HC Deb 25 June 1998 vol 314 cc1188-97 4.31 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

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

The business for next week will be as follows.

MONDAY 29 JUNE—Opposition Day (15th allotted day).

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate which the Opposition have called "The Government's mishandling of the economy", followed by a debate which they are calling "The Government's broken pledges on class sizes". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

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

WEDNESDAY 1 JULY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Completion of remaining stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.

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

THURSDAY 2 JULY—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Human Rights Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Data Protection Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 3 JULY—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 6 JULY—Estimates Day (1st allotted day).

There will be a debate on further education, followed by a debate on the Government's proposal for a freedom of information Act.

The question will be put on the relevant estimates at 10 pm.

TUESDAY 7 JULY—Opposition Day (16th allotted day).

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 8 JULY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Competition Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 9 JULY—Debate on the national health service, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 10 JULY—The House will not be sitting.

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

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 8 July there will be a debate on the 1999 preliminary draft budget in European Standing Committee B.

[Wednesday 8 July: European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: SEC(98)800, 1999 Preliminary Draft Budget. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-xxx (1997–98).]

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving the House next week's business and for indicating the business for the week thereafter. The right hon. Lady has not found time for a debate on the first special report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and I make no apologies for returning to this subject in light of the publication this morning of its second special report. The right hon. Lady will know that today's special report criticises the Executive for imposing restrictions on the release of information properly sought by a Select Committee. That can frustrate the work of the House in its primary role of holding the Executive to account.

Yet again, the Select Committee seeks the views of the House at an early date. I hope that the right hon. Lady will end her boycott of those requests and listen to what the Chairman of the Select Committee, the highly respected hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), said when he called for a debate to be held as soon as possible, and warned that the issue was reaching a "high noon" between Ministers and Members of Parliament. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) said at this morning's press conference that not only should there be a debate in Government time but there should be a free vote on the matter. Will the right hon. Lady respond to the all-party requests for a debate, which goes to the heart of our role as Members of Parliament?

The need for that debate on holding the Executive to account has been made more urgent by the use by one of the right hon. Lady's supporters on the Select Committee of a device, which has not been used for 60 years, that can guillotine any line of questioning by any witness or any member of the Select Committee on any subject. That is simply unacceptable. I hope that the right hon. Lady will support the representations being made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee seeking to end the device.

Also on foreign affairs, the right hon. Lady may have seen that, in another place on 19 June, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Baroness Symons, reaffirmed the commitment to debate NATO enlargement, which was first given nearly a year ago. When might we have that long-overdue debate?

The right hon. Lady has not announced time in the next two weeks for a debate on a Bill to ratify the Ottawa treaty on land mines. We have given a commitment to assist that legislation, contrary to the assertion yesterday by the Secretary of State for Defence. Legislation could have been introduced earlier in the Session, so is it not a sign of panic that the Government have introduced it so late in the session? The right hon. Lady has said that she will not invite the House to sit on a Saturday in order to consider normal business. As the ratification of an international treaty such as this constitutes normal business, I suggest that we consider it instead on a non-sitting Friday.

Finally, the right hon. Lady would not expect me to sit down without asking her, in the interests of all those who work in the building, about her latest plans for the summer recess.

Mrs. Taylor

I shall go through the right hon. Gentleman's points in order. He asked me about the first special report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He will know that, following the publication of that report, further discussions between the Committee Chairman and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary led to some progress on the matter, which is acknowledged in today's report.

I know that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has issued a report today, but I have not yet been able to go through it with the Foreign Secretary. However, I am aware that it contains some praise for the Foreign Secretary's actions. We shall examine that report carefully, but I remind the House that the Legg inquiry is well under way, and we do not want to do anything that might prejudice its outcome.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has announced his commitment to publishing that report and to making more information available at that stage if necessary. In those circumstances, I am not sure that it is unreasonable to ask the Committee to contain its impatience a little longer. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there has been no change in the ground rules regarding information to Select Committees. On that basis, I am slightly surprised that he should ask me to comment on the actions of a member of a Select Committee, because if I did so, he would accuse me of interfering in the activities of that Committee.

I would still like to find time for a debate on NATO enlargement before the summer recess, and I have not ruled that out absolutely. However, it is difficult to have such debates when we are providing time for other matters.

Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman asked me to do that again when he mentioned the land mines issue. As he knows, although the commitment predates his position as shadow Leader of the House, we have been saying all along that we would like to find time to ratify the Ottawa convention as soon as possible. It has been difficult to find time, not least because of the important progress which has been made on Northern Ireland, which I think we all welcome.

