegally brought from Mexico to the United States? Will he convey that concern to his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, so that the revulsion of millions of people in Britain at the use of the death penalty can be passed on to the United States Government?

Mr. Newton

I will certainly bring those sentiments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, but so far, in all the circumstances, the British Government have not considered it appropriate to seek to intervene in that particular case.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that at least two Labour Members have cited GATT as a reason for debate on other subjects. As it is so important to the British industrial sector, will he give us some idea of when we will have a debate on GATT itself?

Mr. Newton

I cannot at present give my hon. Friend such an indication. Obviously, we will have to consider that, in looking at the business after the first week back that I have announced this afternoon. I will bear her request in mind. Meanwhile she may like to note that right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will be answering questions on the first Wednesday back.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will the Leader of the House consider finding time for a debate on water quality and the cost of cleaning up the water supply? Many of my constituents are concerned not only about the cost of water but about the subsidiarity arrangements recently negotiated by the British Government, which they feel will lead to a reduction in the quality of their drinking water. It is an extremely important issue.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady is labouring under some misapprehension if she thinks that the consequence of decisions in the subsidiarity context is expected to reduce the quality of British drinking water, which is very high. The issue is the pace at which further improvement can be assessed in a way that is manageable for the industry, not least for the consumers who have to pay for them.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Bearing in mind that there are more manufacturing jobs in the London borough of Ealing than in any other London borough, may I again press my right hon. Friend for a debate rather than a statement or questions and answers on GATT, as it has central importance to jobs in my constituency and the borough I represent?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend manifestly can press me, and has pressed me, on that issue. I will, of course, take account of his pressure, but I cannot respond more than that this afternoon.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I welcome the response of the Leader of the House to the question from the Chairman of the Procedure Committee? In the season of good will when there is great emphasis on the needy, can we have a debate in the very near future on our overall contribution to the Overseas Development Agency, bearing in mind there is still great need in the developing countries despite the hopeful bonus from the GATT?

Mr. Newton

Many people on both sides of the House would welcome an opportunity to debate that subject. Again, I will bear it in mind, but I cannot at this moment give any specific undertakings.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is it possible to have a debate on the antics of Labour-controlled Lancashire county council, which is currently instigating a judicial review to prevent the local Government inquiry into the structure of local government from proceeding? The action is being driven by the leader of Lancashire county council, who is power-mad and waving the charge payers' cheque book around. It is estimated that the cost may be about £500,000, when that local authority is for ever saying how strapped it is for cash. We should have a debate as soon as possible.

Mr. Newton

I hope that my hon. Friend's remarks will be registered by those in Lancashire who in due course will have further opportunities to vote in local elections. Meanwhile, the Government have successfully resisted the application for an injunction. The review programme is unchanged, the reviews are going ahead and we shall certainly contest Lancashire's arguments for judicial review.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

May I draw attention to early-day motions 260 and 261?

[That this House notes the SIB inquiry into the mis-selling of personal pensions to members of occupational pension schemes, but also notes with concern that a third of all personal pension schemes are cancelled within two years leading to the loss of investors' savings, that many individuals have been encouraged to opt-out of SERPS for inappropriate personal pensions, and that the churning of investment schemes including endowment mortgages, has been widespread in recent years leading to further losses for savers; and, therefore, urges the Government to establish an inquiry into the regulation and management of the personal financial services industry.]

While today's news that the Treasury Select Committee will investigate the sale of personal pensions to occupational pension scheme members is welcome, does the Leader of the House accept that that is just the tip of the iceberg? Some £200 million a year of savers' money has been lost through the early cancellation of pension funds, and there has been a widespread mis-selling of personal pension schemes to members of the state earnings-related pensions scheme. Will the Leader of the House find an early opportunity for a major debate on the regulation and management of the personal and financial services industry?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters, and he knows that the extent of non-compliance is being thoroughly investigated by the Securities and Investment Board. A proper time for such a debate would be when we have the results of its inquiries. The board has the full support of the Government in its inquiry, and the Chancellor has made it clear that he expects the review to be conducted quickly, and appropriate remedies put in place.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the near future for a debate about the responsibilities of employers for employees? I am a member of the Employment Committee and I am not bothered if I have to remain in the House until 4 o'clock in the morning, but the staff of the Palace of Westminster were also kept here until 4 o'clock this morning by the machinations of Opposition Members. The business being conducted was so important that at least 30 or 40 Opposition Members bothered to remain until 3 o'clock:

Madam Speaker

Order. I cannot understand what the hon. Gentleman is asking for. Will he make his point clearly to the Leader of the House?

