HC Deb 26 March 1998 vol 309 cc698-707 4.42 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 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 the international arms trade on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.
  • FRIDAY 3 APRIL—The House will not be sitting.
  • The provisional business for the following week will be as follows
  • MONDAY 6 APRIL—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
  • TUESDAY 7 APRIL—Second Reading of the National Lottery Bill [Lords].
  • WEDNESDAY 8 APRIL—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House, which will include the usual three-hour pre-recess debate.
  • Second Reading of the Crime and Disorder Bill [Lords].
The House may also wish to be reminded that 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.

The House will wish to know that the House will rise for the Easter recess on Wednesday 8 April until Monday 20 April.

[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) HC 155-xviii (1997–98); (d) HC 155-xxii (1997–98).]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. It is helpful to have the Easter recess dates confirmed. She also attempted last week to give some idea of the spring bank holiday recess dates, but, understandably, she had to be very circumspect about her promises in that regard.

I understand that the arrangements for the Rural Development Agencies Bill have been agreed by programme in accordance with the hopes and desires of the Modernisation Committee. I am delighted about that.

I do not want to worry the right hon. Lady, but that debate will take place on 1 April—so let us hope that everything will be okay.

The right hon. Lady said that the House could expect an early statement on the Narey report on the prison service in Northern Ireland. Given the extreme seriousness of the situation in the Maze prison, I wonder whether the right hon. Lady is in a position to announce today when that statement might happen. I am sure that she will wish to consider when we might debate the contents of today's statement on welfare reform, as there is a great deal to discuss.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for an early debate on the kaleidoscope of voting systems that the Government have introduced in different parts of the country? There are about six different systems at present, and the number appears to be rising. I wonder whether the Government realise that the salami-slicing approach that they are adopting to constitutional change is eroding accountability. That is the inevitable result of such an approach. I do not think that the Labour party pledged to do that before the election. I do not believe that the Government intend to weaken parliamentary democracy, and I think that a debate on those issues will enable the Government to clarify their position—not least perhaps to themselves.

I have had occasion in the past to raise the question of the disfranchisement of the people of West Renfrewshire as a result of the continued absence from the House of the hon. Member for that constituency. I believe that there has been a rare sighting of the hon. Gentleman this week. Will the right hon. Lady make a statement about how she views the plight of the people of West Renfrewshire? Does she intend to do anything to help them?

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a debate on the responsibilities of Ministers? As she knows, a Transport Minister failed to turn up for a debate, an Environment Minister walked out of a debate half an hour before it finished, and an Agriculture Minister spent the entire time in the Smoking Room during an important debate relevant to his portfolio. It is also alleged that the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs writes questions for hon. Members to put to him.

However, the Government's contempt for the House reached new heights on Wednesday. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) had the Adjournment debate on farming in Ribble Valley. Imagine his surprise when not only could no Agriculture Minister be found to answer the debate—two of them had understandable reasons for not attending and I suppose that the other was still in the Smoking Room—but the Environment Minister pulled out at short notice and the response to a debate on agriculture was finally read out by the Minister for School Standards. It may be that the Minister knows more about agriculture than do Agriculture Ministers—he certainly knows more about that subject than he does about multiplication.

Such treatment of a Member of Parliament's legitimate concerns and those of his constituents is a calculated insult not only to those constituents but to the farming industry, to people who live in the countryside and, most importantly, to the House. I hope that the right hon. Lady will state her strong disapproval of that contempt.

Mrs. Taylor

I shall start with the right hon. Lady's first question. I announced last week when I hoped we would have a spring or Whitsun recess. I still hope that we can have a week's recess at Whitsun, but that is totally dependent on the progress of business. I am keeping the situation under review.

The right hon. Lady commented on the fact that we shall discuss the Regional Development Agencies Bill on Wednesday. We have been able to get agreement that it should be taken under a programme motion. That is another step forward in the experiment with programme motions, and I hope that, through negotiation and discussion with all interested parties, we can make a success of that day's debate.

I can confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland expects to be able to publish the Narey report soon. I hope that it will be possible for her to make a statement to the House on that. The right hon. Lady will understand that serious and sensitive issues are involved, and that it is therefore not possible at this stage to confirm the precise arrangements.

The right hon. Lady asked me, quite reasonably, when we will have a debate on welfare following the excellent statement—which was very well received—from the Minister for Welfare Reform, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), a short time ago. There will be many opportunities to discuss aspects of the proposals in that Green Paper, and I shall bear in mind her suggestion that there should be a full debate in the House. Of course, it will be open to the Opposition to choose that subject for debate, as other hon. Members might be able to express their views better than the shadow Minister did today.

