HC Deb 10 February 1994 vol 237 cc473-82 5.10 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 next week, which will be as follows:

  • MONDAY 14 FEBRUARY—Until Seven o'clock, Motion on the Airports (Northern Ireland) Order.
  • Motion on the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order.
  • Motion on the Return of Cultural Objects Regulations.
  • Motion on the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order.
  • TUESDAY 15 FEBRUARY—Motion on the European Parliamentary Constituencies (Wales) Order.
  • Motion on the European Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order.
  • Motion on the European Parliamentary elections (Changes to the Franchise and Qualifications of Representatives) Regulations.
  • Motion on the Auditors (Financial Services Act 1986) Rules.
  • Motion on the Accountants (Banking Act 1987) Regulations.
  • Motion on the Building Societies (Auditors) Order.
  • Motion on the Auditors (Insurance Companies Act 1982) Regulations.
  • Motions on the Welsh Revenue Support Grant Reports. Details will be given in the Official Report.
  • WEDNESDAY 16 FEBRUARY—Motion on the Channel Tunnel (Security) Order.
  • Motion on the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order.
  • Motion on the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order.
  • Motion on the Statutory Sick Pay (Small Employers' Relief) Amendment Regulations.
  • Motion on the Social Security (Contributions) (Rerating and National Insurance Fund Payments) Order.
  • Motion on the Statutory Sick Pay (Rate of Payment) Order.
  • THURSDAY 17 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on the Royal Navy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
  • FRIDAY 18 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.
  • MONDAY 21 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

I thank the Lord President for the comprehensive statement on next week's business.

Does the Lord President realise that the fact that there have been so many statements today before the Opposition debate on the Child Support Agency reinforces the impression already created by the Government that they are running away from a debate on that subject? I suspect that by the end of the business statement the time left for that debate will have been reduced from one day to half a day.

Before Christmas the Government wrongly and needlessly guillotined the Statutory Sick Pay Bill. As I recall, the right hon. Gentleman told the House that it need not be debated as it was so beneficial. Has the Leader of the House noted that that measure has been amended in another place? That should have been the business of this House, which highlights the need for reasonable scrutiny. It is as a result of the handling of that business that we are now taking so many motions on the Floor of the House. Is not that another example of the Government shooting themselves in the foot?

We sought a debate last week, in Government time, on the report of the Public Accounts Committee on standards in public life, and the waste, incompetence and mismanagement that we are seeing under the Government. Has the right hon. Gentleman seen today's report of yet further losses of £48 million, which has been squandered on computer provision by the Department of Employment? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is of significance, or does he agree with the Chief Secretary, who is reported as saying: It happens in British business all the time"?

Mr. Newton

On the hon. Lady's last point, she will know that the Department of Employment will study the report of the Public Accounts Committee carefully. The Department has already issued a statement of initial comment making it clear that it does not accept all that Committee's criticisms, which appear to go beyond those made in the report of the National Audit Office.

The hon. Lady's earlier comments simply confirmed what I thought at the time—that she had not understood what was being said about the Statutory Sick Pay Bill. We did not say that it was not important enough to deserve debate. We said that, if the changes were to be brought into effect in an orderly way to allow industry proper time for implementation and for computer reprogramming, the Bill had to pass through the House before Christmas. Our view has been amply confirmed. One of the sets of regulations that I announced for next week follows on from the passage of that Bill. That will only just leave time for the proper implementation of the measure from the beginning of April. Those are the facts and I hope that the right hon. Lady will reflect on what she said.

I must tell the hon. Lady bluntly that her suggestion about today's statements was nonsense. Clearly, we had no reason for knowing that there would have to be a statement on Bosnia today. The House rightly expected a statement on Bosnia, but by the time we knew that there would be one, it would have been wrong to change the timing of the statement on the national health service. We had to have that statement to ensure that people outside the House were fully aware of the picture.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many politicians on the continent are puzzled at the lack of support—indeed, non-existent support—for European institutions that has come from this Parliament since the turn of the year? Those are important institutions, which cut across party boundaries and are germane to the interests of this country. Will my right hon. Friend do something about it? If he cannot, will he consider, in the longer term, providing time for a debate so that we can consider temporarily suspending our membership of those organisations?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend underlines a point which I have sought to make on several occasions and which was echoed in the debate on the motion to guillotine the Finance Bill by a number of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House. I hope that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) will reflect on the fact that it is increasingly clear that the Opposition's action is not so much damaging the Government as damaging Parliament and the interests of this country.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The Leader of the House will be aware that today the Secretary of State for Scotland placed in the Library proposed amendments to the Standing Orders of the House. They involve the way in which Scottish business is handled. Will the Leader of the House state when the amendments will be tabled in the House and debated? Does he accept that people in Scotland will not believe it if the Government try to pretend that Labour party disruption is holding us back? They will not believe that as long as the Government are able to ram through measures such as the Sheriff Court Fees Amendment (No. 2) Order using their majority? Is there any hope that people can operate in a mature manner when introducing those modest improvements in the way in which Scottish business is handled?

