HC Deb 19 March 1998 vol 308 cc1422-9

4.8 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 23 MARCH—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 24 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the School Standards and Framework Bill.

WEDNESDAY 25 MARCH—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the second to fifth reports from the Select Committee on Health on children's health, followed by a debate on the third report from the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs on the proposed strategic rail authority and railway regulation, followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Progress on remaining stages of the Government of Wales Bill (First Day).

THURSDAY 26 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Government of Wales Bill (Second Day).

FRIDAY 27 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week is as follows:

MONDAY 30 MARCH—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Seventh Day).

TUESDAY 31 MARCH—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Eighth Day).

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

Remaining stages of the Regional Development Agencies Bill.

THURSDAY 2 APRIL—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day] (first part).

Until 7 pm, there will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 3 APRIL—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 25 March there will be a debate on bananas in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on aid to shipbuilding in European Standing Committee B.

On Wednesday 1 April, there will be a debate on renewable sources of energy and the energy framework programme in European Standing Committee B.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 25 March:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community documents: (a) 5357/98, Bananas; (b) 6150/98, Assistance for Traditional ACP Suppliers of Bananas. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: (a) HC 155-xvi (1997–98); (b) HC 155-xxii (1997–98).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 11165/97 and 11167/97, Aid to Shipbuilding. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-ix (1997–98).

Wednesday 1 April:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: (a) 13035/97, Annexes I, IV and VI—Energy Framework Programme (1998–2002); (b) 13035/97, Annex V—Energy Framework Programme: Save II; (c) 5140/98, Renewable Sources of Energy; (d) Unnumbered, Renewable Sources of Energy: Council Resolution. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: (a) HC 155-xxi (1997–98); (b) HC 155-xxii (1997–98); (c) He 155-xviii (1997–98); (d) HC 155-xxii (1997–98).]

The House will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Easter recess on Wednesday 8 April until Monday 20 April.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving us the business, and echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) in thanking her for again giving us two weeks' business. I also thank her for clarifying the dates of the Easter recess and say how helpful it is to know those. Last week, she said that she hoped to say something at a fairly early date about any possible Whitsun recess. The sooner we can have that news, the better.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Government of Wales Bill in next week's business. She will know that we have been extremely glad to co-operate in the programming experiment in respect of two major constitutional Bills. We want that experiment to succeed, as I know she does, but does she accept that, now that the Government have tabled several important new clauses, which we welcome, and well over 100 amendments, the two days that were initially agreed for Report are not adequate?

If the programming system is to work, it is terribly important that some flexibility should be built into it, so that if the Government do that to a major Bill at a late stage we can have some extra time.

Will the right hon. Lady also accept that it is essential for the House to have a sight of the registration of political parties Bill—in draft form at the very least—before we complete consideration of the Government of Wales Bill?

The right hon. Lady has worked hard as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee; both my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk and I have paid tribute to her on several occasions for that. When are the Committee's two latest reports likely to be debated, bearing in mind the fact that, this week, the Leader of the House has written to hon. Members suggesting that, in some cases, there will be a need to change the Standing Orders of the House and perhaps even legislative changes will be called for? The sooner the reports themselves can be debated and approved in principle, the better.

On many occasions recently, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk has called for a debate on the national health service. Although we fully appreciate that the health service is relevant to the Budget debate, particularly in the light of yesterday's statement, may I point out that that was the eighth statement that we have had in recent times on the NHS, and that the substance of yesterday's statement was that it will take the Government two years to get back to where waiting lists were on 1 May? It is essential that we have a debate on that as soon as possible.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that there is a great crisis in the museums world, particularly for many of our great national museums and galleries? Will she accept that the Budget did not begin to address the seriousness of the problem? May we have a debate on the matter quite soon?

In view of the considerable uncertainty that the Prime Minister displayed yesterday over the Red Book, or, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition called it, the unread book, perhaps the Government should organise a teach-in on that document and ensure that all Ministers attend.

In the light of today's revelations, may we have a further statement next week on the conditions and security in Northern Ireland prisons? Will the right hon. Lady accept that we should like to have a full debate on the issue in the near future?

