HC Deb 28 November 1996 vol 286 cc478-85 4.28 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the business for next week:

MONDAY 2 DECEMBER—Continuation of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 3 DECEMBER—Conclusion of the debate on the Budget statement.

WEDNESDAY 4 DECEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.

THURSDAY 5 DECEMBER—Motion on the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (Fees) (No.1) Order.

Motion on the Port of Tyne Authority (Transfer of Undertaking) Order.

Motion relating to the Social Security (Disability Living Allowance and Claims and Payments) (Amendment) Regulations.

FRIDAY 6 DECEMBER—Debate on trade and inward investment on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Madam Speaker, the House will also wish to know that, on Wednesday 4 December, there will be a debate on air carrier liability in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on protection against third country legislation in European Standing Committee B. As usual, details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

The business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 9 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill.

I am not yet able to be precise about the following three days, but I should make it quite clear to the House that I intend to make provision for a two-day debate on European affairs in advance of the European Council in Dublin on a motion for the Adjournment. The House would also like to know that I expect that both my right hon. and learned Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary will take part in that debate. On Friday 13 December, the House will consider private Member's Bills.

The House will also wish to know that, in that week, it will be proposed that, on Wednesday 11 December, there should be a debate on Community railway policy in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on development of the social dialogue in European Standing Committee B.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 4 December:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Document: 5231/96, Air Carrier Liability. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 36-ii (1996–97). European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: 9573/96, Protection against Third Country Legislation. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 51-xxix (1995–96).

Wednesday 11 December:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Documents: (a) 10003/95, Community Railway Policy; (b) 9654/96, The Community's Railways. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: (a) HC 51-i (1995–96); (b) HC 51-xxix (1995–96).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: 10305/95, Development of the Social Dialogue. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 36-ii (1996–97).]

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement. On his proposal for a two-day debate on a motion for the Adjournment in advance of the European Council, how does he propose to dispose of the recent difficulties that have arisen after the reports from the Select Committee on European Legislation and the impasse on legislation in Standing Committee B? Although there is a technical reason to have a debate on a motion for the Adjournment, the House will only look stupid to the public if there appears to be an issue that we are not facing up to. That matter must be dealt with.

Although we accept—everyone does—that the channel tunnel is a private company and a private operation, ultimately the British and French public expect their Governments and Parliaments to look after safety. As the story appears to change daily, will the Leader arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement to the House about agreed security arrangements before passengers start using the one remaining tunnel?

On a related matter, the 3 o'clock tapes said that the French blockade of British lorries would be ending so that lorries could be blocked again over the weekend. We appreciate the limitations on the Government in this situation, which have been made clear in two answers from Ministers at the Dispatch Box this week. Nevertheless, the continuing threat to the livelihoods of hundreds of British drivers is outrageous. The matter is not a "shining beacon" to anyone, irrespective of what has been said. The conduct of industrial relations in France is disgraceful, and it is putting at risk hundreds—if not thousands—of British jobs.

If the matter is not settled by the weekend, it would behove the Leader to arrange for a statement to be made in the House. It is all very well sending diplomatic notes to other Governments, but the situation cannot be allowed to continue. As an aside, one might say that the millionaire grocer Sir James Goldsmith, who has made a lot of money out of food, could use his role as a French Member of the European Parliament to help get the British lorry drivers back home.

I should also like to ask the Leader of the House to arrange at an early date a debate on the operation of Oftel and the apparent sheer waste in constantly changing the telephone number system for business and commerce. The proposed change is almost like decimalisation gone mad, and it will cost business a fortune.

Finally, will the Leader of the House tell us whether there has been any progress on the inquiry into the Budget leak?

Mr. Newton

I shall take those questions in their natural order. I cannot add much to what I said in my statement about the two-day debate. For some years it has been customary to have pre-Council debates on a motion for the Adjournment. Further action is needed to complete the process of scrutiny, and we shall be reviewing the situation after considering what happens at ECOFIN, early next week.

