HC Deb 30 January 1997 vol 289 cc533-41 5.12 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 3 FEBRUARY—Motions on the English Revenue Support Grant Reports. Details will be given in the Official Report.

TUESDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Bill.

Motions on the Welsh Revenue Support Grant Reports. Details will be given in the Official Report.

WEDNESDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Until 2 pm, debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [4th allotted day].

Until about 7 pm, a debate on health. Followed by a debate on investing in early years, primary and secondary education. Both debates will arise on motions in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

THURSDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Debate on the Royal Air Force on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 7 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 10 FEBRUARY—Until about 7 pm, Second Reading of the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill [Lords].

Second Reading of the Welsh Development Agency Bill.

[Monday 3 February—Relevant Reports: Local Government Finance Report (England) 1997–98; Special Grant Report (No. 23); Limitation of Council Tax and Precepts (Relevant Notional Amounts) Report (England) 1997–98.

Wednesday 5 February—Relevant Reports: Local Government Finance Report (Wales) 1997–98; Special Grant Report (Wales) 1997; Limitation of Council Tax (Relevant Notional Amounts) Report (Wales) 1997–98.

Wednesday 12 February: European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Document: 5217/97, Commission Report on Raw Tobacco Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 36-xi (1996–97).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: 5147/96. Takeover Bids. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: HC 51-xxix (1995–96) and HC 51-xiv (1995–96).] Madam Deputy Speaker, I regret that, once again, I am unable to go much beyond the business for the first week—but at least it makes the business statement shorter and snappier.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

In view of Madam Speaker's statement on Tuesday—which was widely welcomed on both sides of the House—about Parliament being brought into disrepute by sleaze allegations involving a small number of hon. Members, will the Lord President, in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, confirm to the House that that Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards are working flat out to try to conclude all outstanding matters as soon as possible? I am sure that such confirmation would not constitute a breach of the confidentiality of the Committee.

The House will have noted that there is to be a debate next week on the Royal Air Force. While I am sure that no one objects to it, will the Leader of the House ensure that Ministers who speak in the debate are able to explain in detail the possible consequences for the RAF and other parts of the defence budget of the Government's decision to spend £60 million of taxpayers' money on the new royal yacht?

Will the Leader of the House comment on the point of order that was raised yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) regarding the answering of written parliamentary questions? The Leader of the House may know that that parliamentary question has now been answered, but hon. Members should not have to make points of order in the House to elicit answers from Ministers. In view of my experience, can he say whether the normal convention of Ministers always meeting hon. Members to discuss local matters remains operational, following two refusals by Education Ministers to meet a delegation from Mirfield in my constituency?

Can time be found in the near future for a debate on an issue that the Leader of the House did not cover in his statement: the consequences of bus deregulation? I draw his attention to a report entitled "Making Connections" which was published yesterday and which the Yorkshire Evening Post summarised as saying: bus services will never improve while profits are put ahead of customers As the Secretary of State for the Environment co-chaired the body that wrote the report, surely the House should debate the matter.

Finally, in view of his answers in recent weeks, has the Leader of the House considered making space in our Question Time rota for questions to the member of the Government who is usually known as the chairman of the Conservative party? If the Leader of the House cannot provide precise information today about the Wirral, South by-election, can the chairman of the Conservative party come to the Dispatch Box?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I, like other hon. Members, welcomed the measured and balanced way in which Madam Speaker commented on Monday on behalf of the House on an issue about which we all feel strongly. Understandably, the hon. Lady asked me, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges—she is a distinguished member of that body—to confirm that the Committee is making every effort to conclude consideration of the various matters before us. I certainly confirm that—with the wholehearted support of all Committee members. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is also playing an active role. Many of the matters are complex and extremely important and they must be considered properly, but we shall proceed with all possible speed.

I cannot predict the contents of the speech of the Minister who will speak in the Royal Air Force debate, as I have not discussed it with him. However, I shall draw to his attention the hon. Lady's point about what she would like to be in it.

The hon. Lady referred to the point of order raised yesterday by the hon. Member for Perry Bar, who I see sitting, diligently, beside her. The hon. Gentleman knows that I took action as soon as he raised his point of order to ensure that, by the end of the day, his question had been answered. Indeed, he has received a letter of apology from my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary. The implication of that is clear. I accept, of course, that such errors should not occur and that we should make every effort to avoid them. I think that it is clear from my right hon. Friend's letter to the hon. Gentleman that he, too, accepts that. To put it simply and straightforwardly, it was an error. Every effort will be made to prevent such an error occurring again.

