HC Deb 14 November 1996 vol 285 cc503-12 4.30 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

I should like to make a statement about the business for next week:

MONDAY 18 NovEmBER—Consideration of money resolution relating to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.

Consideration of allocation of time motion relating to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.

Consideration in Committee of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill (First Day).

TUESDAY 19 NovEMBER—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 20 NOVEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [2nd allotted day]. There will be a debate on the national health service on an Opposition motion.

THURSDAY 21 NOVEMBER—Until 7 pm, debate on the impact of a windfall tax on the privatised utilities on a Government motion.

FRIDAY 22 NovEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

On a rather less provisional basis than usual, I anticipate that the business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 25 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Bill.

TUESDAY 26 NOVEMBER—My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

WEDNESDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House. In the afternoon, continuation of the Budget debate.

THURSDAY 28 NOVEMBER—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 29 NOVEMBER—Debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 2 DECEMBER—Continuation of the Budget debate, which will be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 3 December.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 20 November, there will be a debate on waste management strategy in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on economic and monetary union in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 27 November, there will a debate on water for human consumption in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on the former Yugoslavia in European Standing Committee B.

The House may also find it helpful to know that, subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House should rise on Thursday 19 December for the Christmas Adjournment until Monday 13 January.

[Wednesday 20 November:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community document: 9651/96, Strategy for Waste Management. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 36-i (/996-97).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: COM(96) 499, Introduction of the Euro; 10893/96, Reinforced Convergence Procedures and a New Exchange Rate Mechanism; 10892/96, Stability Pact for Ensuring Budgetary Discipline in Stage 3 of EMU. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 36-ii (1996–97).

Wednesday 27 November:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community document: 7208/95, Water for Human Consumption. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 70-xxii (1994–95), HC 51-v, HC 5 I-xxii and HC 51-xxix (1995–96).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: (i) 7312/96, Former Yugoslavia: Aid for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation; (ii) 10602/96, Future Contractual Relations with Certain Countries in South-Eastern Europe. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: (i) HC 51-xxiii, HC 51-xxvi and HC 51-xxix (1995–96); (ii) HC 36-ii (1996–97).]

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I thank the Leader of the House for that information. In view of the statement that was made earlier about Zaire, I am sure that I do not need to urge the Leader of the House to ensure that the House is kept informed of any developments, but I hope that he will confirm that.

Following last night's events, when the voting figures read out by the Whip on the result of the second vote were incorrect, but the accurate figures were printed in Hansard, will the Leader of the House tell us whether there has been any change in the practice whereby, as in the past, the actual vote announcement has always been recorded in Hansard, with any correction made in a way that acknowledges any mistake that has been made?

The Leader of the House will know that there is a great deal of interest in the debate on guns next week, and he will also know that the change in the business that he has announced—the extension of the debate to two days—will cause problems for some hon. Members. To minimise the difficulties that they will face, and to maximise the number of people here, will he make public as soon as possible the terms of the guillotine motion that he will move? Even at this late stage, will the Government reconsider their decision not to allow a free vote on the issue?

Has the Leader of the House seen the motion that has been tabled by the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation, on the documents relating to reinforced convergence procedures, a new exchange rate mechanism and a stability pact for ensuring budgetary discipline in stage 3 of economic and monetary union? Those are undoubtedly major issues, and the motion on the Order Paper demanding that those matters be debated on the Floor of the House has been signed by hon. Members of all parties, and by those who take differing views on European issues. Will the Leader of the House reconsider his decision that those matters should be considered in Committee? I have raised similar issues in the past and although he has said that he understands the concerns, as yet we have not had the debate on the Floor of the House that the Select Committee has pressed for. Will he reconsider his decision on that important matter?

Finally, given that 5 million people have chosen to be in the state earnings-related pensions scheme, and in the light of the reports today that the Government intend to abolish SERPS, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on pensions, so that the House has an opportunity to discuss the plight of the millions of low-paid people who would suffer if the Government ever forced them to leave SERPS?

Mr. Newton

On Zaire, as on Bosnia—as I think I have demonstrated—I shall, of course, bear very much in mind the need to keep the House informed of developments as appropriate from time to time.

