HC Deb 30 April 1998 vol 311 cc468-76 4.11 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

May I ask the Leader of the House to make a statement on the business for next week?

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

The business for next week is as follows.

MONDAY 4 MAY—Bank holiday.

TUESDAY 5 MAY—Remaining stages of the Magistrates' Courts (Procedure) Bill [Lords].

Second Reading of the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 6 MAY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Scotland Bill (first day).

THURSDAY 7 MAY—Second Reading of the Tax Credits (Initial Expenditure) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.

FRIDAY 8 MAY—Debate on Hillsborough on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week is as follows.

MONDAY 11 MAY—Second Reading of the Competition Bill [Lords] (second day).

TUESDAY 12 MAY—Remaining stages of the Scotland Bill (second day).

WEDNESDAY 13 MAY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received to the Social Security Bill.

THURSDAY 14 MAY—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Tax Credits (Initial Expenditure) Bill.

Debate and motions on modernisation of the House of Commons.

FRIDAY 15 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

The House may wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Whitsun recess on Thursday 21 May until Monday 1 June. I should emphasise that those dates remain tentative, as the legislative burden on the House has increased as a result of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement, for giving the business for two weeks and for the advance notice of the Whitsun recess. I know that the business for the second week is provisional, as the Leader of the House pointed out, but could she perhaps re-examine the timing of the debate on the modernisation of the House of Commons? She and I have been in touch about that matter and she knows that there is a difficulty on our side. We shall be accommodating, but I know that she will do her best to see what might be done.

The House will recall the right hon. Lady's answer last week when I asked whether we might have a debate on foreign affairs. We have just had the benefit of the presence of the Foreign Secretary in the Chamber in response to a private notice question from the Opposition. We appreciate the pressure of business on the Government—although that is largely a matter of choice for them.

Following the publicity at the beginning of the year about Britain's presidency of the European Union, it seems curious that we have not heard more from the Foreign Secretary about that matter and about his ideas for an ethical foreign policy. I ask again that the right hon. Lady gives parliamentary credibility to the Government's expressed enthusiasm for the EU presidency and their new ideas for foreign policy by arranging a debate.

I repeat my request of last week regarding the publication of the registration of political parties Bill. The publication of that Bill was promised on 9 April in the other place, and it was claimed that the legislation would appear shortly after Easter. It is true that we are still in a period that could be loosely regarded as being shortly after Easter, but, as I said last week, the publication of that Bill and knowledge of its contents are necessary to our consideration of constitutional matters that will come before the House in both the Scotland and Wales Bills.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a debate on the financing of party political advertising? I have written to her about the disclosures in The Independent newspaper of 24 April that Labour Members of Parliament were apparently advised that they could claim the costs of party political briefings from the Fees Office. The House will be glad to have the right hon. Lady's confirmation that that was a try-on, that it is not an appropriate cost for the taxpayer to meet and that her colleagues have been advised accordingly.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a debate with Treasury Ministers so that we may hear whether they agree with figures produced by the House of Commons Library that, after a year of Labour government, the average family is £1,000 worse off?

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on ministerial responsibility, particularly regarding ministerial replies to letters from hon. Members? In the past, the right hon. Lady has, understandably and correctly, asked for specific examples. Sadly, I have two myself—both concerning the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Minister took from 27 January to 28 April to answer a simple query about sugar beet and, to date, despite repeated direct requests to his private office, he has found himself unable to reply to a letter that I sent on 7 February.

I cannot imagine what the Minister can be doing with himself. It is not as though he cares to participate in debates concerning his Ministry, which must save some time. I do not imagine that his job is very different in substance now from what it was when I did it. I hope that the right hon. Lady will take up those rather gross examples with her right hon. Friend. They cannot possibly accord with the image of themselves that the Government wish to convey.

Mrs. Taylor

I start by thanking the right hon. Lady for her opening remarks. She pointed out that the second week's business is always provisional, which is one of the reasons why we have had to alter next week's business. I know about the real difficulties that the right hon. Lady has with the date on which we have scheduled the modernisation debate. However, we are extremely short of time. The right hon. Lady understands our difficulty, and I know that she wants the debate as much as I do. I cannot promise to reschedule the debate, but 1 shall undertake to look at it and do what I can.

I do not think that it will be possible to have a debate on foreign affairs before the Whitsun recess, but I hope that the situation will ease somewhat in the summer. We have extra legislative burdens because of the welcome progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, and the whole House would want us to make progress on those matters.