This is the period of our presidency of the European Union, but we have not yet had a general debate on foreign affairs. The Foreign Secretary's love of racing and support for country sports endear him to many Opposition Members. We realise that he is trying to do his best and that he has not yet made the sort of bloomer that a predecessor is alleged to have made when he asked a cardinal archbishop to waltz during the national anthem. However, it seems to us that the right hon. Gentleman's finesse is perhaps not as accomplished as it might be, and we should like a debate on foreign affairs so that he can explain himself.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions, and I will try to deal with all of them. He asked about the Whitsun recess. I am hoping that we can have a week at Whitsun, but it will depend on the progress of business. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the pressures on time, and I cannot give a guarantee at this stage.

We were pleased that the official Opposition and the minority parties thought it right to make progress on the Government of Wales Bill through a programming motion, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, we wish to see that experiment succeed. When the timetable was originally drawn up, it was envisaged that there would be significant issues to be discussed on Report stage; hence the two days that have been allocated. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Opposition welcome some of the more significant changes that have been made, and many of the other amendments to which he referred are technical. It is for the Business Committee to consider whether any injury time might be required on either of those days should there be the prospect of statements. Overall, the experiment has been extremely useful, and I am grateful for the co-operation we have had from all parts of the House.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said about the need to make progress on the Bill on the registration of political parties. He will know that there have been significant consultations on the matter to try to ensure that what we propose is satisfactory to everyone involved. I hope that we will be able to see the Bill before long.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a debate on the reports from the Modernisation Committee. I, too, would like to see a debate on those matters, not least because I think that the general reception throughout the House has been positive and because, as he said, we may wish to make specific changes to Standing Orders. I do not hold out any prospect of such a debate before Easter, but I hope that we will be able to make some time available after that, so that the House can have an opportunity to express its views.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a debate on health. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health would welcome an opportunity to talk about the extra money that he has been able to make available for the health service. As the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) has requested a debate on the health service previously, I checked up on the matter. When the Conservatives were in government between 1992 and 1997, they had only one general debate on the health service. I hope that we can do slightly better than that. It is always open to the Opposition to use Opposition days for that issue.

As for the impact of the Budget on museums, it is still open to hon. Members to participate in the on-going Budget debate. Hon. Members who have a specific interest in that matter still have two days in which to take part in the debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the serious situation in prisons in Northern Ireland. He will be aware that, at the beginning of the week, there was a private notice question—which you, Madam Speaker, allowed—enabling the relevant Minister to explain the situation. The hon. Gentleman will be aware also that there are inquiries into events there. I am sure that the House will be kept informed of any developments.

As for the hon. Gentleman's comments on the presidency of the European Union and a general debate on foreign affairs, I cannot promise that we can have such a debate before Easter. However, we should like to have a debate on foreign affairs as soon as we can find some time in the parliamentary calendar to do so. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will acquit himself well, as he always does.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

May I tell my right hon. Friend how grateful the Select Committees will be for the opportunity to debate their reports? I look forward to Wednesday morning's debate on the strategic rail authority. It will be a great asset if the Select Committee's work is recognised on the Floor.

However, having congratulated my right hon. Friend on that, may I ask her whether she will expedite the debate on modernisation of the House? Although there seems to be an astonishing amount of compliance between the two Front Benches—which always worries any sensible Back Bencher—some of the suggestions on timetabling, including timetabling in Committees, are not only extremely difficult to accept, but could be said to be anti-democratic. I hope that she will not run away with the idea that everyone in the House thinks that those reports are the best thing since sliced bread.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's earlier comments on the Select Committee report. Some Select Committee reports should be debated on the Floor of the House, and she has been very fortunate to get a debate on a report in which I know she has a very specific interest.

