HC Deb 15 May 1997 vol 294 cc159-75 2.37 pm
Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week, please?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

Before I give the House details of business for next week, perhaps I could make a few preliminary comments about how I intend to handle business questions in future. I hope that I shall be able to maintain the convention that was started by my predecessor of giving the House as much notice as possible of future business, not just of one week's business. I also hope, when possible, to give early notice of major debates.

In the normal run of business I shall, of course, seek to avoid taking highly contentious matters on a Thursday evening—particularly one preceding a constituency Friday—but that may not always be possible, particularly in the early days of a new Parliament.

Right hon. and hon. Members may also like to be reminded that the ballot for private Members' Bills will take place next Thursday and that hon. Members can enter their name in the ballot while the House is sitting next Tuesday and Wednesday.

May I also say, in anticipation of questions, that we hope to make early progress on the establishment of Select Committees.

As the House is aware, the debate on the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech will be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 20 May. Madam Speaker may select amendments on Monday as well as on Tuesday.

The business following the conclusion of the debate on the Humble Address will be as follows:

WEDNESDAY 21 MAY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House, including the traditional three-hour debate before any recess.

ON WEDNESDAY AND UNTIL ABOUT 7 PM ON THURSDAY 22 MAY—Second Reading of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill.

Afterwards, there will be a debate on the need for modernisation of House of Commons procedure on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House will rise for the spring Adjournment on Thursday 22 May until Monday 2 June. I am unable today to give the House precise details of the business to be taken in the first week back after the recess, but I anticipate that, on Monday 2 June, we shall have the Second Reading of a Government Bill and that other important Government business will be taken during the course of that week.

Mr. Goodlad

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business, I congratulate her most warmly on her appointment and I wish her, on behalf of the Opposition, every success in her new responsibilities.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the abandonment of the normal convention of two weeks elapsing between the publication of a Bill and its Second Reading, as in the case of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, will be the exception rather than the rule? Will she also confirm that the Committee stage of that Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House, as will the proposed Bills on the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, if approval is obtained in the referendums, the legislation to incorporate into UK law the main provisions of the European convention on human rights, the legislation to provide for a directly elected strategic authority and a directly elected mayor of London, the Bill, if one is introduced, to amend the European Communities Act 1972, the Bill to change the responsibilities of the Bank of England and any other legislation with constitutional implications?

Will the right hon. Lady tell the House whether she proposes to lay a consultation document before the House before the debate next Thursday on House of Commons procedure?

Will the right hon. Lady guarantee that the Foreign Secretary will make an oral statement to the House at the earliest possible opportunity on the restoration of trade union rights to Government communications headquarters, Cheltenham, which we have learnt about from the media? It is a matter that has serious potential implications for the security of the nation.

Will the right hon. Lady also arrange for the Secretary of State for National Heritage to make a statement on the events leading to Lord MacLaurin's resignation as chairman of the Test and County Cricket Board as a result of the intemperate remarks of the Minister for sport?

Is the Leader of the House aware that, in 1995, the Select Committee on Procedure, including all its Labour members, examined the conduct of Prime Minister's Question Time and opposed switching from two sessions a week to one? Can she explain why the Government have decided to reject that judgment and why they did not consult the House on their decision? Would it not have been more appropriate for the proposed new special Select Committee announced in the Queen's Speech to examine parliamentary procedure and to consider the change? Will the Leader of the House now defer implementation of the proposed change until the Committee has been set up and has had time to consider it?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Speed it up, Duracell.

Mr. Goodlad

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to learn to listen to the Opposition, as the nation has had to suffer listening to him for many years.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will be prepared to revise the proposed oral question rota for the current Session in the light of the quite extraordinary diminution in the time available for Scottish questions, which is down to 45 minutes; for Northern Ireland questions, which are allocated a mere half an hour; for Welsh questions, again a mere half an hour; for Environment questions, just over half an hour; and for Transport questions, under half an hour? Those erosions of the rights of hon. Members to question Ministers in important Departments appear to represent a serious intention further to diminish the Government's accountability to the House.