Mr. Robathan

I am asking for a debate on the responsibilities of employers towards employees, to ensure that female recorders and women who work in the Tea Room are not kept in the House until the small hours of the night by the machinations of Opposition Members. We had one hour's nonsense from one hon. Member, and another Opposition Member claimed to see strangers. He should get more glasses. It is hypocritical of the Opposition to say that they care about the rights of employees. They do not consider the rights of the employees of the House, but treat them all in a cavalier fashion.

Mr. Newton

I hope that members of the Opposition Front Bench, and other Opposition Members who contributed to those proceedings, will consider what my hon. Friend has said. I regret the inconvenience caused to the staff of the House—not least because the public outside will regard it as not a very sensible way for the Opposition to behave and for the House to conduct its affairs.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

Returning to the question of GATT, will the Leader of the House give an assurance that that very important treaty will be debated? It is extraordinary that the French Parliament and the United States Congress can debate and vote on it. Surely the House can at least debate it?

Mr. Newton

I have made it clear that I will bear in mind the various requests that have been made for a debate on GATT. I do not dismiss them, and I will take into account what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the economic and social implications of investment in transport infrastructure? This would enable me to draw attention to the real economic advantages that the widening of the M5 has brought to my constituents in Worcester, and also the disadvantages it has brought to its neighbours in the villages of Whittington and Norton as a result of the noise generated because of inadequate soundproofing on the motorway.

Mr. Newton

I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I know from experience in my own constituency that one of the problems with road schemes is that, when advantages are brought to one part of an area, disadvantages are brought to another. But I cannot promise an early debate on that matter.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Will the Leader of the House, over the Christmas recess, look at the arrangements for Question Time? He will have seen today that neither the Chancellor of the Exchequer nor the Prime Minister answered questions directly, particularly the questions about the £9 a week increase in taxes for the average family. Instead, they started asking questions of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor. That was quite ridiculous.

I have been in the House for fourteen and a half years, and I have seen Question Time deteriorate. I go to seminars for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and tell the Members of Parliament of newly democratic countries that Question Time is the time when the Executive is accountable to Parliament. That is clearly less and less the case. Will the Leader of the House look into the matter and report to the House when we come back in January?

Mr. Newton

My right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Procedure Committee not long ago undertook some consideration of questions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I am about to. I was here when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was answering questions. I thought his answers were a model of precision and clarity. I have never heard the Leader of the Opposition answer any question at all.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

The House would welcome an early opportunity to debate local government in inner London. Many of my hon. Friends would welcome an opportunity to demonstrate that the worst councils—in terms of empty houses, poor collection of the council tax —[HON. MEMBERS: "Rates."]—and the provision of services—are councils controlled by the Opposition parties. They are a nightmare for the people of London.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and the reaction of Opposition Members shows the embarassment they feel when complaints are made. I will look for an early opportunity to debate the matter, but not before Christmas.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As to criminality, will there be a statement from the Home Secretary about why a person being deported from the United States —who is unfortunately a British citizen—will be allowed to come here? That person is being deported because he was involved in Nazi mass murders and the killing, in April 1942, of two Soviet prisoners, apart from other things.

It is not wrong that Britain should be considered a safe haven for such war criminals? Bearing in mind the fact that the chances of a prosecution under the War Crimes Act 1991 are remote, his United Kingdom citizenship should be cancelled and he should be told that under no circumstances will we allow British soil to be contaminated by his presence.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman knows the answer. That person is a British citizen, and we have no choice but to accept him if he returns here. Any allegations that he has committed criminal acts will be investigated in the same way as allegations against any other British citizen. That is the right way to approach the matter.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Will my right hon. Friend find time, early in the new year, for the Secretary of State for Transport to report to the House about the outcome of his Department's review of the crossrail project? I hope that the Crossrail Bill will be able to proceed without delay through the remainder of its Committee stage.

Mr. Newton

I will bring my hon. Friend's request to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will the Leader of the House give some Christmas cheer to my embittered constituent Kevin James, who, when he was a serving soldier in Northern Ireland, was severely injured in a bomb blast which killed his companion, Bombardier Wells, and two children? He has had a demand from the Child Support Agency for £1,000, and it has doubled his maintenance payments, which he cannot pay because he has no disposable income.

Can we have a debate on the agency so that I can ask the Prime Minister why, in Mr. James's terms, when he has put his life on the line "for people such as John Major", he is now being ruined by the same man? How is he going to help his ex-wife if he can no longer afford to travel to the north of England to see his children or to buy them Christmas presents?