My hon. Friend mentioned Committee timetabling and procedure. I should remind her that those matters were the subject of previous reports of the Modernisation Committee, and that those reports were endorsed by the House, which approved them with nobody voting against. However, opinions are divided on some of the matters, and the two Front-Bench teams are not in agreement against everyone else. The Modernisation Committee's reports have had the support not only of Front Benchers but of Back Benchers on both sides of the House, and of experienced Members and new Members alike. That is another reason why everyone should be able to participate in the debate.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the Leader of the House take very seriously the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) on the Government of Wales Bill, to which the Secretary of State for Wales has tabled 117 amendments? I take the right hon. Lady's point that we will have to work constructively, and it would be very helpful if there could be further discussions on that matter.

Will the Leader of the House speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the Deputy Prime Minister and ask them jointly to publish a Green Book, which was originally promised to accompany the Red Book and would outline the Budget's environmental impact? Some pages in the Red Book cover some of the Budget's impacts, but they give a very partial and incomplete picture of the environmental impact of the overall Budget strategy.

Will the Leader of the House also ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to make a statement to the House on radioactive discharges from Sellafield that have entered the North sea? They are now the cause of international complaint and are affecting fisheries in Scandinavia.

May I also reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on the Modernisation Committee? It would be a sad thing indeed if all the Modernisation Committee's proposals were greeted with utter unanimity. I would welcome—as I know that the House would welcome—an opportunity to debate the proposals, with the agenda moving forward even more strongly.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the environmental impact of the Budget. As he acknowledged, some pages of the Red Book deal with that. If he has further points to make, I repeat what I said earlier—there are two days left of the Budget debate and he may be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Speaker.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in radioactive waste in the North sea. He will be aware that a change in the authorisation in 1994 resulted in increased radioactive discharge limits. The Environment Agency has just completed public consultation on draft new authorisations which will reduce discharge limits. I hope that that will reassure him that the Government share his concern and are keen to take action in an attempt to minimise the problems.

The hon. Gentleman is right in his comments about the Modernisation Committee. We cannot expect unanimity, but, so far, the responses that we have received to our proposals have, by and large, been positive. However, it remains to be seen whether there will be such a level of agreement when we discuss such issues as electronic voting or even the timing of sittings of the House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In view of the way in which Tory Members have done their very best to destroy the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) to ban hunting with dogs, is my right hon. Friend aware that there is very strong feeling among Labour Members that the measure should be discussed in Government time? Even if the Government cannot rescue the Bill—although one wishes that they would—may we have a statement that, at least in the lifetime of this Parliament, the issue will be debated in Government time so that that barbaric sport can be stopped for ever? That is what Labour Members want. Undoubtedly, a large majority in the country want the House of Commons and Parliament to take the necessary action to stop hunting with dogs.

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that my hon. Friend makes it clear that if the Bill fails, it will be due to the actions of Conservative Members and not the Government. The Government have always made it clear that there is no question of making Government time available for any private Member's Bill during this Session, and it would be wrong to treat the Bill to which he refers differently from any other. We have said on a number of occasions that we intend to keep the issue under review; that remains our position.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I remind the right hon. Lady of the Government's clear commitment to produce a White Paper on the future of London's government in the week beginning 23 March? Therefore, may we expect next week the White Paper and a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister, together with another statement on the future of London Transport underground finance? Is it not the case that the modernisation of Britain is going ahead only in rhetorical terms, and that, in practical terms, commuters using London Transport underground have had no improvement in service and only an escalation in fares?

Mrs. Taylor

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be in a position to make a statement about the government of London next week, as promised. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to mention that. As for London underground—unusually, but because of the importance of the issue—my right hon. Friend will be in a position to make a statement tomorrow.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

On 24 February, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a statement on Iraq during which I asked what the Government intended to do to advance democracy, peace and economic and social progress there. My right hon. Friend said twice that we will do what we can. May we have a debate on how the Iraqi people can be assisted in their plight, as the problem has not gone away?

Mrs. Taylor

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have mentioned the need for follow-up action along those lines. My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I cannot promise another debate on Iraq in the near future. However, he will be aware, as he has participated in such debates on previous occasions, that we always have an open three-hour debate on the Adjournment before each recess; he may be able to raise that topic then.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that the Highlands and Islands Convention is meeting on 3 April. Could she arrange for a statement from the Department of Trade and Industry or a full debate in Government time on European Union structural funds—an issue which is important not just to the highlands and islands, but to many others who want to know the Government's approach to negotiation in the next few months?