Finally, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make an immediate statement to the House as to the arrangements whereby the Bank of England will be accountable to Parliament for the execution of its responsibilities in respect of interest rates? Is she aware that the Government have abandoned a tried and tested monetary policy—the most successful that Britain has had for many years—and substituted a nominated quango, the monetary committee, with decisions taken by a majority vote substituted for proper ministerial accountability to the House on a vital matter? Is she aware that the Government's failure to come to the House with their decision is yet another unfortunate omen for the relationship between the Government and Parliament?

Mrs. Taylor

I begin by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and his welcome to me as Leader of the House. Let me reciprocate by saying that he is now acting shadow Leader of the House as well as Opposition Chief Whip and, as we all know, Chief Whips are not allowed to make speeches. That may be one reason why the right hon. Gentleman asked so many questions and spoke at such length.

I shall try to deal with all the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised. He asked first about the two weeks that normally elapse between the publication of a Bill and its Second Reading. He will know that the decision to take the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill next week resulted from discussions through the usual channels and I understand that the Opposition are happy with that. It is not a precedent for any other Second Readings. It is a straightforward, simple and short Bill for which the Government have a clear mandate. I can give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance that the remaining stages of the Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House.

The other points that the right hon. Gentleman raised about the devolution Bills were answered yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I do not accept that all the Bills that the right hon. Gentleman declared as constitutional fall into that category. However, the way in which constitutional Bills are handled in future can fall within the remit of the Select Committee on modernisation of parliamentary procedures that we hope to establish soon.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether a document could be produced before next Thursday's debate on the modernisation of our procedures. I do not intend to issue any document. We have set out in various policy statements in recent months some of the ideas that we should like to consider, but the objective of the debate is to listen to ideas from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that hon. Members will contribute to the debate and that we can make progress quite quickly.

The right hon. Gentleman requested an oral statement from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on trade union rights at GCHQ, but I do not think that it is necessary to have one. It is not a change of Government policy, but the implementation of a promise that was made in our manifesto. The right hon. Gentleman's remarks about national security are a dreadful slur on the people who work at GCHQ and he should not be calling their patriotism into question.

I am not sure whether the resignation from, and vacancy on, the Test and County Cricket Board, on which the right hon. Gentleman commented, has implications for national security. The matter is not foremost in the Government's mind, although we can see why it might be of interest to certain Opposition Members, especially the former Prime Minister, who I am sure has been able to find more time for the activity recently.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), my impression is that the nation enjoys listening to my hon. Friend. I am sure that his contributions will be as forceful as ever in this Parliament.

The right hon. Gentleman raised issues about Prime Minister's Question Time and the Question Time rota. I know of no one who thought that the old system of Prime Minister's Question Time was satisfactory. The right hon. Gentleman will know that there was general disagreement about it. Had we not moved quickly to make changes, given the House's habit, there might have been no change at all. We know how the old system worked; we shall see how the new one works. The new Committee will be able to review the system as time progresses.

On Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh questions, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales have made it clear that ample time will be provided in other arenas, especially the Scottish Grand Committee, for questions. I absolutely reject the contention that Scottish and Welsh Members can ask questions only during Scottish and Welsh Question Times. The right hon. Gentleman forgot to point out that Treasury, Home Office and Defence Question Times have been extended. In actual fact, the amount of time provided for scrutiny of the Executive is exactly the same as it has always been; there is no difference in time whatever.

The decision by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the Bank of England has been widely welcomed. There will be a debate on the economy during the debate on the Queen's Speech, and points can be put to my right hon. Friend at that time.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

I offer my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and particularly welcome her continuation of the rule that we shall be given two weeks' notice of business every Thursday. She will of course have read the Liaison Committee's final report of the previous Parliament, in which it called for the early establishment of Select Committees rather than the long, protracted arrangements that have been common in the past. I welcome her assurance that she will set up the Committees quickly. Will she give some idea of the progress of the timetable?

Mrs. Taylor

I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments. I hope that we shall make early progress on establishing Select Committees. We intend to enter very quickly into discussions about that. Some decisions have to be made about the number of Select Committees, especially where Departments have been merged, or indeed separated. I regard Select Committee work as very important to the House and hope that we can make progress in the very near future.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I congratulate, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, the new Leader of the House and welcome her translation from one side of the House to the other. Will she address herself particularly to the difference in arithmetic in the House and use her good offices to ensure that the access gained by those of us in the third party—a major third party—to the business and progress of legislation is commensurate with the size of our party? I welcome her firm statement that she will repeat the practice of her predecessor to give as much advance notice of business as possible. I also welcome the assurance that she has just given the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) about progress on Select Committees.

