HC Deb 14 May 1998 vol 312 cc531-7 4.20 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

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

MONDAY 18 MAY—Opposition Day (11th allotted day).

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on Sierra Leone, followed by a debate on the Territorial Army. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

TUESDAY 19 MAY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Scotland Bill.

WEDNESDAY 20 MAY—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.

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

THURSDAY 21 MAY—Debate on the common agricultural policy on a Government motion. Details will be given in the Official Report.

The provisional business for the first week back after the Whitsun recess will be as follows.

MONDAY 1 JUNE—Remaining stages of the National Lottery Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 2 JUNE—Opposition Day (12th allotted day).

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

WEDNESDAY 3 JUNE—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

THURSDAY 4 JUNE—Until about 7 pm, Second Reading of the Registration of Political Parties Bill.

Debate and motions on modernisation of the House of Commons.

FRIDAY 5 JUNE—Debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House on a subject to be announced.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 20 May, there will be a debate on fisheries monitoring under the common fisheries policy in European Standing Committee A.

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

[Wednesday 20 May:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community document: 6123/98, Fisheries Monitoring under the Common Fisheries Policy. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-xxii (1997–98).

Thursday 21 May:

Floor of the House—Relevant European Community document: 7073/98, Agenda 2000: Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-xxvi (1997–98). The Second Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 1997/98, "CAP Reform: Agenda 2000" (House of Commons Paper No. 311) and the Government response thereto (House of Commons Paper No. 719).]

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving us the business for next week and the provisional business for the week after. May I thank her on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and of the Opposition as a whole for her efforts to accommodate us on the timing of the Modernisation Committee debate? She will appreciate that we shall want to study the long-promised and long-delayed Registration of Political Parties Bill.

May I revert to a subject that has often been raised in recent weeks? With the Foreign Secretary sitting by her side, will the right hon. Lady ensure that we have a full debate on foreign affairs before the end of our presidency of the European Union? She referred to that matter last week, and we have pressed for such a debate over many weeks. It is crucial that it is held before our presidency comes to an end.

We have chosen Sierra Leone as the subject for the first of the debates on Monday. In the light of Sir John Kerr's evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs this morning, which made it plain that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), was fully briefed before the famous Adjournment debate on 12 March, may we hope that the Foreign Secretary—who will no doubt hear what she says—will apologise for the confusion that his statements have caused? When the Foreign Secretary speaks in the debate on Monday, will he give a detailed and precise answer to all the questions that have recently been put to him by my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary?

We all hope that the referendum a week today in Northern Ireland will produce an affirmative result. The right hon. Lady knows that the Government have the official Opposition's complete support in that regard. On the assumption that the referendum goes the right way, will she give us some idea when the legislation consequent on that referendum will be presented?

Will the right hon. Lady also arrange for two statements of clarification to be made in the week after the Whitsun recess? May we have a statement on the Government's accommodation or agreement—call it what you will—with the trade unions on recognition? May we also know when we will be told precisely the level of the minimum wage? After yet another Question Time with the President of the Board of Trade this afternoon, we are none the wiser. When will we be informed?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It is £5.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Gentleman suggests that it is £5. Perhaps the right hon. Lady will confirm that, as the hon. Gentleman seems to know, and obviously has a hotline to all sorts of people.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the state of the legislative timetable is such that the Government are likely to keep the House sitting into August?

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that we have been able to accommodate the request to change the day of the debate on modernisation. It will be convenient if the shadow Leader of the House can be present, not only because of her position, but because she is a member of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons.

I made it clear last week that we intend to have a debate on European matters before the end of our presidency, and before the summit. I echo that commitment today.

As far as Monday's debate is concerned, I hope that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) is fully up to date with what has been said following the hearing held this morning by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I hope that he has seen the letter from Sir John Kerr to the Chairman of the Committee, which clarifies further Sir John's statements to the Committee today. When hon. Members have had time to study that letter, they may feel that the situation is clearer. The letter confirms that the briefing prepared for my hon. Friend the Minister of State for use in the debate on 12 March did not mention arms shipments, and did not say that one such report had already been passed to Customs and Excise. I think that Opposition Members should study that clarification with care before they take part in Monday's debate.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Foreign Secretary will answer all the questions that have been asked of him: of course he will. I hope that, during the debate, Opposition Members will acknowledge the difference between allegations and facts; otherwise, I am not sure how useful the debate will be.

On Northern Ireland, we welcome the complete support that the hon. Gentleman offered on behalf of the Opposition. He asked me to be specific about the time scale for consequential legislation, but I do not think that I can be. This side of the referendum, it would not be helpful to make immediate judgments about what should happen on the other side.

