HC Deb 21 May 1998 vol 312 cc1118-27 4.24 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the business of the House. The House is, of course, in recess next week, but I should like to inform hon. Members of the business for the first week back after Whitsun.

MONDAY 1 JUNE—Proceedings on the following Bills, which are consolidation measures:

The Petroleum Bill [Lords].

The Audit Commission Bill [Lords].

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 entitled "The dangers of changing Britain's successful and fair electoral system" on an Opposition motion.

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 Government support for sport on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

MONDAY 8 JUNE—Progress on remaining stages of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 9 JUNE—For three hours, conclusion of remaining stages of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill [Lords].

Consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 10 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] (third day).

THURSDAY 11 JUNE—Debate on the prospects for the Cardiff European Council on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 12 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement. I am glad to hear that the House will have the opportunity on its return from the recess to debate the Registration of Political Parties Bill, and also that we shall have the opportunity to debate European matters, albeit on a motion for the Adjournment. It is especially welcome that the issues considered by the Modernisation Committee are to be debated, when we will have the benefit of hearing views on them expressed by all hon. Members.

The right hon. Lady has announced debates on the national lottery and sport for all. Will she arrange for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, before those debates take place, to make a statement to the House on his plans for the television coverage of major sporting events and to give his response to the views on listed sporting events of his own advisory panel?

No doubt the right hon. Lady will be hoping that I do not ask again for a debate in Government time on the national health service—but I intend to do so. I, in turn, hope that she will not reply that the Conservative Government held only one such debate during the previous Parliament. As she must know, that count omits all the debates on health legislation under the Conservative Government. That is a nice little argument thought up by researchers, but it does not stand up to scrutiny.

The Leader of the House knows that yesterday the Prime Minister was finally forced to admit that he had broken an early election pledge, as hospital waiting lists have gone up—not down, as he promised this time last year they would. Will she therefore arrange for a debate in Government time on the national health service, so that Ministers can come to the Dispatch Box to explain that they have broken their own election promises—it is not something which they can blame on previous Governments—and that, despite the extra panic injections of cash into the NHS, their spending in the past year falls well short of the annual percentage increases achieved by successive Conservative Governments? Ministers may also want to say what they plan to do about the National Audit Office's alarming report on the difficulties that the health service is having in coping with the millennium bug.

I feel sure that the right hon. Lady will be aware that, as a result of the Foreign Secretary's refusal to respect the Standing Orders of the House on the powers of Select Committees to send for departmental papers, the Foreign Affairs Committee, with the support of hon. Members from all three main political parties, has today taken the unprecedented step of making a special report to the House—I have a copy here—enclosing its correspondence with the Foreign Secretary and asking for the views of the House. The Foreign Secretary's unacceptable behaviour towards the Foreign Affairs Committee raises profound issues concerning the conduct of all Select Committees and, indeed, of the House. What arrangements will the right hon. Lady make so that the House can give its views on the matter, as the Foreign Affairs Committee requested?

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that the right hon. Lady has welcomed some of the debates that I have announced. Listed sporting events can be discussed during debates on the remaining stages of the National Lottery Bill, which she mentioned, at Question Time to the relevant Minister on Monday 1 June and during the specific debate. We must rely on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to choose when to make an announcement on the matter. He has certainly gone out of his way to ensure that as many hon. Members as possible have been consulted; their views will be taken into account before decisions are made.

The right hon. Lady asked me not to remind her that, under the Conservative Government, there was only one Government debate on the health service in so many years. Tuesday 2 June will be an Opposition day—if the Opposition felt that the issue was sufficiently important, they could have chosen to debate it then. The right hon. Lady accused the Government of panicking, but the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday, in reiterating our election pledge, that waiting lists would be reduced in the lifetime of this Government. He cited significant figures showing the extra money—£5 million every day—that the Government are spending over and above what the Conservative Government would have been spending had they remained in power.

On the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee that was issued today, the right hon. Lady is wrong to say that the Government are not respecting the Standing Orders of the House. She will know that, in writing to the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that it was a long-standing practice of all parties in government that telegrams should not be made public, as telegrams, like other classified documents, frequently contained frank and other sensitive reports of exchanges with other Governments, or with individuals, who expected their confidences to be respected. There is no point in the House pre-empting the independent inquiry that has been announced and whose findings will be made public.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House reflect further on the request that has been made to her about the Foreign Affairs Committee? Does she recognise that the opinions of hon. Members from all parties are represented in the Committee's majority view?