On last night's voting figures, I am certainly not aware of any change in the practice, although I do not think that it is strictly a matter for me. I think that there was perhaps a misunderstanding last night, which led to the figures not being recorded in Hansard initially as they had been announced in the House. I am sure that all those concerned with the matter will have noted the way in which the hon. Lady raised that point.

On the two questions related to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, I am not in a position to add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only an hour and a half ago, on the basis of the voting. On the allocation of time motion, the hon. Lady will be aware that that is the subject of discussion in the usual channels and with others interested in the matter. We are anxious to achieve maximum agreement, but I shall table the motion as soon as I can to enable people to plan.

On the motion concerning the scrutiny arrangements for the documents to which the hon. Lady referred, obviously I always carefully consider the representations made to me. In addition, a number of my hon. Friends—some of whom are present in the Chamber at the moment—have spoken to me about it. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand that there are a whole range of considerations to be taken into account. No one is disputing the importance of the matters. On the other hand, as I well know—having heard my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer talk on them—they are also matters of very considerable detail and technicality. I cleave to the view that the Standing Committee procedures—whereby Ministers can be questioned and a debate can take place—have a good deal to commend them.

There is obviously also the issue of timing, in that the Economic and Finance Council is on 2 December. One has only to look at the business that I have announced for between now and 2 December—including the best part of a week taken up by the Budget debate—to know the difficulty in finding time on the Floor of the House. We expect to arrange a debate in the usual way before the European Council meeting on 13 and 14 December, in which EMU will be a major ingredient, so there will be a considerable opportunity to discuss those matters of the Floor of the House.

On SERPS, the story in The Daily Telegraph, to which the hon. Lady was presumably referring, is seriously misleading. It does not reflect Government policy and it contains several errors: it seriously overstates the future cost of SERPS; it suggests wrongly that the real value of the basic pension will decline; and it suggests that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security visited Chile, when in fact it was the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the Chairman of the Social Security Committee.

Sir Harold Walker (Doncaster, Central)

Is the Leader of the House satisfied that he has got his priorities right? Where, in the course of all the business that he has announced today, is the opportunity for Ministers to explain how they will respond to the grave problem facing 800 of my constituents, the loss of whose jobs has been announced today—200 at the former railway workshops as a consequence of the Government's crippling railway policy, and 600 because, instead of investing in this country, Du Pont has decided to transfer its production from Doncaster to Germany? That runs counter to the Prime Minister's repeated hollow claims. Will a Minister answer those questions?

Mr. Newton

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's reasons for raising those matters and I am sure that he will have an opportunity to raise them in the Budget debate and in other economic debates. He should perhaps also acknowledge that Du Pont has decided to embark on a £60 million expansion of its Gloucester plant, which clearly demonstrates its commitment to the United Kingdom.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Referring again to notice of motion No. 23, on European Standing Committee B debating documents relating to EMU, convergence procedures, a new exchange rate mechanism and a stability pact, may I put it to my right hon. Friend that it is imperative that the House as a whole should have an opportunity to vote on those matters?

The many hon. Members of all parties who are acutely concerned about the future of British economic management and the dominance of the House in that matter can go to European Standing Committees as interested participants, but cannot vote. Is not it therefore essential that the House should be able to vote to let its view be known before the Chancellor of the Exchequer goes to ECOFIN and perhaps commits us to something that most Conservative Members, at any rate, would not agree to?

Mr. Newton

There is not a great deal that I can add to what I said a few moments ago, except that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House, as perhaps I should have done, that not only the members of the Committee can take part in debate—as distinct from voting, as he rightly says—but any hon. Member; it is important that that should be recognised. He is right to say that such matters should be discussed before ECOFIN on 2 December; that is one of the considerations that I have taken into account.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

From a rather different perspective from that of the previous questioner, may I simply impress upon the Leader of the House that there is, as the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said, all-party support for discussing the issue on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Newton

I do indeed take note of that, as I hope that I have shown on many occasions.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)

May I again draw my right hon. Friend's attention to notice of motion No. 23? This is not a concerted effort, but in view of the fact that Opposition Front Benchers have expressed a view on the matter and shown such keenness for a debate on the Floor of the House, I am sure that, through the usual channels, time could be found for such a debate before ECOFIN.

