HC Deb 09 May 1996 vol 277 cc376-85

4.6 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 13 MAY—Opposition Day [12th allotted day]. Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on the Northern Ireland economy on a motion in the name of the Ulster Unionists. That will be followed by a debate on the Government's cattle disposal scheme, on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

TUESDAY 14 MAY—Opposition Day [13th allotted day]. There will be a debate on standards in education, on an Opposition motion. That will be followed by motions relating to the Education (Grants for Nursery Education) (England) Regulations and the Education (Grants for Education Support and Training: Nursery Education) (England) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 15 MAY—From 9.30 until 10.30 and from 1 o'clock until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House. That will be followed in the afternoon by a debate on the common agricultural policy and other agricultural issues on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. That debate will be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 16 May. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 17 MAY—Debate on education and training of 16 to 19-year-olds, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 20 MAY—Remaining stages of the Reserve Forces Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 21 MAY—Second Reading of the Defamation Bill [Lords], followed by proceedings on the following Bills, which are consolidation measures: the Police Bill [Lords], the Industrial Tribunals Bill [Lords], and the Employment Rights Bill [Lords].

The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

WEDNESDAY 22 MAY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House. That includes the three-hour pre-recess debate with which the House is now familiar.

In the afternoon, until 7 o'clock, debate on developments in the Civil Service. Motion on the Council Tax Limitation (England) (Maximum Amounts) Order. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

The House will rise for the spring Adjournment on Wednesday 22 May until Tuesday 4 June.

The House will also wish to know that the following European Standing Committees will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 15 May to consider European Community Documents as follows:

European Standing Committee A: There will be a debate on agricultural prices for 1996–97 and supplementary payment to sheep producers n Ireland.

European Standing Committee B: There will be a debate on fraud. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

The House may also wish to know that it is proposed that on Wednesday 22 May there will be a debate on transport pricing in European Standing Committee A.

Finally, the House may wish to be reminded that it will rise for the Spring Adjournment on Wednesday 22 May until Tuesday 4 June.

[Wednesday 15 May:

European Standing Committee A—European Community documents: 5215/96, Agricultural Price Proposals 1996–97; unnumbered, Supplementary payment to sheep producers of the island of Ireland. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 51-xiv (1995–96) and HC 5 I-xviii (1995–96).

European Standing Committee B—European Community Document: 4512/96, Detection of Fraud and Irregularities. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 51 xv (1995–96) and HC 51-xviii (1995–96).

Debate on the common agricultural policy and other agricultural issues, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Relevant documents: Council Document 5215/96 ADD 1, Volume 1 of 29 February 1996; Council Document 5215/96 ADD 2, Volume ll of 7 March 1996; Council Document 5215/96 ADD 3, Volume 111 of 18 March 1996; Explanatory Memorandum 5215/96 ADD 1 & 2, Volumes 1 & 11 of 12 March 1996; Explanatory Memorandum 5215/96 ADD 3, Volume 111 of 12 March 1996 and the Commons Select Committee Report on Explanatory Memoranda 5215/96 ADD 1, 2 & 3 and Volumes 1, 11 & 111 of 27 March 1996 concerning agricultural prices for 1996/97 and Agriculture in the UK 1995.

Wednesday 22 May:

European Standing Committee A—European Community Document: 5179/96, Transport Pricing. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 51-xiv (1995–96).]

Mrs. Taylor

The Leader of the House has confirmed that the debate on Wednesday and Thursday on the European Union's common agricultural policy will be on a motion for the Adjournment rather than a substantive motion that could be amended. He must know that there is widespread dissatisfaction, across the Chamber and outside, with the CAP's workings. Surely the turmoil in the Government's party should not be used as an excuse to dodge that issue. What is the justification for making the CAP debate a two-day debate? If the reason is the importance of the issues involved, surely that proves the need for an amendable motion on which the House can vote.

