HC Deb 05 November 1998 vol 318 cc1024-32 4.24 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 9 NOVEMBER—Debate on the fifth report of the Committee on standards in public life on the funding of political parties in the United Kingdom on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Proceedings on the Statute Law Repeals Bill [LORDS], which is a consolidation measure

TUESDAY 10 NOVEMBER—Opposition Day

Until 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on factory closures on an Opposition Motion.

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

Motion relating to the Personal Equity Plan (Amendment) Regulations, the Individual Savings Account (Regulations) and the Individual Savings Account (Insurance Companies) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 11 NOVEMBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Progress of consideration of any Lords Amendments which may be received to the Scotland Bill.

THURSDAY 12 NOVEMBER—Debate on the Royal Navy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 13 NOVEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

MONDAY 16 NOVEMBER—Until about 7 o'clock, conclusion of consideration of any Lords Amendments which may be received to the Scotland Bill.

Consideration of any Lords Amendments which may be received to the Regional Development Agencies Bill.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 11 November there will be a debate on Agenda 2000: Financial Aspects in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to know that it is proposed that on Wednesday 18 November there will be a debate on agrimonetary arrangements and the introduction of the Euro in European Standing Committee A and a debate on EC development aid to South Africa (1986–96) in European Standing Committee B.

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

[Wednesday 11 November: European Standing Committee B: European Community Documents: (a) 7046/98, Agenda 2000, The Financial Perspective (2000–2006); (b) 7221/98, Agenda 2000: The interinstitutional agreement of 29 October 1993; (c) 9302/98: Own resources based on VAT and GNP; (d) 11666/98, Financing the European Union. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: (a) HC 155-xxvi and HC 155-xxxvii (1997–98)(b) HC 155-xxvi (1997–98) (c) HC 155-xxxvii (1997–98) (d) HC 155-xxxviii (1997–98).]

[Wednesday 18 November 1998: European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Document: 9597/98, Agrimonetary arrangements following the introduction of the euro; Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: HC 155-xxxiii and HC 155-xxxviii (1997–98). European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: 9690/98, EC development aid to South Africa (1986–1996). Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-xxxvi (1997–98).]

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving us next week's business. Can she shed any light on the date of Prorogation? What are the Government's plans for the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which is due to be considered on Tuesday, following the Government's defeat yesterday at the hands of peers from all parties who are anxious to allow people to vote for individual candidates rather than centralised lists? How do the Government plan to get themselves out of this hole?

Once again, there is no planned debate in Government time on the economy. Thanks to Opposition parties, we have recently been able to debate a matter that the Government are clearly anxious to avoid, but if the House is to perform its job properly and hold the Government to account, provision must be made in Government time for an economic debate. Will the right hon. Lady reflect on the reply that she gave me last week—that the Queen's Speech will provide an adequate opportunity? That is not a substitute for the traditional economic debate in the autumn.

Yesterday, the Government launched an important document on the family which generated both support and controversy, described in today's The Guardian as "nannyism without the smacking". There was no statement on that report, but can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on this most important subject?

In the Army debate last week, the Minister for the Armed Forces said that he hoped to make an announcement shortly on the Territorial Army. In the light of the critical and threatening letter from the Select Committee on Defence to the Secretary of State published today, and against the background of the leaked letter from the Secretary of State for Scotland, can the Leader of the House assure the House that any announcement on the TA will be made by way of oral statement?

Can she assure us that the Public Accounts Committee debate has not been overlooked, and that, once the Pinochet case is resolved and no longer sub judice, there will be a statement in the House on how the matter has been handled?

Although I am disappointed that the right hon. Lady has not found time for a foreign affairs debate, will she undertake to keep the House in the picture, if events in Kosovo or Iraq take an unexpected turn for the worse?

Mrs. Beckett

I note that, on this occasion, the right hon. Gentleman has managed to ask for nine separate subjects to be debated. Last week, I recall, the total was only seven, so the number clearly rises as we go along.