The Bill on land mines has not yet been introduced. It is being drafted, and I expect that it will be ready for introduction in the near future. We have heard very recently that the Leader of the Opposition has said that his party would be willing to help with the progress of that legislation. We are asking all parties if they are willing to do that, and we shall be seeking assurances on exactly what that means in terms of the progress of legislation in the House and in another place.

The question of the summer recess depends on the progress of business. All the requests that we receive for extra debates make the start date of the recess more likely to be later than earlier.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

May I for once unequivocally congratulate my right hon. Friend and other members of the Modernisation Committee on its recently published excellent report on the scrutiny of European legislation? If the Committee's recommendations are fully implemented, the ability of the House to scrutinise legislation coming from Brussels will be greatly enhanced. However, we need speedy implementation. When does my right hon. Friend propose to have a debate on these matters that will enable the House to vote on the recommendations?

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I think that I can say on behalf of the Modernisation Committee that I am grateful for the work that has been done by the European Legislation Committee. We are glad that it has been so supportive of our recommendations. I should like to find time for an early debate on the report and on the changes that are proposed. I know that some of the changes can be introduced without any alterations to Standing Orders. I know also that there has been at least one pre-Council meeting of my hon. Friend's Committee, where the Minister involved talked through the issues that would be coming up. I understand that that was very successful. I hope that we can continue to make progress, and that it will not be too long before we can make progress on other matters. We shall be discussing them further through the usual channels.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House recall that, on behalf of my party, I offered our fullest co-operation to achieve ratification of the Ottawa convention some weeks ago, so that it could be achieved before the anniversary of the Princess of Wales's death? The right hon. Lady may recall that I suggested that, if necessary, we should meet on a Saturday. I believe that the matter is uncontroversial, and I hope that the right hon. Lady will find time for it. Can she confirm the briefing, following the Cabinet meeting this morning, that that is what the Cabinet has in mind?

Turning to the vexed question of the way in which the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has been treated, may I invite the right hon. Lady to take off her hat as a member of the Government and put on her hat as Leader of the House? May I remind her that both the Committee's first report and the second report, which has been published today, seek not the views of the Government but those of the House? It is the House that is being asked to express a view. By preventing the House from having a view, I believe that the right hon. Lady is not doing her duty to the House as Leader.

I remind the right hon. Lady that there is a Government majority on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, and that we are not talking of a partisan matter. The majority of the Committee believes that it is an extremely important issue. I invite the right hon. Lady to comment on the relationship between the Select Committee and the House. Complaints have already been made to the Procedure Committee about the way in which the Government are treating the views of Select Committees.

Finally, I remind the right hon. Lady that, in the business that she has announced for Monday 6 July, there is an opportunity for a debate on the Select Committee's report. I ask her to ensure that that debate takes place.

Mrs. Taylor

I know that the Select Committee has asked for the views of the House. I know also that there are guidelines, which have been laid out for some time, about the obligations on Government to provide information to Select Committees. As far as I can see from the examination that I have carried out so far—as I have said, I have not read in detail the report that came out today—there has been no departure from the guidelines. I would have to be convinced that there was some need to debate the issue further. There is a code of practice, and I believe that it has been followed.

I can confirm that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of land mines with me at business questions in the past, as have a number of my hon. Friends.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend has been in the House long enough to know that all Governments manage to give themselves legislative indigestion from time to time. It will not come as a surprise to her that there is a lot to be done. Will my right hon. Friend accept that the easiest way out is not to keep suggesting that there is some magic way round the difficulty, but simply to abandon non-sitting Fridays and do what previous Governments have done, which is to take Government business on those days?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that non-sitting Fridays are much appreciated by Members who want to plan constituency engagements. I said that I had no plans to take the normal business of the House—the programme that we outlined in the Queen's Speech—on days other than those when we would normally be sitting. I think it is appropriate to consider the possibility of sitting on days other than those that are already scheduled for matters that have come up recently, such as the land mines issue.

No decisions on that have been made. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to the Leader of the Opposition, and other parties are being consulted. We shall make decisions through the usual channels so that we can make best use of what time may be available for new issues that have arisen.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Does the Leader of the House agree that the resurrection this week of the antique objections procedure, last used in the House in the 1937–38 Session, is incompatible with the proper functioning of modern Select Committees? Does the right hon. Lady further agree that this is a matter that she, as both Leader of the House and Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, should be supporting for reference immediately to the Procedure Committee? I shall be copying to her this afternoon my formal reference, which I trust she will support.

Mrs. Taylor

I shall look at the right hon. Gentleman's letter when I receive it.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

As the person who invoked this procedure, Madam Speaker, I hope you will allow me just for the record to say that I was asked at the press conference—

Hon. Members

What is this?