Will the Leader of the House shed any light on what happened in the Committee considering the Wildlife Bill yesterday, when the parliamentary private secretary to the Minister of State, Department of the Environment talked out a Bill supported by the Secretary of State for the Environment? Is there any co-ordination between Ministers in this Administration? Was that incompetence on an alarming scale or an act of premeditated vandalism? What does the Leader of the House intend to do to ensure that that Bill, which has all-party support, makes progress?

On a different issue, the Leader of the House will be aware that it is just over a year since we last discussed the future of Hong Kong. As barely 14 months remain before the handover, would it not be appropriate to have a debate in the near future to provide an opportunity for the House to examine recent developments in Hong Kong, and the Government's proposals for ensuring that the present elected members of the Legislative Council are able to continue in office after 30 June next year?

Finally, in view of the today's report from the district auditor following his eight-year investigation into Westminster city council, which has highlighted the biggest ever scandal in local government, I had intended to ask the Leader of the House whether we could have debate in Government time on what went wrong and on that report.

However, I must tell him and the whole House—I apologise for this unusual step—that, in view of the staggering and sanctimonious complacency of the Secretary of State for the Environment, and the outrageous attitude of the Prime Minister at Question Time in trying to protect and to excuse his political friends, despite the report, the Opposition have now decided to postpone the education debate due on Tuesday. There will instead be a debate in Opposition time on the scandals of Westminster city council.

Mr. Newton

I rarely say this about the hon. Lady, but I thought that the tone and content of the last part of her remarks bordered on the disgraceful. I am astonished that she has joined her right hon. and hon. Friends in seeking to deny people the proper right to take their case to a court, which is what we understand will take place in this instance.

I note what she has said about the debate with somewhat less than complete surprise. It struck me that it was mad for the Labour party to have a debate on education, given the shambles that the shadow Chancellor and others are in about child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds. No doubt it is as good a reason for getting out of that debate as the hon. Lady has been able to think of.

Returning to my more naturally emollient style, I note the constructive and reasonable request for a debate on Hong Kong, which I shall certainly bear in mind.

On the Wildlife Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others, have constructively sought to ensure that the Bill is workable and consistent with our and the Nature Conservancy Council's efforts to build constructive relationships with landowners and land managers, and we shall continue to approach it in that spirit. It has not been talked out. It will continue in Committee, and I hope that that constructive process will go on.

The hon. Lady asked about the agriculture debate. I do not think that I can add much to what I said in my response to her last week and wrote in my letter to the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, who, I am glad to say, has responded with a thoughtful and constructive letter saying that it would be helpful for the documents that have been referred for debate to be tagged on the Order Paper on the motion for the Adjournment of the House—a request to which I have responded in my statement today.

If the hon. Lady wants to know why we have decided to extend the debate to two days, I must tell her that it is a confirmation of what I said last week, when I indicated that there was wide-ranging interest in agricultural issues, going well beyond CAP price fixing. I have received a significant number of requests, especially from my hon. Friends, asking for a two-day debate, and I thought it right to respond.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Can we have a debate on Government policy relating to the electricity industry, and can we be told why the Government have overruled a merger between Midlands Electricity and PowerGen, in spite of the recommendation to the contrary from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? Will the Government take the opportunity of setting out in the House their policy towards electricity and such mergers, so that everyone knows exactly where they stand?

Mr. Newton

My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is due to be in the House answering questions next Wednesday. I will ensure that he is aware of my right hon. Friend's point before he gets here.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

May I return to the debate on the common agricultural policy? I welcome the fact that we now have an extra day in which to discuss these important and wide-ranging subjects. However, it seems highly unsatisfactory that the Government have not acceded to the House's request—there are views about this on both sides of the House—that it would be much more comfortable to have an amendable motion, as we have always had in the past. The Leader of the House has not persuaded me that there are circumstances which mean that we should change the convention on this occasion.

Mr. Newton

The fact that I have not convinced the hon. Gentleman does not mean that I am wrong and he is right. In fact, I think that I am right and he is wrong. As well as the debate in the House, there is a full scrutiny debate in Standing Committee, with the opportunity to cross-question Ministers for an hour. That is a significant advantage of that process, and I think that many hon. Members agree with me.

