HC Deb 23 June 1994 vol 245 cc374-82 4.26 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.

MONDAY 27 JUNE—Until seven o'clock, debate on "The Role of Select Committees" on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Followed by motion on the Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order.

TUESDAY 28 JUNE—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Coal Industry Bill.

Motions on the Ports (Northern Ireland) Order and the Ports (Northern Ireland Consequential Provisions) Order.

WEDNESDAY 29 JUNE—Opposition Day (15th allotted day).

There will be a debate entitled "Failure of the Government's Housing and Urban Policy" on an Opposition motion.

THURSDAY 30 JUNE—Motion on the Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order.

Motion on the Civil Service (Management Functions) (Northern Ireland) Order.

Motion on the Welfare of Livestock Regulations.

Debate on information technology and data and video services for Members, on the basis of reports from the Information Committee and the Broadcasting Committee. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 1 JULY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 4 JULY—Opposition Day (16th Allotted Day).

There will be a debate on "The Child Support Agency" on an Opposition motion.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 29 June to consider European Community document No. 5074/94 relating to energy and economic and social cohesion.

[Monday 27 June

Debate on the role of Select Committees


Second Report from the Select Committee on Procedure Session 1989–90 on the Working of the Select Committee System.

The Working of the Select Committee System—Government's response to the second report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure session 1989–90. CM 1532

Wednesday 29 June European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 5074/94, Energy and Economic and Social Cohesion; Relevant reports of the European Legislation Committee: HC 48-xv (1992–93) and HC 48-xxi (1992–93).

Thursday 30 June Information Committee—First Report of Session 1993–94, HC 237; The Provision of a Parliamentary Data and Video Network. First Report of Session 1992–93, HC 737; The Provision of Members' Information Technology Equipment, Software and Services.

Broadcasting Committee—First Report of Session 1991–92, HC 323; The Provision in Members' Offices of Access to Clean Televsion Feed.]

I regret that I am still not in a position to give the House the date that is perhaps uppermost in hon. Members' minds. I can, however, give them another useful date for their diaries: my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes to introduce his Budget statement on Tuesday 29 November. I hope that that date is a little further ahead than the summer recess.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

I know that we have been asking for statements and business to be scheduled a little ahead of the usual announcements, but the Leader of the House has excelled himself on this occasion, and I thank him for it. I also thank him for his statement and for the two Opposition days.

The Chancellor will be publishing the second of the two Industry Act forecasts next Tuesday—slightly nearer to the present day than November—yet we still do not know whether a statement in the House will accompany the publication of that forecast. It is very much our view that there should be a statement. An historical precedent exists—there always has been a statement—and I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to say that there will be one on this occasion. In any event, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be a day's debate in Government time on the second of the two Industry Act forecasts before the summer recess?

Can the right hon. Gentleman also confirm—I accept he cannot announce it before next week—that there will at some stage be a debate on the individual departmental public spending plans? That is important in any case—it is an annual event which the House has a right to expect—but, given the discussions now going on in the Government, it is surely all the more important.

I accept that the Leader of the House cannot tell us the date of the recess today. But a request to know the date of the recess is not a request for an early recess; it is simply a request to know the date. So I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us soon when the House is to rise and when we are expected to come back in the autumn.

Mr. Newton

I cannot add to what I have said, but I note the request, and also the continuing tension between the number of demands for debates of various kinds and the hopes in some parts of the House—even if those are not shared by the hon. Gentleman—for a reasonably early start to the recess.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific points about statements, debates and the like, I cannot say anything further about departmental reports, but I can tell him that I expect the summer economic forecast to be available to hon. Members from the Vote Office at 11 am on Tuesday 28 June. I do not anticipate a need or a justification for an oral statement, because the present arrangements are not on all fours with the situation in the old days of the autumn statement. However, the summer economic forecast can be discussed during the summer economic debate that I certainly expect us to have before the recess.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, amid the otherwise admirable arrangements that now govern the national health service, the continuance of the Whitley system works strongly against the notional freedom of trusts to set their own wages? Can he assure us that he will allow us an opportunity to debate that important matter before the recess?

Mr. Newton

I am afraid that I cannot undertake to provide an opportunity for a debate on that precise matter, but I can bring my hon. Friend's point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Treasury is requiring the Department of Transport to make efficiency savings of up to 20 per cent. across the Department, and that an important part of the Department's work covers the Coastguard Agency? Is he aware that in coastal communities throughout the United Kingdom there is great concern that if a 20 per cent. cut were made in the Coastguard Agency, safety at sea could be prejudiced? Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an opportunity to raise the matter on the Floor of the House before the summer?