The right hon. Lady spoke about the erosion of accountability, but was gracious enough to say that she did not think it was intentional. When we have devolution for Scotland, devolution for Wales and a Greater London authority—proposals for which were, again, well received yesterday—we will improve accountability. Those proposals are generally welcomed.

The right hon. Lady referred to the absence of Ministers from the Ministry of Agriculture from the Adjournment debate on farming initiated by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). The hon. Gentleman himself acknowledged that there were extremely good reasons why the Minister of State, who would normally have replied to that debate, could not be present. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and the Parliamentary Secretary had been in Brussels that day, representing the UK at the Fisheries Council. I know that the reply given to the hon. Gentleman was an excellent one, which is exactly what we would expect from the Minister concerned.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the decision of the Scots Court of Appeal on the Vannet v. Milligan case, which seems to indicate that in certain circumstances the interim diet procedure may have no statutory basis? Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that that could affect up to 1,000 cases, and that some serious prosecutions may therefore fail on a pure technicality? Is there any possibility that the statutes could be amended to deal with the problem?

Mrs. Taylor

I am aware of the issue. The Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord Advocate are urgently considering the implications of the judgment and what action may need to be taken as a result. We as a Government are consulting other parties so that we can take any action that is necessary as quickly as possible.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can the Leader of the House confirm a persistent rumour that tomorrow the Government intend to interrupt business to make a statement about the merger of the Rural Development Commission and the Countryside Commission? Can she further confirm that it is intended to introduce amendments to that effect in the late proceedings on the Regional Development Agencies Bill, although the matter was not discussed in Committee at any stage? Can she explain why such an extraordinary rabbit-out-of-a-hat decision has been taken without proper discussion, particularly with the commissions concerned and all those in the countryside who value the work of those two extremely important agencies?

Can the Leader of the House tell us when she expects the Modernisation Committee to turn its attention to the treatment of private Members' Bills in this place, about which there is extreme concern in all parts of the House? I particularly draw her attention to the fact that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), to whom I have given notice that I intend to raise this matter, has set himself up as a one-man censor of all private Members' Bills. He proposes to block them all on principle, because he believes that the way in which the House deals with them is unsatisfactory. Although many of us may agree with him on that, it is extraordinary that he should, for example, be so dismissive of the case put by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which has an important interest in the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill.

Finally, can the Leader of the House tell us whether the frequent conversations that the Prime Minister, according to his own staff, has with Mr. Richard Murdoch, extend to the issue of media monopolies in this country? [Interruption.] I mean Mr. Rupert Murdoch.

Mrs. Taylor

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt with that yesterday. I have nothing further to add to any speculation about conversations with any Murdoch, regardless of which one it might be.

There is no proposal to interrupt the business tomorrow with a statement of the kind that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

On modernisation and the important question how the House deals with private Members' Bills, the hon. Gentleman, as a member of that Committee, knows that we have spent some time considering what our priorities should be. In addition to the reports that have already been published, we have made our priorities electronic voting and European scrutiny, and then we will go on to discuss the parliamentary calendar—the parliamentary day, the parliamentary week, the parliamentary year. That will keep the Committee busy for some time, but we made it clear in our first report on the legislative process that private Members' Bills and perhaps private Members' time were matters to which we wanted to return.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Will the Leader of the House consider a debate on the recent research findings of Dr. Andrew Wakefield linking problems of the gut and autism and a possible association with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination? I am sure she is aware that I and others were promised by the Department of Health that a seminar would be organised on the subject, and that parents of children damaged would be allowed to attend. She will also be aware that that did not happen.

This week the Medical Research Council still published its conclusions, which were open to scrutiny by the media, but Members of Parliament like me were initially refused permission to attend. After a major row, the organisers backed down, but said that, although as a Member of Parliament I could attend the press conference, I could not ask questions. Can the Leader of the House appreciate the irony of the situation, when the media can question what is in reality a Government statement, while Members of Parliament are refused the opportunity?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will no doubt find opportunities to raise the issue, such as at Health questions. He asked for a debate on the matter, but I regret that I cannot find time for that. I can only advise him to try to get an Adjournment debate if he wants to pursue that interest further at this stage.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Can the right hon. Lady persuade the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House next week on the effect of the Schengen agreement and the Dublin convention among European Union members on the control of would-be asylum seekers and would-be refugees entering this country? Is she aware that, since the beginning of the year, some 900 have come via the Eurostar route through the channel tunnel without any documents? Such documents would be required by British law from passengers travelling on air carriers.

