HC Deb 06 June 1996 vol 278 cc719-28 3.31 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will the Leader of the House please set out the business for next week and the week after?

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:

Provisionally, the business for the following week will be as follows:

[Wednesday 12 June: European Standing Committee A—European Community Document: 8564/95, Conservation of Wetlands. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: HC 5I-xiii (1995–96) and HC 51-i (1995–96).]

Mr. Rooker

I thank the Leader of the House for outlining two full weeks' business. That is very helpful.

Consideration of the remaining stages of the Family Law Bill is set down for Monday 17 June. First, I plead with the Leader of the House to help hon. Members to take a considered view of that legislation. It will have a very direct and personal effect on our fellow citizens and we owe it to them and to their families to consider it in a grown-up manner. I ask the Leader of the House to arrange for a note to be placed in the Vote Office listing all the amendments that the Government seek to maintain or to overturn, along with any Government amendments for the Report stage.

It would be quite wrong to publish amendments only on the Friday—which is a non-sitting Friday—before a key debate on the following Monday. In the normal course of events, those amendments would not be put down until Thursday and then published on Friday. That is quite unacceptable in this case, and the House should receive advance notice of the Government's views.

Secondly, does the Leader of the House accept that the 58,000 families living in Ministry of Defence married quarters have a legitimate interest in knowing the nationality of the would-be purchasers whom Defence Ministers are lining up to buy their homes for lease back? As it will not affect commercial confidentiality, will the Leader of the House arrange for a Ministry of Defence statement about the nationality of the unknown bidders—information that was yesterday refused to the Defence Committee?

Finally, I refer to an issue that was mentioned in passing during Prime Minister's questions. Has the Leader of the House noticed the community interest in the proceedings of the House next Tuesday as evidenced by the extensive advertising in today's newspapers regarding the ten-minute Bill, the Referendum Bill? While not wishing to discuss the pros and cons of that proposal, I ask the Leader of the House to arrange for a debate about the need to set financial limits on national political advertising.

It cannot be right that people such as Sir James Goldsmith can seek to invent a political party, buy up a democracy and spend a fortune either trying to influence or to replace hon. Members outside the financial limits that are imposed by the Representation of the People Act 1989. There is no legal limit on national political advertising, and the House should address that matter.

Mr. Newton

On the last point, it is difficult to see how the hon. Gentleman's proposal would work in practice. I add also—I hope without too much barb—that, in the light of the amount of trade union advertising that sometimes appears during general election campaigns, it is a rather odd point for an Opposition Front Bencher to raise.

As to the hon. Gentleman's second point about the Ministry of Defence houses, I cannot add to what was said or not said during the recent meeting of the Select Committee. However, I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is due to answer questions on Tuesday.

As to the hon. Gentleman's first point—which he made in a serious and a considered way—I shall ensure that it receives the serious consideration that it deserves from my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and those concerned with the Bill in the House.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

When my right hon. Friend considers whether Ministers should make ministerial statements to the House in the next two weeks, will he bear it in mind that a great opportunity has been missed in not announcing the success of British diplomacy at the recent North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ministerial council, in enabling France to rejoin the military organisation of NATO? Therefore, can we have a wide-ranging debate on foreign affairs at the earliest possible date or, alternatively, a ministerial statement to rectify that rather sad omission?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise either a debate—certainly not of a dedicated kind—at an early stage or a statement. I draw attention once again to the fact that the matter could be raised during Defence questions next Tuesday and Foreign Office questions next Wednesday. There will be the usual debate on defence estimates later in the Session, but I cannot predict when that might occur.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

May I also thank the Leader of the House for giving us two weeks' business, and associate myself with the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) about the Family Law Bill and the need for proper consideration of any amendments to what is clearly a controversial measure? On the debate that the Leader of the House has announced for a fortnight today, which he describes as the routine six-monthly debate on the European Union, why, for the third time in a row, are the Government not willing to have a debate on anything controversial on anything other than a motion for the Adjournment of the House? We had such a debate on the common agricultural policy and the Scott report, and we still have not debated the big European issue—the Government's non-co-operation policy. Why cannot we have a debate on a substantive motion so that the House can declare its view on whether Parliament supports the Government's policy?

