HC Deb 06 February 1997 vol 289 cc1143-54 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 10 FEBRUARY—Until about 7 o'clock, Second Reading of the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill [Lords].

Second Reading of the Welsh Development Agency Bill.

TUESDAY 11 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the National Health Service (Primary Care) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 12 FEBRUARY—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the first report from the Science and Technology Committee on the prior options reviews of public sector research establishments, followed by a debate on the second report from the Public Service Committee on ministerial accountability and responsibility. That will be followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House. In the afternoon, there will be the Second Reading of the Police Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 13 FEBRUARY—Motion on the Companies Act 1985 (Directors' Report) (Statement of Payment Practice) Regulations.

Motion to amend schedule 1 to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975.

FRIDAY 14 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 12 February, there will be debate on raw tobacco in European Standing Committee A and a debate on takeover bids in European Standing Committee B. As usual, details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

MONDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Motions on the Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order, the Social Security (Contributions) (Re-Rating and National Insurance Fund Payments) Order, the Social Security (Contributions) Amendment Regulations, the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order and the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Amendment Regulations.

I regret that, once again, I am unable to go beyond that for the business in that week, but the House will wish to know that it is proposed that on Wednesday 19 February there will be a debate on future noise policy in European Standing Committee A. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 12 February:

European Standing Committee ARelevant European Community document: 5217/97, Commission Report on Raw Tobacco. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 36-xi (1996–97).

European Standing Committee BRelevant European Community document: 5147/96, Takeover Bids. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 51-xxix (1995–96) and HC 51-xiv (1995–96).

Wednesday 19 February:

European Standing Committee ARelevant European Community document: 11419/96, Future Noise Policy. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 36-xi (1996–97).]

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the Leader of the House. He announced that the Police Bill [Lords] is to be debated on Wednesday. Will he make sure that the Home Secretary makes it clear as soon as possible what he intends to do to resolve the problem that was created by the passage in another place of two important but contradictory amendments? I am sure that he agrees that hon. Members should have as much notice as possible of what is to happen on that matter.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm when the important Firearms (Amendment) Bill will return to the House? He will be aware that, despite the support of the Opposition, the Government were defeated on several occasions in the House of Lords, mainly by the votes of hereditary peers. Therefore, the Bill is in an unsatisfactory state at present. Will the right hon. Gentleman reassure hon. Members that that very important legislation—there is much agreement about the need for change—will be passed as quickly as possible, and that those defeats will not be allowed to delay its passage?

Will the right hon. Gentleman find Government time for a debate on the current crisis in further education? Hon. Members on both sides of the House have received representations from colleges throughout the country because of the confusion and chaos created by the Government's decision—taken midway through the funding year—to shift the goalposts. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that an interim decision about future Government policy has been taken within the past 24 hours, although the House has not been told about its possible implications? There has clearly been a significant breach of faith with colleges and students. Neither can plan their future properly until the matter is resolved, and the House is entitled to know exactly what is happening.

Can the right hon. Gentleman shed any light on the Government's intentions in respect of London Underground? Why did the Secretary of State for Transport draft a statement—which I happen to have with me—announcing the privatisation of London Underground, only to back down? What is happening? Will the Leader of the House confirm whether there will be an Opposition day before the Wirral, South by-election—assuming that the House sits that long?

Mr. Newton

As to the Police Bill [Lords], I am not in a position to make the Government's intentions clear in detail today. As the hon. Lady said, contradictory amendments were passed in another place, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will make clear his intentions in that respect as soon as he properly can. He shall certainly bear that in mind in looking ahead to the Second Reading of the Bill next week.

The hon. Lady will be aware that the Firearms (Amendment) Bill has not completed its passage in another place. Therefore, convention dictates that I do not comment too much about the matter until the Bill returns to this place. However, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has signified that he expects to invite the House to modify—I deliberately choose an understated word—some of the amendments passed in another place.

I note the hon. Lady's remarks about further education, and I recall some comments on that subject from Back Benchers last week. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who is responsible for further education, has written to all FE colleges to provide information about further funding. The Government have also undertaken to make further funding available in the next financial year. In so far as the hon. Lady is making representations about the way in which the matter was handled, I shall ensure that her comments are drawn to my hon. Friend's attention.