The hon. Gentleman requested statements on trade union recognition and the minimum wage. We shall decide about statements in the normal way, and no date has yet been established for publication of the White Paper to which he referred. Any statements will be announced to Conservative Members in the usual way. We look forward to further confirmation that the Opposition have changed their views on the minimum wage and are coming round to accepting it.

On the legislative programme, recesses always depend on the progress of business.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

At 6 o'clock on Friday morning, I took part in a drugs bust with Luton police as part of Operation Eagle, the national endeavour to tackle drug peddling and drug-related crime. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in parts of Luton and, I am sure, throughout the country, drug peddling and packaging has become a cottage industry involving women and children? Will she join me in commending Luton police for their activities as part of Operation Eagle and allow time in the House for a full debate on the implications of the drug problem in Luton and throughout the country?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend speaks from personal experience, having seen the drug problem in her constituency. Many hon. Members share her concern about the impact of drug taking on local communities—on the individuals who take drugs and on victims of crime, which is often a consequence of people needing money to fund drug habits. We had a brief debate on drugs on Wednesday morning and we recently published the Government's strategy and made a statement in the House. I said at the time that it might be possible to have a more general debate on drugs once the strategy was under way and I still bear that possibility in mind.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I congratulate the Leader of the House on keeping a straight face in responding to the request from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman for debates on an ethical foreign policy? I look forward to Monday, and pigs might fly.

On Sierra Leone, will the right hon. Lady address two particular points and pass them on—I see that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) is beside her—so that they can be addressed on Monday? First, is there not an urgent need to clarify the present procedures on arms sales? She may be aware that, in addition to the evidence to which she has referred, during this morning's Select Committee the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office betrayed complete ignorance of the very existence of the interdepartmental restricted enforcement unit, which was responsible for initiating the Customs and Excise investigation in this case. If the Permanent Under-Secretary was not aware even that it existed, that suggests that there is a need for some clarification of the roles in the Foreign Office, quite apart from the other issues that have already been referred to.

Secondly, please may we have a statement on Monday on the Government's intentions in relation to improving the procedures? The Minister of State will recall that, in the debate on 2 April, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) made some specific requests for information on improvements, but we have yet to receive an answer from the Minister of State, despite, the Leader of the House will recall, my reminding her of it last week. I hope that the Government will recognise that, to avoid a repetition of these events, we must have effective parliamentary scrutiny that operates on the same basis as the Intelligence and Security Committee and a register of arms sales.

In considering those issues, will the Leader of the House and, indeed, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office look at the answers that have been given today to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about arms sales to Indonesia? It is extraordinary that, this morning, the Foreign Secretary saw fit to make a statement—apparently without being asked—on the "Today" programme, yet has not come to the House to give an explanation. Is it not true that the Government still follow too slavishly the procedures of their predecessors in these matters?

Mrs. Taylor

On the last point, we are certainly not following slavishly the procedures of our predecessors. In fact, new guidelines were established last July and are being followed.

On the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises on Sierra Leone, he is anticipating the debate next Monday, perhaps in case he is not called. I am sure that all the issues that are particularly relevant to Sierra Leone will be answered during that debate.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Leader of the House consider the fact that on the streets it is being said that the proposed White Paper on industrial relations and trade union reform will be published next Friday, when the House will not be sitting? I urge my right hon. Friend to tell the appropriate Minister that that would be bad form because not only should such a major White Paper be published while the House is sitting, but there is the prospect, with Madam Speaker's permission, of having a statement, which is important for such major legislation. Indeed, that would give us the opportunity to proclaim the merits and virtues of trade unionism, as well as to probe in detail whether the threshold will be set by the Bill or by statutory instrument, which would cause concern among some of my hon. Friends.

Mrs. Taylor

I caution my hon. Friend against believing everything that is said on the street. As I said a few minutes ago, statements will be made in the usual way when it is convenient for the House and right in the Government's view. We will not give further notice of when statements will be made, and my hon. Friend will have to wait patiently for a little longer.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we have a debate in the near future about communication techniques in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, strictly on the basis of open government? The Leader of the House surely agrees that the country as a whole, not least Members of the House, must now be told who is told what, when and on what basis in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, simply so that we have a template against which to judge the twists, turns, changes of story and different versions that have emanated from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently, and so that they will not be repeated.

Mrs. Taylor

There is not even a template of the allegations—they seem to change every other minute.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that I had cause a few weeks ago to ask her whether she proposed to call a Standing Committee of the English regions, which has not met for 20 years? She told me that there was no demand for such a Committee, and I believe that some of my hon. Friends from the north and north-east have subsequently spoken to her about it. Has she had the opportunity to reconsider the matter? Does she propose to call the Committee, in the light of my hon. Friends' concern about resources and representation? May I assure her that we shall continue to press this matter, whatever the outcome on Saturday?

