HC Deb 19 June 1997 vol 296 cc457-66 3.30 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 23 JUNE—Second Reading of the Local Government (Contracts) Bill.

TUESDAY 24 JUNE—Proceedings on the Plant Varieties Bill.

Motion on the Solicitor General's Salary Order.

WEDNESDAY 25 JUNE—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [1st allotted day]—Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on the future of the London Underground, followed by a debate on charging for NHS services. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

THURSDAY 26 JUNE—Until about 7 pm, motion on the Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order.

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

MONDAY 30 JUNE—Motion on the Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order.

Motion on the Satellite Television Service Regulations.

I hope that, on the following Tuesday, there will be a debate on the review of international development policies, on a motion for the Adjournment. Of course, we have already announced that Wednesday 2 July will be Budget day.

Mr. Goodlad

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

When does the right hon. Lady expect the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges to be set up, since hon. Members share her concerns about allegations against colleagues? Will she also tell us whether she expects next week to be in a position to make progress with the establishment of the other Select Committees?

Can the right hon. Lady confirm that the House will have an early opportunity for a debate on the intergovernmental conference at Amsterdam, as soon it has had an opportunity to study the implications of what was negotiated? Will she tell us the likely timetable of the necessary legislation resulting from the IGC?

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), held a press conference this morning at which he announced the Government's intentions concerning controls on the use of fireworks? The issue is of concern to many people, and we would have expected a statement on it in the House; it should more properly have been made here than to the press.

Following today's publication of the National Audit Office's report, commissioned by the Chancellor, on the forecasts for public finances, can the Leader of the House confirm that the Chancellor will make a statement to the House next week? If she cannot, and as there is no indication that there will be time for a debate on that important matter next week, will she confirm that a debate will take place in the early part of the following week, and certainly before the Budget? Can she advise the House whether the previous Administration's policy documents were made available to the National Audit Office?

In view of the considerable speculation about the millennium exhibition project, and reports that, as long ago as mid-January, the Prime Minister gave Mr. Robert Ayling of British Airways an assurance that it would go ahead, might we expect a statement next week on the Government's intentions in that respect?

Mrs. Taylor

The first question was on the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges; the Government are ready with names for that Committee, and discussions are going ahead through the usual channels. I hope that we shall have all the names we need to table the motion to establish that Committee next week, and that other Select Committees will soon follow.

On the intergovernmental conference and the request for a debate, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that legislation may be required, and that, if it is, the timetable for any debate will follow what is required in that respect. We do not at this stage see the need for any other debate; I presume that the Opposition also do not, as they could have had that in their time next Wednesday.

On the statement on fireworks by my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for consumer protection, I should have thought that all hon. Members would have welcomed his attempt to improve firework safety. I do not think that it was necessary to make a statement to the House on the tightening and extending of existing regulations.

I see no reason why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor should have to make a statement on the National Audit Office report, although many of the findings may be relevant to our Budget debate. As far as I am aware, the National Audit Office had access to all the documents that it required. If the shadow Leader of the House has any information to the contrary, we shall of course consider it.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting Greenwich this afternoon, and he wants it to be possible for the millennium project to go ahead. In principle, we want the project to go ahead, but we are all well aware of the shambles that we inherited from the previous Government and of the fact that proper plans were not laid, so we have set out five tests that will have to be met. We believe that the plans should be rescued if at all possible.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I welcome tomorrow's debate on the Child Support Agency as a means for the House to have a full discussion before new legislation is drafted, perhaps in another Session of this Parliament. Could that tactic be followed with other items, such as the methodology that determines standard spending assessments? There is great interest in that in Derbyshire, as we have been seriously hit by the methods that were used in the past. If we have a full debate, it might influence what happens with next year's local government finance settlement.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has cleverly tried to marry questions on two subjects. It is right that we should debate the Child Support Agency on a motion for the Adjournment, because hon. Members are concerned about its workings, as they have been since it started. Methodology and how to learn from the problems that arose are being discussed by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons. At some stage, we hope to look at scrutiny of legislation, and its effectiveness once legislation has been passed. I hope that we can learn from tomorrow's debate, and find what mechanisms should be applied in future.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I thank the Leader of the House for providing details of business next week. When does she expect copies of the details of the outcomes of the Amsterdam treaty to appear in the Library?

