HC Deb 23 March 1999 vol 328 cc289-96 12.17 am
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, I should like to make a short business statement.

The business for tomorrow will be a timetable motion on the Local Government Bill, followed by consideration of proceedings on the Bill. The business previously announced will be taken at a later date.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House is grateful to the right hon. Lady for making a proper business statement, on which the House can ask questions.

If the House is no longer to address the Access to Justice Bill tomorrow, what more important issue could the House address than the crisis in Kosovo? As for local government, we believe that we should have continued to discuss the Local Government Bill on Report tonight. We believe that the Prime Minister was right to table a motion saying that at this day's sitting, the Local Government Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour. We cannot understand why Labour Members have abandoned the motion that was tabled by their Prime Minister, which they supported at 10 o'clock.

It is not unusual for consideration to continue after 10 o'clock, particularly if that is the best way in which to make progress on important issues concerning local government. Is the right hon. Lady aware that, under the curtailed arrangements that she has just announced, the House will have an inadequate opportunity to discuss rate capping, policing, compulsory competitive tendering and other issues concerning the future of local government?

We were prepared to discuss those issues—which are vital to our constituents—through the night. The Government had no response to the cogent arguments of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Government have panicked by changing the business. They have displayed arrogance—an arrogance that is becoming the hallmark of the Administration.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman does himself and his colleagues a great injustice when he says that they cannot understand why the Government have taken the step of adjourning consideration of the Local Government Bill. He is entirely right. That is not unusual. The House does debate matters on occasion beyond 10 o'clock when it is for the convenience of the House to dispose of important business, but I am sure that he will have noticed that we were not disposing of the business at all.

The Bill went through Committee in good order and it came out of Committee in good order. It then came before the House. At no point did the Opposition suggest to the Government that the time proposed for the debate was insufficient. We had reached 10 pm, and we had debated two of the 12 groups of amendments that had been tabled. I think that it was very clear what was happening. Moreover, at no point did the Opposition indicate what further time they thought would be required, or when they thought that it might be possible to finish the debate.

Great concern has been expressed about local government matters. It may be known at least to Opposition local government spokesmen that early tomorrow morning—and I mean early—an important meeting is scheduled to take place between senior local government figures and my colleagues who deal with such matters. That meeting would have been prevented had the House continued to debate the Bill. When the right hon. Gentleman says that some people do not understand the purpose of the statement, he does himself an injustice.

Several hon. Members


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

Order. Before I call another Member, let me say that the Leader of the House must be asked questions on her statement.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I hope that Ministers will have a good night's sleep, so that they can have a good meeting with representatives of local government. I trust that the Leader of the House will appreciate that the gentlemen and ladies whom they will meet tomorrow will want to know what happened to the Local Government Bill tonight.

Why were we not given an opportunity to debate the council tax benefit subsidy clawback that the Government are imposing? Why were we not given an opportunity to debate capping, and the Government's decision to impose it again? Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that we have spent an hour and a half debating not debating anything, and that we have consequently lost an opportunity to make further progress on the Bill? Will she also acknowledge that the lion's share of time has been taken by Conservative Members who have filled air time, but have not provided any substance? Does she accept that, as a result, we have lost the opportunity to debate properly local government issues that the Conservative party never cared about, and did a very bad job of dealing with in government?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Burstow

My final question is this. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House would guarantee adequate time tomorrow for us to debate the final groups of amendments properly, so that we can test the Government on the issues as the official Opposition signally failed to do today.

Mrs. Beckett

I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government will find time for those debates, however that time is used. He has made some very fair points about the way in which the time has been used today. That was not our doing, however; it was the doing of the official Opposition. We cannot predict or control the way in which the time that will be provided is used tomorrow, although the Government wish and intend the Bill to be properly debated, and we have done nothing to prevent that.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Given that a day of Government business will be lost tomorrow, and given that the Tories are very concerned about losing that day, may I suggest a solution to the problem that my right hon. Friend could consider before the Easter break? There are two extra days for that holiday, the Thursday before Easter and the Monday after the holiday is over. My right hon. Friend should inform—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The statement was about tomorrow's business, and questions should relate to that.

Mrs. Beckett

I shall bear my hon. Friend's suggestion in mind. I am sure that Conservative Members will be anxious to attend.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

As proceedings on the Access to Justice Bill are now to be delayed, will the Leader of the House ask her noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor to take the opportunity of that delay to explain more clearly why access to justice for poor people who have suffered personal injuries is being reduced?

