HC Deb 09 July 1998 vol 315 cc1237-45 3.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give 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 will be as follows:

MONDAY 13 JULY—Opposition Day (17th allotted day). Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate that the Opposition have entitled "The Crisis of Manufacturing and the Deterioration in Industrial Relations". That will be followed by a debate that they are calling "Incompetent Management at the Department of Social Security". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Consideration of a Lords amendment to the Teaching and Higher Education Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 14 JULY—Estimates Day (2nd allotted day).

There will be a debate on the UK beef industry, followed by a debate on the structure and funding of university research. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 10 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Remaining stages of the Registration of Political Parties Bill.

WEDNESDAY 15 JULY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill.

Consideration of any Lords amendments that may be received to the School Standards and Framework Bill.

THURSDAY 16 JULY—Debate on public expenditure on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, which will follow a statement on the White Paper on public expenditure, which will take place on the previous Tuesday, the 14th.

FRIDAY 17 JULY—Debate on NATO enlargement on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

MONDAY 20 JULY—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill, which will be published next week.

TUESDAY 21 JULY—Opposition day (18th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, the subject of which is yet to be announced.

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

Consideration of any Lords amendments that may be received to the Government of Wales Bill.

Progress in Committee of the Northern Ireland Bill.

THURSDAY 23 JULY—Consideration in Committee of the Northern Ireland Bill.

FRIDAY 24 JULY—Consideration in Committee of the Northern Ireland Bill, which I envisage will be brought to a conclusion on Monday 27 July.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

[Tuesday 14 July 1998:

Estimates Day [2nd allotted day] Class IV, Votes 1 and 2: Intervention Board-Executive Agency and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in so far as they relate to the UK beef industry. Relevant reports: third report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 1997–98, on "The UK Beef Industry" (HC 474) and the Government's response thereto (HC 720). The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Intervention Board departmental report 1998 (CM 3904). The second report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 1997–98, on the "Present Crisis in the Welsh Livestock Industry" (HC 447).

Class V, Vote 2: Department of Trade and Industry: Science in so far as it relates to the structure and funding of university research. Relevant reports: the first report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 1997–98 on "The Implications of the Dearing Report for the Structure and Funding of University Research" (HC 303-I) and the Government's response thereto (HC 799). The Department of Trade and Industry's departmental report: "The Government's Expenditure Plans 1998–99" (Cm 3905).]

Sir George Young

The House is grateful to the right hon. Lady for next week's business and for an indication of the business for the following week.

This morning we had further leaks from the Government, this time on the roads programme. Does that not underline the need for a statement on the much-delayed White Paper? Can the right hon. Lady help the House by saying when that might be?

When might we debate the reductions in the defence budget that were announced in yesterday's strategic defence review? Have we lost the two remaining one-day debates on the Army and the Navy?

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) asked for an assurance that the Government's proposals on the North sea oil tax would be given in an oral statement. The Leader of the House could not give an assurance at that time, as she had not considered the matter, but there is much uncertainty on that, and it is of great interest in Scotland. Can she give an undertaking that that decision will be announced in an oral statement?

In the light of the difficulties that have confronted the Government over recent days, on which the Leader of the Opposition focused with such effect yesterday, may we have a debate on the new rules of conduct that are being circulated by the Cabinet Secretary, so that the House can judge how effective they might be in disengaging Ministers and their special advisers from the rest of the circle that the Prime Minister built up around him in opposition?

Finally, can the right hon. Lady shed any further light on the likely date of the summer recess? Last week she said that it was clear that the House could not rise before the end of July. I appreciate the turbulence in the programme, but if she could share her latest thinking with the House, we would all be grateful.

Mrs. Taylor

I shall try to be as helpful as possible. On the suggestion of a leak on the roads programme, I did indeed hear some of the speculation this morning, all of which concluded with comments to the effect that the Deputy Prime Minister had all the schemes on his desk and had yet to make decisions, so I do not think that the decisions have been taken, let alone leaked.

I hope that we can have a statement on the White Paper on transport before the House rises. There is great pressure on time, but I am looking to find time for such a statement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a debate on the strategic defence review and the days on the Army and the Navy. I believe that it will be possible to have those debates in the spillover period. If so, it will of course be possible for the views of the Select Committee on Defence to be taken into account—I understand that the Select Committee intends to comment on the defence review.

