HC Deb 22 May 1997 vol 294 cc839-48 3.31 pm
Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for after the Whitsun recess?

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

The business for the first week back after the recess will be as follows:

  • MONDAY 2 JUNE—Until 10 pm, Second Reading of the Education (Schools) Bill.
  • Motion on the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 (Revival of Section 3) Order.
  • TUESDAY 3 JuNE—Consideration in Committee of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill.
  • WEDNESDAY 4 JUNE—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.
  • Starting at 3.30 pm, conclusion of consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill.
  • Motion on the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons.
  • THURSDAY 5 JuNE—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Education (Schools) Bill.
  • FRIDAY 6 JUNE—Debate on the governance of London on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
  • MONDAY 9 JUNE—Debate on the European Union on a Government motion.
  • Motion on the Draft Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 compensation scheme.

Mr. Goodlad

I thank the right hon. Lady. May I remind her that she said that she would give us two weeks' business, where possible? Can she give any indication of the likely business for the rest of the week beginning Monday 9 June?

We are grateful that the Committee stage of the referendums Bill is to be taken on the Floor of the House. Can the Leader of the House give us a commitment, which she could not last week, that all constitutional Bills will similarly be taken on the Floor?

Can she say—rather more precisely than her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland did yesterday—when the White Papers on the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will be published? Does she believe that Parliament's right to amend the legislation following the referendums will be constrained by the results of those referendums or not? Does she agree that the Government's plans to introduce a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly diminish the authority of the House? Will she undertake to provide more time, if necessary, for the House to reflect on the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill?

Will the Leader of the House provide more than one day for consideration in Committee and for the Third Reading of the Education (Schools) Bill, not least as it is the Governments's intention not to publish that important Bill until tomorrow, when the House will have risen for the Whitsun recess?

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the debate on Monday 9 June will be the pre-Amsterdam intergovernmental conference debate, and that that will be the first day only of a two-day debate to allow for contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House who will wish to participate in large numbers?

Will a White Paper or other document be published before the debate on the governance of London on Friday 6 June?

Does the Leader of the House agree that the debate on the modernisation of House of Commons procedures will be a serious one, in which many hon. Members will wish to participate, and that it is most inconvenient that it should be taken at the end of what may turn out to be a late night on the Committee stage of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill? Would it not be more appropriate to take it at the beginning rather than at the end of a day?

Will the right hon. Lady give time for a debate on the massive increase in political appointments in Whitehall, which is giving rise to increasing concern about the potential politicisation of the civil service by the Government? [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady will wish to compare the number of political appointments made by this Government in Whitehall with those made by the previous Government. It will be a salutary figure, particularly for Labour Members who have come here as Lobby fodder.

We welcome the Government's expression of their determination to set up the Select Committees as soon as possible—an intention which we support. When will the motions to set up the House of Commons Commission and the Select Committees be tabled? In particular, when will the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges be set up? It is clear that there will be a strong desire on both sides of the House to proceed as a matter of urgency, not least in the light of the allegations about the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar).

Will the Leader of the House please tell us the proposed date for the Budget, and whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a further statement on the Bank of England in the light of the Governor's reported proposal to resign over the proposed changes to the regulation of financial services?

May I remind the Leader of the House that on Tuesday, the advance copy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement, which should have been in the hands of my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer by 3 o'clock at the latest, was in fact not delivered until after 3.15? Can the right hon. Lady confirm that she will make representations to her Cabinet colleagues to ensure that such a practice will not recur?

Does the right hon. Lady accept that, following the Prime Minister's remarks at Question Time yesterday, there is now great uncertainty about the Government's proposed windfall tax, and will she confirm that it is the Government's intention to allow time for a proper debate in the House on that matter in advance of the Budget, so that some of those uncertainties can be resolved? [Interruption.] Watch this space.

Finally, will the right hon. Lady ensure that her ministerial colleagues do not follow the Deputy Prime Minister's example in seeking to talk out the debate on the Queen's Speech—an humiliation from which he was rescued only by your intervention, Madam Speaker—and that Ministers make some small effort to abide by our rules of procedure?