Mr. Newton

Once again, I cannot respond specifically to the request for what I would call a dedicated debate on that matter, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will give great weight to considerations of safety. He will certainly want to consider the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

May I tell the Lord President of the Council that I have just received from the Ministry of Defence a written reply telling me that the royal yacht Britannia is to be decommissioned in 1997? That is horrendous news for my constituents and myself—and, I am sure, for many other people throughout the country. Britain without Britannia is like the Tower of London without the crown jewels. May we have an urgent debate on the subject? [Interruption.]

Mr. Newton

I sense that there is some support for my hon. Friend. As it happens, I was aware of that answer. Indeed, I have it here, and in the light of what my hon. Friend has said perhaps I should put on the record for the House the latter part: In view of the success of Britannia in her representational role during state visits, and on other state occasions, and of the part played by the royal yacht in trade promotion, the Government believe it right to consider, without commitment, whether there should be a replacement at some future point, together with other options for meeting the tasks presently fulfilled by Britannia. That puts the matter into some perspective.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that a statement has long been expected and awaited on the Government's policy in regard to the renewal of the BBC's charter. Shall we be receiving the statement next week, or at least before the summer recess?

Mr. Newton

I do not at present expect a statement to be made next week, but of course my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will make a statement at the earliest possible moment when it is practicable to do so.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

May I say to my right hon. Friend how disappointed I was about the business that he announced for next Wednesday? It is appalling that, on a day when we are yet again to have an industrial dispute on the railways, he has arranged for an Opposition day. May we have a debate in Government time on industrial relations? At least then, the Opposition, if they wish to participate—and in particular the three candidates for the Labour party leadership—could confirm whether they support the view of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), the junior Labour spokesman on transport, who has made it clear that he believes that strike action is acceptable.

Mr. Newton

What a very good question! During his Trappist period, my hon. Friend's talents and remarks were—I had better not say "wasted" so let me say "much missed"; I particularly welcome his comments on this matter. I cannot undertake immediately to change the business in the way that he suggested, much as I should like to do so. I must observe, however, that, were we to schedule such a debate and to seek a clear expression of views from the Opposition, we might end up with six hours' silence.

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

May I remind the Leader of the House of the exchange about child care provision in the Palace of Westminster that took place on Monday during questions to the House of Commons Commission? May I refer him to early-day motion 1350? [That this House believes that in-house childcare provision combined with the provision of childcare vouchers would enhance the opportunities as well as the productivity of parents who work at the Palace of Westminster.] Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that time will be provided for a debate on that important issue on the Floor of the House before the summer recess?

Mr. Newton

There are a number of matters affecting the House on which I hope to arrange debates before the summer recess, one of which—proposals for the parliamentary data and video network—I announced this afternoon. I cannot, however, undertake to arrange a debate on the issue raised by the hon. Lady or add to what was said on Monday by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who speaks for the House of Commons Commission.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1369 standing in my name? [That this House endorses the proposals of the Association of British Counties to reinstate the ancient and historic counties to the maps of England and Wales for all purposes other than local government except where the county is small enough to be constituted as a one-tier authority and for the ancient counties to be confirmed in all cases as the units for heritage, postal, cultural, sporting and boundary signage purposes; and urges the Department of the Environment not to confirm any proposals for one-tier administrative authorities which cross the boundaries of the historic counties.] The motion asks for the restoration of ancient and historic British counties for all purposes other than local government. Bearing in mind the great anger that was felt in the 1970s when many of those counties were abolished in an act that was almost Stalinist in its abolition of history and heritage, would not it be more acceptable if, under the new local government reviews, those counties were restored for all purposes other than local government? Would not a debate be topical in the light of recent controversies involving Wales, Huntingdonshire and Rutland?

Mr. Newton

That was another very ingenious and interesting question. The House may not be short of opportunities to debate such matters in the foreseeable future. I cannot respond precisely to my hon. Friend's ingenious request, but it may be of some encouragement to him, if I get the drift of his question, that the long-standing abolition of Middlesex as an administrative entity has not prevented it from continuing to have a cricket team.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In view of the direct Government intervention in the current industrial dispute taking place every Wednesday, is the Leader of the House aware that a statement from the Government would be welcome? Is not it clear that, far from blaming the Opposition, the vast majority of passengers know and understand that it is the Government who are at fault and who have made it clear that they would interfere if the agreement were not to their liking? As a letter in The Daily Telegraph makes clear, people appreciate the responsibility of those engaged in the dispute, the work that they carry out and their desire for a living wage.