I make it clear that there is no question of our altering our position regarding London Underground. We shall make our intentions clear at the appropriate time. We shall not be bounced into making premature announcements by leaks to newspapers—or even to the hon. Lady. I am obviously aware of the Opposition's wish to have an Opposition day—I was able to provide more time this week for the minority parties—and I continue to bear in mind the hon. Lady's wish.

Sir Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)

As the Opposition seem bent on breaking up the United Kingdom, may we have Government time as soon as possible to debate the future of the British constitution, and could the debate be led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will be aware that, in recent weeks, suggestions for such a debate have been made on a number of occasions, and I have said that I shall consider them as sympathetically as possible. However, he will also have heard the business that I have announced for the week ahead, and he will be aware that there is a great deal of very important legislation on which we need to make progress.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Will the Leader of the House make Government time available to debate the important issue of public sector pay—on which we are expecting to hear an announcement in a few minutes—particularly because of the strongly heralded view that an increase is likely to be staged, despite the Government's own forecasts fully budgeting for a 3.3 per cent. increase for nurses? The difference between what has been budgeted and what has been recommended for teachers' pay is about £80 million, which is well within the amount that could be saved in central Government Departments.

Specifically, the Prime Minister, in his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), deliberately misrepresented the Liberal Democrats' position. We have said that we are opposed to a penny cut in income tax, so that all that money can go to reversing the damaging cuts imposed by the Government and to developing further education. The money for the teachers' pay award can come from central Government savings.

Mr. Newton

If there is any confusion about what the Liberal Democrats have said, I can suppose only that it is because of confusion about what the Liberal Democrats say about that and other matters. On his question on public sector pay, the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to comment in advance of the publication of the reports and the Government's recommendations.

Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Home Secretary to resist the blandishments of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) on the Firearms (Amendment) Bill when it returns to the House? Will he also ask him to ensure that any modifications made fully reflect the very wise and sensible amendments to the Bill—to restore some justice to many innocent people—so wisely passed by the other place?

Mr. Newton

I shall not attempt to add to what I have already said, but I shall ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend's attention is drawn to my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why do the Leader of the House and Ministers make statements on nurses' and teachers' pay in the form of a written question, instead of making a statement in the House, so that hon. Members can make their position clear? If there is enough money to find £60 million-plus for a royal yacht and enough to pay the fat salary increases of generals, Members of Parliament, Ministers and all the rest of them, why cannot the Government say to nurses and teachers that they will immediately pay the money from the pay review in full?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the practice—for as long as I can remember—has been for the information on those very complex matters to be made available by written answer. He will also know that the reports in question, taken together, are about 3 in thick, and require considerable study. I am sure that he will get down to his homework as soon as he possibly can.

Sir John Cope (Northavon)

My right hon. Friend will have seen the Procedure Committee's report, which has just been published, on a new streamlined procedure for tax simplification Bills. It is important that we debate that matter as soon as possible, and, if possible, pass the necessary amendments to Standing Orders. There is a great push—in the Treasury, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in the Inland Revenue—for simplification of our complicated tax legislation. The House should facilitate that process, and not be seen as a potential difficulty.

Mr. Newton

If I remember rightly, last week, much the same point was made to me by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Committee. I gave what I described as a "cautiously sympathetic" reply. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who is a distinguished member of the Committee, will similarly accept both my sympathy and my caution.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

When can the House urgently have an opportunity to debate the continuing misjudgments of the Governor of Hong Kong in chipping away at the international agreements which were brilliantly achieved by Lord Howe, then Foreign Secretary, in 1984 and which this uninformed Governor is immensely damaging? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he managed to educate even an uninformed personality like Lady Thatcher about the realities of what had to develop between China and Hong Kong? Why on earth do HM Government allow this man to persist in damaging those immensely important international relationships?