Madam Speaker

Just a moment. I cannot hear the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross). Is the hon. Gentleman putting a question to the Leader of the House?

Mr. Ross

I am indeed.

I was saying that in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs there are major disagreements. Those major disagreements involve the obsessional look of some members of the Committee. As on all Select Committees, when there are differences, those who are in disagreement have to use the methods that are open to them. The method I used was not intended by me to stop discussion in Committee.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a statement, and this is not the time for statements. If he is putting a question to the Leader of the House about next week's business, I ask him to do so precisely.

Mr. Ross

My point to the my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is that she should encourage the Select Committee to take up the offers made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to carry out an investigation when all the information is available.

Mrs. Taylor

I will certainly bear in mind the point that my hon. Friend has raised when I receive the letter from the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley). I know that it is true to say that both reports are split reports, and that there have been differences of opinion in the Committee. I think that it would be wrong for me to go into too much detail in terms of how any Select Committee works in practice. Obviously, if the Modernisation Committee were to turn its mind to these matters, they could all be examined.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider her answers to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and to the spokesman for the Liberal party, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)? The actions taken on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, particularly the use of an internal inquiry to fend off information being sought by the Committee, have implications for all Select Committees, and as a result undermine the ability of the House to hold the Executive to account.

Mrs. Taylor

I must correct the right hon. Gentleman. The inquiry is independent, and the Government have not said that information cannot be available—it is a question of timing.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

It is about time that we had a debate on the coal industry in Government time, in the light of today's statement.

May I request a debate on the relationship between the European Union and third-world countries? The EU is trying to foist on third-world nations trade treaties which are deeply exploitative and detrimental to their economies. It is also trying to force third-world nations into groups in which there will be big free market areas that could be exploited. It is about time that that sort of practice was exposed. If we do not have time for a debate in July, we should run into August, and perhaps stop the grouse shooting.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot possibly comment on the summer recess any further than I have done. I agree that a debate on the coal industry is a good idea, but my hon. Friend knows that there is a shortage of time. He also knows that the Government have been active in seeking to protect third-world countries, and my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development and the Minister of Agriculture have been working hard to co-ordinate the Government's approach on these matters—with some success, I hope. I cannot offer a debate in the near future, but International Development questions are on Wednesday.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

May I direct the attention of the Leader of the House to the report of the Public Accounts Committee, which was published last weekend, on what can only be described as the disgraceful fiasco surrounding the private finance initiative forerunner—the Skye bridge toll contract.? The report says some damning things about previous Ministers and people who continue to be civil servants.

There will obviously be a response from the Scottish Office in due course and an opportunity for a debate, but may I none the less draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the fact that I prayed against the toll order—the Invergarry-Kyle of Lochalsh Trunk Road (A87) Extension (Skye Bridge Crossing) Toll Order (Variation) Order 1997? To be fair, the Government introduced it in good faith, although it has not yet been possible to secure a debate on the Floor of the House or in Committee on the issue.

Given the damning nature of the PAC report, does the Leader of the House agree that we should debate the order with alacrity, so that Ministers can rehearse the background to what is an extremely sorry situation for my constituents?

Mrs. Taylor

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, and I realise that he understands the problems that the Government have—that was the situation we inherited. As he acknowledges, the Government will study the PAC report carefully and put out a formal response. The lessons from the Skye bridge have already informed our best practice guidance for subsequent public-private partnerships, but there is certainly no room for complacency. I shall consider the specific matter of the order, without any promise of a debate, and I shall be back in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the timing of the debate on the national health service, especially as this year is its 50th anniversary? Furthermore, the debate will take place a day before an important 40th anniversary—my birthday—and the Department of Health is to produce a document stating that life begins at 40. We should celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NHS on the Floor of the House, because it is one of the important issues that underline the difference between Labour Members and Conservative Members. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on allowing time for the NHS to be debated on the Floor of the House.

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that my hon. Friend has welcomed this debate. It is important that we recognise the 50th anniversary of the NHS, and, as he points out, there is a great difference in approach between the parties. We should never forget that the creation of the NHS was opposed by the Conservative party, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is looking forward to the debate, and to getting a few facts on the record.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider the urgency of the matter of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the procedure used by the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross)? Regardless of the merits of the subject that was being inquired into, it has raised profound areas of importance for the operation of Select Committees—indeed, all Committees in this House. Surely it cannot be appropriate for a procedure that is more than 60 years old to be used in respect of Select Committees which were set up fewer than 20 years ago. As the right hon. Lady is hiding behind Sir Thomas Legg's inquiry, will she ask the Prime Minister to reply to my written question, which I tabled more than six weeks ago, asking whether he would extend the scope and terms of reference of the inquiry to include intelligence reports sent to No. 10 Downing street and copies of telegrams sent from Sierra Leone to the Foreign Office, which were copied to 10 Downing street? [HON. MEMBERS: "Line to take."] The Prime Minister has not confirmed that that will fall within the terms of reference of the inquiry.

