HC Deb 05 February 1998 vol 305 cc1240-50 4.22 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the business for next week.

MONDAY 9 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [7th allotted day].

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on the Child Support Agency, followed by a debate on railway services. Both debates will arise on motions in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

TUESDAY 10 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Third Day).

Motion relating to the beef bones regulations.

WEDNESDAY 11 FEBRUARY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Until 7 pm, motions on the Welsh Revenue Support Grant Reports. Details will be given the Official Report.

Consideration of Lords amendments which are expected to the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.

THURSDAY 12 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Fourth Day).

FRIDAY 13 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week is as follows.

MONDAY 16 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Human Rights Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Sixth Day).

WEDNESDAY 18 FEBRUARY—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the first report from the International Development Committee on Montserrat, followed by a debate on the first report from the Education and Employment Committee on teacher supply.

Debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motions on the Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order, the Social Security (Contributions) (Re-Rating and National Insurance Fund Payments) Order, the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order and the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Amendment Regulations.

THURSDAY 19 FEBRUARY—Until 7 pm, motions on the Scottish Revenue Support Grant Reports.

FRIDAY 20 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 18 February there will be a debate on the Court of Auditors report for 1996 in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 11 February:

Relevant Reports—The Local Government Finance Report (Wales) 1998–99; The Limitation of Council Tax (Relevant Notional Amounts) Report (Wales) 1998–99; Special Grant Report (No. 2) (Wales) 1998.

Wednesday 18 February:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: OJ No. C348, Court of Auditors Report for 1996. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-xiv (1997–98).]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. I am sure that she will wish to reassure the House that if there are developments in the situation in Iraq, the Government will want to update the House regularly on any changes.

May I remind the right hon. Lady that this is the third week that I have asked her whether we could have a debate on the national health service? This week, there have been two statements on the national health service, and the two papers have produced an enormous amount of material. I hope that we can soon have a debate on that very important matter so that those statements and other issues can be aired.

I commend the right hon. Lady for including debates on two Select Committee reports on 18 February. Inevitably, those debates will have to be held at the expense of Members' Adjournment debates, but the serious work of Select Committees deserves the serious scrutiny of the House. Their inclusion is very much in the spirit of the work of the Modernisation Committee.

What, sadly, is not in the spirit of the Modernisation Committee is the Prime Minister's continuing refusal—or perhaps inability—to give straight answers to straight questions at his once-weekly appearances in the House. Two weeks ago, I asked the right hon. Lady to convey to the Prime Minister our concern that he appears to prefer bluster and lecturing to straight answers to sensible questions from Opposition Members. I think that she, like the rest of us, will have noticed that there has been widespread press comment echoing that view.

I have noticed that the Prime Minister seems to be a little more successful with questions that he has prepared in advance. I begin to wonder whether, to get some sense out of those sessions, Opposition Members should perhaps give him a crib. Certainly that might have enabled him yesterday to know by how much farm incomes have fallen in the past year—although I suppose that farmers might have expected him to know that anyway, given that the figures came from his Government and were issued only last Friday.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department to come to the House to explain the Lord Chancellor's extraordinary utterances on press censorship—or, as he calls it, "prior restraint"? Is it the Government's view that press reports of stories embarrassing to the Government should be suppressed at source, as the Lord Chancellor seems to imply? What is the Government's policy on that important matter? Is it the same as the Lord Chancellor's? If not, why not?

Will the right hon. Lady tell the House the Government's position on the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill? Is it the Government's view that the Bill is seriously defective? If so, for how long have they held that view? Would it not have been less wasteful of public resources to make that known a little earlier? Is the Government's policy towards the Bill one of strict neutrality, as is reported in the press this morning? I think we should be told.

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Lady raised several questions. She first asked me to give an assurance that the House would be kept informed of any developments on Iraq. She will be aware that Foreign Office Question Time will be held on Tuesday, and that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be here. I know that he hopes also to make a statement next week to ensure that the House is kept fully informed of all developments, which will be of benefit to all hon. Members.

In respect of the right hon. Lady's request for a debate on health matters, she rightly pointed out that this week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made two statements to the House, both of which have been widely welcomed. He has made seven statements since we were elected, so he has been extremely good at making himself available to debate such issues.

The right hon. Lady knows that we have a crowded programme. As I have explained to her on one or two occasions, although we have much to discuss and to boast about in respect of health matters, our crowded programme means that it is not always possible to have all the debates that we should like.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady welcomed the fact that we are debating the Select Committee reports on Wednesday morning. It is true that there is always a great deal of pressure on time for such debates, and indeed for Adjournment debates. She knows that the Modernisation Committee is looking at the matter seriously and I hope that eventually we will come up with some suggestions that will be of benefit to the House and to those who do so much work on Select Committees.