Will it be possible to find time for an urgent debate on education finance, particularly in respect of schools? In considering that request, will the right hon. Lady bear in mind the enormous benefit of such a debate to the Government? There exists a considerable conundrum in the minds of many people. On the one hand, the Government have said that their first priority is education, education, education, but on the other the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have confirmed that the departmental spending targets of the previous Administration are to be adhered to and that there is to be no virement between one budget head and another.

The implication is that the increase in money available will be 1.2 per cent., when the money needed is more than 4 per cent., which means that, under the right hon. Lady's Administration, there will be real cuts in schools. Does she accept that such a debate will help to resolve the conundrum?

Mrs. Taylor

On the Amsterdam documents, I will try to make sure that there is no unnecessary delay, but obviously such documents are not always instantly available. I shall try to ensure that they are placed in the Library at the earliest possible time. On education finance, the Government have made it clear that, over time, we hope to move spending away from welfare towards education. On keeping to existing limits for the moment, the limits may be the same but the Government's priorities are different, as was shown by the Bill to abolish the assisted places scheme.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a brief debate on privatised transport next week? That could give us an opportunity to find out why Motorail has been replaced with a service whereby people travel on sleepers while their cars travel by road. One hopes that they reach the same destination at the same time, but it would be nice to know.

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to say that there is concern about a range of such issues. If there were sufficient time, we should be happy to provide it for such a debate, but I am afraid that it will not be possible next week.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that it is not necessarily the content of the statement of the Minister responsible for consumer affairs that is causing concern, but the fact that he made it outside the House? Will she give an undertaking that all statements that involve significant change, as this one appears to, are made first, as a matter of courtesy, to this House?

Mrs. Taylor

I am sympathetic to the need for important statements to be made on the Floor, but if every change to regulations, on fireworks or anything else, was made by a statement on the Floor, little business would be done.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the appropriate Minister makes a statement about the scandal of homes built by the Coal Board and sold off to fly-by-night landlords and property speculators, who are using their power to create dereliction in mining communities? They are using the law courts to stop houses being demolished by local authorities in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), and, I am sure, in many other coalfield areas.

It is high time that we had a Government statement saying what powers will be given to local authorities to ensure that landlords such as Dennis Rye in my constituency, who are creating havoc, are prevented from carrying on their dirty work.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not aware of all the details of the cases to which my hon. Friend refers, but he is obviously extremely worried, and says that there is a real problem there. I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

As the British fishing industry was sold down the river at Amsterdam, where the Government failed to do away with quota hopping, will the Leader of the House find time at an early date for a debate on the fishing industry?

Mrs. Taylor

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a statement about fishing yesterday; as he said, the difficulties he faced were basically the situation that he inherited from the previous Government. If anyone sold people down the river, it was the previous Government.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

On the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), do the Government intend to bring another housing Bill before the House to restore the powers of compulsory purchase, not at a market rate but for what houses are worth, which is nil in the areas to which my hon. Friend refers?

That would allow us to get proper control over private landlords, who have made a fortune out of the houses to which my hon. Friend refers, especially in Warsop Vale in my constituency. Many of the houses are derelict, because they have been vandalised and smashed up. The landlords will not do anything about them. The council cannot do anything about them. There is no money to do anything. Some places look like Beirut after the war, yet no one has any power or cash to restore a decent standard of living to those mining villages.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend clearly states that there is a serious problem, as did my hon Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). As I told my hon. Friend, I was not aware of all the details, and I shall ensure that Ministers are made aware of them.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

When the Prime Minister reported to the House yesterday on the outcome of the Amsterdam intergovernmental conference, he stated that certain concessions had been achieved for our fishermen, especially in relation to quota hoppers. As existing fishermen's licences state that 50 per cent. of the catch must be landed in British ports, it appears that one of the "concessions" to which he referred was not a concession but a repetition of existing practice. So that we can be absolutely sure whether the concessions are apparent or real, may we have a debate on the common fisheries policy at an early date?

