HC Deb 19 March 1997 vol 292 cc943-9 7.26 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the order of business later today and the business to be taken tomorrow.

It is intended that the House will consider Lords amendments to the Crime (Sentences) Bill immediately following motion 6 relating to Northern Ireland business, and that the House will consider Lords amendments that are expected to be received to the Education Bill immediately after the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill. The business for tomorrow will be:

  • Money resolution on and consideration of Lords amendments to the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill.
  • Motion on the Hedgerows Regulations.
  • Motion on the legislative procedure for tax simplification Bills.
  • Motion relating to the First Report from the Administration
  • Committee (Session 1995–96) on all-party and parliamentary groups.
  • Motion relating to the First Report from the Procedure
  • Committee on Standing Orders revision.
  • The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement. I am not sure that it deals with the main item of outstanding business in this Parliament that has been on Members' minds today, but I cannot comment on that; nor perhaps can the right hon. Gentleman, as a member of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which is still sitting.

The right hon. Gentleman has said that we shall take Lords amendments to the Crime (Sentences) Bill and the Education Bill this evening. I wonder whether that is the best way to proceed, given the weight of other business this evening and the fact that Members interested in those Bills may not have enough notice of when they are coming on for discussion. We have no wish to delay either Bill, but would it not be wiser to consider the Lords amendments to them tomorrow, when there is far less business than this evening?

This is the fourth business statement that we have had in little more than 48 hours. Will it be the last?

Mr. Newton

I certainly hope that this will be the last business statement and I have every expectation that it will be, but in an uncertain world I had better not go further than that. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her acknowledgement in relation to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. On the other points, we concluded—I hope that it will not cause too much difficulty for her—that, given the extent of the agreement reached on the two Bills to which I referred, it would be sensible to proceed with them this evening.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

My right hon. Friend informed the House that there will be a motion to deal with revision of the Standing Orders, but an amendment to the motion on the Order Paper has been tabled by the majority of members of the Procedure Committee, urging that the second annexe be included. It is a simple annexe that modernises the names of Committees in the House, so that a Public Bill Committee will be known as a Public Bill Committee, not by some other rather subfusc name. I hope that that matter can be raised and that, if anybody is thinking of voting against the amendment, my right hon. Friend will use his powers to persuade him or her that the Government have always been in favour of modernisation.

Mr. Newton

I do not think—[Interruption.] I do not need to be reminded by the Opposition Chief Whip intervening from a sedentary position. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have studied carefully the case that my right hon. Friend made in his report for the amendment to which he refers. I hope and expect that they will have an opportunity to make that decision if they wish.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Assuming that this is the last business statement that the Leader of the House will make, how much Government business will not be taken before the Prorogation of Parliament? In his capacity either as Leader of the House or as Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, can he give us a report on how far that Committee has gone in its deliberations and in dealing with the report being prepared by the Commissioner? If the hon. Members, some of whom are on record as saying that they want the report published, give their assent, can the report be published before the general election?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) rightly acknowledged the difficulty for me of speculating, as it would be at the moment, about a meeting of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which would be proceeding now but for the fact that I am making this statement to the House. I cannot, therefore, do that. On the earlier point, the Government have effectively carried the business that they intended to carry at the beginning of the Session, although some of the Bills are not quite in the form that was originally intended. However, the bulk, even of those Bills, has been passed and they contain many important proposals. Apart from that, I can think only of a number of not particularly urgent regulations that were among the remaining orders, which have not been tabled in order not to take up the time of the House.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Without wishing to trespass in any way on the deliberations of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, would not the normal procedure for that Committee ensure that any report by the Commissioner could not possibly be published until the Committee had been given an opportunity to discuss and consider the points that the Commissioner had made?

Hon. Members

It has.

Mr. Newton

That is certainly the case.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The whole House is greatly encouraged by what the Leader of the House said about the proceedings of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. In resuming his discussions on that matter, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind how monstrously unjust it would be, both for hon. Members affected by the inquiry and for their constituents, to have the matter hanging over them without the proper publication of the report of Sir Gordon Downey? I am sure that he is aware of how much the reputation of Parliament is involved in the completion of that inquiry, given that nearly three years have passed since the great offence of cash for questions was first brought into the public domain.

Mr. Newton

The right hon. Gentleman, to whom I pay respect, particularly at the end of his distinguished parliamentary career, has revealed the difficulty of my making any comment at all on that matter. I judge from the early part of his remarks that he may have been reading more than I intended into what I said. This can be judged only once the Committee has finished its proceedings tonight. Given that several Committee members are in the Chamber, I am sure that they will bear in mind the points that he made.