In the end, individual Ministers must make judgments in particular circumstances on whether to meet delegations. I understand why the hon. Lady has raised the matter. I am not in a position to comment in detail, because I was hitherto unaware of the facts that she stated. I shall ensure that her concern is brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

I have not yet had a chance to study the report on bus deregulation. I have, however, seen some of the press reports. The Government's position is that we welcome the independent report. We shall be studying the recommendations carefully.

I thought that the hon. Lady gave a rather unbalanced account of the bus industry, but I shall not go on about that at length. There is no doubt, however—it is certainly observable in the areas with which I am concerned—that deregulation and privatisation have brought a great deal of innovation, including new types of bus, which in many instances have provided greater flexibility. Perhaps the hon. Lady should have mentioned that investment by the industry in new buses has increased in each of the past four years.

Finally, I shall take up the hon. Lady's rather ingenious point about the Wirral, South by-election. I am not in a position to add to what I said last week, which I accept was not very much. I have no plans for making changes in the questions rota for the remainder of the Parliament.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

During next week, will my right hon. Friend recall the statement made by our right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by those on the Opposition Front Bench, about the need to work for simplification of tax law? Will he consider that the Procedure Committee has now reported on a procedure that should, perhaps, be used to bring about simplification? Will my right hon. Friend consult the Opposition spokesman to ascertain whether a debate can be held—and perhaps action taken—fairly soon to ensure that that procedure is in place so that the work on simplification can proceed immediately in a new Parliament?

Mr. Newton

I think that I might reveal that my right hon. Friend had already marked my card on that matter. He did so less formally last night. In my usual way, I offered a cautious but sympathetic reply. I shall offer again this afternoon, more formally, a cautious but sympathetic reply.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

First, may I acknowledge the Opposition day on Wednesday, which the Leader of the House has arranged, to which we look forward?

Before we get into the general election campaign, will it be possible to have a debate on the independence of the Office for National Statistics, which is regularly accused of being led by the Government and doing the Government's bidding, but probably no more so than in the article today that suggests that, yesterday, it had prepared for the Department of Health, at the Department's request, statistics about health service spending which showed that official spending on the health service had decreased by £1 billion in the past three years? As the office was required to produce the information for "Social Trends", to be published today, and it was spotted yesterday, a new document was produced which showed that NHS spending had increased in the past three years.

There is decreasing credibility in an office of government that is open to manipulation by the governing party of the day. Whichever party is in power, it is important that offices of information and statistics are independent of any political party and able to provide independent facts, both for politicians and for the public.

Mr. Newton

I do not accept that there has been any manipulation. Independent or otherwise, the office is as capable of making mistakes as any other. This morning, the author of "Social Trends" said: The original chart was incorrect … we found we had been using the wrong figures".

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is my right hon. Friend yet in a position to say anything about a debate on the integrity of the United Kingdom? May I draw his attention to early-day motion 464, and express the hope that the Government will give a speedy passage to the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill, which would protect the rights of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, and which has completed all its stages in another place?

[That this House welcomes the passage of the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill through the House of Lords; and urges Her Majesty's Government to ensure the speedy completion of its remaining stages so that approximately 5000 ethnic minority non-Chinese living in Hong Kong can apply for British citizenship and the right of abode in the United Kingdom as a recognition of their contribution to the life of Hong Kong and their loyalty to the Crown, and in order to give them the same degree of security as those who have either full British citizenship or Chinese nationality.]

Mr. Newton

I am not in a position to add to the generally sympathetic reply that I gave my hon. Friend last week. As I have already said, at present I am not able to go beyond Monday 10 February in giving an indication of business. I continue, however, to bear the wish to have such a debate very much in mind.

I shall consider what my hon. Friend has said about the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill. I should make it clear that the position of ethnic minorities is already adequately safeguarded, in our view, by the guarantee that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave in March 1996.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

To take up the first issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), we do not doubt that "every effort" is being made, "at all possible speed" to draw the matter to a conclusion. We know, however, that battalions of lawyers are involved. It is a Jarndyce v. Jarndyce situation.

I am one of the few who was in this place at the time of Profumo, when Iain Macleod was the Leader of the House. Iain Macleod, in his position, summoned colleagues to ask them some very direct questions. Once present colleagues have answered the very direct questions posed by the programme and the book "Sleaze"—it was written by David Leigh and Ed Vulliamy—two things can happen. Either they admit that what is said is true, in which case certain consequences follow, or they do not. If they do not, they must be asked to go to lawyers.

The question then arises about payment for lawyers. That is something that the House had better consider. There is no hope under the present system of getting—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I invite the hon. Member and all others to put their points in question form.