I hope that the Bill on the registration of political parties will be published shortly. The right hon. Lady knows that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has kept Opposition parties informed of our plans, going back to February and again this month, and he has invited comments to ensure that both sides of the House play a part in the drawing up of details.

The right hon. Lady suggested that the Labour party was asking its members to pay for party political briefing out of Fees Office money. I reject that interpretation of what was happening. There may have been some confusion over the precise nature of the service that was being suggested. Labour Members do not do, and have no intention of doing, anything other than abide by all the rules of the House.

We have had some extremely good debates on Treasury matters this week. My right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury have shown how much average families will benefit from the Budget. Having spent three days on that subject, there is no need to debate it further.

As for ministerial responses to answers, I shall look at the two specific examples that the right hon. Lady mentioned. I do not know whether she was here during MAFF questions earlier today to raise them directly with the Minister, but she is aware that many Departments have had a substantial increase in the volume of correspondence and, by and large, most Ministers reply to letters within the time guidelines that are laid down.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing concern about the handling of compensation claims by former miners suffering from lung disease and especially from the illest and oldest who seem to be excluded from compensation terms? Will she make arrangements at least for an appropriate statement to be made to deal with those matters, which are of considerable concern to many people?

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot promise a statement on that, but I know that my hon. Friend has a long-term interest in that problem, which particularly affects his constituents. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is aware of his concerns today.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can the Leader of the House confirm that this morning outside the House the Home Secretary made a statement—a remarkable statement—in which he admitted that his officials had for many months been aware of the Mary Bell controversy, yet Ministers were not briefed on the issue? Will she confirm that that statement was made and explain why, yet again, an important statement has been made outside the House instead of to the House?

May we have an idea of when we shall receive some guidance from the Government on their attitude to the wider issues of media ownership and media behaviour? I am thinking not just of the predatory pricing issue, which can be raised when we debate the Competition Bill the week after next, but of the serious issues that now arise. None of us wants to impose censorship, but we need guidance from the Government on their attitude to the extent to which the newspaper and media industries should be self-regulatory and exercising self-discipline. I have in mind the hypocrisy over cheque-book journalism, which was exposed yet again today, and incitement to commit breaches of the peace. The way in which the local and national media have been inciting people to act as lynch mobs is totally unacceptable. May we please have an early debate and a statement from the Home Secretary?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman raises important and sensitive issues. Any statement that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made would have been extremely carefully worded and factual. He would not have gone behind the back of the House.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there will be a chance to raise the issue of media ownership when we debate the Competition Bill. I do not propose to find time for a wider debate in the near future in Government time, but next time the Liberal Democrat party has an Opposition day, it could consider that subject.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate, perhaps not in the immediate but in the not-too-distant future, on Home Office prison policy, particularly overcrowding in prisons, which has now become intolerable? Prison conditions are described as appalling at best. The test of a society is how it treats its prisoners, and we seem to be failing in that at the moment.

Mrs. Taylor

We have important legislation before the House on crime and disorder, to which those issues are relevant. I cannot promise an early debate on the aspect of the criminal justice system to which my hon. Friend refers, but it is Home Office questions a week on Monday.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

May I constructively ask the Leader of the House to consider making a statement on the increasing tendency of Ministers to use mechanical signatures when replying to letters from hon. Members? Leaving aside the conflicting claims of courtesy and modernisation, it is not currently clear whether such practice is a general Government policy, which would have standard and universal conventions, or a series of private initiatives by individual Ministers.

Mrs. Taylor

It is not a general Government policy, and I do not think that it happens a great deal.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the exchanges that we had on Monday regarding the important White Paper on tackling the drugs problem were no substitute for a debate? None of the Back Benchers who took part in those exchanges had had a chance to read the White Paper. It is amazing that we have gone through an entire year without a debate on this important matter. She may argue that Back Benchers can apply for a debate, but I have done so every parliamentary week of the year and have failed to secure one. We must have a chance to debate this important subject now that the Lisbon monitoring group has said that Britain has the worst problem of illegal drugs of any country in Europe.

Mrs. Taylor

I sympathise with my hon. Friend if he has been trying to secure a debate on drug issues. There have been some Adjournment debates on drugs in this Session, and hon. Members had an opportunity to air their views on the White Paper on Monday. I was pleased with the general support that the House gave to our approach to tackling the drugs problem.