Mr. Newton

As the hon. Gentleman will understand, I am not in a position to comment on a specific case. He will have observed, however, that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Social Security and the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People are both present; I am sure that they will look into the matter.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

Will my right hon. Friend allow some time early in the new year for a debate on procedures of the House, particularly to discuss the methodology by which the Opposition parties could put down amendments to Treasury motions? Clearly, the whole issue needs to be simplified for those on the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Newton

I have already said that it might be appropriate for someone to run a seminar for the Opposition dealing with the tabling of amendments to Budget motions. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether it would be appropriate for me to do that; but those who now sit opposite me muttering may care to seek further advice.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Does the Leader of the House recall the critical remarks made by his hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who accused the Prime Minister of political funk for sitting on the report on the privatisation of the Post Office for more than a year? Is it not a tragedy that the chairman of the Post Office has felt it necessary to speak out publicly, and in a highly critical way, against the Prime Minister and the Government, because of the drift and uncertainty surrounding the Government's proposals for the future of the Post Office?

Is this not the clearest possible example of circumstances in which a debate is urgently required—in this instance, a debate on the future of a national institution?

Mr. Newton

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Government's position in relation to the review of the Post Office, and the consideration that they are devoting to it—which, clearly, must be conducted very carefully—is well known. I do not propose to add anything further this afternoon.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for providing, in considerable detail, the programme for the first week after our return in January? Would it not have been equally helpful to hon. Members if the subject of Thursday's debate had also been announced by the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett)?

Mr. Newton

Yes, it would. It would also have been quite nice if someone had thanked me for my early warning of the dates of the Easter recess.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

The Leader of the House has announced a three-week Christmas recess. Will he spend at least one day of that break brushing up his knowledge of parliamentary procedure, of which he has shown a worrying lack of grasp in his answers today—especially in his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who referred to the Prime Minister's poor performance at Prime Minister's Question Time?

The right hon. Gentleman said that, in all his time as Leader of the House, he had never heard the Leader of the Opposition answer a straight question. Will he try to understand that the Prime Minister's function is to answer the questions, whereas the function of the Leader of the Opposition is to ask them? May I make him fully aware that any Opposition Member would be delighted to swap places whenever he likes? We will answer the questions, and we will form the Government of the country, and we will answer those questions incredibly more effectively than the right hon. Gentleman does now.

Mr. Newton

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman is all over the place. I did not have in mind the role of the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister's Question Time; I am well aware of the position in that regard, and I understand what the hon. Gentleman was saying. I have sat through a good many debates during which the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) has been asked how he would pay for his spending programmes, and I have never heard an answer.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

Will my right hon. Friend consider making time available for a full debate on the methods by which the House makes the European Community accountable to Parliament, and to the Parliaments of the other member states? Is he aware that, when European Standing Committee B—of which I am a member—meets on 12 January, it will discuss a motion relating to the special rehabilitation support programme, and a document that will already have been agreed in the Council of Ministers? Any opinions that we express to the Minister therefore cannot be taken into account.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is not satisfactory? Do we not need to review the way in which we scrutinise the huge quantity of legislation that flows out of the European Community, so that we can have the Europe of nation states that the Prime Minister wants, rather than being dragged into a federal system?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will be well aware that, in recent years, substantial improvements have been made in the way in which such matters are conducted, in order to improve accountability. Obviously, I would not rule out further improvements if there are clear ways in which they can be made. Meanwhile, my hon. Friend might have welcomed the clear gains represented by the further progress made very recently at the Brussels Council in giving reality to the concept of subsidiarity.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made—either by the Secretary of State for Health, or by the Minister responsible for health in Scotland—regarding a letter that I have received from a junior Minister, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland?

According to that letter, incinerators in national health service hospitals—or trust hospitals—can now possibly be used to burn commercial or toxic waste. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a ministerial statement to clarify the matter, and to back up what the Minister said? I understand that he has now denied it to certain newspapers. I am concerned about that, because I have a letter in which he says clearly, in black and white, that those hospital incinerators can now burn toxic waste commercially.

Mr. Newton

I will bring that request to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am sure that he will seek to reassure the hon. Gentleman in any way he can.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)

First, may I thank my right hon. Friend profusely for giving us advance warning of the business that we will debate when we return?

Two weeks ago, when we were given notice of a debate prior to the meeting of the European Council, I told my right hon. Friend that I thought there would be a problem because not all the documentation was available, and that in any case there was a huge amount to study before the debate. As he will recall, last Thursday it turned out that some of the main documentation had not arrived until Wednesday afternoon—which gave us less than a day in which to study a 7 in pile of documentation.