In respect of the right hon. Lady's point about Prime Minister's questions, it is not the quality of the answers that worries me, but the quality of the questions, which are not always trying to elicit a reply. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been giving the Opposition answers that they do not like, but they will have to get used to that in the next few years.

The right hon. Lady will know that issues of privacy have concerned hon. Members on both sides of the House at different times. She referred to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor's statement in response to questions during an interview. There is no change in the Government's position. We have not reached a final view on these matters. We are currently discussing them with the Press Complaints Commission with the objective of strengthening the present system of voluntary self-regulation, as my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor made clear during his interview.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will my right hon. Friend consider having an urgent debate on sport and the importation of players, particularly in rugby league? As she will be aware, it is difficult to obtain the services of Australian rugby league players, but easy to obtain the services of Russian football players. Does she agree that the matter needs to be sorted out so that we have a commonality of policy? I declare an interest on behalf of St. Helens rugby league club. It is not a personal interest. It is important that we have a common policy in respect of all sports.

Mrs. Taylor

Perhaps I should declare an interest. As my hon. Friend may know, my local rugby league club, Dewsbury, has an interest in the matter. I cannot promise a debate, but I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's concerns, as well as those of other members of the rugby league group, are passed on to the Department for Education and Employment.

In my reply to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), I did not address her point about the fox hunting Bill. The Government's position remains neutral. If she reads the Hansard report of the Committee debates, she will see that, just before Christmas, the Minister said that if there were technical problems with the Bill, assistance would be forthcoming. There followed discussions between my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and the Minister, and the latest announcement—that technical assistance is available—is a consequence of that.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Has the Leader of the House noticed the increasing support, particularly among Labour Members, for early-day motion 689 to which I referred last week?

[That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 1998, (S.1., 1998, No. 71), dated 15th January 1998, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd January, be annulled.]

Early-day motion 709 also relates to that issue.

Has the right hon. Lady seen the leading article in the Financial Times today which draws attention to the fact that the Government have still not made an announcement on the reappointment of Eddie George, the Governor of the Bank of England? Is that statement not long overdue? When can we expect it? Is not the delay causing some uncertainty—indeed, instability?

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that, on the explicit instructions of the Prime Minister, the long-awaited and heavily trailed White Paper on lifelong learning has been scrapped—indeed, pulped? Will she confirm that the comprehensive, united document is to be replaced by a series of consultation documents? Does she recognise that that will be a huge blow to all those who felt that this was the right moment for a full statement on the Government's intentions?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman asked about the jobseeker's allowance last week. I cannot add to my reply then or tell him anything about the Bank of England appointment that he referred to. He mentioned stability. He will know that the thrust of the Government's policy on economic and financial matters is to increase stability. We shall do nothing to cut across that.

A great deal of work is going on in the Department for Education and Employment on lifelong learning. It is taking on board many other issues. There is not always time to do everything on one day.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Albeit that I have been lucky enough to secure an Adjournment debate on Friday 13 February on the military situation in relation to a possible attack on Iraq, is it not important in a parliamentary democracy that unpalatable views should be heard? That cannot be done through Foreign Office questions, or even statements. We should be told the legal basis for military action.

Mr. Marc Weller of the centre of international studies in the university of Cambridge said in The Times that preventative war was unlawful. I have discussed the issue with four international lawyers, whose names I have given to Downing street. Three of them believe that Mr. Weller is correct. Should there not be a full statement on the basis on which this country might go to war? Matters of war and peace should be discussed in the House of Commons.

Mrs. Taylor

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining his Adjournment debate. I have already told the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk that the Government will keep the House informed. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is planning updates whenever necessary or possible. We take our responsibilities to the House seriously. I do not rule out a debate on the issue, but I think that my hon. Friend will agree that the timing of any debate needs careful consideration. It is most important that the House should be kept as informed as possible. We should also maintain the diplomatic momentum.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

In acknowledging what the right hon. Lady has said, may I push her further and support the views of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)? We hope that the diplomatic initiatives are successful, but it looks increasingly as though we are sliding inexorably towards more aggressive action against Iraq. Is it not important that the British armed forces—there is a substantial carrier group in the Gulf actively training for any operation—should know that the will of the majority of the House of Commons is behind them in the event of their having to go into action?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is reinforcing my point. The House has to be kept well informed. We are well aware of our responsibilities to the House. I have not ruled out a debate. I have said that we would have to give careful consideration to the issue.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will my right hon. Friend have a word with the Department of Trade and Industry with a view to a statement being made about a document that has gone out to hundreds of thousands of retired miners and widows of retired miners? The Government assumed control of the delivery of concessionary coal after the privatisation of the industry. It seems clear from the circular that as many as 55,000 of those widows and retired miners will receive up to 16 cwt less smokeless fuel than before. It is pretty clear that a mistake has been made. Will she ensure that the relevant people in the Department of Trade and Industry make a statement or make everybody happy by withdrawing the circular?

