HC Deb 16 November 1995 vol 267 cc119-28 2.34 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the details of future business?

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

As the House is aware, the debate on the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech will be brought to a conclusion on Wednesday 22 November.

It may be helpful to remind the House of what you, Madam Speaker, said yesterday about the pattern of debate so that all the information about the next fortnight is conveniently available in one place. The debate today is on foreign affairs and defence. On Friday 17 November, it is on health; on Monday 20 November, on investment—that is trade, industry and transport; on Tuesday 21 November, on social affairs, embracing education and home affairs; and on Wednesday 22 November, on the economy.

The business for the three days following the conclusion of the debate on the humble Address will be as follows:

  • THURSDAY 23 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Chemical Weapons Bill.
  • Second Reading of the Hong Kong (Overseas Public Servants) Bill.
  • FRIDAY 24 NOVEMBER—Debate on earnings top-up on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
  • MONDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Student Loans Bill.
  • TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER—My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
  • WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER—Continuation Of the Budget debate.
  • THURSDAY 30 NOVEMBER—Continuation of the Budget debate.
  • FRIDAY 1 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.
  • MONDAY 4 DECEMBER—Continuation of the Budget debate, which will be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 5 December.

[Thursday 28 November: Budget Statement

The following document is relevant: The unnumbered explanatory memorandum submitted by Her Majesty's Treasury on 26 July 1995 relating to the Council recommendation to the United Kingdom with a view to bringing an end to the situation of an excessive deficit in the United Kingdom, prepared in regard to Article 104c(7) of the Treaty establishing the European Community.]

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the Leader of the House for that information. During the last parliamentary Session, he assisted Members very much by giving early notice of business and recess dates. I hope that, in the spirit of Jopling, he will be able to do that and to improve on it during this Session.

With regard to next week's business, may I ask the Leader of the House about the debate on Wednesday morning on water supplies in west Yorkshire, a debate in which, of course, I have a special interest? Will the Leader of the House ensure that a senior Minister responds to that debate, because Yorkshire Water has shown itself to be utterly incapable of dealing with the crisis? We need to hear what action Ministers intend to take to ensure that water supplies remain available to my constituents and people throughout west Yorkshire and to local industry. Will the Leader of the House take steps to ensure that we get not just sympathy from Ministers, but action to tackle the crisis?

The Chemical Weapons Bill has its Second Reading on Thursday 23 November. The Leader of the House will be aware that there is a general welcome for this measure. Will he confirm that the Bill will be committed to a Committee of the whole House following Second Reading as that would meet with the general approval of Members on both sides of the House?

On Monday 27 November, the Leader of the House has announced the Second Reading of the Student Loans Bill. Will he confirm that the proposed student loans legislation will be an enabling Bill, and that its implementation will consist of nothing less than an auction among the banks to try to find someone to finance the scheme? In light of the banks' rejection of the previous Government-inspired private student loans system, should not Ministers satisfy themselves that the latest scheme commands enough support to be viable before introducing the Bill? Or is this another example of the Government legislating in haste only to repent at leisure later?

Finally, on the matter of the asylum Bill, the Leader of the House will be aware that the Prime Minister said yesterday In the interests of good race relations, I will ensure that we have a fair system of asylum—fair for those who need help, and fair for those who do not believe that this country should receive bogus asylum seekers either."—[Official Report, 15 November 1995; Vol. 267, c. 30.] As that is common ground, and especially as the Government are introducing the legislation a mere two years after the last asylum Bill, would not it be wise to ensure that Parliament gets this attempt at legislation right? Will the Leader of the House give full and proper consideration to the constructive proposal made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—which, I understand, some Conservative Members also consider worthy of serious consideration—that the Bill should be considered by a Special Standing Committee?

Mr. Newton

It may be convenient if I take those questions in reverse order.

Of course I recall the exchanges yesterday, and I remind the hon. Lady of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about considering what the Leader of the Opposition said. That consideration will be given. However, I am not in a position this afternoon to add to what my right hon. Friend said.