Unless the system is brought under control, people will get extremely upset, especially in the London boroughs that would have to accommodate the would-be asylum seekers. The Home Secretary is writing to his counterpart in Belgium, and representations are being made to the K4 committee of the European Union tomorrow. At the very least, we deserve a statement on the matter.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious matter. We have been aware of the problem for some time. As he points out, the Home Secretary is seeking urgent solutions with the Belgians. It is Home Office questions on Monday, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would have too much difficulty in finding an opportunity for a question then.

Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 1146, which highlights the serious problems caused by substandard builders?

[That this House deplores the activities of Kiely Homes also known as Kiely Developments, Manor Homes and Heritage Homes, 'new build' property developers who operate mainly around the Greater Manchester area; notes that they continually flout planning regulations, repeatedly fail to achieve the required quality of property development expected and indeed encourage unsuspecting homebuyers to purchase sub-standard homes; notes their policy is to offer free conveyancing to be done by a solicitor of their choice, paid for by them for doing the work; and urges that the law be amended to require mortgage providers to check with the planning authority that all planning regulations and standards have been met before a mortgage is granted on any new property in order to protect the home buyer and the law be amended to ensure mortgage providers require property developers to produce an up-to-date copy of the insurance policy and guarantees for the homes being purchased.]

The motion also refers to companies in my constituency and around the Manchester area, which are enticing first-time buyers, young families and retired people to purchase substandard properties on substandard developments. The principal directors of those companies are the Kiely brothers. There are seven, I believe. National insurance companies are refusing to offer insurance cover on those properties. Will my right hon. Friend possibly offer some time in future to debate this serious issue, with a view to encouraging legislation to protect first-time buyers from these cowboy builders?

Mrs. Taylor

I can well understand why my hon. Friend is concerned about this matter. He will be aware that all new homes must comply with the statutory building regulations. I understand that the firm in question has been removed from the registers of both the main providers of new home warranties, the National House-building Council and Zurich Municipal. That would normally mean that a mortgage lender would be unwilling to advance a loan on such homes.

My hon. Friend has raised an issue that I well believe concerns his constituents, and has asked me to find time for a debate on the matter. I cannot do that in Government time but my hon. Friend might like to apply for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is it possible to arrange an early debate on tourism in the regions so that I can talk about the importance of conferences to towns such as Blackpool, for instance, which is only 20 miles away from my constituency? Some disparaging comments have come from the right hon. Lady's party.

If Blackpool is good enough for 16 million visitors a year, surely it should be good enough for the people's party. It has a wide variety of hotels catering for people with all sorts of income. I admit that some of the rooms may not be up to the standard of the Lord Chancellor's apartments, but they cater for a wide variety of people.

If we have the debate for which I have asked, perhaps we could bring out all these matters. Perhaps as well we could seek an apology from the right hon. Lady or the Prime Minister. Some of the comments that have been made could damage the conference trade in Blackpool and cost some people their jobs.

Mrs. Taylor

I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman about his suggestion that disparaging remarks have been made by my colleagues on the Government Benches. That is simply not true. There have been criticisms of the conference facilities, but not of the town nor of the accommodation. Like many other people, I went to my first conference in Blackpool, and I hope to be going to others in Blackpool in future.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Are there any plans to have statements on either Monday or Tuesday of next week? If not, is it possible to avoid that happening? As my right hon. Friend will know, there is a great deal still to be discussed on the Scotland Bill, and only a short time to get through the remaining clauses.

Mrs. Taylor

On those days when consideration has taken place of the Government of Wales Bill or the Scotland Bill, we have been willing to consider injury time when there have been statements. That is what we have been discussing as a means of avoiding the problem to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Will the Leader of the House explain why there will be no Defence questions in April? We shall have to wait until May. It seems highly unlikely that we shall have the usual single-service debates on the Army, Navy and Air Force. Will we have to wait for the defence review, which may or may not be published before the summer recess, before we have an opportunity rightly to question Ministers on the declining morale in our armed forces, which are awaiting the outcome of the review?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that he is wrong. My question paper shows that there will be Defence questions on 6 April.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about a statement on the Narey report on prisons in Northern Ireland? Would this be the opportunity for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement on the cases of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright, whose lives have now been threatened in a way that is regarded, rightly, by the Government, as very serious, by imprisonment in Northern Ireland?

Under the cloak of parliamentary privilege—I do not want to be sued, as The Daily Telegraph was threatened with being sued, and had to pay up money, as was the case with General Sir David Scott-Barratt—may I say that I have read the transcript of the trial of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright? I am absolutely appalled, as anybody would be, by the justice system in Northern Ireland, and by the behaviour of certain lawyers.

