HC Deb 12 June 1997 vol 295 cc1288-95

4.2 pm

Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us 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 16 JUNE—Consideration in Committee of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at Seven o'clock.

TUESDAY 17 JUNE—Second Reading of the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 18 JUNE—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Completion of remaining stages of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.

THURSDAY 19 JUNE—For three hours, there will be a debate on the common agricultural policy, on a Government motion. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 20 JUNE—Debate on the Child Support Agency on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 23 JUNE—Second Reading of the Local Government (Contracts) Bill.

Later that week, I expect to find time for an Opposition day.

Government legislation will also be taken that week, probably the Plant Varieties Bill.

I also hope to find time for the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1997.

At this stage, I am unable to give the House the precise details of the days on which these items will be taken. There will be discussions in the usual way.

FRIDAY 27 JUNE—Debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

[Thursday 19 June—Relevant European Community Documents: 6627/97, relating to agricultural prices for 1997/98 and related measures; 9550/96, relating to a support system for producers of arable crops; 9876/96, relating to ewe and suckler cow premium schemes; 6112/97, relating to agri-monetary adjustment; 5617/97, relating to the Court of Auditors Special Report No. 1/97.]

Mr. Goodlad

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving us the business for next week and the partial business for the week after.

Now that the date of the Budget has been announced, when will the Finance Bill be published, when will the Second Reading debate be held and how long will be allowed for the Committee stage?

What progress is being made in setting up the Select Committees? Is the right hon. Lady aware that we have consistently stressed the importance of the speedy establishment of those Committees and that the House is becoming concerned at the lack of movement, particularly in respect of the departmental Select Committees and the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which will clearly have work to do, not least in respect of the allegations about the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar)? When does the right hon. Lady expect a statement to be made to the House on the circumstances surrounding the hon. Gentleman?

Will the right hon. Lady ensure that the Prime Minister comes to the House to make a statement following his discussions with the German Chancellor about the future of the Eurofighter aircraft project in view of its great importance for jobs in Britain, particularly in Lancashire?

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the current speculation about the Government's plans concerning prescription charges? Can she confirm that the Government do not intend to make pensioners pay those charges? If not, when will a statement be made to the House detailing the Government's intentions?

In the light of the change to Government policy in respect of primary-age children and the assisted places scheme, which the Prime Minister announced during questions yesterday, will the right hon. Lady please arrange for a statement to be made to the House clarifying the position and setting out exactly the Government's intentions in the matter for the information of those families involved?

Finally, in the light of the unsatisfactory reply given by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the private notice question of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), will she confirm that, either during or before next week's debate on the common agricultural policy, the Minister will update the House on the prospects for a lifting of the ban on British beef exports and banning the import of European beef?

Mrs. Taylor

I can confirm that the Finance Bill should be ready shortly after my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made his Budget statement, and we shall have discussions through the usual channels about the amount of time that is required for the Bill's various stages.

I have said on several occasions from the Dispatch Box that I, too, want to see the Select Committees established as quickly as possible. We have made some progress in terms of establishing the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons and one or two other important Committees. I attach particular importance to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and discussions are going on through the usual channels and with the minority parties on that matter.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the Labour party acted quickly with regard to the allegations against my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland involved the police in investigations into that matter. As I have said before, if the allegations come within Sir Gordon Downey's remit, obviously consideration could be given to his inquiring into the matter. But it is important that we all recognise that the matter is with the police, who may or may not take action.

The right hon. Gentleman asked again about the future of the Eurofighter, on which I made some comments last week. I repeat that the Government are fully committed to the Eurofighter programme. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence met the German Defence Minister in Bonn last week to discuss that specific project.

The German Defence Minister made it clear that he thought that Germany needed the Eurofighter, and we hope that progress can be made on the matter.

Prescription charges were dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury when he said yesterday that there were prescription anomalies. He was referring to the fact that one group of illnesses is covered by prescription exemptions whereas others are not. We are not making any commitment on that: it will be part of any departmental review.

No further statements on the assisted places scheme are planned for next week. The comments that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made yesterday were very clear. For a member of the previous Government to complain about debates on BSE is a cheek, and I have no plans to provide time for such a debate.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will my right hon. Friend examine 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.]

Sadly, the drug tsar appointed in America 16 months ago has not fulfilled the promise of his office. Since he was appointed, drug use, drug deaths and drug corruption have increased at a remarkable rate. We should consider carefully all the possible solutions to deal with the ever-increasing toll of drug abuse and drug deaths. A royal commission should investigate the use of legal and illegal drugs before we take any new policy initiatives that may end in failure, as they have in America.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend's views on this subject are well known, and I do not share them. If we appoint a drug tsar—I am willing to consider different titles for that position—we will ensure greater co-ordination in our campaign against drug use. Only this week, the Government announced that many projects up and down the country will receive drug challenge fund money. Those schemes are accepted by the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Employment, the Home Office and the police as a good way of learning how best to tackle this difficult problem. My hon. Friend does not share our views and has a different approach, so I am afraid that I cannot agree with him.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House tell us when we shall have an opportunity to debate early-day motion 103?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (General) Amendment Regulations 1997 (S.L, 1997, No. 852), dated 17th March 1997, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th March, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.]

