HC Deb 28 March 1996 vol 274 cc1167-77 3.31 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

May I ask the Leader of the House for details of future business?

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

The business for next week will be as follows. MONDAY 1 APRIL—Opposition Day (9th allotted day). There will be a debate on the council tax on an Opposition motion.

TUESDAY 2 APRIL—Consideration in Committee of the Family Law Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received to the Education (Student Loans) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 3 APRIL—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House, including the three-hour pre-recess debate.

In the afternoon, remaining stages of the London Regional Transport Bill, followed by motions on the Social Security (Minimum Contributions to Appropriate Personal Pension Schemes) Order, the Social Security (Reduced Rates of Class 1 Contributions) (Salary-related Contracted-out Schemes) Order and the Social Security (Reduced Rates of Class 1 Contributions and Rebates) (Money Purchase Contracted-out Schemes) Order.

That will be followed by motions on the Special Grant Report (No. 17) and the Special Grant Report (Wales).

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 3 April to consider European Community document No. 9325/95 relating to Consumer Protection: Unit Pricing.

The provisional business for the first week back after the Easter Adjournment will be as follows:

TUESDAY 16 APRIL—Second Reading of the Broadcasting Bill [Lords].

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

In the afternoon, the 10th Opposition Day, on an Opposition motion of which the subject will be announced later.

THURSDAY 18 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill.

Remaining stages of the National Health Service (Residual Liabilities) Bill.

Motion on the Deregulation and Contracting Out (Northern Ireland) Order.

FRIDAY 19 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

[Wednesday 3 April: European Standing Committee B—European Community document: 9325/95, Consumer protection unit pricing. Relevant European Legislation Reports: HC 70-xxv (1994–95), HC 51-iii (1995–96) and HC 51-xi (1995–96).]

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement, especially the early notification of the business in the first week after the Easter recess, but what has happened to the much-trailed statement on sentencing policy that many people were expecting by now, especially in view of all the remarks by the Home Secretary?

Secondly, in view of the Government's defeat in the Committee considering the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill, will the Leader of the House tell us what the Government's response will be? Will he give us an assurance that the House will have an early indication as to when the Report stage will take place? That will be a test for Ministers, so that they can demonstrate whether they are responsive to the needs of older people and people with learning difficulties, by standing by the decision taken in Committee rather than trying to reverse it on the Floor after the Bill has come back to the House.

In view of yesterday's report of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, supporting a freedom of information Act, and in view of the Government's claims about open government, will the Leader of the House provide Government time, after the Easter recess, for a debate on that subject, or will we have to wait until a Labour Government provide not only the time for a debate but legislation on the matter?

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Public Accounts Committee has, on various occasions in recent years, warned about the ill-thought-out and ill-prepared computer schemes in a number of Government Departments. Surely we should have a debate on the matter in the near future. If the report in today's The Daily Telegraph is well founded—that the proposed new Department of Social Security computer scheme will cost an extra £750 million, on top of an existing bill of £2.6 billion—clearly the Government have failed to respond to the Public Accounts Committee's criticisms. Expensive blunders of that kind keep occurring, with the taxpayer footing the bill.

Finally, I hope that it goes without saying that the Leader of the House will guarantee that, if there is any statement to be made, any change of policy or any significant future development on the bovine spongiform encephalopathy front, the House will he kept fully informed.

Mr. Newton

I thank the hon. Lady for her opening kind words. On sentencing policy, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary anticipates making a statement to the House before the recess. On the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill, I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends will give appropriate consideration to any proceedings in Committee. I shall communicate with the House about the Report stage as and when appropriate.

The hon. Lady's next two questions concerned reports from Select Committees, including the Public Accounts Committee. At the moment, I have no plans to provide time for debate in Government time, but there are well understood opportunities for debates on Select Committee reports—which, no doubt, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee and others will consider. For my part, the Government will respond to Select Committee reports in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time.