Mr. Newton

Once again, I note what my hon. Friend says. I am grateful for his assurance that there is no concerted effort although, frankly, I do not think that I could complain if there were—indeed, I would not complain—but I still cannot add to what I said earlier.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Just a quick reinforcement of what has already been said.

Madam Speaker

This is getting tedious and repetitious.

Mr. Shore

The crucial point is that ECOFIN meets on 2 December, and some crucial decisions will be taken. It would be intolerable if the House did not have the opportunity to debate the matter in full and to vote upon it if need be.

Mr. Newton

I made it perfectly clear earlier that no one is disputing the importance of those matters, although there is a difference of judgment about the best way in which the discussion can take place. Apart from that, I am simply tempted to ask, in the same good-natured way as that in which the right hon. Gentleman asked his question: when is a concert not concerted?

Madam Speaker

I call Dr. Spink, to ask something different.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Important though ECOFIN is to my constituents, they would want me to press today for a debate on the damage that over-development can do to our communities, so that we can reinforce councils' spine in resisting inappropriate development and seeking support from the Secretary of State for the Environment when they do so.

Mr. Newton

That sounds like advance notice of a question that my hon. Friend will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment next Tuesday. I am not sure that I will encourage him to do so, but I shall warn my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House recall saying a few moments ago that Members of Parliament would be on holiday for nearly four weeks at Christmas? They had 11 weeks in the summer, and 18 weeks in all this year, yet the Tories to a man and a woman poured scorn on the idea that British workers should have a minimum of three weeks' paid holiday. If Members of Parliament can have 18 weeks' paid holiday, British workers should get the same.

If the Government are worried about the Common Market directive, why does not the right hon. Gentleman arrange for British legislation to be introduced in the next week on behalf of British workers—men and women who would love to have three weeks' paid holiday—so that we can deliver it in 24 hours?

Mr. Newton

That is a pretty hoary old point. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that, although most hon. Members will expect to have Christmas off, along with most other people, the equation between a parliamentary recess and a holiday, bearing in mind the amount of work that hon. Members do in their constituencies, is plain silly.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. Friend recall the resolution of the House of October 1990, which makes it crystal clear that no Minister of the Crown—including, of course, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—would be empowered to make a decision in any of the Councils of the European Union until a debate had taken place in the House, if the Select Committee on European Legislation so recommended?

Does my right hon. Friend therefore appreciate the importance of a proper debate, in which the views of the House as a whole on such fundamental matters as the stability pact and the exchange rate mechanism can be expressed? A discussion in Standing Committee would be wholly inadequate, for reasons that he understands perfectly well, so will he ensure that the matter is reviewed at the highest level in Government, so that we can consider it on the Floor of the House well before decisions are taken in ECOFIN at the beginning of December?

Mr. Newton

I have several times made it clear that part of the reason for what I have proposed is the need to ensure that discussion takes place before 2 December. I am well aware of my hon. Friend's strength of feeling, and he will not mind my saying that he was one of those who underlined the matter to me less formally, but I am afraid that I still cannot add to what I have already said at the Dispatch Box this afternoon.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

As it is 500 days since Keith Mangan and Paul Wells were taken hostage in Kashmir, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement next week explaining what further action the Foreign Office intends to take to try to find those two British citizens, plus the two other people taken hostage at the same time, especially as leading Kashmiri politicians have offered to try to mediate? What will be done to persuade the Indian Government to issue visas to those, including Members of both Houses of Parliament, who believe that they can help in mediating and in trying to find the hostages?

