HC Deb 06 March 1997 vol 291 cc1036-45 4.23 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 10 MARCH—Opposition Day [7th allotted day] (first part). Until 7 pm, there will be a debate entitled "Public Responsibility for Social and Economic Justice" on a motion in the names of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru.

Second Reading of the Building Societies Bill.

TUESDAY 11 MARcH—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 12 MARcH—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the first report from the Scottish Affairs Committee on the removal of tariff rebate subsidy on Northern Isles Freight, followed by a debate on the first report from the Select Committee on Agriculture on the United Kingdom dairy industry and the common agricultural policy dairy regime. That will be followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

In the afternoon, there will debates on motions on the Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations, the Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations, the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations, the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order, the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations and the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations. Those are the regulations about which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) asked me last week.

Remaining stages of the National Health Service (Primary Care) Bill [Lords].

At 10 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding excess votes, the spring supplementary estimates, and the defence votes A.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill.

THURSDAY 13 MARCH—Debate on future pensions policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 14 MARCH—The House will not be sitting.

Once again, I am able to give the House only limited information about business for the following week.

MONDAY 17 MARCH—Committee and remaining stages of the Building Societies Bill.

Remaining stages of the Birds (Registration Charges) Bill.

The House will also wish to know that, on Wednesday 19 March, there will be a debate on structural funds and cohesion policy in European Standing Committee B.

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

[Wednesday 19 March:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 11382/96, Structural Funds; 12614/96, Cohesion Policy. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 36-xi (1996–97).]

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I thank the Leader of the House for the limited information that he has, once again, been able to give us. He will recall that, last week, he told the House that the Easter recess would be in the vicinity of Easter."—[Official Report, 27 February 1997; Vol. 291, c. 452.] Does that mean that there will be an Easter recess? If so, surely the sooner the dates are announced, the better. Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges can meet during any recess?

Last week, the Leader of the House promised to draw to the attention of colleagues our request for a debate, before its privatisation, on the future of the Building Research Establishment. In view of the alarming facts that have been unearthed by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) about that privatisation and the contradictions contained in answers to parliamentary questions on the matter, surely we should have such a debate before the contracts are signed.

The Leader of the House has announced that next week the House will debate amendments to the regulations that govern elections. Have the Government considered improving the arrangements in polling stations, to reduce the number of spoilt ballot papers? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the last time the general election was held on the same day as local elections, the number of spoilt papers for general election candidates rose threefold, mainly because electors voted for more than one candidate, as they are sometimes entitled to do in local elections? As we know that local elections will be held on 1 May, including those for the new unitary authorities, what steps are the Government taking to reduce the possibility of an unusually high number of spoilt ballot papers, should the general election fall on the same day?

Finally, may I thank the Leader of the House for arranging the debate on pensions, to be held on Thursday of next week, as I had intended to ask him once again whether we could have such a debate? May we hope that the Secretary of State for Social Security will confirm during that debate that the Government's proposals on pensions will mean the abolition of the basic state pension and the abolition of the state earnings-related pension scheme—SERPS—and that the Government intend to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers' money on privatising the pensions of millions of people? We welcome the debate, because it will be an opportunity to warn the young and the old alike that one cannot trust the Tories on pensions.

Mr. Newton

On the Easter recess, I thought that my statement last week was admirably clear, and I am certainly not in a position further to clarify it this afternoon. On the Standards and Privileges Committee, the hon. Lady knows the answer to her question, as we were together responsible for the regime under which it operates: it can, of course, meet during a recess.

On the question of the future of the Building Research Establishment and the associated points that the hon. Lady made, she will not be surprised to learn that I am not in a position to promise a debate, but I shall ensure that her comments are examined by my right hon. Friends in the relevant field. On the matter of spoilt ballot papers, I am not in a position to confirm whether the general election and the local elections will coincide, but I am sure that, were they to do so, my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Office who are responsible for electoral matters would consider her remarks with care.