Finally, I merely observe that the Government have already arranged—in the course of barely a week—a total of four statements and one debate in relation to BSE. I think that that is an assurance of our good faith in keeping in touch with the House on the matter.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

Will my right hon. Friend have a look at the timetable and provide some time for a debate on the Audit Commission's report on local authority performances, so that we have an opportunity to examine those performances, particularly in places such as East Sussex, which consistently performs on the wrong side of average?

Mr. Newton

It occurs to me that the debate on the council tax—which is next Monday's business; albeit not Government business—might provide an opportunity for my hon. Friend to make the point that she wishes.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does the Leader of the House realise that the House has not yet debated the Europol convention on European police co-operation, which has been signed by this country, but has not yet been ratified? Does he recognise that the important work that is being carried out by the police unit in The Hague against international criminals and drug traffickers will be hampered as long as ratification is delayed by the Government's concerns about the European Court of Justice? I believe that that matter ought to be debated.

Mr. Newton

I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Will the Leader of the House undertake to provide an urgent and early debate on local government anarchy in central London, given that Lambeth council is now owed more than £100 million in uncollected council taxes, thus proving that socialism in action is not a soundbite, not a vision, but a nightmare?

Mr. Newton

I express the hope, Madam Speaker, that my hon. Friend will catch your eye on Monday to elaborate his views on the matter.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the Leader of the House know that the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee was first promised for 3.30 this afternoon? Now it is not to be issued until 4 o'clock. Does that mean that it is worth reading? If it is worth reading, is it not worth debating, perhaps in the week that we come back? If he cannot promise that, how about a debate on this morning's report by the Health and Safety Executive on the parlous state of the Forth bridge in my constituency?

Mr. Newton

I note the hon. Gentleman's perfectly proper—or perfectly understandable—constituency point. On his first point, I cannot promise a debate in the first week back, having announced the business for that week. Although I always consider requests, I would rather do so when the report has actually been published.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

May we have a debate shortly to unravel a mystery? Informed opinion in the manufacturing sector is telling us clearly that British engineers now have a spectacular opportunity to wipe the floor with their competitors across Europe, but the public at large do not seem aware of that opportunity. The signs of success are now remorseless. May we have a debate to help to preserve the competitiveness of British industry in the teeth of policies that may be introduced to destroy that competitiveness and load employment costs on the backs of our employers?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend makes an important point that is relevant to many debates, and I hope that he will have opportunities to raise the matter again. I take the opportunity to congratulate his part of the country on securing the new Jaguar X200 project.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Will the Minister tell the House that he does not intend the six EC VAT directives to be carried by the House simply by a Statutory Instrument? From 1 May, those directives will impose VAT on admission charges to all major zoos in Britain. That will damage attendance and reduce the work that our zoos do for endangered species. Given that, from Bristol to Edinburgh to Belfast, hon. Members have constituency interests, may we have an undertaking that before VAT is imposed on zoo admission charges on 1 May, there will be a full debate, in which all hon. Members who have a constituency interest can take part?

Mr. Newton

I note the hon. Gentleman's representations, but I have no plans for departing from normal procedures for dealing with such matters.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

With regard to the Family Law Bill, to be discussed next Tuesday, although I thank my right hon. Friends for helping us to draft amendments, it has been a rush. May I protest at the speed at which the Committee of the whole House is sitting—just a week after considering the Bill on Second Reading? On previous occasions—notably the reform of the law on homosexuality—there was a gap of some months. Similarly, many weeks passed after the Bill was considered in the House of Lords, so that constituents could voice their concerns to Members of Parliament and there could be a proper public debate on the most important piece of social legislation for a decade. Is it necessary to have the Committee of the whole House quite so quickly after Second Reading?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend, to whom I am grateful for his kind remarks about the assistance that he has received from my right hon. and hon. Friends, will be aware that procedures in another place are somewhat different from those here, not least in the handling of matters in Committee. In my view at least, it is sensible that certain issues should be discussed by the whole House before the rest of the Bill receives more detailed and minute consideration in Committee. The big issues should be discussed and settled first. Although the Bill received Second Reading only at the beginning of this week, there has been a huge amount of time to consider the Bill, which has been around and well known to everybody for many months.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Has the Leader of the House noted the 1,700 redundancies announced by United Utilities? They follow the 800 previously announced, making 2,500 in all. That, coupled with the sale of three companies, including North Western Electricity's shops, will mean a further 4,400 jobs being put at risk. Does he not realise that that is partly due to the Government's failure to refer the takeover of public utilities to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? Will the right hon. Gentleman consult the President of the Board of Trade, to see whether we can have an early debate on this company's asset-stripping methods?