Mr. Newton

At least that came closer to some sort of statement than anything that we have managed to extract from the Labour party leadership contenders. I construe the hon. Gentleman's remarks as an expression of support for the strike. I hope that my interpretation is correct, in which case he had better try to explain to the British public how he thinks it is justified to strike on an 11 per cent., no-strings-attached increase in basic pay in the present circumstances.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate next week on the commuter railway, because that would give me a chance to express the anger of thousands of my commuting constituents who yesterday had no train service on the north Kent line or any other line through Gravesham—at a time when they are having to pay an extra 6 per cent. in fares out of increases in pay that are level with or below the rate of inflation—as a result of a bid by the railway unions for an 11 per cent. pay increase at those commuters' expense and without even any strings attached?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend is precisely right. I am sure that the views that he expressed on behalf of his commuting constituents will be shared by my commuting constituents. Were the strikes to be successful, they could have only one of three consequences: to increase taxation, to increase borrowing or—and in some ways this is the most likely—further to increase fares.

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the increasing anxiety about the future of the Post Office? Government statements have increased that anxiety rather than reducing it in relation to Crown Post Offices, the network of post offices, sorting offices and the Royal Mail. I draw his attention to early day motion 1326 on the Abbey Wood sorting office. [That this House is opposed to the proposed closure of the Royal Mail Sorting Office at Abbey Wood and relocation in Thamesmead; notes that the present office is easily accessible to Abbey Wood residents and is served by both buses and British Rail, whereas the Thamesmead Sorting Office is only easily accessible to people with their own private transport and that it is not served by public transport and is located on a dual carriageway which has no footpath; believes that the relocation would cause great hardship, particularly to elderly and disabled people and parents with young children and that the proposal is motivated purely by financial reasons to increase Post Office profits at the expense of a service to the public; is concerned that if the sorting office closes, the Crown Post Office will soon follow; expresses support for the Union of Communication Workers in its campaign to save these services; and calls for the immediate withdrawal of the closure proposals.] May we have a debate before the recess on the Government's intentions for the Post Office?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the assurances that the Government have given on their approach to the network generally, and not least to the network of sub-post offices. He will know that the Government intend to produce a Green Paper, which I expect to be published before too long. That, no doubt, will answer some of his questions and provide him with an opportunity to express his views and those of others.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a wide-ranging debate on the need to maintain, if not extend, the Government's trade union legislation? Within a few days of the Labour party's doing well in the European elections, a major public sector union once again felt able—indeed, encouraged—to go on strike, showing that, beneath the veneer, nothing has changed in the Labour movement.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend is precisely right. He and others will be entitled to continue to press until we have some clear statement from the Opposition on their view of what is widely regarded as irresponsible and damaging action.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North)

In the week in which the second public inquiry into the Birmingham northern relief road begins, may we have an urgent ministerial statement on why the Government have chosen to suppress the report of the first and very expensive public inquiry into the relief road?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman is no doubt familiar with the details of the history of the matter, which goes back over a long period to the time when I was the Minister responsible for inner cities at the end of the 1980s. I will bring his point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Will my right hon. Friend consider arranging a debate on Iraq? Is he aware that, more than three years after the war ended, Iraq still holds 625 Kuwaiti prisoners of war, in firm defiance of United Nations resolutions? Is he aware that three Kuwaiti Members of Parliament are coming to Britain next week? It would be heartening for them to hear that this Parliament has not abandoned the Kuwaiti prisoners of war.

Mr. Newton

Again, while I cannot promise a debate, I acknowledge my hon. Friend's concern, which will be widely shared and which I will ensure, once again, is drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on, or give us an opportunity to investigate, the recruitment methods and procedures used when appointing regulators to the public utilities? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the widespread concern about the Director General of Gas Supply, and a debate would allow us to shed some light on this recess of Government decision making.

Mr. Newton

I did, of course, see the fairly extensive publicity that attended the inquiries of the Trade and Industry Select Committee some weeks ago. In so far as it is appropriate to deal with some aspects of that publicity, it is appropriate to leave it to the Select Committee.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on grant-maintained schools, of which there are three excellent examples in my constituency, so that we can discuss the educational advantages that they achieve—advantages which are appreciated by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who sends a member of his family to a grant-maintained school in Fulham, some distance from his constituency and his London home?