Lastly, on pensions, to be perfectly honest I am slightly surprised that the Opposition were thinking of asking for a debate on pensions, because it is increasingly clear that they have no policy of their own on pensions. It is also clear that they do not understand our policy and therefore mis-state what that policy is.

Sir Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the correspondence between us on the topic of the report of the national commission of inquiry into the prevention of child abuse, of which I was a member? Given the importance of that issue and current public interest in it, may I ask my right hon. Friend to find a slot between now and the end of this Parliament, to give the House an opportunity to debate the report and its recommendations?

Mr. Newton

I greatly respect the interest that my hon. Friend has taken in those matters over many years. As he has referred to the letter that he wrote to me, he will recall that I have indicated to him informally that I thought that a Wednesday morning application might be the best way. I ought to admit that I have some slight reservations about whether this is an appropriate time for such a debate, while there is such a large and important inquiry into such matters going on in Wales. It may be that when that report appears—it certainly will not be in this Parliament—would be a more appropriate time for a debate.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

If I was right to think that the House might sit until Maundy Thursday and that we might come back for two days on 7 and 8 April to fit in for a 1 May election, would the Leader of the House consider whether we might use that time to the full and pick up the debates that we normally have before the end of the Session, but which we have not yet had? Those debates are: foreign affairs, especially with Hong Kong issues on people's minds; Northern Ireland, in the light of the ending of the talks yesterday; women's issues, which we had last year; and London, which we are promised every year.

Mr. Newton

All I can say is that, were the hon. Gentleman's speculation to become reality, I would consider his and other suggestions.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the disgraceful way in which two members of the Labour party tried to destroy the Jurisdiction (Conspiracy and Incitement) Bill, which was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). In view of the fact that the House has been rising early recently and given that it will doubtless continue to do so on some evenings in the future, will he consider the possibility of the Government taking over the Bill, which the Government have backed and which would have the overwhelming support of anybody in this country who wants to stop Britain becoming a haven for the most serious international criminals?

Mr. Newton

Of course, I understand my hon. and learned Friend's point and I note his suggestion; but he will be aware that it has been settled policy, not only in my time, but over the past nearly 18 years, that the Government—however strongly they approve of proposals in private Members' Bills—have hesitated, to put it mildly, before picking and choosing about providing Government time for one Bill rather than another.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House accept that, if the Government did change their mind and bring forward that Bill and give it time, they would be giving time to the Government's own Bill, which they handed to a Back Bencher to promote on a Friday? Will he bear it in mind that, if they did that, it would give some of us a chance to explain that we were not against the provisions on drugs or certain other aspects of the Bill, but against the part of the Bill that deals with freedom fighters and that would land them in gaol at the whim of the Attorney-General? If that part of the Bill were taken out, he could have a guarantee from me and other Labour Members that we would give the Bill a clear run.

The Government could not find more than 20 Members last Friday. Within hours of that wonderful Wirral by-election success for Labour, the dispirited forces on the Conservative Benches were apparent to all and, at twenty minutes to 10, this lousy, rotten Government did not even have more than 20 people to carry their legislation through.

Why do not the Government resign?

Mr. Newton

I take it that the hon. Gentleman has just delivered the speech that he would have delivered last Friday, had he not deprived himself of the opportunity to make a speech by the procedural device that was employed. I cannot say that I am happy to have done so, but I have listened—enthralled, as always—to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the results of a recent MORI poll, commissioned by Zee television, an Asian network, which show that 62 per cent. of the Asian residents of this country who were polled by MORI held the view that the current immigration and asylum regulations were too lenient?

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that we owe it to the whole nation—including the Asian community, which has been so successful here—to have a proper debate and discussion about the Opposition's proposals fundamentally to relax the immigration rules, and especially the primary purpose rule? Do we not owe it to everyone to use the House to discuss something that is of real importance and concern?

