HC Deb 03 July 1997 vol 297 cc417-27 3.30 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 7 JULY—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 8 JULY—Remaining stages of the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Local Government (Contracts) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 9 JULY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition day [2nd allotted day].

There will be a debate on pensions on an Opposition motion.

THURSDAY 10 JULY—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

FRIDAY 11 JULY—Debate on the information society on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 14 JULY—Proceedings on the National Health Service (Private Finance) Bill [Lords].

It may also be helpful to hon. Members if I tell the House that the Finance Bill will be published in draft form tomorrow and will also be available from tomorrow on the Internet.

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. I also thank her for her acceptance last week of our representations about the days needed for adequate debate of the Budget statement and for the fact that she has made it clear that the Finance Bill will be available shortly in draft form.

The right hon. Lady would be the first to agree that her Government attach great importance to the Budget. She will also agree that many of its proposals are complex and will lead to a complex Finance Bill on which financial institutions and others outside the House will expect to be consulted. Indeed, as she stated in her memorandum to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, the quality of legislation can often be improved by consultation with informed opinion on both the substance and the drafting of legislative proposals?. It is because of the right hon. Lady's stated views on the importance of consultation that I press her on her plans for the Committee stage of the Finance Bill. Would she like specifically to refute the suggestion that she plans for the Committee stage of the Bill to be a disgracefully and unprecedentedly truncated process which will precisely prevent the very consultation with informed opinion to which she aspires in her memorandum? I am sure that she wishes there to be no inconsistency between what she says and what she does in the House.

On another matter of great importance to the House, will the right hon. Lady confirm, in view of the courteous invitation from the Minister for the Armed Forces to all colleagues to express their views on defence issues, that there will be adequate opportunity for hon. Members to debate defence matters in advance of the strategic defence review, bearing in mind the fact that, at this time of the year, the House would normally expect to have five days of debate on defence affairs?

Finally, in respect of a matter on which I have given the right hon. Lady notice, will she refute the suggestion in The Scotsman on Saturday that, the work of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons notwithstanding, she intends, with the co-operation of other Opposition parties, to refer debate in Committee on referendum and devolution matters to a Committee upstairs, thereby disregarding and, indeed, flouting the convention that debate on constitutional change should be on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Taylor

I am pleased to accept the thanks of the right hon. Lady in respect of the length of the Budget debate and the publication of the draft Finance Bill tomorrow. It is the first time that the Bill has been available in that way and it is a step forward.

In respect of the time available for consultation, the right hon. Lady suggests that we might like to be consistent. I remind her that, in the 1987–88 and 1983–84 Sessions, the gap between the publication of the Finance Bill and its Second Reading was exactly the same as I am proposing.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Lady shakes her head, but I can provide her with details of the exact dates if she so wishes.

In respect of the Committee stage, we shall have further discussions through the usual channels. So far, we have accommodated the Opposition's requests, and if we can reach agreement on the Committee stage, so much the better.

With regard to a debate on defence, some weeks ago I made it clear that I thought it inconceivable that we would get too far into the parliamentary year without debating defence. The right hon. Lady also asked me to be consistent in that respect. I have said that we ought to consider the setpiece debates that are sometimes not very well attended, but I accept the need for a defence debate, and we certainly have not ruled that out.

I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing the article in The Scotsman to my attention earlier today. I can confirm what I told her privately—that the story is wrong.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee be appointed next week? Does the right hon. Lady recognise that, if it is not, the Finance Bill will proceed without the usual detailed questioning of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury which normally informs such debates?

In respect of the National Health Service (Private Finance) Bill, which we are now not taking next week, does she recognise that it is a bad principle to deal with all the stages of a Bill on the same day, and that it makes for bad law making? When she makes arrangements for it to be considered, will she ensure that the stages are separated?