I understand the need for a debate, but I am not sure about the precise timing. We are under great pressure on time, but I would give the matter sympathetic consideration. It may be better to have such a debate in a few months, when more outside bodies have been able to consider the White Paper. We could then determine how policy was progressing.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

In Agriculture Question Time today, the Minister would not admit to the fact that the Government's White Paper on public expenditure shows a £139 million underspend. Will the Leader of the House find time for an early statement to clear up the confusion that afflicts an industry that has been badly affected? It is all the more important because the same source of figures shows a £46 million underspend for next year.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot find time for such a statement, although there will be a debate on the common agricultural policy in the not-too-distant future. I have nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend said earlier.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

On the comments by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), surely the point that my right hon. Friend should consider is whether Ministers read the correspondence and whether they make every effort to give a helpful, precise and concise response quickly. The fact that a mechanical signature has been used is not the key issue. Does she agree that it is more important that the Minister has read and dealt with the contents of the correspondence?

Mrs. Taylor

I understand that, in the case to which the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) referred, he received a personal assurance from the Minister that he had read the correspondence.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

As we are to debate economic and monetary union for only about two hours, will the right hon. Lady allow us another debate next week? If she is not prepared to do that, will she apologise for the shortness of time available this afternoon, given that a massive decision will be taken next weekend on EMU and that there are two important House of Commons reports before us?

Mrs. Taylor

No, I will not. The arrangements for today's debate were agreed through the usual channels, and we undertook not to arrange for any extra statements today. It was, of course, a private notice question from the Opposition that curtailed today's debate.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Many of us hope that, when we debate the Competition Bill on Monday week, we shall be able to support the Government on the pricing of newspapers. Is my right hon. Friend aware that at leat some of us consider it wrong for one newspaper, The Times, to be priced so as deliberately—there is no other way of describing it—to undermine other broadsheets?

Mrs. Taylor

I think the House is well aware of the issues involved in the Bill, and the defective nature of the amendment tabled in another place; but there will be plenty of time in which to debate those issues on Second Reading.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

The Leader of the House will know that, in the past few months, the Government have published no fewer than six detailed papers on the future of local government, as well as consultation documents on regional planning and regeneration. However, not one of them has been the subject of a statement in the House. As everyone has been consulted, should not the House also be consulted? Will the right hon. Lady arrange an extensive debate on this crucial issue?

Mrs. Taylor

Of course it is right for hon. Members to have an opportunity to feed in their ideas as part of the consultation process. It is open to any hon. Member to approach my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has done that.

A number of documents are out for consultation. They are interrelated, and it is up to any hon. Member who wishes to feed in ideas to write to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Will my right hon. Friend pass my warmest congratulations to the Lord Chancellor—who has been getting a bad press recently—and to the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department? Earlier this week, they decided to publish in the Official Report the earnings from legal aid of some Queen's counsel who can earn up to £200,000 a year from the public purse. Given that tomorrow, in the House of Lords, another intake of 50 Queen's counsel will be sworn in, wearing their breeches and silver-buckle shoes, is there not a case for an early debate on the legal profession generally? That would allow Labour Members and, indeed, Opposition Members to express their concerns.

Mrs. Taylor

We have had debates on legal aid recently. I will of course pass on my hon. Friend's congratulations to the Ministers involved, but those congratulations may be slightly muted, because this is not the first occasion on which such information has been made available; the previous Government made it available.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that one of the most important decisions that the House and the country will have to take concerns our whole approach to economic and monetary union. Is it not a scandal that the House will have only two hours in which to debate that issue this afternoon?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the hallmark of this Government is contempt for Parliament? This is not a parliamentary debate; it is a parliamentary soundbite. It is hardly surprising that the BBC is reducing its coverage of Parliament, when the Leader of the House and the Labour Government treat this place like a senate of Lilliput.

Mrs. Taylor

I have already answered that question. All that the hon. Gentleman has done is diminish the time for the debate even further.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on animal welfare, following the RSPCA's recent report on the appalling increase in the number of animal cruelty cases? Many of those cases have occurred in my county of Nottinghamshire, which is one of the worst counties in the central region in that regard. The debate is made even more necessary by the failure of the Breeding and Sale of Dogs Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), which was blocked by an Opposition Member last Friday.

Mrs. Taylor

I know that there is concern about the blocking of private Members' Bills and the anonymous way in which it can be done. We support effective animal welfare legislation, and the courts have the power to take action against people who ill treat animals. The RSPCA report is extremely timely and I am glad that my hon. Friend has brought it to our attention, but I cannot promise him a debate in the near future.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 1275.

[That this House notes with great concern the comments of the Chief Inspector of Schools who in a speech to the right wing think-tank Politeia claimed there was no evidence that schools are underfunded and further claimed that teachers were wasting too much time in meaningless activities; believes that local education authorities require significantly increased levels of capital and revenue resources to address the funding crisis in United Kingdom schools; and further believes that the Government should censure the Chief Inspector of Schools and ask him to consider his position.]

