HC Deb 18 June 1998 vol 314 cc520-8 4.17 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 about the business for next week. 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.

That will be followed in the afternoon and evening by consideration in Committee of the Human Rights Bill [Lords] (third allotted day).

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

Until about 7 pm there will be a debate on a sittings motion for Friday 3 July in the name of the Liberal Democrats, followed by a debate on Government strategy on social welfare on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party.

FRIDAY 26 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

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

MONDAY 29 JUNE—Opposition Day (15th allotted day). The subject will be announced.

TUESDAY 30 JUNE—Progress on remaining stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 1 JULY—Until 2 pm, there will be the usual debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House followed by completion of remaining stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.

THURSDAY 2 JULY—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Human Rights Bill [Lords] followed by the remaining stages of the Data Protection Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 3 JULY—Private Members' Bills.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House is grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving next week's business and the provisional business for the following week. In addition to the business that she has announced for next week, it is likely that there will be further ministerial statements. In the light of what happened today—not for the first time, the contents of a statement were widely trailed in the press and the media—will she bring to the attention of fellow members of the Government paragraph 27 of the Ministerial Code, which was revised by the Prime Minister last July? It makes it clear that When Parliament is in session, Ministers will want to bear in mind the desire of Parliament that the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament.

The right hon. Lady announced that, on Monday, the House is to consider a range of amendments to the Crime and Disorder Bill, some of which relate to the age of consent. Has she seen the points of order raised by two Labour Members yesterday—in column 386 of Hansard—pressing for changes in the way in which the Business Committee operates so that the House can vote on amendments that have been selected by Madam Speaker but have not been reached? Does she have sympathy with those points of order?

Two weeks ago, in response to a business question, the right hon. Lady said that the House would not sit on Saturdays for "normal business". Will she confirm that, like the establishment of an assembly in Wales and of a Parliament in Scotland, the establishment of an assembly in Northern Ireland is, indeed, the normal business of the House and that there is no question of inviting the House to sit on a Saturday to deal with it?

The House will be expecting the Government to have completed a number of reviews shortly, including the strategic defence review, the comprehensive spending review and reviews on the Child Support Agency and on pensions. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that statements will be made to the House on each of those? Will she give some idea of when they will be made, especially the statement on the comprehensive spending review? Furthermore, when can the House expect the long-awaited and much promised foreign affairs debate?

Finally, those who work in the House—and, indeed, many Labour Members—will want to know more about the plans for the summer recess. Will she shed any further light on when the House will rise for that event?

Mrs. Taylor

I shall deal first with the right hon. Gentleman's point about statements. I hope that he is not suggesting that it is only under this Government that there has been a great deal of press speculation about the contents of statements that are to be made to the House. I know that Ministers take steps to try to ensure that speculation does not get out of hand and that they are careful about what they say in advance of statements. As he is pressing for more statements, he will know that there is speculation, not least by Conservative Members, about the contents of some of the reviews. We cannot stop all speculation, but it is right that Ministers should not be party to the early release of information and that they should make relevant statements to the House—that is the procedure that we try to follow.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about consideration of the Crime and Disorder Bill on Monday and the points of order that were raised, which, I believe, concerned genuine issues. We shall have to look at how the Bill is dealt with on Monday. The Business Committee is taking on board those issues; it is trying to ensure that there are votes on Monday evening on the relevant amendments selected by Madam Speaker. Those discussions are continuing and I intend to ensure that all hon. Members know the exact order of votes on Monday—we shall try to make that factual information available to all hon. Members in advance of any votes that are called.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about reviews. I said that we will have statements, not necessarily on all the subjects that he mentioned, but on all the more important issues. They will be made, I hope, some time next month, although I cannot give dates in advance.

The right hon. Gentleman again asked for a foreign affairs debate. I have said that I hope to find time later in the Session for one. We arranged for a full day's debate on European matters last Thursday, but it was poorly attended, especially by Conservative Members, and collapsed earlier than we had expected, so I am not sure that there is always as much interest in the subject as people think.

I answered the point about sitting on Saturdays some time ago. It is not my intention that the House should sit on Saturdays, but we all have a responsibility to ensure that if there is an occasion on which the House can make special arrangements to help advance the peace process in Northern Ireland, we should do so. I do not expect anything specific, but we should always be careful about what we say on Northern Ireland issues and the responsibilities of the House in that respect.

