HC Deb 02 April 1998 vol 309 cc1424-35 4.13 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

I would like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 6 APRIL—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on trade union recognition, followed by a debate on the state of manufacturing industry. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

TUESDAY 7 APRIL—Second Reading of the National Lottery Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 8 APRIL—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House, which will include the usual three-hour pre-recess debate.

That will be followed in the afternoon by Second Reading of the Crime and Disorder Bill [Lords].

The House will then rise for the Easter recess.

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

MONDAY 20 APRIL—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Bank of England Bill.

Second Reading of the Data Protection Bill [Lords].

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 pm.

TUESDAY 21 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.

Motion on section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act.

WEDNESDAY 22 APRIL—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Scotland Bill (first day).

THURSDAY 23 APRIL—Debate on the Royal Air Force on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 24 April—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that, on Wednesday 8 April, there will be a debate on convergence of the telecommunications, media and information technology sectors in European Standing Committee B.

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

I do not anticipate being able to give further information next week about the business for the second week back after the recess, and I therefore do not intend to make a business statement next week unless the provisional business alters or I am able to give information about the week of 27 April. If I do give more information, I will do so on Wednesday of next week.

The House is being asked to take the Criminal Procedure (Intermediate Diets) (Scotland) Bill today as new business which was not announced last week. However, I said last week that the Government were looking to take urgent action on the problems that had arisen on the matter. As the official Opposition and, indeed, other parties, have acknowledged the need for the measure, we have been able to get agreement to take it in this unusual way. I am grateful for that, and thank those who helped to facilitate that action.

[Wednesday 8 April:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 13289/97, Convergence of the Telecommunications, Media and Information Technology Sectors. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 155-xiv and HC 155-xxiii (1997–98).]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement, and for giving the House the provisional business for the week after the recess. She knows that several Members have been asking for debates on defence matters, so her announcement of a debate on the Royal Air Force is particularly welcome.

The right hon. Lady knows that we have been pressing for debates on statutory instrument 776 on lone parents and on statutory instrument 655 on nursery education. I hope that she can find time for such debates. Does she agree that it is time that we had a debate on foreign affairs now that we are halfway through the British presidency of the European Union? It would be of great value to the House if one could be arranged.

The right hon. Lady also knows that I have asked for a debate on the national health service in Government time at no fewer than six previous business questions. It is a matter of real concern that the Government continue to be unwilling to debate the NHS in their own time.

It is almost incredible that, although we have had eight statements on health policy, there has been no debate in Government time since the general election 10 months ago. I understand that the right hon. Lady has a great deal of business to cram into our working hours, and that she may not immediately be able to say when she might arrange for such a debate, but I hope that she will at least explain why the Government appear so reluctant to expose their health policies to examination in the House.

Can the right hon. Lady tell the House what precedent there is for the Government's handling of the introduction of national insurance changes in the other place? It appears that an amendment to the Social Security Bill in their Lordships' House has been used to introduce changes that were announced in the Budget, without any opportunity for debate or scrutiny in this House. Again, I understand that she may not be able to answer that point today, but if she cannot, I should be grateful if she could write to me to explain the precedent, and whether there has been an abuse of this House.

Many in the House and beyond will have been surprised to hear the Prime Minister yesterday give the job description of his press secretary as to "attack the Conservatives". I see from today's press briefing from Government sources that the press secretary's terms and conditions of employment have changed since the election. I think that we would all welcome the right hon. Lady's confirmation that that is so, and her reassurance that the House was informed of that change. When was it informed, and by what means?

Does the Leader of the House agree that it might be more open of the Government to re-title the post? If, as the Prime Minister was at pains to emphasise yesterday, Mr. Campbell is a political appointee, it is inappropriate for him to be called the Prime Minister's press secretary. I wonder whether it might be helpful and add to the gaiety of nations if the Press Gallery were to be asked to organise a competition among themselves to suggest a more fitting name.

I hope that, in her reply, the right hon. Lady will not provide us with an analogy with Sir Bernard Ingham, who began his distinguished professional career, as we all know, as an enthusiastic press officer for the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement on why the sensitive issues of abortion and euthanasia are being treated differently in the Scotland Bill? The former is being reserved to the Westminster Parliament, and the latter devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Leader of the House may be willing to explain the distinction that the Government are drawing between the two, and whether the Government regard the issue of which Parliament should deal with those issues as one of conscience.