Mr. Newton

On the points about the intergovernmental conference and the Scott report, I have been over the arguments endlessly in the House and elsewhere. On the normal six-monthly debate on the European Union that the House expects to take place before each European Council meeting—there is nothing new about that—I can say only that, since 1993, all such debates have been on a motion for the Adjournment. Of the six that I have looked at, four have been on motions for the Adjournment. It is the sensible and normal way to consider such matters.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Could we arrange for an early and urgent debate on the impending postal strike? Many of us may wish to have the opportunity to condemn the damage that such a strike would cause our constituents privately, commercially and industrially. We would condemn the strike from the Conservative Benches, but would expect silence from the Labour party.

Mr. Newton

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that the Government still very much hope that a strike can be avoided. It would clearly be damaging to industry and to the Post Office itself. I was the Minister at the time of the last such strike, which was undoubtedly damaging to the Post Office. The Post Office management has made it clear that it sees scope for further progress through negotiation, and I would prefer to concentrate on whether that negotiation will be successful.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

May we have a statement next week on the latest position in respect of the millennium festival? In that statement, will the Minister explain to the House why, regardless of the difficulties in Greenwich, under no circumstances will Birmingham be able to stage the festival? Why are the Government waging a persistent vendetta against the west midlands? People in the west midlands will certainly have their say about that at the next election.

Mr. Newton

I understand why the hon. Gentleman, as a west midlands Member, chooses to use such language, but I do not accept the suggestion that there is any such vendetta. Both my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage, who are members of the Millennium Commission, met business leaders yesterday with Sir Peter Levene, who now has until the end of June to continue his negotiations with private sector investors. We should await the outcome of that work.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate next week on the upbringing of children, so that we may debate the punishment of children where it is necessary, including parents' right to smack without regret, having acted properly? Could we note the importance and the value of restoring corporal punishment in schools and that the Leader of the Opposition voted against corporal punishment in schools when it was last debated in the House, despite his weasel words yesterday?

Mr. Newton

I recall that the last time the Opposition told us that they were having a debate on standards in education, as they are planning for next Tuesday, they changed it to another subject at a very late stage. Perhaps we shall see a change to the subject that my hon. Friend has in mind.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the Leader of the House find Government time next week for an urgent debate on the growing trade whereby tour operators lease foreign aircraft to carry British holidaymakers without being able to check on the airworthiness of those aircraft? Is that not an urgent and worrying problem, particularly at the beginning of the holiday season?

Mr. Newton

If I may, I shall draw that serious question to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and express the hope that the hon. Lady might get the opportunity to ask him about the matter directly and personally on Monday.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

Can my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the problems created by new age travellers, especially the untold damage among sheep caused by their marauding dogs, the hygiene risks and the fact that their girocheques seem to chase them around the country? When they are not where they are expected to be, they cause no end of trouble, as they did yesterday.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend knows well that the problems arising from some of those incidents have, in recent years, been the subject of concern and action by both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary via the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. I shall bring my hon. Friend's continuing concern to their attention.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Could the Leader of the House alter this Monday's order of business as, on that day, the Scottish Grand Committee is meeting and, we understand, the negotiating body in Northern Ireland is meeting, which would affect hon. Members? May I press him on the business on Wednesday 19 June? Will there be an hour and a half or longer for the Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order? Will it be possible on that occasion, for the Leader of the House to introduce a motion to allow the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to move from place to place and to allow us to speak in plain English?

Mr. Newton

Having had an engaging little debate last night on Welsh, I do not think that I wish to add to what was said then, including in an intervention by one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends. I cannot undertake to change the order of business on Monday, having only just announced it. On the Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order, the debate would normally last an hour and a half. I am considering the possibility of providing a bit more time, and I might take the hon. Gentleman's words as a representation to that effect.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on transport policy, so that I could raise two issues? One is the increased prioritisation of resources for bypasses in rural areas such as my constituency of Ribble Valley, and the second is the policy of the European Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock, who was wisely rejected by the British public, but who is now intent on having a European integrated transport policy, which means that he would be doing a smash and grab on British sovereign policy and power. He must be told clearly that he will not be allowed to do so.

