HC Deb 01 February 1996 vol 270 cc1123-32 3.32 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

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

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:

MONDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Debate on policing of London, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

TUESDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Until 7 o'clock, a debate on the future of GP fundholding, on a Government motion; followed by a motion relating to the Collective Redundancies and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (Amendment) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY—A slight variation from the usual Wednesday morning debate, in that this is the first occasion on which the first two debates will take place on Select Committee reports recommended for debate by the Liaison Committee. Until 12.30 pm, therefore, there will be a debate on the Agriculture Select Committee report on horticulture, and the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee report on employment creation in Northern Ireland; followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day (4th allotted day): Until about 7 o'clock, a debate on rail privatisation, followed by a debate entitled "The renewed threat of Post Office privatisation". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

THURSDAY 8 FEBRUARY—Until 7 o'clock, motions on the Welsh revenue support grant reports. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Remaining stages of the Audit (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

FRIDAY 9 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 12 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day (5th allotted day)—the first of three allocated to the minority parties under Standing Orders. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats, subject to be announced in due course.

During the rest of the week, I hope to provide a further day for the official Opposition, and it may be necessary to take Government business on the Thursday. On Friday 16 February, the business will be private Members' Bills.

[Thursday 8 February: (Welsh Revenue Support Grant Reports); relevant reports: Local Government Finance Report (Wales) (1996–97); Limitation of Council Tax and Precepts (Relevant Notional Amounts) Report (Wales) 1996–97.]

Mrs. Taylor

I shall begin with the issue that was raised at the end of Prime Minister's questions. I stress to the Leader of the House that there is obvious and widespread support across all parties for establishing a new mechanism for dealing with the pay of Members of Parliament and of Ministers. As only the Prime Minister can refer the matter to Lord Nolan by widening that committee's terms of reference, I stress to the Leader of the House the need for an early indication of the Prime Minister's intentions in that regard, so that hon. Members are not placed in the invidious position of having to make decisions about their own pay and that of Ministers.

This week, hon. Members on both sides of the House have made clear their opposition to the suggestion by some members of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals that it should levy a pre-entry top-up fee of £300 per student. CVCP members believe that that is necessary because Government funding of higher education has not matched the increase in student numbers. I understand that the CVCP will meet tomorrow to make a final decision about the matter.

Should the proposal receive formal support, does the Leader of the House agree that a Minister should make a statement to the House on Monday to explain how the Government will respond to that very difficult situation? Would it not be wise to have a full debate on the funding crisis facing both higher and further education, as more and more further education colleges are also in significant financial difficulty?

Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that the Government intend to make a statement to the House the moment that the report of the Scott inquiry is published? It is important that the House should be the first to hear the Government's response to that report. I hope that any statement will coincide with the report's publication, and that that will be followed as soon as practicable by a proper, full-scale debate in the House.

Finally, the Leader of the House will not be surprised if I ask yet again about his proposals for debating important European issues. Last week, he said that he could not say whether or when there might be a debate on important issues such as convergence, social protection and economic and monetary union—which the all-party Scrutiny Committee unanimously recommended should be debated on the Floor of the House. Last week, the Leader of the House said that he had not seen the Committee's report. It is now available, and I hope that he will acknowledge that we should have an early debate on the matter.

While we are on that subject, I again press the Leader of the House to tell us when he expects to see the publication of the White Paper on the intergovernmental conference, and when the House will have an opportunity to debate it. If the Leader of the House does not respond to that issue soon, we can conclude only that the Government are frightened of debating any European issue.

Mr. Newton

I will take the questions in the order in which they were asked. First, in relation to Members of Parliament's and Ministers' pay, the hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that I would have said exactly what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said had he not been asked. I will add only this. The hon. Lady's statements yesterday of Opposition support for a reference to an independent body were extremely helpful. As I have told her, and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we hope to be able to announce our conclusions on that matter shortly, following our own further consideration and consultation through the usual channels.

Secondly, in relation to top-up fees and the meeting tomorrow, there is no sense in my speculating about what might or might not be appropriate in the wake of a meeting that has not taken place. However, I shall of course draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I emphasise that while, of course, the universities face a challenging public spending settlement this year, they have been given new flexibility to finance capital investment through the private finance initiative, and we certainly see no need for universities to introduce top-up fees.

As for Scott, we will announce our plans for handling the report in due course. However, the House may like to know that my right hon. Friend the President the Board of Trade is answering a question this afternoon announcing the expected publication date.

