HC Deb 20 November 1997 vol 301 cc464-74 4.10 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 24 NOVEMBER—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.

TUESDAY 25 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

WEDNESDAY 26 NOVEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Until about 7 pm, Third Reading of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission Bill [Lords].

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Plant Varieties Bill.

THURSDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill [First Day].

FRIDAY 28 NOVEMBER—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows.

MONDAY 1 DECEMBER—Opposition Day [5th allotted day].

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

TUESDAY 2 DECEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill [Second Day].

WEDNESDAY 3 DECEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill [Third Day].

THURSDAY 4 DECEMBER—Debate on the European Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 5 DECEMBER—Debate on welfare to work on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that on Tuesday 25 November there will be a debate on biotechnological inventions in European Standing Committee B.

On Wednesday 26 November there will a debate on food law in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on harmful tax competition in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to know that it is proposed that on Tuesday 2 December there will be a debate on tobacco advertising in European Standing Committee B, and on Wednesday 3 December there will be a debate on part-time work, European works councils and parental leave in European Standing Committee B.

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

I do not usually announce in advance that there will be statements in the House, but it might be for the convenience of the House if I confirm that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a statement on his pre-Budget report on Tuesday next week.

[Tuesday 25 November:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 10510/97, Biotechnological Inventions. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-v (1997–98).

Wednesday 26 November:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community documents: 8150/97, Food Law; 8386/97, Consumer Health and Food Safety. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 155-ii (1997–98) and HC 1550-v (1997–98).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: COM(97)564 and 10427/97, Harmful Tax Competition. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-viii (1997–98).

Tuesday 2 December:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 6294/97 and Unnumbered, Tobacco Advertising. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vii (1997–98).

Wednesday 3 December:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 10230/97, Part-Time Work; 10975/97, European Works Councils; 10975/97, Parental Leave. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vi (1997–98).]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. As I said last week, it is greatly for the convenience of the House to have the draft business for the second week. I thank her also for giving information about the European Standing Committees and, in particular, the advance notice of the Chancellor's statement. That is very helpful for the House.

As the right hon. Lady may recall, last week, I expressed disappointment that the Minister without Portfolio had appeared before the House only once in the past six months and then only for five minutes. Will she please arrange for another and early occasion for the Minister to make a statement to the House, to explain his extraordinary speech yesterday to a Post Office and Civil Service College conference? Commenting on the Government's handling of what we have learnt to call the Bernie crisis, he said: We acted against our own principles—that honesty is the first principle of good communications". The right hon. Lady will readily realise that such a statement was either an admission or an accusation of dishonesty on the Minister's part. Which was it? I think that we should be told.

As Leader of the House, the right hon. Lady must be aware of the extraordinary treatment of the House by the President of the Board of Trade. The right hon. Lady has not appeared in the House for a debate since June and was even absent from her Department's oral questions today, which means that she will not have answered a question in the House between July and December. Will the Leader of the House arrange for her right hon. Friend to appear in the House next week, first, to reassure us of her continued existence and, secondly, to answer questions on the duties of Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry and to explain the issues and industries that they can and cannot handle, given their interests?

Such an occasion will enable the President of the Board of Trade to explain to the House when the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe sold his shares in BP and to which charities the shares were given.

Will the right hon. Lady tell us whether there is any authority or body that can prevent a member of the House from carrying out parliamentary duties on behalf of his or her constituents? If there is not, why have we not seen the hon. Members for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) and for West Renfrewshire (Mr. Graham) recently? Can the right hon. Lady tell us when they were last here and explain to the House what are the rights of constituents who elected them to represent their interests in the House? In the absence from the House of their elected Members, how are those rights being safeguarded?

Will the right hon. Lady comment on the almost incredible bill—some £330,000—casually run up by the Lord Chancellor for the redecoration of his apartments? The new wallpaper alone—we must call it the people's wallpaper—cost £60,000. Is not that the world's most expensive former fat-cat basket?

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments about the extra information that I have been able to give. I shall endeavour to give the House as much forward information as possible, but I hope that the right hon. Lady and others will realise that it may not be possible on all occasions.

In respect of the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, I would say that I wish that Conservative Members had been as open about their funding position as Labour Members have been. Over the years, that would have saved us a great deal of trouble.

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade was absent from parliamentary questions today because she was fulfilling an engagement, the date of which was set by the previous Government, which involved opening a trade fair in Australia. The date could not be changed because the preparations had been made so far in advance. On the duties of other Ministers, it was made clear again at Question Time that there are no problems with the interests of any of the Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry, which is what we would expect.

