HC Deb 11 January 1996 vol 269 cc346-54 4.25 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement about the business for next week?

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 15 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 16 JANUARY—Opposition day (1st allotted day). Until about 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled, "The threat to the BBC World Service", followed by a debate entitled "Cuts in the training budget and the abandonment of the Community Action programme". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY—Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Until 7 o'clock there will be motions on the Employer's Contributions Reimbursement Regulations, Housing Benefit, Supply of Information and Council Tax Benefit (Amendment) Regulations, Income Support (General) (Jobseeker's Allowance Consequential Amendments) Regulations, the Jobseeker's Allowance Regulations and the Social Security (Back to Work Bonus) Regulations.

Remaining stages of the Education (Student Loans) Bill.

Motion on the Potato Marketing Scheme (Commencement of Revocation Period) Order.

THURSDAY 18 JANUARY—Debate on the Army on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 19 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 22 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Nursery Education and Grant-maintained Schools Bill.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 17 January to consider European Community documents Nos. A4-0102/95; SEC(95)731; CM 2866; and two unnumbered reports relating to the operation of the treaty on European Union and the unnumbered explanatory memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 8 December 1995 relating to the report of the study group preparing for the 1996 intergovernmental conference.

[Wednesday 17 January:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: (a) A4-0102/95, Resolution of the European Parliament on the functioning of the Treaty on European Union; (b) CM 2866, Report of the Council on the functioning of the Treaty on European Union; (c) SEC(95)731, Report by the Commission on the operation of the Treaty on European Union;(d) Unnumbered, Report by the Court of Auditors on the operation of the Treaty on European Union;(e) Unnumbered, Report of the Court of Justice on certain aspects of the application of the Treaty on European Union; and (f) Unnumbered, Report of the Study Group preparing for the 1996 Intergovernmental Conference. Relevant reports of the European Legislation Committee:

  1. (a) HC 70-xix (1994–95) and HC 239-I (1994–95);
  2. (b) HC 70-xix (1994–95) and HC 239-I (1994–95);
  3. (c) HC 70-xix (1994–95) and HC 239-I (1994–95);
  4. (d) HC 239-I (1994–95); (e) HC 239-I (1994–95);
  5. (f) HC 51-v (1995–96).]
I am not yet able to give details of the business for the following three days, but I expect to provide for an Opposition day and that Government business will be taken on Thursday 25 January. On Friday 26 January, the business will be private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement. He was present during the previous statement by the Secretary of State for Social Security on the asylum seekers benefit regulations. During questioning, the Secretary of State said that time had been set aside for a debate on those regulations. As those regulations were laid today and prayed against today, can the Leader of the House let us know when that debate will take place?

The Leader of the House announced a debate on Thursday on the Army. He will be aware of the widespread disquiet on both sides of the House that the Government are considering buying military ambulances from Austria, when British-built ones are available which represent better value for money, are preferred by the armed forces and are interoperable with those in other NATO countries. Will the Leader of the House ensure that Ministers explain their current thinking about the matter in the debate on Thursday? Will he also make sure that Ministers reach no final decisions about the issue until hon. Members have the chance to debate it in the House on Thursday, because it is so important to so many people?

Secondly, the Leader of the House must be aware of the depth of public concern and fear about the pressures that are facing hospital accident and emergency services. The subject was raised during Prime Minister's questions today and I thought that the Deputy Prime Minister was amazingly complacent about the whole issue. We hear almost daily about dangerously ill patients who have been driven around the country or who have been flown by helicopter to other parts of the country in order to find intensive care beds. Those incidents have sometimes had fatal consequences.

Will the Leader of the House be more reasonable than the Deputy Prime Minister in his approach to the issue, and will he acknowledge that our constituents are genuinely and deeply concerned about it? Will he ensure that there is a debate in Government time about the very responsible, if alarming, British Medical Association report, which was published today?

Finally, is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday the Select Committee on European Legislation recommended that five directives should be debated together on the Floor of the House because of their interrelationship and their intrinsic importance? Given the Select Committee's many previous requests that issues be debated on the Floor of the House—most notably its recommendations lating to European Union enlargement—and given that many of those recommendations have been ignored, will the Leader of the House ensure that the Committee's unanimous recommendation is upheld and that the items on economic and monetary union, convergence and social protection are debated on the Floor of the House as soon as possible? The British public will not understand if the Government prevent debate in Parliament on fundamental issues of that kind before the intergovernmental conference.

