HC Deb 13 March 1997 vol 292 cc499-509 3.31 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

May I ask the Leader of the House for details of future business?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

The business for next week will be as follows:

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

Remaining stages of the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill [Lords].

Proceedings on the following Bills, which are consolidation measures: the Architects Bill [Lords], the Lieutenancies Bill [Lords], the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Bill [Lords], and the Justices of the Peace Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Church of England Pensions Measure.

TUESDAY 18 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Social Security (Recovery of Benefits) Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Birds (Registration Charges) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 19 MARCH—Until 2 pm, there will debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motion relating to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee.

Motion on the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Act 1996 (Cessation of Section 3) Order.

Motion on the Northern Ireland (Emergency and Prevention of Terrorism Provisions) (Continuance) Order.

THURSDAY 20 MARCH—Debate on jobs and inward investment on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 21 MARCH—The House will not be sitting.

MONDAY 24 MARCH—Opposition Day [8th Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

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.

In view of the interest in the House, I should say straightforwardly, albeit with regret, that I am not yet in a position to make a definitive statement about recess dates.

[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. Taylor

I thank the Leader of the House for the limited information that he has been able to give us. Before I come to the business that has been announced for next week, will the Leader of the House tell us what is happening about the privatisation of the Building Research Establishment? He has been asked for a statement or a debate on that for several weeks. Today, there is further evidence that all bidders were not operating on a level playing field.

This appears to be yet another case of Ministers misleading Parliament. As time is running out for this Session of Parliament, what guarantees can we have that the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment will explain the apparent contradiction between his parliamentary answers and reality, or will that Minister behave like his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence on Gulf war syndrome and at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on bovine spongiform excephalopathy and abattoir safety? Do Ministers really believe that waiting for the election will provide them with an escape route to avoid answering to the House on those important matters?

On future business, the House will have noted that the Leader of the House was, in his words, not able to give "a definitive statement" about dates for the Easter recess. We can only speculate as to why that might be. The Leader of the House has announced that Monday 24 March will be an Opposition day. Will he guarantee that that day's debate on an Opposition motion will take place, or does he anticipate it being overtaken by other events? Will he confirm that, in 1992, the then Leader of the House announced on Thursday 5 March the business for the following 10 days, only to return shortly afterwards to cancel most of it because the Prime Minister had been to the palace?

I know that the Leader of the House would not wish to mislead hon. Members with regard either to the business statement or to the recess date. He is an honourable man. Is there any other information that he would wish to share with us?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful for the final remarks of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), which I imagine were intended to be complimentary and which I shall certainly accept as such. I am not, however, in a position to join her in the speculation in which she invited me to engage.

I should make it clear that I do not accept the allegations of the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) about the Building Research Establishment. In my view, my hon. Friend the Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency has dealt in a factual manner with his questions on matters of fact. Moreover, I do not accept what the hon. Lady said about the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), who came to the House and dealt very effectively with the points on which the House could expect information.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

May I echo the compliments of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) to my right hon. Friend on the way in which he has acted as Leader of the House? In view of the high excitement of the fare that he has placed before us for next week, will he find time for a crucial debate on an affirmative motion on how the House has dealt with, and should in future deal with, constitutional matters?

Mr. Newton

It is certainly an attractive thought—[Interruption.] I mean that a debate, not constitutional change, is an attractive prospect—but I cannot promise a further opportunity for debate beyond the opportunity that we had a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Will the Leader of the House acknowledge that there was much consternation north of the border about the Government's decision to allocate the contract for the Ministry of Defence auxiliary fleet vessel to VSEL and not to Kvaerner? Will he find time at an early stage for a discussion about the working assumptions that the Ministry of Defence has in mind when it procures surface vessels for the Royal Navy?

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge in passing that the Easter recess has always traditionally been the 10 days immediately after the Easter weekend? What could possibly happen in the next 10 days to interfere with that perfectly reasonable assumption?

Mr. Newton

It looks to me as though I am being invited to engage once again in the speculation on which I resisted the blandishments of the hon. Member for Dewsbury. I find myself even more ready to resist the hon. Gentleman's blandishments. On his first point, I hope that he will accept that the Ministry of Defence carefully evaluated bids against its normal technical and value-for-money criteria, in accordance with well-established procedures. As I understand it, he was questioning whether those procedures should not be looked at. I shall of course bring that to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May we have a statement next week on the possible contamination of water by Cryptosporidium, especially in the Three Valleys water company area, and the failure of that company to notify people in Northolt, Greenford and other parts of my constituency that they should be boiling water? My constituents have undergone the whole crisis without receiving proper notification from the water company. That should be discussed in the House, with a view to bringing the water company to task and addressing my constituents' legitimate concerns, worries and fears.