Mrs. Taylor

I see no need for such a debate. The statement yesterday was clear. The problems that we inherited were significant. We now have a definitive statement from the President of the Commission on the action that we can now take to ensure that foreigner vessels maintain economic links with the United Kingdom. That is better than the previous Government ever got near to achieving.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

In Amsterdam, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was lent a bicycle, and we all saw how valuable bicycles were there. Would my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House perhaps care to consider and ask her Cabinet colleagues to consider that it might be time that we limited the nature and quality of the traffic that is allowed to use roads in our major cities, so that bicycling can become much more popular and much more effectively used as a means of transport?

Mrs. Taylor

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. We can all see a role in certain circumstances for bicycles, but there are limitations. There is not time for a debate on cycling next week.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The right hon. Lady has tabled a motion today for another meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee. Has she had any conversations with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as to whether a similar meeting might be called of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to allow us to ask questions specific to our constituencies, and to debate the recently published review by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights on fair employment practice?

Mrs. Taylor

I have had some discussions with my right hon. Friend, and she has had discussions with people in Northern Ireland. There have been a number of occasions recently on which Northern Ireland issues could be raised. In the business that I have announced today for next week and the following Monday, there are further opportunities.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May I urge the Leader of the House to consider having two debates—first, on the creation of a Grand Committee for London, for which there is much support in this place and outside, and secondly, a debate of at least two days on Europe and the Amsterdam summit, for which there is also much support on both sides of the House? If the timetable is tight, perhaps we could have the debate towards the end of July, or even in the first week of August.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

I am afraid that I cannot hold out a great deal of hope on either count. In respect of a Grand Committee for London, legislation directly affecting London will be introduced later in this Parliament, when there will be plenty of opportunity to debate some of the issues about which my hon. Friend may be concerned. We shall consider what debates it will be possible to hold at the end of July, and whether we can fulfil my hon. Friend's request for a two-day debate on Europe, but I fear that the timetable may be crowded.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Is it not extraordinary that the Leader of the House has said that there is to be no Government time next week for debating the outcome of the intergovernmental conference? Does she not recognise that that is a clear breach of the precedent set by the previous Government? When the previous Prime Minister returned from Maastricht, we had a full debate in the House within days of the conclusion of the Maastricht treaty. Is it not extraordinary that the Government are so ashamed of the Prime Minister's deal that the Leader of the House will not even agree to a two-day debate on Europe within the next month?

Mrs. Taylor

We had a full statement from the Prime Minister yesterday; we had a statement from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on quota selling, which is a more appropriate description than quota hopping. The hon. Gentleman is plainly wrong: there has not always been a debate following conferences in Europe.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

May I refer my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 94?

[That this House condemns the continued occupation of Tibet and the persistent and continuing human rights abuses perpetrated against the Tibetan people by the Chinese authorities; and calls on the Government of the People's Republic of China to enter into negotiations with the Tibetan Government-in-exile without pre-conditions to respect and preserve the cultural identity of the Tibetan people, to permit Tibetans to freely practise and express their religious beliefs, to immediately end the use of torture, beatings and arbitrary detentions and to release the eight year old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognised by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest spiritual leader.]