The hon. Lady or other hon. Members will have their opportunity to develop their arguments on the Student Loans Bill in due course, but the Bill will be designed to provide a better loans system and a better deal for students, and I hope that the private sector institutions will take advantage of the opportunity that we plan to provide.

On the Chemical Weapons Bill, I hope that I may take the hon. Lady's remarks as a more public than usual representation through the usual channels about the way in which business should be handled. I would expect to respond positively; that is to say, we shall propose that the other stages beyond Second Reading are taken on the Floor of the House.

On water, I had noted the debate next Wednesday, which I believe is in the name of the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). I am not in the business of ordering my colleagues about, but I will bring the hon. Lady's request to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of the Environment. I hope that it will be recognised that a massive operation has been mounted to move water into that region by tankers—probably the largest exercise of its type ever undertaken.

I had harboured some ambitions of announcing the dates of the Christmas and Easter recesses today. Those have been frustrated by one or two bits of further consideration that we need to give, but I shall use, as the phrase goes, my best endeavours to say something at the conclusion of the debate on the Address next week.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my right hon. Friend take into consideration the recommendation of the Procedure Committee, which affects the debates on the Queen's Speech and on the Budget? The Committee felt most strongly that, now that the Budget is no longer in March or early April, there is a considerable need for a two-day debate on the economy at that time, and that we could find the time for such a debate by cutting a day off the Budget debate and a day off the debate on the Queen's Speech. Can my right hon. Friend carry that further, perhaps through the usual channels, so that he can give us an assurance when he next comes to the Dispatch Box?

Mr. Newton

I am not sure that I will be able to give any assurance the next time that I come to the Dispatch Box, but I will discover whether it is possible, through the usual channels, to give further consideration to that very constructive suggestion.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Following the answer that the Leader of the House gave about water, will he acknowledge that anxiety exists on both sides of the House—and is widespread throughout the country—about the regulation of all the privatised utilities? Will he give us an undertaking that there will be a statement and, if possible, a debate following, specifically, the Ofwat criticisms, which appear to suggest that at least three water companies and sewerage companies are "cheating their customers"? Will he acknowledge that that is a matter of considerable concern?

No reference was made to that matter in the Gracious Speech, so we would have difficulty introducing it in the current debate. Does it not demand a debate on a wider scale than the one that has been mentioned, which is simply about Yorkshire? In that connection, perhaps the Leader of the House would like to read early-day motion 37:

[That this House notes the criticisms made by the Director of Water Services of the management of North West Water, South West Water and Yorkshire Water; especially notes the application by the latter company for a 24 hour drought order, potentially leaving half a million domestic customers and many industrial users without water, despite promises to reduce leakage and introduce a grid to improve the supply; believes that all three water and sewerage companies should be the subject of a full public investigation under the auspices of the Environment Select Committee; and urges the Government to review the powers of the regulator, particularly with reference to penalising companies for inadequate performance with mandatory compensation payments.]

Mr. Newton

I have had a quick glance at early-day motion 37. However, I would not want to add to what I said earlier about next week's debate. It seems to me that the first thing to do is to hold that debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

When, as we hope, my right hon. Friend gives us the details of recesses on Wednesday next week, will he also try to list the sitting and non-sitting Fridays? Will he also bear it in mind that there is a great deal to be said for the Special Standing Committee procedure; and that all ideas proffered from the Opposition Front Bench are not necessarily bad ones?

Mr. Newton

I shall respond to my hon. Friend in a way that he will find appropriate. Of course I acknowledge his last point. [Interruption.] My confrontational colleague from Essex, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), regards that as such an inflammatory comment that he wants me to resign. I have no intention of resigning for being reasonable. The hon. Gentleman has now distracted me so much that I cannot remember what my hon. Friend asked me—

Sir Patrick Cormack

About the Fridays.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend can take it that the House will invited to agree those arrangements before too long.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

The Leader of the House will no doubt have noted that, between the prorogation of the last Parliament and the start of this one, the Court of Appeal delivered its judgment in the case of Ordtech, for which an appeal was allowed. In that case it was shown that ministerial certificates denied the defence the documents necessary to conduct the defence, which led to a suspended sentence being imposed on a number of persons. Should we not debate, as a matter of urgency, the fact that ministerial decisions of this kind—whether or not misleading Parliament over Iraqi arms sales—seem to outweigh the interests of justice?