Is it not incumbent on people on Green Benches, who have sent troops to do a job, rightly or wrongly, in Northern Ireland, at least to ensure individual justice? Will my right hon. Friend take into account that it is not simply the generals and the "toffs", so-called, of the Scots Guards who are concerned? Many of the ex-warrant officers and non-commissioned officers, like one of my constituents, Jack Smith, are pressing that justice be done to these two individuals.

Mrs. Taylor

I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is aware of my hon. Friend's comments. I was talking specifically about a statement on the Narey inquiry.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I ask the Leader of the House to try to find time for a debate on early-day motion 1147. [That this House condemns the apparent decision of the Labour Party to abandon Blackpool as a venue for its Annual Conference; deplores the reported comments of a Labour spokesman alleging 'concern at the quality of the hotels of Blackpool'; applauds the commitment of the Conservative Party to the town as witnessed by the presence of the Conservative Conference there in every alternate year for the last 35 years; welcomes its continued intention to visit Blackpool regularly; notes the high quality and excellent value of Blackpool's hotels and guesthouses; and calls on the Labour Party to change its decision.]

The Prime Minister said during the election that Blackpool would be safe in Labour's hands. The announcement this week poses some questions on that statement.

Today, I spoke to First Leisure about the criticisms that have been made of the conference centre, and it rebutted them. It pointed out that £10 million has been spent over the past 10 years. It pointed out also that all the requirements of both parties with reference to improving these facilities have been put in place. First Leisure is at a loss to understand what the real reason is for Labour's decision not to hold its conference in Blackpool. I make a request for a debate so that we might ascertain the real reason for Labour wanting to go from Blackpool.

Mrs. Taylor

There seems to be some disparity between the information that the right hon. Gentleman has and the experience of many of us who go to conferences in Blackpool. While we might like the place and the people there, there are problems with the conference facilities, and all the requirements for improvements have not been met. I think that many people in Blackpool would like to see improvements in their conference facilities.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If my right hon. Friend manages to find time for a debate on tourism, will she bear it in mind that I could make a contribution to it that would make it clear, as the only Member present in the Chamber who was present at the meeting of the NEC on Tuesday, that I battled on behalf of Blackpool? I lost temporarily by two votes, and as you, Madam Speaker, know, that caused me to be a little late for Question Time. I was battling away to win that little skirmish.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that, as a result of my efforts and of other efforts made yesterday at the parliamentary Labour party meeting, we shall be going back to Blackpool? We are going to Blackpool this year, and by 2002, after the second Labour election victory, we shall be celebrating at the Winter gardens at Blackpool.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that my hon. Friend has made the point, and that there is no need for any further debate.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Does the Leader of the House agree that the shift in Government policy represented by the White Paper on development was considerable, and much trumpeted by her party? The responses to that White Paper have now been gathered in. Will she ensure that there is a debate in Government time, which would allow the nation to appreciate the quality and the substance of those responses?

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot promise at this stage that that debate will take place, and certainly not in the near future, but I shall bear the possibility in mind.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

May we have a debate on the growing politicisation of the civil service? May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a letter I received this morning from Brian Macklin, who is a pensioner and one of my constituents? He tells me that, in a round robin that all pensioners have received from the Benefits Agency, there is reference to the "unprecedented exercise" to help with winter fuel bills. It seems that such letters are being written by civil servants, but civil servants who have replaced the press officers who were fired in many of the agencies and Government Departments in Whitehall so recently by the Minister without Portfolio and his cohorts. Given that Parliament is being increasingly sidelined, can we ensure that such a debate takes place?

Mrs. Taylor

The letter was factually correct. Had the Conservative Government given pensioners the help with fuel bills that they have had this winter, the hon. Gentleman might have had a point, but the quotation to which he referred complies with the facts, so I see no problem with the letter.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, on Wednesday, the European Commission imposed a temporary 15 per cent. anti-dumping levy on the import of greycloth into the EU, which is threatening jobs in my constituency, and in the past 18 months there have been two other attempts to impose that duty? Will the right hon. Lady ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make a statement on this serious situation, which is threatening jobs in the finishing and fabric-making industry, not just in my constituency but elsewhere in Britain?

Mr. Skinner

You should not have voted for that Common Market.

Mrs. Taylor

Trade and Industry questions will be on Tuesday, when the hon. Gentleman may have the opportunity to raise the matter, but I shall bring his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.