In view of the extraordinary statement by the chief inspector of schools, who said that our schools did not need any more money, but seemed only to need better management—a claim which was supported by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment—will the right hon. Lady confirm that it is now Government policy that our schools do not need any more money? In that case, will the Secretary of State come to the House and make a statement?

Mrs. Taylor

The comments of the chief inspector show that he does support the Government's strategy for raising standards in schools. He said that we were on the right track in increasing capital funding for schools and developing a fairer system of distribution. However, he did make the point that the quality of teaching is paramount and we would all agree with that if every child is to be able to get a first-class education.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on Canada? One of my reasons for asking is that I noticed in the Daily Mail last Friday that the Conservative party was considering changing its name to the Progressives. Its counterpart in Canada is the Progressive Conservative party and, bearing it in mind that in the last election in Canada that party was reduced to holding three seats, might not such a debate help the Conservatives here in their deliberations?

Mrs. Taylor

I understand my hon. Friend's excellent suggestion, but I cannot find time for such a debate, especially next week.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on local government and local government funding, to give the Deputy Prime Minister an opportunity to come to the House to apologise to those who live in the Preston part of my constituency? Some of those people have had their wages increase by 2.5 per cent. and others have had their real wages decrease this year; at the same time, the council taxes imposed by the local authorities, both of which are Labour controlled, have gone up by 14 per cent. at a time when they are cutting back on services and threatening to take away concessionary bus passes from 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education. Is not that a scandal and will not a full day's debate on the issues allow such scandals to be exposed?

Mrs. Taylor

That gives me the opportunity to remind the House that Labour councils charge the lowest council tax averaged by council. The average council tax in Labour authorities is £590, in Tory authorities it is £626 and under the Liberal Democrats it is higher still. It would be tempting to hold such a debate, but we have debated those matters in the past and I cannot find time to debate them again in the near future.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Many hon. Members will find it amazing that the right hon. Lady manages to give the impression that our being here asking her questions somehow damages a debate on EMU. That destroys the whole process of parliamentary democracy.

May I reinforce the urging of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House that we should have a debate on foreign policy as soon as possible? Not only are we waiting for a statement in the next two or three months on the strategic defence review, which is supposed to be foreign policy led, although we have no idea what the foreign policy baseline is, but we have been promised a debate on NATO enlargement, which is an issue of fundamental importance to the security of this country. May I urge the Leader of the House to ensure that the Foreign Secretary is able to come and give us a view on British foreign policy, instead of the bits and pieces we have heard over the past year?

Mrs. Taylor

I have already answered a question about foreign policy; I acknowledged it, but said that there cannot be a debate in the near future. On other occasions, I have said that we need to look at the issue of NATO enlargement. I am beginning to wonder whether Conservative Members want to discuss EMU today, or whether they all want to repeat the same questions in order to avoid that debate.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that the Prime Minister stated on 4 June 1997 that the criteria for monetary union should not be fiddled or botched in any way"—[Official Report, 4 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 386.], will the right hon. Lady find time for the Prime Minister to make a statement next week to explain why he has changed his mind? Why does he now believe that, to join the single currency, Britain should have to satisfy the Maastricht convergence criteria, but that other countries, which do not qualify, can fiddle, fudge and botch while he stands idly and impotently by?

Mrs. Taylor

I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman is wasting time in asking that we should have next week the debate that we shall move on to in a few minutes.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

You are no doubt aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as all hon. Members should be—that bits of this country disappear into the sea every year as a result of coastal erosion. That is becoming the problem of the millennium, as local authorities, which have the job of protecting our coastline, find that there are not sufficient grants to do so. The Bellwin formula is the appropriate funding mechanism, but it makes funds available only for emergencies, such as the recent floods in the midlands, not for the on-going daily problems of coastal erosion. I have applied for an Adjournment debate many times, but does the right hon. Lady consider the matter sufficiently important to make time available for a full debate on the problems of coastal erosion throughout the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue which obviously concerns him. I am sorry that he has not been successful in securing an Adjournment debate. There are far more applications for Adjournment debates than Madam Speaker can grant, but I encourage him to keep on trying. In the meantime, I remind him that Department of the Environment Question Time is next Tuesday.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the right hon. Lady find time in the near future for a debate on the serious allegations about financial impropriety at the centre for the unemployed and in local government in Kettering? To assist such a debate, will she make public the findings of the inquiry into those allegations by the Labour party national executive committee?

Mrs. Taylor

No, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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