HC Deb 17 July 1997 vol 298 cc525-35 3.31 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

May I ask the Leader of the House to tell the House 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 21 JULY—Second Reading of the Education (Student Loans) Bill.

TUESDAY 22 JULY—Second Reading of the Social Security Bill.

WEDNESDAY 23 JULY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

In the afternoon, there will be a debate on the motion on section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act.

Proceedings on the Ministerial and Other Salaries Bill.

THURSDAY 24 JULY—Consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received to the Education (Schools) Bill.

Proceedings on the Law Officers Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 25 JULY—Debate on the White Paper on the Welsh referendum on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 28 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Finance Bill, which will be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 29 July.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 23 July there will be a debate on the preliminary draft budget for 1998 in European Standing Committee B.

As this is the first European Standing Committee meeting of this Parliament, I should like to take the opportunity to remind the House, particularly for the benefit of new Members, that all Members may attend European Standing Committees, and participate in questions to the Minister and the debates that follow.

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

[Wednesday 23 July—European Standing Committee B. Relevant European Community Document: COM(97)280, Preliminary Draft Budget. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-i (1997–98).]

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. She will be aware that the United Kingdom's contribution to the European Union budget is due to rise to more than £8 billion compared with the present level of £6.3 billion—a rise of 27 per cent. She has explained that a debate on that issue will take place in European Standing Committee B, but I should have thought that, in the light of the size of that rise and of the fact that the Government have already spent most of the reserve, it would be better for there to be a full debate on the Floor of the House. I hope, therefore, that she will rethink her plans.

The House will have noticed that the right hon. Lady announced that the debate on the White Paper on devolution for Wales is due to take place next Friday. Given that much of next week's business is uncontroversial, I wonder whether the right hon. Lady would also reconsider that plan. The devolution issue is important enough to take place earlier in the week.

Given yet another evasive performance by the Secretary of State for Wales at the Dispatch Box yesterday during Welsh questions, when he failed three times to answer questions on whether he had threatened the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) with expulsion from the Labour party, will the right hon. Lady ensure that, before the debate on the White Paper, the Secretary of State for Wales is given some basic training on answering questions? Does the right hon. Lady intend to have statements next week on the White Papers on devolution to Scotland and Wales?

It is disappointing to have to remind the right hon. Lady again that her responsibility is to the whole House. Does she agree that it is unacceptable and a discourtesy to the House for the Government, having raised questions and speculation about their pensions policy through briefing and counter-briefing the press, and having arranged for it to be vaunted as the most massive ever statement on pensions policy, then to deny the House the opportunity of hearing the answers to the questions that the Government themselves raised by announcing yet another review in a written answer?

In that connection, in the interest of open government, will the right hon. Lady explain why the Government have delayed their White Paper on open government?

Finally, will the right hon. Lady arrange for a debate on the cost of redecorating the Lord Chancellor's personal accommodation, in order to explain why that former fat cat needs, at taxpayers' expense, so lavishly refurbished a basket?

Mrs. Taylor

May I deal first with the point that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) raised in respect of next Wednesday's debate on the draft budget? I remind her that we are following the practice adopted by the previous Government in the past two years; the debate has taken place in a European Standing Committee. It has taken some work to ensure that the Committee was set up in time, so the right hon. Lady should be congratulating us, not carping.

On Friday's debate on the Welsh White Paper, I remind the right hon. Lady that Friday is a normal sitting day. Hon. Members who are interested will participate in the debate. No votes are envisaged. Friday is an appropriate day for that debate, not least because we shall publish the White Paper on our proposals for Welsh devolution on Tuesday. Had we had a debate earlier in the week, the Opposition would have complained that we were not leaving sufficient time between publication of the White Paper and the debate. The Welsh White Paper will be published on Tuesday and the Scottish White Paper will be published on Thursday. Both will be accompanied by statements in the House.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of pensions. Having listened to some of the debates during consideration of the Finance Bill in the past couple of days, I am surprised that Opposition Members are still raising the pensions issue, because they certainly made no impact whatsoever in terms of that issue.

