HC Deb 23 April 1998 vol 310 cc969-78 3.32 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I ask the Leader of the House for next week's business.

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

The business for next week will be as follows.

MONDAY 27 APRIL—Consideration in Committee of the Finance (No. 2) Bill (first day).

TUESDAY 28 APRIL—Consideration in Committee of the Finance (No. 2) Bill (second day).

WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House. That will be followed in the afternoon by consideration in Committee of the Finance (No. 2) Bill (third day).

THURSDAY 30 APRIL—Until 7 pm, there will be a debate on economic and monetary union on a Government motion. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 1 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

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

MONDAY 4 MAY—A Bank holiday. The House will not be sitting.

TUESDAY 5 MAY—Second Reading of the Competition Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 6 MAY—Until 2 pm, there will be the usual debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House. That will be followed in the afternoon by remaining stages of the Scotland Bill (first day).

THURSDAY 7 MAY—Proceedings on the Tax Credits (Initial Expenditure) Bill. That will be followed by remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.

FRIDAY 8 MAY—There will be a debate on Hillsborough, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that, on Wednesday 29 April, there will be a debate on bathing water and water policy in European Standing Committee A.

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

[Wednesday 29 April:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community documents: (a) 12591/97 and (b) 6177/94, Bathing Water; (c) 7531/97 and (d) 12929/97, Water Policy. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: (a) HC 155-xii (1997-98); (b) HC 48-xx (1993-94), HC 48-xxiv (1993-94) and HC 70-xiii (1994-95); (c) HC 155-ii and HC 155-xiv (1997-98); (d) HC 155-xiv.

Thursday 30 April:

Floor of the House—Relevant European Community documents: (a) 7161/98, European Monetary Institute: Convergence Report; (b) 7188/98, Commission Report: Euro 1999. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-xxiv (1997-98).]

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement. As I have made clear, we are glad that she has managed to make three days available on the Floor of the House for consideration of the Finance (No. 2) Bill. The rearrangement of business to allow consideration of the Scotland Bill is also welcome.

The right hon. Lady said at the last Business Questions before the recess that she would consider making Government time available for a debate on foreign affairs. As I pointed out then, we are more than halfway through Britain's presidency of the EU, and there have been important and significant developments in foreign policy, not least in the middle east, and human rights issues. I am sure that she will agree that it is time that we heard from the Foreign Secretary and had an opportunity for a debate.

When does the right hon. Lady intend to publish the Bill on the registration of political parties? It is becoming increasingly farcical that the House is asked to debate constitutional issues without knowing the content of that important Bill.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the President of the Board of Trade to make a statement on payments to her private office from a blind trust and from the Industry Forum? I hope that the right hon. Lady will resist the temptation—which she does not always successful do—to reply with counter-accusations, because these are serious matters.

We are talking about Ministers, Members of a Government elected amid many fanfares about openness, whose Prime Minister said that his President of the Board of Trade will abide by the rules, and a party whose general secretary was reported in the press as telling the Neill committee that all blind trusts had been wound up. It would be helpful to the House and to the cause of open government if the President of the Board of Trade would explain just what the current position is regarding the funding of the right hon. Lady's office.

Will the right hon. Lady ask the Minister of Agriculture to come to the House to make a statement on the Government's ban on beef on the bone? Not only has the ban proved deeply unpopular with the public, including at least one bishop, but the legislation putting it into place has been questioned.

It is worth asking whether the legislation might have been better had the Minister of Agriculture bothered to attend his own debate when the ban was introduced, instead of lolling about in the Smoking Room. I have much sympathy with the right hon. Lady's difficulties in getting any Agriculture Minister to come to the House, given that one of their debates had to be answered by an Education Minister, which was not appreciated by the farming community throughout the country. Beef producers and the beef industry have the right to know just where they stand in the light of this week's legal developments.

Would the right hon. Lady like to confirm that the terms of reference of the BSE inquiry make it clear that it is an independent inquiry? Does she agree that it should be independent? Will she remind the Prime Minister that his repeated statements in the House show that he for one has prejudged the outcome of the inquiry?

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a statement on the Government's policy on equal representation for men and women in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and in particular clarify whether the Lord Chancellor is right to say that the proposal is illegal?

Mrs. Taylor

I shall try to deal with all the points that the right hon. Lady has raised. As I said on Monday, I am pleased that we were able to accommodate the request for three days in Committee to consider the Finance (No. 2) Bill. As she pointed out, I have said when we shall be taking the day that we missed yesterday on the Scotland Bill.

The right hon. Lady asked when it would be possible to have Government time for a foreign affairs debate, in particular to discuss some EU matters. We shall be discussing some EU matters in the near future. With regard to a more wide-ranging foreign affairs debate, the programme is very busy at the moment, and will remain so certainly until Whitsun, but I am looking for an opportunity for a debate on foreign affairs, or some aspect that would be of particular interest to the House.