I cannot guarantee the right hon. Gentleman the statement that he requested on North sea oil. There are many decisions still to be made and many demands for a statement. Some judgment must be exercised.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the new rules of conduct are to be circulated by the Cabinet secretariat. Perhaps I may remind him what the Prime Minister said yesterday: I have instructed the Cabinet Secretary, therefore, to revise the rules that we inherited that govern such contracts and to strengthen them in any way that he thinks fit."—[Official Report, 8 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 1065.] We are working to the rules of the previous Government, and if there is a need for strengthening, that will happen.

The announcement of any recess is always subject to the progress of business: that is especially so this year. With that proviso, I hope that it will be possible for the House to rise on Friday 31 July, but I cannot yet guarantee that, as we still have some extremely important business, including the Northern Ireland Bill, which I mentioned in my statement. We must make progress on that and on other outstanding matters that have yet to be debated in the House.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Will my right hon. Friend have further discussions with the Opposition about the timetabling of their business and the issues selected for debate? I ask that in the light of events last Friday, when Opposition Members—one of whom, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I see in the Chamber—talked out the Fireworks Bill. They implied that in doing so, they had the support of the firework industry. However, they had no such support and have been told so by representatives of the firework industry, who said that the actions of the Opposition could contribute directly to an increase in firework-related accidents.

As Opposition Front Benchers stated that they wished to give the Bill a fair wind, will my right hon. Friend propose to the Opposition that they make some of their time available, so that we can ensure that firework-related injuries go down rather than up as a result of irresponsible actions of Opposition Members?

Mrs. Taylor

Many people both outside and inside the House would be appalled at the behaviour of those who sought to prevent that Bill from making further progress last week. Firework-related accidents are an important issue. I hope that those who stopped the Bill will have a clear conscience because they will bear a great deal of responsibility for any further problems that might arise. The Opposition said that they would give the Bill a fair wind. They acted irresponsibly, and I can well understand why my hon. Friend and others say that the whole procedure for private Members' Bills must be considered by the Modernisation Committee.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Given that the timetable is under pressure and that the Leader of the House is anxious, through her Committee, to reduce the number of late sittings, will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that the Government could make a contribution by accepting on Monday the amendment passed by a substantial majority in the other place? Will she acknowledge the comment of Lord Russell that, if the Government do not accept that modest and reasonable amendment, it will raise the question of whether they want a revising Chamber?

When will the Prime Minister either correct or confirm his statement that medical students will be exempt from student fees? Obviously, those students would like to hear him confirm that that is Government policy.

May I endorse the plea by the shadow Leader of the House for an early statement on North sea oil and gas taxation? The Leader of the House may be surprised to hear that The Press and Journal (Aberdeen) led on that story this morning. Tens of thousands of jobs are at risk as a direct result of the Government's failure to give a clear statement on something that they promised in April.

Mrs. Taylor

I have nothing to add on the last point.

We shall not accept the Lords amendment in Monday's debate. Indeed, I have found that accepting amendments rarely leads to shorter debates, but we shall not support the amendment because we do not think that it is right. The hon. Gentleman quotes Lord Russell; I remind him that Lord Dearing spoke and voted for Labour's position on the matter.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Reference has already been made to the demise of the Fireworks Bill. We spent five hours debating a range of narrow amendments, and at the conclusion of the debate we were discussing a tidying amendment. The Bill has been thoroughly scrutinised in both Houses and has been through both Houses' full procedures. May I seek discussions with the Leader of the House about what opportunities might be available to bring back the most essential parts of that measure? I know that the CBI's explosive industry group has written to my right hon. Friend to say that it considers the consequences for firework safety in the millennium celebrations to be extremely grave.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend makes an extremely serious point. Many of us were pleased when she decided to introduce that private Member's Bill on such a serious safety issue. As she points out, the CBI and many others are extremely concerned that we should make progress. I can make no promises about future progress, but I am certainly willing to meet her and to discuss the matter.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

In view of the unfortunate connotations of the way in which the Labour party's ridiculous campaign on cool Britannia has gone, will the Leader of the House try to make time for the House to debate the British Council, which does invaluable and remarkable work for this country overseas? To my shame, its budget was cut under my Government and it needs more resources to enable it to carry forward its remarkable work of promoting British culture throughout the world.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not sure about the hon. Gentleman's reference to cool Britannia, but I endorse what he says about the good work of the British Council. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been happy to help the British Council from time to time and we appreciate the good work that it does. There will be an Adjournment debate on the issue next Wednesday morning, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman could catch Madam Speaker's eye then.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on early-day motions 6 and 318?