On the channel tunnel, I shall of course draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to the hon. Gentleman's request. However, a number of substantial investigations are under way, so my right hon. Friend cannot be accused of having neglected his responsibility. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has made a point and I shall draw it to my right hon. Friend's attention.

On the blockade, the hon. Gentleman will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about an hour and a quarter ago. The British Government attach considerable importance to the matter and, acknowledging that ultimately it is a matter for the French, not the British authorities, they will do anything they can to assist in bringing the matter to an end and protecting the position of British lorry drivers. However, I was slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman should have referred to Members of the European Parliament without mentioning the Labour MEP who, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier, is reported to have described the French lorry drivers as a shining example.

Mr. Rooker

It was "a shining beacon".

Mr. Newton

At any rate, the hon. Gentleman might have made some reference to that. I am trying to keep the temperature down, not raise it, so I shall not pursue that matter further.

No decisions have yet been taken about Oftel. The responses to Oftel's August consultation are publicly available and are the basis of press comment. Clearly, discussion on those matters will continue.

Lastly, on the Budget leak, I am certainly not in a position to report any progress to the House.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many of us are pleased to have advance notice of a two-day debate on European affairs. I trust that my right hon. Friend will confirm that there will he an opportunity for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor or my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to define the copper-bottomed guarantees that were mentioned earlier this week so that we can judge for ourselves how safe the pound will be.

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Apart from the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor earlier this week, I made it absolutely clear that my right hon. and learned Friend would take part in the two-day debate to which I referred. I am sure that he will wish to report on anything that happens at the ECOFIN meeting in that respect or any other.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The Leader of the House will know that yesterday the Government published their long-awaited guidelines on Oftel's powers of control over the gateway box governing the future of digital broadcasting in Britain. Is he aware that there is a great deal of concern within the industry that the powers given to Oftel are not nearly strong enough to prevent Rupert Murdoch and BSkyB from blocking open and fair competition in the supply of digital services and television? May we have an early debate to explore some of those important problems?

Mr. Newton

As I have a relative working in a relevant industry, I am well aware of the variety of views in both directions. Some people say that we are going too far and others say that we are not going far enough. The Government's view is that we have struck the right balance, but we shall continue to consider the comments that people make.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip– Northwood)

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's announcement of a two-day debate on Europe and noting his interesting statement that he will review scrutiny in the light of the European Community's Finance Ministers meeting, may I ask whether he accepts that scrutiny should take place in advance of that meeting? As the matters discussed in Committee are within the competence of the legislature—this Parliament—in as much as they concern European directives and regulations that could be incorporated into British law and are not a matter for the royal prerogative, they are not for Government action alone. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Procedure Committee ways in which the views of the House can be made the basis on which Ministers act at ministerial councils of the European Union.

Mr. Newton

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Procedure Committee will read my hon. Friend's remarks with interest. It is difficult to be sure what my hon. Friend was asking for. We have established arrangements for scrutiny precisely because of some of the points that he made. That is why the discussion took place in the Standing Committee last week. There is a further requirement to bring the necessary resolution before the House. I said simply that we shall make decisions about that in the light of what happens at ECOFIN this week.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

The Leader of the House will appreciate that binding agreements may be reached at the Dublin summit, especially on the stability pact. Will he give an assurance, notwithstanding the two-day debate on the Adjournment, that if such binding agreements are reached, the stability pact and the terms of the agreements will be debated on the Floor of the House so that we can vote specifically for or against them?

Mr. Newton

I have said what I believe to be the sensible course. I have announced in good faith what a lot of people wanted—a two-day debate with the Chancellor taking part as well as the Foreign Secretary. I have said that we shall need further to consider other matters in the light of what happens at ECOFIN on Monday. I cannot be expected to go beyond that this afternoon.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend consider changing the business for next week? My constituency has virtually become a lorry park. There must be some action in Britain to support our lorry drivers and the haulage companies that are suffering. We must also try to sort out what we can with the French. Last time they promised to pay compensation and did not pay up. This time they are talking about it but will probably try to get out of paying up again. Should we not be taking action in Europe and should we not condemn any Labour Member of the European Parliament who has the gall to suggest that this is a shining example of trade unionism in action? Such statements are upsetting my constituents. My office telephone has been very busy with complaints about that Labour MEP's statement. Can we not have a debate about this important matter, which is upsetting my constituents?