Mr. Newton

Without in any way accepting for a moment the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument, which was ingeniously disguised as a question, I simply point out that the House has recently had opportunities to debate Hong Kong, and I certainly cannot envisage another one in the near future.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Will my right hon. Friend take further the matters raised by the shadow Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for South Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer), who asked, respectively, for a Supply day and a debate on constitutional arrangements? Will it be possible in the next two weeks to consider a matter that has been lying around for the past two decades—whether, under some people's proposals, a Scottish Member of Parliament would be able to vote on English education but not on Scottish education?

Mr. Newton

In other words, a debate to see for the umpteenth time whether we can get an answer to the West Lothian question—

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Have a debate.

Mr. Newton

Is the hon. Gentleman promising me from a sedentary position that were the Opposition to have a Supply day, they would choose to debate constitutional matters? I should like that in writing.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Would the Leader of the House like to calculate exactly how much European legislation in the form of directives is awaiting scrutiny by European Standing Committee A? Will he then explain why the Government perpetually complain about European interference, but refuse absolutely to deal rapidly with the legislation that is pouring out of Brussels? Dealing with it rapidly would enable the House of Commons to know what was really going on, to comment on the legislation and, if need be, amend it before it became damaging, rather than afterwards.

Mr. Newton

I am not in a position immediately to give the hon. Lady the statistic that she requested, but I shall make some inquiries. On the more general point, she will know that we have made it clear that we ourselves are not satisfied with the fact that the procedures of the European Union, which can involve delays in Brussels and delays in transmission from Brussels, do not always enable us to scrutinise legislation here as effectively as we and the Committee would wish. We shall make every effort to ensure that matters are improved.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

May we have a debate on unemployment, so that we can get home to people the fact that unemployment in, for example, Dover is half that in Calais, 22 miles away? There are enormous problems in Europe, which must be dealt with; the House must have a proper debate, so that we can explain to the French and Germans that it is because they are following socialist policies, which are being pushed by the Labour party in this country, that they have higher unemployment than us.

Mr. Newton

Not for the first time, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is underlined by something on which, to judge from the exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Time, I am not sure hon. Members have yet focused, that is, the truly astonishing rise in unemployment that was announced in Germany today.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the Leader of the House inform the Home Secretary that when the House again debates the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, it is absolutely essential that the wrecking Lords amendment be overturned? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at an event in my constituency last week, I had the honour to meet Mr. and Mrs. Martyn Dunn, whose daughter Charlotte was one of the infants murdered at Dunblane? Is it not now all the more important that the pledge that effective action would be taken over guns—a pledge that was given after the Dunblane massacre—is carried out and that there is no appeasement by the Government?

Mr. Newton

The Government have made it clear that they are undertaking effective action in the wake of that appalling tragedy. Just as I told my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) that I would bring his points to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, so I shall bring the different points made by the hon. Gentleman to his attention.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

May I support earlier calls for a debate on devolution? Both the main Opposition parties have resolved to set up a rival Parliament in Edinburgh and also, apparently, to set up regional assemblies in England. They would add another tier of bureaucracy in many of our constituencies. As the proposed assembly for the west country would have no defined powers, and we do not know who would sit on it, who would pay for it or which counties would be covered, it would be a fruitful subject for debate and we could learn precisely what the Opposition are planning.

Mr. Newton

I have long held the view that that would indeed be a fruitful subject for debate, although I cannot go beyond what I have said earlier on the matter. I should certainly wish to listen to my right hon. Friend's speech, were it possible for such a debate to take place.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The thickness or otherwise of a Government report should not be what determines whether it should be launched with a statement in the House. The determining factor should be the importance of the measure. Many documents first launched in the House have been massive, including the report of the Scott inquiry. Should not the public sector pay documents be debated here, because this is the proper place to question whatever is contained in them?

Mr. Newton

I made some reply—I think a reasonable one, as always—to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I cannot add to that.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

When my right hon. Friend considers the many calls so far for a debate on the constitution, will he take into account the fact that that subject is not only worthy of a debate in the Chamber, but is arguably the most important subject that we can debate as the custodians in trust of the future of Britain? Such a debate would reveal the wide differences that exist, between the Conservatives, who want to safeguard the unity of the United Kingdom and the sovereignty of Parliament, and the Opposition, who want to destroy them.