Mrs. Taylor

I shall endeavour to answer all the questions that have been put to me, which I hope will reduce the number of questions that others might put later, particularly in view of the time.

I hope that we can move towards achieving our ambition to produce two weeks' business, but I think that the shadow Leader of the House forgot that next week is a recess, so he does have the second week's business, and some indication of what is happening.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that we were taking the referendums Bill on the Floor of the House, and he asked whether all constitutional Bills could be dealt with in that way. I have nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to him last week about that. The Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland have made it clear that the White Papers will be produced in good time for proper consideration by those who will vote in the referendums.

The right hon. Gentleman invited me to anticipate what will happen after the referendums. That is somewhat strange, as it would be unreasonable to second-guess the outcome. We are clear that, if the referendums result in a mandate for the devolution proposals, we will press ahead with legislation. We believe that a mandate was given in the general election, and the referendums invite people to confirm that opinion.

I regret that the Education (Schools) Bill, which will be considered next week, is not published today, although the long title is available. From education questions, it is clear that Conservative Members are aware of the content of that Bill. We have increased the time for Second Reading at the specific request of the Opposition. Therefore, hon. Members will have a considerable time in which to make their views known.

I confirm that the debate on the European Union will be the pre-Amsterdam debate. It will be a one-day debate, which is in line with the previous Government's practice of holding a one-day debate in such circumstances.

I do not think that there will be a White Paper in advance of the debate on London, which will be an opportunity for hon. Members to raise issues with the Ministers with direct responsibility. There should be a fair amount of interest in that debate.

Modernisation of procedures is a serious issue, and I hope that much interest will be shown from both sides of the House. The right hon. Gentleman should remember that the motion to establish the Select Committee on modernisation will be the second stage. We shall debate modernisation tonight, and I hope that we shall have the attendance in the Chamber that the right hon. Gentleman anticipates.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on making his complaint about the increase in political appointments and the politicisation of the civil service with a straight face, although his face was about to crack towards the end of his remarks.

We need no lectures from Conservatives Members on that issue. The right hon. Gentleman referred to my hon. Friends as Lobby fodder. He has not got it quite right: my hon. Friends are here to make their voices heard. In the three-hour Adjournment debate yesterday, it was evident that Labour Members want to make their voices heard. During the whole three hours, there was only one Conservative contribution, there was not even a winding-up speech by an Opposition Front-Bench Member, and at times the Front Bench was empty. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is complaining with his Chief Whip's hat on because he has no Lobby fodder.

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's comments about Select Committees. I am grateful for what he said through the usual channels about hoping to establish Select Committees as soon as possible. We share that feeling, and I hope that we can make early progress after the Whitsun recess.

I cannot give the House today a date for the Budget, but we shall make an announcement as soon as possible. If the shadow Chancellor did not receive yesterday's statement by 3 pm, that was wrong, and we should apologise for it. I have mentioned the matter to colleagues, and we shall take steps to ensure that statements that should be available to the official Opposition and anyone else, including you, Madam Speaker, will be delivered at the appropriate time. We complained about such slippage when we were in opposition, so we have no reason to repeat it.

As for the windfall tax, I think that our policy purpose is clear, and I see no point in debating the matter before the Budget. With respect to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I thought that the situation at the end of the debate was handled admirably.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Of necessity, that was a long exchange. I do not intend to take long statements from Back Benchers; they should be brisk, limited to one question and directly to the point.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 38?

[That this House welcomes the commitment of over 70 heads of government, including the British Prime Minister to attend Earth Summit II in New York from 23rd to 27th June; calls for an early parliamentary debate to ensure that the British delegation is fully briefed on this House's concerns, concerning climate, finance, forests and fresh water to ensure a sustainable future for the planet.]

The motion concerns the summit that is to take place in New York at the end of the month. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that it is extremely important. Will she arrange for the House to be able to discuss global warming and environmental sustainability before the large and important British delegation goes to the conference?

