HC Deb 22 January 1998 vol 304 cc1145-54 3.32 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

May I ask the Leader of the House to tell us 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 26 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Third Day).

TUESDAY 27 JANUARY—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on development in the countryside and the green belt, followed by a debate on the London underground. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

WEDNESDAY 28 JANUARY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (First Day).

THURSDAY 29 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Second Day).

FRIDAY 30 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week is as follows.

MONDAY 2 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Fourth Day).

TUESDAY 3 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Fifth Day).

WEDNESDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Police Grant Report (England And Wales).

THURSDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Motions on the English revenue support grant reports.

FRIDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and for continuing, so far as she can, to give the House the business for two weeks at a time. It continues to be helpful to the House and I know that it is as a result of her enthusiasm that the House is given as much advance notice as possible of the business that it can expect.

May I ask the right hon. Lady when we may expect a debate on the national health service? She will know that we have not had such a debate since before the summer recess and that, when we did, it was the Opposition who called one. We have now had a number of statements and a White Paper on health matters, and it is time that the Government provided the House with an opportunity to debate them.

I should be grateful if the right hon. Lady would convey to the Prime Minister the concern felt in many parts of the House at his increasingly arrogant disregard for Parliament. He continues to refuse to answer the simplest of questions at Prime Minister's Question Time. It is one thing to halve at a stroke the number of times a week that the Prime Minister consents to appear in the House. [Interruption.] It is quite another to make a habit of bluster, waffle and obfuscation in answer to questions to which the people have a right to hear a straight response.

Can the right hon. Lady arrange for an early debate on women's issues so that the House may hear from the Minister for Women why, since her appointment, she has answered only one question in the House, initiated no debates, made no statement and not commented on cuts in benefit for single mothers? After all the Government's electoral promises, is not her appointment a big disappointment to women and to the many newly elected women on the Labour Back Benches? Is it not a waste of money to taxpayers, who are funding her office to the tune of £119,000 a year—rather a lot for rather little?

May we have an early debate on planning issues so that the Deputy Prime Minister can expand his recent statement to the effect that the green belt is a Labour achievement and he intends to build on it?

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the appropriate Minister to come to the House to clarify, for the enlightenment of taxpayers funding ministerial trips abroad, whether the term "partner" appears in the ministerial code of conduct or whether the term "spouse" is used throughout? Are any changes planned, or have changes already been made, to the code, and have those been reported to the House? What is the definition for those purposes of "partner", and for how long must a relationship have lasted for a partner to qualify for a free trip abroad at taxpayers' expense? Who makes that judgment? I hope it is not the Prime Minister's press secretary.

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Lady asked several questions. First, she asked about a debate on the national health service. Important statements have been made to the House, and a Green Paper will be published shortly. I shall consider what she said, but, as she knows, the programme up to Easter is extremely crowded so I cannot guarantee to find time for that debate, much though we should like to be able to boast about our achievements and the money that the Government are putting into health.

I reject the right hon. Lady's comments about the Prime Minister's answers at Question Time. As one of my hon. Friends said, there is no diminution in the total time available. Indeed, the figures show that more questions get asked and more answers are given. [Interruption.] I accept that Conservative Members may not like the answers they are given; that is because the answers do not accord with their views of the ways of the world. They should be grown up enough to know that they will not always like the answers they are given.

In respect of the right hon. Lady's questions about a debate on women's issues, the Minister for Women has requested time for a debate on the Floor of the House on those specific matters. So far, it has not been possible to provide time for that. I notice that when the Opposition selected the topic for discussion on their Opposition day next week, they did not choose to discuss women's issues—perhaps because there are so few women Conservative Members.

It is well known that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister intends to make a statement on planning issues soon. The Government are committed to protecting the countryside and to regenerating towns and cities. Meanwhile, we are sticking to the previous Adminis-tration's target of 50 per cent. of new houses to be built on previously developed land.

There have been no changes to the code in respect of ministerial trips and those who accompany Ministers on such trips.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that pensioners have traditionally looked forward to their winter fuel bills with fear and trepidation. Will she join me in congratulating the Government on their prompt action? Will she arrange for a statement to be made explaining the actions that the Government have taken to alleviate the problem? Their response contrasts with the record of the Conservative party, which treated pensioners with more vindictiveness and disdain than any Government since pensions were founded in 1911.

