HC Deb 11 June 1998 vol 313 cc1216-27 4.45 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 15 JUNE—Consideration in Committee of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill.

TUESDAY 16 JUNE—Opposition Day (13th allotted day).

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on NHS waiting lists, followed by a debate entitled "The crisis in Scottish local government". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion on the Council Tax Limitation (Derbyshire County Council) (Maximum Amount) Order.

WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the fourth report from the Social Security Committee on disability living allowance, followed by a debate on the first report from the Defence Committee on peace support operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

For three hours, consideration in Committee of the Human Rights Bill [Lords] (second allotted day).

For three hours, conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill.

THURSDAY 18 JUNE—For three hours, remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill.

Motion on the Church of England National Institutions Measure.

FRIDAY 19 JUNE—Debate entitled "Enterprising UK—the small business agenda" on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

MONDAY 22 JUNE—Progress on remaining stages of the Crime and Disorder Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 23 JUNE—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Crime and Disorder Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 24 JUNE—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the Human Rights Bill [Lords] (third allotted day).

THURSDAY 25 JUNE—Opposition Day (14th allotted day).

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the minority parties. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 26 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

We are grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving us details of next week's business and an indication of the business for the following week.

We are particularly pleased to learn that there will be a debate on the Floor of the House on the Derbyshire rate-capping order. Can the right hon. Lady confirm that her Government will follow the practice that has existed up until now—that if central Government want to control the expenditure of local government, that raises issues of sufficient importance for them to be debated on the Floor of the House rather than in a Standing Committee?

We have just heard a very important statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which will be followed by another statement next month on the comprehensive expenditure review, setting the financial parameters for spending for the rest of this Parliament. Does the right hon. Lady agree that that raises issues of such importance that the House must debate them before we rise for the summer recess?

Can the right hon. Lady confirm that, contrary to what we had been led to believe, there will not be a statement next week or the week after on the transport White Paper? The reason that has now been given—that it has to follow the comprehensive expenditure review—goes clean against what the Government had said until a few days ago, which was that the White Paper would come first. Will she confirm that the real reason for the delay in the transport White Paper is the serious disagreement between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister?

Can the right hon. Lady confirm that a statement will be made to the House on the outcome of the strategic defence review when that has been completed? Is she aware of the growing uncertainty in the armed forces caused by the delay in the completion of that exercise?

May I revert to a question that I posed last week about the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and its request for a debate? The right hon. Lady said that the matter had been "overtaken by events". Does she, on reflection, agree that that is not the case? The request remains outstanding, and the Foreign Affairs Committee has rejected the offer by the Foreign Secretary.

As the Modernisation Committee addresses itself to the future of the parliamentary calendar, will the right hon. Lady turn her mind to the future of the summer recess and let us know whether she plans to invite the House to sit in August?

Mrs. Taylor

I shall deal with the right hon. Gentleman's points individually. I hope that he will accept that the usual channels work well on occasions. We are willing to be reasonable and to listen to representations. It is right that requests should be dealt with case by case. I am glad that we were able to reach an accommodation to enable the order relating to Derbyshire county council to be taken on the Floor of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be possible to have a debate on today's statement from the Chancellor and next month's statement on the comprehensive spending review. I think that it will be possible to have such a debate before the summer recess. We should perhaps have further discussions through the usual channels about the exact timing and nature of that debate.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for a statement on transport. I hope that that will be made after the comprehensive spending review, but before the summer recess. That shows that we shall be extremely busy at that time, because he also asked for a statement on the strategic defence review. He should not complain about the fact that that review is taking some time. Given his previous interest in that matter, he will no doubt agree that such consideration should be extremely thorough.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee. I said last week that discussions were taking place. I understand that the Committee is still considering what it wants to happen, and the subject is with it at the moment.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Modernisation Committee and the summer recess. We would all like as much notice as possible of the summer recess, but I am afraid that I cannot give details at this stage.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Could we have a statement next week about the Government's energy policy and the consequences for the deep-mined coal industry? The Leader of the House will be aware that the current agreements run out on 30 June. In coalfield communities, not just in Nottinghamshire but all over the country, coal miners are asking for fairness, not favours. There is an urgency about the matter now.