Mr. Newton

I can confirm that my right hon. Friend has laid his proposals in the Library as the hon. Gentleman described. The proposals reflect the substantial discussions that were held before the usual channels were disrupted. We would obviously like to make progress as soon as possible, but I cannot give a date now.

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend find an early opportunity next week to debate early-day motion 550?

[That this House notes that Labour-controlled Camden Council, which currently sets the highest council tax in Inner London, continues to waste vast sums of local taxpayers' money on inefficient services and ideologically-driven projects; is dismayed by the sense of priorities of a Council which spends nearly £150,000 per annum on six full-time trade union officials whilst, at the same time, closes down 16 play centres and junior clubs; is appalled to learn that the Council's HIV/AIDS housing project, involving the purchase and adoption of one property into five flats (four one-bedroomed and one two-bedroomed), cost a colossal £1.2 million and took two years to complete, and was then let to a Housing Association rent-free; points out that the £1.2 million could have helped far more HIV/AIDS sufferers if the money had been more thoughtfully spent; is not surprised that a report last year by the Local Government Ombudsman accused the Labour Camden Council of being guilty of "maladministration", a charge regularly levelled against Labour-run councils; and thinks it is about time the Labour Party censured Labour councils for spending taxpayers' money on politically-correct causes at the expense of vital local services, and encouraged them instead to follow the example of Conservative-run councils, which respond to the needs of the local community and provide them with an efficient and high quality service.]

That motion gives details of how the district auditors discovered that Labour-controlled Camden council had produced accounts showing a £20 million surplus, when there was, in fact, a £50 million deficit. Does my right hon. Friend know of any input that those Camden Labour councillors may have had into Labour's plan for business, as that would explain a lot to Conservative Members?

Mr. Newton

I doubt whether the people involved had any input into Labour's plan for business as the error was much too small for that.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a debate on the steel industry? There is anger and apprehension at the Government's unilateral decision to get rid of the European iron and steel employees readaptation benefits scheme, known as ISERBS. Does he realise that there is grave apprehension in the steel industry in Europe that there may be further cuts? Britain has made her contribution and we would like a debate so that we can tell the nation of our concern for the future of steel in Britain.

Mr. Newton

I think that the hon. Gentleman will know that that decision was taken after a careful evaluation of the scheme, which showed that it was not very effective in helping redundant steelworkers to re-enter the labour market. If the hon. Gentleman has not already done so, I hope that he will study a copy of the evaluation report which was placed in the Library of the House last October.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the Select Committee system is currently under pressure because of the number of pressure groups that are concentrating on individual Select Committees, making it difficult for them to carry out their work beyond small, identified investigations? In view of the fact that the Government introduced a deregulation Bill earlier this week, does my right hon. Friend agree that it might be appropriate to set up a new Select Committee on deregulation, encompassing all Government Departments and monitoring how deregulation is progressing?

Mr. Newton

I understand why my hon. Friend, with his interest in such matters, makes that suggestion, but he will know that since Select Committees were established the practice and feeling of the House has been that they should mirror the structure of Government Departments. What is most important to the deregulation initiative is that each Select Committee should be alert to the need and the possibilities in its own field.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)

Is the Leader of the House becoming as weary of answering questions on the Jopling report and its fate as many hon. Members are of asking questions about it? Will he reflect on the fact that, in the past, substantial reform of this place, which is desperately needed now, has only ever come from energetic Leaders of the House, such as Richard Crossman and Lord St. John of Fawsley? Has he considered that the job of the Leader of the House is to lead the House, and when is he going to do it?