I suspect that, if he looks at Hansard, my right hon. Friend will agree that the quality of the debate was very poor—with some exceptions. People had not had enough time to study the documents. Will my right hon. Friend take account of that, and look for some way in which we could have acquired that documentation earlier?

Mr. Newton

I shall not attempt to comment on every document. My hon. Friend will know, however, that when a debate is to take place near the date of a Council meeting, we depend to some extent on the arrival of the necessary documentation from the Commission, or from other appropriate bodies. He will also be well aware—it has been widely reported in the newspapers—that my right hon. Friends have made clear their own view on the late arrival of very important documents from the Commission for the Council itself.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, earlier this week, The Sun carried the story that thousands of jobs were available in California for British workers, involving the rebuilding of homes that had been destroyed in the fire? Is he aware that, misled by the story, some British workers actually went to California, only to discover that they were not allowed to work without the necessary permits—and that, in any case, the jobs did not exist?

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Minister to make a statement to the House setting the record straight, before any more British workers suffer as a result of the lies in The Sun?

Mr. Newton

I will bring the matter to the attention of, perhaps, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. On the other hand, I hope that the hon. Gentleman's complaint will be heard and noted by those responsible for the original story, who might then consider it appropriate for them to correct it.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

In view of the procedures adopted by the Opposition to disrupt the Government's business, has my right hon. Friend had any talks with the deputy Leader of the Opposition about the Jopling proposals—or are those proposals even less likely to be implemented now?

Mr. Newton

I have had a number of exchanges of various kinds with the right hon. Lady. It has manifestly not been possible so far to make the progress that I would like. It is, perhaps, for the right hon. Lady to say whether she is prepared to engage in any further efforts; but the Opposition's current stance is that they are not talking to us at all.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Some highly disturbing information has been hidden in the Library rather than being published in Hansard. It shows that only 95 per cent. of those eligible to be included on the electoral register in England and Wales are currently registered. Moreover, that includes many people who should not be registered, as they died during the process of registration or have moved away.

When we return from the Christmas recess, should we not have a debate about the state of electoral registration in this country, so that we can discuss the development of a proper procedure to secure maximum registration? We are in danger of having not only a partial Parliament that hardly ever meets, but a partial electorate.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will have at least one opportunity in the first week back to raise that point, because the Home Secretary is here for questions on Thursday 13 January.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 281.

[That this House notes that at Prime Minister's Questions on Tuesday 14th December the Prime Minister stated that there were over a thousand grant-maintained schools, Official Report, column 826, whereas the true number is 708; further notes that on the same day at education questions the Secretary of State for Education claimed that month after month including the last three months, the ratio for opting out was 8:2, whereas the correct ratio is 6:4 at a time when ballots have fallen by two-thirds; and calls on the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education to make a statement to the House correcting these serious errors of fact which might mislead honourable Members into repeating them inside and outside the House.]

I have attempted to put right in a parliamentary publication factual inaccuracies made by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education during Question Time on Tuesday. The Prime Minister mistook the estimate of grant-maintained schools as 1,000, when in reality it was 708, and the Secretary of State for Education could not tell the difference between a ratio of 8:2 and one of 6:4.

If the Leader of the House cannot bring them to the House to set the record straight, will he at least send the Prime Minister back to school so that he can get a better grasp of number, and send the Secretary of State for Education back to school so that he can learn to speak English in a much clearer fashion?

Mr. Newton

I suspect that the mathematical confusion may be in the hon. Gentleman's mind, since I understand that parents at well over 1,000 schools voted in favour of grant-maintained status, and applications from 840 of them have already been approved. Obviously, the exact proportion for and against varies from month to month, but taking the whole period since balloting began in 1988, the proportion has remained more or less constant at around eight out of 10.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, especially article 34, which calls on all states to take effective action to protect all children from sexual exploitation. In the light of that, I ask the Leader of the House to read the article in The Mail on Sunday, which highlighted the disturbing growth of child prostitution in Nottingham.

On the assumption that this is an all too sad reflection of what is going on in major cities up and down this country, can I ask the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on child prostitution in British cities, the inadequacies of current British law in terms of penalties against men who draw children into prostitution and the over-stretched nature of resources available to work with those children?

Mr. Newton

In one sence, I probably can promise the hon. Gentleman a debate, first, in fairly general terms and, no doubt subsequently if he wishes, in more specific terms. Of course, the first business in the first week back is the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, to which such matters would clearly be relevant.