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Lady has raised a number of points, and I shall try to answer them all. I am glad that she welcomes the defence debate. Some of her hon. Friends have been asking for such a debate for some time.

On the question of statutory instruments, the right hon. Lady will know that discussion always continues through the usual channels, and that it is on that basis that we decide where matters should be debated. I accept her request for a foreign affairs debate as legitimate, and I hope that we shall be able to find some time for some more general debates on foreign affairs in the not too distant future, although, as she acknowledges, we have some legislation in the pipeline that we have to deal with.

As for health issues, the right hon. Lady—I suppose that I should be grateful to her—reminded the House that there had been eight statements. That proves the willingness of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to find a great deal of time to be accountable to the House.

The right hon. Lady asked for a debate in Government time. I have to remind her of the point that I made a few weeks ago: in the whole of the five years of the previous Parliament, the Conservative Government had only one health debate in Government time. We might be able to manage that. What happened then was that, when we wanted a health debate, we had one in Opposition time. That is one reason why we have Opposition days: they allow the Opposition to choose the debate.

On national insurance charges, it is true that amendments have been made to the Social Security Bill in the Lords. Those amendments must be in order, or they would not be debatable there. Those matters can, of course, be debated in this Chamber when the Bill comes back from the Lords for consideration of Lords amendments.

On the issue of the Prime Minister's official spokesman, I do not think that there is much need to add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, except to welcome the right hon. Lady's enthusiasm for the gaiety of nations, as she called it. I am sure that the Press Gallery can and does have a great deal of entertainment making up names for people. I should point out that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's official spokesman said earlier this week that he hoped that everyone had not had a humour bypass. Perhaps the right hon. Lady has taken that to heart.

As for the Scotland Bill, euthanasia and abortion were dealt with this week, and I have nothing to add to what was said.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great anger in Leicester arising from this year's local government revenue settlement, which has led to a reduction in services and a council tax increase of 25 per cent.? Against that backcloth, can she arrange an early debate in the House, so that we can try to influence the Government on the future of local government financing before they make any firm decisions?

Mrs. Taylor

We had debates on the settlements for this year a couple of months ago. My hon. Friend is an experienced Member of Parliament, and I am sure that he will find opportunities to raise the matter, even though I cannot promise him the debate he wants.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches would certainly support a debate on the future of local government finance, which would be of interest to all hon. Members on both sides of the House.

On the subject of statutory instruments, I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to early-day motion 1168.

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Council Tax Benefit (General) Amendment Regulations 1998 (S.I., 1998, No. 911), dated 30th March 1998, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th March, be annulled.]

It deals with statutory instrument 911 on council tax benefit, and has already been endorsed by both the leadership of the Conservative party and my right hon. and hon. Friends. This is a subject that causes considerable concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House, so can she the right hon. Lady find time as soon as possible for a debate on that early-day motion?

The right hon. Lady chairs the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, and I know that she is using her best efforts to secure an early date for a debate on its recent reports. Will she redouble those efforts, because there is growing frustration—especially among more recent entrants into the House—at the lack of progress on the recommendations of that Committee? Can we have an early debate and some indication of the timetable for any necessary changes to our Standing Orders that may result?

Finally, last week, I put to the Leader of the House a question that I am afraid I made too specific: I asked whether she was able to give me any indication as to whether the rumours were true that business would be interrupted the following day by a statement on the future of the Rural Development Commission and the Countryside Commission. The right hon. Lady, quite rightly, said that there was no proposal to interrupt business. However, on Friday afternoon, a written answer was slipped out that dealt with precisely that matter.

That is an extremely important issue, and not only for the commissioners and all their staff who have served the nation well. The Rural Development Commission goes back to the days of Lloyd George, and the Countryside Commission has done a great job for the rural areas. They are important agencies, which have done a great job, so to slip out, at the end of Friday afternoon, an important statement of that sort, with no opportunity for debate, is the worst possible example of the Government having learnt nothing from their predecessors. The previous Government used to do that, but we had hoped better of this Government.

Mrs. Taylor

I have noted that the Liberal Democrats would also like a debate on local government finance. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the statutory instrument, which will obviously be discussed through the usual channels. I have to point out to the Liberal Democrats' spokesman that today is their Opposition day, and, had they wanted to debate local government finance, they could have chosen that topic for today's debate.