The fact that we were going to have a review on pensions has been well known for a very long time. All that has happened today is that the details of the terms of reference have been announced. As for the time scale, hon. Members ought to realise that there will be plenty of time for consultation, because the Government intend to publish an initial framework for change in the first part of 1998 and there will then be a further period of consultation before firm proposals are developed. I think that there is plenty of time to discuss that.

On the issue of freedom of information, we have made it clear that there will be a White Paper and we want it to be comprehensive, so we are doing the extra work to make sure that that is the case.

On the issue of the Lord Chancellor's room in another place, it is, of course, for another place to decide what sums are spent on that part of this Palace. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor cannot himself direct that any work should be carried out, and it is certainly not a matter for this House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As this is my first opportunity to ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House a question regarding the future of radio reporting of the House, can she tell me whether she has seen early-day motion 246?

[That this House deplores any attempt by the British Broadcasting Corporation to alter or remove Yesterday in Parliament from its usual format or slot on Radio 4; and congratulates its producers on the past 50 years of impartial, succinct, judicious, informative and wide-ranging assessment of proceedings in both Houses.]

What representations—I hope that there will be representations from the Government—will be made to the BBC on this matter? Will there be consultation between the Government and the leaders of other political parties represented in the House? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC should be told, clearly and firmly, that what it intends to do is totally inappropriate and that we expect a different standard from a public service organization?

Mrs. Taylor

Madam Speaker, I think at you made it clear that you would be making inquiries and representations on that point.

Madam Speaker

I have already done so.

Mrs. Taylor

You tell us now that you have already done so. I, too, have been in touch with Radio 4 and I do not think that any changes are planned for the absolutely immediate future. I hope that that will allow those hon. Members who share the concern that has been expressed to make their views known to Radio 4. We all have an interest in making sure that there is sufficient serious reporting of parliamentary activities.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Does the Leader of the House remember telling us that she hoped to provide a programme looking a fortnight ahead? May I remind her that she has just tantalised us by giving us the business for Monday and Tuesday in the final week? Could she break her duck and go for the second week now, so as to give us some advance warning? Could she even tell us when she expects us to come back after taking our break? [Interruption.] I am keen to get back.

If the Leader of the House were able to go into that further business, would she agree that we need an urgent debate on our prisons, bearing in mind the report issued this morning by the chief inspector of prisons, which is highly critical of the situation in women's prisons in this country? Does she agree that such a debate would give the Home Secretary an opportunity to explain his U-turn in prison sentencing policy from before the election, when he was in favour of mandatory sentences to be imposed automatically, to the current state of play, where he is seeking for those to be discretionary and short?

Mrs. Taylor

I hope that, once we get past the early days of this Parliament, it will be possible to plan ahead on a slightly more secure basis than at present and that it will become normal practice to announce business two weeks in advance. At the moment, some of our business is still dependent on what is happening in another place and I would not like to give the House any misleading information.

However, I can confirm that I still hope and expect that the House will rise on 31 July. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is keen to return after the summer recess. I hope next week to announce not only the date of return, but the details of business for the first week back. Those are, however, not yet finalized.

Important issues are looming regarding the prison population, which greatly concern the Home Secretary. They are very serious issues on which we should try not to score party political points. We must all try to solve the real problems that we have inherited and those that have resulted from the high incidence of crime in this country.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

This Government believe in reviews. The previous Government also believed in reviews, but they were not good at conducting them. For example, their review of probate services resulted in proposals to close many services, including the one in Chesterfield, whose closure would create access problems in the area. May we have a debate about probate services so that Members of Parliament representing Derbyshire constituencies may have an opportunity to argue the case for the probate service in Chesterfield and perhaps save it in the same way that we helped to save the independent tribunal service?

Mrs. Taylor

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his previous victory. The proposals for the probate service to which he refers have been in the pipeline for some time. I cannot offer him the prospect of an early debate, but I shall bring the matter and the concerns of my hon. Friend and his constituents to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor as soon as possible.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Given the importance to the House of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and its work, will the Leader of the House make a statement some time next week about why its proceedings are conducted in secret?