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise a debate, but I can certainly promise to draw my hon. Friend's concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

May we have an urgent debate on the crisis in higher education in Wales? Is the Leader of the House aware that, this morning, all the heads of higher education institutions in Wales met Members from both Houses to complain about the lack of parity in funding between England, Scotland and Wales? Is he aware that spending on students in England is £200 a head higher than in Wales, and that in Scotland it is even higher? Is he aware that there is a real crisis? Is it not yet another example of the Secretary of State for Wales failing to fight the corner for Wales in the Cabinet?

Mr. Newton

As a member of the EDX public expenditure committee, which is public knowledge, I certainly refute the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales does not vigorously present his case. I should perhaps make the point that my right hon. Friend is due to answer questions on Monday.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an early opportunity to debate early-day motion 639?

[That this House notes that the honourable Member for Cunninghame North during a speech on Monday 11th March, failed to declare an interest as a director and shareholder of a political socialist newspaper company; further notes that the company had a bespoke factory built by Highlands and Islands Development Board at a cost of £127,000 and that the company received loans and grants to the value of over £95,000 from the HIDB and a local enterprise company within the Highlands Enterprise network; and believes that the honourable Member who has made a political career out of attacking other honourable Members with links with companies which have received loans and grants as well as ordinary Scots who have received grants from public bodies, should note the Speaker's comments about his conduct and resign his position as a shadow front-bench spokesman.]

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the motion draws attention to the fact that hon. Members who make a career out of attacking other hon. Members do nothing for the standing of the House when they fall well below the standards that they asking others to follow. Does he agree that people who live in glass houses should not throw bricks?

Mr. Newton

I am aware of the point to which my hon. Friend referred. I understand that you, Madam Speaker, have already given an indication that the particular interest that my hon. Friend has in mind should have been declared by the hon. Member whom he has in mind from Monday's debate.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The Leader of the House will recall that I raised in a previous Question Time the need for a full statement on the disposal aspect of the BSE crisis, which relates to both the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for the Environment. It transpires that there has never been a report on the best overall environmental disposal option—either by landfill or by incineration methods. There is continuing confusion about how the crisis will be satisfactorily resolved. In the short time left in this Parliament, will he ensure that a full statement is made on that matter so that such scientific and public health problems can be sorted out?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and any others involved in the matter, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, will carefully consider the point that the hon. Lady has raised.

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

During the last few weeks of this Parliament, could my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to arranging a debate on the prescribing of a contraceptive pill for children? Yesterday, Mrs. Jenny Bacon and her husband, together with some colleagues, presented a petition of 10,000 signatures to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Downing street. Their daughter was prescribed the pill when she was 13 years old. She suffered a brain stem stroke, was paralysed for an entire year and died aged 16. I believe that many more parents have similar concerns.

Mr. Newton

The first thing to say, without commenting further on an individual tragic case, is that I am sure that everyone in the House would wish to express their sympathy for the circumstances about which we have all read. It follows that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health will wish carefully to consider the petition and what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have been a long-time admirer of his admirable Quaker character. He will appreciate that I have always been among the mildest of his inquisitors. Because of the real dangers to peace in Israel, in Albania and over Cyprus, it is essential that the House has a chance to debate those matters, even in a one-day debate, before the recess. Will he give serious consideration to giving us a one-day debate before the Easter recess or, hopefully, after the Easter recess?

Mr. Newton

Of course, I always consider what the hon. Gentleman suggests in the conciliatory and moderate way in which he puts questions to me. I cannot lay claim to a Quaker character, whatever that is, merely to a Quaker education.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

My right hon. Friend, like the rest of us, will have been subjected on every conceivable occasion to the Liberal Democrats' assertion that education is at the top of their priorities. However, in Kent, the Liberal Democrat-controlled council has chosen to take £10 million of the Government's grant and spend it elsewhere. May we have a debate to demonstrate that that fact may reflect the difference between being in power in Kent and having no chance of power at Westminster?

Mr. Newton

I would make a slightly different point without differing from my hon. Friend. On a range of matters, there is a marked discordance between what is said by Labour and Liberal Democrat Members and what happens when their friends are in power in town and county halls.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, West)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government propose to allow taxpayers' money to be spent on training chartered accountants from some of the biggest and wealthiest chartered accountancy practices, when they have provided the training for donkey's years at no cost to the public purse? Is that not a clear waste of public money? May we have an urgent debate on the misuse of training funds?