Mrs. Taylor

I am aware of the deadlines surrounding the issue, and I hope that a statement can be made about it shortly.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I put two questions to the Leader of the House on matters that concern the role and the perception of the role of Parliament, and the way in which we conduct our business?

First, will the right hon. Lady give us some guidance on the status of the consultants' report that has come into my hands, on the issue of the Line of Route visitors to both Houses? It would appear that consultants are investigating the possibility of charging our constituents who visit the House perhaps £9.50, which is comparable with the charge to visit Buckingham palace, or £5, which Westminster abbey charges. Will she give us an assurance that those proposals will be considered carefully? Who in the House has seen the proposals, and on what basis was the consultancy report prepared? Will she assure us that she will defend the rights of our constituents to come free of charge to the House, to see how the people's Parliament operates?

Secondly, does the right hon. Lady feel that we can draw lessons from the success or otherwise of the experiment with programme Committees? Will she pay particular attention to what happened in the House on Monday evening, when, sadly, we did not have a proper opportunity either to debate or to divide on the vital issue of tuition fees, which I think she will acknowledge is one of the central proposals in the Teaching and Higher Education Bill? If the House is not able to scrutinise such proposals and give a view on them, the other place must have the opportunity to spend a considerable time doing so. Is not the lesson from what happened on Monday night that programme Committees should be a great deal more scrupulous in recognising the needs of both sides of the House, particularly Opposition parties, and should not simply do the bidding of the Government party? I hope that the right hon. Lady will acknowledge that there are lessons to be learned, and that the Modernisation Committee will shortly be given an opportunity to see what can be learned from our experience so far.

Mrs. Taylor

I am aware of the report about the Line of Route visitors, although I have not yet seen it. I shall put the report in context. There is no proposal to charge constituents for coming to see Members of Parliament or how Parliament works. At present, this building is not open to the public during the summer recess or at weekends. A study has rightly been carried out to see whether it would be possible to provide greater access to this historic building. Many tourists would want to visit the building if it were open at those times. It is right to consider charging in that context, but only in that context. We are still some way from any decision on the matter.

Programme motions and the Business Committee allocate the time that it is agreed should be devoted to any Bill. It is an all-party process: that is the essence of the agreement reached. I understand that an agreement was reached among all parties for the Bill that was debated on Monday. Decisions sometimes depend on which amendments are selected or are selectable. I refute the hon. Gentleman's claim that those Committees do the Government's bidding. All parties are represented, and there has always been agreement among the parties on the allocation of time within the overall limits. If there are lessons to be learned, it is right that we should learn them. This is an experimental process, and if anything can be done to improve the way in which we work, we should look into it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On the understandably timetabled business for Monday, would the Government look kindly on an amendment that would allow us to discuss the problems of the case of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright, with a view to clarifying their position? That case can now be discussed in the House of Commons only under privilege, as Mr. Ernest Telford, lawyer of Belfast, has taken legal action that makes it very difficult for papers such as The Spectator, the Daily Mail and others to have a serious discussion of the case, which is of deep public interest and concern. As it is only under privilege that the country can have a proper discussion of the case, will there be an opportunity for that amendment to be selected?

Mrs. Taylor

I am aware that my hon. Friend has tabled an amendment on that subject. It is not for me but for the Chair to decide whether such an amendment should be selected. If it is, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be as informative as she can in her response to a debate on that topic.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the damning report by Sir Herbert Laming on the crisis in child protection in the Labour-controlled London borough of Ealing, which is to be published by the Department of Health this evening? It says that in Ealing children in public care and on the child protection register cannot be considered to be adequately safeguarded. Is she further aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who has responsibility for children's issues, has already issued a press statement saying how deeply concerned he is by that matter, and that he will call in the London borough of Ealing for consultation with him? Will she arrange for a statement by the Minister next week?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman raises what is obviously a serious problem that will concern hon. Members on both sides of the House. He mentioned that my hon. Friend the Minister has expressed his concern about that matter and is talking to the local authority involved. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are brought to my hon. Friend's attention, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will respond directly to him.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing time to debate the latest report by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on energy policy? In that debate, we may be able to ascertain whether Lord Wakeham, who made a declaration in the House of Lords on 4 June that he was a director of Enron, the largest gas corporation in the world, knew that he would become a director of that company when, as a Minister in this House, he implemented privatisation plans for electricity. Those plans rigged the market against coal and pushed coal over the cliff.

