§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.
MONDAY 4 MARCH—Debate on the Economy on a Government motion.
TUESDAY 5 MARCH—Debate on Benefit Fraud on a Government motion.
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH—Until 2pm, there will be debates on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Second reading of the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill [Lords].
Motion relating to the Education (School Premises) regulations.
THURSDAY 7 MARCH—Debate on Equal Opportunities for Women on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House.
FRIDAY 8 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.
MONDAY 11 MARCH—Estimates Day (2nd allotted day—first part). There will be a debate on the Spring Supplementary Estimate, Class XIII, Vote 4, Department of Social Security: Administration and Miscellaneous Services. Details will be given in the Official Report.
Motion relating to Welsh standing orders.
At Ten o'clock the House will be asked to agree the Spring Supplementary Estimates and the Defence Votes A.
TUESDAY 12 MARCH—I expect to take the Consolidated Fund Bill, followed by other Government business.
I am not yet able to give details for Wednesday 13 and Thursday 14 March, although it may be necessary to take Government business on the Thursday. Friday 15 March is a non-sitting day.
The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 6 March to consider European Community Document No. 11954–95 relating to worker information and consultation.
Wednesday 6 March —European Standing Committee B. European Community Document: 11954–95, Worker Information and Consultation. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 51-viii.]
Monday 11 March —Estimates Day. Spring Supplementary Estimate, Class XIII, Vote 4, Department of Social Security: administration and miscellaneous services. Relevant reports: Relevant reports: the fifth report from the Social Security Committee of Session 1994–95 on The Work of the Department of Social Security and its Agencies (House of Commons Paper No. 382), the Government's reply thereto (Cm 3148) and the Social Security Departmental Report: the Government's Expenditure Plans 1995–96 to 1997–98 (Cm 2813).
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)
I thank the Leader of the House for that statement, but must express our disappointment that next week will be the third in which no Opposition day has been allocated.
1015 I begin by reporting what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday about elections in Northern Ireland. The Opposition will facilitate any necessary legislation, assuming, of course, that such a move is broadly acceptable to both communities.
While we welcome the fact that we are to have a debate on the economy next Monday, the lack of notice about such a debate will cause concern to some hon. Members. Will the Leader of the House assure us that Monday's debate will not replace the set-piece economic debate that is usually held in the summer but will be in addition to it? If he can confirm that, will he ensure that greater notice is given next time? That is especially important to Back Benchers, but, in view of the Jopling agreement, it is also important that the House should have as much notice as possible of such a important debate.
On Wednesday, the House is to debate the Education (School Premises) Regulations. The Leader of the House knows that attention has already been drawn to the fact that the regulations have an incredible number of handwritten alterations; they are covered in scribbles. That issue has been under consideration by the Government for at least three years and the former Secretary of State for Education admitted that it was sensitive territory. Will the Leader of the House acknowledge that important issues that affect the education of our children should not be treated in such a cavalier fashion and that the House should not be treated with such contempt by asking Members to debate regulations that can hardly be read because of the number of handwritten comments on the only documents that are available?
I understand that the Dearing report on the education of 16 to 19-year-olds is to be published soon. It seems appropriate that there should be a statement to the House at the time of publication. Can the Leader of the House facilitate that?
On a matter not covered by next week's business, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he can find time for a debate on legal aid? Many hon. Members know—as I do—from constituency work, that there are many anomalies in the current system and that people have been alarmed at recent press reports of particular cases. A system in which too many people who need legal aid do not get it while, too often, those who do not appear to need it do get it must be a matter worthy of further debate by the House.
Finally, I return to an issue that I have raised before with the Leader of the House. Many hon. Members do not think that it is satisfactory that the recommendations of the Standing Committee on European Legislation are not given more weight. Have Ministers set their minds against debating important issues such as convergence, social protection and economic and monetary union? We have not yet been told when the White Paper on the intergovernmental conference is to be published and debated. It is rumoured that the White Paper will not be published until the third week in March. Can he confirm the timing of its publication and give an assurance that there will be sufficient time for a full debate on the Floor of the House so that all its aspects can be fully debated before Easter?
§ Mr. Newton
That was an exceptionally long list of questions, but I will do my best with it. On the question of an Opposition day, I take the hon. Lady's comments as a representation for a day in the following week and I will certainly bear that in mind.
I thank the hon. Lady for her reiteration of the indications of support of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) for Northern Ireland legislation in the possible circumstances that were described yesterday.
On the economic debate on Monday, hon. Members know that there has been much pressure over a period of time for a spring economic debate as well as a summer one. I have been glad to find time for one, albeit at fairly short notice. I do not intend it as a replacement for the summer economic debate and I will bear in mind the hon. Lady's point about longer notice, if it is possible.