Mr. Newton

It is certainly the case that we regard the primary purpose rule as an essential safeguard to prevent abuse by people using marriage as a means of obtaining settlement in this country but, beyond that, I would want to emphasise, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did in responding to my hon. Friend on Tuesday, that our approach rests very much on pursuing calmly and dispassionately, in as non-partisan a way as possible, the firm but fair immigration policies that underpin the improvement in race relations in this country.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Would the Leader of the House like to come to the House next week with his colleagues from the Department of Transport to make a statement about the reasons for the marked lack of urgency in their approach to ferry safety? It will soon be Easter, which is usually regarded as the beginning of the holiday season, when many people will travel on ferries without being certain that safety standards are being maintained that would prevent a repetition of the appalling Zeebrugge accident. May we have some urgent action on that matter?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady, who is expert in those matters, knows that a great deal of action has taken place; as it happens, regulations to introduce a higher survivability standard for roll on/roll off passenger ferries will come into force next month.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Following the earlier question by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), may I urge my right hon. Friend to hold a debate on the workings of the new law that we sensibly introduced, to require employers to check that their employees have valid work permits or some other legal reason for working if they are not British citizens? I further urge on him that there is a very grave danger that, were that law to be repealed at the moment when the minimum wage was introduced, we could have what several of our continental partners have experienced—spiralling domestic unemployment on one hand and, on the other, an ugly growth of illegal and dangerous sweatshops, where illegal immigrants were exploited by unscrupulous employers wanting to undercut that wage rate.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend makes several additional points and comparisons with what is happening elsewhere, but I cannot sensibly seek to add to what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) a few moments ago.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Forgive me for intruding into a Front Benches' china shop and, I suspect, a legal mire, but I raised with the Leader of the House a month ago the statements on television, so far unchallenged, of Mr. Mohammed Al-Fayed who said, parading banknotes, that Members of Parliament could be hired like London taxis. Although I do not doubt the good faith of the Front-Bench negotiations and the legal difficulties, the House of Commons is in some difficulty. As we go into an election, people see that the statements from Mohammed Al-Fayed, which are deeply damaging to Parliament, are unchallenged. May we have an assurance that an attempt will be made to resolve the matter? The Standards and Privileges Committee can meet during the recess, but is unlikely to do so, for understandable reasons.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman referred to negotiations as if that was a usual channels matter between the two principal parties in the House, but it has nothing to do with that. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and I speak to each other, as we are both members of the Standards and Privileges Committee, but much of the material relevant to the hon. Gentleman's comments is currently under examination by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who will produce a report. I have no doubt that he is working as hard as he can.

On a related matter, the hon. Gentleman may not yet be aware of the fact that a substantial report by the Parliamentary Commissioner, also connected with suggestions made by Mr. Al-Fayed, in this case relating to the Home Secretary, was published one hour and 10 minutes ago. The hon. Gentleman might wish to look at it.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will my right hon. Friend initiate an early debate on the terms of reference and competencies of the local government ombudsman? That would enable the Secretary of State for the Environment to judge the strong arguments in favour of strengthening the power of redress of the ombudsman against such malpractices as the advertisement—three months in advance of the public inquiry, let alone the granting of planning permission—of a tender worth £3 million for the construction of social housing on a recreation ground on green chain land in my constituency.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will understand that all I can say is that I shall ensure that the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is drawn to what he said.

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

Is the Leader of the House aware that this Saturday, 8 March, is International Women's Day? May I remind him that it has become customary to have a debate in the House at this time of the year about matters of concern to women, and that last year that debate was held in Government time? Can the Leader of the House explain why the Government have not been willing to allocate time this year, and will he reconsider, in view of the insulting remarks of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) about women?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Lady has added to the rather long list given to me earlier by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), of subjects that we seek to debate at more or less annual intervals. I shall bear in mind the subject that the hon. Lady wants us to debate in the near future, but she will understand that there are a number of other uncertainties.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

May I back up the calls of my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for a debate on race relations in Britain, so that I can point out that the firm control of immigration over the past 18 years has contributed significantly to the vast improvement in race relations? For example, an Asian constituent of mine said to me only last week that his community has not had to put up with the violence and intimidation from skinheads over the past 18 years that was so prevalent in the 1970s, particularly when the previous Labour Government were in office.