[That this House should impose new restrictions on the activities of potentially-corrupting commercial lobbyists in influencing parliamentary decisions, in order to improve access to Government and honourable Members by those groups and individuals who cannot afford to employ lobbying organisations.]

Both were tabled more than a year ago; the first calls for a new, rigorous system for controlling lobbying in the House, and the second draws attention to the dangers of insider information being supplied to lobbying firms by new employees who were previously employed by political parties.

Although a great deal of humbug has been spoken over the past few days, it is worth recalling that, only two years ago, many Conservative Members were described as having their snouts so deeply in the trough that all that could be seen of them was the soles of their feet. We have a serious problem: we have failed to control lobbyists whose main work is to ensure that their rich and powerful clients become richer and more powerful, to the detriment of other clients and other people who cannot afford their services.

Mrs. Taylor

I agree with my hon. Friend that a great deal of humbug has been spoken on this topic in the past few days. He will recall that Lord Nolan considered controlling the activities of lobbyists and decided that there were important restrictions in terms of taking further action. Many of us would be concerned if it was suggested that the House of Commons should license lobbyists and give a seal of approval to certain ones, which is one of the proposals that has been made. I accept that there is concern about certain activities; the House should make it clear that the allegations have been about the way in which lobbyists conduct themselves, not about the way in which Members of Parliament or Ministers conduct themselves.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

The right hon. Lady confirmed that there will be a debate on the strategic defence review when the House resumes after the recess. Will she confirm that it will be a two-day debate? To assist the House, I can confirm that the Select Committee on Defence will have a report ready on the strategic defence review. The dates of the recess are immaterial to us, because we shall be working throughout the recess to get the report ready so that hon. Members can take it with them when they visit the beaches. Our job has been made somewhat easier by being able to start on our study four weeks earlier than expected because of the leaks that have taken place.

Mrs. Taylor

I hope that the Select Committee on Defence did not waste too much time on the various and conflicting so-called leaks that were circulating in advance of publication. I confirm that I should like to provide time for a two-day debate—obviously that will be subject to further discussions through the usual channels—and I am pleased that the Select Committee will be able to do its work. I am happy to confirm that many Select Committees do extremely good work during the recess, which knocks on the head the idea that the recess is simply a holiday for hon. Members. A lot of work is done, not only by the Select Committee on Defence, but by many others.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be new legislation regarding the activities of lobbyists, especially in the light of the fact that in the past few days there has been an opportunity for us to clean up the Augean stables? Fortunately, that opportunity has come at the beginning of the Parliament, not at the end. Does she agree that the day that lobbyists become more important than Ministers and Members of Parliament will be the day that democracy dies?

Mrs. Taylor

I remind my hon. Friend of what I said about the Nolan committee. His basic point about lobbyists being more important than Members of Parliament is very alarming.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

During yesterday's defence statement, I strenuously, but unsuccessfully, attempted to catch your eye, Madam Speaker. I fully realise, being of limited physical stature, why I was not called.

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that there will be no further statements by any Defence Minister before the debates in the overspill? I ask that because I clearly heard the Secretary of State for Defence say yesterday that the Minister for the Armed Forces would be making further statements about the Territorial Army very soon. Will she please clear the matter up? It is extremely important to both Welsh regiments, and I hope that she will be able to give some assurance about this delay.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman asks that there be no further statements. I hope that he is not suggesting that no further details should be given, and that no questions should be answered by the Department. We now have the strategic defence review, and hon. Members will be able to read it. The normal decision-making process will continue, and if other information should be made available, that will be done in the usual way.

Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

May I bring to my right hon. Friend's attention the fact the Commission for Racial Equality has decided that the leaflet distributed by Poplar and Canning Town Conservative association in Newham in May this year is in breach of the guidelines to which all political parties signed up, in that it contained offensive material? My local newspaper, the Newham Recorder, also regard the leaflet as racist. Despite having written to the Leader of the Opposition three times, I have yet to receive a response with the Conservative party's official view of this literature.