Mr. Newton

Perhaps I may take the hon. Lady's questions in reverse order. First, I have not had an opportunity to study the recommendations of the Select Committee on European Legislation, and I do not wish to respond until I do so. However, I shall take note of the hon. Lady's representations, along with any that the Select Committee has made.

Secondly, as to the hon. Lady's point about accident and emergency departments, I was present during the exchanges with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister during Prime Minister's questions and I thought that he was entirely reasonable about the matter. He explained very carefully the action that the Government are taking. I have no plans to provide for a debate on the subject in Government time, but I have said that, apart from the Opposition time that I am providing next week, I also anticipate providing Opposition time in the week after that.

Thirdly, the hon. Lady put her points about the Army ambulance in the context of the debate on Thursday 18 January. I think that the correct course is for me to bring her remarks to the attention of the Minister to whom they were indirectly directed.

Lastly, with regard to the asylum seekers regulations, I have said before that I expect to provide time for debate on the Floor of the House in response to a prayer of the kind that I understand has been laid. I cannot yet give an exact time and date for that debate, but the House will remember that I was not able to give details of business on the three middle days of the week after next.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Is it not a tradition of Parliament that the most important and controversial Bills start their lives in this place? If that is the case, why was the Broadcasting Bill—which, by any stretch of the imagination, is both a major and an important Bill—introduced in the other place?

Mr. Newton

I do not think that the convention is quite as clear cut as my right hon. Friend suggests—although certain Bills with particular characteristics would normally begin in the House of Commons. However, we must make a judgment about the balance of legislation between the two Houses when considering the pattern of any parliamentary year and we took all the relevant factors into account.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

May I return to the important question of social security statutory instruments in relation to asylum seekers? I heard clearly what the Leader of the House said, but he must surely acknowledge that there is exceptional interest in those regulations. Reports are being prepared by the Select Committee on Social Security and by the Commission for Racial Equality, and we have just been able to read the Social Security Advisory Committee's report.

I should like to press the Leader of the House on what he has just said, because he implied that there was a real likelihood of a debate in the last week of January. Will the right hon. Gentleman also consider the fact that one and a half hours may not be enough for such an important matter?

Mr. Newton

I do not think that I can add to what I have just said, except that, of course, arrangements for such debates are normally subject to discussion through the usual channels, in which the hon. Gentleman plays his part.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I refer my right hon. Friend to the deliberations of European Standing Committee B on Wednesday next week? He has been good enough to cite the documents that could be relevant to the discussions on the European Union treaty and the forthcoming IGC. However, is not the most important document—a prerequisite for a meaningful debate—a White Paper from the Government? In a White Paper, the Government could lay down clearly the principles on which they intend to negotiate.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will, I am sure, have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on that matter earlier this week. I am not able to add to that at the moment.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

May we have a guarantee that next week Cabinet Ministers will be here to answer questions? In the past week, after a fortnight's recess, we have found that, on Tuesday, the Defence Secretary was gallivanting around Japan instead of being here; on Wednesday, the Foreign Secretary was up the wall in China; and today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is nowhere to be found. I make no case against the Prime Minister because we know what he is doing today. I am beginning to wonder whether those Cabinet Ministers were told to keep away from the House of Commons this week, in advance of Lady Thatcher's speech, so as not to put their foot in it.

Mr. Newton

Well, I am here answering questions, even if they are not very good.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for arranging the debate on the Second Reading of the Nursery Education and Grant-maintained Schools Bill? Will I be in order during that debate if I refer to the activities of the Labour and Liberal-controlled Barnet council? Before a recent ballot at Christ's college, which my son attends, the headmaster was threatened that if the parents voted for grant-maintained status, necessary repairs to the school roof would be cancelled. After the ballot, the leader of the Labour-controlled council told the headmaster that he should consider resigning. Is not that more like the thought police of Ceausescu's Romania than the traditions of a liberal democracy in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Newton

I hope that my hon. Friend is right in thinking that those matters would be in order during the debate to which he referred. I know from my own experience that there is a growing number of those disturbing stories, and they are not confined to Barnet.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the request for a debate on the crisis in beds in the national health service? Is he aware that all of us face the results of that crisis? At the moment, I am investigating the case of a woman who was removed from the intensive care unit in Halifax. Even though she was given only a 50:50 chance of surviving, she was taken on a two-hour, nightmare journey to Manchester to an intensive care bed there. She was moved because her bed in Halifax was needed for somebody in an even worse state. Does not the Leader of the House realise that there is a crisis facing the NHS because of the massive bed closures, especially in accident and emergency and intensive care units?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that the hon. Lady does not expect me to comment on an individual case from the Dispatch Box.

Mrs. Mahon

We should have a debate, though.

