HC Deb 09 March 1995 vol 256 cc469-78 3.55 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week. The business will be as follows:

MONDAY 13 MARCH—Second reading of the Gas Bill.

TUESDAY 14 MARCH—Second reading of the Atomic Energy Authority Bill.

Motion on the Miners' Welfare Act 1952 (Transfer of Functions of Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation) order.

WEDNESDAY 15 MARCH—Until 2.30 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Estimates Day (second allotted day): debate on support for business, consumer and investor protection, energy programmes and administration, in so far as it relates to the Department of Trade and Industry's support for the development of broadband communications; followed by a debate on administration, in so far as it relates to the Department of the Environment's retail planning policy. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At Ten o'clock, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding excess votes, the spring supplementary estimates and defence votes A.

THURSDAY 16 MARCH—Until about Seven o'clock, proceedings on the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill.

Debate on the Commonwealth, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 17 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 20 MARCH—Second Reading of the Child Support Bill.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 15 March to consider European Community document Nos. 9508/93 and 8251/94 relating to hallmarking.

The other information that I can give the House, which is not as complete as I would like but which I hope will he helpful, is that, on Thursday 23 March, I anticipate Government business of an ordinary kind until about 7 o'clock, followed by a debate on a motion for the Adjournment. [Wednesday 15 March

Estimates Day (2nd Allotted Day)—Relevant reports: Class IV, Vote 1, in so far as it relates to support for the development of broadband communications: Third Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, Session 1993-94, (HC 285-1), Optical Fibre Networks; DTI, Creating the Superhighways of the Future: Developing Broadband Communications in the UK, November 1994, CM 2734.

Class VII Vote 7, in so far as it relates to retail planning policy: Fourth Report from the Environment Committee, Session 1993-94 (HC 359-1), Shopping Centres and their Future.

European Standing Committee B, European Community Documents (a) 9508/93, (b) 8251/94, Hallmarking; Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports (a) HC 48-xxiv (1993-94) and HC 48-xxiv (1993-94), (b) HC 48-xxvii (1993–94).]

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the Leader of the House for that information.

Does the Leader of the House acknowledge that it is strange to have scheduled for Monday 20 March the Second Reading of the Child Support Bill, which I gather comes into operation later next year, whereas important regulations that involve changes to the workings of the Child Support Agency, which are to come into operation from April—next month—have not yet been laid before the House? As those regulations are extremely important and complex, will he ensure that hon. Members have sufficient time to consider them? Will he also assure us that, because of the Bill's complexity, sufficient parliamentary time will be allowed for debate at all stages—including, if necessary, Report on the Floor of the House?

Two private Members' Bills received their Second Reading last Friday, with strong support from both sides of the House, as was the case with the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. As those measures have received widespread support both inside and outside the House and across the political spectrum, the Government should be willing to facilitate further discussion of the Bills by ensuring that they go to Committee. Parliament can then make a decision about the issues involved, rather than being frustrated by procedural devices.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a ministerial statement early next week to report on the poverty summit in Copenhagen, not least because so little has been said or written by Ministers about the Government's attitude to that potentially important summit?

Will the Leader of the House also ensure that Ministers have the opportunity to clarify another issue which, following Prime Minister's Question Time today, I think requires further clarification—the Government's role in the electricity privatisation and regulation fiasco?

As the Prime Minister acknowledged today that Ministers were aware that the electricity regulator was considering a review of the price mechanism, and that they even took legal advice before the flotation of National Power, and as it is absolutely clear that consumers have been overcharged and that shareholders—both individuals and pension funds—have been ripped off, surely the time has come for Ministers to reveal to the House the full extent of their involvement.

Ministers should not hide behind legal advice and say that they were not compelled to disclose information—so much for open government from that group of Ministers. We need an urgent debate, so that Ministers can face their responsibilities to consumers, shareholders and to the House.