Mrs. Taylor

They are held in secret because that is what the House decided. However, I do not believe that they should be described in that way because we are simply deliberating in private. If we decided to take evidence, we could do so in public.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

May I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on London government? The Conservative party has apparently done a U-turn and, less than two months after flatly rejecting the proposal, now supports Labour's policy of a directly elected mayor for London. Perhaps the debate would encourage the Opposition to go all the way in endorsing democracy for Londoners by accepting a London-wide elected authority.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right, and we welcome the Conservatives' U-turn. It is good that they have recognised that they were wrong to deny Londoners the right to their own democratic voice. It is somewhat ironic that the party that abolished the GLC 11 years ago should recognise belatedly the value of our policies. However, I am not sure that we can debate the matter next week.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

As the Government embark on the 38th review of this short Parliament, will the Leader of the House explain why such detailed reportage about the Government's proposed pension reforms appears in today's newspapers, but the Secretary of State has not seen fit to come to the House and provide any explanation of her plans?

Mrs. Taylor

I have dealt with that matter already. There has been much speculation because we have made it clear for some time that there would be a review. The details and the terms of reference of that review were announced today.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government intend to publish their White Paper on openness in government and freedom of information no later than 31 July? Consideration of the matter has been overdue for many years.

Mrs. Taylor

As I said earlier, the White Paper will be published, but not according to that time scale. It will be published later in the year.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Will the Leader of the House make time available before the recess for a debate about the electoral system to be used at the next elections to the European Parliament, given reports that the Government have decided that the elections will take place using proportional representation and party lists? A debate would enable all hon. Members to express their genuine concerns about PR and, particularly, the use of the party list system—which leads to the election of Members who have no connection with constituencies and who, because they owe their election to the party hierarchy, owe their allegiance to the interests of that hierarchy rather than to their constituents.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that there is any prospect of a debate in the near future, although, of course, the Government have a manifesto commitment to PR for European elections.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding an urgent debate on the coal industry? Is she aware of the press reports highlighting the unfairness of the subsidies to the continental coal industry—Germany and Poland—which is contrary to the agreement on the single market, and the effect of that on British miners' jobs? Is she further aware that the clean-coal exercise could be a threat to the jobs of British mineworkers, because the previous Government withdrew support for that exercise? Will my right hon. Friend allow us an early debate on the coal industry, as there has not been such a debate for the past four or five years?

Mrs. Taylor

I understand why my hon. Friend, with his background and constituency interests, is particularly worried about the situation. I cannot promise him a debate, but I will bring his representations to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the number of statutory instruments arising out of European legislation that are coming before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, and would she favour a review of the number and implementation of those statutory instruments? Does she think that that is a proper matter to be considered by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons?

Mrs. Taylor

The answer is yes on both counts.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate early-day motion 1?

[That this House celebrates with joy and hope the election of what will be a great reforming Labour Government; applauds its manifesto declaration that 'all pensioners should share fairly in the increasing prosperity of the nation'; asserts that this can be achieved for the present generation of pensioners only by restoring the link between basic pensions and average earning; urges an immediate start to the promised manifesto review of 'all aspects of the basic pension and its value, second pensions including SERPS and community care' and a renewal of the commitment to retain SERPS.]

May we also debate today's welcome announcement on pensions, so that we can congratulate the Government on abandoning the foolish proposal by the previous Government to throw pensioners to the wolves of the private pensions industry? The Labour Government propose to rebuild pensions on one of Labour's great successes, SERPS, and to introduce a form of SERPS that will be funded, independent of the national insurance scheme and run by independent managers. Is not such a scheme, with administration charges of less than 2 per cent., preferable to the private schemes, which have charges of at least 25 per cent.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend's points are well made. I cannot promise him a debate, any more than I could promise a debate to other hon. Members, but I remind him that he can make those points directly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security at Social Security Question Time on 28 July.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider her decision on a debate on pensions? We heard an announcement today not of a review but, according to the newspapers, of far-reaching proposals, one of which is described by The Times as a tacit admission that the state can no longer fund people's pensions. That is a matter of great seriousness to the entire House, and it is not acceptable that the Secretary of State should make the announcement outside, rather than here.