Mr. Newton

I have already made some observations on one of those points and come close to enraging the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), so I shall not venture further down that path. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend, and even more with those in his constituency who are experiencing the difficulties that he describes. We shall do anything that we can as a Government in the circumstances that I have already referred to and, more importantly, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to. However, it must be acknowledged that the main responsibility for this matter rests with the French authorities, not the British authorities.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

A two-day debate on the Adjournment is not very satisfactory. I hope that the Leader of the House will give serious consideration to having two separate, one-day debates—one on the Adjournment, to deal with the regular six-monthly report and other documents, and a separate debate, with an amendable motion, on the crucial and highly controversial subject of the stability pact and the single currency.

Mr. Newton

I cannot add much, even for the right hon. Gentleman, to what I have already said. All those issues are expected, as matters stand, to be part of the discussion at the Dublin Council. I have therefore thought it right to provide for a longer than usual debate in advance of that Council. I doubt whether splitting the issue into bits is sensible.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate next week on the possibility of unfair pressure on civil servants, particularly in the run-up to the general election? In particular, we should consider the threat made during an Adjournment debate yesterday to the director of the Benefits Agency in Wales. The hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), a Labour Front-Bench spokesman, reminded the director of the Benefits Agency in Wales that there is likely to be a change of Government at the next general and he must be careful that he does not become one of the Benefits Agency customers".—[Official Report, 27 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 281.] Is not that a threat and should not the matter be debated in the House?

Mr. Newton

That quotation, which appears to be a straightforward threat, raises a number of questions. Although I shall not seek a comment from them, I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench will reflect on whether that is an appropriate way for Labour Members to speak.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the announcement that the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill will take place on 9 December. Is it possible, if it is within the Government's remit, to have lodged in the Library with the Government papers the letter from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), together with the reply? Can the Leader of the House persuade the hon. Member for Foyle to lodge it himself, so that we might have a proper background for the debate?

Mr. Newton

I am not sure how much power of persuasion I would have—I say this entirely neutrally—with the hon. Member for Foyle. That is clearly a matter for him. He will no doubt note the hon. Gentleman's comments, as, I am sure, will my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

In view of the comments of the Leader of the House about civil servants, I am sure that he will be happy to note that the ministerial reply to a planted question that appeared at 3.30 today threatened many civil servants in the traffic offices in Cardiff and Manchester with the loss of their jobs, as well as moves about the country. He has made it clear that temporary arrangements will be made to cover the Welsh traffic office. The closure of the two offices is to go ahead irrespective of the needs of the road haulage industry or of those who need protection from the cowboys in that industry. Will the Leader of the House provide time in the coming week for a debate on the Floor of the House on the fact that the taxpayer will have to pay more than £80,000 to the landlords of the area traffic office in Manchester as a result of the move to Leeds? When that office moves, there will be two area traffic offices, one on one floor, the other on the second. Anyone applying for different regions will have to write separate cheques to separate offices in the same place to pay for the same service. That will not be convenient for those of my constituents who need that help.

Mr. Newton

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport considered the position carefully before making his proposals, but I shall, of course, bring the hon. Lady's remarks to his attention.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why does the Leader of the House not resolve the problem about the two-day debate? I sense that, somehow or other, the Government will get themselves into another mess—although I am not against that.

The stability pact was not scrutinised. A row took place in the Commons and pro and anti-marketeers said that they wanted a debate. The Leader of the House has now said that we are to have a debate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said last Monday that he would go to the meeting on Monday and do nothing. He is going to reserve his position—he talked about parliamentary scrutiny, reserve or whatever it is called. So nothing will change.