It is true that the Modernisation Committee has produced four reports. We have had one full debate on the subject, and I am hoping that we shall be able to have another. We have been able to make further progress this week: yesterday's Bill was debated under a programme motion, which is another step in the right direction.

The hon. Gentleman moved quickly from modernisation to Lloyd George—I am not sure what we should read into that. I am glad that he acknowledged that the reply I gave him last week was accurate. I do not think that the written question was slipped out in any way, and I am glad that I was able to help the hon. Gentleman to obtain a copy of it last Friday. It was not slipped out—indeed, I should not be at all surprised if there had been a press release accompanying it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it ill behoves the Tories to be rabbiting on about having a debate on the subject of the press secretary to the Prime Minister, given the role played by Bernard Ingham, who was press secretary to Tony Benn and then become a complete turncoat and joined Margaret Thatcher? He was responsible for sacking a Cabinet Minister, John Biffen, who at the time was doing a pretty reasonable job as Leader of the House. So I do not think we should take any lessons from the Tories about that.

As for the statement about knocking Ministers' heads together, let me say this to my right hon. Friend. When you decide to accept patronage, a ministerial car and some extra money, you leave the Back Benches, and you leave the freedom of being able to speak your mind as often as you would like to. Collective responsibility provides not only liberties but restrictions. If people want to open their mouth as often as I do, they should come and sit next to me.

Madam Speaker

Order. I hope that, when the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) opens his mouth, he keeps within the procedures of the House. I have not actually heard him ask a question about what he wants next week, and it is too late now.

Mrs. Taylor

I think my hon. Friend was asking for a debate on the principle of collective responsibility. He outlined that principle so succinctly that there is no need for a debate.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I wonder whether the right hon. Lady is aware how fast the crisis in agriculture is growing. That was brought home to me when I heard that the Massey Ferguson factory just outside my constituency was going on to a three-day week. Perhaps she is not aware that the Welsh Institute of Rural Studies estimates that 7,300 job losses can be attributed to the crisis, or that, at the weekend, Bernard Matthews announced that he was on the point of moving his poultry business to eastern Europe. Will she therefore give Government time for a debate on the impact of the strong pound on agriculture?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not believe that all the problems that the hon. Lady mentioned are the consequence of the strong pound. If she believes they are, she might seek to catch your eye during the debate on manufacturing industry, Madam Speaker, because it obviously has relevance to agriculture.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

May we have a debate on the backdating of social security benefits? Some harsh limitations have been placed on backdating, in previous legislation by the previous Government and in the Social Security Bill that is passing through another place. The process by which social security claimants must make applications is complex. Sometimes they find themselves going down one road and then having to apply down another road later, perhaps missing out on considerable benefits in the process.

Mrs. Taylor

I believe that we would all sympathise with the point that my hon. Friend makes about the complexities of the system, which is among the issues that we shall always take into account during the review. I cannot, however, guarantee to find time to reopen issues on which the House has taken a decision.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Notwithstanding the rambling reminiscences of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), will the Leader of the House consider seriously the express wish of Her Majesty's Opposition for a debate on the role of the Prime Minister's press spokesman? Does she agree that the analogy with Mr. Bernard Ingham is supremely inappropriate? Are we not considering a press spokesman who is supposed to offer advice but wishes to take executive decisions, and instructs Ministers what they should and should not do? Does the right hon. Lady agree that, if that is his preferred course, he should cut his salary in half, abandon his job and stand for election to the House?

Mr. Skinner

He is only a baby.

Mrs. Taylor

As my hon. Friend said, the hon. Gentleman is not terribly experienced in the House. He may like to suggest to Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen that, next time they have an Opposition day, they should choose a topic of that kind.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Given that the Government's policy of promoting 60 per cent. of development on brown-field sites will require high-quality construction, given the concerns that have been expressed to Ministers about the warranty system and about the inspection system, and following the reply that she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin) last week, can the Leader of the House find time for a debate about housing standards and the construction of houses in the near future?