Mr. Newton

Perhaps I might take the points made by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) in reverse order. The hon. Lady will understand that there was a substantial exchange about the electricity issues that she has touched upon during Prime Minister's Question Time not long ago. I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out the position very clearly, and I am not able to add to that.

As to the hon. Lady's penultimate question about the conference in Copenhagen, she will know that my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Chalker is acting for Britain at that social summit. I think that she is very well qualified to do so, and that she will make Britain's position completely clear. The second of the hon. Lady's questions related to private Members' Bills—she put her questions in what I would describe as a more sophisticated form than usual. However, I have no plans for providing Government time to discuss private Members' Bills or of departing from the usual practices in relation to private Members' Bills.

Lastly, on the Child Support Bill and associated matters, I entirely take the hon. Lady's point about the regulations. We will try to ensure that they are available and are debated in good time, because, as she said, they are due to come into effect sooner than the Bill. Of course, a Bill takes a good deal longer to pass than a set of regulations. The hon. Lady is already making demands for time later in the Session, which constitutes a good reason for getting on with the legislation.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

I am very glad that there will be a debate next week about the Commonwealth, and that excellent organisation the Commonwealth Development Corporation. Will my right hon. Friend try to provide some time for a debate on Hong Kong, the China economic region generally and the report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on that subject, which was released some time ago? It is a long time since we debated Hong Kong in the House.

Mr. Newton

As the debate on the Commonwealth responds to various representations made to me from both sides of the House during the past few weeks, I think that I have demonstrated my willingness to listen to representations of the kind that my hon. Friend has made. I shall not make any promises at this stage, but I will certainly look carefully at what he has said.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Although I have no doubt that Baroness Chalker is "acting for Britain", as the Minister put it, will he go much further and confirm that a Minister will have the chance to come to this place to account for Britain's actions—particularly for what is perceived as Britain's lamentable performance in its responsibilities to the rest of the world—following the social summit in Copenhagen? Will the Minister confirm that there will be a statement, or at least that there is the prospect of one?

Given that the matter that has concerned hon. Members urgently today and was the subject of the first question to the Prime Minister was the failure of the emergency services to come to the rescue of the man injured in Kent last night, who died in Leeds general infirmary, can we examine how the accident and emergency services—all of them—work and the way in which we inquire into them?

The Marchioness inquest is next week and there are many who are unhappy that, in the last few hours, people are having to scrabble around for money to pay for the legal representation of the bereaved of the 51 who died in an accident on the Thames six years ago.

Mr. Newton

I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's last point to the attention of my right hon. Friends. I cannot add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about the tragic incident involving the man from Kent. As he made clear, an investigation is under way, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage.

Apart from the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has reminded me, there will be questions on overseas development matters on Monday week, which will provide an opportunity for adverting to these matters, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's comments about Britain's record. Indeed, Britain's bilateral aid programme is widely regarded as one of the most effective in the world. This year's budget is the sixth largest across the globe, and it is absolutely unquestionable that we lead the way on debt reform.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on his reply to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) on Hong Kong? If my memory serves me aright, it is a long time since the House had the opportunity to have a full debate on Hong Kong. In view of the vast political developments there and the impending handover to China, I hope that my right hon. Friend would considerably favour an early debate on the topic.

Mr. Newton

I repeat what I took as the friendly and constructive answer I gave my right hon. Friend, and ask my hon. Friend to take it as embracing my attitude to his request also.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

The Leader of the House was present a short while ago the Prime Minister answered three questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). I advert particularly to the third question and answer. Would the Leader of the House, bearing in mind the precedent set over the Al-Fayed allegations about payments to Members, when the House was reassured by the Prime Minister that Sir Robin Butler had carried out an—(Interruption.] Madam Speaker, will you tell the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) to shut up or put up?

