HC Deb 25 March 1999 vol 328 cc525-34 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House give the House the business for next week?

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 29 MARCH—There will be a debate on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

TUESDAY 30 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Employment Relations Bill.

WEDNESDAY 31 MARCH—Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House, which will include the usual three-hour pre-recess debate.

Conclusion of remaining stages of the Employment Relations Bill.

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

TUESDAY 13 APRIL—Second Reading of the Health Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 14 APRIL—Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Second Reading of the Access to Justice Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 15 APRIL—Second Reading of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 16 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 19 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and for an indication of business for the days after the Easter recess.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for responding to our request to change today's business, so that the House can debate the crisis in Kosovo. Will she make arrangements through the usual channels to find another day for the debate on defence in the world, which was scheduled for today? Can we have regular statements from the Government on the action against Serbia? As this is the last business questions before the scheduled Easter recess, will the Government make arrangements to recall the House if the situation requires it?

Will the Prime Minister make a statement on Monday on the Berlin summit, so that the House can assure itself about the security of the rebate negotiated by Lady Thatcher? Will there be a statement next week by the Minister for the Cabinet Office on the much delayed White Paper "Modernising Government"? There is still a backlog of promised debates: on the royal commission on long-term care; on reform of the House of Lords; and on the national changeover plan for the euro; and we still have not debated the crisis facing the European Commission following the publication of the audit report. When might the House begin to make a start on those?

Finally, we expect a date for the Second Reading of the Finance Bill very shortly. Can the House be reassured that the financial memorandum and any associated press releases will contain clear, transparent information about the Bill; and that the Chancellor will deny himself the smoke and mirrors that he used on the Budget, which got him into such trouble?

Mrs. Beckett

To begin where the right hon. Gentleman ended, I know it is not easy to follow all the details, but I did give a date for Second Reading of the Finance Bill: Monday 19 April. Of course there will be clear and transparent information about the contents of that Bill and of the Budget. I cannot guarantee in any way, shape or form that Opposition Members will like it, as it shows how well the Government are doing, but the information will be there.

I take on board the right hon. Gentleman's observations about the various debates that the Opposition would like to take place. I know that time passes quickly, but it does not seem so very long since the announcement about the royal commission on long-term care. However, we shall bear in mind the requests for debates on that and other subjects.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the arrangements for today's debate on Kosovo, which will be timely for the House, and of course I undertake to reinstate, at a suitable opportunity, the debate on defence in the world for which it has been substituted. The Government will endeavour to keep the House informed and will bear in mind the right hon. Gentleman's view that if events require it, a recall will be considered.

The Government's intention is that the Prime Minister will make a statement, probably on Monday, on his return from the Berlin summit, and that there will an announcement to the House within the next few days on "Modernising Government". The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that those plans may be affected by our need, which he pointed out, to keep the House informed about other matters. However, the Government intend to make both those statements to the House next week.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed the unwelcome re-emergence of fat cats, in the shape of Mr. Jan Leschly, the chief executive of SmithKline Beecham? He is already on a salary of £2 million a year, and has today been awarded an additional salary and bonus of £91 million, bringing his earnings this year to £93 million. That company continually pleads poverty and claims that it needs to overprice its products to fund research. Is it not right that we stop that robbery of the health service by pharmaceutical companies and seek a debate and a decision on a new windfall tax on those companies?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will have just had the opportunity—if he caught your eye, Madam Speaker—to raise those matters during Trade and Industry questions. I understand his feelings about the sums of money that he describes. The Government are keeping that matter under review in the aftermath of, and following our monitoring of, the recommendations of the Greenbury report and others.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I express our appreciation to the Leader of the House not only for ensuring that we had a speedy statement on Kosovo last night, which the whole House thought necessary and desirable, but for the change of business today?

Will the right hon. Lady consider the Government's growing tendency to make important announcements during the recess? The next recess will be short, so will she tell her colleagues that the House should first be informed about important Government statements on matters such as the Neill committee legislation, the Office of Fair Trading report on supermarkets, milk marketing and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and long-term care of the elderly, rather than those statements being made during the recess? I am sure that all those matters would be best reported to the House rather than announced by press statement.

