HC Deb 11 February 1993 vol 218 cc1122-9

4.3 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 business statement. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 15 FEBRUARY—Until seven o'clock, private Members' motions.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Judicial Pensions and Retirement Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 16 FEBRUARY—Progress on remaining stages of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill.

Motion relating to the Hill Livestock (Compensatory Allowances) (Amendment) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Until about seven o'clock, completion of remaining stages of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill.

Motions on the Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Order and the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order.

Motion on the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order.

THURSDAY 18 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Foreign Compensation (Amendment) Bill [Lords.]

Motion on the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order.

FRIDAY 19 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 22 FEBRUARY—European Communities (Amendment) Bill—progress in Committee, 12th day.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee A will meet on Wednesday 17 February at 10.30 am to consider European Community Document No. 8412/92 relating to a Council regulation on feeding stuffs for particular nutritional purposes.

[Wednesday 17 February:

European Standing Committee A: Relevant European Community document—8412/92, feeding stuffs intended for particular nutritional purposes; relevant report of the European Legislation Committee—HC 79-vi (1992–93).]

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement.

Given the many stories about deteriorating national health service waiting lists, there is considerable anxiety in the House, especially on the Opposition Benches, that there should be an early statement on the Tomlinson report. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will convey that message and perhaps even indicate to us whether he expects a statement in the near future.

I press the right hon. Gentleman again to seek a statement from the Home Secretary on what he may have in mind for the reorganisation of the police. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is considerable concern both about levels of crime and about the impact of what the Home Secretary has in mind on police morale.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider again a debate on public spending, for which we have pressed and to which we believe the House is entitled.

Finally, when does the right hon. Gentleman think that we are likely to have another Opposition Supply day?

Mr. Newton

I expect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will be making a statement on the Tomlinson report on London hospitals in the fairly near future. I cannot be precise about the date this afternoon.

The hon. Lady will know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, who was answering questions only an hour or so ago, is considering the structure of police forces to see whether existing arrangements can be improved. There are no firm proposals at this stage and clearly, therefore, no basis on which my right hon. and learned Friend can make a statement. I am sure that he would wish to inform the House in an appropriate way when he has reached conclusions.

I note the hon. Lady's further requests for a debate on public spending and for Opposition time. I cannot add now to what I have said over previous weeks, especially in respect of Opposition time. I am sure that there can be further discussions through the usual channels.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May we have a debate on taxation next week so that the House can examine once more taxation and representation? Such a debate would enable the House to consider whether the Queen should have the vote because she is now to pay taxes. It is an important and democratic principle.

Mr. Newton

I hesitate to add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was saying a few moments ago. I suspect, however, that those who are Members of another place, who pay taxes but do not have votes, might wish to express an interest in the matter. It is one that raises some wider questions. My hon. Friend will know that the Budget is not far away, which means that he will have plenty of opportunities to talk about taxes.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Has the Leader of the House seen the report this morning that only 17 per cent. of the population believe that better services will result from the privatisation of the Post Office, as against 37 per cent. who believe that the service would deteriorate? That is an even bigger gap than that which exists for rail privatisation. Given the widespread concern in the House, as evidenced in early-day motion 848, that the privatisation of the Post Office would affect especially rural areas, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that there will be a statement or a debate to clarify the Government's intentions?

[That this House recognises the importance of rural and community post offices to those in receipt of DSS giro cheques for payment of pension and other benefits; further recognises the difficulties of many benefit recipients whose financial circumstances make it difficult to secure bank accounts; calls on Her Majesty's Government to provide guarantees that the proposed DSS plans to pay benefits direct to bank accounts will not be at the expense of the financial viability of rural and community post offices; and further notes that the loss of valuable income through bank charges is an additional burden they cannot afford.]

Mr. Newton

I can say, in slightly different terms from those that I used in reply to the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) about the position of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, that recent press stories about the Government's plans for the Post Office can be described only as pretty wild speculation. Ministers have yet to consider options. No decisions have been taken, and therefore there is no basis for a statement. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to probe further, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will be answering questions on Wednesday next.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Some months have elapsed since the new Governor of Hong Kong took office and subsequently made proposals for constitutional development in Hong Kong which have led to a good deal of discussion in many circles, including a useful debate in another place before Christmas, but this House has not had an opportunity to discuss Hong Kong for some time. Will my right hon. Friend remedy that omission fairly soon?

Mr. Newton

Without making any commitment at all, I can only say that I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's request.