Madam Speaker

Order. I have cautioned hon. Members on both sides of the House before on barracking from sedentary positions. There is far too much of it in the House, and far too many times it comes from certain hon. Members. I also caution hon. Members that we are in the middle of business questions, and that questions put to the Leader of the House should be directly related to next week's business. I hope that such a question will now be put.

Mr. Bermingham

It is coming indeed, Madam Speaker.

As I was saying to the Leader of the House, we were reassured by the fact that Sir Robin Butler had carried out an investigation. Later inquiries before a Select Committee revealed that no investigation had been carried out. Today, we are assured that advice was taken from counsel with regard to the electricity sell-off.

Madam Speaker

Order. I really must have a business question now. I have listened long enough to a preamble which is really an argument. [Interruption.] I need no help whatsoever from the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw). I now insist that I have a direct question from the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). I have heard enough of a preamble.

Mr. Bermingham

All I want is for the Leader of the House to put in the Library of the House a copy of the questions asked of counsel, so that we can then debate whether they were the relevant questions that should have been asked of counsel.

Mr. Newton

I have already made it clear in responding to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) that I am not in a position to add to what my right hon. Friend said, which I thought was very clear.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

Will my right hon. Friend find some time soon for a debate on education, so that we can explore the refusal of the East Sussex Liberals to fund a teachers' pay award in full, when there is plenty of money in the budget to cover it, while at the same time they are frightening governors, teachers and parents into signing a petition demanding more taxpayers' money?

Mr. Newton

I will investigate whether it is possible to find time to debate important issues such as that which my hon. Friend raised, so that they may be fully explored.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

Perhaps I may turn that into a cross-party call for an education debate, in the light of Government policy initiatives that emerged recently. Before Christmas, there was a much trumpeted and much welcomed, if belated, Government commitment to new money for nursery education. Last week, the Secretary of State for Education advised local authorities to fund the gap in their budgets by taking money out of pre-school education.

This week, a cessation of funding for the reading recovery scheme was announced, just at the time that the scheme is demonstrating its success in improving literary standards in schools. It is important—

Madam Speaker

Order. Perhaps the Whips ought to arrange seminars on how to put business questions, which are not meant to provide an opportunity for hon. Members to make statements first on their point of view. Their purpose is to ask why the business of the House cannot be changed to allow debate on a certain issue. Hon. Members are taking far too long to explain themselves.

Mr. O'Hara

I was simply asking whether the Leader of the House agrees that such important policy initiatives merit the attention of the House.

Mr. Newton

A variety of important matters merit the attention of the House. I set down a number of them for debate next week, and at present I am not able to satisfy the request of the hon. Gentleman and of my hon. Friend for a debate on a different subject.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement on early-day motion 763.

[That this House notes the honourable Member for Leicester West, as Chairman of the Employment Select Committee, is interviewing leading industrialists and businessmen on their remuneration packages whilst at the same time offering these people his services on how to improve their public speaking and presentational skills; further notes that other services offered by the honourable Member for Leicester West include advice on making people redundant and serving on the Remuneration Committee of Ladbroke plc which awarded the Chairman of that company a salary of £583,000 per annum—£108,000 per annum more than the Chairman of British Gas plc—and in addition awarded five directors of the company 1.3 million share options worth £2.3 million; believes that these activities represent a conflict of interest with his current position as Chairman of the Employment Select Committee; and calls on him to resign immediately.]

During the passage of trade union legislation, the Department of Employment received a letter from Ladrokes calling for the abolition of wages councils. Is the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Janner), who serves as a board director, opposed to abolition?

Mr. Newton

I saw a number of references in the press during the week to the position of the hon. and learned Gentleman who is Chairman of the Employment Select Committee. People will form their own views on that matter, which ultimately must be one for the hon. Gentleman's judgment of what is proper under the rules of the House.

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

May we debate next week the document "Open Government: Code of Practice on Access to Government Information"? I presume that the Leader of the House has read that document, so can he say whether all parliamentary answers given by Ministers meet the criteria in that code of practice?