Mrs. Taylor

The Government have welcomed the Select Committee's report and its contribution to the important debate on energy policy. My hon. Friend specifically refers to certain aspects of that report, and he may want to pursue them further either in an Adjournment debate or at Question Time next Thursday.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady think again about her answer to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)? There was an agreement on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill as to the amount of time that should be spent on it—nine hours—but surely, when the Opposition parties agree to the total amount of time, they should have the right to slice up that time as they see fit. We should be allowed to discuss the amendments that we want. The Government should not be so greedy in wanting everything.

Will the right hon. Lady please arrange for the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box on Monday to make a statement? There will be a two-day strike on the tube, which will cause great inconvenience. We should like to know how the Labour Government will sort that matter out. After all, a year ago, they said that left can talk to left. Why do we not find out what has happened?

Mrs. Taylor

I have little to add to what I said about programme motions. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comment that no one should be greedy. All views have to be taken into consideration; that, of course, includes the views of the Government, as well as those of others who might table amendments. The agreement on that programme motion encompassed all parties.

Industrial action on the tube would, of course, be regrettable. We hope that all those involved in these potential disputes will make every effort to achieve a quick resolution. None of us wants passengers to be inconvenienced. It is important that all the ramifications are taken into account by those involved.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Is it possible to have an early debate, before the debate on the White Paper on integrated transport strategy, on the Government's policy on clean vehicle technology? I say that in the context of today's deputation at Westminster, by Lucas Aerospace. My right hon. Friend may know that it has served redundancy notices on 70 employees. If that goes through, it will mean the end of the only UK plant manufacturing cylinders for natural gas to power clean vehicles. That is of immense importance not just to Burnley—my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) is with the deputation at the moment and cannot be with me—but to my constituency. In a wider sense, it is of immense importance to the UK.

Mrs. Taylor

I agree that clean vehicle technology is of immense importance. My hon. Friend will be aware of the work that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been doing in that sector. I cannot promise my hon. Friend the debate that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) wish to have in Government time in the near future, but one of them may wish to apply for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

May I thank the Leader of the House for arranging for the debate on the capping of Derbyshire county council finally to be taken on the Floor of the House? Was it not disgraceful that the Government attempted to debate that in Committee, which has never happened to any previous capping order? As a senior member of the Government and as an upholder of the rights of Members of Parliament, will she comment on the fact that the Government's original plans were to ensure that no Derbyshire Labour Members were appointed to the Committee to discuss the measure? Following strong representations from the Opposition, Derbyshire Labour Members will be fully able to support the Government next Tuesday, if they so wish, on that capping measure.

Mrs. Taylor

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have been partly wearing his new hat and accepting that, on this occasion, the usual channels worked well.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the past 10 years of British foreign policy? It would allow the House to consider the contrast between the open and straightforward way in which this Government have dealt with the Sierra Leone question, and the way in which the scandalous and seedy manipulations of the previous Government led to the Pergau dam scandal, arms to Iraq and the Scott inquiry, during which they tried to manipulate the situation, so that the then shadow Foreign Secretary had only three hours to read five volumes before the statement. It is a scandalous and sorry story, which continues with the apparent machinations of Secret Agent Aitken.

Mrs. Taylor

I am in a slightly dangerous position because the Foreign Secretary is here echoing the demands of my hon. Friend. I have to tell them both that I do not see the prospect of that specific debate in the near future, but I understand its attraction.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

May I join my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the shadow Leader of the House, in asking the right hon. Lady to look favourably on the need to find time for a debate on the statement that has just been made by the Chancellor, but may I differ with my right hon. Friend in one respect: we need that debate to take place ahead of the comprehensive spending review statement that the Chancellor will make next month? In the meantime, does she recognise that what the Chancellor said in relation to air traffic control, the Commonwealth Development Corporation and the Royal Mint presented an unassailable case for the privatisation of London Transport and the Post Office, among other public businesses, even if she and he prefer to call privatisation by any other name?

