HC Deb 22 June 1995 vol 262 cc490-8 4.17 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

May I ask the Leader of the House for details of future business?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 26 JUNE—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Health Authorities Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Jobseekers Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

TUESDAY 27 JUNE—Progress on remaining stages of the Environment Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 28 JUNE—Until 2.30 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Conclusion of remaining stages of the Environment Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 29 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Bill.

FRIDAY 30 JUNE—Debate on the conduct of local government in Great Britain on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know on a provisional basis that in the following week, I propose that Monday 3 July should be another Opposition day, and that on Tuesday 4 July and Wednesday 5 July, the House should undertake consideration of the remaining stages of the Pensions Bill [Lords]. Government business will also be taken on Thursday 6 July. On Friday 7 July, the House will not be sitting.

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement. Does he recognise the serious concern about the Environment Bill [Lords], which will be considered on Report next week? Does he acknowledge that the Bill is now very different from the legislation on Second Reading? There have been 237 Government amendments in Committee and the Government have now tabled another 77 amendments to be considered on Report, apparently with more to come. Does the Leader of the House recognise that the scale and number of amendments will make it virtually impossible for the House to consider the changes properly, even with a two-day Report stage? It cannot be good legislation to have so many amendments at that stage, especially as the Bill originated in another place.

On a different matter, does the Leader of the House think that it might be appropriate to have a debate on the remarks of the Minister for Industry and Energy, who threatened the Shell oil company that it risks forfeiting the right to offset the costs of dealing with Brent Spar against petroleum revenue tax and corporation tax? We need to know whether the Minister was speaking for the Treasury or, given his view that Shell has dropped the Government in it, whether he was simply making vindictive threats.

Does the Leader of the House intend to provide time in the near future for a debate on the very important report of the Select Committee on Health into the London ambulance service? That must be a matter of urgency, as the report reveals that lives have been lost. Even Conservative Members have said that Ministers have been extraordinarily complacent about the issue. Does the Leader of the House intend to allow a debate on that life and death matter in the near future?

Finally, will the Leader of the House tell us whether next Friday's debate on local government will be a serious debate, or are the rumours correct that it will be opened by the chairman of the Conservative party in his swan song?

Mr. Newton

As to the hon. Lady's last question, the debate on Friday is certainly intended to be—and I have no doubt that it will be—a serious debate. Anyone who has studied the report on the affairs of Monklands, for example, will be aware that there are a number of serious issues to debate. I can confirm that, because of the wide-ranging nature of the debate and the fact that it extends to all parts of Great Britain, it will be opened by my right hon. Friend the Minister Without Portfolio.

Taking the hon. Lady's other three questions in reverse order, I have studied the report of the Select Committee on Health into the London ambulance service, which contains a number of important points and which the Government will clearly respond to in the proper manner. I cannot undertake to make time available for an early debate on the subject, although there are other ways in which time for debate might be found. I am always looking for opportunities to debate Select Committee reports, as I think that I have demonstrated.

As to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy, I think that I can answer the hon. Lady most conveniently by saying that I understand that the company announced today that it will be making no requests for tax allowances for its share of any additional cost.

I acknowledge that there have been a substantial number of amendments to the Environment Bill [Lords]. That, in part, reflects the Government's wish—and indeed their anxiety—to respond to many points made by various bodies, including the Opposition, during the passage of the Bill. There would be just as many complaints if the Government had not responded to those representations.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has confirmed that the debate on Friday 30 June will be a serious one. Can he verify that hon. Members who are affected directly by the Monklands saga will be present in the House for that debate? I refer to the leading members of the Labour party who secured a private inquiry and who obtained information, but failed to give that information to the inquiry. There was obviously a cover-up and Labour Members must come to this place and answer for their actions. What means do we have at our disposal to ensure that they are present on the day to answer to the House, as Labour Members are always asking others to do?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend has already used the most potent means at his disposal, which is to draw attention to the conclusions that will be drawn should those to whom he refers not be in attendance. I do not know whether it is a deficiency, but I have no powers to direct the attendance of Members in the House.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

I heard the response to the question about the London ambulance service, but as there is no hospital in my constituency or in the borough following the closures, my constituents are badly affected by the extremely poor service from the London ambulance service. According to the report in the Today newspaper, only 15 per cent. of 999 calls are answered within eight minutes, despite the Secretary of State's commitment to improve it. In view of that, it is appropriate that the Leader of the House should provide a proper debate in Government time on that serious issue.

