HC Deb 16 December 1999 vol 341 cc409-20 1.21 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 20 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Transport Bill.

TUESDAY 21 DECEMBER—Debate on public expenditure on a Government motion.

The provisional business for the first week back after the Christmas recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 10 JANUARYSecond Reading of the Political Parties and Referendums Bill.

TUESDAY 11 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.

WEDNESDAY 12 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Representation of the People Bill [2nd Day].

THURSDAY 13 JANUARY—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Representation of the People Bill [3rd Day].

FRIDAY 14 JANUARY—The House will not be sitting.

I said that I would endeavour at the start of each month to give an indication of the business that is likely to be taken in Westminster Hall. The Liaison Committee proposes that the following business should be taken in Westminster Hall on Thursdays during January:

THURSDAY 13 JANUARY—Genetically Modified Organisms and Biotechnology—First report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 1998–1999, HC 286; and the relevant Government response.

Fifth report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 1998–99, HC 384; and the relevant Government response.

THURSDAY 20 JANUARY—Debate on small firms.

THURSDAY 27 JANUARY—The Prison Service in Northern Ireland—Fourth report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 1997–1998, HC 716; and the relevant Government response.

The debates on Select Committee reports have been set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means after consultation with the Chairman of the Liaison Committee.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the business when we return. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for implementing my suggestion last week that we bring forward the sitting hours on Tuesday.

Will there be a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the future of Wembley, as his self-imposed deadline has expired and there is much speculation about the stadium's future? If we cannot have a statement, might oral Question 11 on Monday to the Secretary of State on the subject be taken at the end of Question Time, to allow an opportunity for further discussion?

Will the Foreign Secretary make a statement before we rise about Chechnya, where events are moving quickly, so that he can outline the diplomatic initiatives that he and other European leaders have taken to limit death and destruction?

While we are away, will the Government announce that 2000 is to be another year of delivery? If so, will they announce all the targets that they missed in 1999?

I see that, this time last year, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) asked for the dates of the Easter and the Whitsun recess. I do not propose to push my luck, but for those hon. Members who like to plan ahead, is the right hon. Lady able to shine any light on the timing of the February constituency week? If she does not announce it today, the House will have to wait another month.

Finally, as this is the last business statement of the year, may I wish the right hon. Lady a merry Christmas and a bug-free new year? Those good wishes go to her staff, to Madam Speaker and to the staff of the House.

At the end of the last century, the House rose on 27 October for the Christmas recess, and returned on 30 January—a target, perhaps, for the Select Committee on Modernisation.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement that we have brought forward the timing of business on Tuesday. I think that that will be for the convenience of the whole House.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about Wembley. I shall certainly draw his proposal to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The right hon. Gentleman will know that those matters are still under consideration, and that—although the initial deadline has passed—further work and consideration of the outcome are being undertaken. I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend will be able on Monday to say anything further on those matters; but, as I said, I shall draw the right hon. Gentleman's proposal to his attention.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Foreign Secretary will be making a statement on Chechnya. I am not aware of my right hon. Friend's intention to do so; as the right hon. Gentleman said, the situation is confused. However, I shall draw the request to my right hon. Friend's attention.

I shall pass over the partisan remark that the right hon. Gentleman clearly felt it necessary to make, and merely tell him that the Government are well on course to meeting the targets that we set ourselves, both this year and at the general election.

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the dates of the February week—or say whether there will be such a week—although I understand, and am very mindful of, hon. Members' wish to know well in advance. However, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, I have also to be mindful of the progress of business, which is something that we have to take into account, and sometimes carefully monitor—especially when we have debates on, for example, whether a message should be received from the Lords.

I accept and am happy to return the right hon. Gentleman's good wishes, and I appreciate them. I share the wishes that he has expressed to Madam Speaker and her staff and to all the staff of the House.

I was also most interested in, and entertained by, the parallel that the right hon. Gentleman drew with the end of the previous century and the length of the Christmas recess in that year. I trust that the parallel will be taken on board by the many Opposition Members whose reaction to the announcement of any recess is to say that it is too long, unprecedentedly long, and an abuse of position by the Government. I hope that they have learned from the historical parallels.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

In the light of reports today that the Financial Services Authority is planning not to hold an inquiry into the mis-selling of mortgages, when can we debate early-day motion 11?