Mr. Newton

I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, which is what I imagine he would like me to do.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate an issue of great concern to my constituents and to his—the decision of Essex county council to withdraw its grant from parish councils for civic amenity sites? Is he aware that that decision is likely to lead to the closure of the Asheldham site in my constituency? As a consequence, there will be fly-tipping all over the Dengie peninsula.

Mr. Newton

Like my hon. Friend, whose constituency borders mine, I certainly regret any action that would tend to diminish the success of recycling in many parts of Essex and bring about the consequences to which he refers.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I, too, am concerned about the haste with which the Family Law Bill is to be debated next Tuesday. As the right hon. Gentleman has announced the business for the week after Easter, can he say when he hopes to announce a debate on the Northern Ireland election law Bill, so that we can debate it in good time for the elections?

Does the right hon. Gentleman share the concern of many in Northern Ireland at the fact that directions have been given to a large minority party there not to contest the election? What sort of signal for democracy does that send out?

Mr. Newton

The Bill is still in preparation, so it would be rash to schedule a debate on legislation that is not yet ready to put before the House. We are trying to get it ready as soon as possible; when it is ready, I shall arrange for a debate as soon as possible thereafter.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Will my right hon. Friend give us an early opportunity to debate the pride of London? In such a debate, we could discuss the great success of the city as the business centre of Europe, and the enormous progress made in London's infrastructure. None of that would have been possible, I suspect, if, 10 years ago next week, we had not abolished the Greater London council.

Mr. Newton

We do of course from time to time look for time for a debate on London. In view of my hon. Friend's trenchant remarks. I shall of course start to look for an opportunity when he might expand on them.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the Leader of the House undertake to look carefully at the progress of the Noise Bill, which was expected to last for only two sittings but which has suddenly sprouted large numbers of amendments tabled by Conservative Members? Will he give an undertaking that that is not a case of the time taken to discuss a Bill being extended so as to hold up the Public Interest Disclosure Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), which is next in the queue? That would he greatly resented.

Mr. Newton

I am not familiar with every detail of the weekly proceedings in the Committee dealing with private Members' Bills, but I have no doubt that the Noise Bill, which is an important one, merits proper probing and discussion—and, where necessary, amendment.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate on the private finance initiative? During such a debate, we could raise the interesting case of the £100 million hospital project at Darenth Park in north-west Kent, which will be of immense value to people living in that part of the world. We could also highlight the fact that four major consortia have bid to participate and build the hospital, and that two of them have been invited to go forward to tender stage.

We could also draw the attention of the House to the deliberate undermining of the hospital project by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), who is doing so merely to score party political points, thereby endangering the hospital project, but simultaneously refusing to pledge that any future mythical Labour Government would provide the £100 million to build the hospital.

Mr. Newton

I am glad to know that my hon. Friend's constituency looks like benefiting from the gathering success of the private finance initiative. I am sure that the whole House would share his regret if playing politics inhibited the project that he mentions.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

May I press the Leader of the House further on the beef crisis? He will be aware of the devastation facing many small farmers who have spent a lifetime building up their herds. They need action now, in looking not so much at who is to blame, as at what is to be done to restore confidence. Can he assure us that, if there is not a comprehensive statement in today's debate, there will be an opportunity for one tomorrow morning? In particular, will he make sure that we do not go away for the Easter recess without the farming industry knowing definitely what is to happen to restore confidence, because the industry could not understand it if we allowed a couple of weeks to go by during which time countless companies might go to the wall?

