HC Deb 12 December 1996 vol 287 cc420-6 4.25 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

I should like to make a statement about the business for next week and for the week after the recess:

MONDAY 16 DECEMBER—Debate on the common fisheries policy on a Government motion.

TUESDAY 17 DECEMBER—Progress on the Protection from Harassment Bill.

WEDNESDAY 18 DECEMBER—Until 2 pm, debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House, of which the first will be the three-hour debate that I normally wind up.

Conclusion of proceedings on the Protection from Harassment Bill.

Second Reading of the National Heritage Bill [Lords].

The House will wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, it is proposed that the House should rise for the Christmas recess on Wednesday 18 December until Monday 13 January.

The business for the first week back after the Christmas recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 13 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Crime (Sentences) Bill.

TUESDAY 14 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 15 JANUARY—Until 2 pm, debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill.

THURSDAY 16 JANUARY—Subject to progress in Committee, remaining stages of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill.

FRIDAY 17 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Tuesday 17 December there will be a debate on the information society in European Standing Committee B, and that on Wednesday 18 December there will be a debate on the social dialogue in European Standing Committee B.

It will also be proposed that on Wednesday 15 January there will be a debate on the draft general budget for 1997 in European Standing Committee B.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Tuesday 17 December 1996:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: 9795/96, The Information Society: priorities and implications. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 36-i (1996–97).

Wednesday 18 December 1996:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: 10305/96, Development of the Social Dialogue. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 36-ii (1996–97).

Wednesday 15 January 1997:

Relevant European Community Documents: (a) 9372/96, Draft general budget 1997; (b) SEC(96)1677, Letter of amendment No. 1 to the preliminary draft budget 1997; (c) PE 252 724, 1997 Budget; (d) Unnumbered, Letter of amendment No. 2 to the preliminary draft budget 1997; (e) Unnumbered, Amendments to the draft general budget 1997. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: (a) and (b) HC 36-i (1996–97); (c) HC 36-iii (1996–97); (d) HC 36-iv and HC 36-vii (1996–97); (e) HC 36-v (1996–97).]

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I thank the Leader of the House for that information. The House will be grateful that he was able to give us an idea of business during the first week back, which will help hon. Members.

The Leader of the House knows that the first meeting of the Highlands and Islands Convention is to be held in Inverness on Monday afternoon. The hon. Members who will attend have a significant interest in the fisheries debate which is to be held in the House at exactly the same time. Can we have an assurance that such clashes will be avoided in future? Hon. Members will face great difficulty in representing their constituencies in two places at the same time.

In view of the recent meeting of the Millennium Commission and the concerns about the future of the millennium exhibition, would not it be appropriate for the Secretary of State for National Heritage to make a statement to the House before we rise for the Christmas recess so that we can be kept informed about that project, which involves large sums of money?

The Leader of the House will be aware that he has been unable to grant our request for an Opposition day between the Budget and Christmas. May we have an assurance that, in the new year, Opposition days will be given the priority that they deserve in business planning?

What will happen to the Welsh Development Agency Bill in the new year?

When the House returns after the recess, is the writ for the Wirral, South by-election likely to be moved?

In view of significant public concern about food safety, which stretches back over many years—with scares about salmonella, listeria, BSE and now E. coli—will the Government find time to debate the positive steps that could be taken were they to accept the Labour party's policy of introducing an independent food standards agency?

Mr. Newton

I thank the hon. Lady for her words at the beginning of her response.

I regret the possible clash of commitments for Scottish Members—particularly on Monday—but there would have been complaints if we had not had the fisheries debate before the Fisheries Council, which is what the House would expect and is the cause of the clash. If there were an obvious way of avoiding the clash, I would happily find it, but as far as I can judge there is not.

I shall draw the hon. Lady's request about the Millennium Commission to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage. I note that my right hon. Friend is the next Minister to answer questions in the House—she is due to answer them on Monday.

I am grateful for the moderate way in which the hon. Lady made her point about Opposition days, and I know that she appreciates the problems that we have had recently. I shall bear in mind the need for Opposition time when I consider future business.

We shall seek to make progress on the Welsh Development Agency Bill as soon as possible, but I cannot predict exactly when that will be.

On the subject of the Wirral, South by-election, the hon. Lady will be aware that the memorial service for our late colleague took place only this morning, and it is certainly not customary to think about moving writs before such a service. I am sure that my right hon. Friends who are concerned with such matters will, when appropriate, consider the timing of the writ.