Mrs. Taylor

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government took prompt action so that pensioners would not have to face another winter fearful of whether they could turn up the heating and afford the coming fuel bill. The Government have allocated extra help of more than £400 million for this winter and the next. Payments to those who need that help most will be made later this month. We have reduced VAT on fuel, whereas the previous Government introduced it and intended to double it, and we have reduced the gas levy. We have shown that helping pensioners with their winter fuel bills is a priority of the Government.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House give us an early debate on the role and responsibility of local education authorities? Will she confirm that a meeting took place last week between the Prime Minister, the Minister for School Standards and the chief inspector of schools, Mr. Christopher Woodhead, at which the future of LEAs was discussed in some detail? Will she confirm that the Government have specific plans significantly to amend and alter the roles and responsibilities of local education authorities? That is an important issue for hon. Members and for members of those authorities. Will she ensure that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment makes an early statement on the matter?

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot confirm any specific meeting. The hon. Gentleman did not warn me that he intended to ask that question, and I do not know what meetings every Minister has had. The Government believe that local education authorities have a very important role to play, and he will realise that if he examines the School Standards and Framework Bill, which is being considered in Committee.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

In recognition of the progress that the Government have made on the scandal of pensions mis-selling, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the issue? Pensions mis-selling was a direct result of the policies of the Conservative party when in government. Does she agree with me that, given the demographic profile, the progress that the Government have made in that area has been of particular help to women?

Mrs. Taylor

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has taken a particular interest in the matter, has made serious progress in trying to ensure that the problem is resolved. She has established clear deadlines for all firms, large and small, and has made it absolutely clear that they must be observed. It is important that we tackle this problem, which was created and then ignored by the Conservative party. The Ministers involved will continue to pursue the matter, but I cannot find time for a specific debate on it in the very near future.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

In thanking the right hon. Lady again for her great courtesy in doing her best to keep us informed of business two weeks ahead, may I ask her to arrange for the Prime Minister to give a clear answer next week to the question whether it is tolerable and tenable for the Paymaster General, who is the chief tax gatherer in the land, to be subject to an investigation by the Inland Revenue and retain his position at the Treasury? Is it not an affront to the House and the people of this country that the hon. Gentleman retains his position at the Treasury at the same time as he is allegedly the subject of a special investigation? To clear the matter up, will the right hon. Lady give us a answer, yes or no, to the question whether he is subject to such an investigation?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that the hon. Gentleman protests too much. He knows that, as the Prime Minister explained yesterday, neither the Inland Revenue nor any other regulatory board can comment on investigations or, indeed, on whether or not an investigation is taking place. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was told that yesterday, and I think that he should remember it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 666?

[That this House calls for the immediate opening of serious negotiations with the Iraqi Government with a view to ending sanctions and seeking a solution to outstanding problems; and would deplore any military action by the United States which is opposed by three permanent members of the Security Council.]

The motion, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and me, expresses a minority view on relations with Iraq.

May we have a statement next week making clear the precise objectives of any Anglo-American military action, in the absence of massive ground forces, with a view to the use of chemical or biological weapons? Before British service men are committed to military action, should not the House at least have an opportunity to express an opinion?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend knows that his views on our problems in respect of Saddam Hussein do not coincide with those of the Government. Although he has drawn my attention to early-day motion 666, I must tell him that I do not accept his analysis. As for his question about a statement being made to the House before the deployment of troops, I can confirm that, operational circumstances permitting, we would made a statement to the House before committing any troops.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Does the Leader of the House agree that the Minister for Women should make an early statement to the House? I remind hon. Members that, in a written answer given on 20 November 1997, the Minister said that the Government were taking steps to "ensure that women's interests"—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady should not quote, because this is part of Question Time. I am sure that she can paraphrase.

Miss McIntosh

Would the Minister for Women care to comment to the House on the Government's views on this week's Equal Opportunities Commission document on proposed changes to the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975?

Mrs. Taylor

I said that my hon. Friend the Minister had asked for a debate on these issues, although it has not been possible to find time for such a debate yet. The hon. Lady can raise those issues with my hon. Friend, either at Question Time or in a written question.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in Committee earlier this week, the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment turned on its head Conservative party policy on class sizes when he recognised the link between educational attainment and smaller class sizes for young children—and, furthermore, said that he recognised that class sizes were relevant to them? Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate, so that we can welcome this blinding conversion of a party which for so long denied any link between class sizes and educational attainment?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. Over the years, I have heard the arguments advanced both by the present shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), and by her right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who may still hold the old rather than the new Conservative view. Nevertheless, I welcome the transformation. I hope that every hon. Member will read the Committee Hansard, and see how clear it is that the Opposition have been converted to the view that class sizes make a difference. I also hope that the Opposition will help us to implement one of the key pledges in our election manifesto.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

In view of the salutary passage of an amendment in the other place requiring publication by the Government of a Bill on proposals for a Greater London authority before the people of London are called upon to vote on that subject in a referendum, will the Leader of the House clearly explain the Government's exact proposals for that legislation? Are the people of London now to have the opportunity of judging clear, definitive legislative proposals before they are called on to vote; or are they still to be asked, on 7 May, to take a great leap in the dark, on the basis of a White Paper published only a few weeks before the referendum which could, of course, subsequently be changed?