Mr. Newton

In view of the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, he will not expect me to accept the basis of his question; but with, I hope, my usual reasonableness and courtesy I shall of course reflect on what he has said.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Will my right hon. Friend consider, in the light of a certain incident yesterday, the advisability of holding an early debate on the security of Members who are pursuing their perfectly legitimate and legal duties while talking to the media on College Green?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend's remarks clearly drew an echo from other parts of the Chamber. That is not of course a matter for me alone: it is for the House authorities in a much wider sense. But I think it will be right to give some consideration to our arrangements in the light of what happened yesterday.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I agree with the representations from the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) about using the Special Standing Committee procedure for the asylum Bill. Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that it covers a highly sensitive issue for many people in many parts of the country? Furthermore, as the Prime Minister himself said, this should not be and will not be a party political matter. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the Procedure Committee of 1976 to 1978, which introduced Select Committees, commended this very procedure for such a Bill? If it is not adopted, the matter will not be dealt with in the way the country believes it deserves to be.

Mr. Newton

Of course I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but I cannot add at this stage to what I said when responding to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor).

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate next week on equal opportunities, in the light of a flagrant example of sex discrimination in my constituency: the national imposition of a women-only shortlist on my constituency Labour party? It will not surprise my right hon. Friend to know that, as a good constituency Member, I raised the matter with the competent authorities. I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition, only to receive a reply from some junior spin doctor who did not answer my constituents' questions and who just swept the matter under the carpet. Why should Labour voters in my constituency be confined to choosing a candidate from a minority of potential candidates?

Mr. Newton

I cannot provide an answer to the last part of my hon. Friend's question. Indeed, I rather doubt whether Labour Front-Bench spokesmen can either—even if they want to. I will only observe that I find that large numbers of women are offended by sex-based shortlists.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In view of the vote that was taken in the House on 6 November about financial disclosure arising from the Nolan report and the fact that a number of Conservative Members have said that they will not observe the resolution of the House, will there be an early statement about what will occur if hon. Members refuse to obey the instructions of the House? Should we not make it perfectly clear that the resolution that was passed on 6 November must be implemented in full?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a question for me, but it might be put to the Committee on Standards and Privileges when it is established—I hope fairly swiftly.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a debate on inward investment, which has provided tens of thousands of jobs in this country and transformed whole sectors of British industry? Does he believe that we would attract more or less inward investment if we signed up to the social chapter and to a national minimum wage?

Mr. Newton

The answer to the last part of my hon. Friend's question is that clearly we would attract less inward investment—probably a lot less—in those circumstances. I welcome the latest significant investment, the Chunghwa project, which is a big coup for both Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

While welcoming the forthcoming Chemical Weapons Bill, may I ask the Leader of the House to provide some guidance on whether the Government will make an early statement about the misuse and abuse of Internet? It can be used to pass messages in support of terrorism, as was witnessed in the mathematics department of the university of Texas, and the problem has not yet been rectified.

Mr. Newton

I am not aware of any plans for an early statement about the matter, but I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Heritage Secretary, and my right hon. and learned Friends the Home Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Will my right hon. Friend reject the advice, which is coming mainly from the Opposition Benches, that the asylum Bill should be committed to a Special Standing Committee? If we stick to the usual Standing Committee procedure, we will demonstrate that the Opposition are not only soft on crime but soft on the bogus asylum seekers who are coming into this country.