Mrs. Taylor

We are trying to make progress. We have been discussing the establishment of Select Committees with minority parties as well as Opposition parties, and we will be ready to act in the very near future.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the National Health Service (Private Finance) Bill started in the Lords and has undergone scrutiny there. There is a great deal of agreement among hon. Members on its principles and effects, and it would be reasonable to make a great deal of progress on a rapid time scale.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the previous Transport Select Committee did a great deal of detailed and informed work on urgent matters? Can she assure me that its successor will be set up very soon and that it will have the full co-operation of the Government in carrying out exactly the same tasks, which are urgently needed in the transport sector?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has an outstanding record of contribution to that Committee. I am sure that the new Committee will operate on a similar basis to its predecessor, which did a great deal of outstanding work.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the transport Department has been conducting protracted negotiations with United States authorities on the renewal of a UK-US air service agreement, involving also the European Commission and touching on such crucial questions as gateways into the US, cabotage of British carriers in the US, slots at Heathrow, and above all, the proposed BA-American Airlines alliance. We have so far had only a written answer on these matters from the Government—no debate, no statement on progress. May we have an early debate? If the Government refuse, at the very least may we have a proper statement and question and answer session when decisions are reached?

Mrs. Taylor

There are no plans for a debate at the present time. Should a statement be thought necessary, one will be made.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I gently press my right hon. Friend once again for a debate on the disposal of nuclear waste, which would allow us to discuss not only Nirex and its future programme but Beaufort's Dyke?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not see a prospect of an early debate. On Beaufort's Dyke, I think that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that the Government made the information that came to them available as quickly as possible and acted with all speed on the matter in order that there should not be too much alarmism surrounding the issue.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The provisions announced yesterday for the windfall tax and advance corporation tax are very complex. I do not believe—and it has not been my experience in the past—that the timetable that the right hon. Lady has announced is sufficient for the House and, indeed, the financial community to scrutinise the measures properly. Will she reconsider?

Mrs. Taylor

I am confident that the very popular Budget, with all its provisions, which was announced yesterday, can be properly scrutinised, and that we can establish an appropriate timetable for doing so.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

New Members are quickly and efficiently getting used to our procedures. Will they not therefore get a shock to find that, when we come to a recess, after being elected Members of Parliament they become Members without a Parliament for about 12 weeks? Can something be done to improve the arrangements by which they can check the Executive in that period—by, for instance, allowing parliamentary questions to be tabled and answered, and early-day motions to be tabled?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. I have commented on such issues in the past. It is appropriate that the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons should look at both the problem that he has raised and the possible solutions that he has posed.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The right hon. Lady dodged a number of questions yesterday in relation to the private notice question. Will she deny that the report in the Financial Times referred to a "senior member of the Government", who had—

Madam Speaker

Order. We had a debate on that yesterday; I allowed a private notice question. Is the hon. Gentleman asking about next week's business, because that is what business questions are for? We have touched on new Members getting into habits; we are getting into bad habits in Question Time. I now want a business question from Mr. Cash.

Mr. Cash

Will the right hon. Lady allow a debate on whether a "senior member of the Government" was disclosed in the Financial Times as having divulged Budget secrets in advance of the Budget statement yesterday?

Mrs. Taylor

No case has been made for a debate on that matter.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Given the massive increase in crime during the past 18 years of Tory rule, does my right hon. Friend know whether our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to do anything to help victims of crime, and whether he will be making a statement in the near future?

Mrs. Taylor

I know that my hon. Friend and many colleagues have made representations about the victims of crime. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is providing an extra £1 million to Victim Support, which I know will be of assistance to people who live in my hon. Friend's constituency and, indeed, in mine, which is very close by.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Did the right hon. Lady yesterday hear the unfortunate and infelicitous remarks of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about people's alleged lack of confidence in British food? Does she agree that we should have a debate to celebrate the fact that the British food industry and the British farming industry are two of our most successful and dynamic industries? The changes that are likely to be made by the new, so-called food safety agency will not help safety or the expansion and dynamism of one of our great industries.