Mrs. Taylor

I have nothing to add on the hon. Gentleman's first, specific point. In terms of his written question, it was made clear from the beginning that it would be perfectly possible for there to be an extension of the terms of reference, if the Legg inquiry wanted that to happen.

Conservative Members made a sedentary intervention about whether the line to take was being put on my pager; I can tell the House that Holland and Mexico are through, and that Belgium is out of the world cup.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The Leader of the House said that she would be having discussions with the Foreign Secretary about this morning's report. Will she urge the Foreign Secretary to make available forthwith the information sought by the Select Committee? We are meeting next Tuesday at 9.30 am, and it would be in the mutual interests of the House and the Government if such documents were made available.

Will my right hon, Friend reflect on the fact that there is a void in our procedures? There should be a fast-track way for Select Committees, when faced with an impasse, to be able to report such matters to the House. I remind her that, because Legg is independent, we have no way of knowing when he will be able to report. The summer recess is coming up, and it would be wholly unsatisfactory for the matter to be put off until the autumn.

Mrs. Taylor

Again, I have nothing further to add, except that my understanding of the timing of the Legg committee is that we are hoping that the report will be available next month.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I was gravely concerned to learn what transpired at the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday 23 June? Does she agree that the archaic procedure which was used could negate and frustrate all the work of the Select Committees of the House of Commons? Select Committees are not independent of the House; they represent the House, and their valuable work could be frustrated on many occasions if an individual member of a Committee chose to use that procedure.

I shall ensure that my Committee gives the matter consideration at the earliest possible date, but does not the Leader of the House believe that it is of such importance that it might be the subject of a special debate on the Floor of the House—before the Procedure Committee considers it?

Mrs. Taylor

If the Procedure Committee chooses to look at the matter, I shall consider its report with great interest. I note what the hon. Gentleman says about procedures being somewhat ancient, but he is usually the first to defend our traditional procedures.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Despite the tight timetable, will my right hon. Friend consider squeezing in a debate on occupational health and safety, so that we might discuss the implications of the health and safety report published today by Her Majesty's inspectorate of mines? The report shows that accidents in mines have been under-reported to a substantial degree–52 per cent. If that is the case in the mining industry, which is extremely tightly regulated, it could be much worse in other industries.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We should all be concerned about occupational health and safety. I was not aware that there has been under-reporting of 52 per cent. That is very alarming. Given that my hon. Friend represents a mining constituency, I understand why he is extremely concerned by that, as we all should be. I cannot promise a debate in the near future, but perhaps my hon. Friend and colleagues with a particular interest in the matter could apply for an Adjournment debate, which would be one way of taking the matter further.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

First, may I make it quite plain that the Opposition's support for the Ottawa agreement has never been in doubt? My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary made that clear to the Minister of State many months ago.

May I return the right hon. Lady to the subject of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs? Will she, in her capacity as Leader of this House, take on board the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)? It is crucial that Select Committee reports are debated. There is no more important Select Committee, nor a more respected Chairman than the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He has asked the House to give its views. It is the right hon. Lady's duty to find time for a debate, even if we sacrifice a second non-sitting Friday, to ascertain the views of the House. Will she make sure that that is done?

The rather arcane procedure was perfectly legitimately used, but it nevertheless raises many important questions, given that departmental Select Committees were not established until 1979 and that procedure was last used in 1937. Will right hon. Lady, at the very least, give an unequivocal assurance, in her capacity as both Leader of the House and Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, that she will have immediate discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) to decide how the matter can best be resolved at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mrs. Taylor

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, on the Ottawa convention, we look forward to receiving more details about what the Opposition's offer of co-operation means. Obviously it must apply to both Houses, and must not prejudice the hard work on legislation in which Members of this House have been involved over the past year. That is why I said that we needed greater clarification, and why the Prime Minister has written to the Leader of the Opposition.

I have nothing further to say on the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raised. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) made it plain that the Procedure Committee intended to look at one aspect of the issue. Obviously I look at every Select Committee report, and I always consider what I should be doing. However, when it comes to debates on Select Committee reports, it would normally be for the Liaison Committee to decide. Governments respond to Select Committees. The Select Committee is entitled to make any recommendation it wishes, but, as Leader of the House, I must make a judgment about what business should be conducted on the Floor of the House.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I am going to move on now, because I have the minority party interest to consider in this House.