In relation to the hon. Lady's question about European legislation, she is right to say that the report has been published—I have it with me. However, it was embargoed for any use before 2 pm today, so she will understand that we have not had an extensive opportunity to consider it. We will, of course, consider it, and respond in the appropriate way at the appropriate time.

Finally, the White Paper on the IGC is in preparation, and will be published in good time, before the start of the IGC at the end of March.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Can I push the Leader of the House a little further on the important question of the IGC? Will there be opportunities for hon. Members to give their input before the drafting of the White Paper, as I am sure that there are still some issues to be resolved, and an opportunity for a good debate on or shortly after its publication? I am sure that many hon. Members would like to join in on those weighty issues.

Mr. Newton

I will of course bear—[Interruption.]—in mind my right hon. Friend's points. I should also tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) that neither of them has shown any inability to provide their input to discussions on those matters in a variety of ways.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

As a result of the Leader of the House's announcement that the annual debate on the policing of London will take place on Monday, which I welcome, will he go further and tell us whether it is possible to establish—given the controversy that occurs when it is not done—annual dates for debates on such matters as "The Health of the Nation", which is the Government's document setting annual targets, and the environmental state of the nation, which is a departmental and Government programme?

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us why next week's business does not include a debate on the Leicestershire (City of Leicester and District of Rutland) (Structural Change) Order 1996, which is the first local government order to be debated not in the House but in Standing Committee, quite against the interests of many hon. Members on both sides of the House?

Mr. Newton

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, as he will well know, the understanding about the changes made by the House after Jopling was that statutory instruments would normally be taken in Standing Committee unless requests were made through the usual channels for them to be taken on the Floor of the House. We would always consider such requests. In this case, it seemed sensible to take the order, which Opposition Members have been pressing for, in Standing Committee.

In relation to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, there is a Jopling link. There is of course an understanding that there will be an annual debate on the policing of London. However, the House cannot continue to press me to move perhaps even further in a Jopling direction, certainly to sustain the moves that we have made, and also to demand an increasing number of annual set-piece debates on this, that and the other.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

After the very worrying and alarming decision taken by Commissioner Kinnock to allow massive funding from public funds for public airlines in Spain—which seems to show that the idea of a level playing field within Europe is simply a sick Brussels joke—will the Government be willing to have a debate on the changes that we can make in the wholly unrestricted power of Commissioners to make decisions which can cause real damage to British industry and destroy British jobs or jobs in other nations?

Mr. Newton

Perhaps I might take my hon. Friend's remarks as some sort of input along the lines touched on earlier. The decision seems to us, at best, a weak decision which threatens to undermine all our efforts to establish fair competition in the Community aviation market. We shall be studying the decision closely, and we have not ruled out a legal challenge.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Leader of the House will remember that I raised with him the question of the replacement of MOD police with private security men. He will also be aware that the matter is now becoming urgent, because the question has arisen of arming private security men and training them, and there are real worries about replacing MOD policemen in highly sensitive and important factories around the United Kingdom. It is vital that the House of Commons debates these matters before decisions are implemented, and not afterwards.

Mr. Newton

I always bear the hon. Lady's requests in mind, but she will acknowledge that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces wrote to her in December, sending a copy of the consultation document, and again on 17 January. She will be aware that copies of the consultation documents and other studies on defence policing have been placed in the Library of the House.

Sir David Mitchell (North-West Hampshire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 35 Ministers are paid less than senior Officers of the House? In view of that, will he lend some urgency to decisions on the matter?

Mr. Newton

I thought that I had said, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did, that we hoped to give to the House an indication of the Government's proposals for carrying these matters forward within the relatively near future.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Has the Leader of the House any alternative to offer to the rejection by the Liaison Committee of the unanimous request by the Transport Select Committee for a debate on the important issue of ferry safety? Since we reported, there have been two incidents. One involved a ferry that went down off Indonesia in two minutes; yet the Government refused to investigate it, because the vessel was not in British waters.

Then there was the rigged evacuation conducted at Dover, which proved that, although it was supposed to be possible to evacuate 2,000 people from a vessel in storm conditions at sea, it was not possible to evacuate more than 315 from a vessel tied up in harbour in broad daylight. As the risk of a disaster is as real now as when the Committee reported in July, can we have an urgent debate?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that the Chairman of the Liaison Committee will consider the hon. Gentleman's further representations. Although the Committee has suggested two subjects for debate next Wednesday, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that that is not the end of the opportunities for such debates. No doubt his request can be borne in mind.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it was with some surprise and not a little disappointment that we learned that the Government had renewed for a further five years the right of individual reference to the European Court of Human Rights, without giving the House or even the Home Affairs Select Committee the opportunity to consider whether that was what we wanted?