Will she also reflect on the general concern, which touches not only on Sierra Leone, but on the unfinished business in the wake of the Scott report? Is it not now clear, particularly in the light of the revelations about Mr. Jonathan Aitken in the press this morning, that the House must get to the bottom of a great deal more murky business relating to arms sales under the previous Government and, I regret to say, under the current Government, to Indonesia? Does it not now seem amazing that the former Prime Minister should have appointed Mr. Aitken as Minister for Defence Procurement, and is it not extraordinary that neither the former Prime Minister nor any of his associates have made a statement about this morning's revelations? Should we not recognise that, despite the valiant efforts of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the House needs a special mechanism to monitor the sensitive question of arms sales?

We have for many years been able to have full confidence in the Intelligence and Security Committee, on which the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) deal with sensitive issues relating to Government communications headquarters, MI5 and MI6. Surely we can develop a system whereby the House can have full confidence that these sensitive matters are under full parliamentary control.

Mrs. Taylor

I have nothing to add to what I said about the report. Former Ministers and the revelations in the newspapers this morning are fortunately not matters for me.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

It is not my intention to raise a point of order, Madam Speaker, since I believe that you are aware that, in a blink of one of your eyelids, an hon. Member scurried out and scurried in with copies of the statement of the President of the Board of Trade.

Madam Speaker

For which he is now terribly sad.

Mr. Marshall

I can see the sadness in his face, Madam Speaker.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be aware of the wide interest in the statement on the Government's White Paper "Fairness at Work". Will that be debated in the very near future? Looking further ahead, when the detailed legislation is introduced, will the two figures, dealing with the 40 per cent. threshold and the exclusion of firms with fewer than 20 employees, be presented in such a way as to be debatable and amendable either in Committee or on Report?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House that hon. Members are called entirely at your discretion, Madam Speaker, and I know that you exercise that discretion extremely well.

The White Paper was generally extremely well received in the House a few minutes ago. I understand how much interest there is, and that hon. Members will want to debate the proposals. My hon. Friend knows how crowded the parliamentary timetable is at the moment, and I do not expect he believes I can provide a time in the immediate or near future for a debate, but, of course, I will bear it in mind. When the legislation comes to be discussed, the selection of amendments is a matter for Madam Speaker, and that selection will determine what items are debated. I cannot pre-empt a decision on when the legislation will be introduced, because we do not say in advance what will be in any Queen's Speech.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Is the Leader of the House aware that her answer on the Foreign Affairs Committee report completely missed the central point? Is she further aware that the Foreign Secretary's comment about the publication of telegrams is a red herring, as the central issue is the power of Select Committees to send for papers, which most certainly do not have to be published?

Mrs. Taylor

There are long-established practices in the House, and I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is suggesting that they should be changed.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Can we have a debate on the closure of jobcentres? There are two answers that I am not looking for: first, that I should apply for an Adjournment debate, because I fully intend to ask for such a debate on the threatened closure of jobcentres at Dronfield and Eckington in my constituency; and, secondly, that I should table a question for Employment questions on 11 June, because I intend to do that as well. We need a fully fledged debate on the problem of jobcentre closures and the apparent policy of what is known as rationalisation.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend anticipates my advice, but I can tell him that no decisions have been made. There have been exhaustive consultations on the issue in his locality, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities and I know of his concerns. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend is reminded of the keen interest that my hon. Friend takes in these matters.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 1356?

[That this House notes with dismay reports that Sir Thomas Legg was forced to admit to the Committee of Public Accounts in 1993 that he had given an incorrect answer to the Committee when he stated that no judges had complained about cuts in legal aid when in fact such complaints had been received from both the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls, and suggested to the Committee that he did not see these protests as 'very germane'; believes he is therefore a wholly inappropriate person to hold the inquiry into the Arms to Sierra Leone fiasco; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to replace Sir Thomas Legg with a High Court Judge and to hold the inquiry in public.] Will the right hon. Lady now acknowledge that the Government are steeped in hypocrisy, as is apparent when one contrasts their handling the BSE inquiry and the Cookie cover-up inquiry? Has she noticed that the BSE inquiry has an independent judge and meets in public, hearing evidence from all sides designed to get at the facts, while the Thomas Legg inquiry involves a Whitehall insider meeting in private and is designed to cover up the truth?