Mr. Newton

I cannot commit my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to a statement, but I know that he will study the hon. Gentleman's remarks carefully and that the British Government will continue to do all that they can. I note in passing that my right hon. and learned Friend is due to answer questions on Wednesday 27 November.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

Returning to European Standing Committee B, may I ask my right hon. Friend why is there such a rush? Have I misunderstood the Government's policy, or is it wait and see? Is there a reason for many of us to bite our tongues if the Government are rushing ahead with the proposals? If we have not discussed them in time for 2 December, why do we not exercise our veto? The stability pact requires a unanimous vote in the Council of Ministers. That should not affect the process of monetary union, because that impinges on 1999, not December 1996. It seems odd for a Government who purport to promote the role of national Parliaments in the European Union to short-circuit procedures in this way, to meet a deadline that seems to be irrelevant—unless there are binding provisions that cut in before the third stage of monetary union.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is he a friend of yours?

Mr. Newton

He is my constituency neighbour, although one might not have thought it from his question.

In many ways, my hon. Friend is introducing an argument that he might make when he attends the debate, but I shall, of course, bring it to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. What is happening demonstrates the importance of the United Kingdom continuing to take a close interest in those matters, because while none of provisions will apply to the UK if we decide not to participate in stage 3, we clearly would be affected by them.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Leader of the House agree that European Standing Committee B comprises the extremities of views on the merits of the European Union; that the tabling of such a motion is unprecedented; that a few years ago, it would have been within the powers of the Committee to decide whether the matter should be debated on the Floor; and that it was Government action that prevented that power of the Committee from being continued? In view of the country's concern at the encroachment of Government views on the procedures of the House, is it not wrong that a Committee that is entirely concerned with procedure, and not the merits of a case, should be overridden in that way?

Mr. Newton

On the spread of views in the Committee, the answer is clearly yes. I am not in a position to give quite such clear-cut answers to the hon. Gentleman's other questions. However, I shall make a point that I could have made earlier but did not in case it was thought inflammatory. Since 1990, the House has voted for extensive changes to its procedures to reduce the amount of business done on the Floor of the House and to remit more business to Standing Committees.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), I am sure that the Leader of the House spoke in good faith when he said that he would report from time to time on Zaire. However, there are some urgent problems about which there should be a report on Monday. What about the millions, perhaps billions, of pounds that President Mobutu has stacked away? What is the position on arms manufacturers? Are British troops to be subject—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman rightly put his question on that to the Secretary of State for Defence. If he is now asking for a statement next week, that is one thing, but he cannot go into such detail with the Leader of the House, who is concerned with next week's business.

Mr. Dalyell

I am concerned about a statement next week as to whether—

Madam Speaker

I understand that. The hon. Gentleman saw me earlier today about a statement, which he has now had. Is he seeking to press the Leader of the House for more information? He may, of course, do that, but he must not go into details about which the Leader of the House is not in a position to answer at this stage.

Mr. Dalyell

I hope that there will be a statement on Monday on injections to troops, on the Gurkhas and on whether there will be a report back on the crucial matter of the reconnaissance unit, which was raised by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). Is Parliament to he told what that unit discovers, especially in relation to the warlords and governors?

Mr. Newton

I did not say that I would report to the House from time to time because I am not in a position to do so. I said that I would seek to arrange appropriate reports. It has to be a matter of judgment as to when it is appropriate to make further reports. I shall bear in mind the sort of factors that the hon. Gentleman raised, but I cannot make a commitment now to another statement on Monday.

Mr. Tony Banks

May I reiterate last week's request for a debate on London? Last week, I mentioned the London Research Centre report, "The Capital Divided". This week we have heard that the London Pride Partnership is to publish a manifesto for London and to ask hon. Members to back it in the run-up to the general election. Yesterday, Sir Norman Foster's master plan for London, involving Trafalgar square, Whitehall and Parliament square was announced. When will London Members have an opportunity to say something and get involved in the big issues that affect the capital city? The Leader of the House announced that there would be an Adjournment debate on 29 November, for which no subject has been announced. Can he say that that debate will be on London affairs?

Mr. Newton

I cannot say that. Although we have not yet made a final decision, that debate is likely to be on another matter. I shall bear in mind the continued pressure for a debate on London.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

What will happen on Wednesday in European Standing Committee B if enough hon. Members turn up, so that there are not enough seats for us all to participate in the debate on the documents mentioned in notice of motion No. 23? Would the debate have to be transferred to the Floor, whether the House was sitting as a Standing Committee or, more sensibly, as normal?