I hope that the Bill on the registration of political parties will be published shortly. The right hon. Lady will know of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's offer to discuss that Bill with other parties in the House, so as to try to proceed on the basis of agreement as much as possible.

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade was in full compliance with the rules of the House with regard to her blind trust, and she has made it clear in a public statement that that blind trust will be wound up in the near future. I do not think that there has ever been any question that she has broken any of the rules of the House.

With regard to beef on the bone, the right hon. Lady will be aware that Agriculture questions will be on Thursday, and I remind her that the legislation to which she referred was approved by the House. She mentioned that at times Agriculture Ministers are not available in the House. That did happen on one occasion, and I gave the explanation. I am sure that, as a former Minister of Agriculture, the right hon. Lady appreciates the demands on the time of any Agriculture Minister, especially on EU matters.

With regard to prejudging the BSE report, I simply repeat what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday—that we should take notice of scientific and medical advice. It is only a shame that the previous Government did not do so in the way that this Government are doing.

The Government will take no lectures from Opposition Members on equal representation for men and women.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend is a nice mum, and looks after the interests of her family. Will she find time during the coming week to consider a debate on the growing numbers of children, some as young as five, who have been excluded from schooling? That does not solve the problem for anyone except the school. It is frightening that not a great deal of effort is being made to get large numbers of children back into education. That is a worrying matter.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to say that the problem of exclusion causes concern. It is an issue which has grown in recent years, for a variety of reasons. My hon. Friend will know that the Department for Education and Employment and the social exclusion unit at No. 10 take the matter seriously, and I know that Ministers are extremely committed, as are many teachers, to tackling the problem, minimising exclusions and trying to bring back into education those children who, for a variety of reasons, have particular difficulties. However, I cannot promise a debate on the subject in the near future.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the House of Lords report on the use and misuse of antibiotics? Will she arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to make a full statement to the House outlining the Government's intentions on the matter?

The Leader of the House may be inclined to say that that is not necessary because a press release has been issued, but I invite her to agree with a view which is widely held in the House, that there has been an increasingly blatant bypassing of the House in the statements given to the press and the media by the Government.

Will the right hon. Lady make time available for a debate on the environment? That will give the official Opposition an opportunity to state whether they support the efforts of a former Conservative Minister to wreck various environmental Bills being put forward by private Members tomorrow.

Mrs. Taylor

Opposition Members can sort out the problem raised by the hon. Member's last point. We should like to have debates on a range of issues, including the environment and many others, and the Modernisation Committee has spent a little time considering the problem of how to find time for them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the House of Lords report on antibiotics. Health questions take place next week. However, he must be realistic about what he expects from the Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health put out a press release welcoming the report and sharing the Committee's concern, and also said that, in due course, he would provide a full response to it. He has not done anything other than welcome the report and acknowledge that there is a problem. That cannot be described as bypassing the House.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the other parties that were involved in the change of business to enable progress to be made yesterday on important matters relating to Northern Ireland. When will time be made available for the next legislative steps relating to the peace process?

Mrs. Taylor

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I share his appreciation of the agreement, and the assistance that was provided by other parties in the House on the legislation. It is too early to say precisely when further legislative measures will be taken, but I welcome the comments of the leader of the Conservative party and others on their willingness to co-operate on those issues. It is important that the House acts on a multi-party basis, so far as is possible, on Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider her answer to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House on a debate on foreign affairs? Does she recall that a Minister from the Department for Education and Employment made a statement to the House announcing the expenditure of £45 million on new lavatory facilities for children? After a successful visit to the middle east, it is apparently not possible for the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House on matters that touch on the strategic, political and commercial interests of this country, which are of the first importance. Does she agree that such bypassing of the interests of the House is wholly unacceptable to my right hon. and hon. Friends, and will she please do something about it?

Mrs. Taylor

Madam Speaker, you said yesterday that it was for Ministers to decide, after considering the circumstances, whether it was appropriate to make a statement to the House. We must consider on each occasion the time that we would take from other business, and such decisions are not always easy to make. This is a matter of judgment. The attitude of Ministers towards informing the House when important matters have been raised has been extremely good. It is not necessary for the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House after every visit, however successful it might have been.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Can my right hon. Friend find time to debate the management of private Members' Bills, especially given the prospect of the wrecking by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) of Bills on energy efficiency, on minicab licensing and on waste minimisation, which are crucial to all of us, especially Londoners? The policies are apparently supported by the Opposition, despite the activities of that rogue parliamentarian.

Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was a rogue—a parliamentarian, perhaps.