Mrs. Taylor

The amendment passed in the other place was significant, not least because it was passed by hereditary peers. Although the legislation issue is not yet resolved, we have made it clear that the White Paper will be published in good time.

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West)

May I welcome the Government's welfare-to-work programme, which will give new hope and opportunity to the unemployed, who were neglected for so long under the Tories? As one in five households has no one in work, the measure is essential to tackle the human waste and poverty that result from unemployment. Will my right hon. Friend agree to arrange a debate on such an important issue?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is correct to say that welfare to work—which the Conservative party has opposed on every occasion—is a very important issue. The Government are committed to providing new opportunities for the unemployed and to helping people back into work. The matter has been debated on some occasions, and, important as it is, I do not think that we will be able to find time in the very near future for another debate on it.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I press the right hon. Lady to have a debate urgently on the matter of ministerial accommodation—so that we may know who is living where and at what expense, and how much taxpayers' money has been spent on the refurbishment of those premises, if only so that people being denied benefit might know where their money is going? While we are at it, will she help her fellow Ministers by clarifying the position on the code of ministerial conduct; on whether spouses remain spouses, or partners become spouses, or spouses become partners; on who is travelling with whom, and on what basis; and on when all that started, anyway?

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of accommodation. As with the issue of travel, there has been no change in practice.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

Further to my right hon. Friend's answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on the situation in Iraq, I believe—and I believe that the Government may agree—that Saddam Hussein is a monster by any civilised measure, that he possesses a stockpile of nerve gas, that he probably can construct an atomic weapon, that the inspection process that the United Nations is trying to impose is already proving to be effective, and that we have stepped down a road that leads inexorably to war. While there are still some options for diplomacy, will she please give further thought to how the House may debate that important issue, before it is too late?

Mrs. Taylor

There are still important options for diplomacy, and it will always be the Government's priority to follow that course. My hon. Friend is quite right in his analysis of the difficulties that Saddam Hussein has created. The United Nations Special Commission has reported that Iraq could be producing enough anthrax each week to fill two warheads. The situation and dangers are therefore evident. I have said that if there is a question of British troops being used, the House will of course be given the opportunity to express an opinion. However, we all hope that the situation will not come to that.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware that early-day motion has been signed by about 355 hon. Members.

[That this House is concerned that increases in road traffic will cause more atmospheric pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases, hampering the achievement of the Government's 20 per cent. carbon dioxide reduction target and damaging communities and the countryside; notes the similar concerns expressed in recent reports by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Transport Committee; notes, too, that the CBI has estimated that traffic congestion is costing industry £19 billion per year; notes the words in the Government's election manifesto that 'a sustainable environment requires above all an effective and integrated transport policy at national, regional and local level' and the acceptance in Consensus for Change 'that the current state of affairs is unsustainable'; believes therefore that road traffic reduction is a vital part of a sustainable transport policy, and accordingly welcomes the passing of the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997 but regrets that this only applied to local authorities and local roads, believing that this anomaly, whereby traffic reduction targets are required for local roads, but not for national roads, cannot fully enable the establishment of 'an effective and integrated transport policy at national, regional and local level'; and therefore welcomes the proposals for road traffic reduction measures promoted by a cross-party group of honourable Members which sets out a requirement for the Government to consult widely, draw up and implement national transport policies to achieve, in a spirit of partnership a reduction of road traffic miles of 5 per cent. by 2005 and 10 per cent. by 2010.] Representing a constituency in a city that has been described as the most polluted city in the kingdom and which has several of the most congested roads, may I ask whether the Government will not only give a fair wind to the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill next Friday but help to improve the health and quality of living of many of our people?

Mrs. Taylor

I can confirm that we share many of the concerns about the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. However, it is not my practice to say in advance what the Government's attitude will be to any private Member's Bill.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

In recognition of the vital role of local magistrates courts, can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on their future? I am especially concerned about that issue, because my constituency faces the closure of its last magistrates court in Leek, and local people will therefore be deprived of local justice administered by local people.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that it will be possible to provide a debate in Government time in the near future. The relevant Minister was answering questions on such matters in the House earlier this week. Perhaps my hon. Friend will want to apply for an Adjournment debate to pursue that constituency case.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on issues of national importance—the millennium bug and the year 2000 problem? Is she aware that at an Action 2000 press conference this morning the Prime Minister issued a statement saying that there were 100 working weeks left until the millennium, and that that was only just enough time to deal with the problems connected with the year 2000?

