HC Deb 25 April 1996 vol 276 cc595-605 3.59 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will the Leader of the House set out the forthcoming business, please?

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

The business for next week is as follows:

MONDAY 29 APRIL—Progress on remaining stages of the Housing Bill.

TUESDAY 30 APRIL—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Housing Bill.

Motions relating to the Education (Grants for Nursery Education) (England) Regulations and the Education (Grants for Education Support and Training: Nursery Education) (England) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 1 MAY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the National Health Service (Residual Liabilities) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Licensing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

Motion on the Elections (Northern Ireland) Order.

Motion on the Deregulation and Contracting Out (Northern Ireland) Order.

THURSDAY 2 MAY—Second Reading of the Arbitration Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 3 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

During that week, the House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

On a more provisional basis, the proposals for the following week are as follows:

On Monday 6 May the House will not be sitting, because it is a bank holiday.

TUESDAY 7 MAY—Second Reading of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Contracting Out (Administration of Civil Service Pension Schemes) Order.

WEDNESDAY 8 MAY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day (11th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 9 MAY—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill.

FRIDAY 10 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee A will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 1 May to debate natural mineral waters.

It may also be for the convenience of the House to know that it is proposed that on Wednesday 8 May there will be a debate on the welfare of calves in European Standing Committee A and a debate on consumer credit in European Standing Committee B. Details of relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 1 May:

European Standing Committee A—European Community document: 12712/95, Natural Mineral Waters. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 51-viii (1995–96) and HC 51-xiv (1995–96).

Wednesday 8 May:

European Standing Committee A—European Community documents: 13099/95 and 4647/96, Welfare of Calves. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC-5 I-xii (1995–96).

European Standing Committee B—European Community documents: 7774/95 and unnumbered, Consumer Credit. Relevant European Legislation Reports: HC 70-xxiii (1994–95), HC 70-xxv (1994–95) and HC 51-xi (1995–96).

Mr. Rooker

I thank the Leader of the House for continuing to use his best endeavours to announce two weeks' business, albeit that the second week's business is given on a provisional basis. Most hon. Members are most grateful for that, because it allows other arrangements to be made.

I accept that business sometimes has to be changed, but we think it unfortunate that last night's Government decision to draw stumps on the National Health Service (Residual Liabilities) Bill and to transfer its remaining stages to next Wednesday means that some of the votes next Wednesday on that Bill and on the motions, especially those on Northern Ireland. will be exceptionally late. I am not one who says that the House should never sit late, but we do not think that the business of the House is so overloaded that no other slot could have been found for the Bill.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the two significant defeats that the Government have sustained on the rights of disabled people over 65 in Committee on the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill, which has now completed its Committee stage. There is considerable interest among disabled people over 65 in the fate of those amendments, which would benefit them. We require from the Government both an early statement about whether they intend to accept the amendments, and early notification of when Report stage will take place, so that Ministers and others can be subject to the lobbying that will need to take place.

Finally, I refer to two issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), the shadow Leader of the House, raised with the right hon. Gentleman last week. The first is about water supply. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of reports in today's Daily Express that Ministers are considering proposals to deal with water supply problems? Is not the House the place to debate water supply problems, particularly in advance of yet another crisis? We do not want to have a crisis and then have hon. Members from both sides of the House say, "What has happened since last year?" We should have a general debate on the issue rather than have the Government in a hole in the corner trying to find a solution. Our constituents will not thank us if there is a crisis this summer, just as there was last summer.

The second point that was raised last week concerns the electricity industry. Is it the intention of the Government to make an early statement in the House on the decision of the President of the Board of Trade—with which we agree—to overrule the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on electricity company takeovers? Even when the Opposition agree with the Government, it is still the right of the House to have a statement made so that hon. Members from both sides can question the Minister—otherwise, it looks as if there has been a fix between the two Front Benches, and that is not the intention. Consensus and agreement are not excuses for Ministers not to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement. Furthermore, there is turmoil over the ownership and structure of the electricity industry, and there are good grounds for having a one-day general debate on the issue.