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that there is immense dissatisfaction with the fact that, time and again, the decisions of this House and this people are referred to a court of foreigners who do not have our traditions and do not have an understanding of our culture, and that those decisions are often reversed? Will he give an undertaking that, if such matters come up for consideration again at any time in the future, they will be referred to the House, so that it can be given an opportunity to consider them fully?

Mr. Newton

I will certainly bring those remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends who are principally concerned with those matters.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Can the Leader of the House give a firm assurance today that the Government machine will stop rubbishing the Scott report before publication? Is he aware that the comments of the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe, were inappropriate? Why do we not wait for the Scott report to appear before the smear campaigns begin?

Mr. Newton

That question from that quarter almost beggars belief, given the amount of smearing by the Opposition.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Will the Leader of the House consider, not immediately but in due course, at least a half-day debate on the People's Republic of China, covering Hong Kong, what is to happen next year and bilateral relations throughout?

Mr. Newton

Consider it added, without commitment, to my little list.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister, when he makes his statement about the proposed pay review for Members of Parliament, to consider giving British pensioners the same percentage increase as Members of Parliament?

Mr. Newton

The pressure, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is for an independent body to look at those matters. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) made that request, and many Members have signed up to it. Were such a reference to be made, it would be for that body to consider what to take into account.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) in asking for an urgent early debate on the decision by Commissioner Neil Kinnock to permit the payment of a subsidy of £400 million to Iberia, the Spanish airline? Does not that show that, in 1992, the people were right to say that Mr. Kinnock was unfit to govern? It would also give us the chance to show that we are not prepared to sell British airlines short.

Mr. Newton

I cannot add to what I said, but I am sure that there will be a good deal of disappointment—perhaps on both sides of the House, but certainly among my hon. Friends—about what Commissioner Kinnock appears to have agreed to.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to arrange for an early debate on the miseries inflicted on schools by vandalism and arson? The English Martyrs Roman Catholic school in my constituency has been struck by arsonists three times in the past seven months. It is desperately in need of replacement mobile classrooms, closed circuit television and fencing. The head teacher of Barleycroft primary school in my constituency was attacked in the school car park.

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment was good enough to come to Leicester and look into the matter, but nothing has happened. The schools have to pay for those necessities with money that should be spent on educating the children. Please may we have a debate very soon?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise a debate, but I can certainly promise to bring the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The underlying need is to carry still further forward the Government's vigorous campaign to detect and, whenever possible, prevent such crimes as he describes.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Following the questions by my hon. Friends the Members for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) and my right hon. Friend's admirable reply, may I repeat my plea for a debate specifically on civil air transport? The decision by Transport Commissioner Kinnock could open a flood of applications for state aid by such carriers as TAP, Aer Lingus, Sabena and Olympic Airways, and consequently risk the livelihood of many of my constituents who work for British Airways.

Mr. Newton

I well understand my hon. Friend's concern, and I hope that that was clear from my earlier reply. I shall bear in mind his request for a debate.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Last year, in the teeth of opposition from just about everyone, the Government allowed the merger of Scottish and Newcastle and Courage to go ahead, with the loss of 1,600 jobs—200 in my constituency. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on such mergers? The people of Halifax think that there is a big connection between the £50,000 a year that the Tory party receives from Scottish and Newcastle and the Government's decision not to oppose the merger.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady knows perfectly well that such decisions are taken only after independent examination by the Director General of Fair Trading, and often the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Her suggestion is not only unfounded, but rather confirms what I was said earlier about the Opposition's tendency to smear.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of a debate on the Government White Paper "Making Waste Work", so that we can examine the excellent policies proposed by the Government and the steps taken by good Conservative boroughs such as the London borough of Bromley, the "green and clean" borough? I hope that my right hon. Friend will not misunderstand me when I say that it would be beneficial for the House to debate rubbish.

Mr. Newton

I think that I am right in recalling that there was a somewhat similar Wednesday morning debate not so long ago. Were my hon. Friend to encourage yet another one, I would not wish to dissuade him.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the opportunity on Wednesday to debate the report on unemployment by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Will legislation need to be changed to allow the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to move from place to place? How do we go about having it meet? Will it be the will of the House, or will it be the decree of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman has asked me fairly persistently about these matters over some weeks. He will have received, subsequent to our exchanges last week, what I hope he found an encouraging reply from my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. I do not think that I am personally in a position to add to that.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May I join the growing number of Members who want a debate on air transport in Europe? Is it not a national scandal that a British Labour Commissioner should agree to a subsidy that can only put at risk jobs in the United Kingdom? Such a debate would give us the opportunity to point out that privatisation has led to British Airways being extremely popular and successful, and by far the best airline in Europe.