[That this House is alarmed at the continuing high sales of endowment mortgages; agrees with the Consumers' Association that endowments are 'risky inflexible products which typically pay seven times the commission of repayment mortgages'; calls for legislation to end the hidden charges and high redemption charges in other mortgages; and urges speedy compensation for the victims of mis-selling and the establishment of a financial advice service that will be independent of the selling process.]

There is abundant evidence that possibly millions of people have been mis-sold mortgages and that, if the inquiry is not held, they may be denied compensation.

We could also discuss the proposal that the Government should establish a website on which benchmark information—free of any need to make commissions—is given to the public. The general public have been using the NHS Direct website to gain information, and a financial advice website could both provide a valuable service and ensure that, for the first time ever, the public were able to receive advice entirely divorced from the need to earn commissions.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which will be taken on board by the responsible Ministers. He also said that the Financial Services Authority has decided not to proceed with an investigation into mortgage mis-selling, but that is not entirely my understanding. I was under the impression that the FSA was still considering what action, if any, needed to be taken to improve standards. Nevertheless, as I said, I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

May I, on behalf of Liberal Democrat Members, offer season's greetings to the right hon. Lady, her staff and all Officers and Members of the House?

I also thank her for the business statement. We appreciate that the first week in January will be extremely busy. However, will she either make arrangements for the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to make a statement to the House on the prospectus that was issued this week on the Learning and Skills Council, or provide time for a debate? The relevant Bill will be introduced not in this place but in another place on 20 January. The decisions involve a £6 billion budget, but we shall not have an opportunity to discuss the prospectus before the orders are laid before the other House. That is a crucial issue for a statement or a debate.

Mrs. Beckett

We all recognise the importance of my right hon. Friend's proposals. The House will have a proper opportunity to consider them and will wish to look carefully at the issues. I cannot undertake to provide time for a special statement when our proposals will be in the public domain.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Neither my right hon. Friend nor I are into gesture politics, but the House of Commons has a long and honourable record of seeking to protect the human rights of those who are not British citizens. Before she goes on holiday, will she draw the attention of the Foreign Office, and possibly the Home Secretary, to the case, highlighted on "Newsnight" last night, of a Hungarian detective who, in seeking to investigate frightening scams in Hungary, has been personally attacked and subsequently arrested on a trumped-up charge? If Hungary is to be an applicant to join the European Community, it is time it was reminded that police investigations of specific crimes are fundamental and basic procedures that we expect applicant states to support.

Mrs. Beckett

I respect my hon. Friend's serious approach to politics and I take her point entirely. I was not familiar with the case that she has raised, but I shall ensure that her remarks are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, as she requested.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to come to the House and explain why Mr. Alan Donnelly, the Labour Member of the European Parliament for North-East England who has resigned, will be automatically replaced by a Labour candidate who stood, but was not elected, at the European elections? Surely there should be a by-election so that the electorate of the north-east can choose the candidate whom they want to represent them.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not prepared to ask the Home Secretary to come to the House to reaffirm a decision that has already been made by the House.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Why has there been no mention so far in the Leader of the House's list of forthcoming attractions of a debate on the defence industry and Government policy towards it? Many thousands of my constituents work in the aerospace defence industry. They are very anxious to debate with Ministers the future of projects such as Meteor, the RAF's future heavy airlift capacity and the implications for British defence policy of the formation of BAE Systems. When might such a debate take place?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the date for such a debate, but the Government are anxious to bring the defence White Paper before the House as soon as we can. We shall want to hear the views of the Select Committee on Defence before we have a debate in the House, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall have a debate as early as we can.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

In this year of supposed delivery by the Government, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on prescriptions given by health authorities? How does she advise me to

reply to an elderly constituent of mine from Ashbourne whose husband is suffering from Alzheimer's disease? She says:

the doctor cannot prescribe the drug Aricept which may help him because the Southern Derbyshire Health Authority will not fund it. I am told that if we were over in border in Nottinghamshire that we would be able to obtain this drug. When will my constituent be able to get the drug to help her husband to overcome his debilitating disease?