The right hon. Lady asked about the attendance of hon. Members in the House. I believe that that is a matter between them and their constituents.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Lord Chancellor's official residence. I think that you, Madam Speaker, will be particularly aware that only two residential apartments in the Palace of Westminster have been preserved and renovated to the standard that we would expect. The Lord Chancellor's accommodation is being changed in a way that was approved some time ago by the House of Lords Administration and Works Sub-Committee. It is a new arrangement that part of that apartment will be open to the public. We would expect work done within the Palace of Westminster to be of a high standard.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on Tuesday this week the British Medical Association published a report calling for the legalisation of cannabis derivatives for medical use? The BMA described that as a landmark statement. is not there a case for Health Ministers or Home Office Ministers to come to the House at an early stage to tell us about the Government's response to that important BMA document?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that there is any reason for a statement on that matter in the near future. My hon. Friend will be aware that procedures are laid down for the testing of any potential medicine. It is always open to drug companies or others to apply for licences, and that can be done for cannabis derivatives. I think that derivatives called cannabinoids have been tested, but there have not been the proper clinical trials to support a hasty decision.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Are the Government examining the various expressions of unease since the debate on Monday evening on the report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges—not about the verdict in that particular case, but about the methodology used? Many hon. Members think that there is an urgent need for a review.

I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the comments of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who has suggested that a Speaker's Conference of all parties should address the issue. I am sure that the Leader of the House will accept that, in the light of the debate, hon. Members on both sides of the House are uneasy about the process of self-regulation.

Will we have an early opportunity to debate the benefit cuts that will be introduced by statutory instrument No. 1841? Has the right hon. Lady seen early-day motion 451, which has been signed by hon. Members from all parties and shows the considerable concern in the House about the matter?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Council Tax Benefit (General) Amendment Regulations 1997 (S.I., 1997, No. 1841), dated 28th July 1997, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th July be annulled.]

Was the right hon. Lady involved in any way in the consultations with the management of the BBC on the scheduling of the Radio 4 programme "Week in Westminster", which is highly regarded by hon. Members and by opinion formers throughout the country? I draw her attention to early-day motion 458, which again, has been signed by senior Members from all parties.

Has there been any progress on the statement that we were expecting some weeks ago, and to which I referred during business questions two weeks ago, on bovine spongiform encephalopathy? The right hon. Lady will recall that my party asked the Government to set up a judicial inquiry into the shambles that occurred under the previous Government. We had hoped for an announcement by now.

Mrs. Taylor

On the hon. Gentleman's first point about the Standards and Privileges Committee, I am glad to have his endorsement of the decision that the House made on Monday night, which I felt was the right decision. I sat through the whole of the debate, so I am aware that there is unease about the methodology. However, there is also some concern, which I share, that we should not rip up the progress that we have made so far on the basis of one case, which, as I said on Monday night, I hope is the worst case with which the House has to deal.

In the first instance, it is up to the Standards and Privileges Committee to consider any changes that it may wish to recommend to the House in respect of its procedures, so we should await any conclusions that the Committee reaches.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about the early-day motion and the social security regulations, discussions will take place through the usual channels in the usual way.

In respect of the BBC, representations were made some time ago. Concern was expressed not only by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but by Madam Speaker, who tried to make progress on that matter.

On BSE, the hon. Gentleman is aware of what we have said and he knows where the blame lies for the problems that we have inherited. I shall bring his further comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

Can my right hon. Friend explain why the first meeting of the Deregulation Committee has not taken place? Can she say when it will meet?

Mrs. Taylor

There has been a problem with the first meeting of the Deregulation Committee. It is the practice of the House for the most senior member of the Committee to call its first meeting. Although that has not happened yet, I can tell my hon. Friend that agreement was reached this afternoon, and I think that the first meeting will be called for Monday.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we have an early debate—it might be entitled, "The Terracotta Army"—arising from the remarks made in the House last night by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)? He said: I would, in the more liberal times that prevailed in my party before the election, have joined the Liberal Democrats in the Lobby in support of their amendment, which comes closest to my own views but, as Labour Members know, shortly before the election, the standing orders of the Labour party were changed so that to vote against a Labour Government is now an offence against those standing orders and leads to withdrawal of the Whip and debarment from further candidature."—[Official Report, 19 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 398.] Surely that statement raises issues of the most profound parliamentary and constitutional weight. After those remarks, surely it must be time for the House to take an interest in the matter and attempt to liberate hon. Members of all parties from the tyranny that now seems to prevail in the Labour party.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that my hon. Friends need liberation with the help of the right hon. Gentleman.

Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

May we have an early debate or statement on the effectiveness of the summer literacy scheme, which today's report from the Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority states has demonstrably raised young people's motivation and enthusiasm for school and for reading? May we debate extending the scheme—so that it might benefit my constituency?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend raises an issue that is very dear to my heart, not least because Earlsheaton high school in Dewsbury ran one of the pilot projects. I saw for myself the benefit that the project brought to many children—not only, as she says, in motivation, but in reading ability. The Government have said that we wish to extend the scheme and allow other children to benefit from it. Although I do not think that a statement on the scheme's success is necessary, I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to press for schemes next year in their constituencies.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Last week, the right hon. Lady answered in a most dismissive manner an important question that I asked her, saying that she needed no lessons from the Conservative party. I was not trying to teach her a lesson in any sense, and I should be grateful if she answered my question in a reasonable manner. Does she not agree that for the Government to spend £750 million on the millennium dome without the sanction of or debate in the House is a monstrous, contemptible mistreatment of Parliament?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman should remember some basic facts, and I shall remind him of two. The first is that that type of expenditure will be audited. The second, very basic fact is that the expenditure was started under the previous Government.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the workings of the Highways Agency—thereby not only allowing hon. Members to bring to light some of the problems with the M5 widening, which has caused many difficulties for hon. Members representing the south-west, but giving us a chance to investigate why the agency has allowed two years' work and £50 million of public money more for the contract than the independent consultants recommended? Important questions must be answered, as many hon. Members believe that all with that Highways Agency contract is not as it seems.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not aware of the problems with the contract or the scheme that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. He may wish to apply for an Adjournment debate or something of that type. I shall certainly bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, because I cannot find time for a debate in the very near future.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady re-examine the exchanges on 17 November, when the Government said that they could not introduce plans to reform and improve the Child Support Agency until next year? In my constituency, public confidence in the CSA is sliding again. Moreover, as we come near to Christmas, earnings rise because of bonuses and extra overtime, providing the CSA with another opportunity to get its calculations wrong. We simply cannot go on with the agency as it is. It has had chance after chance to get it right. Cannot the Government, after nearly seven months in office, produce something before Christmas to improve it?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present during business questions a couple of weeks ago, when there were several requests from Labour Members for a debate on the Child Support Agency and when I expressed my own dismay at the workings of the CSA. It is something of a cheek for Conservative Members to say that we should put right in seven months the problems created by the previous Government over many years. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is attempting to make progress on the matter and, of course, we had a debate on the problems surrounding the CSA some time ago.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on reports that members of the Conservative party are to be given psychological and psychometric tests to ensure that they are appropriate candidates for Parliament? Could not that involve us in some large-scale expenditure, in view of the redundancy payments necessary for many Conservative Members?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is tempting to follow his line of thought and consider what the outcome might be, but I think it would be better if I said that the internal arrangements for the selection of candidates are a matter for the Conservative party.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the Leader of the House make time in the very near future for a debate on the purpose of the Register of Members' Interests? Given that in 1995 the now Deputy Prime Minister went to Silverstone and declared his visit, and that in 1996 the now Paymaster General went to Silverstone with his family and declared his visit, would not the Prime Minister relish the opportunity to explain why he believes that he is above the rules of the House, according to the advice that I am given, and failed to declare his visit in 1996? Would it not also give the Prime Minister the opportunity to declare the involvement of one David Ward, a professional lobbyist working on behalf of the FIA, and explain why a professional lobbyist wanted him to go to Silverstone?

Mrs. Taylor

I would hope that the purpose of the Register of Members' Interests was clear to all hon. Members. Of course, we now have a code of conduct, which should help to guide hon. Members on such matters. On the hon. Gentleman's wider point, I admitted last week that I thought that it was tempting to arrange a general debate on the funding of both political parties, and it is still very tempting.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Given the Government's recent decision to refuse to hold a public inquiry into Manchester United's plans to build on 100 acres of farmland at Carrington Moss, will the Leader of the House call the Deputy Prime Minister to the House to explain the Government's new policy of not protecting green-belt land?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that there is scope for a debate on that matter in the near future. As I said last week, the Government are committed to their green-belt policy but, under this Government, as under the previous Government, every decision has to be considered on its merits.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Will the right hon. Lady confirm her commitment to the Select Committee system? Does she agree that Select Committees have an important role to play, on behalf of Parliament, in investigating the activities of the Executive? In that connection, will she initiate an early debate on the role of Select Committees and undertake to read the transcript of yesterday afternoon's meeting of the Select Committee on European Legislation, when the Chairman tried to gag the three Conservative Members on that Committee and prevent them from asking questions which were in order and very, very pertinent?

Mrs. Taylor

I can confirm that I think that Select Committees are extremely important. I do not think that we need a debate on their role at the moment but, of course, the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of the Commons intends to consider how best to use the talents of hon. Members, especially on Select Committees. As for what happened yesterday, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that his colleagues were capable of being gagged, it is a remarkable admission. I do not believe that the Chairman of any Committee of the House would deliberately seek to gag hon. Members.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have announced a working party to develop citizenship education in schools. Will she allow parliamentary time for a debate on the importance of promoting that, in both formal and informal education? Many young people are alienated and disillusioned and do not feel connected to the political world that we inhabit. Is it not important to encourage, wherever possible, the involvement of young people, so that they have a greater say in decisions that affect their lives?