The question of the Select Committee on the modernisation of the procedures of the House is obviously extremely urgent if we are to approach all the business that the Government have put before us in the Gracious Speech with the greatest speed. If that Select Committee is not made operational speedily, we shall clearly have great difficultly in dealing with all the other business. I also ask whether the right hon. Lady feels that the short debate next week—it might be only two and a half hours—will be adequate to give the new Select Committee guidance on the views of the whole House. Modernisation is one subject on which all Members, new and old, may have a view so that business may be expedited.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful for the hon. Member's comments. I appreciate his point about the arithmetic of the House, which will be especially significant in certain areas, such as the Scottish Grand Committee and the Welsh Grand Committee. We accept that the balance has changed and we shall have to consider the implications. I said that I will give two weeks' notice whenever possible, but I hope that the House will accept, as I accepted when in opposition, that on occasions it will not be possible. Two weeks' notice should be our target and endeavour.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Select Committees and I hope that we can move on all of them quickly, especially the Select Committee on modernisation, which should be set up as soon as possible. The debate next Thursday is not intended to be the last opportunity for hon. Members to make an input with their ideas for modernisation.

I hope that many hon. Members will participate in suggesting changes to improve the workings of Parliament.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I congratulate the new Leader of the House. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, while we were electioneering, civil servants were busily turning out statutory instruments? How many are now waiting to be scrutinised by the House? How quickly does she expect the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments to be set up to start the process of scrutiny?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is well known for his interest in that matter. He has done sterling work on the Joint Committee in the past and perhaps may do so in the future. We inherited 60 statutory instruments and 11 have been tabled in the past two days. The Joint Committee needs to be established as soon as possible to make progress and to ensure that we do not have too great a backlog of statutory instruments piling up.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on taking up the office that she shadowed. I have two questions. The first concerns the debate on Thursday. She will recall that the Procedure Committee pressed her for some time to reveal her thoughts on reform so that it could consider them. Nothing came to the Procedure Committee. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) that some statement from the Government should be put before the House before the debate tomorrow, because we do not know anything about their thinking on the issue of reform. It is most important that a statement should be available before the debate starts.

Secondly, I return to the backdoor introduction of the single day for Prime Minister's questions. May I remind the right hon. Lady of the statement made to the Select Committee about Prime Minister's questions at 3.15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These sessions are however a fundamental part of our parliamentary democracy and part of that is now familiar to the public"? That statement did not come from a Conservative politician; it was given to the Procedure Committee by the present Prime Minister. We are moving away from that and, in my judgment, we should have a proper debate on an amendable motion and not an Adjournment debate.

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the debate on modernisation is not tomorrow, but a week today. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to produce a paper for that debate, because its purpose is to give me a chance to listen to the ideas that hon. Members might have. It is not the Government's intention to impose change on the House: we want to listen to what is said.

On that issue, the right hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, will know two things. He will know that we stated clearly in the manifesto not that we would reform the entire House of Commons in a particular way, but that we would change Prime Minister's questions. That was made clear in the manifesto. The right hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave evidence to the Procedure Committee suggesting that changes along the lines that we are now introducing should be made. Other hon. Members may not have read my right hon. Friend's evidence to the Procedure Committee, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman did.

The changes that we are proposing to Prime Minister's Question Time will not reduce, but will slightly increase, the number of questions that my right hon. Friend can deal with, and will improve accountability by making Prime Minister's Question Time a more serious affair.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As the former Government Chief Whip rather disagreeably raised the Government's welcome decision on GCHQ, and considering that he did so in terms of national security, could my right hon. Friend find out what access Ministers have to the original papers, which led to Mrs. Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe's extraordinary decision—

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

What about the Belgrano?

Mr. Dalyell

Well, it was about that—the extraordinary decision out of the blue to cast aspersions on loyal people working for the Government? Had that not much more to do with political embarrassment, and not much to do with national security?