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate on that subject, but I shall ensure that Ministers respond to the points that he has raised.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Does the Leader of the House believe that it would be in the Government's interest to have an early and urgent debate on press freedom? Is it not extraordinary that the Lord Chancellor should make a statement and then be slapped down by No. 10 Downing street? That is a very serious Government split on an important issue. Surely the Leader of the House agrees that it is in the Government's interest—not to say that of the House of Commons, the electorate and the readership of newspapers—that we all know what on earth is going on. At the highest level of government, two completely contradictory statements are being made.

Mrs. Taylor

As I said, our objective of strengthening the system of voluntary self-regulation was mentioned by the Lord Chancellor in that argument. There is therefore no need for a debate of the kind that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

First, and most important, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Prime Minister makes a statement on Iraq when he returns from the United States? She will know that I favour action against the regime, but not war against the innocent people of Iraq.

Secondly, did my right hon. Friend see that outrageous survey that put Leyton Orient bottom of the league for food in football clubs? Instead of going to war with Saddam Hussein, would not it be better to invite him to lunch at Leyton Orient on match day?

Mrs. Taylor

I should choose my words carefully on both matters. I cannot add to what I said about the importance of keeping the House informed on Iraq. I think that I have made the position clear.

On the survey of food at football grounds, I must declare an interest. As yet, Bolton Wanderers is not in the same division as Leyton Orient, so I can safely keep off the issue. My hon. Friend has made his point, but I do not think that it will be possible to have a debate on the issue.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does the Leader of the House share my concern that 910,000 taxpayers—one in nine of all required to do so—failed to complete self-assessment forms by 31 January, and therefore face fines and penalties? Does she agree that that is likely to impact most heavily on smaller business people? Will there be a chance to raise the issue next week? I am sure that there would be widespread support for the proposition that, in this unique situation, the implementation of the deadline should be delayed by one month.

Mrs. Taylor

I remind the hon. Gentleman that his Government not only introduced the system but set the time scale. Many people managed to meet the deadline. I also remind him that it is Treasury Question Time on Thursday.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

May I ask for an early debate on the multilateral agreement on investment—certainly before the Government sign it in April? My right hon. Friend will know that the proposed MAI, like the existing North American Free Trade Area, forbids Governments to discriminate against multinationals. She will also know that NAFTA contains clauses that are supposed to protect the environment in other areas, but unhappily have proved totally inadequate. For example, one American multinational is suing the Canadian Government for $250 million because they dared to ban a dangerous dioxin—on the ground that, as the multinational was the only producer of that dioxin, it would be discriminatory to ban it. We should have a full-scale debate on such issues before the Government commit us to an agreement that will give multinationals massive rights but very few responsibilities.

Mrs. Taylor

I am afraid that there just is not time for all the debates that hon. Members would like. My hon. Friend could apply for an Adjournment debate, or he may wish to approach Ministers in other ways.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

May I return the right hon. Lady to the subject of the Government's policy on privacy? Although the Lord Chancellor said, among other things, that he would like a strengthening of the voluntary code, we heard today the head of the judiciary—the man who is second in precedence to Her Majesty the Queen, and is a senior figure in government—pronounce with all the authority that he could muster that the press should be prohibited, barred, from revealing the events of the Foreign Secretary's sacking a civil servant to replace her with someone else. The right hon. Lady cannot pretend that the Lord Chancellor's comments were blandly reciting Government policy. We must have a debate to get to the bottom of the matter.

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether he could return to the subject, and then confirmed that what I said the Lord Chancellor had said was in fact the truth. What he went on to imply is not so. I have absolutely nothing to add to what I said earlier.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Would not one advantage of a debate on Iraq be that Members would have an opportunity to discuss the very important matter and dwell, as we should, on the terrifying weapons of mass destruction, which have been well publicised in today's newspapers? A vote at the end of such a debate would show the overwhelming support in the House of Commons for action if Saddam Hussein refuses to allow any flexibility in weapon inspections. That vote would undoubtedly reflect the feeling in the country.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that I have made the position clear about a debate on Iraq. My hon. Friend's comments about the overwhelming majority of the House supporting the Government's position are important. Statements so far have demonstrated that support.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I refer the Leader of the House to the three hours only that she has allotted on the evening of Wednesday 11 February for consideration of Lords amendments to the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill? Is she not aware that the two amendments in question are of the greatest significance to Londoners? One concerns whether Londoners should have an opportunity, as their lordships rightly suggest, to see the Bill, rather than only a White Paper, before they exercise their vote in the referendum. The second concerns asking Londoners two questions: whether they want a mayor and/or an assembly. Is not allowing only three hours a grotesque abuse of democracy? Will the debate be time-limited? Will she impose a closure motion with her big majority or will we be able, if we wish, to debate such matters beyond 10 pm on Wednesday?