Mr. Newton

I cannot add to what I said, but the hon. Lady might have acknowledged that as a result of a huge amount of effort by Ministers and health authorities, after a long period of difficulty in the London ambulance service, which is still not totally overcome, there have been substantial improvements in performance in recent months. That is the result of the effort that has been put in by the Government.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to note that today's Order Paper shows that early-day motion 557, calling for a construction contracts Bill, has no fewer than 171 signatures, despite being a relatively narrow motion?

[That this House notes that the construction industry produces almost 10 per cent. of gross national product and is made up of more than 200,000 companies and a workforce of over one and a quarter million people; welcomes the proposals put forward by the Latham Report to improve the relationship between clients, contractors and subcontractors in the construction industry and improve value for money by an estimated 30 per cent. over the next five years and so encourage an increase in construction activity; notes the crucial role that a Construction Contracts Act would play in the implementation of the report's findings, recognising that it will reduce commercial red tape, and improve payment security by reducing payment abuse, introduce trust funds, and provide for a system of speedy and inexpensive dispute resolution; and therefore requests that Her Majesty's Government considers the introduction of a Construction Contracts Bill, during the next Parliamentary session, as recommended in the Report.]

I understand that the consultation period, which ends next week, reveals industry-wide support for such a measure. Can my right hon. Friend offer us a sign that the Government will respond to the widely held requirement for such a Bill, which would reduce costs—and that should commend it even to the Treasury?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will know that I am not in a position to anticipate the Queen's Speech, to use a time-honoured phrase. He will know, however, that I have repeatedly made what I hope he and others will have taken as friendly noises towards that proposition.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

There are now a staggering 1 million primary schools in England with class sizes of more than 30. Will the Leader of the House make time for an urgent debate on primary school education and nursery provision?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady knows that the Government are considering policy on those matters. I hope that her patience will not be tested too much longer.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that a statement is made next week on matters that came to light in Home Office questions today? Is he aware that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), told us that an escaped prisoner from Parkhurst was able to ring "The World at One" to give an interview? That is outrageous. If my right hon. Friend cannot provide a statement next week, will he ensure that a full report on that particular incident is placed in the Library?

Mr. Newton

I am glad to say that, with his usual assiduousness, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave me an account of the exchanges during Home Office questions. I can best acknowledge my hon. Friend's legitimate concern and refer him to what my right hon. Friend said.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Does the Leader of the House believe that we should have a debate about procedures in this place, in particular the rules of etiquette? Has he seen The Sun today, in which a former chairman of the Conservative party criticises the present chairman of the Conservative party? Is not it about time that we had a debate, so that people could get rid of their steam and ill-will towards each other?

Mr. Newton

I have noticed that there are two kinds of debate: one in which people get rid of their steam and the other, which is more frequent, in which the steam is raised. I do not want to look for one of the latter.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

Given the serious threat to environmental safety resulting from pressures put on Shell, which brought about the abandonment of the deep-water sinking of Brent Spar due to the irresponsible behaviour of certain individuals and foreign Governments, will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for a debate on the issue before the summer recess?

Mr. Newton

Obviously, I shall consider the point that my hon. Friend raises. I do not think that I can give any undertaking. I thought the most fascinating question during Prime Minister's questions was asked by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). On the day after his party was claiming credit for having prevented the deep-sea sinking of the rig, the hon. Gentleman was protesting about the possibility that it might arrive in his part of Scotland.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland be making a statement next week, apart from in Question Time, on how the peace process in Northern Ireland is being destabilised, as he has put it in a letter to The Times, as a result of the civil war in the Tory party and a campaign by Tory Members against the Prime Minister?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's comment on that matter less than an hour ago. It has already been implicitly acknowledged that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will answer questions next Thursday. I do not at present anticipate any statement apart from the opportunity that Northern Ireland questions will provide.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Is it possible to follow up the early-day motions on Brent Spar, including the one in my name, early-day motion 1280?

[That this House waits to hear from Greenpeace, the German government, the opposition parties and others why they prefer a less favourable environmental approach and a more risky method for the disposal of Brent Spar.]