Mrs. Taylor

Not for the first time, my hon. Friend is entirely right. All Labour Members deplore any accusation that those who work at GCHQ are less than patriotic.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her post as Leader of the House—a uniquely different position from that held by any of her colleagues, in that she has a responsibility to all Members of the House, which I am sure that she will seek to discharge. I much prefer her recent remark that the Government would not impose any changes on the House, to her earlier remark when she suggested that nothing could be done in the House if it involved consultation.

May I suggest to the right hon. Lady what will already be apparent to her: that the decisions about a Select Committee and a debate are welcome, and that the best thing that she could do to start her period of office with the good will of the entire House would be to agree to withdraw the proposal for the change in Prime Minister's questions, not to challenge the possible merits, but to ensure that the proper process of consultation is observed? When she sat on the Opposition Benches, she would have insisted on that with all her customary vigour.

Mrs. Taylor

On the last point, there were many occasions when the previous Government did not consult on matters on which we thought that there should be consultation. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Leader of the House has responsibilities to all Members. The Government have accepted certain approaches that will be for the benefit of all Members. For example, we made it clear in the Queen's Speech that we wanted wider consultation on some extremely important policy areas. We have also made it clear that we want to publish some Bills in draft form to permit wide consultation. We have even suggested pre-legislative and other Committees to examine proposed legislation in a different way. Those are constructive proposals, which the modernisation Committee can consider. We can make progress on those matters.

As to Prime Minister's questions, I have nothing to add, except to say that I believe that if we had not made the change now, the old processes would have come into play and the change would never have taken place.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I strongly congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment as Leader of the House of Commons, and it gives us great pleasure to see her in her place after all these years. Much of the Hamilton affair remains outstanding. Will she give precedence to setting up the Committee on Standards and Privileges before the other Select Committees so that there will be no delay and to ensure that early justice can be done?

Mrs. Taylor

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right that to say that it would be for the benefit of the House as a whole to have the Committee on Standards and Privileges established at an early date so that all the outstanding work that that Committee will inherit can be done quickly. I hope that there will be no delay and that we receive co-operation from all parties in establishing that Committee.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Does the Leader of the House agree that, at the very least, there should be a debate on Prime Minister's questions before any new system is introduced? Is not the point that this decision has been made entirely without consultation and entirely for the benefit of the Prime Minister so as to protect him from questions? Is not her job to decide what is in the best interests of the House of Commons?

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to realise that the previous Government missed an opportunity to debate Prime Minister's questions, which they could have done on the basis of the report from the Procedure Committee which was published last year. The reason he gives for the change is not valid, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is not much in need of protection from Opposition Members.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend try to arrange business during the next two or three weeks—before the first leadership ballot for the Tory pretender—so that each of the contestants can get equal time at the Dispatch Box and so, in the interests of fairness and consultation, we allow them all to have an equal say?

Mrs. Taylor

I am certainly willing to receive representations from any Opposition Member who feels that there is any injustice in respect of the balance of time given to the various contenders. Perhaps my hon. Friend could be appointed the referee.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In warmly endorsing the welcome given to the right hon. Lady in her unique role—a role to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) referred—may I ask her to think again about next Thursday's debate? If we are to have procedural reform, should it not be at a measured pace? Should we not have a full day's debate, and should not that debate take place after the Government have set out their own general views? In that context, can she clarify some of the rumours in the press about the timing and the length of the forthcoming long recess?

Mrs. Taylor

I would ideally have liked to have given extra time for that debate, but it is important that we get moving as quickly as possible. There will always be claims for extra time. As I have said, this will not be the only opportunity for Members to contribute ideas on how the workings of Parliament might be modernised. I am afraid that, at this stage, I can say nothing about the long recess.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on becoming Leader of the House? It must be pleasing for her, and it follows on from Bolton Wanderers—the football team that she strongly supports—winning promotion to the premiership. As a previous member of the Procedure Committee, I should like to ask her a serious question concerning the Committee's report on the way in which the House deals with European legislation. The Committee produced a unanimous report which recommended improvements to the method we use to deal with European legislation. Will the Government now respond to that report, or will it be looked at—along with other matters—by the new fast-track procedure Committee that she proposes and that I fully support?