On the subject of food safety, the Government will seek to consider the lessons to be learnt from the latest outbreak, but I cannot draw conclusions from it in the way that the hon. Lady suggested.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will my right hon. Friend allow the House time to debate civil air transport policy either before the Christmas recess or in the first week after it? Is he aware that there are issues of great importance that should be debated in Government time—the proposed alliance between British Airways and American Airlines, the possibility of a slot auction at Heathrow airport, the continuing Bermuda 2 air service agreement negotiations between the United States and the United Kingdom, with the necessity for more gateways for British carriers into the United States, and the fact that the new noise regulations are due to come into force on 1 January? Those are important matters for my constituents and the country as a whole.

Mr. Newton

I certainly acknowledge the importance of those matters for my hon. Friend's constituents. I also acknowledge my hon. Friend's expertise in the matter, but I cannot immediately promise a debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is the first Minister due to answer questions after the recess.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Does the Leader of the House recognise the great concern, felt in several parts of the country that have Ministry of Defence establishments, about possible changes to the MOD police force? Is he prepared to allow a full debate in the House on the Army Terms of Service (Amendment) Regulations 1996, against which a prayer has been laid by two prominent members of the Conservative party as well as the leader of the Opposition and me?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise a debate, despite the fact that the MOD police headquarters is in my constituency. I plainly have an interest in the matter. On the latter point, I shall look into what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

Given the staggering news, which is just coming through, that the Labour party has been seeking to fix the "Today" BBC personality of the year and that "Today", the BBC Radio 4 programme, has suspended that operation pending a proper investigation, could we have a debate on public standards in public life and the independence of the BBC, to ensure that we properly air how the Labour party is seeking to manipulate the media?

Mr. Newton

That sounds an extremely attractive proposition on the basis of the intelligence that my hon. Friend has communicated to the House. At least one member of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges is in his place and suggesting that we should take that matter on as well. I would have to pass on that one for the moment.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Opposition are likely to defeat the Government in Monday's vote on the fisheries motion—due to the Government's lack of a majority, especially after today's by-election? Will the Government make provision for a confidence motion on Tuesday? Many people can smell the decay and rottenness of the Government. They are on their last legs; it is time that they were wrapped up—giving everybody a Christmas present. Let us have an election and sort it all out.

Mr. Newton

Great as is my desire to please the hon. Gentleman, as ever, even to the point of being willing to give him a Christmas present, I do not think that it will be that one.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Would it be appropriate to have a debate on the shortfall in tax revenues since about 1990, when three hon. Members tried to smuggle a video camera through Customs? Those hon. Members have never been punished. Indeed, one of them sits on the Opposition Front Bench to this day.

Mr. Newton

I think that you, Madam Speaker, would probably be with me in saying that, if there are matters that ought to be investigated in respect of hon. Members' conduct, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on them on the Floor of the House. It would be appropriate to draw them to the attention of the Parliamentary Commissioner.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The problem with the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) is that he gives slapheads a bad name, which I greatly resent.

My question relates to coal mines, all of which in Derbyshire have been closed, the last one being closed by the Deputy Prime Minister. Many pits and drift mines have been closed, which has created a great problem of abandoned mine shafts. There is a Select Committee report on the matter. Can we debate it? I believe that slots are available on a Wednesday morning for the discussion of Select Committee reports.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point that deserves a serious response. He is right: there is provision for some debates on Select Committee reports, some of them on Wednesday mornings. We have had some such debates recently. They are normally chosen on the advice of the Liaison Committee, so the hon. Gentleman might care to make his representations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins).

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a full day's debate on the Floor of the House on trade union reform? Not only would it give me the opportunity to talk about how effective it has been, and to say that the United Kingdom has some of the lowest levels of strikes since records began, it would allow me to share with the House the views of a left-wing Labour councillor from Burnley, Marcus Johnstone, who said during the most recent strikes in Paris—when the police were being pelted with stones, petrol bombs were being thrown and cars were being overturned—that they were a great inspiration for us all and that it was a great shame that people in this country did not demonstrate in exactly the same way against a right-wing Government. That is shocking in itself, but Marcus Johnstone has been selected as the Labour party's candidate to fight me at the next general election.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend has found a most ingenious way in which to draw his constituents' attention to his opponent's views. It sounds to me as if he is lucky in his opponent.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will there be an opportunity next week to debate the report of the Standards and Privileges Committee? Is the Leader of the House aware that many of us would like the opportunity to congratulate the Committee on demonstrating that an all-party Committee and self-regulation can work? If it can work on this occasion, it can work on others.

Would it not be useful if the Press Complaints Commission also could demonstrate that it is an effective self-regulating body?

Mr. Newton

Perhaps I might take that question as being directed principally at the Standards and Privileges Committee. I am sure that its members will be grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said.