Mr. Newton

I shall take note of my hon. Friend's suggestion, along with the similar suggestions made earlier by my two other hon. Friends.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

As today is the 10th anniversary of the entirely predictable and avoidable deaths of 194 people on the Herald of Free Enterprise, how can the Leader of the House be happy that pretty basic new safety regulations will come into force in a month, 10 years and one month after that disaster?

Is it not horrific that the ferry industry is already trying to circumvent those regulations? Four ferries should have been subject to the new safety regulations this year, but two are to be sent down to the Mediterranean, where they will not be subject to the regulations, and the regulations will not apply to the other two ferries. Is it not a disgrace that the new safety regulations are being avoided? Sixty ferries—which is 60 per cent. of the ferries using British ports—will not have new safety features installed in them for five years, until October 2002. We urgently need a debate on those matters, as ferry transport is the only form of passenger transport in which, when a disaster occurs, the systems are not changed to failsafe, but are allowed to fail in the future as they have in the past, dangerously and lethally.

Mr. Newton

Although I cannot promise a debate, I can point to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is due to answer questions on Monday. The hon. Gentleman should, perhaps, have acknowledged that a wide range of measures has been introduced over the past 10 years to contribute to the improved safety of ferries. In his question he provided part of the answer: clearly, this is a matter in which, if possible, it is best to proceed internationally, which takes a good deal of time. The UK has been at the forefront of negotiations for improved standards. The Stockholm agreement on ferry safety is a major achievement, whose requirements go significantly beyond those applicable in the rest of the world.

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)

Having heard the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Sir R. Sims), and that of the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) concerning a possible debate on women, will my right hon. Friend consider, as an alternative, a debate on children? Children are of enormous importance to everyone and the responsibility of virtually every Department. We frequently receive in our postbags complaints about the Government arising from lack of co-ordination in other areas, but the Government have a fine record on their policy on children. As an alternative to last year's debate on women, would it not be appropriate to have a full-scale Government debate on children?

Mr. Newton

I acknowledge, not least as a former Minister in that area, the importance of the subject that my hon. Friend has raised, but I am bound to say that with the list of requests for debate that I have received in the past 20 minutes, it is not just the Standards and Privileges Committee that would be sitting during any recess.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

On Wednesday, we are to debate regulations on the representation of the people. Would not that be a good opportunity to discuss the state of the electoral register in the run-up to the general election, and to see whether it is in as bad a state as it was last year and whether there are millions missing from the register? In preparation for the debate, will the Government publish the number of people who are on the electoral register?

Answers are being given in connection with Northern Ireland. In reply to a question on Scotland, I was given the wrong figures—last year's. I cannot get the figures for England and Wales until the end of March. I understand that there are five returning officers who have not yet submitted their figures. May we have provisional lists, and could those areas be contacted to find out the details?

Mr. Newton

I cannot add to what I told the hon. Gentleman last week, to which he referred. I am sure that his remarks about the five returning officers will be examined by those responsible for producing the figures as soon as possible.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

May I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on the training of our national firefighters, so that I could draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 608, tabled by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile)?

[That this House notes the internal publication of a report on Health and Safety at the Fire Service College, Moreton in Marsh, Gloucestershire; further notes that the report was in response to recent accidents at the college; is concerned that the report made observations concerning risk to those at the college; agrees with the report that 'burning people, exhausting them or otherwise putting them at risk is not high on the objectives of the training programme' at the college; is surprised that in his Answer of 20th January to the honourable Member for Montgomery, Official Report, column 430, concerning health and safety at the college, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office, the honourable Member for Bolton West, made no reference to the report or the problems the report identifies and expressed himself satisfied with the health and safety situation at the college; and calls on the Government immediately to assess the needs of the Fire Service College so that full health and safety measures are implemented.]