Mr. Newton

I would not necessarily choose exactly the words used by my hon. Friend, but I have already said that I share the sort of concern that he has expressed. I shall add his name to the list of those who want such a debate.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

May I press the Leader of the House to give serious consideration to the arrangements for cold weather payments, especially those made in my constituency? Wolverhampton is covered by two weather stations, one in Birmingham and one in Shropshire. It is ludicrous when cold pensioners, virtually on opposite sides of the same street, are denied the same benefit, when the ambient external temperature is exactly the same. Urgent action should be taken by the Government to ensure that there is fair play and equity between pensioners in exactly the same conditions.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will know of the substantial improvements that have been made to the scheme over recent years. I shall, of course, bring his specific point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I support calls for a debate on the decision of Commissioner Kinnock that there should be subsidy of foreign airways, bearing it in mind that he is a resident of the borough of Ealing? His decision will threaten the jobs of many of my constituents and those of many others in England. He cannot be allowed to get away with it. Should not the House face the matter, debate it and put Commissioner Kinnock down, if it can?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will have heard what I have already said, probably about four times. I shall ensure that his representations are also taken into account.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Mr. Harry Barnes: come up with something else.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I certainly will, Madam Speaker.

Eighteen items are awaiting consideration by European Standing Committees A and B. Some of them have been in the queue for a long time. The Leader of the House said that he would look into the matter. Has he done so? If so, what is the result?

Mr. Newton

I have obtained some information, and I hope to come back to the hon. Gentleman before too long.

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)

May we have an early debate on the rural White Paper, so that we might discuss the important role of business in village communities, especially in the light of the assurance given by the National Westminster bank that it remains dedicated to serving the needs of customers in rural areas, despite its plan to close its Whaley Bridge branch, the fifth closure of a village branch affecting my constituency in the past two years?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend is asking about the possibility of a debate on the rural affairs White Paper. I see some attractions in that, and, without commitment, will bear the matter in mind.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Last December, the Government were defeated at the end of a debate on fishing policy. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) said that he would not take back the Government Whip until the Government had a better deal for fishing.

Is the Leader of the House able to give us an opportunity to debate fishing, so that the Minister with responsibilities for fisheries can report to the House and not only to his hon. and retreaded Friend, and so that I can raise an issue that has been brought to my attention by "Channel 4 News", on a video of illegal fishing methods practised by flags of convenience vessels registered as British, which comprise about a fifth of our fleet? They are catching fish illegally under the eyes of fishery protection vessels and landing them pretty well unpoliced in European ports. We need to debate that, and fishing generally.

Mr. Newton

I shall concentrate on the second half of the hon. Gentleman's question rather than the first. I am sure that the appropriate action for me to take would be to bring his comments to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May I also ask for a debate on the extraordinary decision of Commissioner Kinnock, because there is an aspect that has not been highlighted? This was the first appointment made by new Labour to Government office, and a serious decision has been taken. Those on the Labour Front Bench would have to tell us in such a debate whether the decision was taken because the right hon. Gentleman has buckled under pressure, or because real Labour still believes in subsidising nationalised industries.

Mr. Newton

The attractions of such a debate seem to grow by the minute.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

The Leader of the House will be relieved to know that I will not ask him for a debate, but I should like a statement to be made in the House about local government reorganisation in Nottingham. I ask him to make representations to the Secretary of State for the Environment and to point out three things to him: first, Nottingham and, I think, Plymouth, would remain the only two major cities that have not been able to get a commitment to unitary status if their orders are not laid; secondly, they have remained longest in the queue for reorganisation and unitary status; and, thirdly, in Nottingham's case, delay of a year would cost the city an unavoidable additional £500,000, which everyone in the locality would like to avoid. I hope that we can press on with unitary status and reorganisation.

Mr. Newton

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will bear those points in mind.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Leader of the House assist me and other hon. Members by having a word with the Home Secretary before we debate policing in London next Monday, and draw his attention to a reply that he recently gave me, which showed that, in 1994, 959 people who were apprehended while committing burglary were cautioned but not prosecuted? Will he ask the Home Secretary to be prepared to reply in advance to questions that I have tabled for reply on 6 February, on page 1326 of the blues, which probe the extent of the scandal whereby people who have committed the serious offence of burglary are only cautioned? Will he tell us whether those people are included in the so-called "clear-up" figures of the crime statistics? Will the Home Secretary come clean next Monday on that scandal?

Mr. Newton

I shall warn my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary of the hon. Gentleman's interest in these matters.

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