Mr. Newton

As I have said to Opposition Members, I note my hon. Friend's point but I cannot add to what I said to the hon. Member for Dewsbury.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why cannot the Leader of the House allow time for another statement about the Nolan committee? Why cannot the committee meet again before the next general election to discuss the funding of political parties? The people want to know before the next general election what the Tory party did with the £440,000 that Asil Nadir gave to it before he jumped bail. How did he get to Cyprus? Did someone help him? What about all the other money from the Greek colonels, the Chinese and the rest of them? Is it not important that, before we have the historic vote in the next general election, the public should know exactly where the money is coming from?

Mr. Newton

I shall treat the hon. Gentleman's comments as an open letter to Lord Nolan, as clearly the timing and the nature of the committee's meetings are for him and not for me to decide.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

Further to the interesting point raised by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), may we have an early debate on the practical workings of Nolan? I notice that today's Order Paper contains an amendment about local authority and trade union rights and global capitalism—so much for new Labour—that has been tabled by 15 hon. Members, at least nine of whom belong to trade unions such as the National Union of Public Employees, the National Union of Mineworkers, Unison, the MSF and the Transport and General Workers Union. None of those hon. Members has an "R" against his or her name, in contradiction of the Nolan requirements.

Mr. Newton

That is an interesting point and it is the first time that it has been brought to my attention. The newly appointed Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards took up his post yesterday and my hon. Friend may wish to bring the matter to his attention.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

As someone who is not sponsored by a trade union, I impress upon the Leader of the House the urgent need for an early debate on the Government's implementation of the recommendations contained in Lord Donaldson's report, entitled "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas". Are not the Government ducking some very important issues, including the need to confine large vessels—especially tankers—to the deep water route west of the Western Isles? May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that Lord Donaldson was wholly wrong when he said that such vessels could use the Minch in exceptional weather? In heavy weather, those and other large vessels should stay west of the Western Isles in deep water.

Mr. Newton

The best thing for me to say, appreciating the hon. Gentleman's reasons for raising the matter, is that I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who is due to answer questions on Monday 27 November. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's introductory remarks were a plea for sympathy or support, but I offer him my sympathy if he wishes to have it.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the treatment of war pensioners, particularly the payment of benefit to them? It would provide an opportunity for myself and others to draw attention to the mean behaviour of Labour-controlled Norwich city council, which refused to disregard war pensions when calculating benefits. I hope that my right hon. Friend will help with such a debate.

Mr. Newton

I shall bring my hon. Friend's remarks to attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. No doubt, either by this exchange or in other ways, my hon. Friend will draw his remarks to the attention of the relevant council.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)

Does the Lord President understand the disappointment felt by thousands of haemophiliacs who received impure blood from the national health service and have the additional affliction of hepatitis C? The Lord President has always shown genuine sympathy when the matter has been raised. Will he now use his real influence to find time for a debate on this important matter?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's reference to me. As he knows, I was the Minister for Health when the problems first arose in relation to AIDS and haemophilia, but he will understand that my right course is to draw those remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

May I add my voice to the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) in support of a Special Standing Committee for the latest asylum and immigration Bill? That would be in the best interests of obtaining a calm and informed public debate on the issues.

As a very dissatisfied customer of Yorkshire Water, may I declare that interest and urge the Leader of the House to ensure that the Environment Minister who replies to the debate on Wednesday will announce that every necessary action will be taken to ensure that there are no interruptions to the water supply in any part of Yorkshire and that there will be a wholly independent public inquiry into the mismanagement and total incompetence of Yorkshire Water and several other water companies, as the matter is now of widespread public concern?

Mr. Newton

I note the hon. Gentleman's remarks on both points. He will realise by now that I have little alternative but, to use a time-hallowed phrase, to refer him to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

May we have a statement on the comment by the President of the Board of Trade to the CBI that job insecurity is just a state of mind? It certainly matters to millions of people in Britain who are worried about their employment and their future. Is it just in the Government's mind that job insecurity does not matter?