Mrs. Taylor

On this matter, I agree with the shadow Leader of the House that it would be appropriate to have a debate after the comprehensive spending review, and I think that I made my position clear on that. On London Underground or, indeed, the channel tunnel rail link, we should congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on the new approach that he has adopted and the successful partnerships that he has been negotiating. The whole House should wish them well.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

My right hon. Friend will know that, in recent weeks, the London crime statistics have been published and that, in many national newspapers today, there is extreme concern about corruption among a small core of those in the Metropolitan police. It is usually at about this time of year that we have the annual Adjournment debate on policing in London. Would it be possible to squeeze it in this side of the recess, or may I have an assurance that it will take place as soon as possible after we return?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is usually a debate on crime in London at this time, but it is not that long since we had one, and it is more likely that the debate will take place later in the year, rather than in the next few weeks.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

The Leader of the House will be aware that there are now three early-day motions on the Order Paper expressing concern about the Government's proposals to restrict the sale of vitamin B6; there are 177 signatures on one of the motions. Indeed, the Select Committee on Agriculture has examined the matter. Is she aware that many scientists in Britain believe that the report that the Government have used is fundamentally flawed, and that that view is backed up by the United States national academy of science, which suggests that the Government have got this completely wrong? Given the huge concern in the House and in the country—I speak having served for 10 years as an officer of the parliamentary group for alternative and complementary medicine; I have never seen as much concern on any other issue—does she not think that it is time for the Government to provide Government time to debate that matter? Restricting the sale of vitamin B6, if it goes ahead, will seriously affect ladies suffering from PMT, elderly people with Alzheimer's disease and a range of people who rely on vitamin supplements, particularly vitamin B6, to alleviate their afflictions.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that we all have received representations from constituents about vitamin B6. The hon. Gentleman specifically mentioned the report produced in the United States. The Government have seen that report and Ministers have announced that they will take account of it in considering their responses to the consultation exercise. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been considering the matter carefully. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all representations have been taken into account.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that Labour Members representing Derbyshire constituencies look forward to the opportunity on Tuesday to promote our beautiful county, welcome the opportunity to discuss the council's successes in view of the Conservatives' intransigence towards our county over the past 18 years and are pleased that the Government have recognised our financial difficulties and allowed us to raise the spending limits? Does she agree that it promises to be an interesting debate as Conservative Members are now asking why the Government have not given Derbyshire everything it wants, when, previously, Conservative Members and local councillors were saying that the council should not ask for anything at all?

Mrs. Taylor

It will be an extremely interesting debate. The cap on Derbyshire has been increased by £2.9 million. Such debates often do not turn out in the way that some hon. Members expect. My hon. Friend's analysis is probably nearer to what is likely to happen than that of some Conservative Members.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the important subject of genetic engineering? Is she aware that genetically modified crops are being planted in Britain, genetically modified food is on sale and experiments are being conducted in which animals are being genetically manipulated? Is she further aware that it is a matter of great concern to many people, including one who I understand I am not allowed to name in the House? Does she understand that the Government's ability to respond to the issue is being fatally undermined by the fact that the responsibility is split across so many Government Departments? Will she draw that fact to the attention of the Prime Minister?

Mrs. Taylor

The Government are determined to ensure that the use of genetic modifications to produce new crops and foods does not threaten public health or environmental safety. We are aware of all the issues that are involved and have campaigned in the European Union for better labelling, so that the public are properly informed. Full public consultations on the matter will take place in the next few months. The hon. Gentleman's point about proper co-ordination among Government Departments has been taken on board and, taking the wider issues into account, that is one reason why we have proposed a Food Standards Agency.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the essence of democracy is the ability of the legislature to check the Executive? Is it not the case that it is difficult to check the Executive when they perform their role collectively in Europe? May we have an early debate on that complicated issue? Many of us feel that legislatures across Europe are very weak vis-a-vis the ever-powerful and growing Executive tiger. Will she accept my invitation to join a group of parliamentarians from across Europe who are meeting tomorrow in Church house to discuss ways in which we can set up a virtual assembly, whereby nearly 5,000 parliamentarians will communicate using modern technology, so that we can start plotting and planning the downfall, or at least the curbing, of the European Executive?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was planning to speak in this afternoon's debate, but I should have thought that he could make a significant contribution were he minded to do so and fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Speaker. I should also draw his attention to a report that the Modernisation Committee hopes to publish next week, on how the House deals with European legislation. It proposes some important alterations to the way in which we consider European legislation, which would benefit all concerned. I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that report. He could develop his other points further this afternoon.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 266?

