HC Deb 14 March 1996 vol 273 cc1117-22

4.8 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

I would like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 18 MARCH—Opposition Day (7th allotted day). Until 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "The Government's Threatened Withdrawal of Employment Rights", followed by a debate on the proposed privatisation of HMSO. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion relating to the Education (School Premises) Regulations.

TUESDAY 19 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill.

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Second Reading of the Reserve Forces Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Oil and Chemical Pollution of Fish and Plants) Order.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

THURSDAY 21 MARCH—Debate on the forthcoming intergovernmental conference on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 22 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 20 March to consider European Community document No. COM(95)541 relating to co-operation with Gulf states.

The House might also find it helpful to know that, on a provisional basis, I anticipate that the business for the following week will be as follows: MONDAY 25 MARCH—Second Reading of the Family Law Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 26 MARCH—Opposition Day (8th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 27 MARCH—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Progress on remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 28 MARCH—Until about 7 o'clock, conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

FRIDAY 29 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

[Wednesday 20 March: European Standing Committee B—European Community document: COM(95)541, Co-operation with Gulf States. Relevant European Legislation Report: HC 51-vi (1995–96).]

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I thank the Leader of the House for that information and for arranging yesterday's brief statement. I also thank him for today's statement on the Dunblane incident. I am sure that he will ensure that the House is kept informed of any developments following the inquiry into that incident. I assure him that if the inquiry concludes that changes in legislation are required, Opposition Members will do all that we can to facilitate the passage of any legislation that is judged necessary.

I come now to next week's business. Is the Leader of the House willing to reconsider, even at this late stage, the decision for next Thursday's debate to take place on a motion for the Adjournment? It appears that the Government persist in hiding behind a procedural device rather than presenting the House with a substantive motion, which could be amended and which could ensure that the Government were left in no doubt whatever about the feelings of the House on the vital issues that surround discussions on the intergovernmental conference.

On a different issue, will the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on cold weather payments, and in particular the refusal of the Department of Social Security to provide basic information about the number of claimants who have received one, two, three or four payments this winter? If such simple information cannot be provided, how can our constituents have any confidence whatever in the system? If that confidence is not there, surely the House should debate the matter.

Will the Leader of the House find time to debate today's report of the parliamentary ombudsman on the efficiency—or lack of it—of the Child Support Agency, and specifically his proposal for an independent complaints adjudicator; a proposal which was first made in May this year and which he repeated today? He has made it clear that the CSA's performance is still far from adequate, and many hon. Members must have had the same experience as me, of not being able to obtain proper replies from the CSA unless parliamentary questions are tabled. As the ombudsman has stated that the CSA accounts for one third of all the complaints that he receives about all Government Departments, surely the Leader of the House must acknowledge that the time is drawing near when another debate would be appropriate.

Finally, I remind the Leader of the House of our request for a statement when the Dearing report on the education of 16 to 19-year-olds is published. It would be appropriate to have a statement in the House as well as outside.

Mr. Newton

I thank the hon. Lady for what she said about Dunblane, and any action that might be required in the light of the inquiry announced just now by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I was grateful to her, and others, for the co-operation between the usual channels that enabled us to make our own short statements yesterday, and to agree on an appropriate way of handling this awful matter.

I note the hon. Lady's request in regard to the debate on the intergovernmental conference, but precedents have been set for some little time. Wide-ranging debates in advance of European Council meetings have taken place on motions for the Adjournment, and I consider that course appropriate in relation to Turin—particularly as the debate is intended to deal with the IGC as a whole, to which the White Paper is relevant, rather than being limited to the subject of the White Paper as such

I cannot promise a debate on cold weather payments, but I shall certainly bring the hon. Lady's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security.

The parliamentary ombudsman's report on the Child Support Agency deals with 195 cases; the agency is currently dealing with over 1 million. That is not to minimise the problems that arise when any individual case goes wrong, but merely to put the position into perspective. As the hon. Lady knows, the difficulties in the workings of the CSA have frequently been acknowledged, and a good deal of action has been taken—with considerable success—to improve the situation. As for the hon. Lady's specific question, the CSA is examining the practicalities of introducing an independent complaints examiner, and Ministers are considering a number of options.