Is the Leader of the House further aware that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), my namesake, has apparently, according to the news agency tapes, made an announcement today on new initiatives to curb the sale of alcohol to young people? That is a matter of interest not just to Conservative Members, but to the entire House, and she should regard her position as being one of service to the entire House.

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government are making so much progress on so many issues. Were we always to make every announcement to the House, we would never do anything other than listen to statements, because we have a very proactive Government. When there is a statement of particular significance to the House, we make sure that it is made in the House.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Following the heart-warming reports in The Mirror this morning that Ryan Giggs, a constituent of mine until he had to travel north to Manchester to make his living, is very much in favour of the Government's proposals for a Welsh Assembly, will my right hon. Friend ensure that in next week's debate on the White Paper on the Government's democratic devolution proposals, the Government make it clear that they welcome support from left-wingers, right-wingers, creative midfield controllers and even the occasional striker—as Mr. Giggs is, all rolled into one?

Mrs. Taylor

I look forward to my hon. Friend's contribution to that debate.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have a statement to the House next week from the President of the Board of Trade in which she explains, once and for all, when she first knew that the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe held shares in BP and in other companies, and why—in answer to questions from, and in correspondence with, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—she said that the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe "has placed" the generality of his shareholdings in a blind trust, when it subsequently emerged that he had not, and still has not, done so?

Mrs. Taylor

We cannot find time to debate that matter next week, and I do not think that there is any need to debate it. On 3 July, during business questions, I told the House: 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'."—[Official Report, 3 July 1997; Vol. 297, c. 427.] That was an accurate statement.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

As an Essex Member who has long been an advocate of devolution—even before it was fashionable in the Labour party and elsewhere—may I ask my right hon. Friend to use her good offices to impress on the House that, although a Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament are a primary concern for our colleagues from Wales and Scotland, devolution is a United Kingdom issue? Assuming that Madam Speaker feels so inclined, all hon. Members should have an opportunity to speak in debates on devolution White Papers, on the legislation and in the Committee stages. I stress that I am raising the matter as someone who is a keen advocate of devolution—both for those nations and for other areas in the United Kingdom. We must all have a slice of the action of the debate on those very important constitutional issues.

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that many hon. Members from English constituencies will participate in those debates, not least because Conservative Members do not represent Scottish or Welsh constituencies.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), the right hon. Lady said that any matter that was of significant interest to the House would be announced in the House. Surely nothing can be of greater interest to the House than the decision to give the responsibility to set interest rates to the Bank of England, and nothing can be more important than such a serious change in electoral arrangements as using proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament. We have read in the newspapers that the latter matter has already been decided. Will she give the House categorical assurances not only that there will be a statement before that policy is likely to be enshrined in United Kingdom law but that the House will have an opportunity to debate what should be a bipartisan matter?

Mrs. Taylor

I said that the most significant statements would be made in the House. Both the specific policies mentioned by the hon. Gentleman were mentioned in the Labour party manifesto, on which the Government were elected.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May I press my right hon. Friend on the point of proportional representation? Many Labour Members, myself included, are in favour of the first-past-the-post system, and moves towards proportional representation in the European or any other elections would be a matter of some concern. Will she take our concern on board and allow a debate on the matter—perhaps during the first week of August, if we run out of time?

Mrs. Taylor

In due course, there will be debates on those issues, but the Bill has not yet been drafted. I remind my hon. Friend that all Labour Members were elected on a manifesto containing a commitment to proportional representation for European elections.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

When do the Government intend to announce their detailed proposals on the introduction of the European convention on human rights? May we have a statement next week, or certainly before we go down at the end of July?

Mrs. Taylor

We are making progress on that matter and still intend to introduce legislation. I hope that announcements will be made before too long. We are, however, not yet in a position to make a statement.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

In the light of the disappointing replies given by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food earlier, could the right hon. Lady arrange for an early debate on the changes to the over-30 months scheme, which are being so arbitrarily implemented, and, in particular, on what consultation the right hon. Gentleman had with the parties that will be affected and what assessment he made of the impact of these unwelcome changes on producers?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that there is either time or need for such a debate. My right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues are dealing with the matter as well as they can. It is a very difficult situation, not least because of what we inherited from the previous Government. My right hon. Friend dealt with the matter at Question Time, and I have nothing to add to what he said.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Perhaps the right hon. Lady will read in Hansard tomorrow the answers that she has given today, because she has set out some interesting new constitutional conventions, not least that if there is a manifesto commitment, there is no need or obligation to make a statement to the House. It used to be a constitutional convention, until 1 May, that if the Government changed their policy, they made it clear to the House either by way of written answer or, if the matter was more significant, by way of a statement.