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

May I, as the original Westminster ratepayer who brought before the Westminster auditor the complaints about the sale of cemetries and the rigged sale of council houses under Shirley Porter's stewardship, ask for a debate in the House of Commons on the whole question of the pork-barrel political activities of Westminster city council?

Mr. Newton

It is so long since the hon. Gentleman asked me about anything except Members' interests that for a moment I had some difficulty considering what I might say. But I think that what I have to say is that I cannot promise him the debate for which he asks.

Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Select Committee on Defence this week, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence last week, in what might be described as a pre-emptive strike, agreed that the proposals in "Options for Change" should be reviewed. As the House lost the opportunity last year to debate the defence estimates because of the general election and in the light of concerns across the House, will my right hon. Friend give the House the opportunity to debate defence matters before the Easter recess?

Mr. Newton

I shall certainly do so if I possibly can. Had the hon. Member for Derby, South asked me about this, as I half thought she might since she did so last week, I had intended to reply in what I think will be considered reasonably forthcoming terms. What I have in front of me is, "There is no time next week, but I shall certainly look at the possibility of finding time in the not-too-distant future." Therefore, I hope that I can create some pleasure on both sides of the House.

Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan)

Will the Leader of the House consider allowing time for a debate on early-day motion 1215 on standing charges?

[That this House views with great concern standing charges being imposed on pensioners by British Gas, Electricity and Telecom, meaning an extra burden of £190 per year; recognises that many pensioners are already living below the poverty line; finds these scandalous charges a drain on their already overstretched resources; therefore calls for the immediate abolition of all standing charges; and calls for the President of the Board of Trade to call a meeting with all companies concerned with a view to alleviating this unnecessary hardship.]

The people of Britain and Scotland are disgusted at the way in which privatised industries are plundering the poor. Standing charges cost senior citizens, many of whom are already living below the poverty line, a further £190 per year. When will the Leader of the House allow a debate on that matter in the House?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will know that, in the many arguments that have taken place on the matter over the years, it has been thought proper to refer to the fact that the policy that he has urged would cause increases in unit electricity prices which would not necessarily benefit small users. However, standing charges are clearly a matter for the utility companies. On telephone charges, I understand that Oftel has recently announced plans to extend the support line scheme which is designed to protect the position of the elderly and those on low incomes.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Depending on progress and with some approximation, will my right hon. Friend say when he expects the vote on the official Opposition's amendment on the social chapter to take place and what his response is to Lord Tebbit's advice yesterday?

Mr. Newton

With regard to the factual question, I am not in a position to provide a clear-cut forecast at the moment because that depends on the progress on the Bill. With regard to the observations of my noble Friend, I shall simply observe that they are the observations of my noble Friend.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, on the day of the Royal Air Force debate, contributions on the Royal Air Force were largely restricted to the period when there was a 10-minute limit on speeches and, consequently, there was little opportunity to debate fully and adequately the changes that have occured, particularly under "Options for Change". As there will, quite properly, be one-day debates on the Army and Navy, will my right hon. Friend consider another day's debate on the Royal Air Force?

Mr. Newton

I always bear in mind, or will undertake to bear in mind, anything that is put in as quiet and reasonable a way as my hon. Friend put his question. I do not wish to excite too much hope. I have in mind at present, and had in mind, in replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) and referring to the hon. Lady the Member for Derby, South, a wider-ranging debate that would enable hon. Members to make points on all the services and on foreign affairs generally.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will have heard that the Prime Minister, after his statement, was not able to answer some questions. Will it be possible, not next week, but in the near future, to have a further statement in the light of the press conference that starts in one minute? Amnesia affects many of us. We forget what has happened in the past and do not pay tribute to the contribution of the royal family to the Consolidated Fund. The tax arrangements will be indefinite. Some of us have bad memories and we would not like the creeping socialism that seems to be arriving in the classless society. We fear the prospect of President Heath or President Benn contending for leadership.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Member echoes the remarks of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) during questions to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I do not wish to add to what my right hon. Friend said in reply.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

My hon. Friend is well aware of the great interest in the House and outside in the Government's promised White Paper on energy policy and the future of the pits. I know that it is his intention to allow the House an opportunity to debate it as soon as possible after it is published. However, may I ask him to give favourable consideration to the possibility of allowing for a two-day debate, the first day being open-ended, on the successful model of the arrangements that he made for the Second Reading of the European Communities Bill last June?

