HC Deb 12 January 1994 vol 235 cc304-8 12.32 am
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

With permis-sion, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement. The business for tomorrow will now be as follows: timetable motion on the Non-Domestic Rating Bill, followed by the conclusion of the Committee and remaining stages of the Non-Domestic Rating Bill. The Opposition day previously announced will now be taken on another occasion.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

The House and the country will observe that the Leader of the House has not even bothered to offer any justification for what is an absolutely ridiculous step taken by the Government. The debate so far, as the right hon. Gentleman will recognise, has been a Second Reading debate curtailed at 10 o'clock, as is the norm in the House. Does not he recognise that the country will see that the Government are running away, first, from a perfectly normal process of debate on matters which are of considerable interest to British business in every constituency, every town and every village in the country and, secondly, from a debate on the health service? [Interruption.] There has been no debate on the health service in Government time since 1991. If the Government are so confident of their position, why are they so gutless tonight?

Mr. Newton

The last Bill of the kind that we have been discussing today took three hours from beginning to end. Already, this Bill has had far more time than that and anybody who has been present today will understand why the motion has been moved.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

Is not it quite outrageous—[Interruption.] It is all well and good for Conservative Back Benchers who came nowhere near the debate to boo and coo, especially the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has been up to no good this week. It is an abuse of the House. It is quite impossible to get in touch with local government at this stupid time of night and it would be far better were it left to next week. It is quite scandalolus.

Mr. Newton

The Bill has been available since before Christmas.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Since the Bill is rather necessary to business and ought not to be delayed, is not it rather difficult to choose between synthetic indignation and Government vindictiveness?

Mr. Newton

The right hon. Gentleman may find the choice difficult. I think that it is absolutely clear that the Government are simply trying to proceed in a reasonable fashion.

Madam Speaker

I call Mr. Skinner. [Interruption.]

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

This is my college tie, Madam Speaker.

A week before Christmas, I warned the Leader of the House that he should use all the available time for parliamentary business when he pushed through two measures on a guillotine. Instead, this Tory Government —who do not know whether they are on this earth or Fuller's earth—decided to pack up and have an extra week's holiday. As a result, they cannot get their legislation through. This is a direct attack not on Members of Parliament, but on the 1 million people who are on national health service waiting lists. The Government have not the guts to debate that.

Mr. Newton

If I may say so, the Opposition's tactics are an attack on the interests of both local authorities and British business.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Am I right in thinking that, because no "usual channels" exist now, no one had any prior knowledge of the contents of the right hon. Gentleman's statement? If he is to decide when the Opposition parties take their Opposition days, does that mean that he will also decide the subject matter?

Mr. Newton

We did warn the Opposition.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

Will the Leader of the House answer two questions? First, he referred to the Opposition's tactics. Why did not a single Conservative Member speak in today's debate? How does the right hon. Gentleman justify, in the context of the Opposition's tactics, Conservative Members' refusal to join in the debate on an important Bill that affects every local council in the country?

Mr. Newton

Conservative Members know that the Bill is helpful to business, and needs to be passed quickly.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Most hon. Members who are present tonight will find it remarkable that, the more the Government abuse the rights of the House, the funnier Conservative Members find it. Most of them—

Madam Speaker

Order. This is question not statement time. May I hear a question from the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Stevenson

This is my question, Madam Speaker. Why is a guillotine motion necessary, given the serious point made in tonight's debate? It was pointed out not only that there is time for adequate consideration to be given to this important measure, but that local authorities say that there is time for that to happpen without any curtailment of their ability to set the rates accordingly. There is no question of businesses' being penalised; the Government are running away from the issue.

Mr. Newton

The motion will provide for adequate consideration.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (York)

What a farce it is when the Leader of the House comes here—

Madam Speaker

Order. I need a question, not a statement.

Mr. Bayley

Is it not a farce, Madam Speaker, when the Leader of the House comes here at half-past 12 at night to rearrange tomorrow's business? What other Parliament in the western world would have a Leader of the House tearing up the following day's agenda, and denying the Opposition the opportunity to debate an important issue involving the national health service? I have put in for it myself. What other Parliament in the western world would behave in a way that makes a mockery of our democratic system?

Mr. Newton

What is a mockery is the way in which the Opposition have tried to delay business needlessly.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Is not the Leader of the House admitting that the Government wanted to push through the measure without adequate debate in the Chamber? Does he object only to the fact that, this afternoon, it was Opposition Members who wanted to question and scrutinise the legislation? The right hon. Gentleman talks of what happened this afternoon. Is he aware—Conservative Members simply would not know —that, during large parts of the debate, not a single Conservative Back Bencher was present to listen or participate?

Mr. Newton

I was here on various occasions and I heard what was going on.

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh)

On a point of clarification—

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Let me put the House in order. This is a narrow statement. Hon. Members must ask questions only on the subject matter that has been raised by the Leader of the House.

Mr. Bates

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it has twice been said that no interventions were made during the debate on the Bill? I made two interventions during the speech of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and did not receive an answer to my questions.