Mrs. Taylor

I totally reject what the right hon. Gentleman says. As he knows, Sir Thomas Legg is heading the inquiry. The shadow Foreign Secretary has acknowledged his qualities. When the report is published, we will see just how shallow some of the allegations are. Conservative Members seem to forget that it is allegations that are spoken of, not facts. The inquiry is the best way forward.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

If there is not to be an early debate on the White Paper, may we have an early debate on industrial relations? That would enable us to highlight the concerns, particularly in west London, about the bitter dispute at the factory owned by Mr. G. K. Noon. My right hon. Friend may recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) and I raised the issue of the dispute several weeks ago. There was cross-party agreement that management and unions should come together. I facilitated such a meeting and Mr. Noon agreed to give the union the right of representation. Unfortunately, yesterday he resiled from that agreement and has disciplined a senior shop steward. We would like to expose such mendacity and intimidation in a debate on industrial relations.

Mrs. Taylor

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns, but I am afraid that I cannot find Government time in the near future to explore the issue that concerns him and, no doubt, his constituents. His best course may be to apply for an Adjournment debate.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

As Britain is a signatory to the Ottawa treaty, which, as the right hon. Lady knows, contains provisions on banning of land mines, land mine clearance and the rehabilitation of land mine victims, does she think that legislation is necessary in the UK Parliament to give effect to its provisions? If so, may we have her assurance that such legislation will be introduced sooner rather than later—if possible, before the end of this parliamentary Session, given that its provisions are presumably uncontentious?

Mrs. Taylor

I have previously said at business questions that I am very sympathetic to the Ottawa convention and understand the need to ratify it as soon as possible. We signed it in December and want to ratify it as quickly as possible, but we have to do so when there is parliamentary time. I hope that there will be much support for such a move. Such measures can never be guaranteed an easy passage, but we are looking to make progress on the issue.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 1237 on motor neurone disease?

[That this House welcomes the launch of Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Week on 25th April and congratulates the Motor Neurone Disease Association and its 94 branches throughout the UK for its work in caring for people affected by this uniquely rapid terminal disease; notes that there is no cure and no known cause of the disease, from which one person dies in the UK every eight hours; further notes that the association has chosen the theme of Racing Against Time for Awareness Week to reflect the fact that the speed of progression of the disease from diagnosis to death poses a major challenge to health, social service and social security providers; further notes that because of a failure by statutory providers to prioritise MND adequately, people with MND often do not access appropriate support and services rapidly enough; and further calls on Her Majesty's Government to take into account the unique nature of motor neurone disease in its health, social service and social security policy reforms and specifically to ensure that MND sufferers in receipt of lifetime awards are not subjected to detailed interview under the Benefit Integrity Project.]

The motion has been signed by 69 Members, and states, in essence, that three people a day die from the disease and that not enough of the sufferers get the care that they need quickly enough.

I received a faxed statement today from the Preston Acute Hospitals NHS Trust which states that funding for its motor neurone care facility is being withdrawn. The facility has operated since 1993, is internationally renowned and gives care and support to the people who are suffering most. Could the right hon. Lady bring that to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health? On a day when we have had appalling news about the national health service, to think that a care facility that is doing so much good work for so many people in the Preston area could be withdrawn is a scandal. I have written to the Prime Minister to ask him to intervene. Will she do all that she can to bring it to the attention of her colleagues?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not know about the circumstances that apply in Preston, but I know of the good work of the Motor Neurone Disease Association in supporting sufferers and in research. The hon. Gentleman asked me to bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I am certainly willing to do so. I am afraid that I cannot find time for a debate, but he may wish to apply for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

When we discuss modernisation of the House, will the right hon. Lady have regard to the need for the Government to modernise their approach to treating Members? Is it not unacceptable that the Secretary of State for Social Security, having received a letter from me on behalf of a constituent in desperate financial difficulties back in December, responded only today, some five months later, despite numerous reminders? Is it not also unacceptable that, on two separate occasions in recent weeks, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) has promised to deliver documents to the House within a specified time scale and failed to deliver them? Only today has she produced the final national road traffic forecasts background papers that were originally promised last October. When will we get the much-delayed White Paper on integrated transport?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman raises a series of issues. I was not aware of any of the problems on documents to which he referred, because he has not mentioned them to me. I hope that we will see the transport White Paper in the not-too-distant future. On answers to questions and letters, he may not have been here yesterday when I informed the House of the action that the Cabinet Secretary and I have taken on the matter.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

My question follows that of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). The right hon. Lady told the House on Monday that she had written to her colleagues at the end of March about their appalling service to Members of Parliament in responding to letters. What response has she had—or is she, like us, still waiting for a reply?

Mrs. Taylor

I am tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman where he was on Monday when he missed a question to me on this issue. As one who has followed the issue, he knows that we are monitoring the situation. Some Departments have had a vast increase in the number of letters that they receive. We are taking steps to ensure that full replies are given as soon as possible.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the nuclear tests carried out by the Government of India, to give the House the opportunity to express its views in the strongest way possible about the further proliferation of nuclear tests?