Mr. Newton

The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is astonishing, in the circumstances precipitated by the Opposition Front Bench. The answer to it is a straightforward yes—but the second part of his question was addressed to the wrong person. It should have been addressed to his own Front-Bench spokesmen.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

May I ask for a debate on the structure of local government next week, so that hon. Members, especially Conservative Members, can emphasise how much importance we attach to the valuable work now being carried out by the Local Government Commission? It is important that, especially in my area, there is overwhelming support for a unitary authority. There has recently been all-party support for the devolution of powers within local government to town councils such as Kidderminster, which only the local government commission review could bring about.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will know that, as part of the basis of the commission's operations, it is expected to take account of the views of people in an area. Of course I hope that it will take account of the views that he reports in his area.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

As it is now nearly 12 months since the consultation document was issued and comments were received, will the Leader of the House give time next week for a debate on the curse of wheel clamping? The cowboy clampers are still hard at work extorting large sums, as much as £75 a time, from motorists who have left their cars not so much in awkward places as on what is obstensibly waste land. The clampers leap out, often in the dark, and hold people to ransom, keeping women away from their homes late at night. The practice is a real menace and should be brought to a halt. The Government should introduce legislation to bring England and Wales in to line with the Scottish courts, which have sensibly described clamping as theft and ransom.

Mr. Newton

I am of course aware of the concern felt on that subject by hon. Members on both sides of the House and I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as the world's population is growing by about 10,000 every 55 minutes, many people believe that that is the root cause of most of the world's problems—health problems, famine, poverty, migration and shortages of fuel and water? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the United Nations conference on population development will take place in Cairo in September and that the recent G7 summit placed great emphasis on the importance of that conference? The Government will now be formulating their policy for the conference, so would not it be appropriate to have a debate on the subject sooner rather than later?

Mr. Newton

I certainly accept the importance of the subject. I cannot promise an early debate, but I shall certainly bear my hon. Friend's question in mind.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

As there are difficulties in getting the business of the House through, I ask the Lord President of the Council whether it would be possible to have an early debate on global security, bearing in mind the fact that today we have heard at least two references to NATO acting out of area. It seems to me that the House should be given an opportunity to say where we think we should go on the whole concept of global security.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman has raised another important point, which I shall bear in mind, in the broad terms in which he expressed it. Subject to your judgment, Madam Speaker, I may suggest in return that some observations on that subject might conceivably be in order in the debate on the Navy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House next week.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

The question asked by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) clearly showed the frustration of Opposition Members at the fact that the Leader of the House has not provided time for a debate on the Jopling report. Over the past week I have asked Opposition Members at random their views on the subject. To a man, and to a woman, they said that they could not get through to their own Front-Bench spokesmen. Will my right hon. Friend hold discussions with individual Opposition Members, decide what we should do, and bring the matter forward at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Newton

There is much force in what my hon. Friend says. I, too, am in a sense grateful to the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood, because he has said publicly on the Floor of the House what many of his colleagues are saying in the Corridors.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Building on what the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood and my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) have said, may I remind my right hon. Friend that early-day motion 9, advocating the introduction of the Jopling report, has been signed by more than one third of the Members of the House of Commons? As there is no co-operation, between the Front Benches on the business of the House, and as we cannot scrutinise Bills properly, because we are having to stay up so late, does my right hon. Friend think that he, as the protector of Back-Bench interests, has a duty to bring the report before the House to be debated forthwith?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Newton

Again, the concern of hon. Members on both sides of the House has been made clear and I undertake to keep it very much in mind. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that he was in danger of confusing me, because according to my list, early day motion 9 is concerned with the Warwickshire police and has been signed by only seven people.

Mr. Harry Barnes: (Derbyshire, North-East)

Next Tuesday we shall deal with rather a lot of orders and some people may find that rather tedious. However, our business will have been enlivened earlier by a ten-minute Bill that I intend to introduce to improve electoral registration and access for disabled people to polling stations. That will be a rerun of a Bill that we dealt with last year, when the former Home Secretary said that although he was not against the principle, the Bill was premature. As a year has now passed, may we have a statement from the present Home Secretary on whether it is now time for the measure to be introduced?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman always enlivens our business, although not always in ways of which I approve. At this stage I cannot promise that my right hon. and learned Friend will join the enlivenment on Tuesday.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

Will my right hon. Friend now yield to overwhelming public and parliamentary pressure, as reflected in early-day motions 459 and 559, and make room next week for a debate on the behaviour of the Liberal Democrat party in local government?

[That this House notes that the latest official Activists Handbook of the Liberal Democratic Party addresses the problems of delivering Liberal Democratic leaflets to "unintelligible inhabitants who appear to speak only in Punjabi, broad Cockney or Scouse or, worst of all, Glaswegian'; notes that this is only the latest example of the Liberal Democratic Party using racially offensive language or language that mocks regional accents; notes that it follows the publication by the Liberal Democratic Party of overtly racist literature in a local government election in Tower Hamlets, together with racist remarks by the Liberal Democratic Councillor Tom Dommett in Somerset; and calls on the Right honourable Member for Yeovil yet again to expel Councillor Dommett from the Liberal Democratic Party and to withdraw the Activists Handbook forthwith.]