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments—especially for being the first to mention Bolton Wanderers in the new Parliament. I congratulate him on his work on the previous Procedure Committee. What he says about European legislation is quite right, and concerns about the way in which we deal with it are shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that we shall be able to look at that quickly and make progress.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I join others in welcoming the Leader of the House to her new role, which involves protecting the rights of all hon. Members. When she dealt with Question Time, however, she forgot about Northern Ireland, and made no mention of that Secretary of State. Perhaps that was a slip of the tongue. Could the Leader of the House have a chat with you, Madam Speaker? You would then be able to share with her the difficulty of fitting in all the questioners in 45 minutes—and that 45 minutes has now been reduced. I think that the consequential changes to Prime Minister's Question Time cause us the most concern.

Will the Leader of the House also bear it in mind, when thinking of the long recess, that school holidays in Scotland and Northern Ireland are different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Taylor

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's last point, which my colleagues representing Scottish constituencies are not slow to make to me. I can only say that, as we have a new Parliament, this year may not be as easy as other years, but we should always bear such factors in mind when planning future business.

I have made clear my view that the needs of minority parties must be taken into account. The issue of Northern Ireland questions was difficult, because Northern Ireland questions preceded Prime Minister's questions on a Thursday: we had to decide whether to switch them to a different day and give them 45 minutes, or to give them the 30-minute slot before Prime Minister's questions. There was a feeling that the high-profile slot before Prime Minister's questions would be preferable, but we are always willing to consider other ideas intended to improve the overall position.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

We have all just been through the interesting experience of a general election, which I am sure my right hon. Friend enjoyed. Some may have learnt some lessons from that experience, and some may not; but one of the lessons that many of us learned was that the electoral register was not in a healthy condition. Should we not be able to discuss our experiences in the election in a debate, so that we can consider ways of introducing a decent system?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend made his views clear before the election, and I think that some of his concerns were vindicated. I believe that there are problems with the electoral register, and I think that everyone would want to ensure that every person who is entitled to vote is, as far as possible, allowed to exercise that right.

On a personal note, I think that the election produced some other interesting experiences in connection with the design of the ballot paper. I am sure that all of us who were candidates will want to learn from those experiences, and, perhaps, propose changes for the future.

Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

I, too, warmly congratulate the right hon. Lady on her appointment to an important and challenging post.

May I return to the issue of Prime Minister's questions? It is not an issue of prime ministerial diktat; it is an issue of the Prime Minister's accountability to the House. It would have been wise to involve the House in the changes, which are not just about timing. Other issues are involved in the handling of Prime Minister's questions.

Does the right hon. Lady recall that, when we were in government with large majorities, we always made sure that we consulted widely on reforms to the House? For example, when I set up the Jopling Committee, I was anxious to ensure that all quarters in the House were represented, and it was the unanimity on the report's recommendation that enabled it to go through with relative speed. Would the right hon. Lady not be wise to recall that?

Given the right hon. Lady's earlier comment that she wanted to listen to what had been said, has she listened carefully to what has been said about Prime Minister's questions today, and will she incorporate it in Select Committee procedures?

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. He is, however, the sixth person to raise the issue of Prime Minister's questions, and I do not think that anyone has defended the old procedure. I think that we must all admit that the old system of two 15-minute sessions did not hold the Prime Minister or the Government to account. It may have had entertainment value, but I think that Prime Minister's questions are too important for that.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that other issues surrounding Prime Minister's questions should perhaps be examined in time, such as the notice of questions that is given and the transfer of closed questions.

I believe that the House would want to express a view on those issues, and I hope that that can be done. The right hon. Gentleman says that he consulted widely and that the Jopling proposals were speedily introduced, but I must remind him that it was at least two years before those proposals saw the light of day.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that if there were to be a statement next week on GCHQ, it would give us an opportunity to praise warmly all those who fought the ban there, refused to be intimidated and gave up their jobs? People such as Mike Grindley should be congratulated, and I hope that he can be given an award.

As regards patriotism, is my right hon. Friend aware that two years before the ban all those at GCHQ were congratulated by the director-general on the way in which they had carried out their duties during the Falklands war? Surely such people, including Mike Grindley, need no lessons in patriotism from the Conservative bunch opposite.