Sir Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)

Given that my right hon. Friend has just announced that the Administration Committee's report will be presented tomorrow, will he confirm that a gap of two months will be allowed during which Committees such as the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee will be allowed to re-register?

Mr. Newton


Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Leader of the House agree that the necessity for his statement now, and the events of the past two days, have been occasioned by the decision to prorogue Parliament on Friday, not on Thursday week, which would have been possible? Is he aware that page 33 of "Erskine May" makes it clear that since 1974 it has been the practice at general elections to prorogue and dissolve Parliament on the same day? Why not have Dissolution and Prorogation on 8 April to allow the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges to continue its work, as it has done in previous periods? If he will not do that, he is not being as open as possible with Parliament", as paragraph (3) of motion 10 on the Order Paper says he should be, and which he will invite the House to approve later this evening.

Mr. Newton

I simply do not agree with anything that the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

Have not all the Select Committees been working extremely hard to get their reports out in time for the Prorogation of Parliament? Many Select Committees that have not published their reports will publish them tomorrow. Since everybody has been aware for some time of the need to complete those reports so that they can be published before Parliament dissolves, why has not the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges done its work on time like every other?

Mr. Newton

Again, my hon. Friend seeks to draw me into matters beyond that which I should properly discuss on the Floor of the House. It is, however, absolutely clear that the Committee's work depends on receipt of a report from the Commissioner, who has been examining literally thousands of documents and much other material. When that report is received, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) said, the Committee will have to consider it, and provide any hon. Members who are criticised with an opportunity to make representations and for them to be considered.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

May I express my regret that the right hon. Gentleman did not manage to muster the same encomium for my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) as he did for my distinguished colleague here, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore)? I hope that he will not repeat the same error when I have finished. Am I not correct—as I usually am in the House—in presuming that changing the date of Prorogation would in no way affect the functioning of this House or the other place, or the general election timetable?

Mr. Newton

I am happy to rectify what the hon. Gentleman saw as an omission in respect of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), for whom I have formed a high regard during his years in the House, and I am happy to say so. I say the same of the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), although his many qualities are not entirely the same as those of his right hon. and hon. Friends alongside him.

As for the rest of the question, it has always been the practice, as far as I am aware, to bring proceedings in the House to an end at the earliest practicable time, once an election has been declared. The reasons for that are obvious.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Why cannot my right hon. Friend find time tomorrow for a debate on the £2 million of blind funds that are financing the Leader of the Opposition and Labour Front Benchers? There have been allegations in The Sunday Times that money laundering went on through an Oxford university account, and that possibly a foreign donor—it has been suggested that George Soros may be that foreign donor—has donated funds through a laundered bank account. One business man, Mr. Robinson—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking the Leader of the House to find time tomorrow for a particular debate. Will the Leader of the House respond as to whether there is time or not?

Mr. Newton

That interrelates with the point that I have now made several times, that it is not appropriate for me to discuss matters before the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges as I have been invited to do.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Will the Leader of the House take the opportunity of saying farewell to his hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), who will not be with us much longer?

May I ask the Leader of the House a simple question that goes to the heart of the problem that he has faced this week, which has resulted in a succession of chaotic business statements? As this has been the longest peacetime Parliament this century, there can be no conceivable reason why the Government should be in a chaotic state in managing business at the end of the Session. They have known for a long time when the date would come. The sole reason why they have made a succession of business statements this week and why Select Committees cannot complete their work is that the Government have decided to prorogue Parliament on Friday. Can the right hon. Gentleman please give the House and the country a simple explanation of why it was imperative that the House should be prorogued on Friday, and not next Thursday?

Mr. Newton

There are two points there. I have already touched on the first: it has always been the practice to bring proceedings in the House to an end at the earliest practicable moment, once an election has been declared. I would add, as part of the hon. Gentleman's question echoed that of the hon. Member for Newham, South, that the process of negotiation that always occurs at the end of a Parliament and which, on this occasion, has been rather complicated by those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, particularly in another place, will always lead to a great deal of uncertainty at the time when the business before the House is being cleared up for the end of the Parliament.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the Leader of the House agree that, bearing in mind the fact that we have time until about 8 April for the House to sit if need be, some consideration should be given to the comment made by the Prime Minister on "The Frost Programme", that the whole mess should be cleared up before the general election? Can the right hon. Gentleman now arrange Government business in such a way that at least the Prime Minister's expectation in that regard can be met?