Mrs. Taylor

I am not sure that it will be possible to arrange the kind of debate that my hon. Friend envisages. He may know, however, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced his intention to attend the summit, and he will be addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York towards the end of June. The Government have made it clear that the goal of sustainable development is one of the major challenges we face, is important to Government policy, and will be taken on board by all Ministers. Although I cannot promise the debate that my hon. Friend wants, I hope that he will think that that is a step in the right direction.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In view of the leadership bid that we heard just now from the acting shadow Leader of the House, may I reassure the House that I am making no such bid in relation to my party?

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Not until the second round.

Mr. Tyler

We might make a bid for the leadership of the hon. Gentleman's party in the second round.

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us a specific assurance about important announcements relating to local government, particularly in respect of the capping of local authority expenditure limits, and both the release and the distribution of capital receipts from the right-to-buy programme? Those matters are extremely important to local authorities, as I am sure the Leader of the House understands, and it would be intolerable if such statements were made outside the House rather than in the House, so that hon. Members can hear them and explore their implications.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman will know that the issue of capping was raised by one of his hon. Friends during yesterday's Adjournment debate. We believe that caps are necessary in certain circumstances, and, when an authority is capped, it has 28 days in which to challenge the decision. The hon. Gentleman may also have noticed that his hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has secured a debate on Wednesday week about one of the authorities concerned.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

May I ask my right hon. Friend—in a constructive way—whether it would be possible, during the week when we return, to hear a statement outlining what the Government intend to do to ensure that all parties represented in the House of Commons must themselves ensure that hon. Members have a vote in the leadership ballot? Would that not prevent a situation in which 164 Tory Members of Parliament can decide who should be the Leader of the Opposition?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will, I think, acknowledge that I have no responsibility for elections in other parties. [Interruption.] The hon. Member says, "Quite right." I must admit that I am very glad that I do not have any such responsibility, and I think that many Opposition Members wish that they did not, either.

I am, however, concerned about the fact that there are occasions on which the leadership ballot dominates the official Opposition to such an extent that they spend all their time on that, and very little time considering the business of the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Can the Leader of the House clarify the position relating to the referendums Bill? Will there be a timetable motion before we debate it on the Floor of the House? If so, how much time does the right hon. Lady expect that the House will be given to discuss that extremely important Bill? Is she prepared to extend the time when she sees how many amendments have been tabled, if there are a great many?

Mrs. Taylor

We have provided a day and a half for Second Reading. The Bill is simple and straightforward; there has already been considerable debate on it, and more will follow today. We are providing two full days, and I hope that that will be adequate. Given the nature of the Bill, I think that it will be.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the last Government left a number of nasty little time bombs ticking away in the transport world, including the franchises that have been granted to privatised railways. Will she assure us that, when the Select Committees are set up, there will be a separate Select Committee on Transport to consider many of the problems that we face?

Mrs. Taylor

I am sympathetic to the need for a separate Select Committee, which will form part of the discussions through the usual channels.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the NATO summit takes place in July in Madrid. One of the most important items on the agenda will be the enlargement of NATO, which will have profound effects not only on the defence of our realm but on the cost of NATO membership. As no specific day was set aside for a debate on defence during the debates on the Loyal Address, could the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that the House will have an opportunity to debate defence matters between now and the end of June? In particular, some reports from the Select Committee on Defence in the last Parliament are still on the Table awaiting a Government reply.

Mrs. Taylor

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The parliamentary timetable is extremely crowded, but I will look at the matter that he raises. I remind him that there will be Defence questions on 16 June, during which he could raise some of the issues that he mentions.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a bit rich for Tory Members who have already taken part in these exchanges to ask for extra time for common market debates, when, not so long ago, in the memory of almost everybody here, we had to drag a Tory Minister kicking and screaming from a Committee Room upstairs to have even a one-day debate on the common market?

Will she ask the Secretary of State for Social Security to look not only into the backlog in Child Support Agency applications but into the growing backlog of appeals on disability living allowance? We shall have to clean up the two Tory Acts relating to those matters. That will take a bit of time, but we must have some assurances that those backlogs will be removed.