Mr. Newton

I shall take the questions in reverse order. I note that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the statement of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade following his study of the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's points to the attention of my right hon. Friend. Similarly, I shall bring his points about water supply to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, if only by way of warning him of a question that he may be asked when he is here for questions on Tuesday next week.

On the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill, I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends are carefully considering what happened in Committee. However, I am not in a position to say what their conclusions may be. As always, I shall give the House as much notice as I can about the remaining stages of the proceedings—as I do with others, including those that I have announced this afternoon.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that last night—after the House had already had two very late nights this week—it was clear that hon. Members wished to spend a considerable amount of time on the National Health Service (Residual Liabilities) Bill. We felt that it was right to provide for that at a more convenient time than last night. That is met by the proposal that I have announced this afternoon. Finally, I am extremely grateful for the kind words with which the hon. Gentleman began his remarks.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

My right hon. Friend will have heard my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food indicate to the House in reply to a question that the bovine spongiform encephalopathy problem is one of the worst crises, if not the worst crisis, to hit agriculture in this country for many decades. Therefore, I request my right hon. Friend to find time for a debate on agriculture in general, so that hon. Members can present and explore the dire problems that farmers are experiencing in feeding their livestock—as is the case in my constituency of Macclesfield, particularly for those who are on the marginal and hill land—and the problems that we fear for milk, which could well be affected by even the selective cull policy announced by my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Newton

As I have demonstrated on earlier occasions, I shall keep the possible need for such a debate very much in mind. However, I think that the right time to make a judgment about that will be in the light of what happens at the Agriculture Council next week and the statement that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said that he will make to the House following that meeting.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Is the Leader of the House aware of our concern about the shambles that the Northern Ireland Office is in regarding its business? I understand that the reforms of the Grand Committee are still stuck somewhere in that. More significantly, there is a serious problem with the elections order, which, as he announced, will be debated late on Wednesday night. That is a complex provision, dealing with the details of an entirely novel electoral system. As yet, there has been no consultation that I am aware of with any of the parties concerned—not even, I understand, with the Labour party—yet we must have some basis on which to be able to discuss it, or to catch some of the mistakes before they are made.

Mr. Newton

I thought that the hon. Gentleman's opening line about a shambles was perhaps a bit ungenerous. I should perhaps make it clear that I do not agree with it, but I have no desire to pick a squabble with him. On the rest of what he said, I think that he will agree that my right hon. and learned Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has very much sought to consult people at every stage of the process, acknowledging that there is very great pressure on, for example, the draftsmen and others in view of the speed with which all this is progressing, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do his best to try to maintain the posture that he has previously maintained.

I know that, among the many other things that my right hon. and learned Friend is seeking to do at the moment, he will be seeking a convenient opportunity to speak to the Northern Ireland parties in respect of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I ask my right hon. Friend, in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton): may we have a debate on the common agricultural policy over and above what takes place in Committee, where time is so limited?

Mr. Newton

I shall of course consider that proposal very carefully.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Given that next Monday is the start of what is positively the last year of this Parliament, I assume that the Leader of the House does not want to pick a squabble with anyone in the coming year, in view of the Government's majority. I nevertheless say to him that, in the light of the exchanges between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party at Question Time, he may need slightly to revise the way in which he gives business statements, in a way that I hope will be supportive of him and the Prime Minister.

The principle on which we have always acted on votes in the House is that every vote is a free vote, but some have a party line applied to them. May I say, on behalf of my colleagues, that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have been completely unjustly castigated by the press and by the leader of the Labour party?

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

You did not vote last night.

Mr. Hughes

I did vote last night.

Mr. Marshall

I meant that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) did not.

Mr. Hughes

No, that is—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


Mr. Hughes

They were castigated for voting as they wished to on a Bill that was at all times a Bill on which the Government had a duty to introduce the legislation without expecting even their supporters to endorse it.

Will the Leader of the House reaffirm that Governments will always introduce some legislation that they do not expect their supporters to back, and accept that, if the leader of the Labour party believes that he will abdicate that principle, it is about the most severe threat to democracy that the House has heard for a very long time?

