HC Deb 04 May 1995 vol 259 cc439-48 3.32 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will the Leader of the House give us the business for the next two weeks?

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

The business for next week will be as follows: TUESDAY 9 MAY—Debate on British policy towards the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 10 MAY—Until 2.30 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day (11th allotted day). There will be a debate on the national health service in London on an Opposition motion.

THURSDAY 11 MAY—Debate on the second report of the Social Security Committee on the Church Commissioners and Church of England pensions on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 12 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet on Wednesday 10 May at 10.30 am to consider European Community document No. 10589/94, European Community document No. 4674/95 and the unnumbered explanatory memorandum submitted by the Department of Trade and Industry on 28 April 1995 relating to telecommunications.

[Wednesday 10 May: European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 10589/94, 4674/95, unnumbered; relevant report of the European Legislation Committee: HC 70-ix (1994–95) and HC 70-xiv (1994–95).]

The following week, business will be as follows:

MONDAY 15 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Gas Bill.

Motions on the Conditional Fee Agreements Order and the Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations.

I anticipate concluding the remaining stages of the Gas Bill on either Tuesday or Wednesday, and propose that on Thursday 18 May there should be a debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Rooker

I thank the Leader of the House for reverting to using his best endeavours to announce, as far as practicable, two complete weeks of business. May I raise three points relating to next week?

I understand from press reports some weeks ago that some time next week the committee headed by Lord Nolan will present its interim report to the Prime Minister. Although the committee reports to the Prime Minister, it is in effect a report to Parliament and people about Members of Parliament and their interests in quangos. Therefore, we expect and request early publication and not to have to wait for the Prime Minister to think about it and delay publication until the Government have decided what they are going to recommend or not, as the case may be. We do not want a knee-jerk response. All political parties will be affected and there will be collateral damage all round. We also expect reasonable time to be allocated for a debate a couple of weeks after publication of the report.

Secondly, will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Social Security—whoever he considers most relevant—to make a statement to the House next week about the tax and social security implications for the 460 victims of thalidomide of the decision reached yesterday by Guinness plc to pump extra money into the Thalidomide Trust in the next 15 years? That is welcome in so far as it goes, but it is quite unacceptable that the issue appears to be dealt with in a piecemeal fashion. It affects a small group of our fellow citizens who were not expected to live this long. Many of them are heads of their own families now. Parliament really should be able to address the matter and we could do so better if we had a statement from the relevant Minister about the implications of yesterday's decision.

My final point relates to a point that may turn up on business next week, but if it is scheduled for after 10 o'clock it may be taken on the nod. Since 12 April, the Home Secretary has had on his desk the report of the English parliamentary boundary commission. Given that that report recommends five extra constituencies for England and that we have already approved the Welsh report, which creates two extra constituencies, and the report of the boundary commission for Northern Ireland, which increases the number of constituencies from 17 to 18, after the next election there will be eight extra Members of Parliament.

It would be quite unacceptable and the public would go ape if we were to increase the size of the House—which some think is too great already—without debating the issue. In the normal course of events, it would be taken "forthwith" after 10 o'clock. It would be lamentable for the House not to debate a fairly substantial increase in the size of the House.

Mr. Newton

I shall take those points in reverse order. In respect of the boundary commission, I cannot at present give a date when my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary expects to bring the proposals to the House in the way that is expected. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that such motions are normally taken "forthwith", but I shall consider carefully with my right hon. and learned Friend what the hon. Gentleman has said.

In respect of tax and social security in relation to thalidomide cases, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is due to answer questions on Thursday in the week I have just announced, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's request to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, having had some experience in various previous incarnations of similar problems in relation to the contamination of blood with AIDS and other matters.

The publication of the Nolan report is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Lord Nolan, but I do not anticipate any prolonged delay in publication and I certainly expect a debate at an early stage.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

As Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's last few words. Interest in standards in public life is not confined to Opposition Members, but we probably have the highest standards of conduct in public life of any nation. The issue is, however, of concern to us all on both sides of the House. I hope that we shall have a debate on the matter as soon as possible.

Mr. Newton

I cannot add to what I said, but I note my hon. Friend's support for an early debate.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing a debate on former Yugoslavia next week. His announcement is timely indeed. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the annual defence White Paper was published yesterday, notwithstanding the fact that later today there will be a debate on the Royal Air Force. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an undertaking that the traditional two-day opportunity to debate the defence White Paper will be provided as soon as possible, and especially before the House rises for the summer recess?

Mr. Newton

I cannot make off-the-cuff promises on that or any other matter this afternoon. I note, of course, what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. I think that every debate that I have announced for next week is a response to requests recently made to me either in the House or in the Corridors.

Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for at last giving us a full-day debate on former Yugoslavia? Given the extreme gravity of the situation, which increases almost hourly, will he ascertain whether it is possible for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as well as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to take part in the debate?

Mr. Newton

I note my hon. Friend's request. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has other important foreign affairs responsibilities that may take some of his time next week.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

The Leader of the House is a respected former Minister with responsibilities for disabled people. He will have heard the exchange earlier today about the comments of the Secretary of State for Social Security yesterday at the Lobby luncheon, in which he clearly and undoubtedly linked social security abuse to occupants of wheelchairs. Is the Leader of the House aware that the reaction of organisations of and for disabled people is one not merely of concern or dismay but of anger and a sense of betrayal? May we have a ministerial statement about what was said at an early date so that the Secretary of State for Social Security can be questioned on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Newton

I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt fully and appropriately with that question a few moments ago. I shall not seek to add to his response. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about me.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

Will my right hon. Friend use his influence through the usual channels to try to ensure that next Wednesday's debate is about the national health service as a whole rather than the NHS in London? If the service is as bad as the Opposition parties are saying, why are people living longer? Is it because they are eating bran for breakfast?

Mr. Newton

It will be for you, Madam Speaker, to determine what speeches are in order. It appears to me at least that it is impossible to debate proposals concerning the NHS in London without taking account of the effect of the relationship between services in London and elsewhere. In the county which I represent in part, we have been conscious for some time that tackling some of the problems in London would be an important ingredient in being able to tackle problems in counties such as Essex.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

May I underline the importance of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) about thalidomide victims? The Leader of the House may not be aware, but an undertaking was given by a junior Minister in another place that continuing consideration would be given to thalidomide victims through interdepartmental meetings, which is a prerequisite for finally achieving some justice for them. Will he ensure that an early debate takes place, or a statement is made, on this issue? We feel that there is a clear Government responsibility for the thalidomide victims.

Mr. Newton

I am sure that the matter will be carefully considered and that any statement that seems appropriate will be made when it seems appropriate. I am conscious of having taken part in similar discussions when payments were made in respect of contaminated blood that went to some haemophiliacs.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Following the very successful police operation two days ago against suspected criminals, will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the police in prime Government time, in which contrasts would appear between the Government's positive policies towards law and order and the rather vacuous statements of the Opposition parties?

Mr. Newton

I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's latter remarks. I hope that I have demonstrated that I always do my best to respond to requests such as his.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, with regard to health in London, I was able to initiate a debate on Wednesday 26 April on health services in east London, in which I made a number of charges and statements, including the fact that it would be quite in line with Government policy for Bart's hospital to open as a private casualty emergency hospital if it were so funded? Will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who despite requests did not attend that debate, to let me have notes on any inaccuracies in my charges?

Mr. Newton

I will certainly pass on that question to my right hon. Friend.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the deep alarm of senior service chiefs at the Labour party's proposal to allow homosexuals into the armed services? Bearing in mind the fact that it is a highly controversial proposal and that it could undermine the important discipline in our fighting forces, will my right hon. Friend set aside prime time to enable all parties to debate such an important issue?

Mr. Newton

Again, I cannot make such a promise, but I draw attention to the fruitful use that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has evidently made—from his point of view, at least—of opportunities on Wednesday mornings. Beyond that, it is of course a fact that armed forces legislation is necessary every five years. I will not do the mathematics, for fear of it being suggested that I were pre-empting the next Queen's Speech, but the calculations are fairly clear.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on air quality? Is he aware that bad air quality has been forecast for most of Britain for the third day running and that it causes misery to asthma sufferers, especially children? Childhood asthma is a particular problem in my constituency. Given the inadequacy of the Government's policy on such issues, a debate is long overdue.

Mr. Newton

Air quality is very much an environmental priority for the Government and that is why we are bringing forward legislation in the Environment Bill in the very near future to implement the proposals that we published in January, which were widely welcomed.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

In relation to the discussion about the possibility of a debate on the Register of Members' Interests, and considering that my right hon. Friend found a couple of hours recently to debate problems involving junior Members of the House, would he find double the time for a debate if senior Members of the Opposition were found to have breached the rules of the register, and would he ensure that every Opposition Member who spoke in the previous debate had the opportunity to speak again?

Mr. Newton

I simply have to say again, as I hope that I have demonstrated, that should reports from important Committees of the House require debate, I would expect to provide appropriate time for such debate.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

May we have a debate on the changing role of Back Benchers, not least of those on the all-party committees and the innovative evidence-taking committees, which have been set up by myself and others? Such committees are widely appreciated outside the House, but they create administrative problems and need to be developed within the structure of the House. Many of us would welcome a proper debate on that subject.