May I also draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the fact that there is a by-election in Custom House and Silvertown ward in Newham? In conflict with the spirit of the Registration of Political Parties Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment, a candidate is standing in that by-election under the name of Real Labour. Coincidentally, four of the persons nominating the Real Labour candidate had nominated Conservative candidates at the borough elections in May. Should time be set aside to debate the dirty tricks that Poplar and Canning Town Conservative association seems to be playing?

Mrs. Taylor

All of us should be concerned if offensive material such as my hon. Friend describes is being circulated. I hope that the Opposition Front Benchers will ensure that the Leader of the Opposition replies to my hon. Friend soon.

As my hon. Friend said, the Registration of Political Parties Bill is before the House. I am not sure whether there will be scope for him to raise this matter on Tuesday. Descriptions of candidates, nominations and the use of terminology are being investigated by the Home Office, and ideas have been sought to ensure, for example, that candidates cannot abuse the names of other political parties. I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the Home Secretary's attention.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

In her statement, the right hon. Lady said that she hoped that the Government would be able to announce the results of the review of the roads programme before the House rises, which is welcome news. It is essential that she is clearer about the Government's intentions and that she guarantees that a statement will be made before the House rises. If decisions about bypasses and major road schemes were to be made when the House was not sitting, and if those decisions were adversely to affect areas such as Cheadle—where we desperately await completion of the Manchester airport eastern link road—the people of Cheadle and elsewhere would be furious with the Government.

Mrs. Taylor

I said that I envisaged a statement on the White Paper and that the roads review announcements would follow that. I shall ensure that hon. Members receive proper information, and I expect that to be available before the start of the recess.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

The Government have made it clear that they intend to replace the existing standard spending support for local authorities with a much fairer system. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the House will have an opportunity to discuss that issue before decisions are taken, so that we do not whinge afterwards? She will be aware that Labour Members represent the majority of rural constituencies. The history of spending has dominated Government support in the past, and we are frightened that the history of spending in the past 18 years could determine that of the next three. Will she assure me that the House will be given a proper opportunity to influence what happens, and that we will debate the issue before decisions are taken?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will understand that there is no scope for a debate on this matter in the near future. However, there are many other ways in which hon. Members can influence the decisions of Ministers. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has published a range of consultation papers, and has invited comments from anyone who wants to contribute to that decision-making process.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House please provide an opportunity, next Thursday and every subsequent Thursday, for the Prime Minister to come to the House to correct the obfuscation and errors of fact that he perpetrates each Wednesday?

Mrs. Taylor

There is absolutely no need for such a statement.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If the situation at Drumcree were to worsen, would the Leader of the House consider arranging a statement that would—I hope—give members of all parties in the House an opportunity to make it clear that the rule of law must prevail? Should it not be made clear that the recommendations of the Parades Commission—which was set up with the authority of Parliament—should not be ignored, that both communities are expected to accept such recommendations and that there must be no repeat of what happened 24 years ago, when the undermining of the rule of law led to action by mobs in the street? In those circumstances, I hope that the Opposition will make it clear that they fully support the Government's attempts to ensure that the rule of law prevails in Northern Ireland. I see the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), the Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, nodding in agreement.

Mrs. Taylor

I hope that circumstances will not arise in which such a statement is needed.

I believe that all hon. Members are very concerned about the position in Northern Ireland. We all hope that the progress made so far in the peace process can be maintained, and I think it is incumbent on all of us to do everything that we can to maintain it.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

Is the Leader of the House aware that Ministers promised an oil taxation consultation paper in mid-April?

Will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate or statement on a wider issue affecting the North sea—the Government's position at the conference on the Oslo-Paris convention, involving the removal of oil platforms and discharges of nuclear waste? Surely it makes sense for the House to debate the Government's position before the OSPAR conference, rather than being faced with the rubber-stamping of a decision made at the conference after it is over.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman must understand why it is not possible for me to find time for such a debate. It may be appropriate for him to apply for an Adjournment debate; but we shall have the usual three-hour Adjournment debate before the summer recess, at which issues of that kind—along with any others that concern hon. Members—could be raised.

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