The motion incorporates our prayer to reverse the damaging changes that the Conservative Government made to housing benefit and council tax benefit. It has been endorsed by many Labour Members in early-day motion 88 Will the right hon. Lady address the problem of time for debates on Europe? She will recall that on Monday we had a comparatively short debate on Europe instead of the usual two-day debate, with the result that many hon. Members, particularly Labour Members, were not called.

I note that the business announced for next week allows for only a truncated debate on the common agricultural policy. That is contrary to the precedent of a full-day debate. Will the right hon. Lady guarantee that we will have a full, two-day debate on a Government motion after the Amsterdam summit so that we can accommodate all the views in the House, notably the many and varied views of Conservative Members, which may not be properly represented in a one-day debate?

Now that the right hon. Lady can give us an idea of the time scale after the Budget for consideration of the Finance Bill, will she tell us when she expects the summer recess to be?

Mrs. Taylor

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's first point about the problem of housing benefits and young people, we all recognise the difficulties that have been caused by the changes made by the previous Government. Unfortunately, the savings that were to come from those changes form part of the expenditure plans that we inherited. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said yesterday, the Government are reviewing all the options. We shall have to see what can be done in this field, as in many others, and I do not want to pre-empt any decision that may be made.

Discussions took place through the usual channels about the debate on Europe next Thursday, and it was thought that three hours would be for the convenience of the House on this occasion. I am sure that hon. Members will want to participate in that debate.

I cannot guarantee the two-day debate that the hon. Gentleman wants following the Amsterdam summit, but I have said that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House about the outcome. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that if he wants an extra two days' debate, that makes it even more unlikely that I shall be able to say anything in the near future in answer to his question about the summer recess.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Could my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made about the continuing crisis in the coal mining industry, which is now privately owned? We hear stories of the evil monster, the Tory Budge, sacking workers because they refuse to work two consecutive 11-hour shifts, and for no other reason. At the same time, he is going around the old pit villages recruiting people to work two 11-hour shifts at the weekend, although some of those people work from Monday to Friday in other occupations. That is the scandal of a privatised industry—a dangerous industry, given that people are being required to work for so many hours.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot guarantee my hon. Friend a statement, but I think that the safety implications could be significant, and I shall undertake to draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

May I ask the Leader of the House again whether we can have an urgent debate on the Department for Education and Employment, on what resources it has and on whether it is using them effectively?

Yet another week has passed, and the Department has made no decision on the age of transfer of pupils in Buckinghamshire. That is causing a great deal of anxiety to parents, pupils and schools, and is already beginning to disrupt children's education. I think that we need a debate so that we can see how the Department has time to do its job. It appears to have time to appoint more political advisers; why does it not have time to make a decision on Buckinghamshire children?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Lady was a Minister. She will know that, when decisions of that kind are made, many factors must be taken into account, including all the representations that are made. [Interruption.] She may say that the decision could have been made before the election, but that does not mean that the new Ministers will automatically agree with her conclusion.

I think that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Education and Employment have been very active, in an extremely positive way. Many parents throughout the country will welcome the statements that we have heard emphasising the need to improve children's education from the earliest stage, and about extra literacy classes in the summer. I shall, of course, undertake to ensure that my right hon. and hon. Friends know of the hon. Lady's concern about the delay, but I do not think that she is right to say that they have been inactive. I think that they have been working very successfully.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will my right hon. Friend grant me one favour that I failed to gain from her distinguished and honourable predecessor, who is no longer with us? I refer to a debate on prisons. At present, we not only have a floating prison ship; we have overcrowding in prisons, there are not enough places for female prisoners and there are days when there are lock-outs because of the lack of space. There is a good deal to discuss, and the Select Committee on Home Affairs will not be established for some time. The matter is urgent, and it should be debated before the summer is out.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has put his request in a measured way, looking to the longer term rather than just to next week. I am sure that, given his ingenuity, he will find time to raise prison issues, probably on more than one occasion. Home Office questions are coming up shortly, and no doubt my hon. Friend will be able to explore other ways of raising those issues.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

The right hon. Lady will understand the disappointment of my farming constituents that she has been able to find only three hours for a debate next Thursday on the common agricultural policy. Will she undertake to find more time for a debate on agriculture before we break for the recess? She will understand the acute anxieties felt by farmers in my constituency—be they beef, dairy or arable farmers—about the current agricultural crisis. I urge her to find a full day on which we can debate this serious issue.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. and learned Gentleman will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said a few moments ago. My right hon. Friend recognises the anxiety that the crisis has caused, but he also recognises the origins of the problem and the fact that it was the previous Government who made it even more difficult for us to get the settlement that we want.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked for a debate of more than three hours next week. The time for the debate was agreed through the usual channels. If he wants extra time to debate this or any other matter, he will note that I have said that I hope to find time for an Opposition day in the week after next.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Will my right hon. Friend find time next week for an urgent debate on the decision by the new Conservative-controlled Kent county council to freeze all capital spending, including that on schools? That will mean that children in my constituency and others in Kent will be taught in quite unsatisfactory conditions and, of course, that runs counter to the Government's intention of improving quality in schools and in education generally.