Mr. Geraint Davies

I accept your interpretation of my meaning, Madam Speaker.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that we know what my hon. Friend meant. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has been active in that respect. He must answer for his actions, especially if he is blocking Bills which have widespread support in the House and in the country.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I support the call by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for an urgent debate on foreign affairs? This is a matter of priority.

I recently visited Egypt with Labour Members and Members from my own party. Having had a lengthy and worthwhile meeting with the President and the Foreign Minister of that country, I believe that Egypt is playing a major part in seeking to take the peace process forward. While Britain holds the presidency of the European Union, it is critical that hon. Members should be able to make representations to the Government on the importance of the peace process and the part that can be played by the United Kingdom, which has such knowledge of and such a history of involvement in that area of the world.

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that so many Conservative Members appreciate the initiative taken by the Prime Minister, but I really do have nothing to add to what I said earlier about the need for statements. I did say that I was looking to find time for a foreign affairs debate, but it certainly is not possible in the next two weeks.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend read with alarm the results of a recent survey that said that a significant number of people arrested on assorted offences were on drugs. Can she tell us, or give us any indication, when the Government's White Paper on drugs is likely to be published?

Mrs. Taylor

I know that that is an issue of concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. We will publish that White Paper next week. On present plans, we anticipate that it will be published on Monday, with a statement in the House.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will possibly have heard the news that one of the people on the Parades Commission in Northern Ireland has resigned, apparently on the ground that he could not face the pressures of the media. Those of us who know how he has dealt with the media can suspect only that he might be joining those who show some economy with the truth. In the light of the request of the shadow Leader of the House about independent inquiries, would it be possible for someone to come to the House and explain how independent an independent commission is when it seems to react to letters from the Prime Minister?

Mrs. Taylor

It is important to make it clear that the Prime Minister did not tell the commission what to do. It was a matter for the commission to decide when it would publish its report and, on this occasion, it happened to agree with the Prime Minister. He did not know even the contents of the report, so there is no suggestion of the Prime Minister undermining the commission's position, although it is a problem if individuals get a great deal of pressure from the press. I do not think that anyone would think that that would be desirable in the circumstances.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

Over the Easter weekend, there was some severe flooding in Leamington Spa in my constituency, causing millions of pounds worth of damage to private and commercial properties. We were grateful for a visit from the Deputy Prime Minister, which happened very quickly, but there are outstanding issues to be dealt with in the aftermath: financial assistance for local authorities that are now dealing with the consequences, and whether the warning systems were adequate. Will we have any statement on this subject, or will there be time for a debate on the issue?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will know that the Prime Minister assured the House yesterday that local authorities and others that face extraordinary claims due to the flooding would be able to make claims under the Bellwin scheme. On the point about warning systems, my hon. Friend may know that the Minister of Agriculture has asked the Environment Agency for a full report on the events and on any lessons to be learned. That may be of help to my hon. Friend and to others who are concerned about the matter. It might also be possible for him or others to apply for an Adjournment debate, so that they can highlight some of the problems, and perhaps some of the lessons that need to be learned.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Given the significant local government elections on 7 May, would it not be courageous if the Government arranged a debate on local government before then? We could then consider, among other things, the recent letter to The Guardian by the Labour spokesman on social services on Oxfordshire county council, Tom Richardson, who expressed anger that the county council had to cut benefits and help for disabled people and their carers in Oxfordshire more savagely in the first year of a Labour Government than at any time in the county council's history.

Having to respond to hundreds of letters and telephone calls from disabled people in Oxfordshire, he wrote in The Guardian that he felt that all he wanted to do was dump the whole lot on the desks of Blair, Brown and Prescott and say, "Do your own dirty work." Perhaps it would be good if the Government gave us an opportunity to hold them to account on how they have dealt with local government in their first year.

Mrs. Taylor

We have already had debates on the settlement this year.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Can the Leader of the House tell us when the Human Rights Bill will return for further discussion, and whether there will be a long gap, or any gap, between Royal Assent and the enforcement of the legislation?

Mrs. Taylor

We have had requests to take the Committee stage of the Bill on the Floor of the House. That inevitably causes some delay when other business is scheduled. I am hoping that we will be able to make progress before very long. I cannot recall the details of the commencement orders, but I will write to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

May I take the Leader of the House back to her response to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) seeking further clarification on the subject of beef on the bone? Her response was to suggest that we should raise these issues at Question Time. With no disrespect to the House or to Question Time, that may not be the best vehicle to explore some of the detailed points raised by the Selkirk judgment.

The Leader of the House may not have had an opportunity to read that judgment, but it cast doubt on the legality of processes such as chilling or cooking of beef, because the sheriff said that people did not know where they stood as a result of the way the legislation was drafted; and he said that, in his view, it was defective.