Mr. Newton

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

Apart from one hour, since half-past four I have been here in the House throughout, except for 10 minutes to pay a call. That is more than can be said for any Tory Member except for three Front-Bench Members and the one Member who made an intervention. I was not called. The reason for that—

Madam Speaker

Order. I keep reminding hon. Members that I need a question, not a statement. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on what he wishes to say and put a question to the Leader of the House?

Mr. Michie

Does the Leader of the House agree that I was not called to make my speech on the important issue of industrial rates because the Conservative party was frightened to death? They have not allowed enough time to debate these matters. Not only are we not allowed to speak tonight, but we are guillotined tomorrow.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman should have plenty of opportunity to make his speech tomorrow.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North)

Is not it an outrage that debate on a subject that is crucial for businesses in the west midlands, where I come from, as well as throughout the rest of the country and for local authorities is being curtailed in a way that prevents hon. Members from voicing their severe concerns about what the Government are proposing? Should not the Government get their act together to enable hon. Members to fully debate this piece of legislation and to express the views of their constituents?

Mr. Newton

The Committee stage of the last such Bill took 20 minutes.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Is the Leader of the House complaining because debate on the Bill was taking more than three hours? If that is the case, why did the Government table the 10 o'clock business motion to allow the business, "though opposed", to continue "until any hour"? Surely the Government must have expected it to go beyond 10 o'clock. It was their decision, not ours, not to move the 10 o'clock business motion. Does not it seriously undermine Parliament if the Government decide to impose a guillotine if something takes more than three hours? Surely that is an abrogation of democratic rights. Even Mussolini made the trains run on time. The Government do not even do that.

Mr. Newton

I do not agree with that. In the light of what happened today, we considered the Opposition's evident intention to delay unnecessarily the passage of this necessary legislation.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Why are we going through the Government's procedural farce when, since 18 July, the House has sat for only 39 days in almost six months? Surely there is sufficient time for us to be able to debate matters correctly. Perhaps if we were here a little more often, the Tories would not get themselves into such a mess while we are away.

Mr. Newton

There is enough time; that is what the motion provides for.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Leader of the House or the Prime Minister plan to make a statement after business questions tomorrow? At what time does the Leader of the House expect the guillotine debate to start and finish and what time does he expect to be allotted to the four amendments—with Divisions.—that have been selected so far?

Mr. Newton

We shall have to see tomorrow but the less time taken on the guillotine, the more time there will be for the Bill.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

It is disgraceful that the Minister who replied to the debate this evening would not give way so that hon. Members could ask questions—

Madam Speaker

Order. I require a question.

Mr. Olner

Why was the 10 o'clock motion not moved in order to allow a proper debate? Does not the Leader of the House agree that it is disgraceful that there is not to be a debate on the national health service when the Government have not held such a debate since 1991 and when we all know about the problems that are prevalent within the service?

Mr. Newton

The motion was not moved for the reasons that I have already given several times.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Will the Leader of the House reflect on the fact that the title of his office is "Leader of the House of Commons"? Is it not a pretty shabby way of leading the House to move guillotine motion after guillotine motion on Bill after Bill? How does he intend to serve the House in future?

Mr. Newton

My role entails enabling the House to take decisions in a reasonable and orderly manner. That is what I am doing.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East)

The Leader of the House has attempted to justify the guillotine motion on the basis of what happened last time. If he had been present during the debate he would know that there are significant differences between the Bill that we were discussing today and the previous one, the most significant difference being that there is no commitment in this Bill to protect the rating pool from a shortfall. That is the real issue. Why are not the Government allowing it to be properly debated in the House?

Mr. Newton

I was here on several occasions and I have already made it clear that my case rests on what happened today, not on what happened last time.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

As the Government are clearly frightened of a debate on the national health service, and as the Leader of the House is prepared to manipulate the business to the Conservative party's advantage, will he find time tomorrow to ask his colleagues from the Department of National Heritage and the Treasury to make a statement—

Madam Speaker

Order. That does not relate to tomorrow's business.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Does not the Leader of the House realise that his statement tonight renders him unfit to hold the title "Leader of the House"? He is not the Leader of the House; he is merely the lackey of a discredited Government who should be voted out of office at the earliest opportunity. Let us get back to the real basics and have a general election and get rid of the lot of them.

Mr. Newton

No, I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's position and I do not think that anyone else will.

Mrs. Beckett

May I ask the Leader of the House to tell us something that has not emerged from our exchanges so far? Why is it necessary this year to guillotine in January a Bill that has not passed through the House before May in previous years?

Mr. Newton

Because of the change in the timing of the Budget.

Mr. Spearing

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I check with you that it is the case that we have heard a statement getting rid of the supply day today? [HON. MEMBERS: "Tomorrow."] It is today in real time, although it may be tomorrow in Parliament.

Secondly, I asked about the timetable, but the Leader of the House has not yet told us when we might complete the guillotined Committee stage tomorrow. As my question has not yet been answered, is there any way that he can answer before we finish today?

Madam Speaker

That question should have been put to the Leader of the House at the time.