Mrs. Beckett

Again, I shall bear in mind the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks. He will have the opportunity to make those points when the Access to Justice Bill is considered by the House.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As there have been new developments since the Prime Minister's statement on Yugoslavia, may I ask the Leader of the House—not least in light of the fact that Mr. Primakov has cancelled his visit to Washington—what the Government's thinking is on a statement or a debate on Yugoslavia tomorrow?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will be aware that a debate on defence in the world is scheduled for Thursday. I have little doubt that those matters will be aired then.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I reinforce the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on tomorrow's business? As the business of the House is now being arranged, does the Leader of the House not agree that, tomorrow, we really should be debating Kosovo? Many of us have very grave reservations about the policy that the Government currently are pursuing, and we should like to have an opportunity to probe the thinking and the strategy of the Government and the NATO alliance. Tomorrow is an opportunity, as the business is being arranged. Why does she not take it?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman had an opportunity this afternoon to take part in the questioning on those matters. I understand that he was not here, just as he was not here for any of today's debates—although he has been very vocal since 10 o'clock.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

May I support the claims of both my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and of the Opposition that we should have a debate on Kosovo? I think that there is a useful compromise. The Leader of the House has quite sensibly said that, on Thursday, there will be a related debate on defence. Can we not have that debate rescheduled as a debate on Kosovo, rather than as a tour d'horizon of all the issues of defence in the world? Let us have a debate on Kosovo alone, in view of the developments to which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow has drawn attention.

Mrs. Beckett

I hear what my right hon. Friend says and shall bear his remarks in mind. However, it seems that the debate that it is intended we shall have on Thursday will provide an opportunity for those issues to be raised—perhaps with rather more knowledge and understanding, as the House will have had time to assimilate events that may be taking place tonight or tomorrow. I feel assured that it will be a better debate for that.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I was here for this afternoon's statement by the Prime Minister, and heard the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), with whom I do not always agree, describe the statement as the most serious statement that he had heard in all his time in the House—for several decades. [HON. MEMBERS: "Since Suez."] The right hon. Gentleman said since Suez; I beg his pardon. May I add my support to other hon. Members who have spoken, and ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the business for tomorrow and to treat the most important business before the United Kingdom—namely, Kosovo—in a debate tomorrow?

Mrs. Beckett

During the hour and a half of debate that we have just had on whether the House should adjourn this evening, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) very fairly questioned whether this was a time when the House should be engaging in such partisan trivia, but his comment was ignored. I have to weigh the observations made by right hon. and hon. Members in this exchange against that observation.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

The debate on Thursday, entitled "Defence in the World", is scheduled to take place on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. In the light of what has been said, both today and in the exchanges in the past few moments, would it not be right for the Government to table a substantive motion on Thursday, and to allow the House to debate specifically the issue of Kosovo on a motion that expresses the Government's position?

Mrs. Beckett

I do take heed of, and shall certainly draw to the attention of my right. hon. and hon. Friends in Government, some of the issues that have been raised on the matter. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that that is not the issue that we are discussing now.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

May I tell the right hon. Lady that, in view of the gravity of the situation that we face—none of us knows what the events may be tonight or early tomorrow—it is very important that the armed forces, whom we ask to represent us, should know, and are entitled to know, that they have the support of the House of Commons? Drawing on my previous experience, I know—as she will know—that, on a number of occasions, the House voted to show its support for our armed forces who were engaged in risking their lives. If we get involved in the new development, it will not be sufficient simply to have a debate on the Adjournment. It will be necessary, and I believe proper, for the House to show that it is prepared to support our armed forces—who are risking their lives in a very dangerous venture, for reasons that I think that the House fully supports.

Mrs. Beckett

I simply repeat what I have already said to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell)—those points will be taken on board and will be given full and careful consideration. There can be no question but that the whole House fully supports our armed forces. However, the right hon. Gentleman could have made his points an hour and a half ago if his hon. Friends had not chosen to waste the time of the House.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that, whatever she may say—and no doubt she will—about what has gone on earlier this evening, people outside the House expect that if we are going to change our order of business we should debate the issue that they regard as the most urgent. If we cannot do that tomorrow, it is important that we debate the issue on Thursday in a form that will show people outside the House that we feel it to be relevant. The right hon. Lady and I do not agree. She does not feel that the Government are bypassing the House of Commons, but many people do. She has an opportunity to show people that the Government believe that the House of Commons should discuss the issues that really matter, not late at night or at some other time, but in the full glare of publicity. I hope that she agrees that tomorrow would be the right day.

Mrs. Beckett

Without having attended any of the debate today, the right hon. Gentleman has spent a considerable amount of the past hour and a half to two hours wasting the time of the House and ignoring the important points that were made about Kosovo. His point was serious and well made, but he is not the man to make it.