[That this House welcomes Scope's report, Polls Apart 2—Disabled People and the 1997 General Election, which shows that 94 per cent. of polling stations surveyed on 1st May were inaccessible to disabled people voting independently, and that some disabled people were either unable to vote or were injured trying to get into their polling stations, the majority of which were located in public buildings; recognises that the majority of disabled people interviewed by Scope wanted to vote in person on election day and rejected postal votes as a suitable alternative; and calls on the Government to review the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Home Office guidance to returning officers with a view to removing the barriers that currently prevent disabled people from exercising their right to vote.]

The motion deals with "Polls Apart 2", Scope's survey of the inaccessibility of polling stations during elections. I understand that a House of Commons Committee is looking at electoral reform. Can the right hon. Lady ensure that it looks carefully at the accessibility of polling stations, so that disabled people can vote in person, and the possibility of extending the time limits for postal votes? The new technology that was just mentioned by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) should mean that more people would have access to postal votes.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman again raises an issue that should be of concern to us all, as we are elected through a democratic process. We should all want to make it easier for everyone to vote in person, wherever possible. We welcome the report that has been published and we are committed to establishing comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people. At present, we are considering how best to take forward that commitment and how advice and guidance to acting returning officers can be improved. We all have examples of such problems; before the general election, many hon. Members contacted returning officers in an effort to improve matters. I hope that we can build on that good work.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

May I ask the right hon. Lady to consider—if not next week, in the fairly near future—a full-day debate on the crisis in British agriculture? When the matter was last discussed in the House on 21 May, there was a three-hour debate in which the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spoke for three-quarters of an hour. He glazed over Agenda 2000, barely mentioned agrimonetary policy and neglected to address the catastrophic fall in farm incomes. British agriculture needs a proper airing in the House, and the way in which the time was divided up on that day simply did not give it due credit. Will the right hon. Lady consider providing a full-day debate, so that all the issues can be discussed properly?

Mrs. Taylor

Ministers have made it clear, as has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that the Government are aware of the problems faced by many people in agriculture. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman might have included in his reasons for a debate the excellent news that the European Commission has agreed a proposal for a date-based export scheme. Although there is a long way to go on that, perhaps he could put his comments in that context, too.

I cannot promise a debate in the near future, but I understand the concerns that were expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House at the time taken by Front Benchers in that and other debates on similar topics. It is important that those of us who speak from the Front Bench understand the pressures on the time of the House and do our best to make sure that as many hon. Members as possible have the opportunity to speak.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Would the right hon. Lady be kind enough to look again at the answer that she gave my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on the special report of the Foreign Affairs Committee? We are asking essentially a very simple question. The Committee said that it wished to gauge the feelings of the House. Will she please provide an opportunity for the House to express its views in the very near future?

Mrs. Taylor

As I said earlier, the Select Committee is still considering the matter. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has heard that the Select Committee will be writing to him, but he has not yet received a letter on that point. At the moment, I do not think that it will serve any useful purpose to take it further in the House.

Sir George Young

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It concerns a matter on which I have written to you—the treatment by Ministers of questions from hon. Members. In respect of oral questions, you were good enough to say on 11 May: I certainly expect Ministers to tackle them and to give a proper answer."—[Official Report, 11 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 22.] As for written questions, a number of my colleagues have tabled specific and factual written parliamentary questions, which were accepted by the Table Office. They have received replies from Ministers that refer them to previous ministerial statements or to other documents. However, nowhere in those statements or documents can the answer to the questions be found. Madam Speaker, are you prepared to give on the record a ruling on written replies that is similar to the one that you gave on oral replies?

Madam Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me some indication earlier of his point of order. My advice to Ministers on answering written questions is exactly the same as the advice that I recently gave on answering supplementary questions to oral questions. As the right hon. Gentleman will be the first to appreciate, the satisfaction of the questioner cannot always be guaranteed. However, for all that, I expect Ministers to tackle all questions asked of them and to give a proper answer. In view of the right hon. Gentleman's comments on questions and answers, I wonder whether it might be a good suggestion if I were to ask him to give some specific examples to the Leader of the House, who is in the Chamber. I am sure that she would be interested to see those examples.