Mrs. Taylor

I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments about EU debates in the past. I hope that we will not see such spectacles in future. He asked about social security issues and outstanding work. We all know from our casework the problems that the CSA and other agencies have created. I know that my hon. Friends in the appropriate Department are anxious to streamline procedures and to move quickly, because, as my hon. Friend says, there is a significant backlog of work, which requires a great deal of attention.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The right hon. Lady referred to the spectacle, as she put it, of a past debate. Of course, the need to hold that debate on the Floor of the House had to do with the stability pact. Does the right hon. Lady acknowledge that the forthwith motion that was tabled in consequence of the recommendations of the Select Committee on European Legislation has not yet been taken? Can she assure us that it will be dealt with soon? The Prime Minister is going to Noorddjik tomorrow, and that means that there will be a European Council meeting without a subsequent statement. Does she not agree that that is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs?

Mrs. Taylor

There will be a chance to raise all those issues in the debate that I have announced. The debate on 9 June will be to discuss all the issues raised at Amsterdam. I am sure that, given his usual interest in these matters, the hon. Gentleman will try to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, during that debate.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Thanks to the initiative of hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey), we have had an Adjournment debate on opencast mining. May we have a fully fledged debate on this matter? Labour published a 10-point programme on opencast mining which I used widely in my constituency, and we are keen to raise some matters from that. For instance, I should like to raise the question of the Avenue Court works, because I twice asked the previous Government to call in the planning agreements to operate in that area, and I ask for that to be done by this Government.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that subject, because, like him, I have a constituency interest, and, also like him, I campaigned on the issue during the general election. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth was fortunate to have an early debate on this, and I know that opencast mining concerns many people. I will bring my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of my ministerial colleagues.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Could the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement about the problems that are being experienced by Dayavanti Pictures, a film company that is trying to make a major feature film in the Scottish highlands? It has found that 16 of its cast and crew of 80 have suggested that they might be denied entry visas. A message has been passed to me in the past few seconds to the effect that circumstances might be improving.

Does the right hon. Lady understand that many of us had hoped that the behaviour of entry clearance officers would change with the change of Government, but that that does not seem to have happened? Does she appreciate that such matters are vital to Scotland's economy at a time when we are trying to market the country as a major film location? The behaviour of entry clearance officers is deeply insulting and embarrassing to the Asian community in Scotland, who have done so much work in trying to persuade this major film company to choose Scotland as a film location in Europe.

Mrs. Taylor

I will look into the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I presume that it is a matter of entry visas and work permits. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is here on the Bench, and has also noted the hon. Gentleman's comments. We have not had any messages in the last few seconds such as the hon. Gentleman has had, so perhaps we are not so up to date as him, but we will look into the issue.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

May I add my concern to that which has already been expressed that there should be an early opportunity to discuss early-day motion 38? The earth summit in New York is approaching. It will be attended by Heads of Government. We have a wonderful opportunity to put the environment at the heart of our new Government, after it was abandoned by the previous Government. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider the matter closely.

Mrs. Taylor

I note the comments of my hon. Friend. Perhaps this is a matter on which she and her colleagues could consider making an application for a Wednesday morning debate.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the right hon. Lady consider a short debate on standards in public life? Would it not give the House an opportunity to explore the paradox that, when the former Member of Parliament for Tatton was accused of impropriety, the Labour party said that he should be rejected from the House right away? As the Labour party has taken an entirely different attitude to the allegations in respect of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar), such a debate would provide an opportunity at this early stage in the Parliament to reject the charge of double standards, or perhaps no standards whatever.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman should welcome what the Labour party has done in Scotland in calling in the police. If there are any double standards, they have just been demonstrated by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)

Does my hon. Friend agree that any great reforming Labour Government would give priority first and foremost to its pensioners? When does she expect that the pensions review will take place? Has she seen and noted early-day motion 1, the first of this new Parliament?

[That this House celebrates with joy and hope the election of what will be a great reforming Labour Government; applauds its manifesto declaration that `all pensioners should share fairly in the increasing prosperity of the nation'; asserts that this can be achieved for the present generation of pensioners only by restoring the link between basic pensions and average earning; urges an immediate start to the promised manifesto review of 'all aspects of the basic pension and its value, second pensions including SERPS and community care' and a renewal of the commitment to retain SERPS.]