Mrs. Beckett

I have every sympathy for those who care for people suffering from Alzheimer's. It is a terrible disease, and the stress that it places, particularly on the carers and families of sufferers, is extreme. However, the effectiveness of Aricept—as well as its availability—is contested, and it is not necessarily suitable for all cases. [Interruption.] I wish the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) would not twitter—it is very distracting. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence is studying the matter, and the Government will give its report the most serious attention.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

In wishing the Leader of the House the compliments of the impending season, recognising that she is a fair-minded person and hoping that she is a far-sighted person too, may I ask her to agree that it would be entirely appropriate, at the dawn of a new millennium, if the Government were to provide for a day's debate on the Floor of the House on the problems facing our earth in the immediate future? Given that the population of our world has trebled in the last 70 years, and is expected to increase by a further 4 billion in the next 50 years; given that three quarters of the world's population is on a spectrum varying between under-nourishment and starvation; given that the land on which we can grow food is diminishing, and that our seas are being depleted of fishing stocks, does she agree—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. We cannot have a debate just now.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I blame the Government for all those things.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will always blame the Government—including for the increase in population, for which we have some responsibility on a minor scale.

The issues raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) are serious and fundamental, and they will be aired in a variety of forums in the new term of Parliament which begins after Christmas. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate on the matter, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that Environment questions will be held on the second day back.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

May I, too, wish the Leader of the House a merry Christmas and a happy new millennium? Will she confirm that it is a cardinal principle of any self-respecting Parliament that there should\be equal access to the Houses of Parliament for all hon. Members? Can we start the new millennium as we mean to go on? Will she give a commitment that, on millennium night, as the minutes tick away to midnight, no member of the Government or any official or officer for whom the right hon. Lady is responsible will be enjoying the facilities of this House while the building is closed to all hon. Members? Does she agree that it is a principle of a good general that he does not reserve perks to himself that are denied to the poor bloody infantry?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman—may I return his good wishes?—will be aware that access to the House is a matter for Madam Speaker, and that she has given her ruling on this matter. I cannot recall whether the hon. Gentleman was referring to the entire course of the evening. There will be a reception at some point for winners of the millennium awards, who are not in any way, shape or form members of the Government. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not be so churlish as to deny them that recognition. I am afraid I am not aware of what other members of the Government are doing for the rest of the evening.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate so that we can discuss how to make more accountable to this House Ministers who are sitting in the other place? The right hon. Lady will know that there are three Ministers in the other place who exercise important responsibilities: the Attorney-General, Lord Williams of Mostyn; Lord Falconer; and the latest Transport Minister, Lord Macdonald. I am not attacking them as individuals—no doubt they are splendid folk. However, these individuals exercise authority of considerable importance which touches on our constituents, and it is profoundly unsatisfactory that they are not accountable to elected Members. Can we have a debate as to how we can improve accountability in a democratic state?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Remember Lord Young and Lord Carrington.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right: there is nothing unprecedented about the holders of senior positions being in the House of Lords. He reminds me that a Foreign Secretary in the Thatcher Government sat in the Lords. I rather believe that Lady Chalker may have been Minister for Transport; she was certainly an Overseas Development Minister. There are many precedents.

Mr. Mackinlay

Lord Cockfield.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is unnecessary for the hon. Gentleman to interrupt. The Leader of the House is doing well on her own.

Mrs. Beckett

That is very kind of you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I must admit that I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Not for the first time, not only the sense of history but the memory of Conservative Members is rather failing them.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I have no wish to be unnecessarily partisan, but necessity in these questions is a matter of fine judgment.

Will the Leader of the House acknowledge that street crime in London is on the increase, police morale is falling and there is widespread concern about the police strategy? Dr. Marian Fitzgerald's research produced a telling report criticising the strategy in London, for which the Government must ultimately take responsibility. Will the Leader of the House accede to her request for action, which is supported by victims, even by some former criminals and by the wider public? Given that this is literally a matter of life and limb, will she arrange an urgent debate to allow us to ask why, in the Government's supposed year of delivery, all that they are delivering in London is rising crime and falling police morale?