On the Education (School Premises) Regulations, the hon. Lady knows that the background to the matter is that Opposition Members pressed hard to see the final version while the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill was in Committee. As a result, the Government have gone to considerable lengths to try to make sure that the Opposition had the chance to consider the text of the regulations and now to provide for a debate. I accept that that has led to the regulations, because of the speeding up in response to Opposition representations, appearing in a less than ideal form. I will try to make sure that they are available in a tidier form at the earliest possible moment, with a view to helping the debate next week.
On the Dearing report on 16 to 19-year-olds, I will keep in mind the hon. Lady's request for a statement and bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
On legal aid, I cannot make an off-the-cuff promise of a debate, but the hon. Lady may be aware that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has recently published some regulations on the matter, which might provide an opportunity. I will certainly look into it.
On scrutiny, no; the Government have not set their face against accepting recommendations for debate, whether in Committee or on the Floor of the House. We need to consider them on their merits on each occasion, although I accept that there may sometimes be differences of opinion about what is appropriate.
On the IGC and the White Paper, we intend to provide for a debate as usual before the Turin meeting, and the White Paper should be published in good time for that debate. I anticipate publication somewhat earlier than the third week in March.
§ Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
May I echo what the hon. Lady said about legal aid and the need for a debate about some of the abuses that are going on? Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have two constituents who were married to a Mr. Luis Vianna—a Portuguese national—who has not paid a penny piece to them or the four children he has had by them? Yet, there are good grounds for thinking that he has had upwards of half a million pounds in legal aid to pursue those families in the courts, despite the fact that he is a business man and a property developer.
§ Mr. Newton
My hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on a specific case from the Dispatch Box, but the regulations that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor laid before Parliament on Tuesday, to which I referred, are intended to strengthen the arrangements for means-testing the "apparently wealthy". Those regulations will come into effect on 1 June 1996.
§ Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)
Will the Leader of the House give hon. Members the opportunity to debate the report published by the Audit Commission in the past few hours, called "Streetwise", which reveals that of 120,000 police officers only about 6,000 are on patrol at any one time and most of those in cars? Hon. Members will no doubt want to point out the importance of patrolling officers to members of a community as a source of reassurance, and to discuss the disparity in performance between different constabularies.
§ Mr. Newton
We welcome this latest Audit Commission report and I have no doubt that it will be carefully studied. We hope that it will lead to further improvements in police effectiveness. The Government's commitment to police patrol is clear, not least in the funding recently announced, which is sufficient for an additional 5,000 officers in the next three years.
Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)
Will my right hon. Friend find an early opportunity for a debate on defence procurement, so that we can discuss the order for three new type 23 frigates announced yesterday? Would it not be helpful, not only to Conservative but to Opposition Members, to have a day on defence procurement so that we can discover if the Opposition have any policies on it, not least in the light of their appalling attitude towards defence spending at the last election?
§ Mr. Newton
It is certainly an interesting idea, but it is not long since we had the annual debate on the Navy; the annual debate on the RAF is the only one outstanding. Although I accept that it might be a bit difficult to discuss frigates during that debate, it would provide my hon. Friend with an opportunity to make some observations about defence procurement generally.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the plight of the 3,100 people with haemophilia who were contaminated with hepatitis C by NHS blood products? Is he aware of how many have died or are dying and of the terms of my hugely supported, all-party, early-day motion about the tragedy? If he is, will he try to persuade the Health Secretary to make an oral statement next week in response to the motion?
§ Mr. Newton
As the right hon. Gentleman and indeed you, Madam Speaker, will know, of course I am aware, from my former experience as a Minister for Health, of that tragedy. On the right hon. Gentleman's other points, he will be aware that that matter has been raised with me on a number of occasions by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) and I am afraid that I cannot add to what I said on those occasions, but I will draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
When may we have a debate on Northern Ireland? It is a long time since we had a full day's debate, and a debate on the Adjournment would enable Members to express their opinions on recent developments and proposals.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement on a subject that was raised during Agriculture questions today, namely the allocation of set-aside money? Is he aware that large sums of set-aside money were paid out to members of the aristocracy or landed gentry? May we have a guarantee as to what conditions apply to what happens to that money? Will some of it finish up in the Tory party coffers before the next general election? As Prince Charles has received more than £500,000 in set-aside money, may we have a guarantee that he will not be using it to set aside the Princess of Wales?
§ Mr. Newton
So far as I am aware, the rules on set-aside are of general application and I see no reason why those whom the hon. Gentleman chooses to describe as the landed gentry should be excluded. As to what they do with their funds, that appears to me to be a matter for them.
§ Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)
Is my hon. Friend aware that there is great concern about the Kingskerswell bypass and the fact that it has been put on the list for long-term development? Is he aware that it is a vital lifeline for south Devon? It is an economic priority and it is to my great regret that I did not add it to my list of demands on Monday evening. Will he now please accept that, as a PS, I would like to do so.
§ Mr. Newton
I was not aware of any demands that my hon. Friend made on Monday evening; I am sure that his co-operation was given most willingly. I shall bring his representations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I feel like the importunate woman coming again to ask the Lord President for a meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. Is he in a position to answer my request positively, because of the justice of its case and the necessity to have such a meeting?
§ Mr. Newton
Without accepting the hon. Gentleman's description of himself, I have no objection at all to his raising the matter with me again as I have a piece of paper on which it says that, subject to the agreement of all concerned, I hope next week to table the necessary motion for the specific debate for which the hon. Gentleman asked me last week or the week before. I hope that it will be possible to arrange for the meeting to be held on 21 March, which may be a convenient date, but of course that would be subject to the agreement of everyone concerned.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
May I urge my right hon. Friend to set aside a day as soon as possible for a debate on regional assemblies and regional government? 1019 Many of my constituents, who have received huge council tax bills from the Lib-Lab controlled Kent county council, are appalled by Labour's proposals for regional assemblies and regional government.
§ Mr. Newton
I live in hope that the next Opposition Day, for which I was pressed only a little while ago, might be used to unveil a little more of the Opposition's policies on those matters, but if that fails, of course I shall consider my hon. Friend's proposal.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Will the Prime Minister be making a statement on his trip to Hong Kong? In the post-Nolan climate, does the Leader of the House recognise how essential it is that the Prime Minister answers the question that was put to him earlier today: is money being collected by rich business people to help the Tory party at the next election? We are entitled to know and the Prime Minister should make a statement on his return.
§ Mr. Newton
The House will have heard the exchanges with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I certainly do not intend to add to what he said. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will consider whether it seems appropriate for him to make a statement on his trip at the appropriate time.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
I echo the regret expressed by the Labour spokesman that there will not be an Opposition day next week and perhaps none the week after. We could debate the threat to grammar schools, or the threat to grant-maintained schools, or the threat to fundholding practices or the threat to the free and efficient operation of the labour market—all of which are Labour party policies.
§ Mr. Newton
On Monday we may well discuss the threat to the labour market; we recently debated fundholding practices, on which some important points were made; and a Bill is currently before the House which will enable points to be made about grant-maintained schools.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Suttons, a large transport company, operates in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State for Transport come before the House and explain how he intends to implement the Brussels directive with respect to eyesight? At present, it looks as though drivers will be asked to read numberplates from a distance without using their glasses or contact lenses because Brussels says that they may be a danger if people are involved in an accident. As a result, up to 100,000 lorry drivers will lose their jobs, which cannot be right.
§ Mr. Newton
Last week, I said that the points made by the hon. Gentleman appeared to be exaggerated. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is due to answer questions on Monday 11 March.
§ Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)
Earlier this week, I raised a question with the Secretary of State for the Environment about the problem of rising groundwater 1020 levels in London and the threat of flooding. I asked him what he was going to do about the potential threat to the London Underground and buildings. He said that no Government building is in imminent danger, as far as he is aware. He is washing his hands of the affair. Thames Water is unwilling to drill the wells that would alleviate the situation as it is uneconomic: there is no shortage of water in London, despite the fact that in other areas there have been drought orders. Will he find time for a debate on the lack of co-ordinated planning in the water industry, and the problems faced by a fragmented and privatised water industry?
§ Mr. Newton
It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I do not accept the latter part of his remarks, which seem to be extremely tendentious. I will bring his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend, and it may be that the hon. Gentleman will wish to look to a Wednesday morning for such a debate.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
May we have a debate next week on housing allocations policy so that I can bring before the House a leaked letter from a Labour Ealing councillor asking for council accommodation for a family living outside Ealing and, therefore, not on Ealing's list, but known to be Labour supporters? The councillor is seeking to build up Labour party support in that area of my constituency. Could we also discuss the fact that the chief executive of Ealing is to conduct an inquiry into this disgraceful and doubtful behaviour, but that she will be handicapped because the file concerned has gone missing?
§ Mr. Newton
My hon. Friend will not expect me to comment on the specific allegations, and I certainly shall not do so. I am sure that what he has referred to will be carefully investigated. The housing allocations policy is a matter that arises on the Housing Bill, which is currently before the House.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I anticipate a guarded and cautious reply to this question: may we have a statement next week on a topic on which the House of Commons has been extremely reticent hitherto—the situation that has developed in the royal family in two respects. First, may we discuss the proposed role in some quarters of Diana Princess of Wales, because many hon. Members feel that it is unacceptable that she should be an ambassador in terms of policy or as a dispenser of aid? Secondly, if there are to be changes in the responsibility of the monarch for the education of royal heirs, should the House of Commons be consulted?