The right hon. Gentleman first asked me about the date of Prorogation. I fear that I cannot add anything to what I told him last week, which is that—[AN HON. MEMBER: "You do not know."] The right hon. Gentleman is quite right—I do not know. The principal reason for my not knowing brings me to item No. 2 on the shopping list—the behaviour of the parliamentary friends of the Opposition in another place. If the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is concerned about the date of Prorogation, I suggest that he has a word with his noble Friends. Despite his attempt—laudable, from his point of view—at a cover-up, may I point out that, whatever he says about votes on that issue coming from both sides of that House, it remains the case that, had it not been for the participation of hereditary peers, the Government would have won that Division by 29 votes? The issue of timing in this respect is in their hands.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about two issues relating to the economy. He asked me to reflect on the answer I gave him last week, that those matters would come up in the debate on the Humble Address. That remains the case. I am confident that he will not have forgotten that this week, we have had two full statements on the economy. However, I accept that that is somewhat different from the traditional autumn debates and the general forum for discussion of economic affairs, so I anticipate the matter being discussed through the usual channels.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on issues relating to attitudes to families; I shall certainly bear his request in mind. He also asked me to give an assurance that the arrangements for the Territorial Army are likely to come back to the House in the form of a statement. I certainly hope and anticipate that that will be the case. He also sought a debate on Public Accounts Committee issues; again, the matter is being discussed with a view to finding an early and convenient date for such a debate.

Although I cannot give an undertaking on how issues relating to General Pinochet will be handled, I note the right hon. Gentleman's request. When the matter ceases to be sub judice, it might be raised again in the House—indeed, I suspect that it will be, in one way or another. As for foreign affairs, he will know that the subject of debates on the Humble Address is a matter for the Opposition, and that it is the custom to have a debate on foreign affairs. In any event, I can give him an assurance that, as we did this week with the statement on Iraq, the Government will continue to keep the House informed about developments.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

As yesterday's vote in another place shows, it takes only 36 per cent. of Tory peers to defeat Labour every time. More than 100 of the Tories who voted are hereditary peers. Does not that demonstrate the urgent need for reform of the House of Lords?

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Quite right—abolish the Opposition.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Jolly good question.

Charlotte Atkins

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House find time for a debate on that matter?

Mrs. Beckett

I shall certainly give favourable consideration to my hon. Friend's suggestion that the matter is one we should debate. I noticed a certain amount of barracking from Conservative Members about getting rid of the Opposition.

May I draw to the attention of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) the fact that, as matters stand, there are some 750 individuals who are entitled to sit in another place and play a part in our legislature, not by virtue of any contribution they have made to the running of our country, but by virtue of the contribution made, for good or ill, by their predecessors? It is 87 years since the Conservative party officially agreed that it was time to get rid of the hereditary element, so I do not think that anyone can accuse us of being in a rush.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the issue of social security computing to be debated? As you are probably aware, Madam Speaker, the answer to a written question tabled today was apparently leaked to The Times yesterday I am sure that you will agree that that is not a satisfactory way for matters to be dealt with in the House.

Will the Leader of the House also arrange for a debate on SI 2618 and early-day motion 1718?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Disability Discrimination (Exemption for Small Employers) Order 1998 (S.I., 1998, No. 2618), dated 19th October 1998, a copy of which was laid before this House of 22nd October, be annulled.]