Mrs. Taylor

I am aware of that meeting. We have tried to arrange business in the House to accommodate it. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has made our position on EU structural funds very clear. Although there have been some concessions, there is still a good deal of negotiation ahead of us. We are willing to contribute to the costs of enlargement, but that must be done on a fair basis, taking account of all the factors. There may be more information available by the time of the meeting to which the hon. Lady refers.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the consultation processes on applications for opencast mining, in view of events in my constituency earlier this week, when a parish council met to consider the threefold extension of the Trinity opencast site? I am concerned that there may be similar problems elsewhere. The parish council chairman, who owns part of the site, allowed in only 16 members of the public, was not heard to declare his interest, allowed a vote to be taken in secret, and vacated the chair only just before the vote was taken. We should consider whether there are similar problems throughout the country.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend raises a series of unusual circumstances relating to one application. I shall pass her concerns on to the relevant Ministers. She will know that the consultation period has now been completed and that Ministers are entering further discussions on the issue. I shall make sure that my hon. Friends make further inquiries about the procedures followed in the case that she has raised.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

I note what the Leader of the House has said about the scandalous situation in the Maze. She said that the matter was dealt with in the private notice question at the beginning of the week, and she mentioned that an inquiry is going on. I understand that it has been completed and the report is now with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. Will she review her decision? When that report becomes public, can we have a debate? The situation is serious—indeed, it is a laughing stock in the press and other media, as well as among the ordinary people in the street in the United Kingdom. We should have time to discuss such a scandalous state of affairs in a part of the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Taylor

It would be wrong to anticipate the conclusions of any report by promising a debate or saying that one was needed. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the welcome news today that the Korean car giant Daewoo has invested £160 million in Britain? I understand that the joint investment with Birmingham-based LDV will secure 1,500 jobs and create 2,000 new ones. LDV is a van manufacturing company which almost went out of business because of the neglect of manufacturing under the previous Government. Will my right hon. Friend consider making Government time available for a debate on the Government's approach to investment in vehicle manufacturing?

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be more than delighted with the announcement and the security of jobs in his area. It is a good news story, but, as I have said to other colleagues on other occasions, it is not always possible to find time even to debate good news.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Lady ensure—even given her often expressed views on the difficulty of finding time for a further foreign affairs debate, which I perfectly understand—that the Foreign Secretary has an opportunity to make a statement on how he had to cope with the shockingly petulant and bad-mannered reaction of the Israeli Government to his visit to Israel? Does she agree that the middle east peace process, and the role of Europe and the United Kingdom in it, is of substantial importance to this country's interests and that, at the very least, the Foreign Secretary should have the opportunity of making a statement to the House?

Mrs. Taylor

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-term interest in this matter. Indeed, he was one of those who were very keen to ensure that the Foreign Secretary was active in this regard. The Foreign Secretary makes statements to the House whenever there is anything specific to report. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is important for this country that progress should be made in the middle east peace process. I hope that, during the summer, we will find time for a full debate on foreign affairs. When there is anything specific that is important enough to warrant a statement on the Floor of the House, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will keep the House informed of it.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Did I hear the right hon. Lady correctly when she said that the Deputy Prime Minister would make a statement tomorrow on London matters? If that is so, will she use her offices to ensure that all London Members are told about it, because many may not have been present to hear what she said?

Madam Speaker

That is their problem.

Mr. Garnier

It may well be their problem, but if the Leader of the House could assist them, I am sure that they would be most grateful. I always like to be as helpful to the Labour party as possible.

When will the Human Rights Bill be in Committee on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Taylor

On the first point, I can confirm that I said that there would be a statement tomorrow. The official Opposition and minority parties have been informed of that, and I shall leave it to them to inform their own London Members.

Madam Speaker

Hear, hear.

Mrs. Taylor

On the second point, I have announced business up to the week before the Easter recess. I do not anticipate the Human Rights Bill coming back to the House this side of Easter.