Mr. Newton

I understand that, but I felt that I should make my first point.

On the hon. Lady's other points, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister put the position in a sensible and balanced way earlier.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate next week on voting arrangements in the House? During that debate, we could consider carefully the circumstances of the vote yesterday afternoon, when we rejected a Liberal Democrat ten-minute Bill. Part of the reason for the defeat of the Bill was the absence of the new Liberal Democrat, the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Miss Nicholson), who did not turn up to support her colleagues, any more than she did the previous night.

Mr. Newton

An interesting point, but not, I think, one that would lead me to arrange for a debate in Government time.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I offer my party's support for the request about Army ambulances.

Would it be possible—if not in the coming week, then in the week in which there still seems to be some time—to have a debate on hospital reorganisation in Northern Ireland? The need arises not just because of today's statement about the amalgamation work in Belfast, but because of the resignations of two distinguished chairmen of trusts and the chief executive of a trust.

Mr. Newton

I note the hon. Gentleman's support for the point about Army ambulances—as, I am sure, will my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence.

I think I had better admit straightforwardly that a debate on hospital reorganisation in Northern Ireland was not among the items on my list for the three days to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The subject seems to me perhaps an appropriate one for a Wednesday morning. The hon. Gentleman might like to bear that in mind.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the new concept of a stakeholder society being proposed by the Labour party? Does he agree that the time has now come when it should be clearly spelt out who these stakeholders are? Are they trade unionists, pressure groups and community groups telling bosses how to run their businesses? Would not such an idea crush businesses when what we want to do is allow them to prosper?

Mr. Newton

As far as I can see, through the miasma of uncertainty surrounding what this is supposed to mean, the answer to my hon. Friend's question is that she is right.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Does the Leader of the House recall that just before Christmas I raised with him the concern in Leicester about the Government's failure to lay the order conferring unitary status on that city? He will probably know that that fear has not been allayed in the interim. Can he announce the date for the order to be laid; failing that, can he give us a reason why the delay is occurring in the first place?

Mr. Newton

I am not in a position even now to give the hon. Gentleman an instant response, but I shall try to ensure that I communicate with him further before the next business questions.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the effectiveness of prison in deterring crime and discouraging criminality? That would provide an opportunity to discuss the case of my constituent, Helen Wallace, who was reported in the Worcester Evening News yesterday as saying that she is a reformed drug dealer now because of her experience in prison. Her mother prayed that she would go to prison, and she says that it was right that she should go there. She says that she will not go back to drug dealing because she does not want to go back to prison. Such a debate would show which party is really tough on the causes of crime.

Mr. Newton

There have been a number of opportunities in the past few months for such debates. I cannot promise an immediate further opportunity, but I can certainly undertake to draw that powerful point to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

It would appear from the reply that the Deputy Prime Minister gave earlier that he has not read or understood today's statement by the British Medical Association. Is the Leader of the House aware that the BMA places the responsibility for the present crisis not just on the shortage of finance and beds but on the perverse operational effects of the internal market, the Government's distortion of clinical priorities through their waiting list initiative, and the failure of the community care programme, which is blocking beds? In short, the BMA says that the Government are responsible.

May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 248?

[That this House notes with concern that the Greenwich Healthcare NHS Trust cancelled 26 elective non-urgent surgical admissions during the weekend 6th–7th January, that a further eight admissions were cancelled on 8th January and that all non-urgent elective surgery has now been postponed for at least seven days; further notes that the Greenwich Healthcare Trust has experienced a loss of 120 acute beds amounting to 16.37 per cent. of the total between 1993–94 and 1994–95; believes that this pattern is common to other areas of London and shows that London is both under-bedded and under-resourced; and calls upon the Secretary of State to set up an independent inquiry into bed needs and availability in London and an immediate moratorium on hospital and bed closures.] The motion points out that the healthcare trust in my district has had to cancel all elective, non-urgent surgery as a result of the current crisis. Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the request from many hon. Members for a debate on the crisis in the health service to be held as soon as possible?

Mr. Newton

If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard when it is published, he will find that the Deputy Prime Minister's comments touched on many of the points that he has just mentioned. I understand that the BMA chairman also said that it is largely a matter of making the most effective use of the resources we've got. That is the whole thrust of the Government's policy.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)

The whole House will welcome the announcement of a debate on the future of the BBC World Service, given the widespread feeling that that most precious of national assets is being sold short as a result of cuts in the Foreign Office budget. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure, however, the presence at that debate of the Secretary of State for National Heritage, who has overall responsibility for the BBC, so that she can give us answers about the inquiry that must be going on into the repeated blackouts of the BBC World Service's Arabic television news broadcasts to the middle east? The interruptions appear to have been caused by Orbit Communications, the company in Rome with which the BBC has a contract and which turns out to be owned by a prince of the Saudi royal family, a cousin of King Fahd. We shall also want an explanation of why the BBC's precious editorial independence has been sold to a family like that.