Mrs. Beckett

Again, Conservative Members' memories are failing them. Crime rose steadily throughout their period in office. We all greatly regret that. I am aware of the Fitzgerald report, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is carefully studying the issues that it raises. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a very early debate on the matter, although I have no doubt that the House will want to return to it and study it carefully.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

The Leader of the House will recall that I asked last week whether she would make available time for the Law Officers to come to the House to make a statement about the legal options open to this country in the light of the continued ban of our beef by France. Nothing has been forthcoming. The possibilities include injunctive relief. Our farmers have suffered another week of their desperate plight and I am looking for a response—please—so that we can tell our farmers what options we have. Forget a year of delivery: a week of delivery would be very nice, thank you.

Mrs. Beckett

I can only tell the hon. Gentleman what I told him last time: there will be oral questions during the first week back, and it is very clear where we stand legally, as the French Government are being taken to court and have been given a tight timetable within which to respond.

Mr. O'Brien

Injunctive relief.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of an injunction, and I have no doubt that that point has been taken on board. All Governments from time to time deal with issues that come before the European Court. I have not taken the mind of my colleagues on this matter, but it occurs to me that there may be times when the British Government would not want a rush to an injunction, and I can well imagine Conservative Members complaining bitterly if such a step were taken. All the factors must be carefully considered and I have no doubt that the Law Officers are indeed considering them.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

A few moments ago, we had a very serious statement on the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on the Thompson and Venables case; but that is not the only ruling issued by the court today. Has the Leader of the House received a request from the Secretary of State for Social Security to make an urgent statement to the House about the Government being overruled on the payment of winter fuel benefit to men over 60? That will cost the Government an extra £30 million.

Mr. Forth

The taxpayer, not the Government.

Mr. Fabricant

Indeed, the taxpayer. One and a half million people will benefit, which I suppose is the good news. Far more seriously, it seems that the judgment is part of a major campaign, the ultimate objective of which is equal state pension ages for men and women. If the European Court of Human Rights accepts that, it will cost the Government and the taxpayer billions of pounds. When will a statement be made; and when will the Secretary of State apologise to the House for having passed legislation just 11 months ago that has so quickly been overruled?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman's point is rather silly, because no Secretary of State can introduce legislation on the assumption that no court will ever make changes in it. However, the hon. Gentleman's initial remarks raised a serious issue. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security had not been aware that the judgment was to be made public this morning; otherwise, he would have made arrangements to inform the House. A parliamentary question has now been tabled and will be answered on the next sitting day. My right hon. Friend is considering urgently how he can inform right hon. and hon. Members of the judgment.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Has not one product of the so-called year of delivery been the delivery of a parody of a democratic electoral system for European elections? Out of 89 MEPs elected last June, only 29 were Labour. Within six months, two of them have voluntarily stepped down and there is no prospect of a by-election at which the electorate could punish the Labour party for such irresponsible behaviour. The Leader of the House has already said that the Home Secretary will not make a statement about the disgraceful and undemocratic system that has been imposed, but will the relevant Foreign Office Minister make a statement about what the Labour party is playing at when two of its derisory total of 29 MEPs have stepped down in this opportunistic and dishonourable way?

Mrs. Beckett

I can only conclude that it hurts Conservative Members deeply that the Labour Government are engaged in a year of delivery—that is obviously the line of the week—with the arrival of the national minimum wage, the working families tax credit and the greatest ever increase in child benefit. The Conservatives opposed all those measures and would remove them. It is unwise of the Conservatives to keep reminding the public of those facts, but that is only one of the unwise decisions that they have made.

It was the House's decision to introduce the system for the European elections, and much nonsense was talked about how it was unprecedented for people to have only one group of candidates to choose from. That is precisely the system that we use in our general elections, in which we do not have a range of Conservative candidates—for example—to choose from. Indeed, when we do, as in the mayor of London election, the Conservatives make a real mess of it.

Dr. Lewis


Mrs. Beckett

I am coming to that point. I understand the enthusiasm for by-elections among Conservative Members and the news media, but I have never observed that that enthusiasm is shared by the public. In any event, there is no ministerial responsibility for the resignations.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

After the welcome statement from the Prime Minister's spokesman yesterday about a U-turn on the Government's delivery of a fox hunting policy, in that the Bill to be introduced by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was doomed to fail because of lack of parliamentary time, may we have a statement from the Home Secretary? The Leader of the House will remember that we had a written answer on the last day of the previous Session that said that the Government would give time to such a Bill. Given that the millennium dome is now infested with foxes, the Government's U-turn is welcome, but may we have a statement to explain the change of policy?