Is it not time to ask the Minister of Agriculture or his Minister of State to come to the House and make a clear statement on where people stand on the issue of beef on the bone? If that does not happen, we will have a continuing recipe for chaos and confusion.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman ought to recall the fact that, following the judgment, leave of appeal was given. I am surprised that Opposition Members are so insistent that the Government should ignore medical advice. Only today, we have seen reports in the newspapers of yet another tragic death of a young person from CJD. That reminds us all that we are well-minded to take the medical advice, and to err on the side of caution.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Tory Members did not mention that person who died so tragically.

As we are approaching the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest blessings the country has ever had—the creation of the national health service by a Labour Government, against fierce Tory opposition—I hope that my right hon. Friend will provide time for a debate on what the NHS has done for the people of our country. Perhaps, at the same time, that debate will provide an opportunity to pay tribute to the Minister who introduced it, one of the most dedicated and talented of all the British democratic socialists this century.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend makes a strong case, and I have had requests on other occasions for a debate on the health service. I hope that it will be possible to find an opportunity in the not too distant future, but, as I have explained, the programme is very full, and it will certainly not be possible in the next couple of weeks.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will the right hon. Lady bring forward to the earliest opportunity the debate on the draft Cathedrals Measure dealing with governing bodies and financial provisions? Those of us with cathedrals in our constituencies are concerned about it. We would like to see the debate held not after 10 o'clock but in prime time, particularly in view of the unfortunate circumstances over at Westminster abbey, of which we are all too painfully aware. Can the right hon. Lady ensure that we have an opportunity to amend that draft legislation to consider whether the abbey should no longer be a so-called royal peculiar, but subject to the same regulations of the deans and chapters as everybody else?

Mrs. Taylor

I would not claim to be an expert on the detailed measure to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He knows the pressures on time. I will look at the draft measure, but I cannot give him any guarantees at present.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, at a press conference this morning, two Ministers pledged to introduce legislation as soon as possible for the licensing of minicabs in London? As an attempt to do that is likely to be blocked tomorrow by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), can she tell us exactly when this urgent matter of public safety in London will be discussed, and when the legislation will be introduced?

Mrs. Taylor

I am certainly not willing to anticipate events tomorrow, and the right hon. Gentleman to whom the hon. Lady referred must answer for himself.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

We attach considerable importance to the annual report on human rights published earlier this week. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is a great shame that Ministers were not able to make a statement on that report, and will she find time for us to discuss it on the Floor of the House? I draw her attention to page 36 of the report, which states that Britain will encourage those states which have signed the Ottawa convention to ratify it as soon as possible. As Britain has not yet ratified it, will she find time for that important process to take place, so that we practise first and preach later?

Mrs. Taylor

Again, the hon. Gentleman is aware of the pressure on our time. I referred to the Bill that will incorporate the European Convention on human rights into our law, and perhaps some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised will be relevant to the debate on that Bill.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we signed the Ottawa convention in December. He will also know that we intend to ratify it as soon as parliamentary time allows for the passage of the necessary legislation. We want to ratify it as soon as possible, but he will appreciate that the timetable is very crowded at the moment.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Now that we are coming to the end of the time allowed in the parliamentary year for private Members' Bills, will the Leader of the House make a statement on what the Modernisation Committee intends to do about the timetabling problems for those Bills? Will she consider the possibility of increasing the time available on a Friday, so that we can have two Second Readings on that day? Will she consider the possibility of using some Wednesday mornings to debate private Members' Bills instead of using them all for Adjournment debates? Will she also consider having more Committees to take account of those Bills? That would resolve some of the problems that we have experienced for many years, and it would be a modernising feature from the Government which would go down very well.

Mrs. Taylor

In every Parliament, there are private Members' Bills that attract a great deal of support and arouse a great deal of emotion, and there are many that people would like to see reach the statute book. The rules that govern the time available for private Members' Bills are set out by the House itself. The Modernisation Committee has made it clear that it will at some stage want to consider the matter.

My hon. Friend raises one especially important point. If we give extra time to one aspect of the work of the House, we lose time for another, so we always have to balance the rights of all hon. Members. Of course, the Modernisation Committee may well turn its mind to this issue, and I am sure that in doing so it will bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Garnier

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is well able to look after himself, and would no doubt have done so had he been informed in writing, in advance, by those hon. Members who wished to criticise his conduct and motives. Perhaps the hon. Members who criticised him are ignorant of the customs and practice of the House, but will you take this opportunity to remind hon. Members that, if they wish to criticise the conduct and motives of any hon. Member, which they are perfectly free to do, they should observe the courtesy of informing the victim of their attacks beforehand?

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)


Madam Speaker

Is it a similar point?

Mr. Stunell

Yes. I hope that you will take note, Madam Speaker, that some of us did indeed notify the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) before we spoke.

Madam Speaker

It seems that the point of order has been dealt with on my behalf.