Mrs. Taylor

I agree that the people who work at GCHQ need no lessons in patriotism. They demonstrated their attitude well, and I believe that the Foreign Secretary's announcement will be widely welcomed.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Lady on her new appointment. Given the shortness of the debate on procedure on Thursday week, would not it be sensible, and a better use of our time, if the Government, or the Labour party, were to crystallise their thoughts on procedural reforms on paper in advance of the debate? Will the Leader of the House or a senior Government Back Bencher chair the proposed Select Committee on procedure, and what will be its political make-up?

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his opening remarks. I believe that I have answered the question about the wisdom of providing a Government document; I am sure that the various Labour party documents were well scrutinised by the Conservative party during the general election campaign, and they obviously did not include enough clangers to make the Opposition take any notice of them. I do not think that it would be appropriate to have a paper: it will be a listening debate.

The membership, composition and political balance of the modernisation Committee have yet to be decided.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

These are early days, but is my right hon. Friend in a position to say when the first meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee will take place? Will it be in London or in Edinburgh? Does she have any idea who will occupy the Opposition Front Bench—members of the Scottish National party or Scottish Liberal Democrats?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to say that there will be different faces, not representatives of the official Opposition, on the Opposition Front Bench. That is why I acknowledged earlier, in response to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), that the arithmetic resulting from the general election meant that we would have to review the situation. That review will take place, and we shall hold consultations in the very near future.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her appointment. She will be aware that the previous Government failed to achieve their objective of forming a blocking minority to stop measures that will lead to significant reductions in the British fishing fleet. Will there be an opportunity to discuss the implications of that, preferably before the intergovernmental conference? There is cross-party agreement that the important issues of quota hopping and reform of the common fisheries policy must be tackled.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. We acknowledge that the fishing industry faces major problems and that action must be taken. Those issues will be discussed at the intergovernmental conference, and we hope to have a debate about the IGC before it takes place.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend. May I add my support to that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) for the early establishment of Select Committees? May I draw her attention to the final report of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament, which emphasised that several important international questions will be coming up in the next few weeks? Early establishment of the Foreign Affairs Committee is especially important so that we can monitor what happens.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I accept his point that we need to get all Select Committees established as quickly as possible. I realise that different hon. Members have different priorities. The only solution is to try to get moving on all the Select Committees as soon as we can.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that the Prime Minister did not consult any Back-Bench Member before announcing changes to Prime Minister's questions? Will she apologise on behalf of the Prime Minister for that gross discourtesy to the House? Does she agree that the arrogance of the Prime Minister's behaviour in this matter makes a mockery of his reported claim that he wishes his Government to be the servant and not the master?

Mrs. Taylor

I am pretty sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not consult the hon. Gentleman, but I reject the rest of his remarks.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The Leader of the House said that she might reconsider the cut in time allocated to Northern Irish questions. Is she prepared to extend that reconsideration to the other national Departments? The cut is causing concern and was not in the Labour party manifesto. I welcome the fact that the new Minister for sport is proving as controversial in office as he did on the Back Benches. Will he make a statement on his proposal for a single British football side, which is causing consternation north of the border? Cutting Scottish questions is one thing; cutting the national side is quite another. We hope that he had his fingers crossed when he made the statement.

Mrs. Taylor

Scottish Members have an opportunity to ask questions at times other than Scottish questions. Scottish questions will still be 45 minutes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has made it clear that there will be opportunities to ask questions in the Scottish Grand Committee. I hope that hon. Members will use those opportunities. I have said that we are considering the balance of the Scottish Grand Committee and the problem of the absence of official Opposition Members. On the football team, I have a keen interest but I shall not comment on it now, except to say that it is National Heritage questions next week.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her appointment. Further to her reply to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), may I strongly urge her to provide time in the near future for a debate on fishing? There is a great fear in the industry that the Government are about to sell it down the river. They have already abandoned the previous Government's commitment to make the ending of quota hopping a priority at the intergovernmental conference. The Fisheries Minister is talking about reducing our catching capacity by 30 per cent. with no extra money for decommissioning, and is warning the industry that it will have to limit its days at sea. That means that my fishermen's livelihoods are at risk.