Mr. Gummer

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the tradition of the House that the Leader of the House speaks not as a party politician, but on behalf of the whole House? Has she not just given us an example of her inability to live up to the standards of her office?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

I should like to press my right hon. Friend on tomorrow's business and reinforce what has been said by hon. Members on both sides about a debate on Kosovo. I remind my right hon. Friend that before the Gulf war broke out, the House was recalled during the summer recess for a two-day debate and a vote on the issue. We are embarking on a leap in the dark. The people of this country should hear what their representatives have to say, for and against NATO's proposed action.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is addressing the form in which the House might register a view. As I have said to other hon. Members who have properly raised the matter, the Government will give consideration to that issue. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand and accept that the House may have a better informed debate, which will better reflect what is bound to be an evolving situation, on Thursday rather than tomorrow.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Leader of the House has announced a change of business. May I support the views that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides that, bearing in mind what is going to happen in the name of the people of the United Kingdom, we should have the earliest opportunity to debate the situation in Kosovo and the involvement of United Kingdom service men and women in what may happen in that part of the world? As Leader of the House, I hope that she is prepared to represent the best interests of the House and assure us that she will use her influence to give us such an opportunity. Will she also allow adequate time for full debate on all the groups of amendments on the Local Government Bill that have not yet been considered, if democracy and local government mean anything to the Government?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand. I have repeatedly made the point that it is not a matter of us seeking to deny time to debate issues that are important to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House; it is a matter of when that debate might best be held. The Government will provide as much time as the Opposition understood was provided—and had not queried—for debate on the Local Government Bill. As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, I cannot undertake to say how that time will be used.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

How much time will the Leader of the House provide for the 10 remaining groups of amendments to the Local Government Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

The intention is to provide the five hours which have been lost today.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The Leader of the House will have heard tonight views expressed from both sides of the House about the importance of events in former Yugoslavia. As Leader of the House, she has a duty to the House. Will she undertake to convey to the Prime Minister the profound feelings expressed across the Floor of the House about the gravity of the situation and impress on him the need to change the business for Thursday, if not that for tomorrow, so that the House might have the opportunity that my right hon. and hon. Friends have requested? Will she also respond to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, who said, quite reasonably, that the 10 o'clock motion in the name of the Prime Minister was moved and supported by the Government and that only 40 minutes later—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is testing my patience. His question was far too long.

Mrs. Beckett

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I have said already. Of course the Government take these matters seriously, treat them with great respect and will do so consistently.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Leader of the House made a very short speech. I shall take one more question from a Back Bencher and then I shall allow the Opposition Front Bench spokesman in.

Sir Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

May I add my voice to those who have said that in light of today's development it would be of great advantage to follow the precedent, when we have entered into armed conflict, of having a debate, preferably tomorrow, but certainly on Thursday, on a substantive motion on the subject?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I have taken on board the points that have been made. It is important to make clear that even if the debate that is scheduled for Thursday remains unchanged, it will facilitate full discussion of the issues that right hon. and hon. Members wish to raise. It is not a matter of it being a different subject which would not permit those matters to be raised—[Interruption.] There is no point in hon. Members making those noises. I have said—and I mean—that I have taken on board the points that have been made and I will convey them to the proper quarters.

Sir George Young

Further to the serious exchanges that we have just had, will the Leader of the House reconsider the business for the next two days? Will she have discussions through the usual channels and then consider making a further business statement tomorrow?

Mrs. Beckett

I have already undertaken to consider what is scheduled to happen on Thursday, but none of us would be in the position that we are in now, let alone at this time, had there been the possibility of discussions to resolve these matters through the usual channels. [Interruption.] It is not a matter of being clever; it is simply a statement of fact. Of course I am always prepared to take on board what the House is saying and to discuss and consider these matters through the usual channels. That remains the position and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will do that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must move on.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you advise the House? We have just heard that apparently there will be just five hours to debate 10 groups of amendments that the Speaker has grouped together. Is there any indication of how much time will he allocated to each amendment?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That will be the subject of tomorrow's debate, when the hon. Gentleman might be able to catch the eye of the Chair.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have heard that we are to debate the timetable motion. In advance of that, is it possible to hear from the Leader of the House whether the five hours that she proposes to allocate to the consideration of the 10 groups of amendments will include Divisions or not? If Divisions are not included, it allows fifteen minutes—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is trying to extend questions on the statement.

Mr. Hogg

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Several motions have been summarily removed from the Order Paper. Have you received any notification from the Government as to when they intend to put them to the House again?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As a former Minister, the right hon. and learned Gentleman should know that that is at the Government's discretion and has nothing to do with the Chair.