This afternoon, we have heard a whole series of policy changes, not least that relating to pensions, which the Government have not had the courtesy to explain to the House. This is not modernisation; it is arrogance of power of the most unattractive kind.

Mrs. Taylor

Conservative Members would have been very critical if we had gone back on manifesto commitments, and so would the country as a whole. There has been no change in this Government's policy on some of the matters to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The fact that we disagree with the previous Government on a range of issues does not mean that we have to explain why.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), the Leader of the House said that she took the trouble on 3 July to tell the House that the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe was in the process of complying with the requirements affecting him as a Minister regarding shareholdings. Has he now done so?

Mrs. Taylor

If the Permanent Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary are satisfied with the arrangements that have been made, I do not think there is any need to take the matter further.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

May we have an urgent statement by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in view of the fact that, during last night's debate on clause 17 of the Finance Bill, she, no doubt unintentionally, misled the House? The effects of clause 17 on some important classes of insurance premium payers, of whom there are certainly tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, will be dramatic. It was clear that Conservative Members were very worried, but, towards the end of that debate, the Financial Secretary assured us that the answers to our questions would be found in the notes from the Inland Revenue. We have checked those notes, but there is absolutely nothing in them to clarify the issue. May we therefore please have a statement?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not know of any reason why we should have a statement. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned, there are still several stages of the Bill left—the remainder of the Committee stage, and Report—so there will be other opportunities for him to raise the matter with Treasury Ministers.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Before the House rises, will the Leader of the House make time for a statement, if not a debate, on the outcome of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' accelerated roads review? She will know that many Members from all parts of the House are very concerned on behalf of their constituents about the outcome of that review. I hope that she will ask her colleagues to make a statement, rather than issue yet another significant policy development as a press release.

Mrs. Taylor

I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman when that review will be complete, but we appreciate the need to keep the House informed.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Notwithstanding the answer that the right hon. Lady gave to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, we did have a debate early in this Parliament on the salary of one of the Law Officers in another place, and great sport it afforded, especially when contrasted with the salary available for the Minister for Women. Will the right hon. Lady reconsider and arrange a debate on the palatial accommodation of the Lord Chancellor? Perhaps we could contrast that with the treatment of our own barber who, although he has no international reputation and does not travel abroad, is an honest, decent, working fellow.

Mrs. Taylor

I think it best just to say that I have nothing to add to the answer that I gave earlier.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

In the past month, the Prime Minister has negotiated the Amsterdam treaty, the President of the Commission has introduced his Agenda 2000, laying out spending proposals for well into the next century and the Commission has produced its proposals for bringing six new members into the European Union. When are we likely to be able to debate the future structure, financing and shape of the European Union?

Mrs. Taylor

There is clearly no prospect of such a debate in the immediate future. There will have to be debates and legislation following Amsterdam, when there will be opportunities to discuss those issues.

Mr. Leigh

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Could you assist me by directing me to the passage in "Erskine May" that states that because a proposal is contained in a party document—a manifesto—it does not have to be shared with the House of Commons? You may answer that you are not responsible for what statements the Government bring to the House. As the pensions review relates to terms of reference and as we cannot question the Government on it, I wonder whether you might elucidate further and better particulars with the Government on our behalf.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is raising a point of order in relation to many questions that have already been put to the Leader of the House. Let me make my position as Speaker quite clear. I expect any Government, when there is a change of policy to be announced, to announce it in the House, preferably from the Dispatch Box, so that that policy can be questioned. That can also be done by means of a written question, which happened on a number of occasions with previous Governments. Only when there is a change of policy must the House be kept informed.

The Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day. [Interruption.] I think that that was a big raspberry to many Members.