I hope that he will agree with me that, given the complexity and importance of the subject, it is impossible in a normal one-day debate, ending at 10 o'clock, in which, generally speaking, after Front-Bench spokesmen, Privy Councillors and other dignitaries have spoken, there is just an hour or two left, for Back-Bench opinion to be expressed and for a reasonable spectrum of opinion to be brought before the House.

Mr. Newton

I note my hon. Friend's request and I acknowledge that there is a good deal of interest in this matter, but I think that arrangements for debating a White Paper which has yet to be published are best considered after it has been published.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion No. 1341 in my name?

[That this House recognises that the West Yorkshire Fire Authority is legally bound to provide services that meet efficiently all normal requirements; notes that in order to comply with the Conservative Government's capping criteria for 1993–94 the authority must close Bingley Fire Station and lose a turntable ladder at Brighouse, an emergency tender in Halifax and a prime mover in Moortown as well as shut Sowerby Bridge Fire Station; further notes that Mr. Manuel, the Chief Fire Officer, says these cuts will breach the minimum standards of cover and reduce the West Yorkshire Fire Service to that of a third world fire service; places on record the encouragement given by the Earl Ferrers to the authority to breach the cap to maintain minimum levels of service when he spoke to a delegation on 14th January; believes the underfunding of the Fire Service is not only a national disgrace but a recipe for disaster; and publicly states its support for the authority if it decides to set an 'illegal' budget as the Home Office Minister suggested.]

It recognises that West Yorkshire fire authority is legally bound, under Home Office rules, to provide minimum standards of service, but, in order to beat the cap issued by his Government, it will be unable to provide those minimum standards. The chief fire officer has given that warning. Can we have an urgent debate so that lives are not lost and property not destroyed needlessly?

Mr. Newton

I am not aware of any reason why West Yorkshire fire authority should not meet the nationally recommended minimums of fire cover and keep to its statutory duties, but if the hon. Lady believes that there is evidence to that effect, I am sure that she will bring it to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and that he will consider it.

Mr. Philip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

Bearing in mind the recent imposition by the United States of grossly unfair anti-dumping duties on European steel producers, that the European Community itself uses equally flawed anti-dumping rules to impose duties on east European steel producers, and the fact that the GATT round seems to be bogged down and is three years overdue for completion, is not it about time that the House had a debate on the GATT round and on trade in general? That would, not least, give our Ministers a chance to tell us what they are doing to use their influence to reduce intensive protectionist measures in the European Community to ensure that the world trading system does not descend into 1930s-style tit-for-tat protectionism.

Mr. Newton

There have been several references in the past few minutes to debating foreign affairs and defence. I should have thought that some of my hon. Friend's points might be relevant were I able to find time for such a debate. I cannot find time for a specific debate on GATT at present.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, Sir Leon Brittan, the European Community Commissioner responsible, is meeting the new United States trade representative in the United States today, I believe. I am sure that he will be anxious to overcome the difficulties to which my hon. Friend referred, as I know equally well will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he visits the United States to see President Clinton and others later this month.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

Further to an earlier question, will the Leader of the House entice the President of the Board of Trade to the Dispatch Box to give openly to the House the news that he is deliberately leaking to newspapers about the 31 pits? Does not the Leader of the House consider it an absolute disgrace that in those leaks the President of the Board of Trade is taking his own side for granted in suggesting that they will troop through the Lobbies like sheep behind him? Is not the President of the Board of Trade holding the whole House in contempt by communicating with newspapers rather than with the House, and will he please stop playing ducks and drakes with miners' families?

Mr. Newton

I do not believe that my right hon. Friend is responsible for the stories to which the hon. Gentleman refers or that he is taking anyone for granted. He is working very carefully and thoroughly to produce a properly thought-out White Paper. As for enticing him here, he is already committed to being here next Wednesday to answer questions.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Will my right hon. Friend dig deep into the archives to see when we last had a debate on the arts? I suspect that it must be a year, if not two years, since we had a full and proper debate and I think it is time that we debated the strategy of the new Department of National Heritage and the Arts Council since the publication of its strategy—or would it be better for me to table an amendment to the European Communities Bill?