Mrs. Beckett

Yet again the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. There is no change of policy, and I know that that will be a deep disappointment to him. The Government have undertaken to provide time for a private Member's Bill, but we have made it plain that we wish first to see and digest the report on the impact of hunting from the Burns committee. When that has been received and presented to Parliament, the Government will be prepared to try to find time to assist a private Member's Bill, should a suitable opportunity arise.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

May I offer the Leader of the House the best wishes of the season?

On 21 September 1995, the present Prime Minister said, as reported in the Financial Times, that he had no plans to increase tax. Since then, we have had a deluge of taxes amounting to £40.7 billion, according to the Library, which is an impartial source respected on both sides of the House. Before the Select Committee on the Treasury, the Chancellor admitted that taxes had gone up, and we had a spirited debate at Treasury Question Time in which other Treasury Ministers expressed doubts about the Library's figures. I trust the Library figures.

Will the Leader of the House deliver to the House the present of a full debate on the Government's increases in taxation during this so-called year of delivery?

Mrs. Beckett

I really do not understand why the Conservative party continues to make that claim when it is quite evident that, before, during and since the election, it has done nothing but complain about the windfall tax. Indeed, before the election, it made much—

Mr. Paterson

Table B1!

Mrs. Beckett

It is no good the hon. Gentleman shouting and waving tables. Before the election, Conservative Members endlessly referred to the fact that we, as the then Opposition, refused to commit ourselves to anything beyond not raising the rate of income tax for standard rate payers and for higher rate payers. So it is no good their now trying to convince the British people that they were in some way unaware of—(Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) will behave himself. He has just been called to ask a question, but then he misbehaves. He was not misbehaving before he was called.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is a serial misbehaver.

The hon. Gentleman's main point was to ask me to find time for a special debate. I simply draw to his attention something that he may have overlooked: there will be such a debate on Tuesday 21 December.

Mr. Forth

In the interests of open government and to allow the Prime Minister the opportunity to set the record straight, will the Leader of the House provide an urgent opportunity for the Prime Minister to come to the House to explain what that nice Mr. Jospin really said to him about beef, and particularly about Scottish beef? That would also allow the Prime Minister to explain to us what he apparently did not say to the First Minister in Scotland. It might even give the First Minister, who is still the distinguished right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar), the opportunity to explain to the House what he did not hear from the Prime Minister about what the Prime Minister had heard from the Prime Minister of France.

This is a very worrying matter. It touches not only on the intimate relationship that the Prime Minister claims to have with his European counterparts, but on the whole matter of devolution and what on earth is going on between the Prime Minister and his Scottish First Minister.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman has not been reading the Daily Mail with his usual assiduous attention—otherwise, he would have seen in yesterday's edition the remarks of the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, who said:

At no stage … were there any serious and detailed proposals put forward by France to allow Scottish beef to return to the French market. He added, as reported in The Independent:

This can only be a blatant attempt by the French to shift attention away from their unwarranted and illegal action and to attempt to drive a wedge between different parts of the United Kingdom. I rest my case.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)


Hon. Members

Twitter away!

Miss Kirkbride

Quite so. If the right hon. Lady has seen page 2 of The Sun today, she will know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has been crowned by The Sun as king of the Commons. That follows the Prime Minister's risible performance yesterday when, in response to my right hon. Friend's questions, he sought to justify his failure in the year of delivery. Clearly, the business of next week has been so organised that the Prime Minister does not have to appear again to make a further risible performance. However, will the Leader of the House consider holding Prime Minister's Question Time on Tuesday next week, so that my right hon. Friend can have his crown reconfirmed—or is the Prime Minister frit?

Mrs. Beckett

I was of course present, as always, at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday. I thought that there was a risible performance; it was that of the Leader of the Opposition, who fell way below even those low standards that he has occasionally set—

Mr. McLoughlin

You cannot be serious.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, I am serious: it was pathetic.

I have not seen page 2 of The Sun and the hon. Lady should probably be grateful that the Leader of the Opposition does not appear on page 3. However, I recall that the right hon. Gentleman recently made newspaper readers aware of his top 10 favourite jokes. He is good at jokes, and they are what he should stick to.

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