Mr. Newton

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has in mind some plan of that sort, but despite his blandishments, I cannot add to what I have said several times already.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to explain why yesterday he announced a White Paper not to the House, but to a press conference? Will he confirm that there are no legislative proposals in the White Paper? If there are not, what is its purpose other than to use civil servants to put forward Tory party propaganda?

Mr. Newton

I saw that point trailed in one of the Sunday papers. The notion that a White Paper is not a White Paper unless it contains proposals for legislation is one of the silliest that I have heard for some time. It would mean that White Papers on a wide range of subjects—including foreign policy, which rarely requires legislation—would be deemed out of order. That is nonsense.

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

May I tell the Leader of the House that he cannot dodge the question of the whipped vote on handguns? There is outrage throughout Scotland and, probably, the whole United Kingdom, that the Government are imposing a three-line Whip on a matter of conscience. Will he explain what is the difference between having a free vote on caning and not having one on handguns? It is outrageous and I do not think that the Government will get away with it.

Mr. Newton

I did not dodge the question at all; I simply referred back to the clear answer that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had given.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Can we have a debate before 12 December on the World Trade Organisation and child labour? On that day, the WTO will meet in Singapore and the British Government will seek to veto the efforts of America and other nations to place child labour on the WTO agenda. The Leader of the House will know that this week the International Labour Organisation published a report that shows that 250 million children—double previous estimates—work around the world in the most disgusting conditions. They often produce goods that are sold in our high streets. If we are to combat child labour, the House would like to be involved. The debate should take place before Britain shames itself by vetoing the placing of child labour on the agenda.

Mr. Newton

The position, which I imagine the hon. Gentleman understands—although one might not have thought it from his question—is that we fully support action to combat child labour, but that the issue is, and should remain, outside the remit of the World Trade Organisation. We consider international labour standards to be a matter for the International Labour Organisation and we support its proposal to hold a convention to tackle the problem.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate an unbelievable situation that does great discredit to the Government, and which is described in early-day motion 171?

[That this House notes that, since 21st October 1996 when the Social Security (Adjudication) and Child Support Amendment (No. 2) Regulations (S.I., 1996, No. 2450) came into force, appeals to social security, disability and child support appeal tribunals, which in the past could be made by letter, must be lodged on an official form which, three weeks later, still does not exist; notes that appellants are required to include in their appeal a summary of their arguments, which will deter many from appealing; further notes that an oral hearing will be held only if specifically requested, despite the fact that appeals heard in the appellant's absence are much less likely to succeed and that the recommendation of the Council on Tribunals that the importance of seeking an oral hearing should be emphasised in the information provided to appellants has been ignored, with the result that many more appeals will be heard in the absence of the appellant and most of them will fail; notes that, contrary to the advice of the Council on Tribunals, the minimum period of notice of an oral hearing has been reduced from 10 to seven days, making it more difficult for voluntary bodies to provide representation and further reducing the likelihood of success; and calls for the immediate suspension of the regulations, followed by a period of consultation on ways of combining justice and efficiency in the operation of the tribunal service.]

On 21 October, new regulations came in governing social security and child support appeals, which mean that it will no longer be possible to appeal by letter in the usual way and that appeals must be made by completing a special form. I asked the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans), the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, to put a copy of the form in the Library. He told me in a written reply that the copy was in the Library, but when I checked, it was an old form about a different subject. Last week, the Minister apologised for the misinformation given to me and announced, incredibly, that the forms have not yet been printed.

Surely it is right that those regulations be now withdrawn, because many people, possibly hundreds of thousands, and many of them less articulate than most, will not be able to cope with them. Those regulations are unjust. Should not they be withdrawn until the House debates that bizarre situation?

Mr. Newton

I am not familiar with the detail of some of what the hon. Gentleman described, but I shall ensure that it is explored as soon as possible with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security.

The regulations seem to me to be important to allow for improvements to the service offered to applicants—that is their aim. Any delay in those regulations coming into force would simply delay the point at which those necessary improvements could be made.

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