§ Mr. Newton
The hon. Gentleman correctly anticipated a guarded and cautious response, and he will duly receive one. I will say only that it seems to me that it is appropriate for the House of Commons to be reticent on these matters.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on crime in London? Is he aware that Sir Paul Condon has been able to report a 75 per cent. increase in the number of muggers being arrested under Operation Eagle Eye? Is he also aware that there has been a large reduction in the number 1021 of household burglaries in London under Operation Bumblebee? Is this not good news for the law-abiding majority in London?
§ Mr. Newton
That news about levels of crime is encouraging and, in my view, a tribute to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and to his force, and to the measures that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has put in place.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
May we have an early debate on the policy of clamping vehicles that do not display a vehicle excise duty licence, so far as its display and sale is concerned? I understand that the Liberal Democrats are encouraging people not to comply with this law because they believe that duty should be put on fuel, which would have a detrimental effect on people living in rural areas. I promise my right hon. Friend that if the debate led to rural post offices being allowed to sell the vehicle excise duty licence, there would be a cacophony of cancellation stamps on the counters of postmistresses and postmasters throughout the country. Rural areas throughout the United Kingdom would welcome such an initiative because the vehicle excise duty licensing department has prevented sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses from selling these licences for too long.
§ Mr. Newton
Leaving aside the continuing confusion in my mind about Liberal Democrat policy in these matters, I will undertake to bring those representations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, who is the Minister concerned with the Post Office. However, some rural post offices—including the one in the village in which I live in Essex—can and do sell vehicle excise duty licences.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
Will the Leader of the House arrange for next Thursday's debate to include a discussion on bank holidays, particularly the request made by every county council in Wales, which represent every person in Wales, that St. David's day be declared a bank holiday in Wales? That request was rejected contemptuously by a one-word reply from the Prime Minister. How dare the Prime Minister—whose party managed to get only 4 per cent. of the vote at the last by-election in Wales, and only 4 per cent. of the councillors in the last election in Wales—determine what should happen in Wales? Is this not proof that Wales has a large democratic deficit and is effectively being ruled by England as a colony?
§ Mr. Newton
That was as tortuous a question as I have ever heard, and I do not agree with the detail of it. It is particularly ungenerous on the day that we have staged the annual St. David's day Welsh debate. In the light of what has been said, I have ambitions to make sure that that debate takes place on a bank holiday and that the hon. Gentleman has to be here.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
May we have a debate on the disparity of treatment that clearing banks and other financial institutions extend to people who are facing bankruptcy? The Leader of the House will be aware of the article that appeared in The Sunday Times last week showing that Lord Younger of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Sir Gerrard Neale put together a rescue package for a Conservative Member of Parliament. Is this fair in relation to other businesses that are facing bankruptcy? May we have a debate so that we can probe that matter and argue the case for people who are struggling to keep their businesses alive but who cannot get the extended credit from the banks which has been afforded to an hon. Member of this House?
§ Mr. Newton
That is one of the two or three attempts that the hon. Gentleman has made to raise the issue. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) raised it with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Tuesday and I have absolutely nothing to add to what he said on that occasion.
§ Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)
May we have a debate on the Sea Empress disaster at the earliest opportunity, particularly in light of the fact that the Secretary of State for Transport has made two statements to the House about the incident but he has instituted only an internal inquiry? Since his statement last Thursday, it has become clear that the environmental damage is far greater than was first predicted. It is already far greater than the damage incurred following the Braer disaster, in relation to which Lord Donaldson conducted an independent inquiry.
Since the Secretary of State's statement, it has come to light that Department of Transport officials and their agencies were involved in the decision-making process about an accident on Thursday 15 February which led to a disaster on Monday 19 February. To a certain extent, they are to blame for that disaster and for the resulting threat to the local economy and environment in my area. Will the Leader of the House urge the Secretary of State for Transport to establish an independent inquiry—ideally chaired and controlled by Lord Donaldson—bearing in mind the significant changes that have occurred since his last statement?
§ Mr. Newton
Of course, I acknowledge the significance of the environmental damage. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would also acknowledge the scale of the work that is going on. For example, I understand that no fewer than six oil recovery vessels are at work in Carmarthen bay and that more than 450 people are involved in beach cleaning and other activities at some 20 sites.
As to the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question—which echoes a comment made during Prime Minister's questions today—the Marine Accident Investigation Branch will carry out a thorough and independent inquiry. If I were a member of that branch, I would rather regret the implicit slur that it will not do the job properly.