Mr. Newton

I endorse what my hon. and learned Friend says about the importance of that matter. Given the range of proposals that the Opposition appear to have made and the uncertainties about the details, I believe that they should consider using an Opposition day for such a debate.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

If the Leader of the House would care to give me an Opposition day, I should be happy to entertain a debate on the constitution.

Will the right hon. Gentleman return to the ridiculous explanation of why we have not had a statement today on public pay? He seemed to suggest that the subject was too complex for us to understand. I suggest that nurses and teachers outside this place understand the reality of a Government who prefer royal yachts and giant domes in Greenwich to properly and adequately funding people who perform vital services. Why are the Government frightened of a debate on spending priorities?

Mr. Newton

The Government are not frightened of a debate on any aspect of their policies or priorities, which they believe to be right. It has been the convention, for as long as I can remember, that details of the Government's proposals and the reports are given in the way that is being done this afternoon. That is reasonable and sensible.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

May we have an early opportunity to discuss the serious matter that was reported in Scottish newspapers this morning? I believe that the leader of the Labour group on Glasgow council has said that he was offered trips, paid for from the public purse, for votes. That is a result of the current civil war in the Labour party, in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland. The matter is so serious that it must be addressed—and quickly.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend draws attention to what sounds like an important point. Given those at whom the point was directed, the matter should perhaps be considered by Opposition Front Benchers.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I understand the need for the Government to give serious consideration to important matters and the problems of major constitutional issues, but will the Leader of the House tell us whether there is a possibility, before dissolution, that the necessary amendments might be tabled to Standing Orders, to allow the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to meet in the same way as the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees meet? The idea was mooted by the Prime Minister in October.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been having discussions with, I think, all the Northern Ireland parties about that matter. Obviously, we hope that it will prove possible to achieve the necessary consensus that would normally be sought before proceeding with such changes. The hon. Gentleman knows that I should like the changes to proceed as soon as possible.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Prime Minister made an excellent speech in Brussels on Tuesday, outlining his and the Government's concern about policies in the European Union. The speech was warmly supported by European industrialists, not least, as was mentioned during Prime Minister's questions, a senior executive of BASF, which employs 3,000 people in this country, and a senior executive of ABB, which employs 10,000 people in this country. Could we please have a debate on the Floor of the House, in which the Government could outline to the people of this country and for the benefit of the Opposition why we are so opposed to the minimum wage and the social chapter? We are concerned about the creation of wealth and jobs, which guarantee the future of our country.

Mr. Newton

I share my hon. Friend's views on the merits of my right hon. Friend's speech on the importance of the point that he has made. I shall continue to bear in mind his request for a debate.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the mounting dismay around the world, from Cambodia to India, Russia—which has lost many icons—and eastern Europe, about heritage treasures turning up on the art markets of Frankfurt, Amsterdam, New York and London? In those circumstances, should there not be a statement next week about the role and responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry on what has apparently been revealed about Sotheby's? The problem goes far beyond one firm. It relates to the international art market and Britain's position in it. Could we have clarification of the government's supervisory responsibilities in that matter?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will, with his characteristic fairness, understand that I do not think it right to comment on a particular case from the Dispatch Box. His more general point is clearly reasonable and I shall make sure that it is brought to the attention of the President of the Board of Trade.

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the future of Channel 4? Does he agree that drug abuse is a serious matter, as will be shown on a sensible television programme on the subject later this evening? Does he also agree that for the chairman, board and chief executive of Channel 4 to sanction and condone a spoof on drug abuse, wasting the time of busy people, is beneath contempt?

Mr. Newton

I have not had an opportunity to see the programme to which my hon. Friend refers, although I am aware of his concern about it. I shall make sure that I see it if I can. I agree with him about the importance of the problem—indeed, I chair the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Drug Misuse.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement on the condition and circumstances of Mr. Ben Bekhiche Hamid, an Algerian on his 32nd day of hunger strike? He is currently locked up in a single cell in the hospital wing of Rochester prison. The care that he receives there amounts to an orderly occasionally coming along and peering through his cell grille. Why do the Government not give Mr. Hamid temporary admission to a hospital or transfer him to Medway hospital for proper medical treatment?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office made a general statement on the matter last week. I cannot add to what she said, but I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's concerns to her attention.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate next week on early-day motion 458?