Mrs. Taylor

I recall the point being raised last week, and I know that some of my hon. Friends have concerns on that matter. It is impossible to provide Government time for such a debate. Last week, I suggested that it might be possible for my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin) and others to apply for an Adjournment debate. Perhaps I should mention at this point that the Wednesday morning debates are a useful opportunity for many Back Benchers to raise issues of that kind that affect their constituents; my hon. Friend might like to consider trying to catch your eye then, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The right hon. Lady will be aware that I serve on the Modernisation Select Committee under her distinguished chairmanship. She will also be aware that, from time to time, I am inclined to display an independent tendency. I was most interested to learn earlier this week of the Labour party's extraordinary structure that allows Whips to vote one way on a single-line whip while the rest of the party is on a three-line whip. As I believe in independence in this place, will the right hon. Lady confirm whether the precedent that her Government set on that occasion during the passage of the Scotland Bill could be referred to the Modernisation Select Committee?

Mrs. Taylor

Opposition Whips will always be very interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say about whipping and the rules that should apply. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the vote the other night concerning abortion. Abortion has always been a matter of conscience in the Labour party, and there has always been a free vote on that issue. The vote earlier this week was not about abortion, but about devolution and whether abortion should be devolved. Hon. Members who had a problem with their conscience were allowed, with the permission of the Chief Whip, to seek to exercise their principles.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Could we have a debate in the near future about British sport? It has declined markedly in the past 20 years, partly because of the previous Government's destruction of local authority facilities and partly due to their destruction of industrial areas. Those areas provided room to play cricket and for, boxing, rugby and other sports. The problem of de-listing has also resurfaced, with Rupert Murdoch trying to get his grubby little fingers on every sporting event from the five nations rugby tournament to the national tiddlywinks championships.

If the Tories are so keen to debate the national health service, perhaps my right hon. Friend will consider holding that debate during Easter week. Plenty of Labour Members would attend, but I do not think that many of the gutless Opposition Members would be here.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend did not cover everything, but he had a good go. I understand why many people are concerned about the future of sport in this country, given some of the things that have happened in the past couple of decades. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomed the Government's announcement about the sale of playing fields, and the extra action that we have taken to assist in that respect.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is considering the recommendations regarding listed sports events. I think that my hon. Friend knows that, under the Broadcasting Act 1996, the Secretary of State is solely responsible for the list of protected events. He is taking significant steps to consult hon. Members—some of whom have been to see my right hon. Friend about the matter—and he intends to listen carefully to their advice. I am sure that all hon. Members have their own views about this issue, and my right hon. Friend is willing to listen to them. On that basis, I hope that he will reach the right decisions.

My hon. Friend suggests having a debate on the national health service during Easter week instead of the recess. I understand the pressure for extra parliamentary time, and the difficulties involved in fitting everything into the parliamentary programme. However, I believe that hon. Members are entitled to a recess—not least because some of them wish to work in their constituencies.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the right hon. Lady find time in the near future for a debate on the wider issue of civil service independence? That independence is highly respected and valued, not only by civil servants but by the British people whom they serve. That debate is necessitated not just by the Prime Minister's extraordinary statement yesterday that Alastair Campbell is a creature of new Labour, but by the recent sacking of several public information officers who were unwilling to embrace enthusiastically the new Labour manifesto. It is a serious point that should be discussed on the Floor of the House.

Mrs. Taylor

The independence of the civil service is an important principle. Some Opposition Members find it difficult to understand that civil servants do not represent their viewpoint. There was an attempt under the previous Government to make sure that the Government viewpoint was put, and some Opposition Members think that that viewpoint should continue, regardless of which Government are in power. Independence means exactly that: the civil service serves the Government of the day. In case the hon. Gentleman had not noticed, his party lost the last election.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the death by explosion a few days ago at the age of about 200 of the Leicestershire deep mining industry, when the ventilation shaft at the Asfordby colliery was blown up by RJB Mining? Will she find time in an already crowded timetable to investigate the corrupt privatisation of the British coal industry? That has led to the loss of collieries like Asfordby, which has one third of Britain's clean coal reserves—1,000 million tonnes. Those have been for ever sterilised by that explosion.

Eight hundred million pounds of taxpayers' money has been invested in a project that could have secured the role of coal in power generation. Could my right hon. Friend find time to investigate why that pit was lost, in a carnival atmosphere generated by Richard Budge?