Mr. Newton

I very much welcome the tone of the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. He will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister's questions, about the way in which the matter is being addressed, to seek to meet those very concerns. He will also have heard what I said to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) about the Government's intention to ensure that the House is kept fully and properly informed.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

My right hon. Friend previously precluded the possibility of regular ministerial statements to the House on the progress of the intergovernmental conference, which begins tomorrow. Could he instead allow, during the two weeks of business that lie ahead, an early debate on early-day motion 570, on the European Court compensation ruling and the common fisheries policy?

[That this House deplores the decision of the European Court which overrules, with retrospective effect and at great cost to the taxpayer, the Government's legislation introduced to prevent British fish quotas being caught by Spanish and other foreign owners of British registered vessels; and believes that this judgement confirms the need for the United Kingdom to give notice at the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference of its intention to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy and of its determination to re-establish the supremacy of British law.]

The early-day motion was tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and myself, and signed by 14 other hon. Members, and is crucial to the IGC, relating as it does to British withdrawal from the common fisheries policy and the restoration of the supremacy of British law.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will be aware of what has been said by my right hon. Friends on that matter, in relation to the IGC. I shall not seek to add to or elaborate on that. I do not have my words from last week in front of me, but I do not recall that they were quite in the terms that my hon. Friend attributes to them—rather, it seems to me to be quite difficult to have a statement every time any kind of meeting takes place in connection with the IGC process.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

I would also like to urge the Leader of the House to consider having an urgent debate on the decision by United Utilities to cut 1,700 jobs. It is an extremely profitable company and it has been built on fixed prices that are paid by people in the region for electricity and water. It is not right for those companies to kick the people in the region in the face, by cutting their jobs and by creating job insecurity and uncertainty throughout the north-west.

Mr. Newton

I have already responded on that issue to the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle), and I shall include the hon. Lady's remarks in the information that I shall transmit to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Could my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on the crippling industrial rates that are being levied on riding establishments, which are very good sources of recreation for our people and which have to compete very unfairly with non-commercial riding establishments that are often paid for out of the public purse? At the same time, could we deal with the avaricious people who seek to turn this country's attention to eating horses rather than beef? We should put a stop to any such idea immediately.

Mr. Newton

I shall certainly draw the appropriate Minister's attention to my hon. Friend's remarks, and in particular to what he said about riding establishments.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will the Leader of the House consider—notwithstanding last night's vote in which the Government scraped home by merely one, and the content of that debate—allowing time for a full debate on the environment and energy-saving measures? The Leader of the House may be aware that Pilkington in my constituency has announced 1,900 job losses worldwide. That company is greatly into energy conservation, and help in that field would help it, as well as many other companies. Is not it better to help the environment while at the same time helping the economy?

Mr. Newton

It is certainly the case that, over a considerable period, Her Majesty's Government have put much effort into advancing the cause of the environment generally and into energy conservation. Another private Member's Bill on the subject is around and that may, in due course, provide an opportunity for further debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on arranging the debate on the London Regional Transport Bill to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the demise of the Greater London council? In that debate, will it be in order to draw a distinction between the investment level then and the much higher investment level today? Will it also be in order to point out that the Northern line train project is the largest public-private finance initiative project and that it will transform conditions for many of my constituents, who from next year will travel in new trains, will see every station on the Northern line upgraded and will find that private finance has provided what the GLC failed to provide?

Mr. Newton

The question of order is of course for you, Madam Speaker, rather than for me, which you would certainly remind me of should I show signs of straying, but good points are always in order and I look forward to my hon. Friend making his good points in the debate on that transport matter.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Before this Government are kicked out of office, shall we have a debate about the Government's record over the whole period since they came into power in 1979? Is it not an unfortunate coincidence that the end of 17 years of Thatcherism is characterised by mad cow disease?