Mr. Newton

Far from picking a squabble with the hon. Gentleman, I very much welcome and wholly agree with the spirit of what he said. Indeed, in the past—notably when I was Minister for Health—I have been associated with such measures myself, related to abortion and embryology, for example, which were brought before the House with the specific intention of enabling the House to make the type of decision that we made last night. I emphasise that further by reminding the House that the Government offered—and I think it was accepted—drafting assistance with the amendments, to facilitate that process.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

I am rarely at odds with my right hon. Friend in his selection of business, but I must ask why it has not been possible to hold a debate on the Audit Commission report on the performance of local councils, especially at this moment, when in a week's time the people of our country will elect their local councils in the various shire and rural areas. Surely the House should have been able to debate, and point out the shocking service that people receive from Labour and Liberal councils.

Mr. Newton

I must admit that it sounds quite a good idea, but so also, from my point of view, is getting on with the Government's legislative programme, much of which is very helpful to local authorities.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

When can the House have an opportunity to debate the horrendous attacks by the racist regime in Israel on the Lebanon, which are intended to destroy Lebanon's economy, to continue Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon and, in the long term, to get the waters of the Litani, which has been a long-standing aim of Eretz Israel?

Mr. Newton

The British Government, working with other Governments in any way that we can, will do everything conceivable to bring about a solution to the tragic situation in Lebanon.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Is it possible to arrange for an urgent, early debate on the link between staying-on rates post-16 and child benefit, given that the proposal to eliminate child benefit for those aged between 16 and 18 would be an absolute nightmare for millions of blue-collar worker families?

Mr. Newton

I agree with my hon. Friend: it is the most extraordinary proposal that I have heard for some time. It will leave many families, including those that are less well off, in a significantly worse position while discouraging them from doing what we have encouraged them to do for years: keep their children at school in order to acquire greater skills. The proposed policy is absolutely insane.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

When will there be a statement to the House about the firearms amnesty that was declared yesterday? Although the amnesty is generally welcome, is the Leader of the House aware that many people believe that it does not go far enough? More than 140 Members of Parliament have signed my early-day motion 639.

[That this House calls on the Government to introduce legislation to make it illegal for private individuals to possess hand guns and to enforce much stricter control of all fire-arms.]

More than 420,000 people have signed the Sunday Mail petition demanding an urgent review of firearms legislation and a ban on the private ownership of handguns. Will the Government take steps to introduce the necessary legislation instead of simply waiting for Lord Cullen to state the obvious?

Mr. Newton

While understanding why the hon. Gentleman makes that point, I think that, having set up Lord Cullen's inquiry and created a specific opportunity to examine the matters about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, the Government would be open to considerable criticism if they were to act without waiting for the results of that inquiry. However, I note with gratitude the hon. Gentleman's support for the amnesty.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

May I show solidarity with my honourable, close and affectionate friend, the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), in requesting my right hon. Friend to arrange a further debate on BSE, which is the most urgent problem to affect this country's rural areas for decades? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although the House debated the issue a month ago, farming communities continue to operate in limbo in spite of the measures that have been introduced? For example, farmers in my constituency ask me whether they will be compensated for the dairy cows that have reached the end of their lives—which were worth £200 at market before the crisis—for which they must now pay £30 to have removed and slaughtered. In the light of the fact that many small dairy farms have difficulty managing their cash flow, it is a vital matter that needs the urgent attention of the House.

Mr. Newton

While I cannot add to my earlier comments about the possibility of a debate, I acknowledge that the combination of Macclesfield and Congleton in happy marital harmony is a formidable pressure.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) mentioned, the Water Companies Association stated yesterday that the present regulatory regime is failing both companies and customers. It called upon the Government to take a belated lead and conduct a national overview of water resources. I suggest that the odd answer during Question Time is not sufficient to address issues involving an essential public service such as water. In view of the extreme public disquiet, I urge the Leader of the House to stress the need for a full statement about the present situation.