It expresses concern that, according to our manifesto declarations, pensioners should be able to share in the economic prosperity of the country as soon as possible. When does she expect the review and a debate in the House?

Mrs. Taylor

A review cannot take place overnight, but my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Social Security are considering the matter with a view to making progress as quickly as possible. I think that all hon. Members will acknowledge that it is a complex matter. We have made some clear commitments in the manifesto about the basic state pension as the foundation of pension provision, but an overall review will inevitably take some time.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I refer back to the question asked by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), about local authority capital receipts? The right hon. Lady failed to respond to that part of his question. When do the Government intend to make some statement on the matter? Is it their intention to allow the authority in question to retain its own capital receipts and spend them, or to take that money away from some authorities and distribute it elsewhere?

Mrs. Taylor

I have to remind the hon. Gentleman that it was his Government who froze capital receipts. We have made it clear that there will be action to release capital receipts on a phased basis as soon as possible. It was mentioned during the debate on the Queen's Speech. When we come to the next stage, the appropriate statements will be made.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

What is the prospect of a debate on Britain's aerospace industry? British Aerospace workers in my constituency are asking questions about grant aid for the CXX project—the future large aircraft project—and Raytheon workers are asking for a share of the Government's Astra project. Can my right hon. Friend help by providing a debate?

Mrs. Taylor

I am not sure whether we can have such a debate in the near future, but I will pass on my hon. Friend's concerns to right hon. Friends at the Department. My hon. Friend may want to consider that particular constituency interest as a matter on which to apply for an Adjournment Debate.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Will the right hon. Lady give priority to re-establishing the Select Committee on European Legislation and the associated Standing Committees? Will she assure the House that the Government will not agree to any European directive or other legislation that might now be pending until the proper process of parliamentary scrutiny has been followed through?

Mrs. Taylor

I have made it clear that I am extremely anxious to move quickly on the re-establishment of all Select Committees, and that would include all the Committees which also consider delegated or secondary legislation and European legislation.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

Will my right hon. Friend consider whether it might be possible to find some time in the near future for a major debate on foreign affairs? I understand that it was not possible to hold such debate on the Queen's Speech. I am sure that she will appreciate, however, that current conditions in Kashmir, in Sri Lanka and particularly in the middle east are of great concern to a number of hon. Members who would welcome the opportunity for such a major debate, when we could raise our concerns with Foreign Office Ministers.

Mrs. Taylor

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, because he has always taken an interest in foreign affairs. As I said earlier, the parliamentary timetable is somewhat crowded at the moment. It was decided through the usual channels that there would not be a foreign affairs debate during the Queen's Speech, which would have normally provided an opportunity for hon. Members to express their concerns. We are therefore aware that there is a potential gap for such a debate, but I can only repeat that the parliamentary timetable is somewhat crowded. It might be difficult to find a suitable space, but I will bear in mind my hon. Friend's representations.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Notwithstanding the right hon. Lady's earlier reply, may I urge her to give absolute priority to the establishment of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, since those of us on the Conservative Benches at least believe that that is the right place for this House to reassert its belief that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, whether in Glasgow, Govan or in Tatton?

Mrs. Taylor

I have made it clear that I am very much in favour of the Standards and Privileges Committee continuing its work as quickly as possible.

Mr. Dafis

May I add my voice to those of the two Labour Members who have stressed the importance of a debate on the Earth summit II? There are various ways in which that could be managed. It is terribly important that hon. Members who are interested should be able to convey to the Government the great importance that they attach to that major international event, probably the most important such event in which the Government will be involved this year. May I also suggest that there should be a statement following that summit?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman, who tabled the relevant early-day motion, is well known for his interest in such matters over many years, and I congratulate him on his persistence. He has said that the summit is an important event, and I hope that he will acknowledge that the Government have recognised it as such, because the Prime Minister himself has decided to attend. I will consider the hon. Gentleman's request about any possible need for a statement following the Earth Summit.