The early-day motion expresses concern at the continued repression and effective policy of destruction of the culture of the people of Tibet by the Chinese authorities. Allied to this is the effective kidnapping by the Chinese authorities of the 11th Panchen Lama. Given the undoubted and long-standing concerns on both sides of the House for human rights, will my right hon. Friend try to arrange a debate next week on that important issue?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, and I can understand why he wants time for a debate. We share the concern about human rights abuses in Tibet expressed in that motion, and we believe that a lasting solution to the problem in Tibet can be achieved only through negotiations between the Chinese authorities and the Tibetan people. I understand why my hon. Friend would like a debate, but I do not think that there will be time for one next week.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

While I recognise the problems faced by the Leader of the House in establishing Select Committees until events have been decided upstairs later this afternoon, may I ask her to consider urgently re-establishing the Select Committee on European Legislation, which has the authority to scrutinise all documents that come through this place, be they specifically on the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy or events that may occur as a result of the Amsterdam summit? That is an urgent matter that must be addressed by the House so that we can undertake that scrutiny.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Lady is right to say that that is an important issue, and it is one on which we want to move as quickly as possible. She is also right to say that events later this afternoon may have a bearing on it. We have been able to provide for scrutiny of some of the documents linked to the debate that we had before the Amsterdam summit. The hon. Lady is right to say that we should move on the issue as quickly as we can.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

May I thank the shadow Leader of the House for responding to the point of order last week and reducing the number of questions that he asked—from the totally unreasonable number of 21 a fortnight ago to 16 last week, to a modest and reasonable seven today?

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the subject discussed in the pensioners parliament in Blackpool yesterday, which is the subject of 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.]

The motion draws attention to the need to ensure that pensioners share in the nation's increasing prosperity. We could then draw attention to the fact that, if the promise made by the previous Government in 1979 had been kept, the current basic pension would be not £62 a week, but £87 a week. Can we debate how the present Government, when they have been in power for 18 years, will be able to tell the House that they have honoured that promise?

Mrs. Taylor

As my hon. Friend knows, a number of people share his concern about the difficulties faced by many pensioners, especially some who are on extremely low incomes and do not even claim all that they are entitled to. The National Pensioners Convention has an excellent record of championing the interests of all our older citizens. My hon. Friend will know that the Government are conducting a review of key areas of insecurity for elderly people, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will make announcements in due course.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Just over half an hour ago, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced that he had not sought a timetable for the lifting of the beef ban, nor indeed was he seeking one. May we have an urgent debate on the problems facing the beef industry?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman was present, and heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister said. He also knows of the difficulties created by the last Government, and knows why my right hon. Friend thought it would be foolhardy to adopt the simplistic approach that some Opposition Members seem to be adopting.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on how to improve the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service, and in particular how to improve co-ordination between the activities of the police and those of the CPS, without undermining the independence of the CPS, in order to make inroads into the appalling statistic that only one crime in 50 results in a conviction?

Mrs. Taylor

Perhaps I should remind my hon. Friend that Home Office questions will be tabled on Monday. He may be able to make some progress then. Although I sympathise with his concern about the problem that he has raised—many of us have dealt with constituency cases in which it has arisen—I am afraid that I cannot hold out any hope of a debate about it next week.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

Local education authorities have been asked by circular to submit their proposals for the organisation of nursery education in their areas by 1 July. Given that those proposals would come into effect on 1 September, may I ask when we are likely to be able to debate the Government's proposals for nursery education?

Mrs. Taylor

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the deadlines to which he refers are for the interim plans. There is a fallback scheme for authorities that will not be able to have the plans in place by September. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to ask more about this subject, he will be able to do so next Thursday at Education and Employment questions.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

May I warmly welcome the proposed debate on international development, which will provide a genuine opportunity for us to debate international development issues? It will have a huge impact on the understanding of international development issues in this country, and it could also have a huge impact on the lives and conditions of millions of people around the globe.

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that my hon. Friend is pleased that we are to have that debate. It is part of the extensive consultative process that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is conducting, which will lead to the production of a White Paper on the subject in the autumn. My right hon. Friend feels that it would be extremely helpful to her if she could take hon. Members' views into account.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I welcome the opportunity for us to debate London Underground on an Opposition motion next Wednesday, which I hope will reveal what an incredible increase in investment has taken place since the 1970s. I also welcome the Government's decision to issue a consultation paper shortly, before establishing a Greater London authority or an elected mayor, if that is the will of Londoners.