Mr. Newton

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's strength of feeling. I must make the point, however, that it is not much more than a year since the House, after the work of a Select Committee, which I chaired, had an extensive debate and put in place the revised machinery for investigating complaints about hon. Members. The important independent ingredient—as many people thought—was injected by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. In the first instance, it is for the commissioner to investigate complaints and then to report to the Select Committee, which can take evidence if it wishes to do so. It would be wrong to seek to interfere with those processes in the middle of an investigation. If we sought to revise those processes substantially, that would lead only to further delay.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May I ask my right hon. Friend to arrange an early debate on education? Has he read the report in tonight's Evening Standard, in which it is stated that 43 per cent. of parents in Islington have followed the lead of the pied piper of Islington and opted to have their children educated outside the local comprehensive schools? Does not that demonstrate the poor standards in Islington, the merits of choice as introduced by the Government and the hypocrisy of those who voted against the expansion of grant-maintained schools earlier this week?

Mr. Newton

Happily, those on the Liberal Benches have arranged for just such a debate next week. I look forward, subject to his catching your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to my hon. Friend's vigorous contribution.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 457, which is headed "Wrexham Central Station and Railtrack"?

[That this House deplores the attempt by Railtrack to close Wrexham Central Station in a bid to increase profits from the development of surrounding land; notes the findings of the RUCC for Wales following a recent public inquiry that the closure of the station and its replacement by one some 400 yards further away from Wrexham town centre would cause hardship to the town and to rail users and should not be allowed to go ahead; further notes that Railtrack has ignored these recommendations and is seeking to persuade the Rail Regulator not to accept the RUCC findings; and calls on Railtrack to abandon its closure proposals, produce plans for development keeping Wrexham Central Station roughly in its present central position and to start behaving in a manner suitable to that of a rail company and not a property company.]

The motion was tabled today and has already succeeded in attracting 113 signatures. If the right hon. Gentleman reads the motion, he will find that Railtrack is seeking to make development profits for its shareholders at the expense of the travelling public. The matter is serious, because we need to preserve our railway system. Will the right hon. Gentleman be able to find some time before the Session ends for a debate on the important matter to which the motion refers?

Mr. Newton

I rather doubt that I shall be able to find time for such a debate, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is due to answer questions on Monday 10 February. Meanwhile, the hon. Gentleman will know that procedures are laid down in the Railways Act 1993 that cover matters such as the one that he has raised. Anyone who is aggrieved by a decision made by the Rail Regulator has a right to refer that decision to the Secretary of State for Transport, who is thus in a quasi-judicial position and would be unable now to comment on the merits or otherwise of such a case.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to have a debate next week on extradition? Is he aware of a tragic case earlier this week? The Devon and Cornwall police had arranged for a murder suspect to be under surveillance in Australia, but the suspect committed suicide. Is he also aware of the numerous examples of the failure of other European countries to extradite terrorist suspects when there is considerable evidence against them? Is it not high time that we exposed the lack of co-operation between European Union countries on this key issue, which is of enormous importance to all our citizens?

Mr. Newton

I am unable to comment on the particular case to which my hon. Friend referred. I shall be happy to draw his concerns and the points that he made to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

May we have a debate on the use made by Government Departments of postcode areas to collect information and to decide on the distribution of awards and grants? Post-code areas are for the administrative convenience of the Post Office, but their extensive use by Government Departments creates anomalies. For instance, the S12 and S18 areas in my constituency have not been triggered for cold weather payments, but the neighbouring S31, and the S42 and S44, which are further away, were triggered before Christmas because of the weather conditions. Different areas are linked to different stations. Some hold the peculiar belief that areas with a low number, such as S12 and S18, are part of South Yorkshire and are not in Derbyshire. That confusion is in the minds of Government Departments and not in the Post Office's mind.

Mr. Newton

It is five years since I was responsible for the detailed administration of the cold weather payments scheme and, given the hon. Gentleman's question, I am relieved about that. I shall ensure that those of my right hon. Friends who are currently responsible for the scheme have their attention draw to the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for perhaps a small debate in the near future on the need for objective, continuous and reliable data on economic and social issues in order to develop sound policy? That would give the House an opportunity to make the case for the continuation rather than the scrapping of the general household survey.

Mr. Newton

That question came up last week. I shall not seek to add to the comments that I made at that time. I note my hon. Friend's question as, I am sure, will my right hon. Friend who is responsible for these matters.

Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

Notwithstanding the debate on education that is due to take place next week, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment—the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth)—to make a statement in the House to explain the extraordinary events that took place earlier today? He was unceremoniously ordered off the premises of one of the country's leading grammar schools, Wirral grammar school for girls, when his by-election stunt went disastrously wrong. Given that that Minister is responsible for security and discipline in our schools, he has shown himself to be manifestly unfit to represent the Government.