Mrs. Taylor

I enjoyed the reference to Saturday, when I shall watch developments with great interest. I have not been inundated with requests to re-establish a Standing Committee of the English regions. It is true that one of my hon. Friends has mentioned that issue. I am not inviting lobbying, but although I do not sense a great desire for such a Committee, I have not closed my mind to the suggestion.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

On the basis of progress being made in Committee, when does the Leader of the House expect the Report stage of the Data Protection Bill to take place? Secondly, how many more days will she allow for the Committee stage on the Floor of the House of the Human Rights Bill? She has kindly announced so far that there will be two days. I remind her that, some weeks ago, she promised to write to me about the commencement date of the Human Rights Bill—will she please do so?

Mrs. Taylor

I shall certainly follow up the hon. and learned Gentleman's last point. On the Data Protection Bill, I find it difficult to give two weeks' advance warning of business, so I am afraid that I cannot anticipate when we might have the remaining stages of that Bill. The hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that there is a great deal of legislation to be slotted in and sometimes changes are made late in the day. Discussions are continuing through the usual channels about how we should deal with the Human Rights Bill and how much time it will require.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

My right hon. Friend will recall that, at the end of last year, the Government undertook to introduce this spring a consultation document on leasehold reform. In the light of a letter that I recently received from our hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing, which suggested that the consultation document may not be with us until after 25 June, and although we all appreciate that global warming has played havoc with the seasons, when does my right hon. Friend expect spring to finish this year?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend asks his question in a novel way, but I am afraid that I can give him only a straightforward answer. The Department has recently produced a series of consultative documents, and of necessity some have had to take priority. I cannot give him a specific date. If he applied for an Adjournment debate to air his views on what should be in the consultation document and what the outcome should be, he could take his chance with other hon. Members.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

May I, first, hope that the Leader of the House ensures that several copies of Sir John Kerr's letter are made, as letters have a habit of getting lost in the Foreign Office these days?

May we have a debate on the structure and function of government? Yesterday, during Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister said: the priority for the Government is my priority and my prerogative."—[Official Report, 13 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 368.] Such a debate might give us an idea of the residual role of the Cabinet.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not see any problem with that definition. The Prime Minister has always been first among equals.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the unfortunate practice among some hon. Members of advertising their party affiliation on House of Commons headed notepaper alongside their name and, sometimes, their constituency? Does she agree that that is contrary to the spirit of the representative nature of our democracy, in which we all represent all our constituents regardless of party? Will she reflect on whether the Modernisation Committee should guide Members that such a practice is not welcome and might be discouraged in future?

Mrs. Taylor

That is not exactly a matter for me. The misuse of headed notepaper is a matter for the House authorities. I have seen the notepaper of hon. Members of all political parties headed in such a way. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is afraid of putting the word "Conservative" on his notepaper.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to the request of my hon. Friend the shadow deputy Leader of the House, will the right hon. Lady reconsider and find time as a matter of urgency for a statement on the Government's position on trade union recognition? That position is of very wide interest—even if not to the solitary representative of the Liberal Democrats in the House this afternoon, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment told reporters last June that the Government's proposals would be announced by the President of the Board of Trade in autumn 1997? Seven months later, we have not had that statement. Is that not because there is a war in the Government between the advocates of modernisation and the trade union lackeys and recipients of trade union sponsorship?

Mrs. Taylor

I should expect nothing less from the hon. Gentleman. I made the position clear earlier. There will be a White Paper, and I am not going to say anything about timing.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

On 6 and 12 May, the Foreign Secretary said in the House that, when the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), made his statement in the House on 12 March, he was unaware of any Customs and Excise investigation into arms sales to Sierra Leone. In view of Sir John Kerr's comments in the Select Committee today and the further confusion caused by the subsequent letter, which none of us has yet seen, is not it important that the House has the chance to hear a clear statement from the Foreign Secretary as soon as possible?

Mrs. Taylor

There is no conflict at all. The letter to which I referred from Sir John Kerr, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, says very clearly that my hon. Friend the Minister of State was not told about the Customs and Excise inquiry. I do not think that we can be clearer than that.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the White Paper being held up because the Government have been waiting for the result of the referendum on the mayor of London? If that is correct, and since only 34 per cent. of people turned out in that poll and probably only about 24 per cent. voted yes, does that mean that the figure of 24 per cent. will be inserted in that new document?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend should know better than to tempt me to say anything about the contents of any White Paper. All I can say is that it will be a very positive document that I think will be very widely welcomed.