I genuinely cannot answer the question about the recess, not least because the dates will depend on the progress of the business that is currently being conducted. The right hon. Gentleman will know from our discussions through the usual channels that not all the details have yet been agreed.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

When does my right hon. Friend expect there to be a debate on the report by the Low Pay Commission and the Government's response to it? Will she ensure that, in such a debate, there will be an opportunity to amend the Government's proposals on the rates of pay and the youth rates of pay, and that separate votes will be taken on each of the elements proposed in the package?

Mrs. Taylor

The next stage will be for the regulations to be laid. That will be done, but not in the immediate future, and I do not think it right to anticipate when such a debate might occur. I shall, of course, bear my hon. Friend's points in mind.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can the Leader of the House give us an assurance that in the discussions on the Crime and Disorder Bill there will be a full opportunity to debate the Government's proposals on dealing with football hooliganism? As a Cornishman, I am totally objective in the matter, as I believe that real men play rugby. I know that the right hon. Lady disagrees with that, but I wonder whether she has taken note of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), who seems to think that the flower of England's youth was defending the nation's honour. Does she accept that such a debate would allow the full range of Conservative Members' points of view to be expressed?

There are disturbing rumours—I wonder whether the Leader of the House can confirm that discussions have taken place through the usual channels—that the Conservative Opposition propose to break the bipartisan approach on Northern Ireland. Has she had any assurances from Conservative Front Benchers? Will she reaffirm her intention to try to preserve the all-party approach on such important matters?

Will the Leader of the House reiterate, on behalf of the whole House, the respect that we all have for the accuracy, integrity and independence of the House of Commons Library? She will have noted that yesterday the Prime Minister appeared to question the statistics on taxation provided by the Library. Will she acknowledge that on some occasions the Library is correct when her colleagues are wrong? For example, will she acknowledge that in the Library note of 15 June provided to my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), the Treasury's recent document on spending is shown to be wrong and that the Government have been overgenerous by 25 per cent.?

Mrs. Taylor


Madam Speaker

Order. We are discussing next week's business. Do I understand that the hon. Gentleman is seeking a debate on Library publications? Otherwise, he is abusing this period of discussion of next week's business.

Mrs. Taylor

I am tempted to say, "Not next week."

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made his comments yesterday, he was raising the issue of the presumptions that had been fed into the questions that were asked to obtain that information.

On the serious point about bipartisanship on Northern Ireland, we all have significant responsibilities. The Prime Minister's statement at Question Time yesterday reinforced that extremely well and right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House should heed his words.

On the subject of football hooliganism, I should emphasise that it was hooliganism by English supporters; we should not include the Scots. I was alarmed, outraged and amused to a ridiculous extent that anyone could come out with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark). He clearly was not speaking along the same lines as his own Front-Bench team, with whom it may be possible to have an element of bipartisanship—if the right hon. Gentleman is excluded.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

May I thank the Leader of the House and you, Madam Speaker, for her and your generous protection of the interests of Back Benchers as regards Monday's business? I raised a point of order yesterday on whether the Business Committee could make it possible, when the age of consent clause is moved, for time to be allowed for other Back-Bench amendments. I was glad to hear the Leader of the House say that that will be considered and it is good to know that our rights will be protected.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I cannot guarantee that all amendments will be voted on, as that will depend on selection, but we shall try to arrange matters so that as many significant issues as possible are voted on. I shall try to ensure that all hon. Members are properly informed of the sequence of votes.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Can the Leader of the House describe the terms of reference of Sir Thomas Legg's inquiry into the arms to Sierra Leone affair? In particular, do they allow him to look into the arming of Nigerian soldiers, who were the main part of the so-called peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone? It is possible that those arms were later used to keep down the people of Nigeria after their President died.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not believe that we will have a debate on that matter in the near future. When the terms of reference were set out, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that if Sir Thomas Legg wanted the terms extended to cover any other relevant point, he could ask for that to happen. It is therefore clear that relevant information will not be denied to Sir Thomas Legg.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to consider timetabling a fuller debate on the "Fairness at Work" White Paper? She will be aware that I have raised industrial relations issues confronting several of my constituents in recent weeks, particularly in a dispute at Noon's. I have been visited by a group of constituents who work at American Airlines, where fairly intensive intimidation has been waged against them by the management team of Paul Mallard, Janice Cowell and Beniot Perignon. It has involved intimidation of people on sick leave, accusations of petty dishonesty and manipulation of the staff relations handbook to ensure that staff are slimmed down before a merger with British Airways. I urge an early debate on industrial relations so that that matter can be exposed in full.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has consistently raised matters affecting his constituency. I know from other interventions that he has pursued these cases vigorously. I cannot promise him the debate that he wants for reasons that he well understands. Perhaps he might apply for an Adjournment debate. I also remind him that there will be a three-hour open Adjournment debate just before the summer recess. If he has not found time to raise the matter before then, that might be a suitable occasion on which to do so.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The usual channels have been mentioned. It is possible that on Monday 29 June the Government may wish to make a statement on the Northern Ireland elections. Bearing it in mind that since the referendum there has been no contact with the Ulster Unionists Whips Office before 12 noon and that it is impossible to travel across in time for a statement after that time, would it be possible to give us early notice, not just through the usual channels, but directly?