Mr. Newton

The veiled threat in my hon. Friend's last remark—perhaps it was not even veiled—might give me some encouragement. As it is, however, despite that veiled or unveiled threat, I will simply take note of my hon. Friend's request.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I recognise that the Leader of the House has set aside some considerable time next week for Scottish business, but does he accept that one of the critical current issues facing us is the future of the legal aid system in Scotland? Given that the Government propose to alter this legislation on 1 April, with huge reductions in access to legal aid, thereby restricting the ability of the most vulnerable sections of our community to obtain legal assistance, can he tell us what procedures the Government will follow? Will we have statutory instruments, will we have a motion, will we have a debate, and will there be an opportunity for us to consider this very important matter?

Mr. Newton

As I think the hon. Lady knows, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will shortly be laying regulations and it seems highly likely that there will be occasion for a debate in the light of the point that the hon. Lady and others have made. I will just remind her, as I reminded another questioner a week or two ago, that in total some 48 per cent. of households—very nearly half of all households—will remain financially eligible for legal aid.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

In view of the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) for municipal gutters, could we have a debate on ethics in local government and discuss the recent reports from boroughs such as Lambeth, Hackney, Peterborough and Monklands, which have been in the news and are all Labour-controlled authorities?

Mr. Newton

There appears to be some support on my own Benches, including from some in very high places, for such a debate. Despite that, however, I will once again take note of my hon. Friend's very reasonable request.

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

What is the likelihood of an early statement being made by, say, the President of the Board of Trade, or even the Prime Minister, about the building of a replacement vessel for the elderly royal yacht Britannia? Is the Leader of the House aware that there is a belief gaining ground throughout the United Kingdom that the Prime Minister has made a promise to the Queen and the royal family that they shall have such a vessel built for them? I wish to point out, as a Member representing a traditional shipbuilding constituency, that this would be taken very badly amiss—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. We are dealing with next week's business.

Dr. Godman

I asked for an early statement.

Madam Speaker

Good. That is where it should have ended.

Mr. Newton

In view of your steer, Madam Speaker, I shall say only that I cannot promise an early statement.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Although my right hon. Friend has said that he might not be able to find time next week for a debate on the conduct of some of our privatised industries, will he reconsider his answer? It would enable many of my colleagues to talk about the turnround of our former nationalised industries and the fact that, whereas they were a burden on the taxpayer, costing about £3 billion a year, they now contribute to the Exchequer, have improved productivity, are much more efficient and provide a better service to the customer. Would not such a debate enable us to prove what a great benefit they are to this country?

Mr. Newton

That is a very helpful question. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade might find it more helpful were it asked next Wednesday instead of some of the questions that it seems likely he might be asked.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Instead of the proposed business for Monday week, would it be possible to have a general debate on Maastricht so that the Government could give us their assessment of the inclusion of the social chapter and its implications? Does not the Cabinet appreciate the advice that Lord Tebbit has given Tory Members of Parliament on how to proceed?

Mr. Newton

Whenever I have been in the Chamber during the first 11 days of debate on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, people have usually found it possible to make general observations whatever the specific subject under discussion.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

What point is there in general observations about the European Communities (Amendment) Bill? What chance is there of making progress if the Government intend to drop the entire treaty if the social charter were to be included by a majority of the House? Will the Leader of the House make it clear whether that is the Government's intention?

Mr. Newton

I reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said on radio. He said: We can't ratify a treaty other than the one we negotiated; we don't intend to join Britain into a treaty which includes proposals and ideas which we think are destructive to British jobs".

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

Will the Leader of the House consider early-day motion 1370?

[That this House acknowledges the invaluable work carried out by REUNITE on behalf of those who suffer child abduction; and urges the Government not to terminate its grant to REUNITE on 31st March 1993.]

It is an all-party motion dealing with Reunite, the National Council for Abducted Children. The Government intend to withdraw the organisation's grant, thereby causing the collapse of the only advice service to Government and non-governmental agencies in Britain on the 1,200 children a year who are abducted illegally from Great Britain and held hostage in many countries throughout the world. More than 100 hon. Members have been assisted by Reunite to trace and identify children who have been stolen from their constituencies. Would it not be outrageous if the Government's decision were carried out because it would mean the demise of an organisation committed to the return of the children of British citizens who have been abducted illegally?

Mr. Newton

As I am not familiar with the exact state of play in any negotiations that might be taking place, I shall confine myself to saying that it is not uncommon for the Government—I have been involved in this work in various ministerial capacities—to provide funds on a start-up or pump-priming basis. I understand that, in 1989, the Home Office voluntary service unit agreed to fund Reunite temporarily to help it establish itself and find other sources of support.