[That this House notes that, as a consequence of industrial action in Greece, British lorry drivers were detained at Patras, Greece; observes that a number of horses were held for eight days in lorries where their condition was pitiful; commends the work of the Horse Reserve Fund in offering prompt assistance and in ascertaining whether the horses had been watered; and deplores the fact that the horses then had to undergo further journeys of up to 1,500 miles prior to their slaughter.]

The motion is signed by hon. Members on both sides of the House and draws attention to the terrible treatment of horses in Greece. They were kept without food and water for eight days during the recent strike and then taken a further 1,500 miles before slaughter. We must protest against such practices in the European Union. May we have a debate through which to do that?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend knows very well that the British Government have consistently taken the lead in pressing for improvements in animal welfare throughout Europe. He has played a worthy part in ensuring that. In respect of his early-day motion, I should inform him that the International League for the Protection of Horses is to be commended for the prompt way in which it sought to help the Bulgarian horses recently detained in Greece during their journey to Italy.

Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

Can the Leader of the House tell us when the Secretary of State for Health plans to release the current hospital waiting list figures that were expected this week? The right hon. Gentleman may like to know that on 16 July, the Secretary of State for Health held up the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals trust as an example of how waiting lists could be reduced to below 12 months in accordance with the patients charter. It is now quite clear that the hospital waiting lists declared by that trust have been doctored. Patients have not been declared within certain specialities, depending on where they live. Can the Leader of the House ensure that when the hospital waiting list figures are finally produced, they are accurate and have not been doctored under the direction and requirement of regional executives across the country?

Mr. Newton

As to the latter point, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will examine the allegations, as they must be described, which the hon. Lady has made. She asked about timing. I am not in a position to give an exact date, but I do not think that it is very far ahead.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)

My right hon. Friend spoke earlier about a debate on the West Lothian question. Will he consider having a debate in Government time on the English question, which is why my constituents should entertain the prospect of paying more tax to support a separate Parliament, while Members of that other Parliament from the other area—Scotland or Wales—could come to London and vote on matters involving my constituents, who would have no say whatever in what happened under their aegis? Will my right hon. Friend consider that seriously and give us some time to discuss the English question, not the West Lothian question?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend asked an ingenious variation of what has long been known as the West Lothian question, which as I have said before, ought now to be known as the Linlithgow question. I entirely share his view of the importance of those matters and I have said several times that I am bearing in mind sympathetically the request for a debate.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

May I return the Leader of the House to the subject of London Underground? While I understand that he might not want to be bounced by what we read in the press, is he prepared to be bounced by a statement that has already been drafted on the privatisation of London Underground, which begins, "I can announce today that the Government have decided to privatise London Underground"? Does he accept that if such a statement is already drafted and ready to be made, the Minister should make that statement to the House, if that is the Government's intention? If it is not the Government's intention, should not the Minister tell the House why they have changed their policy? Finally, may I remind the Leader of the House that the statement ends, "The Minister expects tube users and Londoners in general to welcome such a proposal"? If we have such a debate, we in the Opposition will explain to him clearly why tube users and Londoners do not welcome that proposal.

Mr. Newton

I gave a reasonably clear answer to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) earlier in these exchanges and I cannot add to it. I am quite sure that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is in a position to make proposals, he will set out clearly the advantages to Londoners and all tube users.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate to celebrate the overwhelming success of the private pension fund industry, which contrasts so well with the shambles in France and Germany? In such a debate, we could point out the implications for pensioners of the idiotic proposals for a windfall tax on the privatised utilities, as so many of the privatised utilities' shareholders are, of course, pension funds.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend, once again, makes a very good point. Not only do we not know on whom the windfall tax would fall or at what level it would be levied, but we certainly have not heard about its inevitable difficulties, disadvantages and potential losses for either consumers or shareholders, including, as he says, the interests of many pensioners.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Does the Leader of the House agree that we should find time to debate the astronomical increase in the death rate in England and Wales during the week ending 10 January? Can he confirm Government statistics that the death rate in that week was 19,500—5,500 above the average over the past few years for the second week in January, and 8,500 above the annual average? Does he therefore agree that it is urgent that we should debate what contributed to that death rate—whether it was a combination of a particularly virulent strain of influenza going around the country and hypothermia during the very cold spell, or our hospitals' catastrophic inability to cope with the winter medical emergencies that they faced?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman implied that—unhappily—there are, of course, variations in such a statistic, which depend very much on the level of an epidemic, if such there be, and, indeed, the weather. I shall not attempt to go into that in detail. Although I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, I should make the point that we had a debate on health matters only yesterday.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May I support the call of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), for a debate on the importance of stability in the finance of education institutions? During that debate, we could stress the anxieties of well over 1,000 of our grant-maintained school that they run the risk of finding that the parents' decision that the schools become grant-maintained will be overruled, resulting in up to 15 per cent. of their education funds being taken away from them and their classrooms, to be spent by bureaucrats in local education authorities.