Mrs. Taylor

I can well understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend, in view of the impact of that decision on his constituents. He is aware of the pressures on parliamentary time, and will understand why I cannot give him the debate he seeks. Perhaps he will consider the possibility of getting an Adjournment debate, or of contributing to next Wednesday's debate.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

First, may I support what the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) said about the importance of listed sports events? In the light of the confirmation given by the Leader of the House that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is listening on the issue, can we have an early debate after the Easter recess in Government time? The matter concerns many hon. Members of all parties, and many of us have already written to the Secretary of State about it.

Secondly, may I return briefly to the debate earlier this week, and the issue of the exception from reserved powers in relation to abortion? In the light of the right hon. Lady's earlier answer, in which she suggested that permission was given to two Government Whips to vote against the Government on the matter, it is extraordinary that many of her other colleagues were not informed that it was regarded by their Chief Whip as a free vote. In The Scotsman today, one Labour Member is reported to have said that he is livid about the matter, and others have complained that at no time were they told that it was a free vote on a matter of conscience.

Mrs. Taylor

I have nothing to add to what I said about the issue of abortion. The vote was about devolution, but there were some hon. Members who saw it as a conscience issue, and they sought the authorisation of the Chief Whip to vote as they did. That is the end of the matter.

On listed events, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is, as I said, trying to get the opinion of the House, and to allow hon. Members to tell him what their priorities are. I cannot promise an early debate on the matter, but if hon. Members take up my right hon. Friend's offer to listen to their views, they can make their views known in that way. It is questions to my right hon. Friend on the Monday that we return from the Easter recess.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that a number of weeks have passed since the publication of the report on the scrutiny of evidence about the Hillsborough disaster, and she will know that I have asked many times for a debate. Can she tell us whether we are close to finding time for one, and can she confirm that it is hoped that that debate will take place between Easter and Whit?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has raised this serious matter several times. I have expressed my sympathy with him in his desire for a debate, so that the families affected by that disaster can feel that every aspect has been discussed. I cannot give a date for such a debate today, but I am hopeful that we shall have a debate between Easter and Whitsun. He asked whether we were close to a debate, and that is as far as I can go at this stage: I believe that it might be possible to get a debate between Easter and Whitsun.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging a debate on farming in Government time as speedily as possible? The farming community is concerned that the Government do not appreciate the seriousness of the situation in the countryside.

The right hon. Lady will recall that one of the first actions of the Government was to abolish the regional panels. Those were panels of farmers and others, which used to give advice to Ministers on what was happening in different parts of the countryside. Those have gone, so Ministers no longer have that line of communication.

The fanning community will be surprised to learn that the Minister of Agriculture is to spend much of the Easter recess travelling through China. They would prefer him to travel through the United Kingdom to discover the state of British farming. Please may we have an early debate on the state of farming in the UK?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman says that Ministers do not have a full appreciation of problems. I reject that entirely. Perhaps Conservative Members do not have a full appreciation of the significant steps that have been taken by my right hon. Friend and his colleagues at MAFF, not least the extra aid to livestock producers and the agreement by the Agriculture Council on 16 March to lift the export ban on beef from Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend and his colleagues take matters very seriously, and they are entitled to some recognition of the progress that they have made.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Last October, we learned that the Lord Chancellor had decided not to proceed with a judicial appointments commission as set out in the 1994 Labour party policy document "Access to Justice". The Lord Chancellor said, however, that he would report to Parliament annually on the exercise of his powers to appoint judges. I recall him saying that it was his intention to present a report to Parliament in April. Given the importance of the issue and the reservations expressed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House about the appointment of judges, is there not a powerful case for allocating time later this month to debate that report?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend, who has raised other requests at business questions, knows the pressure on time. I will consider what he said, but I cannot promise him a debate. It is questions to the relevant Minister on the Tuesday after we return from the Easter recess.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Leader of the House realise that the inadequacy of her answers to my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) makes it all the more necessary that, in her capacity as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, she should explain to the House next week how the Government's attitude towards whipping practices allows a three-line whip to be put on a vote, which hon. Members are not allowed to break, but which two Whips are allowed to break? How can she seriously maintain that Whips alone wanted to exercise their conscience, and that other hon. Members had the opportunity but chose not to do so?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening to what I said earlier; nor can he be aware of the remit of the Modernisation Committee, which has nothing to do with the whipping in the House.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to ensure that a copy of the Clarke Tilt report on the British film industry is placed in the Library and the Vote Office? That was promised a week ago, and it still has not happened.

Mrs. Taylor

I shall look into the matter, and try to remedy the situation.