With those two debates, we are providing nearly two and a half days for the debating of agricultural matters, instead of either half a day in Committee or a full day in the House. Any hon. Member can attend and speak in the Standing Committee debate. That is the sensible way to proceed.

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that most hon. Members will welcome the addition of another day for the agriculture debate? He clearly said that the debate could be wide-ranging; will he make it absolutely clear that, in view of the gravity of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy situation, and of the concern felt by all our farming communities, there will be no bar to extending the debate to domestic matters such as BSE and the progress that is being made?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming that there is a widespread interest in such matters at this time. Precisely for that reason, the debate is listed as being on the common agricultural policy and other agricultural issues". It could not be wider-ranging than that.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Not many people know this, but the 12-starred badge that I am wearing in my lapel for Europe day is not the flag of the European Union but the flag of the Council of Europe, which has somehow been expropriated by the EU. That notwithstanding, could we have a debate on how to deal with Europe day in future? Does the right hon. Gentleman remember when we used to celebrate Empire day in school, and get dressed up in various costumes? Why do we not now celebrate Europe day in schools—or, if we cannot do that, why not have a public holiday? Perhaps we could change the anthem to "Ode to Joy". I am sure that that would please many Members of Parliament.

Mr. Newton

I am beginning to think that, although he does not look it, the hon. Gentleman must be older than I am, because I do not have those memories. As for me, I have felt it most appropriate to wear today what I might call the flag of the British Red Cross Society, and I am proud to do so.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that two days next week will be devoted to debating the common agricultural policy, and does he believe that two days will be long enough for Labour Members to put right all the damage they have done to the British beef industry in the past two months?

Mr. Newton

I agree with my hon. Friend that that would take rather longer than two days, but I hope that we shall at least hear them acknowledge the damage done by the initial responses of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman).

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that the one voice lacking in the exchanges about the scandalous behaviour of Westminster council is that of the thousands of people whose lives the council's gerrymandering tactics have destroyed—not least a family in my constituency who were bribed out of their tenancy by Westminster council and put on an estate outside London. The council subsidised their rent there by more than £100 a week, but because of racial harassment the family had to leave the estate, the family broke up and Westminster refused to house them, so they are now in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Grave damage has been done to that family.

I cannot believe that the Leader of the House would really criticise the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) for using one of the Opposition days to debate the issue. Indeed, does it not behove the Government to add an extra day to that debate, so that we can really examine in detail over two days the gross damage that that gerrymandering has wreaked on so many people's lives?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady would not expect me to add to what my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Prime Minister have said within the past hour or so, and I shall not attempt to do so; nor do I wish to subtract from what I said about the words of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs.Taylor).

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I ask for a debate next week on the serious anger of many of my constituents at the corrupt action of a Labour councillor who sought to insist in a letter to the chairman of housing that he put Labour voters into a ward in my constituency for the specific purpose of securing Labour's majority in that ward? Have we not heard a great deal of humbug from the Labour and Liberal parties today, and would it not be better if Labour Members examined what their own party is doing, which they have not condemned in Ealing?

Mr. Newton

I am somewhat inclined to agree that we have heard a great deal of humbug, and perhaps worse, but my hon. Friend may accept that, in the spirit of what I have said in the past few minutes, and of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said earlier, I would not want to make further specific comment on specific cases.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the whole of Thursday's business will be on agriculture, and that the debate will not last only until 7 o'clock? Will the debate therefore last for two whole days, and not a day and a half?

Mr. Newton

indicated assent.

Mr. Spearing

I see that the right hon. Gentleman nods. Is there not an anomaly in having about 12 hours of debate on agriculture without an amendable motion, as distinct from having just two and a half hours in Standing Committee, where an amendable motion could be moved? Could not that motion then be taken on the Floor forthwith? Can the right hon. Gentleman not combine the two? If not, he might be accused of not giving the House a good crack at the issue.