Mr. Newton

They do, so far as I am aware. If the hon. Gentleman has reason to believe that they do not, he had better let me know and I will take the matter up in the appropriate quarters.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on local government spending? An issue of great importance to my Sutton constituents, who suffer under the yoke of a Liberal-controlled local authority, is that that authority plans to spend £150,000 on a new bus route, which is completely unpopular with local residents and will wreck their peace and quiet. They do not want that bus route, but want the money spent on social services and helping the elderly.

Mr. Newton

That sounds like a good example of the many local authorities which say that they do not have money to spend for purposes that the public want, but which spend money for purposes that the public do not want.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

May we have a statement on the privatisation of utilities? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, when the Tory Government privatised rain, it resulted in water board chiefs lining their pockets? We now know that an 83-year-old disabled ex-miner is being asked by a water board to pay £11.75 to have a tap washer fitted.

Mr. Newton

All those issues have been extensively ventilated over a long period, and no doubt some will be further ventilated in the first two days of next week, when the House debates the two Bills that I mentioned. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his point then.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

May we debate next week the serious issues arising from early-day motion 763, so that the House may decide whether to refer that matter to the Nolan committee for an assessment of the position of a Select Committee Chairman, when such a glaring conflict of interest has arisen?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend has raised an entirely legitimate point. I do not think that I can add to what I said about the rules of the House and the necessity both for the Chairman and for any Committee concerned to make a judgment about the application of those rules.

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

Having heard what both the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister have said about the tragic death of Malcolm Murray, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the position. Next week, there will be written answers that will provide sufficient information for the House to take a view. In the light of the statement made today by the new Minister with responsibilities for the citizens charter—

I find it astonishing that there was nowhere else in London where he could have been taken to. This just goes to show the need for a proper range of facilities within a reasonable distance"— will the Leader of the House find time to arrange a debate, so that the Secretary of State for Health can answer questions about an appalling tragedy in London?

Mr. Newton

I cannot add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and later I myself have said about the matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is due to answer questions on Tuesday next.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend find time next week to enable us to discuss the prison regime? I shall then have an opportunity to give my full support to the military-style boot camps that are so popular in the United States. Although we have become extremely tough on criminals, the debate for which I ask would reinforce to my constituents that we shall become tougher still on criminals. With the drilling, marching and forced running in all weathers that takes place with criminals in boot camps in the United States, reoffending has been cut from 60 per cent. to 13 per cent. We should have such a regime in this country as soon as possible.

Mr. Newton

I shall bring my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I cannot promise an opportunity for an early debate on prison matters. As I have said on several occasions, they may fall to be considered when we have the results of some of the inquiries that are taking place.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Will the Leader of the House provide time for an early debate on a Government announcement today that will have a serious impact on passenger transport in South Yorkshire? The Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs has reversed—through a press release and not in a statement in the House—the recommendation of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission that would prevent the Mainline bus company in South Yorkshire from operating in the way it wants.

The decision flies in the face of what is called for by the local chamber of commerce, local organisations and Members in the area. It will mean more bus congestion and more pollution. Above all, it may threaten an employee share ownership company. Everyone in South Yorkshire believes that the decision has been sneaked out through a press release to stab in the front a successful and thriving company that is owned by its employees.

Mr. Newton

Whatever may have happened, I am certain that the purpose was not that ascribed to it by the hon. Gentleman. I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend advise me whether we should be having a debate on, or a Select Committee investigation into, the number of Labour Members who are benefiting from share option schemes, the ways in which those Members are benefiting, and whether the benefiting goes from the very bottom to the very top of the Labour party?