Many hon. Members have been shocked to find that the Government propose, via that statutory instrument, to do a U-turn on the ability of disabled people to seek employment with small employers, as a result of which their hopes of jobs have been dashed. It is urgent that we discuss that matter.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot say that the Government will be able to find time for a debate on social security matters in the near future. I am aware, of course, as is the House, of the concerns that have been expressed as a result of some computer problems in the Department of Social Security, and I understand that the matter is under urgent consideration. I have not seen the other report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall certainly draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to some fairly sensational reporting in the Manchester Evening News this week, putting my constituency at the top of the league for people leaving the city, and highlighting the huge problems of social deprivation and exclusion that we face. Nevertheless, the Government have instituted a number of initiatives to help Salford. We have an education action zone, a health action zone and a regeneration project. Can my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the Government's measures to tackle the real problems of deprivation and social exclusion in our inner cities?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose constituency I know well. I share her concern for those who have, for so many years, suffered from social exclusion in the area. She is right to identify the fact that that is one of the Government's key priorities, to which we have already given a great deal of attention and to which we shall give more in future. I suspect, Madam Speaker, that, if my hon. Friend is lucky enough to catch your eye during debates on the Humble Address, that is exactly the kind of issue that may arise in the Government's programme.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on the choice of her recently appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Since the House seems to be marking time waiting for amendments to two Bills in particular to come from the other place, and since the right hon. Lady does not seem to want controversial issues to be debated on the Floor of the House, will she look sympathetically at perhaps a three-hour debate between now and Prorogation on the importance of tree planting, as this year marks the 25th anniversary of National Tree Year, which I had the modest honour of instigating, and as National Tree Week, carrying on the initiative of 25 years ago, is impending? Whether tree planting is important to the ecosystem or to improving our towns and countryside, will she look favourably on this request?

Mrs. Beckett

That is an unusual but worthy request, to which I undertake to give careful consideration. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. As for the suggestion that we are not keen to bring controversial matters before the House, I suspect that the matter that we shall be discussing later today will give the lie to that.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will know that, a few years ago, when that lot on the Conservative Benches were in government, specific EU questions were abolished on the Floor of the House and pushed upstairs. Will the Government consider a return to a Question Time dedicated to the EU? I ask that after this morning's report that duty-free goods will be abolished for the entire population of western Europe, apart from European Commissioners, who will continue to enjoy them. If we had specific EU questions on the Floor of the House, we could put the spotlight on the huge gravy train that is the EU.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will know that it has been a goal of this Government to ensure that any exploitation of the public of Europe is severely curtailed, which is why we have been such staunch advocates of tackling fraud. I did see the stories on duty-free goods to which my hon. Friend refers. To be fair to the European Commissioners, it is not solely they, but they and other diplomats, who will continue to enjoy such a concession.

With regard to the handling of European matters, my hon. Friend will know, I think, that proposals for the better scrutiny of EU matters have been under discussion, and we hope to make a statement on the matter in the near future. Whether we should return to a dedicated Question Time on the matter has not previously been raised with me, but I undertake to consider that.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

We shall debate proportional representation this afternoon. However, in terms of the right hon. Lady's area of responsibility, does she agree that we could arguably reduce the democratic deficit and improve the scrutiny of Bills in this place by ensuring that parliamentary Select and Standing Committees reflect more accurately the proportion of votes cast in the country rather than merely the composition of the House? That would enable Committees to scrutinise the Government and allow the Government to overturn decisions using their solid majority, thus ensuring the best of both worlds.

Mrs. Beckett

I note with interest the hon. Gentleman's unusual suggestion, but the Government have no plans at present to change the composition of Select Committees. I take it that the hon. Gentleman's observations mean that he does not entirely share the views expressed by some of his hon. Friends in these matters.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

On the subject of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill—having no regard to the merits of the matter—can the Leader of the House confirm that, as the Parliament Act 1911 will not be at the disposal of the House, if the Lords insist upon the amendments that they have made already, elections will have to take place in May under the old system? Am I correct in supposing that that is the constitutional position?

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend raises a very important matter, which the Government have under review at present. I have little doubt that the relevant Minister will make a statement about the matter when the legislation returns to the House.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

May I lend support to the comments by my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) about having a debate on the family? Given recent newspaper reports about prominent Members of Parliament and their colourful private lives, and given the BBC's selective way of approaching the issue, surely such a debate has great merit, because such behaviour flies in the face of the document that was launched yesterday.