Mr. Newton

I hardly think that devoting two and a half days to the subject—two on the Floor and half a day in Standing Committee—can be described as not giving Members a fair crack of the whip.

Mr. Spearing

I was referring to an amendable motion.

Mr. Newton

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I repeat what I said last week. I believe that our procedures for Standing Committees—which we use for the overwhelming majority of scrutiny these days—are more effectively geared for the kind of scrutiny necessary for such a matter. Members can question the Minister for an hour, and the matter can then be debated for an hour and a half, with any Member able to take part. It is sensible to have both procedures on this occasion, and that is what I have provided for.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that agriculture policy is largely a matter for our masters in Brussels, and is to a much lesser extent a matter for this House. Is he aware that many of his right hon. and hon. Friends may vote on Thursday to pass judgment on our masters in Brussels, rather than on the Government's agriculture policies? In that case, it is possible that the House may vote not to adjourn. What would be the implications for the Government's business and policies of such a result?

Mr. Newton

Such a result would simply mean that the half-hour Adjournment debate would not take place.

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 855 in the name of myself and my hon. Friends, which refers to the thousands of people whose lives are blighted every year by stalking?

[That this House notes that thousands of people's lives are blighted by stalking each year, and that there is currently no effective method for either the police or victim to combat this social menace; recognises there is massive public support for the introduction of a criminal offence of stalking; commends the Daily Mirror for its campaign calling for such an offence; considers that such an important issue of public safety should be above party politics; believes that the Stalking Bill merits the close scrutiny and consideration of a Standing Committee; and hopes it will receive an unopposed Second Reading on Friday 10th May.]

Does he agree that there is a demand for the introduction of a criminal offence of stalking? Will he assure me that the Government will not obstruct the Second Reading of my Stalking Bill tomorrow? Will he join me in congratulating the Daily Mirror on its excellent campaign in support of my Bill?

Mr. Newton

I, and indeed the Government, very much understand and sympathise with what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve with her Bill, and we will certainly consider its merits against that background. We are examining what new measures might be introduced to combat stalking.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the largest industries in my constituency are agriculture and associated activities? He will be aware that those industries are facing their biggest crisis since the war, and many employees do not know what their future will be. I warmly welcome the fact that we will have a two-day debate, which the subject justly deserves.

Irrespective of the present crisis, the reform of the CAP is vital to every person in this country. Will my right hon. Friend note that the official Opposition wanted to curtail debate on this important subject? During that debate, I hope that the Opposition will do their best to restore the reputation of British agriculture, and stress the fact that our beef is the safest in the world to eat.

Mr. Newton

I endorse the latter part of my hon. Friend's comments, and I am grateful for his support for the course that I have adopted.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Those of us who represent large rural constituencies—and, I believe, Opposition Front Benchers—welcome the fact that we will have a two-day debate. The debate will give us an opportunity to get rid of the crazy notion that my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) caused the BSE crisis—it was the dithering incompetence of the Government that caused it.

I have been here for 17 years last Friday, and I think that, on almost every occasion on which we have discussed agricultural prices, there has been a vote. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—and now myself—have told the Leader of the House that we should have a vote next week. Will he change his mind, as he is heavily outnumbered on the matter? Is he afraid to do so because, last December, the Government lost a vote on the common fisheries policy?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman may have been here for 17 years, but I have been here for 22, and in many matters, the ways in which the House scrutinises things have moved on to reflect new circumstances. Indeed, when he and I first came to the House, the European Standing Committees that do most of the detailed scrutiny did not exist.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Could we have a debate next week on far left infiltration of local institutions, so that we could highlight the fact that a Labour councillor in my constituency has resigned from the Labour party on grounds of extreme left-wing activity? A Labour councillor in West Suffolk has done likewise, and joined the Conservative party. Both councillors joined the Labour party believing all the moderate twaddle of new Labour, only to discover the reality: that Labour is still very left-wing in the constituencies—[Interruption.]—and, as we know, in the House.