Mr. Newton

What is in the Government's mind is to pursue policies that will further strengthen the economic recovery that is under way and address the concerns to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When may we have a debate on early-day motion 1?

[That this House supports Bristol Coroner Paul Forrest's call of 14th November 1995 for a ban on bull bars at the inquest on Helen Baggs aged 10 of Melksham who was killed by a Land Rover fitted with bull bars; believes that many deaths and serious injuries would have been avoided if the Government and the European Commission had swiftly acted to ban bull bar fashion accessories that concentrate and multiply the force of collisions at the level of a child's head.]

The Bristol coroner, Mr. Paul Forrest, has demanded a ban on bull bars. He was speaking the day before yesterday on the inquest on 10-year-old Helen Baggs, who was killed by a bull bar in July. Helen's mother said that the House moved very swiftly when there were a number of attacks on children by dangerous dogs. She is aware that the matter has been raised in the House on many occasions over the past two years by Members on both sides of the House and the Government have done nothing. She rightly asks how many more children must die before the Government act.

Mr. Newton

The Government share the concern of the Bristol coroner and that of the hon. Gentleman that aggressive bull bars are likely to compromise road safety. The hon. Gentleman should know, if he does not already, that my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for road safety recently met Commissioner Kinnock to agree a way forward. It was agreed that the only effective solution was an amendment to the external projections directive by the European Union. Commissioner Kinnock promised to take that forward. The Government continue to discourage manufacturers from providing bull bars and vehicle owners from using them.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) mentioned job insecurity. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 129 people in Trawden in my constituency have been told that they will lose their jobs in January when Beartex, which supplies blue chip companies such as Marks and Spencer, closes down? Is there not a case for an urgent debate on the textile industry to ascertain what we can do to ensure a level playing field so that skilled and dedicated workers like the people in Trawden, who have much to contribute, are not thrown on the scrap heap?

Mr. Newton

With all Members, I regret any development of the sort to which the hon. Gentleman has referred in his constituency, as we would regret it in any of ours. As I am not familiar with the background in detail, I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

During Monday's debate on investment, the President of the Board of Trade should make a grovelling apology for his statement that job insecurity is a state of mind. Does the Leader of the House agree that the statement was an insult to millions of people who live in constant fear of losing their jobs as well as to the millions more who do not have a job? Surely it is time for such an apology to be made to the House.

Mr. Newton

I expect my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, when he speaks on Monday, to repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen): that it is the Government's purpose further to strengthen Britain's economy by, for example, attracting overseas investment, as we have been doing extremely successfully, and thus address the concerns to which reference has been made.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

When a Law Commission Bill is referred to a Second Reading Committee, will the Leader of the House ensure that he draws attention to such a referral when making his business statement? Will he adopt the same practice when the Second Reading debates on consolidation Bills are moved forthwith? Does he understand that the recent changes to our Standing Orders will diminish the opportunities for Members to be aware that such proposed legislation is to pass through the House? Unless we want to reduce ourselves to rubber stamps, we need full notice that this business is to come before us.

Will the proposed divorce legislation come before us as a Law Commission Bill? If so, will it be considered by a Second Reading Committee?

Mr. Newton

The proposed divorce legislation will come before the House as a public Bill in the ordinary way and will be subject to the ordinary processes of such Bills. That has arisen precisely because a Bill that had been put through a procedure intended for non-controversial legislation transpired to be regarded by some as controversial. That is reasonably clear.

Not even my ambitions run to reducing the hon. Gentleman to a rubber stamp, but I shall bear in mind his suggestion.

Mr. John Marshall

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek your guidance? As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) said, nine of the Members who signed a motion on trade union rights are trade union-sponsored. What can the House authorities do about this sleaze?

Madam Speaker

I can deal with the matter. I think that it was said that the Members concerned were members of trade unions, not sponsored. I shall examine the matter carefully. I think that the Leader of the House replied absolutely correctly. If there is any doubt, we have employed a parliamentary commissioner to deal with these matters instead of dealing with them by means of points of order.

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