I should have thought that a statement on the issue was urgently required in the House, not least because I was refused access to the press conference and received the papers from it three quarters of an hour after members of the press. Does the right hon. Lady not think it disgraceful that, yet again, the media were informed before Members of the House? May we have an urgent debate to sort out the mess that the Government are making of the millennium bug?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Lady was a member of a Government who did very little to prepare for the event, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made a statement on the matter shortly before Christmas. The Government are aware of the threat and, unlike our predecessors, we are far from complacent.

Every business, every Department and every organisation must take responsibility for tackling its own systems. None the less, the Government are spending more than the previous Government did in preparation for the event, and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is chairing a ministerial group to bring together work in the public and the private sector. Unlike the previous Government, we take the problem extremely seriously.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Given the widespread public support for greater access to open countryside, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate soon, so that the Government can explain what steps they are taking to implement their manifesto commitment in that regard?

Mrs. Taylor

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in that issue over many years, and he is right to remind me of the manifesto commitment. The Government are firmly committed to greater freedom to explore open countryside. We intend to issue a consultation paper shortly to outline our proposals for achieving greater access, and I hope that when that is published my hon. Friend will be pleased with the progress that has been made. Whether we can find time for an early debate on the subject is another matter, and I cannot promise him the time that he might want.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

Would it be helpful to suggest to the Leader of the House that we have a debate on women's issues, so that the Minister for Women can have a rare starring role at the Dispatch Box, close to International Women's Day? We would have the opportunity to find out how many married women Members are looking forward to their husbands taking responsibility for, and signing, their tax forms, and how many male Members are looking forward to taking on that responsibility.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Lady asked whether that would be a helpful question, and I have to tell her that it would not. I doubt whether she will think my answer very helpful either. I have already said that my hon. Friend the Minister is looking for a debate on those issues. When we were in opposition we often used an Opposition day so that such a debate could take place, and the hon. Lady may wish to explore that possibility with her hon. Friends.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May we have an early statement from the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary detailing the foreign policy baseline against which the strategic defence review must be judged? My right hon. Friend, I and others were proud to support the manifesto, which promised that new Labour would maintain Britain's capacity for peacekeeping, humanitarian effort and power projection in the world. It is important that we have a clear statement that Labour intends to maintain that capacity in advance of the strategic defence review.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that we can have an early debate on those matters. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has made it clear that the review that has taken place is foreign policy-led and not Treasury-driven. I hope that that will reassure my hon. Friend in the absence of an early debate.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

I welcome the announcement of a day's debate on the revenue support grant, but must inform the Leader of the House that the proposed local government settlement for Shropshire will have catastrophic consequences. There will be not only a 17 per cent. increase in council tax, but £10 million in cuts, 450 teachers may lose their jobs and class sizes may go over 40. I addressed 4,000 people in Shrewsbury on Saturday and the Government's election slogan, "Education, Education, Education" was openly mocked by two highly respected local headmasters. May we please have a further day's debate on the local government settlement?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the situation, but he has put in his bid to speak in that debate, if he thinks that it is still necessary for him to do so.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent reports that more than half of the £1 million of the Chinese heroin dealer's money donated to the Conservative party was spent on a printing press for Conservative central office in Reading? Does she agree that it is high time that the leader of the Conservative party came clean on the sources of party funding? What opportunity does she plan to give Parliament to discuss party funding?

Mrs; Taylor

I was not aware, until it was brought to my attention by my hon. Friend, that that money might have been spent in that way. Many facts about the situation are still extremely unclear. Until we can make further progress to ensure that we have new, appropriate rules for accepting donations, we should have clarification of what has happened in the past. However, that is a matter not for me, but for the Conservative party. If there were a prospect of discovering the facts, I would be tempted to provide time to do so.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to explain to the House why 300 police officers have been cut from police forces since 1 May and what he intends to do about it?

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot arrange for a debate on that matter. I have announced a debate on the police grant.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

May we have a debate covering the Government's policy towards tourism, particularly in relation to United Kingdom seaside resorts? Three key issues seem to confront that industry. The first is competing with overseas hoteliers, who have a more beneficial value added tax rate on accommodation. Secondly, there is a problem with the six-bed rule, which is not being implemented consistently throughout the country. The third issue is the threat from a non-regionalised national minimum wage.

Mrs. Taylor

I am afraid that there is little prospect of such a debate in the next couple of weeks, unless the hon. Gentleman is successful in a request for an Adjournment debate or something of that sort. Some of those questions were raised with the relevant Ministers at Question Time on Tuesday.