Mrs. Taylor

I did not say that the debate would be time-limited. The hon. Gentleman's presumption is incorrect to start with. I remind him that the House has already passed its opinion on such matters.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

In view of the many positive initiatives on education, such as extra money for schools books, the abolition of the assisted places scheme, which allows money to be put into reducing class sizes, the greater flexibility for primary school teachers so that they can spend more time on numeracy and literacy, and, of course, the year of literacy, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on those issues?

Mrs. Taylor

I understand why my hon. Friend wants a debate on those matters. All of us have schools in our constituencies that have been told that they will receive £1,000 for books in the near future, which is good news for every school. As he says, changes to the curriculum have been widely welcomed by teachers. We shall soon be hearing about savings from the abolition of the assisted places scheme, which will go into reducing class sizes. As I have said on other occasions, it is not always possible to find time for debates on all the issues about which we would like to talk and, indeed, boast. I am sure that his constituents appreciate as much as mine the progress that has been made.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I raised with the Leader of the House last week—and in previous weeks—the time it takes for Ministers to reply to letters. May we have an urgent debate on this matter? I know that if I ring the private office of a Minister, I can get an answer within a minute on any complicated matter. If one tables a priority written question, the answer is almost always late and takes twice as long as it is supposed to.

I have now received answers from most of the Ministries about how long it takes them to reply to Members' letters. The Home Office, for example, has said that it is hitting its target of 15 working days—which is lamentable—only 13 per cent. of the time. That is appalling. We must have a debate about getting information out to allow Members of Parliament to do their job. After all, we are all just wasting our time if we do not have the right information.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter with me before, and I have invited him to send me specific details. One or two hon. Members have done so. It is important that we get answers to questions and letters as soon as possible, but it is also important that we get thorough answers. It is significant that the volume of correspondence and the number of parliamentary questions in some areas has increased significantly. I am monitoring the situation as best I can, although some information I get is anecdotal. We are aware that there are problems in certain areas, and I will be happy to receive any representations from the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Does the right hon. Lady remember the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill, a one-page Bill which received its Second Reading on the Floor of the House three months ago today, but for which the Government have apparently not been able to find time to schedule the Committee? Does she recall that the Select Committee on European Legislation recommended in December that there should be a debate in European Standing Committee B on the harmonisation of energy taxation? However, the members of the Committee have been told that the Government have no plans for such a debate. Is she aware of the growing belief in the House that the Government are trying to manage their business to avoid the possibility of discussing the Government's energy policy, particularly with regard to coal mining? Can she tell the House when these issues will be debated?

Mrs. Taylor

Not next week.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

I hope that the Leader of the House will join me in expressing concern and sympathy to the 300 families in Cornwall who today heard that the Government will not give any support to keep open what is not only Cornwall's last tin mine but Europe's last tin mine. I understand that, despite the many months that the Government have been considering this matter, they have today been unable to give any firm answers on any kind of package to help ameliorate the effect of those job losses in the poorest county in England and one of the highest unemployment and lowest wage areas within that county. I understand that the Government will not be able to give any firm indication in tonight's Adjournment debate either.

Is it not time that the Government had an answer for those families hit by the decision? Would it not be appropriate for DTI Ministers to come to the House as quickly as possible to say what they are going to do if they are not prepared to keep open Cornwall's last tin mine?

Mrs. Taylor

We have just had DTI Question Time and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there is an Adjournment debate pending on this matter. It would be wrong for me to anticipate anything that might be said in that debate.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

War widows receive a small military pension. If caught cohabiting with a man, they lose that pension. Now that public funds are available to spend on unmarried partners of Ministers to fly around the world, could we have a debate to look at the unfair anomaly that prevails on war widows?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman reminds me of the headline in yesterday's edition of The Times which suggested that the Tories needed more thought and less trivia.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Will the Leader of the House give early consideration to a full debate on agriculture so that we can properly consider the very serious financial straits affecting every sector of the industry throughout the UK?

Mrs. Taylor

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been extremely good at informing the House of the issues affecting the farming community, and what he is doing about them. I realise that there are serious issues involved, but there is no time in the very near future for a debate on the matter. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's concerns to my right hon. Friend.