If we had a debate the scurrilous conduct now being swept under the carpet would be exposed to the full light of day.

Mr. Newton

That is another request that I shall bear in mind, because I believe that the whole House is becoming almost as frustrated with its failure to get action from the leader of the Liberal Democrats as some of the comments have revealed that it is over the Jopling report.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Why shall we not debate "taking stock" next week? Does the Leader of the House remember that a year ago the Government said that, just occasionally, some Scottish business might be decided by Scottish Members of Parliament? Since then Scottish local government has been gerrymandered by English Tory Members and last night the Government did not even allow a former Tory Solicitor-General for Scotland to speak on an issue of Scottish law, which was then decided by English Tories. Are the Government totally incapable of practising what they preach on any matter, and will "taking stock" descend into the same kind of farce as "back to basics"?

Mr. Newton

The very fact that the proposals following on from "taking stock" have now been brought further forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is a sign that we take such matters seriously. I wish that I could have a similar assurance from the hon. Gentleman that he acknowledges that this is the United Kingdom Parliament.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will have words with those people who have been pressing him for debates during next week? If Standing Orders allowed the motions that have been laid before the House to be debated in Committee, we would have a three-day week next week in which many of the debates that have been requested could take place on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He adverts to the suggestion which was contained in the Jopling report and therefore embraces the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick).

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

Given the ever-increasing importance of the regional dimension to our national life, and given the repeated statements of the Leader of the House that he will consider the matter, will the right hon. Gentleman now reconstitute under Standing Order No. 100 the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs?

Mr. Newton

I have no plans to do so at present. However, I always consider with care the suggestions which are made by the hon. Gentleman and others.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate next week on personal pensions? It is many weeks since figures were released which showed that 2.5 million people who transferred from state earnings-related pension schemes were putting too little into personal pensions to avoid being worse off in the future. The Select Committee on Social Security is looking into the matter, but the Government's silence is deafening. With every day that passes, those people are seeing a reduction in their future pensions. The House must have an opportunity to discuss their plight and what action should be taken to secure those pensions.

Mr. Newton

With his interest in such matters, the hon. gentleman will know of the current work of the Securities and Investments Board. He will also know that its new rules on disclosures of charges and commission on life insurance, including personal pensions, in response to directions from my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will be a further solid step towards improving the marketing of those products and to helping investors make well-informed decisions.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

Will the Leader of the House consider the questions that I have been asking the Treasury for the past three weeks, which concern the amount of public money that has been put into Unicorn plc? The only reply that I have received from the Treasury is that such information is confidential. Surely that cannot be correct. Will he persuade the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) to give a personal statement of how much taxpayers' money went into that failed company?

Mr. Newton

I have commented on that matter on earlier occasions, but I shall bring the matter to the attention of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When are we to debate the calamity engulfing the civil service, and especially the Accounts Services Agency? The press has been informed that, tomorrow, a written answer will be given by a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry on the possible management-employee buy-out of that agency. In a secret ballot among the staff, only one member voted in favour. How on earth can we debate that issue if information is given via a written answer on a Saturday? When will we have the chance to debate what is happening in the civil service? A fortnight ago, the Leader of the House told me that it was codswallop to think that the standards of the civil service were on the slide because of the base business ethics which have been introduced. Since then, three major scandals have emerged in Wales.

Mr. Newton

I am having some difficulty recognising the fact that a written answer is being given on a Saturday. Leaving that aside and the fact that I do not accept the comments of the hon. Gentleman, not by a mile, I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend who is responsible for such matters.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the decision of Mr. Justice Laws, which, bizarrely, has stopped Somerset county council preventing the barbaric activity of stag hunting on its land? He said that it was a matter for Parliament, an excuse also used by the National Trust council, in defiance of its own members who also sought a ban on stag hunting. Given those circumstances, will the Leader of the House find some time for a free vote so that once and for all we may decide whether there is a future for such barbaric activity in a civilised society?

Mr. Newton

Certainly, I shall not comment on judgments in court. However, on the point which I can consider, the hon. Gentleman will know that for a long time such matters have been regarded as those for private Members' proposals and the practice has been to have a free vote.

Ms Tessa Jowell (Dulwich)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for the Secretary of State for Health to explain why she has still not answered a question which I tabled on 13 January? The question sought information about the number of press and public relations officers employed by the national health service. Perhaps there were too many to count.

Mr. Newton

I shall bring the request for an accelerated reply to the attention of my right hon. Friend.