Mr. Newton

My earlier answer was only a relatively light way of saying that I would ensure that the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was drawn to the remarks made to me—and I now have double cause for doing so. We welcome the association's review of water resource levels, and the Environment Agency will report to my right hon. Friend in the next few days.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

Will my right hon. Friend find an early opportunity for the House to review the practical workings of the Register of Members' Interests, in view of concerns that there may be methods of disguising the real origin of hon. Members' non-parliamentary income? I refer in particular to the current entry in the register for the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam).

Mr. Newton

Some reference to that matter was made in a point of order raised with you, Madam Speaker, earlier this week. I do not wish to comment beyond your own remarks—other than making the obvious point that if complaints are made that hon. Members are not complying with the rules, the right course is to bring the matter to the attention of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can the House debate the major flaw in election law, whereby there is no limit on spending by individuals or parties on national funding? One Bill that came before the House in 1989 and another in 1994 warned that if an individual, who might be a billionaire, decided to spend millions of pounds on a campaign, nothing could stop him buying votes that way. Will the Government now act out of their own political interests, having failed twice to act to protect the integrity of our election system?

Mr. Newton

I have no plans to debate those matters, but I shall, with my usual generosity towards the hon. Gentleman—with whom I rarely agree—at least draw his views to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate next week on the education of 16 to 18-year-olds, many of whom in my constituency have already had the payment of their fares to school or college stopped by Ealing Labour council? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, they have—and that is disgraceful. Under Labour, the parents of those children would lose the child benefit that has enabled their children to remain in education. May we debate that double hammer blow on working people, who should not suffer in that way?

Mr. Newton

I think that you, Madam Speaker, would agree—although I had better not ask you to do so—that such a debate is an excellent idea.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I join hon. Members who have called for a debate about the beef crisis. Is not it remarkable that after 16 years of listening to Ministers saying that market forces will solve everything, it is now all a question of compensation and subsidy for a selected few—mainly Tory voters? Why could not miners have been given subsidies when they were being chucked out of work? Why cannot there be subsidies for all the workers in the meat trade who are being thrown out of their jobs? Why are we hearing restricted demands from Tory Members for subsidies for a selected few? If there are to be subsidies and compensation. let us make sure that everybody is treated equally.

Mr. Newton

I am not sure how closely the hon. Gentleman has studied everything that has been said. I accept that he is an assiduous Member of Parliament, and if he has followed the BSE debates carefully, he will know that the purpose of all the Government's actions has been to restore confidence in the market and therefore to assist and underpin the employment of more than half a million people. Government policy is aimed at helping all the people whose work is connected with beef.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Could we have a debate about the criteria exercised for foreign companies seeking to buy into previous utilities in this country, to ensure that they do not have an easier passage than British-based companies? For example, a bid has been made for Mid Kent Water plc in my constituency by a French consortium, half of which belongs to a company that has four subsidiaries arraigned for fraud in the French courts.

Mr. Newton

I shall bring those comments to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the President of the Board of Trade.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that when the welfare of calves is discussed in European Standing Committee A, there will be an hour of questions, during which time any hon. Member can attend and ask questions to discover the position? Will he also confirm that if the business today in the other place leads to many orders in connection with the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill, it will be possible to change the business next week so that that business can be dealt with next Friday?

Mr. Newton

On the latter point, let us see what happens in another place today. On the former point, after the enjoyable two hours or so that I spent being grilled by the hon. Gentleman and others on the Select Committee on European Legislation the other day, I am glad that he has found an opportunity to advertise the merits of debates in European Standing Committees A and B.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate next week on the accuracy of entries in the Register of Members' Interests? Over the past fortnight, we have been regaled with stories of stays in five-star hotels, luxury flights and general swanning about in the far east by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who tells us that that was for the purpose of fostering industry in his constituency. Today, we have a letter from Barclays plc, which states: There is no question of Mr. Mandelson being financed to support his Hartlepool constituency". If we had a debate, we might get accurate information about that and not be misled by spin doctors.