Mr. Newton

Without accepting the generality of the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the position of the World Service, which will no doubt be extensively canvassed in next week's debate, I shall of course draw the more specific part of his question to the attention of the Heritage Secretary.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Thank you for calling me, Madam Speaker. I hope that you have noticed that the usual suspects are here on a Thursday evening.

Madam Speaker

I have.

Mr. Banks

Thank you. May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 260?

[That this House expresses concern at the appointment of Sir Christopher Bland, a well-known Tory party supporter, as the new Chairman of the BBC; believes that the political impartiality and independence of the BBC is compromised by the appointment of someone who has held senior elected office for the Tories and who is clearly a political appointee; and calls for an open, competitive system of appointment for such positions of national significance in order to ensure widespread public support and an end to the use of cronyism by a discredited and exhausted Government anxious to secure placemen in institutions such as the BBC before defeat at the coming General Election.] The motion concerns the appointment of Sir Christopher Bland as the new chairman of the BBC. I remember him from his days as a Tory member of the Greater London council. Can the right hon. Gentleman imagine the outrage that there would be among Tory Members if an overtly Labour politician had been appointed to such a senior position?

May we have a debate on the method of selection of senior figures for these important public institutions, so that the public can be certain that the appointments are genuinely independent and politically impartial, not just filled by placemen of the Government?

Mr. Newton

If one thing is clear about this appointment, it is that it was in no way the appointment of a politician to do the job. Sir Christopher has wide experience of the broadcasting industry and a considerable understanding of the business, financial and technical issues facing the BBC. That appears to me to have been widely accepted by those who comment on those matters in the public prints.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

May I echo the points made by the shadow Leader of the House about the relevance of the military ambulances issue to next week's debate on the Army? I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the growing concern on both sides of the House about the fact that the Government are even considering placing a contract with an Austrian company when British-built military ambulances are available to meet the Ministry of Defence's quality and cost-effectiveness specifications. When drawing those matters to the attention of the Secretary of State for Defence next week, will the right hon. Gentleman emphasise to him the strength of feeling on both sides of the House—amplified in two early-day motions signed by a growing number of hon. Members of all parties?

Mr. Newton

I take the hon. Gentleman's question to be: will I add his name to the list of those who have expressed their concern and draw it to the attention of the Defence Secretary? The answer to that is yes.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

May we have an early debate on the barbaric practice of shackling pregnant women prisoners? The Government's response on Tuesday to a private notice question on that issue led the House to believe that staff at Whittington hospital in my constituency, where the women are taken to give birth and to be treated, view such practices with equanimity. Yet a report in today's newspaper states that Baroness Hayman, chair of the Whittington trust, has written to Baroness Cumberlege asking for an early meeting and expressing grave professional concern at such practices.

Two issues seem to be at stake: first, the possibility that the House may have been misled; and secondly, the fact that that barbaric and inhumane practice still continues. The sooner we have a full debate and get the matter out in the open and the practice abandoned, the better.

Mr. Newton

I cannot of course add to what my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office said in her statement in response to the private notice question on Tuesday, but I will bring the hon. Lady's comments to her attention and bear in mind her request.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Leader of the House reflect on the fact that, over a year, we have general debates in Government time on Wales, Scotland and Greater London, yet outside Greater London in the south-east of England, there are some 13 million people? I hope and ask that he will agree with one thing: to a large extent, that will be the battleground of the next general election. Is there not an overwhelming case for the Government to have a debate in which they could defend—I assume that they would want to do so robustly—their stewardship of the interests of the people of the south-east of England? In such a debate, my hon. Friends and I could attack the Government and Members of Parliament in marginal seats around the M25 in Hertfordshire, Kent and Essex for their defence of a Government who have caused enormous problems to people in terms of negative equity, anxiety about the national health service and lack of mobility on public transport. Let us have a debate—a gladitorial contest—on the Floor of the House, in which we could attack the Government for their stewardship of the south-east of England and in which Ministers could try to defend their position.

Mr. Newton

According to my observations over a long period, confirmed this afternoon, the hon. Gentleman is not short of opportunities to make his points without me staging further debates. As to the rest, the Government would defend their record robustly, not only on the south-east, but on the whole of the United Kingdom.