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his first comment. His statement that the Government are about to sell fishermen down the river is a bit rich coming from someone who supported the Conservative Government while so much damage was done to the fishing industry. This Government intend to pursue policies to deal with the problems of the fishing industry. We have made it clear that we will play a positive role in negotiating long-overdue improvements to the common fisheries policy.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Will the Leader of the House explain why the Government failed to consult even Madam Speaker before announcing changes to Prime Minister's questions? Was that a deliberate omission or an oversight for which she has apologised?

Mrs. Taylor

There has been significant misinterpretation of what Madam Speaker said yesterday. She made it clear that her consent was not required; she did not say that she was not consulted.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

I add my congratulations to the right hon. Lady. Given that it is clear that the Government intend to push through changes to Prime Minister's questions without consulting the House, may we have a debate on accountability in government so that we can tell the Prime Minister, while we are still allowed to do so, that Prime Minister's questions is about bringing him to account and is not a gift to be given as part of some personal fiefdom?

Mrs. Taylor

Again, it comes a bit rich from hon. Members who were in the House when the Government Benches were occupied by the Conservative party to talk about Government accountability, because that was when the Scott report was published. The amount of time allocated to Prime Minister's questions has not been reduced; the session has been made more sensible and purposeful.

Mr. John M. Taylor

Will the Leader of the House ask the President of the Board of Trade to make an early statement from the Dispatch Box about the guiding principles of the Government's policy on monopolies and mergers, and competition policy? Those are crucial areas of economic superintendence and the President of the Board of Trade should make a statement from the Dispatch Box on the issue at an early date.

Mrs. Taylor

The competition Bill was mentioned in the Queen's Speech and there will be opportunities to discuss the matter on the Floor of the House once the Bill is published.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

May I add my congratulations to the right hon. Lady? Will she join me in paying tribute to her predecessor, who did so much and served that office extremely well on behalf of the whole House? Will she reflect on the fact that, when the previous Parliament expanded the role of the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees, it was not intended to substitute that scrutiny for scrutiny in the House? The idea that cross-examination by largely friendly Members of Parliament north of the border in the Scottish Grand Committee is a substitute for cross-examination of Ministers by Conservative Members who nevertheless represent the aspirations of 500,000 voters in Scotland emphasises that the Government seek to protect Ministers from proper accountability to the House.

Mrs. Taylor

I am more than happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of my predecessor, Tony Newton, as I did at the end of the last Session. His occupancy of my position did great service to the House. We should be grateful for what he did, and I am happy to have that placed on record.

On the hon. Gentleman's comments about affairs in Scotland and Wales, it is extremely difficult for Labour Members to take lessons from Conservative Members about Scotland or Wales.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will the right hon. Lady ensure that the Deputy Prime Minister, in his capacity as Secretary of State for Transport, comes to the Dispatch Box at an early date to make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's attitude towards the proposed alliance between British and American airlines and on progress between the United States Government and the UK Government on a new air service agreement? Will she confirm that those matters will be decided by the Government, not by Neil Kinnock in Brussels?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman makes allegations at the end of his questions which should not have been made, but I shall draw his general comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. I am not sure whether a statement is needed, but I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend is aware of those points. He will wind up the Queen's Speech debate next week.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

May I ask the right hon. Lady whether, in her new role, she has made representations to the Chancellor about his hasty and ill-considered decision to abandon direct democratic control of the fixing of interest rates without preceding that by a debate or at least a statement in the House?

Mrs. Taylor

No, I have not.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

May I join in the congratulations to the right hon. Lady on her new appointment but also join calls made by the Scottish National party for the new Minister for sport to make a statement to the House? Does she agree that his short tenure of that position so far has included, first, an obviously insincere taking of the oath and specious excuses—totally unconvincingly made—when he realised that that had been caught on camera and, secondly, the resignation of an extremely distinguished man as chairman of the Sports Council? Coupled with what the leader of the Scottish National party referred to—turning upside down the prospects for football in this country—is it not already clear that the new Sports Minister will have the second shortest tenure of office in the new Government, beaten only by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), who could stomach the new Government for only three days before leaving?

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

How long did the hon. Gentleman stay in Blackpool?