Mr. Newton

After my hon. Friend's success in achieving a debate on Kentish matters yesterday, I had harboured the hope that he might take today off. But he has not, and has made another very good point.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Is there not a compelling case for an early debate on the operation of the law on data protection? Many of my constituents have contacted me, who are absolutely outraged at the invasion of their privacy, having received a letter from the Prime Minister. I should like the Leader of the House to comment on the letter from his colleague, the right hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), the chairman of the Conservative party, to my good friend and old colleague Harry Lees, who died 18 months ago. The letter, sent to the former Labour councillor and lifelong Labour party member, said that he could be an essential part of the Conservative election machine. Is not the law on data protection simply not working, given that people can receive such unsolicited letters from leading lights in the Conservative party?

Mr. Newton

Obviously, if the letter to a person who is deceased caused any distress, I am sure that all involved would very much regret it. I do not want to seem flippant over that matter. However, on the general thrust of what the hon. Gentleman said, it is not so long ago—although I do not think that I still have it—that I received a letter from the Labour party seeking my support in very similar terms.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

May I add my voice to the general chorus of calls for a debate on the constitution, perhaps concentrating on a still more specific subject than that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith): not the English question, but the Worcestershire question? Does my right hon. Friend understand that such a debate would enable me to explain the double constitutional whammy implied for Worcestershire in some of the plans floated for constitutional change: it would be dragged reluctantly into a regional assembly and dominated by Birmingham, while at the same time Scottish Members would be able to exercise a privilege that English Members did not have, and destroy our grant-maintained schools and fundholding practices?

Mr. Newton

The ingenuity with which my hon. Friends manage to make their points, disguised as requests for a debate, never ceases to amaze me. I congratulate my hon. Friend and will bear in mind his request as well.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Will the Leader of the House respond to a request already made, to make time available to discuss the crisis of funding in further education? Surely it cannot be acceptable that Education Ministers have written to vice-principals, colleges are at risk of bankruptcy—some look set to lose £1 million—yet hon. Members have had no chance to debate the matter.

Mr. Newton

I cannot add to what I said earlier to the hon. Member for Dewsbury. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks will be noted by those concerned.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May I return to the subject of the Police Bill [Lords]? Since last weekend, the Home Secretary has received a letter from his eminence Cardinal Basil Hume about the implications of that Bill for confession and the other pastoral counselling carried out by ministers of all denominations. Would it be possible for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to meet Church leaders before Second Reading to hear about their concerns, and for him to announce on Second Reading that the meetings that pastors have with their flock will be explicitly exempted from the police powers to bug confidential conversations?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman raised that matter last week, and I said then that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary would consider the representations. I cannot add to that at this stage. As for the meeting that the hon. Gentleman suggests, I am not sure whether he is extending an invitation or whether an invitation has gone out from those concerned. I am sure that if one has, my right hon. and learned Friend will examine the matter carefully.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate specifically about children's health, including the dental health of children in the north-west? Bolton's children now have the worst teeth in the country, with twice the national average amount of decay. Should we not debate the need to improve children's health?

Mr. Newton

We debated such matters yesterday, on a motion tabled by the hon. Gentleman's party. I am not sure whether he managed to get into the debate, but if he did not, I assume that what he has just said is an expression of frustration.