Then the Leader of the House says that he cannot be sure about the form of words and we shall have to have an Adjournment debate, but we could have a motion; it depends on what happens. Unless he told us something that he is not going to do, we know that nothing will change, because the Chancellor has said so.

If the Leader of the House wants to resolve the matter, he should make some arrangements with our Front Bench for a form of words for a motion. Otherwise there will be another almighty row. He should give those of us on both sides of the House who do not want to go any further towards a stability pact the chance to vote on it at the appropriate time.

Mr. Newton

As must by now be clear, I think that I have been entirely reasonable. I wish that I had succeeded in eliciting a more reasonable response from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I should like to see him trying to agree a form of words with his Front Bench.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The resolution supported by the Select Committee on European Legislation is still on the Order Paper as No. 34 of the Remaining Orders of the Day, under the heading, "Economic and Monetary Union". It deals with the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Would it not be sensible to give the opportunity of at least a vote on the matter, to be taken forthwith, with an amendment then being moved, along the lines of the wording of the resolution, and supported by the Select Committee? The process of scrutiny would then have been discharged in the House before the ECOFIN meeting. The situation is peculiar, with a scrutiny reserve on negotiations that are crucial for the future development of the House.

Mr. Newton

I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman has in mind when he refers to something happening in advance of ECOFIN, bearing in mind the fact that today is Thursday and the ECOFIN meeting is on Monday.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Leader of the House recall that I raised last week the case of my constituent, Raghbir Singh, who has been held in prison for 18 months without any charges and who continues to be imprisoned despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on a similar case that a person who was held for five years should be released, and has subsequently been released? Why does my constituent continue to be in prison? Why does not the Home Secretary make a statement as quickly as possible? Is the Leader of the House aware that I continue to ring the Home Secretary's private office to find out what is happening? Is there any way in which the Leader of the House can help?

Mr. Newton

Perhaps I can draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is due to answer questions on Thursday. With the hon. Gentleman's usual assiduousness, I would imagine that he will want to be present then to put that question directly. I shall bring the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend's attention.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Is not it time for a debate on electoral reform? Should we not plug the loophole that allows unlimited sums of money to be spent on the coming general election, as long as it is called "national spending"? Does the Leader of the House recall it being said in a debate in 1991 that it was possible for a foreign billionaire, however malign his intentions, to come to this country and spend unlimited millions to subvert the result of a British general election? Those words have come true. Unless we plug that loophole, vote buying, which was banished from British politics in the last century, will be back. Why on earth do not the Government plug the loophole now and support my Bill, which will come before the House on 17 January? They can move in their own self-interest and at the same time protect the integrity of the British electoral system.

Mr. Newton

Would the hon. Gentleman's Bill extend to the kind of trade union advertising that can be seen in the newspapers at the moment?

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

May we have a debate on the sad and shameful decision of the Swiss Council of States to water down the decree that was unanimously passed by its National Council to ascertain the truth about Nazi gold in that country? Is the Leader of the House aware that that is contrary to assurances that were given to the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) and myself by the distinguished Swiss Foreign Minister, Flavio Cotti, only last week and by other parliamentarians of both major parties in both their houses? As the vast majority of Swiss people—certainly those of this generation—want to discover the truth and do justice to the victims of Nazism even at this very late date, and as I am sure we would all want the good name of that great country restored, may we have a chance to explain in the House our unanimous concern about the matter and our hope that the decision of the upper house will yet be overruled?

Mr. Newton

I was aware of the visit to Switzerland that the hon. and learned Gentleman paid with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), and of the concerns that the hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to express. He will understand that the right course for me to take is to bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May I echo the plea of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) for a debate on the Swiss banking system? It is quite wrong that it should squirrel away assets that belong to other people and use its secrecy as a means of depriving the victims of the holocaust of money that is truly theirs.

Mr. Newton

I will ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has his attention drawn also to my hon. Friend's remarks, as a clear indication that there is concern on both sides of the House about the matter.