Mr. Newton

I think that you, Madam Speaker, would agree, given your chairmanship of the House of Commons Commission, that such matters need to be considered in the first instance by the appropriate Committees.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

Will my right hon. Friend find an early opportunity for a debate on the press and media? Many relevant issues have never been properly addressed, such as concentration, privacy, right to reply and so on. Recently, there have been serious cases of financial and sexual entrapment. It is quite clear that certain people in the media feel that they are entitled to use methods such as telephone tapping, purloining of private correspondence, bribery and entrapment, which are normally associated with the secret police in totalitarian societies. There is widespread concern in the country about that trend. May we have an opportunity to explore those issues in a debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Newton

That is yet another request that I will consider. I must make the point that it is well known that issues of cross-media ownership are under examination at the moment. I cannot predict when a conclusion might be reached and announced. However, it would seem that that might be a more appropriate time for such a debate.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1034 and particularly that part of it which deals with the personal safety of members of the Pakistan Bonded Labour Liberation Front?

[That this House calls on the Government to convey to the Government of Pakistan its profound concern at the killing of Iqbal Masih, aged 12, on Sunday 16th April, to press the Government of Pakistan to conduct a full and impartial investigation into his murder and to bring those responsible to justice and to urge the Government of Pakistan both to safeguard the personal safety of members of the Pakistan Bonded Labour Liberation Front, with whom Iqbal Masih campaigned, and also to promptly and fully implement the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, bringing to an end the continuing and widespread conditions of child servitude and adult debt bondage against which Iqbal Masih had campaigned.]

The chairman of the Pakistan Bonded Labour Liberation Front is in the United Kingdom at the moment, but will be returning to Pakistan very shortly. There is real concern about the personal safety of leading members of that organisation after the murder of Iqbal Masih. Will the Leader of the House draw this issue to the attention of the Foreign Secretary as I believe that a statement from the Foreign Secretary expressing international concern would be of great value in ensuring the personal safety of members of that organisation?

Mr. Newton

I shall of course bring that point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. However, I can say that we deplore the murder of Iqbal Masih and hope that the Pakistan authorities will bring to justice those responsible and fully implement the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

As the Leader of the House has already denied the possibility of a debate on the comments of the Secretary of State for Social Security that wheelchair users may well be fraudsters, is he aware that the national press office of the Department of Social Security has confirmed today—

Mr. David Shaw

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have heard the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security referred to frequently in the House. I was at that lunch and he did not say what hon. Members are claiming he said.

Madam Speaker

That is not a point of order for me. I am not responsible for what Ministers say. They are responsible for their own comments.

Mrs. Prentice

Is the Leader of the House aware that, despite the fact that he feels that the words of the Secretary of State for Social Security that some wheelchair users may well be fraudsters because of the invalidity benefit changes—

Mr. Shaw

He did not say that at all.

Madam Speaker


Mrs. Prentice

Is the Leader of the House aware that the national press office of the Department of Social Security has confirmed today that wheelchair users will be subjected to a work test? Given that information, does he not now agree with the Opposition that the Secretary of State for Social Security and the Government must at least make a statement? If not, will he offer an opportunity for a debate?

Mr. Newton

As I was not present at the lunch, I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) for making it absolutely clear that what is being said about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is, to use his word, a distortion. On the latter point, I make the point that many people in wheelchairs work, wish to work and are proud to work.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Has my right hon. Friend noted the rare absence from the Chamber of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and the frequently repeated absence of all the Liberal Democrat Members? Will my right hon. Friend provide a debate next week on open spaces with a view to examining the policies and practices of the respective parties, notably the Labour party, which claims to favour the retention of open spaces? Ealing's Labour-controlled council is now set to sell off for development Ravenor farm, which has existed for hundreds of years, to the consternation of the people of Ealing and of Greenford in particular.

Mr. Newton

I note the twist in the tail of my hon. Friend's question, which was directed, as is so often the case with my hon. Friend, at those in Ealing and I hope that they will heed my hon. Friend. As for the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I assume that he was referring to what he might describe as an improvement in the environment with regard to the absence of certain people. The Environment Bill might provide an appropriate opportunity for my hon. Friend.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the political adviser to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food wrote to several Conservatives, business men as well as Members, asking them to join a Conservative working party on agriculture and agricultural policy for the next election. That is absolutely fine, except that he wrote on Ministry notepaper and arranged to use a Ministry room for the meeting. Will the Leader of the House therefore arrange for somebody to come to the House to make a statement next week on the propriety of the use of Ministry notepaper and Ministry rooms for party political purposes?