Mr. Newton

Obviously, I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's request for a debate. He, in turn, will know of the United Kingdom Government's clear position on suggestions about the Commission negotiating on behalf of the whole European Union in respect, for example, of airline access agreements.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Now that the question of Goldsmith's money has been raised in the run-up to the general election, if we are to have a healthy democracy, would it not be wise to have a public statement by the Government on the funding of all political parties, so that such funding became transparent, as it is in the Labour party—every trade union penny is recorded for the public to see? Every donation over £1,000 should be recorded by all political parties. Why is it that the Tory party was £19 million in debt last year and is now £26 million in surplus? Where has the money come from? Has it come from overseas? We would like to know, because, if the Government can sort out their own finances, why is the public sector borrowing requirement going through the roof?

Mr. Newton

I imagine that you, Madam Speaker, were able to discern a request connected with the business in that. In so far as I could discern anything, it was a request for a statement and I can say only that I have no plans for such a statement.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Could we have a debate next week on youth discipline, because we have just found unexpected support for corporal punishment for unruly youths from the Leader of the Opposition? As far as I understood it, the only caning that he supported was for unruly Labour Back Benchers.

Mr. Newton

I have already commented on that matter, and clearly my hon. Friend would support any request to change the subject of next Tuesday's debate.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

May I gently pursue with the Leader of the House the business on Monday relating to the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Scottish Grand Committee will be meeting in Ayr that morning. I have been advised that the most critical vote on the Bill will occur at about 6 o'clock. It would be impossible for many of my colleagues in Scotland of all political parties to return to the House to vote at that time. We shall also be seeing the start of what we hope will be the peace process talks in Northern Ireland. I ask the Leader of the House seriously and genuinely to reconsider Monday's business and to ensure that no vote is taken early.

Mr. Newton

It is not for me to attempt to dictate the pattern of business. I appreciate why the hon. Lady felt it necessary, as she put it in her usual kindly way, gently to pursue me, but I cannot add to my earlier remarks. We cannot, because of meetings elsewhere—whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland or, when appropriate, Wales—become what would amount to a two-day-week Parliament in Westminster.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on early-day motion 943?

[That this House notes with sad regret the fatal shooting of Stelios Panayi, a 19-year-old Greek Cypriot soldier who had left his post as a friendly gesture to exchange military hats with a Turkish soldier on the dividing 'Green Line' in Cyprus; further regrets that this shooting is just one more in a long series of such murders; is saddened by the fact that after 22 years of division it is still necessary, for the security of the indigenous people of Cyprus, for a UN peacekeeping force to keep vigil on the border, whilst 30,000 Turkish troops in the occupied area pose a threat to all Cypriots; wishes Britain's special envoy, Sir David Hannay, a successful trip to Cyprus in his efforts to advance towards an agreement which will result in a free united Cyprus on a federal basis, a solution which has thus far been hindered solely by the reluctance and refusal of the Turkish side in negotiations to display any sign of political will; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to redouble its efforts to find a lasting and just settlement.]

That would allow the House to welcome the appointment of Sir David Hannay to try to sort out the problems of Cyprus, which have lasted far too long. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is intolerable that hundreds of thousands of people should have been deprived of the right to live in their own homes since 1974?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for Sir David's appointment, which is intended to strengthen the efforts that the British Government have continuously made to help the process of achieving a peaceful settlement in Cyprus—which is clearly the only permanent solution to the problem to which my hon. Friend referred.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

I appreciate the assistance that the Leader of the House has given in the past in respect of MV Derbyshire. The view is widely held among hon. Members of all parties that the families affected by that tragedy have not received a fair deal from the Government. It came as a shock to learn that the marine technologists who made the first visit to MV Derbyshire are being precluded from joining the assessors on the next voyage, which is an absolute scandal. I would much appreciate it if the right hon. Gentleman conveyed the feelings of many hon. Members that the Secretary of State for Transport should seriously reconsider that matter.