Mr. Newton

As my hon. Friend may have noticed, he has put new heart into Labour Members below the Gangway.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate next week in which the Minister responsible for sport could give his views on the chaotic situation at the Football Association in respect of ticket distribution for the Euro 96 championships? In view of the short time before Euro 96 and the increasing dissatisfaction of football supporters throughout England, will he ensure that we debate this important topic, so that we can be sure that England's name will be strengthened—and not weakened by chaos at the FA?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of National Heritage will be one of the Heritage Ministers who will answer questions on Monday 20 May, and I will warn him of possible questions. I understand that the Football Association is making every effort to ensure that safety and security at Euro 96 are not compromised by tickets falling into the wrong hands, and the Government are giving it every support.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate to ensure that the fishing industry, especially the controls on it and sea fish conservation, is properly regulated? We must ensure that the small inshore fleet and the traditional boats are properly and appropriately controlled when compared with the deep-sea boats of producer organisations and rule beaters that seem to do so well. As an Essex Member, he knows that the small inshore fleet is one of the features of the Essex fishing industry.

Mr. Newton

Indeed. Although I have a landlocked constituency, I was born and brought up in the Essex port of Harwich, so I am well aware of what my hon. Friend said. I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the issues raised by last night's "Dispatches" programme on the running of Motability? Can I have an assurance that the whole House—or at the very least, the Public Accounts Committee—will have an opportunity to debate those issues, and especially these four very serious allegations: first, the take-over of a public charity by a private for-profit, consortium of high street banks; secondly, the siphoning off of more than £100 million that belonged to disabled people, to boost the private consortium's profits; thirdly, the extent to which the charity exists behind a cloak of secrecy that the Government have consistently refused to question and bring before the House; and fourthly, the links between direct benefactors and donors to the Conservative party and the running of the Motability Finance Ltd. scheme? That must be addressed under the scrutiny of the House as a whole.

Mr. Newton

I did not see the "Dispatches" programme, but obviously I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments, as a former Minister for disabled people and as one who has supported the Motability arrangements over the years. The hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not feel able to comment on what he has said, but I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the national health service, so that I may welcome the further reduction in long-term waiting lists which were published today? Is he aware that the number of people awaiting surgery for more than 12 months has been reduced from more than 200,000 six years ago to only 4,400? Will he also confirm that there has been a 25 per cent. increase in the number of patients treated since the reforms were introduced, and that GP fundholders have revolutionised general practice?

Mr. Newton

I shall certainly look as sympathetically as I can upon my hon. Friend's request, bearing in mind the pressures on the House's time. I welcome the opportunity that he has in any case had to draw attention to those very welcome and encouraging figures.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we have a debate about road safety, so that we may congratulate the Government on their courage in introducing probably the most effective advertisements on road safety ever to be used? They comprise home videos depicting children who have been the victims of fatal road accidents and are accompanied by a very moving, simple message from the works of Auden. As those advertisements are likely to get through to those who have caused road accidents when other advertisements have not, is it not right that we should congratulate the Government and all those responsible on drawing attention to the dreadful road toll of 10 fatal accidents every day of the year?

Mr. Newton

For once, I am left almost speechless, as I cannot remember the hon. Gentleman's asking a helpful question ever before. I shall simply take his comments in the spirit in which they are offered, and thank him most warmly.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) offered a sensible suggestion as to how we could vote on substantive matters next Thursday. The matters will be discussed in European Standing Committee A on Wednesday, when a motion will be put in front of us, presumably with an Opposition amendment. When the matters are decided, they could be brought before the House—certainly the Government motion must be brought back to the House—and voted upon immediately. We could vote on the motion in the House after 10 o'clock on Thursday, and then on the amendment if necessary.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Scrutiny Committee, and I have referred briefly to the constructive and thoughtful letter that I received from its Chairman. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion does not strike me immediately as particularly attractive, but I have no doubt that it was intended in a constructive spirit.