Mr. Newton

I imagine that the hon. Gentleman was referring to the recently published Select Committee report. If so, it will be considered in the normal and appropriate way. In any case, I cannot promise an early debate.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Will my right hon. Friend consider making time for a statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on the primary school league tables, in view of the request from Opposition Members for an added value component? My right hon. Friend may be interested to learn that the Labour-controlled Association of London Government has done such a calculation, adding in the socio-economic added value, and the top-performing local education authorities are, first, Richmond upon Thames; secondly, Kensington and Chelsea; and, thirdly, the City of Westminster. The ALG has asked for extra funds to be given to those deprived areas, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment would wish to consider that.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend's question was whether I would be interested in that information, and the answer is yes. I am grateful to him for making such a telling point.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement or a debate before the general election is called so that we may ascertain precisely where parties get their money from to fight the general election? [Interruption.] In America, they are having a wide debate about where the money comes from for elections, especially the foreign sources. May we have a statement so that we can challenge the Tories to tell us how their party funds managed to move from a debt of £19 million last year to a £40 million surplus this year, when the public sector borrowing requirement is £20 billion or more and the national debt has doubled? How come the same people can run the country into a hole, but at the same time manage to find large sums for their own ends? The public have the right to know.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will have heard a number of points—made from what I hope were sedentary positions behind me—which he might care to weigh. I will not follow that line for reasons relating to recent answers that I have given to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—that is to say that I am the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

While fully supporting the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) for a debate—which has been attended to by my right hon. Friend—can I bring matters closer to home? Is it not time that this House debated its own integrity and the leaking of documents, such as Select Committee reports, long before they are published? The recent problem is not the first. Could my right hon. Friend find time to allow the House to debate the issue, indicate its view to the institutions of this House—which, sadly, too often are not prepared to act, even when the individual responsible for leaking the report is identified—and give instructions which would help the next Parliament?

Mr. Newton

I am aware of the reasons why my hon. Friend has raised this matter over the past five or six years. I must make the point that an established set of arrangements for examining the source of a leak and, in certain circumstances, reporting to the House is set out in the second report by the Committee on Privileges from Session 1984–85.I refer my hon. Friend in that direction.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Would the Leader of the House go and tell himself as Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges that some of us are indelicate enough to ask when the statements of Mr. Mohammed Al Fayed, while producing rolls of money, to the effect that we can be hired like London taxis will be addressed? Does he understand that it would be totally unsatisfactory to let this matter go unaddressed before there is a general election? Whatever cloak the right hon. Gentleman is wearing, what does he have to say about this matter?

Mr. Newton

I am not using any kind of cloak to put myself in a position where I have to be cautious with the hon. Gentleman. He knows that I am Chairman of the Committee and that the Parliamentary Commissioner is investigating matters closely entwined with those to which he refers. Many people would be appalled were I to start making comments against that background.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

In view of the breathtaking and awesome significance of some of the recent scientific capabilities in the sphere of cloning as it relates to animals, does my right hon. Friend agree that there would be a strong case, if time were available, for the House to have an early debate on the full ethical and practical implications of that emerging technology, since aspects of genetic engineering which are now applied to animals could, alas, at some future stage in certain circumstances be applied to human beings? Will he consider this matter carefully, because if it is good enough for the United States and President Clinton to consider a moratorium, surely this House can debate it in an appropriate spirit?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Select Committee on Science and Technology is taking a close interest in the matter and is conducting a brief inquiry into the recent cloning of sheep at the Roslin institute. I will not rule out the possibility of a debate on this important and sensitive subject, but I am not in a position to promise one from the Dispatch Box today.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When may we have a debate on early-day motion 646?

[That this House demands international action against the dumping of medicinal drugs in Third World and Eastern European countries which resulted in the deaths of 100 children in Nigeria in 1991 and 60 in Haiti in 1996, who used contaminated paracetamol syrup, and the blinding of 11 pregnant women in Lithuania who were prescribed a medicine intended for animal use; and notes that some pharmaceutical companies enjoy tax and other financial benefits by avoiding disposal costs in their countries and thus profit from the irresponsible and often lethal dumping of medicines on unsophisticated communities.]

The motion draws attention to a growing world scandal resulting from the donation—sometimes for good reasons—of medicinal drugs to third-world and east European countries. As a result of those donations, 11 pregnant women in Lithuania were blinded when they took a drug that was intended for animals because they could not understand the labelling and 100 children in Nigeria and 60 in Haiti died after taking a form of paracetamol that had been mixed with the wrong form of glycol. Many of those donations are made for humanitarian reasons, but others are made because American companies refuse to bear the costs of dumping the drugs—legally, but expensively—in their own country and are gaining a tax advantage by sending them to third-world and eastern European countries. As a result, children are given adult doses, and dangerous and lethal drugs, which should be taken under strict control, are taken as though they were sweets. Huge numbers of people have been damaged by the irresponsible dumping of drugs. When will Britain take a stand and introduce regulations in an area where there is none now?