Mr. Hawkins

Five years.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that the intervention answers the point rather well. I reject that criticism of my hon. Friend, and I welcome the hon. Member to his new seat.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Although I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her appointment, does she agree that one consequence of the Government's announcement of changes to Prime Minister's questions is to halve the opportunities available each week for the Leader of the Opposition or, for that matter, the leaders of the other parties in the House, to hold the Prime Minister to account? Surely she accepts that that amounts to a serious diminution in the accountability of the Executive to the legislature.

Mrs. Taylor

That is patent nonsense.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her position. She said earlier that she did not want to impose any changes on the House, but does she not realise that that is exactly what she has done by changing the format of Prime Minister's Question Time without consultation? She has also said that she is now prepared to consult other hon. Members because of the problems posed by cutting the time available for Scottish and Welsh questions. If she had consulted at the very beginning, such problems would not exist.

Prime Minister's questions is not only an opportunity for Conservative Back Benchers to question the Prime Minister; it is an opportunity for all Back-Bench Members to question him. Surely, therefore, any changes that take place should involve consultation with the whole House. Is not this one of the first examples of new Labour: big majority; enormous arrogance?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that the hon. Gentleman should learn something about humility in light of the decision by the electorate a fortnight ago. As for the rota for Question Time, perhaps I might remind the House that it has never been fixed in stone. It is not part of the Standing Orders of the House. The rota is always determined by the Government, and it changes when Departments merge or separate.

We are always willing to hear representations about how Question Time generally could be improved, and I hope that the new Select Committee will consider such matters. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we are all very aware that it will not just be Conservative Members who will wish to question the Prime Minister.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

May I, too, also congratulate the right hon. Lady on her new post? May I also welcome the indication that she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) that she is prepared to look again at the time available for questions on the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom?

When can we expect the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to sit? Will it provide other opportunities for us to hold the Government to account through questions because, as I am sure the right hon. Lady knows, there is a greater need for accountability in Northern Ireland because of the much wider range of responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the absence of local government in Northern Ireland and the absence, for the moment, of any proposals by the Government for devolution? Bearing in mind the right hon. Lady's comments on the Scottish Grand Committee, will she look at the arrangements for the Northern Ireland Grand Committee so that it can reflect where those from the largest party of Northern Ireland happen to sit?

Mrs. Taylor

I know that there will always be questions about the balance on the Grand Committees and I know that different hon. Members have different views. It will be difficult to balance all those interests and to satisfy everyone. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we appreciate the need for proper accountability in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will also acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has kept in close touch with everyone about the range of issues involved.

On the specific question about the rota for parliamentary questions, all I would ask the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, everyone else, to bear in mind is that were there to be an increase in the time allocated for questions on one matter, there would have to be a decrease in the time available for questions on another matter.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

May I ask a question relating to Select Committees? Could the right hon. Lady advise us on the appointment of the Select Committee on European Legislation, which has the specific function of scrutinising directives and regulations that emerge from Europe? That subject doubtless exercises Conservative Members, but it must exercise Labour Members as well. The matter is particularly important in relation to the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy; the common fisheries policy was a major issue during the general election campaign. The Prime Minister refused to sign the pledge committing his party to abolishing quota hopping. What priority will the Government place on the common fisheries policy in the run-up to, and during, the intergovernmental conference?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Lady will know that my right hon. Friends have made it clear, and I have repeated today from the Dispatch Box, that fisheries policy is one of our major concerns. I have said that we intend to play a positive role in negotiating improvements to the common fisheries policy, and we stand by that. I acknowledge what she says about the need for the early establishment of a wide range of Committees. We do not want to deny the opportunity for scrutiny where it is required. I think that many hon. Members will be anxious to serve on the Committees and I hope that we can establish them as quickly as possible.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

The Government are of course entitled to change policy on GCHQ if that is their wish and if the change is contained in their manifesto. I am sure that it was a slip of the tongue, but the Leader of the House seemed to imply, in reply to an earlier question, that because the matter was contained in the Labour party's manifesto, there was no need for a statement on it. It would be a dangerous precedent to set if we were not to be entitled to debate matters or have a statement on them simply because they were in a party manifesto. I am sure that the right hon. Lady would want to correct that point.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is gracious to say that we are entitled to change policy on GCHQ. Yes, we are—and we have. There is no need for a statement. The debate on the Queen's Speech is wide ranging, and if hon. Members want to raise the issue, they are entitled to do so.