Mrs. Taylor

It is impossible to inform every hon. Member directly when a statement is to be made, but I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns and I shall bear them in mind.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

When the shadow Leader of the House asked for a foreign affairs debate, it was with some justice that my right hon. Friend referred to the poor attendance at Thursday night's debate on Europe. As one who took part and asked questions about Kosovo, may I ask whether we may have a statement before there is any idea of an air strike or military intervention and before British service men are in any way committed, rather than waiting until it is a fait accompli? Can we have an undertaking that there will be no action other than under the authority of the United Nations and with the acquiescence, at least, of the Russians?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has a long-term interest in such issues. I recall his asking me that the House be kept informed of the possible activity of British troops in another area. I cannot give an absolute undertaking that an oral statement will be made before any decision to deploy troops but, obviously, we take keeping the House properly informed of any decisions very seriously. We will always endeavour to give the House information at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May we have a statement early next week from the Deputy Prime Minister on London Underground? Since he made his last statement, has not uncertainty about the future of the system grown rather than diminished—no one knows who is going to take on the franchises to operate the infrastructure? Were not Londoners seriously inconvenienced by industrial action on Monday and Tuesday largely because of that uncertainty, created by the Deputy Prime Minister himself?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not accept that that is the reason for the problems. All hon. Members and everyone who uses the tube in London are aware of the vast problems of underinvestment over many years when the hon. Gentleman's party were in government. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has kept the House informed and I do not see any prospect of an early debate.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend, through the usual channels and before next week's Opposition day debate, can say why the Liberal Democrats chose just two of the private Members' Bills that are listed for 3 July and perhaps did not consider the Bills that came above those two in the ballot.

Mrs. Taylor

That, of course, is a question that the Liberal Democrats will have to answer. I understand the concerns of hon. Members who have worthy private Members' Bills that have been excluded from the Liberal Democrat motion, but the Liberal Democrats will have to answer for themselves. However, I hope that no one is under any illusion that Thursday's business will guarantee the passage of any individual private Member's Bill. That is not the case.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given the Government's support for a statutory right of interest on the late payment of commercial debt and Ministers' professed belief in justice and equity, why can we not have an early further statement from the President of the Board of Trade, which would give her the opportunity to explain what she failed to explain today—why the Government opposed amendment No. 41 to the National Minimum Wage Bill? That amendment would have given employees the right to claim interest on minimum wages that were not paid or paid late—an amendment that I tabled and the Government failed to support.

Mrs. Taylor

I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration if he cannot always get in to ask every question that he wants to ask, but my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade's statement was comprehensive and well received.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

I should like to add my voice to the requests for an early debate on the Low Pay Commission report and the Government's recommendations. It will include, I hope, an opportunity to amend the national minimum wage legislation. I urge my right hon. Friend to take no notice of the comments of the Conservative Front Bench about the Government's treatment of the House. The shadow Leader of the House was a member of a Government who treated this place with absolute contempt for 18 years, who trailed legislation before anyone knew about it and whose general record on the treatment of the House of Commons was lamentable.

Mrs. Taylor

Many Conservative Members have very short memories. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the previous Government's track record on ignoring the House. We try to make statements on important issues here—in line with established convention.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on early-day motion 1264 on the Nationwide building society?