I think that I can safely tell the hon. Lady that I, too, think that a statement to the House about the Dearing report would be appropriate. I hope that it will be possible for such a statement to be made before the end of the month.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members believe that his decision to hold Thursday's debate on Europe on a motion for the Adjournment was right? Is it not sensible to have a debate of that kind at this stage, while keeping open the possibility of a longer and more substantial debate, perhaps on a substantive motion, at a later stage, when the House is aware of the outcome—if any—of the intergovernmental conference?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his supportive remarks.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House was able to tell us, on a provisional basis, the business for the second week. That is convenient for all hon. Members.

May I express a degree of disappointment that the Government's statement about small businesses was not made in the House? Will the right hon. Gentleman use his good offices and encourage his colleagues, when they make important statements, to make them in the House?

I do not think that it was appropriate for the right hon. Gentleman, in his response to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), to compare the IGC with Council meetings. This is an intergovernmental conference, not a Council meeting. Precedents that have applied to Adjournment debates in the past do not apply in this instance.

Mr. Newton

It certainly is a Council meeting, albeit a meeting of a special European Council. The hon. Gentleman will find that over a long period there have been various precedents, but I do not want to haggle with him, especially this afternoon. The bottom line is that I consider an Adjournment debate appropriate at this juncture, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) for agreeing with that view.

I always try to take account of the sensitivities of the House in relation to statements on policy, and I note what the hon. Gentleman said about that. As for his opening remarks, let me simply say that I am grateful for them.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I agree with what has been said in favour of holding the debate on the IGC White Paper on the Adjournment. It is clear that all parties in the House are divided on the issue. Is it not better for us to hear all the disparate views on this important subject than to debate it on a party political basis, playing arithmetic to find ways of embarrassing the Prime Minister?

Mr. Newton

I am not sure that I want, on this particular afternoon, to engage in arguments about the reason for holding the debate in this way. I believe, however, that the issue is wide ranging, and that it is appropriate for the House to debate it on an Adjournment motion—which can easily be arranged—rather than trying to tie it down in a restrictive way.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

Does the Leader of the House share my dismay at learning that the Stockport scanner appeal continued to raise money long after it had reached its target, and in so doing, I think misled the people of Stockport, who continued to give generously? That raises some important issues about how charities raising money for national health service equipment operate. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the matter?

Mr. Newton

I am not sure that I could undertake to find time for such a debate. The hon. Lady might care to think of it as an appropriate subject for a Wednesday morning. I know that she will understand when I say that I am not able to comment on the circumstances. I think I am right in saying that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is responsible for the charity commissioners, and he is on the Bench with me.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members who have had a long-standing interest in European matters, sometimes controversially, are delighted by the form of the motion that he and the Government have tabled, on the intergovernmental conference? The matters are so complex and wide that it is right for them to be presented in a way that allows wide debate.

Mr. Newton

I am beginning to find positively heart-warming the amount of support from behind me, and I grateful for that.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May we have a debate on the national lottery? I am getting many letters at the moment, and a great deal of concern is being expressed in the newspapers about the possibility of a second draw each week. I notice that no fewer than seven scratchcards are now available. Some serious matters are being raised and I do not recall us being made aware in any way of Camelot's great possibilities to continue to make its own money. It seems that Peter Davis, the Director General of Oflot, is prepared to let Camelot print its own money. Indeed, at the moment he seems to be providing the printing presses. The House ought to have another look. Can the Leader of the House offer the possibility of an early debate?