Mr. Newton

I see no reason to accept the hon. Lady's somewhat tendentious account. Although I am aware that there seems to have been some confusion on the site this morning, I have not seen a detailed report of what occurred, and I do not propose to comment further without more information.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Would it be appropriate to have a debate on whether the United Kingdom should adopt American practice and require party political leaders to disclose their medical records? We saw today the Leader of the Opposition collapse in a fit at the end of his question. It was worrying to hear him shouting into the air the words, "Weak, weak, weak, weak," as he collapsed. That is surely an indication that the Leader of the Opposition's mental state should be examined at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

At least he has more hair than the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Newton

I think that it is by now observable that I do my best to maintain a relatively non-partisan approach as Leader of the House. My wisest course, therefore, is to acknowledge my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on the crisis in further education? The Leader of the House will recall that, this time last week, I told him about the 37 redundancies at Nelson and Colne college. It is now perfectly clear from the annual report of the Further Education Funding Council that the crisis is systemic, and that more than 200 further education colleges are moving into deficit. This is an important issue, and the Secretary of State should come to the House to explain herself.

When I raised this matter last Thursday, the Leader of the House invited me to raise the matter with the Secretary of State during Education questions yesterday. I got to my feet 14 times, but tragically I did not catch Madam Speaker's eye. People in my constituency want to know what the Secretary of State will do about this problem.

Mr. Newton

It is probably unwise of me to do so, but I suggest that this is a matter for the Chair and not for me. In view of what I have heard since I came into the Chamber, the hon. Gentleman may improve his chances by reducing the length of his questions. I cannot add to the steer that I gave him last week. However, I express my sympathy to him for the fact that he was not called yesterday.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

As it will be some time before we discuss the Police Bill in this House, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to make a statement next week to allay the growing fears of Roman Catholic priests, and priests, ministers and pastors of other denominations, who are concerned about the implications of the police's bugging powers under the Bill for the seal of confession or the traditional pastoral counselling given by ministers of religion to their flocks? There is a fear that, unless the Bill contains an explicit exemption to protect the seal of confession and counselling by ministers of religion, there will be a great temptation for police who are trying to get a prosecution to bug those confidential discussions. That confidentiality has been honoured by the state since time immemorial.

Mr. Newton

I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed by the people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers and, indeed, by some others. Equally, he will be clear that the concerns expressed in the other place are being carefully considered by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, but I cannot predict what conclusions he will reach.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

Will the Leader of the House comment on two Bills that are making progress in the other place; the Protection from Harassment Bill and the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, which are important to hon. Members and to the country? What is happening with those Bills? Is it true that the delay in the House of Lords is due to the actions of the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman's latter point is interesting: it had not previously been drawn to my attention. As the Liberal Democrats support those Bills, that would be strange and require a bit of explaining. The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is normally thought inappropriate for Ministers in this place to comment on the progress of business in the other place.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

When will the writ for the Wirral, South by-election be moved? It is odd that we are told in the press that it will be this day or that day. Is it not important to take this matter into account when Ministers, one of whom is responsible for discipline in education, go up to Wirral, invade a girls school playground, act like intruders and have to be unceremoniously bundled out by the headmaster? Is it not time that the by-election was put on a proper footing, so that it can be conducted with due decorum?

Mr. Newton

That was a somewhat curious mix of questions and comment. I have already made such comment as I am able to at this stage in response to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy), and I do not think that I will go beyond that in response to the hon. Gentleman's ingenuity.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate the need to reduce the salaries of Education Ministers? It is not only in Dewsbury that Ministers appear to be demob-happy. In Newport, the local council has sought an interview with the appropriate Minister in the Welsh Office to discuss a £3 million shortfall in the education budget, which is entirely the Government's fault, but the Minister has refused to speak to the council. That is extraordinary behaviour. I assume that Ministers have cleared their desks; if they have, and are not doing their jobs, their salaries should be cut—or they should be told to carry on with their jobs.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to do other than repeat more or less what I said to the hon. Member for Dewsbury but, in the same spirit, I shall ensure that the attention of Welsh Office Ministers is drawn to their concern.

Mr. Tony Banks

May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 447?

[That this House is concerned at the development of surrogate childbirth; believes that, whilst it is acceptable for surrogacy to be available in cases where natural conception and childbirth is not possible, it is unacceptable for surrogacy to be extended to commercial transactions or for the sake of personal convenience; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to allow a full debate on the moral and ethical implications of surrogacy.]

Although I am personally in favour of surrogacy in respect of couples with physical problems, moral and ethical considerations clearly need to be taken into account, especially in cases in which it may be economically convenient for one partner or the other to "rent a womb". There are considerable causes for disquiet here. As the matter is being discussed outside the House, surely we should debate it in the House.

Mr. Newton

These are matters of great debate and concern among a wide range of people. Such issues are normally dealt with on a free vote in the House. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health looks carefully at what the hon. Gentleman has said.