Mr. Newton

I have focused on the fact that there appeared to be some difference of opinion about the precise object of that exercise. As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, I had better not get involved in that argument beyond pointing once again to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Could we have a debate on this country's relations with Germany? It is bad enough that the Germans get down to the swimming pool first and rubbish our beef, but they have been pinching our balls. Is the Leader of the House aware that the ball with which Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick at the Wembley world cup final in 1966 was stolen by Herr Haller at the end of the match and conveyed back to Germany? This is a serious point, because that ball is the equivalent of the holy grail to English football supporters and we want it back. In that debate, we could remind our German colleagues that this country went to war over Jenkin's ear, and we are prepared to take action over Hurst's ball.

Mr. Newton

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman and I share that splendid moment in our relative youth when that third goal went in.

Mr. Banks

Or did not.

Mr. Newton

Or did not, as the case may be. On the question of the ball that did or did not go in, I am not sure whose attention I should draw that to—perhaps His Excellency the German ambassador.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

Could I too ask for a debate on the BSE crisis, so that my hard-pressed farmers can get an answer to the following question, which I was not able to put during the private notice question? What possible rational criteria could there be for lifting the ban on the export of British beef, given the fact that it was imposed by the European Commission without the slightest scrap of scientific evidence in the first place?

Mr. Newton

I realise that my hon. Friend has, in a sense, asked a frustrated question from previous business. I shall not attempt to comment beyond what my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said, but I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's concern and the way in which it was expressed is brought to my right hon. and learned Friend's attention.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

On 16 April, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie), the Prime Minister said of Sheffield city council that It does not…make its interest payments".—[Official Report, 16 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 509] That comment was completely untrue and without foundation. There is not one single example of the city council failing to make its contracted interest payments. Given that the Prime Minister has so far only acknowledged a letter from my hon. Friend on that point, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to withdraw that misleading statement before the House and to apologise unreservedly to the House and to the people of Sheffield for the completely unfair and inaccurate slur that he made against their city?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman said in his question that his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) has written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will respond appropriately.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will my right hon. Friend consider closely the demand by the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) for a debate on the middle east, so that I can point out that Hezbollah has been attacking Israel with rockets for many years and that Hezbollah kamikaze bombers have been going into Israel to kill innocent Israelis? Surely no democratic Government should stand idly by and not react to such a situation, when those guerrillas are supported by the Government of Iran as well.

Mr. Newton

I shall say almost exactly the same as I said earlier. The right thing for all of us to do is to concentrate on doing the best that we can to bring an end to the situation in the Lebanon.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

May we have an early debate on the impact of the cuts to the reduced earnings allowance, which will mean that up to 20,000 people, who are among the most severely disabled in the United Kingdom, who have earned that allowance as a result of injuries at work, will lose £29 a week? Many of my constituents, including many miners, have now lost that money from 1 April and there has been scant parliamentary discussion on the matter. May we have an early debate?

Mr. Newton

Parliament agreed in 1988 the principle that compensation for loss of earnings through reduced earnings allowance should continue past pension age only for those who continue in regular employment. People moving from REA to what is called retirement allowance still receive a preferential benefit, which recognises that reduced earnings during their working life may have led to reduced earnings-related pension rights. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least acknowledge those points.

As for the notion that at this moment I should be pressed for a debate under the general heading of social security cuts, in view of what Labour Front-Bench spokesmen are suggesting about child benefit, I simply marvel at the nerve.

Mr. Tony Bank

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During business questions, two Conservative Members raised the matter of the Register of Members' Interests. That included an attack by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) on my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who is not someone I usually leap to defend. If such exchanges are to take place, would it not be appropriate for hon. Members to give notice—it may have been in this case—to hon. Members that such points, which are quite serious, will be raised, which, in this case, have gone unchallenged?

Madam Speaker

I have made it clear that we now have a structure in the House whereby we have appointed a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and if hon. Members are concerned about matters of finance, resources or visits abroad which have been received and are not properly recorded, or which should not have taken place, the Commissioner is the person to whom the matter should be referred. Such matters should not be raised either in points of order or during business questions across the Floor of the House.

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