Mr. Newton

All that I can do is note the hon. Gentleman's request and say that, as I understand it, Camelot has not submitted an application for a mid-week draw to the regulator. If it does, the Director General of Oflot will carefully consider its merits.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Can my right hon. Friend find time as soon as possible for a full-day debate on energy policy, so that we are able to look not only at the benefits of the privatisation of gas and electricity, but at alternative sources of energy? I have two issues in mind, the first of which is the siting of windmills. They are unbelievably ugly and we must be extremely careful about where they are sited. The second issue is the burning of secondary fuels. Castle Cement in my constituency is currently burning a fuel called Cemfuel and there is great cause for concern in my constituency about that. I have told Ministers that I intend to seek a meeting with them. It would be useful for the House to debate the whole question of energy policy, and I know that hon. Members in all parts of the House are interested in many issues relating to it.

Mr. Newton

That is another request which I shall most certainly note, although I cannot make a promise this afternoon.

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

There was a question on the Order Paper today for Home Office questions about the possibility of the Government introducing identity cards. Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) did not appear to ask his question. I remind the Leader of the House of a report a year ago in The Observer under the heading, "Major plays ID card to trump Blair". The report said: John Major … promised the introduction of compulsory identity cards to help 'deter crime and make it more likely that we will catch criminals'. The article continued: A Number 10 source said it was a question of how they were to be introduced—not whether. Will the Leader of the House make a statement about that?

Mr. Newton

As that is a frustrated question from Home Office Question Time and as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is on the Front Bench beside me, I shall leave him to respond in due course, in whatever way he feels is appropriate.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 611, which was tabled by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pi ckthall) and which I have also signed. It states:

[That this House, while recognising the value of wind turbines in producing renewable energy, is alarmed at the spread of these structures in areas of attractive landscape, particularly the up-lands of Cumbria and Lancashire; and urges the Secretary of State for the Environment to respond to the Countryside Commission's suggestion that PPG 22 be revised and strengthened to prevent the permanent defacing of many of this country's most attractive areas.] The hon. Gentleman draws particular attention to Cumbria and Lancashire, but I assure my right hon. Friend that the impact of those infernal machines is felt increasingly throughout the United Kingdom's beautiful countryside, and that often those machines are energy sinks. They rarely provide net energy and are much more expensive. Every electricity consumer is paying a levy, which subsidises inefficient energy generation that helps to desecrate our remaining beautiful countryside.

Mr. Newton

I shall bring my hon. Friend's remarks, along with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I was shocked at the complacency of the Leader of the House in his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) about the Child Support Agency and a possible debate on the ombudsman's report. It was rather like the complacency this morning of Miss Chant on the "Today" programme. I do not, however, believe the Leader of the House to be a complacent person. I remind him that that is not the ombudsman's first report about the CSA. As a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, I urge the Leader of the House to think again about the possibility of a debate. The fact that only 195 cases were mentioned in the report does not mean that nothing else was wrong with the CSA, but means that those were the worst examples that the ombudsman wished to bring to our attention.

Mr. Newton

I should greatly regret it if my remarks sounded complacent, which they were not intended to be, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for acknowledging that she does not regard me as complacent on those matters. I should like to make two other points. First, I understand that, of 20 cases in the report chosen as examples, 14 began in 1993, so they go back to a significantly earlier stage. Secondly, a recent report by the Social Security Select Committee said: The agency is now on a surer footing and a whole range of indicators suggest that improvements are being made. I am not in any way complacent, but it is reasonable to expect some acknowledgement of the efforts to bring about improvements.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

The Leader of the House said that the Family Law Bill would have its Second Reading in this Chamber on Monday week. What attitude do the Government intend to take to the decision in the other place to support pension splitting? Does he not agree that that is an important move in the right direction, to ensure that women's rights are protected and promoted?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady will know that the Government always carefully consider comments and changes made in another place. That consideration is continuing and I am not in a position to reveal its outcome this afternoon.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)


Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)


Madam Speaker

It is my practice to call only Members who have heard the statement. I do not know whether the two hon. Gentlemen who want to be called did so. Were they in the Chamber when the Leader of the House made his statement? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] In that case, obviously, I cannot ask Members to question a statement that they have not heard.