Mr. Newton

I do not object to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) or anybody else taking advantage of the many excellent grant-maintained schools but on this, as on a number of other matters, we could do with some clearer explanation of the policies that he appears to espouse—in so far as one can judge what policies he espouses—which would seek to deny other people that right.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Professor Tim Brighouse is not only chief education officer of Birmingham but a deeply serious educationist. Do the Government realise that some of us were absolutely appalled and embarrassed when a senior Minister of the Crown let go such a gratuitous insult? Should not a serious statement be made next week on where the £50,000 will come from, because whereas normally most Members of Parliament would agree that Departments of State should meet compensation awards, this was a gratuitous insult? The principle is this: are taxpayers to pay for the gratuitous insults of Ministers?

Mr. Newton

I think that I said twice when answering at Prime Minister's questions that this is a private matter, but perhaps I could amplify that. At all stages, the matter has been dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education in a personal capacity. The Government have not been involved in the proceedings either financially or legally. Indeed, my right hon. Friend made that clear as long ago as 19 January in answer to a parliamentary question, when he said: This is being treated as a personal, not a Government matter."—[Official Report, 19 January 1994; Vol. 235, c. 609.]

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that at this weekend's meeting of the Council of Ministers in Corfu the Prime Minister and other heads of state will discuss the Delors report and the new draft Bangemann report on information technology and the super-highway and how it should create jobs. May we have an early debate on the subject, as that report and others call on the rest of Europe to follow the United Kingdom's example of fast tracking to get the market in information technology working well?

Mr. Newton

Again, perhaps in a more specific way, my hon. Friend echoes something that I said at Prime Minister's Question Time about the proceedings at Corfu. I cannot promise a debate, but I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement on his return, and reference to that matter might be in order and appropriate.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

In Monday's debate on Select Committees, does the Leader of the House think that it would be helpful to reflect on the fact that in two recent debates—on the Trade Marks Bill and on pensions during an Opposition day—virtually every Conservative Member declared a financial interest in the subject under consideration? Although there is no suggestion that anyone acted improperly, would not it be better for the authority of Select Committee reports and the respect that they are given outside the House if hon. Members with a financial interest in the subject that the Select Committee is investigating were excluded from its membership?

Mr. Newton

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a useful point to make, no doubt he will make it in Monday's debate. I would point out, in the immediate aftermath of a statement on non-state pensions, that, as an occupational pension scheme operates for all Members of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman's suggestion would prevent every hon. Member from speaking on the subject in the House.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on great political con tricks? Does he think that an appropriate subject for the debate would be the way in which Labour Members have denied that there was anything wrong in Monklands in the past 18 months? Is he aware that only this Tuesday the Labour candidate in Monklands confirmed that everything that I have been saying about corruption and wrong-doing in Monklands was absolutely true and correct?

Mr. Newton

I am a little uncertain whether the Labour candidate in Monklands would accept the interpretation that my hon. Friend has placed on her remarks. Nevertheless, she has acknowledged the need to make some inquiries, which is a significant vindication of the campaign—as I suppose it must be called—which my hon. Friend has waged on that matter.

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh)

Is not it time that we had a debate on the value for money that trade unions get through sponsoring Members of Parliament? This is the second week of a national dispute that has caused massive disruption to millions of people on the basis of an 11 per cent. inflation-busting pay claim by the RMT, but we have yet to hear a word from the 11 Labour Members and four senior members of the shadow Cabinet who are sponsored by the RMT.

Mr. Newton

We might get into a debate about the definition of what is regarded as value for money, so perhaps I should stay out of that.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the state of democracy in Nigeria—or rather, the lack of democracy there? In the early hours of this morning, Chief Mashood Abiola, who is widely regarded as the duly elected President of that country, was arrested by the military regime, bundled into an aircraft and taken from Lagos to Abudja. Is not it high time that the House was given an opportunity to express its opinion and call for the return of civilian democratic rule in that country?

Mr. Newton

I am afraid that the information immediately available to me is not quite as up to date as that reported by my hon. Friend. In the light of what he has said, however, his concern is understandable and I will bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a debate on railway safety and inquire into whether, during the present industrial dispute, members of British Rail management have been operating signal boxes without the right certificates of safety? Will he also note that I raised that point on another occasion?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady will be aware that comments have been made on that matter to the effect that there is no reason to suppose that danger has been incurred by anybody for the reasons that she seeks to imply. Of course, I will bring the question to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.