Will the right hon. Lady confer with the appropriate Ministers to ensure that the Government's position on the management of London Underground is made plain at the beginning of Wednesday's debate? Will she ask, for example, whether they intend the new Greater London authority or the elected mayor to oversee London Transport and London Underground, and whether they have it in mind to privatise London Underground?

Mrs. Taylor

The Minister who opens that debate will make a statement about his position. The hon. Gentleman's point could be made on Wednesday.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

In respect of Wednesday's debate on London Underground, will my right hon. Friend convey to the Minister with responsibility for transport in London the hope that she will be able to come to the Dispatch Box and join me and others in accusing Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), of supporting and acquiescing in a situation in which the Association of Train Operating Companies intends to clobber 430,000 travellers in London and the south-east of England who use network cards?

Those travellers will have to endure a massive hike in the price of those cards, thus substantially disadvantaging them and diminishing London Underground revenue. It is a scandal, and on Wednesday we will have an opportunity to accuse the guilty men and women who have brought this about.

Mrs. Taylor

I can confirm that the Government are pleased to have a debate on London Underground. My hon. Friend knows the problems that have built up over the past decade or so, and the debate will provide an opportunity to explain our inheritance on taking office.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Will the right hon. Lady request the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to make a statement next week announcing a decision on the issue of the age of transfer between schools in Buckinghamshire? She will know that this matter has been raised before by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), and will understand that schools that are due to admit extra classes need time to prepare and to have classrooms built. A decision is urgently needed, and I should be grateful if the Leader of the House would report that to her right hon. Friend.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman will know that his hon. Friend has raised this with me on a couple of occasions. I have inquired about it. The proposals are far more complex than was previously suggested, and the Department is not fully in a position to respond to them. However, the local education authority recently wrote to the Department stating that it needs a decision by the end of July. I think that that might be possible.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

A statement by the Prime Minister in the absence of Amsterdam treaty texts is no substitute for proper scrutiny and cross-examination on that issue. Would the right hon. Lady clarify an earlier remark? Does she agree that no self-respecting Leader of the House could contemplate remaining in a Government who handed over the powers of the House on the royal prerogative, and that therefore a Bill must go through both Houses and receive Royal Assent before the Amsterdam treaty is ratified? Will she make that absolutely clear?

Mrs. Taylor

I spoke about legislation on the matter in reply to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who speaks for the Liberal Democrat party. The Prime Minister made a very full statement, and there was a great deal of cross-examination on it.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

In view of some answers by the right hon. Lady and her right hon. Friends about the previous Government, could she make a statement next week about when we might expect a timetable for the moment at which the Government will, for the first time, begin to take responsibility for their own actions?

Mrs. Taylor

We are certainly not taking responsibility for the actions and problems of the previous Government.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Would the right hon. Lady consider a debate next week or at an early date on the public policy implications of the dumping of food and meat products? Those meat products are not contaminated, but have apparently been on sale. That would give the House an opportunity to examine the concerns of my constituents, who found dumped on one site food which seems in every sense to be fit for public consumption. Perhaps the hon. Lady could find time for a debate on that, because it would be of interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House. [Interruption.]

Mrs. Taylor

There will be a debate on agriculture this very afternoon. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has heard the hon. Gentleman, is right to point out to me that the hon. Gentleman is complaining about the policy that was adopted by his own Government some time ago.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

It has been widely reported that the Israeli Government are thinking of making it a criminal offence for anyone even to own a New Testament. Given the fact that that would be a scandalous violation of human rights, would it be possible to have a statement on whether that is the case, and, if it is, what the Government propose to do to bring influence to bear on the Israeli Government?

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot answer for the Israeli Government, and I do not think that there would be much useful purpose in having such a debate in the House.