Mr. Newton

The right course is for me to bring that question to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to an article in today's Financial Times, which reports that although the British people own fewer cars than our continental counterparts, we are forced into making greater use of them for personal and business reasons? That leads to greater congestion on our roads and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, to air pollution, which has reached unacceptable levels, especially during the past few days. Is it not important to make time for a debate on that subject, which affects not only the health of the nation but the business prospects, personal amenities and leisure of many of our citizens?

Mr. Newton

I have already referred to that matter and the likely opportunity for a debate in relation to the Environment Bill.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

As for the debate on the national health service in London next week, can my right hon. Friend confirm that it will be in order to draw the House's attention to the excellent Teddington memorial hospital, which is the smallest national health service trust hospital in the whole country, has 49 general practitioner beds and is a tremendous success—

Hon. Members

He was not here.

Madam Speaker

Order. I am hearing complaints that the hon. Gentleman was not here for the statement. The hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber throughout the entire time and that is why I called him. In respect of what he is saying, he might seek to catch my eye next week because he seems to be making a statement. He knows very well that we have a debate next week. Is he asking for a second one?

Mr. Jessel

I lost track of what I was saying, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman was extolling the virtues of his local hospital. I thought that he might wait until next week and catch my eye and do that in a five or seven-minute speech.

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

The Leader of the House will recall that I have been pressing him to make a statement on the question of the precedence being given by the Select Committee on Members' Interests to a libel action in the courts over and above proceedings in Parliament. Will he be forthcoming and make a statement? This matter is important to Parliament. It is about the very integrity of our institution and many of my hon. Friends want to know what the position should be.

Mr. Newton

First, may I thank you, Madam Speaker, for answering the previous question on my behalf and, indeed, if I may say so, answering it so nicely.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that decisions about how Select Committees, including the Privileges Committee that I chair myself at the moment, conduct their inquiries, and any interrelationship with legal proceedings, are for those Committees. There would be considerable resentment if I were to stand here and make statements telling them how to go about their work.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House make time available—I notice that there may possibly be a suitable day the week after next—for a debate on foreign policy so that the relationship between the richer northern countries and the poorer southern countries can be examined and debated? The issue of world poverty should be addressed seriously. It cannot be right that we continue to extract wealth from the poorest countries through debt repayment and trade imbalance and pretend that it is nothing to do with us and that we do not need to do anything about it. Can he promise such a debate?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise a debate, not least because there is already to be what is, in effect, a foreign affairs debate, although I accept that it is on a somewhat different, and more limited, issue from that which the hon. Gentleman raised. I will bear his request in mind. He might have acknowledged that this country has been among the leaders in the western world in easing the debt burden and debt repayment requirements.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I welcome next week's debate on the national health service in London, which has been initiated by the parliamentary Labour party, because it will give us the opportunity to point out that hospital waiting lists have gone up by 15 per cent. in the past nine months in my area of Redbridge and Waltham Forest and reached a record 180,000 in London as a whole. However, why are such debates always at the behest of the parliamentary Labour party, never in the Government's time? Is it because, in Baroness Thatcher's famous words, the Government are frit?

Mr. Newton

No doubt the hon. Gentleman is another who will be seeking to catch your eye next week, Madam Speaker; perhaps he will speak even more briefly than my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel). However, the hon. Gentleman does not have a good argument. NHS legislation is currently before Parliament, so to suggest that the Government have not provided time to debate the health service is ridiculous.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

Will the Leader of the House endeavour to persuade the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the privatisation of British Rail Maintenance Ltd. in Eastleigh? I recently discovered that the deal nearly came unstuck because ABB had the right to claim 60 per cent. of the work allocated to BRML. As we are now told that the problem has been overcome, would not it be right for the House to be told whether ABB was paid off in cash, whether some other favours were offered to ABB or, if neither of those was the case, how the Government have managed to pursue this privatisation against such obstacles?

Mr. Newton

I will bring that question to my right hon. Friend's attention, but I should have been more encouraged to do so had the hon. Gentleman not sought to work into it a number of allegations which I very much doubt have any justification whatsoever.

Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith)

May we have a statement next week on the continuing problem of junior doctors' hours? The Leader of the House will be aware of recent high-profile cases, but may I point out that one of my constituents recently described to me how she sometimes works more than 100 hours a week at the Western general hospital in Edinburgh and regularly works beyond the 72-hour legal limit? As that is by no means exceptional in Edinburgh or elsewhere, is not it time that we had a statement on this most important matter?

Mr. Newton

The problem goes back a long way and again takes me back to a former incarnation. I shall bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but I must point out that under her stewardship more significant progress has been made in tackling the problem of junior doctors' hours than for many years.