Mrs. Taylor

We had a statement on that. I think that there is much concern among all hon. Members about the action that India took. I understand why hon. Members would like time to debate it further. I am afraid that I cannot see the prospect in Government time in the near future. That does not mean that all hon. Members are not very concerned about what has happened.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Can we have a debate on the relationship between the House of Commons and the Administration? I ask because there is an increasing perception that Ministers are completely failing even to attempt to answer questions, oral or written. I cannot judge whether it is a case of idleness or of evasiveness, but, whatever the reason, it is becoming a serious problem. I hope that the you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Madam Speaker will take an interest in it. The matter must be dealt with openly because it is becoming a scandal. Perhaps the answer is to set up a traditionalisation committee to get back to old standards instead of inventing new ones.

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Gentleman is so concerned because he does not like the fact that it is Labour Members who are answering the questions. He had many years in government and was an expert at deciding what information he would give. He is suffering from selective amnesia.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

May I press again for a debate on how magistrates courts are organised, following the growing concern in Derbyshire about the proposed closure of Ashbourne, Bakewell and Matlock magistrates courts? That will mean long journeys for my constituents to get access to local courts. If local papers cannot report what is going on in the courts, justice will suffer.

Mrs. Taylor

I know of the hon. Gentleman's concern about those issues, which is shared by other hon. Members who represent that part of the country. He will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) raised that matter in the spring Adjournment debate yesterday morning. I promised then to draw Ministers' attention to the remarks, and will add the hon. Gentleman's remarks this afternoon.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

If the Leader of the House is unwilling to have a debate on the health service in general, will she at least arrange for a debate on the national health service White Paper, as more than five months have gone by since it was published and there have been no opportunities to debate it? The widespread concern among general practitioners about the Government's proposals for primary care groups could then be aired in the House. Does the right hon. Lady recognise that the habit of presenting health service policies without providing an opportunity for debate is becoming chronic?

Mrs. Taylor

The White Paper made clear our commitment to putting family doctors and community nurses in the driving seat in shaping local health services in the future. There is a general welcome for our approach. I certainly do not rule out a debate on the health service. Indeed, I told my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that I would very much like to be able to find time for such a debate around the 50th anniversary. At the moment, the timetable is extremely congested and there simply is not time for it. If the Opposition thought that the matter was of sufficiently high priority, they would have opted for a debate on it the Tuesday after we come back, which is an Opposition day.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Lady find time for an early statement by the President of the Board of Trade on a subject that was not significantly covered in her remarks this afternoon, the European Commission's proposal for works councils in Britain and elsewhere in the European Union? Is the right hon. Lady aware that on 9 November, on the BBC's "On the Record", when asked what she would do if the European Commission persisted with proposals for works councils in Britain in companies with as few as 50 employees, the President of the Board of Trade limply replied, "Well …. er … we shall see how things go." Are we not owed a statement of intent by the President of the Board of Trade or a simple admission of impotence?

Mrs. Taylor

Clearly, the hon. Gentleman is frustrated that he could not ask a question of the President of the Board of Trade earlier. My right hon. Friend dealt with the issue extremely well, and I see no need for another statement.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that, when a decision is reached on the channel tunnel rail link, the announcement will be made to the House and there will be a statement? I understand that a conclusion has almost been reached on what is a matter of great importance to my constituents and those of many other hon. Members—and particularly to those of us who feel that the link should either be completed in its entirety or not at all.

Mrs. Taylor

I understand the concern of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members about that issue. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has kept the House informed of developments. London and Continental Railways has given him its revised proposals, and discussions between the company and Government are continuing. My right hon. Friend will make a statement in due course.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider her curtly dismissive replies to questions on the first special report of the Foreign Affairs Committee? May I remind her that it is, indeed, a first special report? Is she aware that the Clerk's letter to the Foreign Secretary pointed out that there is a precedent for making the documents requested available? It dates from 1982 when another party was in office—I will not remind her which. Also, there was no request for the documents to be made public; the request was that they be made available to the Committee. Does she really think it appropriate that Sir Thomas Legg should be able to see documents to which Privy Councillors sitting in this House are denied access? Will she please reconsider her answer and also address herself to the final question of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), which referred to the final sentence of the report: The views of the House are sought. What arrangements does she propose to take to ascertain the views of the House?

Mrs. Taylor

The usual arrangements will apply. The Foreign Secretary has pointed out the difficulties that could arise if the long-standing practice was not applied. Also, we are in an unusual situation in that an independent inquiry is being conducted into these matters. We should not try to second-guess the outcome of that inquiry.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. We must now move on.