Given the dispute as to which is the most favourable and least favourable environmental disposal option and which is the more risky for those who will be involved in turning the rig sideways and bringing it to land, would it not be a good idea to allow Opposition and Government Members to debate the issues, with scientific advice, and to take full account of the health and safety risks, which appear to be welcomed by many Opposition Members?

Mr. Newton

I note my hon. Friend's further support for such a debate, which will obviously increase still further my willingness at least to consider the matter.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Will the Leader of the House give the House an assurance that there will be no unnecessary delay by the Government or Ministers in the publication of the Scott report and its early debate in the House?

Mr. Newton

Certainly, I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the Government have not been seeking to promote delay, let alone unnecessary delay.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

May I press my right hon. Friend once more for a debate on grant-maintained schools? Such a debate would give us an opportunity to expose the Labour party's policy on education. It is trying to say that it is now friendly towards grant-maintained status, yet in a letter the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) stated that his party is opposed to grant-maintained schools and wants to bring them back into a local democratic framework. The parents of the children who attend grant-maintained schools in my constituency voted to get themselves out of Labour Lancashire control. The last thing that they want is to have councillors foisted back on to their governing bodies.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend makes some good points, which follow others made earlier in business questions and Prime Minister's questions. I cannot promise a debate, and I rather doubt that the Opposition will use one of their Supply days for such a purpose. I can, however, draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will be answering questions next Tuesday.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Can the Leader of the House help us? Is the title chosen for the debate on Friday 30 June and the Government spokesman, the Minister Without Portfolio, a confession that there is not real local government in Northern Ireland?

In the light of an unprecedented press release yesterday by the Minister for Health following the publication of the report on the London ambulance service, and having waited, as usual, some weeks for a Government report, surely it is time to debate that matter at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Newton

Of course, I note, especially given its provenance, a further request for a debate. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will also take note of the hon. Gentleman's request.

The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question was rather different from the second. The title given to the debate should be interpreted not as any sort of confession but as perhaps more of a recognition that discussions are taking place in other ways about Northern Ireland.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

May I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said and call for a debate on grant-maintained schools? Is my right hon. Friend aware that parents in my constituency are very alarmed at what they see as the socialist shambles in the Labour party's proposed education policy? They see a threat to the independence of their schools, and what we are seeing is creeping town hall dictatorship, which, frankly, they do not want.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend is quite right to see a threat to independence, which so many schools value, disguised under a cloud of misleading language. Even so, I could promise a debate only if my hon. Friend were prepared to give me an assurance that she would be prepared to contemplate the House sitting into August.

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

Last June, the Secretary of State for Scotland, in a flurry of publicity, opened a private hospital in Scotland, which went into receivership in November. Is the Leader of the House aware of the concern, on both sides of the House, that at a time when the NHS is starved of resources, £28 million of public money went into what was described by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle) as a "dodgy venture"? Does he not think that the Secretary of State for Scotland should come to the House next week so that we can debate the issue and put questions to him?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman probably knows that the Public Accounts Committee held a hearing on that issue yesterday and will now draw together any conclusions that it has reached. Clearly, it would be inappropriate for me to make any further comments.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

Thank you, Madam Speaker, or should I say Dr. Speaker? Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on all country sports, not just those involving mammals? Does he agree that such a debate would enable all of us in the House—there are some Opposition Members—who believe that participation in such sports should be a matter for the individual conscience, to expose the shabby hypocrisy of a party that pledges its support for angling, because its supporters fish, but seeks to oppose hunting with hounds because it believes—wrongly—that only Tories hunt?

Mr. Newton

It seems to me that many of the same issues arise in relation to all the aspects to which my hon. Friend referred.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Will next week's business be similar to this week's business in Committee? Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday there were 33 Committee meetings, covering 408 places? A total of 380 Members were involved—some were serving on two Committees—so more than half the Members of the House were involved in Committee work on that occasion. Is not that occurring increasingly because Parliament is meeting less often, which means that Committee meetings have to be squashed into more limited periods? Can we consider that when planning the sittings of the House?

Mr. Newton

There are a variety of factors, including the fact that hon. Members, on both sides of the House, have in recent times been more reluctant to sit for long hours into the night, and it is probably sensible that they should not. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who sometimes makes comments that suggest that nobody in this place does any work at all, for drawing attention to the amount of work that does take place.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Madam, Dr. Speaker, may I congratulate you on your absence yesterday?