Mrs. Taylor

I thank my hon. Friend, but I am afraid that I will not be able to find time next week for such a debate. Of course, it is open to him to pursue other means of raising the issue, such as in a Wednesday morning debate. I was not aware of the difficulties that he mentions in Kent county council, but I shall make sure that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Deputy Prime Minister are aware of his concerns.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Will the right hon. Lady ensure that questions that are put down for written answer on a named day are answered promptly at 3.30 pm? I draw her attention to questions that are down for written answer today. Questions 53 to 56 are pertinent to the extraordinary assault on the freedom of the press by the Lord Chancellor at a press conference on Friday. As I speak, those questions have not been answered.

Mrs. Taylor

Obviously, I was not aware that the questions had not been answered, but I shall make inquiries.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

Will the Leader of the House try to find extra time to discuss the current review of departmental spending and to debate particularly the problems of computers in recognising the year 2000? Each Department was set a target of a full audit by October of this year and most of those should now be well under way. The system should be corrected by December 1998, but the likely cost to the Government of putting this right appears to be rising, to a figure in excess of £1 billion or possibly even several billion. This is not an inter-party problem: it is a recognition that the Government and all private-sector firms face potential catastrophe unless they get their act together quickly.

Mrs. Taylor

I understand the problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It has been described as the millennium time bomb and I know that people in the public and private sectors have been looking at ways to deal with it. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in his Department have been spending a considerable amount of time on it. At the moment, it is thought that the public sector may be ahead of the private sector. I do not think that I can find time for a debate on the matter, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has heard the hon. Gentleman and that, if he wishes to raise further points, the Minister will be willing to listen.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the right hon. Lady's hopeful suggestion that we may have a debate on Northern Ireland appropriations in two weeks. Yesterday and today, there has been concern throughout the House about the Barnett formula and the possibility of changes. Would it be possible to have a statement this week on that issue, so that the House can be clear that any review will deal not merely with numbers, but, rather, with need?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that, for many years, the Barnett formula has formed the basis for many allocation decisions. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury yesterday put that in the context of the overall spending review that the Government are conducting. He was not announcing specific plans for any change.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

May I repeat my request for an urgent debate on defence, to give the Government the opportunity to clarify the confusion over the future of the Eurofighter and Trident projects?

The Prime Minister said during the general election campaign that Eurofighter was imperative for this country's defence, we have seen Ministers trotting off to Germany, and we have been told again today that Eurofighter is safe; yet, only yesterday, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) asked the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, during the statement on the spending review, whether the Government were looking at spending on Trident and Eurofighter. We were told that the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence had announced a defence review, which would take six months to complete, but that the spending review would take 12 months to complete and did not exempt Trident and Eurofighter. That confusion is serious for our defence forces and for the defence of this country.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is making heavy weather of what has been said. I told him earlier that, only this week, the Secretary of State for Defence had had discussions with his German counterpart. The German Cabinet will meet on 11 July to discuss the federal budget. Apparently, the German Defence Minister is in favour of Eurofighter. There is no confusion whatever in the Government's attitude. Defence Question Time takes place on Monday and if the hon. Gentleman wants to take the matter further, he can do so.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Can the Leader of the House make time available for a statement next week—indeed, sooner if possible—on the industrial action that is about to take place on Connex South Central services, which will cause misery tomorrow to many of my constituents and to many other commuters trying to get into London? Will she draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions early-day motion 104 so that he can reply to it in detail?

[That this House notes with concern the forthcoming industrial action amongst drivers employed by Connex South-Central; believes this will cause considerable inconvenience to members of the public, disrupt the economy and undermine the efforts being made to raise confidence in rail travel and effect a transfer from road to rail; recognises the right both of Connex to seek changes to working practices and of ASLEF to resist reductions in safety; and calls upon the two sides to renew their efforts to resolve the dispute as a matter of urgency, on ASLEF to postpone any industrial action pending these further talks taking place, and on the Government to put pressure on both sides to reach a sensible and amicable agreement]

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman may know that the Government's attitude is that this is a matter for the employer and employees, and not for the Government. Therefore, I do not anticipate a statement at this time. There is a real danger of inconvenience tomorrow, but he will have to recognise that it is a matter for those parties directly concerned.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

May I reinforce the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow)? Is the Leader of the House aware that, today, I had 17 pages of cancellations sent through by Connex South Central? Is she also aware that I have spoken to Lew Adams, general secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen—ASLEF—and to the managing director of Connex South Central, both of whom say that they are willing to sit down tomorrow and talk? However, no date has been fixed for talks, trains are being cancelled and commuters in my constituency will be greatly inconvenienced by the strike. Will she have a word with the Minister of Transport, to knock some heads together, because both sides appear willing to talk?

Mrs. Taylor

if both sides were willing to talk constructively, we would not be facing a dispute. I recognise the problems that could be experienced if the dispute goes ahead; and, from what the hon. Gentleman is saying, the people involved might be able to find a way out.