I shall ensure that what the hon. Gentleman said about the Press Complaints Commission is drawn to the attention of Lord Wakeham, who is its chairman.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate as soon as possible on the use being made of facilities of the House? I understand that a Labour party document has been found on a photocopier, no doubt after hundreds of copies had been made, which explains how people can go about voting for the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) in the personality of the year contest on the BBC "Today" programme. That has apparently led to the BBC's realising that it has been had by a Labour party spoof, and closing down the contest this year—which is, I believe, unprecedented.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend emphasises the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin). I increasingly think that the photocopier is one of the most dangerous things ever invented.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House might think that I am harassing him, but why is Northern Ireland not included in the Protection from Harassment Bill, and why has the Northern Ireland Grand Committee not yet been called to deal with the Budget implications for Northern Ireland in light of the Prime Minister's statement a few weeks ago? Is he, like me, grateful that, for once, the European Court appears to have acted wisely—by throwing out the objections to the Hualon investment in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Newton

I note with satisfaction the hon. Gentleman's last remark. On the first two points, I shall take the questions as representations and consider them.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May we have an early debate on early-day motion 4?

[That this House calls on the Government to acknowledge that over 3,000 people with haemophilia have been infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) as a result of NHS treatment with contaminated blood products, to recognise that over 60 people with haemophilia are now understood to have died from liver disease contracted as a result, and to consider giving similar financial assistance to those infected with HCV, who currently receive no additional help, as for those infected in the same way with HIV who have been compensated by the Government.]

It has now been signed by 273 Members of the House—a majority of those eligible to sign it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, yesterday, a petition signed by 30,000 people was handed in at No. 10 Downing street? It calls for a hardship fund to be set up for haemophiliacs who have been infected with hepatitis C? Does he agree that, in the spirit of Christmas, that would be a useful and moral gesture for our right hon. Friends to make?

Mr. Newton

Once again, I pay sincere tribute to my hon. Friend's persistence in raising this matter and the way in which he has pursued it. I believe that he initiated a Wednesday morning Adjournment debate on that subject only yesterday. He will understand that I am not in a position to add to what the Minister said to him then.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

There seems to be an avoidance therapy on the issue of Monday's business in the House. Hon. Members such as me, who represent a highland seat, must try to be in two places at once, and at a time when travel can be very difficult. It may not be possible for members of the Highlands and Islands Convention to return to the House in time to vote, far less to speak in the debate. How on earth was that conflict reached by the usual channels? Who discussed the matter? Who decided that the common fisheries policy should be debated on the same day as the first meeting of the Highlands and Islands Convention? It seems to me that that is either sabotage of scrutiny or sabotage of the fishing industry.

Mr. Newton

It is not intended as sabotage of anything. We need to hold the fisheries debate before the Fisheries Council, and Monday seems the appropriate day on which to hold it.

Mrs. Ewing

What about Tuesday?

Mr. Newton

I have no wish to engage in a confrontation with the hon. Lady. I am sorry about the clash, but I do not believe that it would be right to expect me to apologise for putting on the order of business business that the House clearly expects to conduct.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May we have a focused debate on the proposed enlargement of NATO? The subject is often scooped up in defence or foreign affairs debates, but its importance must be emphasised. We should have a debate exclusively on this issue, bearing in mind that the general election will preoccupy us in the spring and there is a summit in Madrid in the early summer. It would be helpful if the House were able to discuss those changes, which are profoundly important for Europe and likely to occur this side of the general election battle.

Mr. Newton

That is a serious issue. The House has substantial opportunities to debate defence and related matters during the year, but I shall of course take note of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there has been an outbreak of E. coli 0157 in my constituency this week, and that it is rumoured that it comes from contaminated milk from the adjoining constituency of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)? There is tremendous anxiety. Eight people have been affected, mostly in the West Craven part of my constituency. May we have a statement next week on the outbreak and, perhaps early in the new year, a more wide-ranging debate on food safety—of the type called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor)?

Mr. Newton

I appreciate and respect the hon. Gentleman's reasons for raising that issue. I share his concern about the outbreak in his part of the world, just as I share the concern about the outbreak in Scotland. In his area's case, the outbreak is being investigated locally, and the Department of Health is keeping in close touch. I shall draw my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health's attention to the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, should, by some miracle, the IRA call a ceasefire, the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill will become a matter of considerable importance, and of greater interest than it currently is. To that end, we welcome the fact that, at the end of the week in which we return to this place, we shall finish considering that Bill in the House. Is he also aware that a similar Bill, designed to accomplish exactly the same ends, is being passed in Ireland at present? Will he arrange for copies of the Dail Eireann Bill to be placed in the Library of the House that so we can be assured that it does exactly what the United Kingdom Bill does? Will he arrange for there to be a debate or a statement on BSE next week?

Mr. Newton

I note both those requests. I shall ensure that that relating to the Irish version of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill is brought to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.