[That this House regrets that the Nationwide Building Society has again been forced to ballot its members on its future as a mutual so soon after the last attempt to convert the society to a bank was rejected by its membership; recognises that building societies are widely trusted by consumers, and notes that they provide essential diversity on the high street, accounting for a growing share of the market; further notes that, as they do not have to pay dividends to external shareholders they can offer cheaper mortgages and better returns on savings; and urges the members of the Nationwide Building Society once again to vote to retain its mutual status.]

Will the right hon. Lady ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explain to the House whether the Government will take the necessary measures to stop the annual round of predation by those who are trying to destroy the mutual sector?

Mrs. Taylor

I understand the interest many hon. Members take in this matter. We recognise that there must be diversity and competition in the savings and loans market. I cannot promise the debate that the hon. Gentleman wants. I am sure that, with the ingenuity that he has quickly developed as a new Member, he will find other ways to raise the matter.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

We read in the press today that Britain is to slash its nuclear arsenal and will not buy seven new Trident warheads at a cost of £100 million. That is immensely heartening, but even if the reports are untrue is there not a case for an early debate on nuclear proliferation, especially given what has happened in southern Asia? If we cannot have a debate, surely a statement would be in order, especially if the reports are true.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend refers to speculation about the possible final outcome of the strategic defence review. I have just said that I do not think that Ministers should talk about such issues in advance of statements, but I understand why he puts the matter in the context of southern Asia. I cannot guarantee a debate in the near future, but I have said previously that we will spend time debating defence matters in this Session.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that many tens of thousands of commuters were put to the most gross inconvenience this week by the irresponsible, selfish attitude of employees of London Underground? In view of the Government's intimate relationship with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, will she allow a debate on some of the extraordinary Spanish practices—and bad working practices—of union members in London Underground so that we can find a way to encourage a more liberal attitude to work?

Mrs. Taylor

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman means by a more liberal attitude to work. Industrial relations are a matter for London Transport. It would not be right for the Government to intervene directly in negotiations between London Transport and the unions.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Following the news that the Government's views on quarantine regulations will probably not be announced until the autumn, is there not a need for an urgent debate on these cruel, unfair and irrational rules, which are more likely to bring disease into the country than the reformed system used in other countries, such as Sweden? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the plight of many people who do not wish to inflict quarantine on their companion animals? In the past 25 years, not one quarantined animal has been discovered with rabies, but 13 people have come into the country with rabies. It would be more rational to put holidaymakers into Strangeways when they come from abroad than to continue with the present system.

Mrs. Taylor

I can see that that appeals to some Opposition Members. A consultation on quarantine rules is taking place. It is a serious subject. Concerns have been raised on both sides of the issue. The Agriculture Committee has published a significant report. It is right that Ministers should consider all the evidence. The House will be kept informed when decisions have been taken.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

In the light of the collapse late yesterday of the prosecution case against nine of my constituents—asylum seekers at Campsfield house—because of what could politely be described as the incompetence and inconsistency of the Group 4 prosecution witnesses, will the Home Secretary make a statement early next week on the Government's recent decision to extend Group 4's contract and the award for good practice given by a Home Office Minister to Group 4 at Campsfield? Could the statement include the Government's position on the use of prisons for asylum seekers, which has been condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Sir David Ramsbotham? To my horror, five innocent asylum seekers have been sent to prison, where they are being detained while their cases are determined.

Mrs. Taylor

The decision to mount prosecutions against nine defendants was taken by the Crown Prosecution Service after an investigation by Thames Valley police. It is right that the accused should be acquitted if the evidence presented in court is insufficient to support a guilty verdict. I understand that after the collapse of the trial, Group 4 will review the evidence that emerged and conduct, if appropriate, an inquiry into what went on. It is best that I leave it there at this stage. There are no plans for an immediate statement from the Home Office.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

As I tabled a second group of amendments for the debate on the age of consent, may I join the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) in thanking the Leader of the House for her consideration for Back Benchers in respect of Monday' s debate? What is her best estimate of when we will get the information that she said she would make available about when the votes will be taken?

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. I remind him that I said that we could not guarantee a vote on any specific issue. That depends on other people and, thankfully, is not in my hands. On making the information available, once the Business Committee has completed its work and selection is concluded, it will be possible to make the information available. I imagine that it will available early on Monday afternoon and certainly quite soon after the debate starts.