Mrs. Taylor

I know that the hon. Gentleman regards himself as an expert on the food industry. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is the food industry."] He may well be an expert on it. I doubt whether the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made any unfortunate remarks and I am sure that all he said was well founded. The proposed food standards agency has an element of cross-party support and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider the positive contributions that such an agency could make.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will my right hon. Friend make arrangements for Sir Gordon Downey's report to be debated next week? If the Standards and Privileges Committee is to deliberate first, will there be a chance to debate the report before the House rises for the summer recess? Does my right hon. Friend recognise the sheer importance of the matter? If the report is critical of some Members when it is published at 4 o'clock today, will any sanctions will be imposed? There may be a problem because the people involved are ex-Members, but we need a statement from the Government.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to say that the matter is important and, of course, the report will be published at 4 o'clock. It will be a report on Sir Gordon Downey's findings, but it will not be a report on the conclusions that may be reached by the Committee. It would be inappropriate to have a debate on the findings before the Committee has had time to consider them.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that, at some suitable moment, we will have an opportunity to discuss Hong Kong and its progress towards democracy, following the handover this week? Will she take a few moments to pay tribute to the former Governor, Chris Patten, whose humanity and dedication to the democratic principle are a credit to himself and our nation?

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that Conservative Members will be watching carefully what they each say about the former Governor of Hong Kong, with an eye on the future of their party. He certainly conducted himself well this week and was obviously moved by the situation. A debate on Hong Kong will be appropriate on future occasions, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that he will visit Hong Kong again before too long and that he intends to keep a close eye on the situation there.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that we have had little political or public debate on NATO enlargement in advance of the Madrid summit next Tuesday. While I recognise that there is no time for a debate beforehand, may we have a statement following the summit, because the House will eventually be asked to ratify the proposals?

Mrs. Taylor

If there is need for ratification, that will bring the matter before the House. I am glad that my hon. Friend understands the pressures on time in the House and that it will not be possible to have a debate in the near future. There has been much public debate on the matter and general support for the direction in which NATO is moving.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the extremely short time between the Budget debate and the Second Reading of the Finance Bill? While it may be flattering that she chooses to quote precedent from the practice adopted by the previous Government, did she not listen to the points made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House? There is an apparent contradiction between the Leader of the House's aspirations for more lengthy and effective consideration of legislation and the over-hasty progress of the Finance Bill in all its complexity. Will she reconsider the issue in the light of her comments and aspirations?

Mrs. Taylor

If the right hon. Gentleman wants us to put our heads down and never consider change, we can do it that way and not come up with proposals for improving things in future on other parts of legislation. I believe that we should change things. That is why we have established the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons.

We could have had a Budget in June on which there had been less consultation. We would probably have had more complaints in those circumstances. The time between publication of the draft Bill tomorrow and the debate on Second Reading is no less than on the other occasions that I quoted earlier. What is more, as some Opposition Members have said, the Budget yesterday was not a full Budget but a halfway house, even though its proposals are very important for many people.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When may we have a debate on early-day motion 188?

[That this House is concerned that the Fraud Squad raided the premises provided by Corporate Services Group to the Leader of the Opposition in his leadership campaign; and calls on the Leader of the Opposition to make a statement to the House on any benefits he has received from the Corporate Services Group and to explain his reasons for retaining the £20,000 gift from Mr. David Steene, Managing Director of the notorious City Mortgage Corporation.]

It relates to the financial sums given to hon. Members for campaigns in leadership elections. It is clear from early-day motion 164 that certain of the sums given to one candidate in the campaign came from a dubious source. Back-Bench Members have to declare the sums that they receive. Is it not far more important that possible leaders of parties should have to declare which organisations have tried to buy influence with them?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some hon. Members have declared the sums that they received, but that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) continues to refuse to declare who paid into his fund? Is it not right that Parliament should know that elections for Leader of the Opposition are not funded by crooks or lubricated by sleaze?

Mrs. Taylor

My understanding was that the candidates in the recent leadership election had consulted Sir Gordon Downey about disclosure. I trust and hope that they have followed his advice. If my hon. Friend believes that that is not the case, he should take that matter up with Sir Gordon Downey.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

The right hon. Lady may recall that I have been a supporter for some time of holding Special Standing Committees as a rule before the Standing Committee stage on complex major legislation. Does she agree that Finance Bills are suitable for Special Standing Committees in view of their complexity and their great economic importance? Does she agree that it would be a great shame if we did not take the opportunity to hold such a Special Standing Committee before the Committee stage of the Finance Bill? If it really cannot be arranged on this occasion, will she at least ensure that there is the opportunity for proper consultation with outside bodies once the Finance Bill has been published in draft?