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the establishment of the working party. I hope that all hon. Members agree that citizenship education is an important objective for schools. I cannot find Government time for a debate in the near future, but it might be possible to debate that, along with many other issues, when we consider forthcoming education legislation. Many hon. Members might be interested in contributing to the debate on how best to deliver such education. Perhaps my hon. Friend could apply for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Lady find time next week for a statement by the President of the Board of Trade? Following the press conference earlier this year by the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, Lord Simon, it is vital that we should be told whether he has sold all his BP shares, when he did so, what profit he made from them and to which charity or charities that profit has been donated.

Mrs. Taylor

There is no need for a statement. It is striking how obsessive the Conservatives are on that issue, mainly because they cannot come to terms with the fact that senior business men support the Labour party.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Further to that question, what does the Leader of the House regard as a reasonable attitude from Ministers to questions asked in the House? Some Conservative Members have been asking for some months for clear, simple details about the timing of the sale of certain shares. Those are matters of great public import. Will the Leader of the House give us and her colleagues some guidance on the standards that should be maintained in answering such questions?

Mrs. Taylor

If questions relate to matters covered by the code of guidance to Ministers, and the permanent secretary and the Cabinet Secretary are satisfied with the procedures that Ministers have adopted, there is no need for further questions.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

In an interview at the weekend, the Prime Minister expressed dissatisfaction that he could be thought capable of any wrongdoing. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate, so that the representatives of the people can express their apology to the dear leader and so that he might have the opportunity to explain why he alone among his co-religionists has escaped taint of original sin? Has he become a Pelagian?

Mrs. Taylor

I hardly think that that is worthy of an answer.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

As a new Member, I understand that my main role is to ask the Executive pertinent questions. Since May, I have been astonished by the Government's refusal to answer questions. We had an appalling example yesterday, when the Prime Minister slapped down my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). At Trade and Industry questions today, time after time questions were not answered. Could we have a full debate on the role of Question Time?

Mrs. Taylor

We have had a question at last. The answer is no.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for hon. Members to debate disability living allowance and the review of disability benefits? Hon. Members have shown their interest in the issue by signing early-day motion 448.

[That this House is gravely concerned by the implementation of the benefit integrity project which is resulting in apparently arbitrary and superficial decisions currently being made to withdraw disability living allowance and associated benefits from many people with severe disabilities, some of whom had been awarded the benefit for life; and accordingly asks the Government to take urgent action to ensure that persons suffering from disabilities which prevent them from taking employment are treated sympathetically and that benefits are not withdrawn without proper reasons.]

Hon. Members have also signed early-day motion 483. They are clearly concerned on behalf of their constituents about the way in which the benefit integrity programme is proceeding and the fact that it is leading to the withdrawal of disability living allowance. They are concerned about current Government reviews, which could lead to cuts in the benefits or their removal. May we have a debate so that those matters can be aired and we can find out the Government's true intentions?

Mrs. Taylor

We had Social Security questions earlier this week, and I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman asked a question then. We have, of course, a duty to the taxpayer to ensure that all benefit payments are made correctly. The hon. Gentleman will he aware that there is a comprehensive spending review, and benefits for disabled people are part of that. There is nothing that we can usefully add at this stage.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if she acceded to requests for a debate on Ministers not answering questions in this House, I would be able to point out that Lady Thatcher's Government had a Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who did not answer a single question in this House, the reason being that he was not a Member of this House, but a Member of the House of Lords?

As I am in a helpful mood, will my right hon. Friend pass on to the Chancellor of the Exchequer before next Tuesday's statement the thought that as tax income has risen by about £10 billion in the first nine months of this financial year and as the lone parent premium costs only £65 million, the premium could be kept quite easily?

Mrs. Taylor

As my hon. Friend is in such a helpful mood, I guarantee that I shall pass his comments to the Chancellor who, I am sure, will deal with those matters on Tuesday.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Following from what my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said, we now have a point of order for your consideration. The Leader of the House has repeatedly refused to answer the questions put by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and by other Conservative Members. Should we not be given proper answers, especially to questions about the role of the Minister without Portfolio, the Secretary of State for Health and the Prime Minister? There has been no statement on the many unanswered questions arising from the Bernie affair and we have simply had refusals to answer at Prime Minister's Question Time. is it not clear that the Government have entirely ignored their role, which is to answer questions and not to meet them with other questions or to be dismissive?

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is trying to extend business questions. I do not think that he tried to catch my eye to put a question to the Leader of the House. As he and the House know, Ministers answer questions. They are responsible for their comments, which are nothing to do with the Chair. They are responsible for what they say in the House.