Mr. Newton

I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman prefaced his question. In the spirit in which I have always approached him previously on the matter, of course I shall convey his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—who will be in the House to answer questions next Monday. I take the opportunity to mention, I hope not indiscreetly, that I have already had a word with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, following my conversation with the hon. Gentleman earlier this week.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Is it not time that the House again debated the funding of the BBC? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the 1991 consolidated licence fee regulations state that a licence is required to install and use television receivers at a single place specified on the licence? Could the House debate the circumstances in which one licence could be used for two different addresses in particular circumstances?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise a debate on that matter, but it may be in order to raise it in relation to the Broadcasting Bill, which is in Committee and will return to the Floor of the House in due course. I shall bring my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the dismay and confusion caused by the decision of the President of the Board of Trade to nod through the American bid for Midlands Electricity? Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the President to explain to the House his policy in regard to mergers and takeovers, because the industry is currently in total confusion? There seems to be no rationality behind the President's decisions on those matters. One week he will refuse a merger or a vertical integration, but, soon after, he will approve an American takeover of Midlands Electricity. Will the Leader of the House bring the President of the Board of Trade to the House to explain his actions?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise to bring the President of the Board of Trade to the House in quite the manner that the hon. Gentleman suggests, although I can say that the President is due to answer questions in the House on Wednesday 19 June. The only other comment that I shall make, in view of the anti-American flavour of the hon. Gentleman's question—I do not know whether it was intended—is that it is important to remember that this country has huge investments in America, and it has generally benefited from incoming overseas investment and from our investment overseas.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Does the Leader of the House recall that recently I asked him for a debate on the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991? Since then, Jessie—a bitch that was lame and had no teeth—has been destroyed, and Buster has been on dogs' death row for approximately five years. Can we please have a debate on that Act? It is costing the police hundreds of thousands of pounds in kennelling, and it is causing a great deal of suffering for pet owners, and for dogs that are waiting to be destroyed.

Magistrates have no discretion in that matter, although they would like to exercise it. Perhaps we should have a debate with a view to getting an agreed amendment to the Act, through the usual channels, before we rise for the summer recess. That would be greatly welcomed by all hon. Members, and it would certainly be greatly welcomed by animal lovers across the country.

Mr. Newton

I recall the hon. Gentleman's previous question, and I think—although I cannot recall exactly—that I made the point that that was a good subject for a Wednesday morning Adjournment debate. That is certainly my view, and he might like to consider it.

Madam Speaker

I call Mr. Paul Tyler—I am sorry; Mr. Paul Flynn.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Banks

Say it in Welsh.

Mr. Flynn

No, I dare not.

Has not the case been made that we need to have a debate on the issue of national spending on elections? The Leader of the House has just admitted that he does not know how we could introduce national spending limits. If we had such a debate, we could explain to him the result of my Bill—it will be debated on Second Reading on 12 July—which will reintroduce the national spending limits that operated until the mid-1970s.

If we do not have such a debate and if we do not introduce spending limits, any person, country or malign organization—overseas or in this country—could spend unlimited millions of pounds on influencing our elections and buying votes. The Government have refused to introduce limits in the past, to protect the integrity of our democratic system. Will they now do it in their party's self-interest?

Mr. Newton

Perhaps I should make the point that the suggestion by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) appears to be related not to election periods but to preventing people from advertising their views on an on-going basis—if I understood his suggestion at all. I have no doubt that I, in common with other hon. Members, will examine with customary fascination the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), provided it is in English and not in Welsh.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Could we have some Government time for a debate on the interests of and disadvantages for the Britons who occupy the Rock of Gibraltar? Is the Leader of the House aware that the people of Gibraltar are currently enduring inordinate and unreasonable delays on the border? That is unacceptable. Those are Britons and, ultimately, this is their Parliament. There is a democratic deficit because they have no representation in the House. Every hon. Member therefore has an obligation to the people of Gibraltar, who are not represented in this place. Is it not time that we had a debate about their future, their complaints and the disadvantages that they suffer because of the Spanish authorities?

Mr. Newton

As usual, I shall bear in mind that request—as I do other requests—for a debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and the Government have consistently made clear their desire to do the best for the people of Gibraltar.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (South-East Staffordshire)

Could the Leader of the House find time in the next few weeks to debate the performance of Premier Health NHS trust in my constituency, which is proposing to close a residential mental health unit less than 12 months after it was opened? We understand that there are financial difficulties but, although the area health authority is conducting a consultation, the contractors are already implementing the decision to close the unit before the public have had a chance to express their views. The public are understandably incensed and wish to re-establish their rights in the consultation process. It would do a great deal of good if the House were to re-establish those rights before any action was taken.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am not in a position to comment off the cuff from the Dispatch Box on a particular case of which I was not hitherto aware. However, it is clear that I should—and I will—bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who is the Minister with the relevant responsibility in respect of social services overall, although not individual departments, and—certainly—health.