Mrs. Beckett

How the BBC handles such issues is a matter for the BBC—and I am thankful that I am not responsible for it. All I can say is that it is always wise for any hon. Member to be cautious when referring to anybody else's private life—colourful or otherwise.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the great problems associated with the enactment of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, which does not apply to Northern Ireland? That not only means that it is difficult to enforce the Act's import and export provisions for the whole of the United Kingdom, but raises questions about animal welfare and the housing of wild animals in Northern Ireland. I understand that the police, welfare groups and local authorities would welcome legislation in this area. Will the right hon. Lady consider this matter and respond to the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I have recently become aware of the problem whereby legislation governing such matters in Northern Ireland—particularly regarding the treatment of wild animals and the conduct of zoos—differs from that in force elsewhere. A consultation paper seeking comments on such matters is likely to be issued shortly, and I hope that it will ease some of her concerns.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Following the publication of the letter from the Secretary of State for Scotland to the Secretary of State for Defence, there is concern in Scotland about the ability of the military to aid the civil power in the event of an emergency. Will the Leader of the House assure hon. Members that the statement that she has promised about the future of the Territorial Army will address that specific point?

Mrs. Beckett

The contents of any potential statement are a matter for the announcing Department, and the issues that hon. Members choose to raise in response to such statements are a matter for them and for you, Madam Speaker. However, I have little doubt that, were there to be concern that the issue needed to be addressed further, the statement will provide an opportunity to do so.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

Unlike the Conservative party, which presided over increasing class sizes and the failure by 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds to reach the expected standards in both maths and English, is it not a fact that the Government have not only cut class sizes in the past 18 months but will invest £23 billion in our education system in the coming years? Will my right hon. Friend find time not only to expose the appalling record of the past 19 years of Conservative government, but to show what the Government are doing to put it right?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is entirely correct: the Government have made it plain from the outset that education is our top priority in terms of making the transformation that we believe needs to be wrought in Britain for the sake of our society and our of competitiveness as an economy. My hon. Friend is also right in outlining the steps that the Government have taken already.

This week sees the 18-month anniversary of our election to office, and the steps that the Government have taken in that comparatively short time have done a great deal to reduce class sizes. I believe that 100,000 fewer pupils are now in large classes than when we came to power. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue measures in this area, and I am confident that the matter will be debated in the House from time to time.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

As I raised the question of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 in the House a long time ago, I trust that "shortly" does not mean after the next general election. Is it possible to have a statement before prorogation about the role of Grand Committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, bearing in mind that it would be helpful if they met occasionally in the areas with which they are concerned? That would tie together the House and different areas of the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Beckett

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, when I say that a document will be issued shortly, I certainly do not mean after the next general election. The practice after previous general elections has been outside our control for quite some time.

The Government are considering the future of Grand Committees, along with other issues that flow from the passage of devolution legislation. We hope to be able to address the concerns of hon. Members regarding such matters.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on Britain's relations with Germany, historically and currently? That would provide an opportunity to consider what happened in 1982, when the German Liberals changed sides and put Chancellor Kohl in power without an election, when the party received only a small percentage of the vote. Such a debate would provide an opportunity to draw attention to the ambitions of the leader of the Liberal Democrat party to become the Hans-Dietrich Genscher of British politics.

Mrs. Beckett

Most unusually, I am able to grant a request at once, as I believe that my hon. Friend will be able to raise those matters very shortly.

Mr. Soames

Now that the Chancellor has been miraculously transmogrified from a child of the manse into a reckless gambler, does the right hon. Lady agree that those who do not ascribe bad faith to the Chancellor believe that he must have been fed some very dodgy Government statistics? As it is well known that the statistics supplied by the Government are notoriously unreliable, will it be possible to debate in the next Session—if not in this—how we might improve the quality of Government statistics?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that my right hon. Friend took account of about 45 different forecasts—not merely the Government's own forecasts—in making the judgments to which he referred in the House.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern regarding the quality of Government statistics. We all share that concern, and we noticed, particularly during the past 18 years, how the statistical service was repeatedly put under pressure and had its work distorted. That is certainly not a course that we propose to follow, and we intend to ensure that Government statistics improve.