It is no use saying that there was consultation between the Government and certain outside bodies when no one knew what the Finance Bill would contain. If we are to have good legislation and proper open government, to which I know that the right hon. Lady is committed, there can be no substitute for consultation with outside bodies and the generality of taxpayers once the draft Finance Bill is available.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman supports Special Standing Committees and I know that he has given a great deal of consideration to how the issues might be dealt with. I am glad that he acknowledges that a Special Standing Committee is not appropriate or possible on this occasion. As he follows these matters closely, he will know that various Committees, including the Procedure Committee, have come up with suggestions about how the Finance Bill and other Bills might be managed and how the Finance Bill might be split in future. That is a matter which the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons is examining on a long-term basis.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

While I hope that the whole House welcomes the announcement in the Budget yesterday of much-needed support for the British film industry, I am especially interested in the Welsh film industry. Can we hope to have a statement soon on the Welsh film industry? [Interruption.]

Mrs. Taylor

I would have thought that the entire House would welcome measures to support the film industry. I am surprised that some Opposition Members clearly do not. I know that the arts in general are important in Wales and that the film industry there has had some success. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will ensure that Wales gets a fair share.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

May I ask the Leader of the House to firm up her answer to the question of when we might have a defence debate? Many of us have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State for Defence on this subject, and so far he has avoided giving any commitment. It is an important issue to many of us because, even as we talk in the Chamber, we have constituents who are literally in harm's way in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and elsewhere. Surely it is reasonable to ask for a major set-piece debate on the subject, and certainly before Christmas. The right hon. Lady has said that she has not ruled out such a debate. May I ask her firmly to rule it in?

Mrs. Taylor

I have said that I think that there is every prospect of a debate, and possibly within the time scale of which the hon. Gentleman is talking. It is, of course, always possible for the Opposition to use one of their days for such a debate.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Does my right hon. Friend have any proposals for the further modifications to the Lobbies? I think that the modifications to the Clerks' Tables in the Lobbies—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sorry. The hon. Gentleman's question might well be put to the Leader of the House when the right hon. Lady answers questions wearing her hat as Leader of the House and President of the Council. The question does not relate to next week's business. I am trying to be helpful. I understand new Members' enthusiasm.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

In the light of recent press releases from the Department of Health, may we have an early statement on the desirability for more openness in national health service trusts, and especially on the desirable suggestion of making trust boards open to the public?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to raise an important issue. The Government want to see as much transparency as possible in all areas. To force trusts to hold their meetings in public would require a change to regulations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has plans to introduce such a change when practicable. In the meantime, my right hon. Friend and, I think, all of us hope that the trusts will enter into the spirit of what we are trying to achieve and will make their meetings open to the public so that local people can ensure that health trusts are serving local needs.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House find some time shortly to discuss the Government's drug policy? I know that she leads a committee that co-ordinates Government policy on this issue. Has she seen early-day motion 112?

[That this House notes that a year after the appointment of General McCaffrey as America's Drug Czar, statistics prove that teenage drug abuse is soaring, reports of drug-related corruption have multiplied and the cities of New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have suffered startling jumps in use and overdoses; observes that the Drug Czar has been called a 'drugs nanny and a disaster'; and urges the Government not to repeat America's mistakes by creating a Drug Czar but to set up a Royal Commission to consider alternative policies.]

In the light of that motion, will the right hon. Lady reassure the House that the committee that she leads will not be suggesting that the Government do not introduce a drugs tsar?

Secondly, will the right hon. Lady confirm that there will be no reconsideration of the legalisation of drugs, whether they be hard or soft?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have paid tribute to the work of my predecessor in this respect. We intend to appoint a drugs tsar. We intend to go ahead with that policy and to ensure that the Cabinet sub-committee on drugs misuse has an important part to play in the fight against crime. I hope and trust that, as was suggested by the hon. Gentleman, rather than some Opposition Members below the Gangway, the issue can be approached on a non-party political basis.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