Can my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on early-day motion 1272?

[That this House believes that the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II is the ideal time to acknowledge the terrible suffering of the former servicemen and civilian internees who were taken prisoner by the Japanese during the course of the War; expresses its deep concern that, despite the 50 years that have elapsed since the end of the War, the Japanese Government has failed to apologise formally for their actions and compensate the former prisoners of war and civilian internees for their suffering; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to take whatever steps it can to support the former prisoners, including refusing to agree to Japan being given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, until this matter is resolved and by calling on the Japanese Government to apologise fully to the former prisoners of war and civilian internees and compensate them to the sum of £14,000 each.]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Japanese treated their prisoners viciously and abominably, and that that very rich country should pay them compensation?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister saw a delegation of some of those affected by those matters yesterday. It is, of course, the Government's view that the question of compensation was legally settled by the peace treaty of 1951, but as I think my hon. Friend knows,. the Government continue to make clear to the Japanese Government the strong feelings on that issue, which my hon. Friend and others articulate.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House stop protecting the Secretary of State for Health and ensure that there is a debate in Government time on the London ambulance service in the near future? Is he aware that it was more than 10 years ago when I and a number of Labour Back Benchers first raised the issue of the problems of the LAS: its lack of investment and its poor performance? Those issues have been constantly raised ever since. All the problems that we and many others outlined have been confirmed time and again by a number of inquiries and Select Committee reports. It is abominable that after all this time the people of London still do not have an efficient ambulance service that they can rely on, and responsibility for that lies entirely with the Secretary of State and her Department.

Mr. Newton

I can assume only that the hon. Gentleman has not read the report, as I have, because it in no way corresponds with his last sentence.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

In view of the Labour party's astonishing decision not to make public the evidence given to the Black inquiry into Labour Monklands, has my right hon. Friend any power to persuade the Select Committee on the Environment to launch its own inquiry into the depths of depravity, corruption and abuse at Monklands so that that evidence can he made public?

Mr. Newton

No, I have no such power, but I think it rather a good idea for the Committee to examine the matter.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is the Leader of the House still enjoying his job? Each week he comes here to announce the business for the ensuing week. On a number of occasions recently, business—at least on the Floor of the House—has collapsed at 7 or 8 pm. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to arrange a debate about debates? If not, perhaps we can have some discussion through the usual channels. We are losing good debating time on the Floor of the House; if business is to collapse early, perhaps we can reach an agreement whereby the time could be used by assiduous Back Benchers who want to raise a number of subjects.

Mr. Newton

I am still enjoying my job, and one of the parts of it that I enjoy most is hearing the hon. Gentleman's questions.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My right hon. Friend will know that the Select Committee on Home Affairs recently published an excellent report about the private security industry. Because the report sensibly avoids any possible public expenditure, however, it cannot be debated on estimates days. Will my right hon. Friend listen sympathetically to the Committee's pleas for a debate on that important issue—in Government time, or perhaps a three-hour debate on a Wednesday morning?

Mr. Newton

Wednesday mornings are primarily a matter for application to you, Madam Speaker. I shall continue to listen sympathetically to my hon. Friend's other comments.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May we have a statement from the Leader of the House, in lieu of the Prime Minister, about the subject matter of a press conference convened by the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing street 10 minutes ago? Surely, if an extraordinary press conference is to be held about some matter that is yet to be disclosed, it ought to be disclosed to Parliament by the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House, rather than to the press. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us the subject of the press conference, so that, if necessary, we can ask for an extraordinary statement or a special debate?

Mr. Newton

I can confirm that I understand that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is holding a press conference. The hon. Gentleman may wish to make his own inquiries about the subject matter.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)

In an earlier reply, my right hon. Friend said that he was always keen to find an opportunity to debate Select Committee reports. Is he aware that the Select Committee on the Environment is shortly to launch an inquiry into the workings of the single regeneration budget, but probably will not produce its report until October, after the next round of SRB bids has been announced? Would it therefore be appropriate to arrange a short debate about the workings of the single regeneration budget on the Floor of the House, particularly so that we can examine some of the problems faced by coastal resorts and ways in which the SRB could he used to assist them?

Mr. Newton

That is a very good idea, and I shall consider it.