The hon. and learned Gentleman scurrilously put on the record and quoted from an internal report that was produced for the Fire Service College in my constituency, without giving any warning to the college or to me as the constituency Member. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a debate would allow me to bring to the attention of the House the outstanding qualities of the Fire Service College, which were recognised in an answer given to me today by the Home Secretary? The finances of the college have been radically overhauled, so it now faces a certain future and can go out into the national and international market and sell itself on the excellence of the training that it provides.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend's question gives him an opportunity to make those points about the college. I share his surprise—I think that that is the appropriate word—that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) should have tabled such a motion without consulting the constituency Member or checking the facts with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary or the college.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May we have a debate on the export of live animals for slaughter? In that respect, I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 615.

[That this House calls attention to the transportation of sheep from Dover on the MV 'Caroline' on, or about, Friday 7th March; notes that the vessel is chartered by Live Sheep Traders of Dublin and operated by Mr. Roger Mills of Framlingham, Suffolk, who himself has a conviction for keeping animals in an unfit condition; further notes that the old cull ewes will be making a sea crossing of between 9 and 12 hours, subsequently to be moved via Holland or Belgium to the killing fields of Paris where they will be ritually slaughtered for the festival of Eid; believes the journey times, conditions of transportation and method of killing to be unacceptable to public opinion and contrary to EU law; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to take immediate steps to prevent this barbarous trade from taking place.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that old cull ewes will be crammed on to MV Caroline and exported from Dover to France, where they will be taken to fields outside Paris and ritually slaughtered? Would he be interested in seeing the photographic evidence that I have of ewes giving birth while their throats are cut and they are bled over ditches? Is not that an obscene and disgusting trade? If we cannot debate the issue, will the right hon. Gentleman draw it to the attention of Ministers, to ensure that the trade does not continue?

Mr. Newton

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that I share his general view about the importance of animal welfare matters. Enforcement of the slaughter rules in Paris is clearly a matter for the French authorities, but I assure him that we are in touch with them about it.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that parents at eight out of nine secondary schools in Gravesham and at a further three schools in the borough have voted for those schools to become grant-maintained. May we have a debate next week on grant-maintained schools? I wish to express the growing concern of those parents that Labour would overrule their decision and claw back 15 per cent. of education funds from the schools, to the central bureaucracy of the local education authority.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend's best bet is probably the return to this place of the Education Bill from another place.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

The Leader of the House may be aware that Imperial Metals is to close Yorkshire Alloys Ltd., which provides more than 400 jobs in my constituency and more than 200 jobs in Smethwick. Will he note the fact that the company exports to the tune of £25 million a year, which would be a serious loss to the British economy, and is also an important contributor to defence sales in this country? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that Ministers are made aware of the situation so that, when I seek an opportunity to raise the matter again in the House, they will be able to provide some answers concerning the reaction of Government Departments—particularly that of the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Trade and Industry—to that important occurrence?

Mr. Newton

I certainly take note of such matters myself. I have hastily scanned the rather large number of ministerial colleagues on the Front Bench, who are clearly fascinated by today's business questions, and I am glad to say that a Department of Trade and Industry Minister is present to take direct delivery of that point.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

When will my right hon. Friend make time for the annual summer economic debate? Could summer come early this year, so that we may reiterate the statement of the noble Lord Barnett that the economy is doing well, and so that I, as the father of two teenagers, might welcome the fact that job opportunities for school leavers in this country are much better than those in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, where they have been decimated by the minimum wage?

Mr. Newton

I am not in a position to pre-empt or predict the speech that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will make in a few moments, but I should be surprised if my hon. Friend did not hear a little reiteration of Lord Barnett's comments.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)


Madam Speaker

Was the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber when the Leader of the House made his statement?

Mr. Winterton

I was indeed.

Madam Speaker

I am sorry; I did not see the hon. Gentleman. I shall accept his word.

Mr. Winterton

My constituency of Macclesfield has one of lowest levels of unemployment in the country under a prudent Conservative borough council. The United Kingdom has a prudent Conservative Government and what is cited by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission as the strongest economy in Europe. In support of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), could we debate the economy and taxation before the Dissolution of Parliament, so that the House can give mature consideration to those issues and compare the Government's record with what is on offer from the Opposition parties?

Mr. Newton

If I may say so, Madam Speaker, I think that such an opportunity will arise as soon as hon. Members stop asking me questions.