Given the Tory government's miserable record on low pay after running the country for 18 years, will my right hon. Friend make a statement on the progress of the low pay commission? The matter will be of particular interest to my constituents because, after 18 years of Tory Government, one in seven of them is earning less than £3.50 an hour. Will my right hon. Friend make a statement on the matter?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will know that we are making preparations for the establishment of the low pay commission. Applications for membership of the commission have been invited and advertised publicly in both the national and local press. I think that the closing date will be reached in about 10 days' time. We intend to establish a balanced commission. I think that that will put us in a strong position to meet our manifesto pledge.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the right hon. Lady make time next week, or in the very near future, for a proper debate on Northern Ireland? She will be aware that, on Monday, a debate on Northern Ireland lasted for only 90 minutes. This is a very important time in the peace process and, indeed, for security, so will she explain why the debate on the extension of direct rule was reduced from three hours, which we had last year, to 90 minutes this year? The House started the Adjournment at 5 minutes past 7, so there was lots of time.

Mrs. Taylor

There have been three debates on specific issues related to Northern Ireland in the past few weeks. The hon. Gentleman's complaint might be valid if there had been some artificial means of curtailing that debate, but that was not the case. When debates on Northern Ireland are required, those debates take place in the House, as do statements. Again, it is one of the areas where there can be some cross-party agreement on how to treat very sensitive and difficult issues.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

Before being elected to the House, I was heavily involved in a single regeneration budget bid for the Greater Deepdale area of Preston. Discussions are taking place for a cross-border bid involving Preston and South Ribble. Can my right hon. Friend say when the next round of bidding will start?

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot, of course, comment on any bid from my hon. Friend's constituency, however high the quality of that bid may be, but I anticipate that my hon. Friend the Minister of State who is responsible for this matter will shortly announce the fourth round of SRB bidding and will announce the criteria to be adopted. As I said, I cannot comment on the individual bid from my hon. Friend's area, but the procedure will be laid out shortly.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Can the right hon. Lady tell the House what lies behind the rather unseemly rush with the timetable of the Finance Bill? Could it be that she does not want us to spend too much time discussing the mammoth raid on pensions in the changes to advance corporation tax, or is it that none of the utility regulators support the principle of the utilities tax and that they think that it will harm investment in the utilities? The stifling of dissent and debate on controversial issues is becoming something of a hallmark of the way in which she conducts her responsibilities.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that it is quite important that we press ahead as quickly as possible with very positive measures to employ unemployed youngsters and many people who have been unemployed for a very long time. I also think it very important that we press ahead with some of our specific commitments in the manifesto, such as the reduction of VAT on fuel. I can understand why Opposition Members are not happy with those measures. It is because those measures are extremely popular with the country.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, last week, I requested that the House of Commons Commission should meet to address, among other things, a number of pressing industrial relations problems for which, ultimately, all Members of Parliament are responsible? When will the Commission—and the other relevant Committees—meet to deal with those matters and throw some light on something that I have learnt about since last week: the reorganisation of our Post Office, including the extinguishment of the century-old post of postmaster? That office will disappear, but, more important, so will the function. There are ramifications for all of us. These matters need to be examined by the appropriate Committees, but they are not meeting at the present time, and that is bad.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to point out that there is always a problem in the early days of a new Parliament. I was not aware of the particular problem that he mentioned with regard to the postmaster. I am not sure whether that is a matter for the House or the Post Office, but I will make inquiries.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Will the right hon. Lady make time next week to debate "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", which would not only allow the House to discuss the circumstances in which Ministers can discuss the exercise of free speech by hon. Members on behalf of their constituents, but allow us to examine the question of conflicts of interest for Ministers? In that regard, will she look at the Official Report of today's proceedings at Question Time, when the President of the Board of Trade appeared not to know whether the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe still had a continuing conflict of interest in relation to his shareholding in BP?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not intend to find time for a debate of that nature. My noble Friend the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe is in the process of complying with the rules in "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", which takes time. During that time, he has not been involved in discussions that would be relevant or relate to his particular interests.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does the right hon. Lady recall that it is now two weeks since the European Council met in Amsterdam? It would be a shame if it were forgotten. Either it was a triumph for British diplomacy, in which case we should celebrate it, or it was a missed opportunity, in which case we should deprecate it. Either way, does she agree with the Prime Minister that it must be fully debated, and will she provide an early opportunity for that?

Mrs. Taylor

There will be consequential legislation in due course, and that will be debated.