Mr. Newton

I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary may have commented on those matters to the hon. Gentleman only yesterday and I am not in a position to add to that. However, I understand that the UK has supported the work of relevant organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, in promoting guidelines on drug donations, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to work with other countries to try to improve standards of safety in health which are obviously a matter of concern.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

May I have some information on behalf of my rural constituents? First, when will the provisions for rate relief on village shops and rural sub-post offices under the Local Government and Rating Bill come into force? When will the hedgerow regulations, which were laid before Parliament on 3 March, be debated? Furthermore, will my right hon. Friend ask a Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come to the House in the near future to make a statement explaining the Ministry's policy on the enforcement of the regulations controlling rabbits under the Pests Act 1954? A number of my constituency farmers are suffering the depredations of rabbits on farms adjacent to railway embankments and I should be most grateful for some guidance on that.

Mr. Newton

There were three questions. First, the Local Government and Rating Bill has not yet received Royal Assent, although I hope that that will not be too long delayed. Various parts of the Bill when enacted are due to commence at different times, but if I understand my hon. and learned Friend aright, although no specific date has been set for the commencement of the part of the Bill which relates to rating—part I—we hope that the rating provisions will commence no later than 1 April 1998.

With regard to the draft hedgerows regulations, which, as my hon. and learned Friend rightly said, were laid recently, I clearly have not been able to announce a debate in the course of this statement and I cannot give him a specific undertaking on that, but I shall bear his representations in mind.

Lastly, I am well aware of the problems of rabbits since they caused serious difficulties between Braintree and Witham in my constituency, foraging out from the railway line into the neighbouring fields. I shall draw my hon. and learned Friend's concern to my right hon. Friend's attention. I wrote to Bob Horton, the chairman of Railtrack, and received what I regard as a positive response.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Twice at Prime Minister's Question Time the Prime Minister has promised me and the House that electoral registration figures for England and Wales will be made available to the House by the end of March. The problem is that the end of March falls during Easter and there is a distinct possibility that the House will not return after Easter. Will the Leader of the House make a commitment that those figures will be available to the House before Dissolution and in sufficient time for hon. Members to raise through the procedures of the House any matters that arise from those figures?

Mr. Newton

A number of answers have been given to the hon. Gentleman in recent weeks by both the Prime Minister and me. It is not for me to make commitments on behalf of the Office for National Statistics, but my information is that the last of the forms that it needs have just been received and when the data are checked, the office plans to publish the figures on 26 March as agreed.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May we have a debate next week on grant-maintained schools, such as St. John's Roman Catholic comprehensive school in my constituency, during which we could highlight the considerable dangers to such schools of up to 15 per cent. of their education funds being clawed back by the local education authority and the possibility of the appointment of political governors on the governing bodies of such schools were Labour's policies to be implemented?

Mr. Newton

That sounds like an extension of, or an addition to, the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). I am tempted to suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) might seek another Wednesday morning debate on these matters, as the last one was very effective—even if it has not produced the necessary changes that he would like to see. However, that is not a matter for me to determine.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

When the Select Committee report on ministerial accountability was debated in the House, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that he would attempt to bring to the House a resolution on ministerial accountability that was agreed by all parties before Parliament dissolved. Can the Leader of the House report what progress has been made in that regard, and what prospect there is of the resolution being put to the House?

Mr. Newton

I understand that that remains my right hon. Friend's hope, and that he has made further progress in consultation with the authorities in this place and with those concerned with such matters in another place. I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's question to his attention.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on crime and sentencing, during which I could welcome the fact that crime on the London Underground has decreased by 20 per cent. in the past year? If those trends are mirrored nationally, 1996 will see the fourth year of recorded reductions in crime in Britain—the first four-year reduction since records began. I would also condemn the weasel way in which those who were afraid to oppose the Crime (Sentences) Bill in the House have sought to sabotage it in another place.

Mr. Newton

I share my hon. Friend's views on the latter point. As to London Underground, I was not aware of those encouraging statistics, but I am sure that the whole House will find them heartening.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said, the Leader of the House is an honourable man and he has not misled the House by not announcing the dates of the Easter recess. However, would he agree that the way is now open for the announcement of a general election on the 20th of the month? The business of the House could be tidied up on 24 and 25 March, there could be a Royal Proclamation on 1 April, and a general election on 24 April. I do not ask the right hon. Gentleman to speculate: I simply ask him to agree that this is a valid scenario.

Mr. Newton

From where I sit, it sounded perilously close to asking me to speculate. I have no more intention of doing so with the hon. Gentleman—despite the fact that he is a quite reasonable man—than with anyone else. As he well knows, there is a little green book in the Library that sets out all the dates of every possible occurrence from last October until the end of May.