Mr. Newton

I do not know whether any of that is thought to he happening in Birmingham. My hon. Friend may have noticed that there is to be a debate on local government in Birmingham on Wednesday.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate next week on the current state of political parties in Britain? When I arrived home in my constituency on Friday last, I found the following statement in the local newspaper:

Top Tory quits over sleaze. One of my constituents, Councillor Roy Newman, was the vice-chair of the Rother Valley constituency party. He has resigned because he believes that the party has lost its way, that leadership does not exist, that it is riddled with sleaze, and that, at the same time, the poor are becoming poorer while the rich are getting richer. I would like to express my constituent's thoughts as soon as possible.

Mr. Newton

I have already made reference to the debate next Wednesday on local government in Birmingham, in which one or two somewhat different perspectives on some of these matters may emerge. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman can work in any relevant remarks while remaining in order, but he might like to try.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

May I support the call for a debate on education, which would unable us to debate assisted places, which is of great interest to hundreds of families in my constituency? In spite of cynical window dressing and talk of co-operation between the private and public sector, the Labour party proposes to abolish those assisted places, to the disadvantage of hundreds of low-income families in my constituency.

Mr. Newton

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), my hon. Friend has given an excellent reason for seeking a possible debate on education. That, too, I will bear in mind.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

As the Leader of the House has been helpful in giving us a debate on the Commonwealth, I shall be equally helpful and suggest a debate next week on state funding of political parties.

In view of the report in today's edition of the Daily Record, which said that Tory party treasurer, Lord Hambro, returned from a fund-raising trip to Hong Kong empty-handed, the Tory party is in need of some assistance. I want to know why or how it is able to get a £14 million overdraft from the Royal Bank of Scotland, the chairman of which is Lord Younger of Prestwick—it does not have any collateral, does not own its headquarters, and has no basis on which to get that loan—when some of my constituents cannot even get a loan of a few hundred quid from the Royal Bank?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his offer of help.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the conversation that he and I had a week last Friday and the letter that I subsequently wrote to him on 27 February concerning the establishment of the meat hygiene service, which is due to become operational on 1 April this year? Does my right hon. Friend consider it appropriate for the House to debate those matters, in the light of the fact that that new service will have a budget of £50 million?

Because the House does not sit tomorrow, however, it will not be possible to give sufficient notice of the establishment of that service, and the necessary statutory instruments will not be able to be laid within the prescribed time. Does my right hon. Friend feel, as I do, that the House should be able to debate those important matters, not least because the approval of the House has already been assumed and staff have been appointed to that new service, offices have been taken on all around the country, and the whole industry is expecting it to be operational on 1 April, yet it has not technically been approved by the House?

Mr. Newton

I remember my conversation with my hon. Friend. I also have a copy of the letter and the fairly voluminous enclosures he sent me. I have not yet had the result of my inquiries on the points he raised, but I will of course come back to him as soon as possible.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

May I join my hon. Friends the Members for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) in urging a debate on early-day motion 763? The House has debated conflicts of interests of hon. Members before, but there can have been few greater conflicts of interest than that of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) in his dual role of Chairman of the Employment Select Committee and principal of an employment consultancy that gives advice on how to make people redundant.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend's remarks, coming after those made earlier, do indicate some concern about those matters. I hope that that will be reflected on by the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I cannot say more than I have already said.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

When the Leader of the House responded to the question of his hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), who made an unwarranted smear on every Labour Member of Parliament but did not name anybody, he then tied in next week's debate on Birmingham with that smear.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Minister responding to next week's debate to come and tell us about the Tory leader of a council in the midlands who, it has recently been disclosed, has a prison record, and a Tory mayor in the midlands who was recently in gaol for rigging the electoral system? That is what we do not want in a proper debate in the House. We want to debate public probity and finances. I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that the debate is on a proper level and not the level, he indicated in his answer to the hon. Member for Dover.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman may wish to take part in the debate on Wednesday, and I am sure that it will be approached with proper seriousness by my right hon. and hon. Friends. But since, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have considerable regard for him and I am frankly sorry to have upset him, I make it clear that I certainly intended, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Dover intended, no slur on him or any particular Member of Parliament.