Mr. Newton

My right hon. Friend, if I recall rightly, made it clear that it was his wish and hope that these matters should be resolved before the end of the Parliament. It is absolutely clear that those matters are, in the first instance, for the Commissioner to produce the report, then for the Committee to consider that report. It has not been possible for the Commissioner to complete the report.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I entirely accept my right hon. Friend's point that, now that it has been decided to go for an election, it is necessary to have an early Prorogation of the House, but, for academic purposes, would he consider the possibilities if Prorogation were delayed by a week? If that happened, how, in terms of natural justice, would it be possible for the Committee to complete all the reviews, take all the evidence, summon before it those who are implicated in the report and get that out of the way? How do we know that that could be done within a week? What we do know is that as soon as the report came before the Committee, some hon. Member from the Labour party would leak it to the press.

Mr. Newton

Once again, I am invited to make comments that it would not be proper for me as Chairman of the Committee to make. I have said on two or three occasions that it would be necessary for the Committee to consider the report, although I cannot be sure at this moment exactly what that would entail. It might well entail quite an extensive process.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, if no changes are made to the business statement that he has made today, the report will be locked in a cupboard during the general election? That would not be satisfactory for the hon. Members who have been implicated, as they would have no chance to clear their name before they faced the electorate. The prospect of the report remaining in a cabinet until the new Parliament assembles and a new Committee is appointed—at the beginning of this Parliament, that took six months—is intolerable, when the reputation of Parliament is at stake in such a serious and important matter.

Mr. Newton

I am not in a position to add to what I said earlier or to what you, Madam Speaker, said in your statement this afternoon. As I have said several times, members of the Committee are present and will have noted what the hon. Lady said.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

Will the Leader of the House, recognising his own difficulty in dealing with the situation, recognise also that on "The Frost Programme" the Prime Minister said that he did not want the report "kicked into the long grass"? Surely what has happened will make people feel that the report has been or is being kicked into the long grass, because of many pieces of legislation that the Government have striven to get through. Will the right hon. Gentleman take any responsibility for the arrangement of business, or will he say that the Prime Minister said one thing, but acted in such a way as to suggest that he wanted something quite different to happen?

Mr. Newton

I am certain that that is not the case, if, as I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is making an allegation against my right hon. Friend. If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to feed that allegation, that is a matter for him. I cannot add to what I said. I do not regard what has occurred in a long, complex and difficult inquiry as constituting kicking this "into the long grass", as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

Does my right hon. Friend share my surprise at the chorus of calls from hon. Members on the Opposition Benches for an extension of the life of this Parliament, when for months the Leader of the Opposition has been calling for an early Dissolution of Parliament? Does he agree that that is a desperate attempt to conceal the good news about the British economy from the British people by a process of smear and innuendo, which the House should hold in total contempt?

Mr. Newton

I understand why my hon. Friend says that, and I suspect that many people will share his feelings. Again, as Chairman of the Committee, I think that it would be right for me to restrain myself.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (York)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the Prime Minister's wish that the report should be published before the election. He will be aware of the view of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) that the report should be published before the election. The Select Committee on Standards and Privileges is a Committee of the House and works according to the decisions of the House. There is no reason why the House could not pass a resolution that Sir Gordon's report be published now and that the Committee consider it after the election. Will the Leader of the House make time for us to consider such a resolution, so that the report can be published?

Mr. Newton

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present for your response, Madam Speaker, to points of order earlier this afternoon. You made it clear that publication in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests was not an option.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Has my right hon. Friend considered one possible advantage of delaying Prorogation, which would allow time for debates on the fact that the crime figures showed a fall on Monday, the public sector borrowing requirement came in lower than expected on Tuesday and the unemployment figures have shown a vast improvement today? Such debates would allow the House a chance to expose the fact that the policies recommended by the Labour party would jeopardise improvement on all three fronts.

Mr. Newton

I entirely agree that it would be nice to provide further opportunities for such debate, but at present I have no proposals to make such time available.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

It is peace in our time on electoral registration figures. I hold a piece of paper on which is set out the global totals of people who are on electoral registers. The problem is that there is only tomorrow for names to be added to the lists, tomorrow being the last day for supplementary lists. The global totals show that there are still 3 million to 4 million people missing from electoral registers. Before we prorogue, should we not have an opportunity tomorrow, or even on Friday, to discuss the state of electoral registration? We are moving into a general election that will be based on the arrangements that I have described.

Mr. Newton

I cannot undertake to provide such an opportunity. However, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the fact that his persistence seems to have achieved even more than the undertaking that I understand he was given yesterday, when he was told that he would get the figures tomorrow. He seems to have received them a day earlier even than had been hoped.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you; that is the end.