Mr. Newton

From the perspective of one of the people who supported the position that led to the previous Government ending with the winter of discontent, the hon. Gentleman might be unwise to promote such a debate.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the Press Complaints Commission's welcome adjudication in favour of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and against The Sunday Times, but as The Sunday Times apparently sees fit completely to ignore the commission's recommendations in a most disgraceful way, may we have a debate on the way in which the press exercises self-regulation through the commission? Will that adjudication act as an adequate deterrent against the newspaper industry acting in that disgraceful way?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will understand that, as Chairman of the Privileges Committee, which suggested that the PCC should revisit that matter, I have read the PCC chairman's recent letter to me with considerable interest. I cannot promise a debate, but I take careful note of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

If the Leader of the House intends to refer to his colleague the President of the Board of Trade the issue of United Utilities' decision to wipe out the livelihoods of another 1,700 people—on top of the 800 who have already gone—and the threat to a further 4,500 people, will he point out to him that the consequences in the north-west and in my constituency in particular will be catastrophic? Will he also point out that, almost inevitably, the public in the north-west will believe that the quality of service that they receive from a bad water company and electricity company will further deteriorate? If that is the case, surely the matter should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but should we not also have a debate on the results of privatisation and its deleterious effects not only on jobs, but on customer service?

Mr. Newton

I do not accept the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks about privatisation. When I consider the greatly improved performance of privatised industries, in comparison with what went before, I see no reason to accept those remarks, but I shall add his representations to those conveyed to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

May we have an urgent debate, ideally this afternoon, if not next week, about Members' access to information in the House? I thought that the information systems in the House were extremely good until I tried to find a copy of the draft report that was referred to on Monday by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). The Library is not able to identify whether any such draft ever existed and cannot get me a copy, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot get me a copy either. I was therefore extremely grateful to the offices of the hon. Members for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and for Peckham when they said that they would furnish me with a copy. Unfortunately, I have since received a telephone message from the office of the hon. Member for Darlington, saying, "Apologies. Cannot find the 1978 draft report." Not only is the information not available through the normal channels, but it would appear that it is being stolen from hon. Members' offices.

Mr. Newton

That is a very interesting story. I am not sure that I can address the question, not least because it would appear that the deficiency is not in the House's information system, but somebody else's.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Is the Leader of the House aware that among the countless broken promises of the Government is one made on 7 September 1992 by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones), to set up a public inquiry into child sex and physical abuse in north Wales children's homes? There has been persistent questioning on the matter this week. We have waited a long time—since 1992—for a public inquiry because the criminal trials and proceedings clearly had to be completed before it could be set up.

Now that they have, will the Government do what they promised and set up this long-overdue and urgently required public inquiry, under a judge, with powers to subpoena all those involved—the North Wales police, and people from the Welsh Office social services inspectorate and Clwyd and Gwynedd county council social services departments—to find out exactly what went wrong during that horror saga of 10 and 15 years ago in north Wales?

Mr. Newton

There may have been lurking somewhere in that a request for a debate, but it sounded to me like a request for an inquiry directed at my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. I shall ensure that that request is transmitted to him.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

May we have an early debate specifically focused on the beef-processing industry, to ensure that it, as well as farmers, benefits from any confidence and compensation package that comes forward? The industry has laid off many people and is holding vast amounts of stock. One company in my constituency told me today that it was absolutely disgusted and very angry with the Labour party for playing politics with its jobs and business.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend makes some important points. Although, again, the matter would be for you, Madam Speaker, I find it hard to believe that raising such matters would not be in order in the debate that I have scheduled for later today.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I suggest to the Leader of the House that if we are to debate the matters raised by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), the hon. Gentleman would do well to contact the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture? Perhaps he could ask officials, when the Committee next takes evidence from them, about the draft document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I think that he will find that it exists.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I have not been able to get a copy.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The hon. Gentleman should ask the Committee Chairman to secure access to it.

Mr. Newton

I could not detect a remark directed to me at all lurking in that. I shall not intervene further in the exchanges between my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) and the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours).

Madam Speaker

The Lord President is not on his own.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove)

In view of my right hon. Friend's earlier reply, he has clearly noted the success of the Jaguar X200 project, which will create and protect many thousands of jobs in the west midlands. Does he agree that an early debate on the car manufacturing industry generally would be appropriate, especially as it is leading British industry's export drive so successfully?

Mr. Newton

I certainly wish to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the industry and welcoming that project, as I have already done. I shall bear in mind his request for a debate.