Mrs. Beckett

Obviously, I am not fully aware of all my right hon. and hon. Friends' plans about announcements that might need to be made. To pick out one of the examples that the hon. Gentleman gave—the Neill report—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry published a consultative document only today seeking views on those recommendations. That suggests that on that matter and some of the others that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, announcements may not be as imminent as he anticipates.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

May we have time in the near future to discuss the closure of the Polestar print works in my constituency? Twelve months ago, I was approached by Mr. Richard Warner, a director of the parent company, who asked me to support the takeover of the company because it was being examined by the Office of Fair Trading and the Department of Trade and Industry. The takeover was agreed, and this month the company announced the closure of the plant with the loss of more than 200 jobs.

The work force believe that they were lied to at the time of the takeover and I am sure that I was lied to at that time. I want a debate so that we can discover whether the DTI was lied to, whether the Office of Fair Trading was given wrong information, and whether there is any possibility of the Government prosecuting the company for providing false information.

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's distress, and that of the constituents to whom he referred, at the events that he outlined. The fact that people feel, rightly or wrongly, that events have been manipulated to produce an outcome and that they have been misinformed is one of the things that makes dealing with merger policy particularly difficult. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on this matter in the near future, but my hon. Friend will have noticed that I have announced the pre-recess debate, in which, if he is able to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, or that of the Deputy Speaker, he may have an opportunity to raise the matter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I support my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House in his request for a regular update on the situation and operations in Kosovo and Serbia. Does the right hon. Lady accept that that is important because it will counter any propaganda that is likely to come out of Serbia, which could mislead people who are deeply concerned about this operation?

Secondly, will the right hon. Lady ask a Minister of her Government to make a statement before we rise for the Easter recess on the problems facing much of manufacturing industry as a result of the banana war with the United States? The Government have indicated—the Prime Minister himself did so—that the cashmere industry would be compensated for loss of business. I am sure that the right hon. Lady is aware that many other sectors of manufacturing have been adversely affected—not least the candle industry. Candles from one company that are worth £50,000 have been sent back from US borders. Will she arrange a statement in order that the Government can compensate and deal equally and fairly with all industries that are affected?

Mrs. Beckett

The Government will indeed endeavour to keep the House fully informed about events in Kosovo, as I think all hon. Members recognise that we have.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a pre-recess debate. I remind him also that there will be a pre-recess debate on Wednesday. He will be aware that there was a debate—I believe—on Monday, in which these issues were aired. He knows that I share his concern for the fortunes of the manufacturing industry. I am confident that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Trade and Industry are doing everything that they can to take the right steps.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

In view of the publication yesterday of the House of Lords Select Committee report on radioactive waste management and the significant implications for future public expenditure—billions of pounds—as a result of its recommendations; considering that in this and the previous Parliament there was no debate on this major environmental dilemma; and in view of the enormous sensitivity of many of the recommendations in the report; will my right hon. Friend find time in the very near future for a debate on these extremely important matters?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time in the very near future for such a debate, but I accept my hon. Friend's point that these are both important and extraordinarily difficult matters. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends will welcome all serious contributions to the debate. As my hon. Friend knows, this is a very long-running problem, and will no doubt continue to be so.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

May I support the request of the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) for a debate on the pharmaceutical industry, but for an alternative reason to that which he adduced: so that we can celebrate the companies' massive research programmes, which often stretch 25 years ahead, are a model to other industries and are one of the reasons why we maintain world-class companies in that field?

Mrs. Beckett

I am entirely at one with the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the strength of the research effort in the pharmaceutical industry, its commercial success, and the success in delivering health care that that has brought. I suspect, though, that he shares the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) that, at times, some of the steps that are taken do not help.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

My right hon. Friend will have heeded the case in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), involving a woman who had her breast removed when she did not, in fact, have cancer. Another case has now emerged in the north Derbyshire area, in the Bolsover constituency, and we know that not all the cases in which the pathologist was involved have been investigated.

As we know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is launching an investigation. It would be helpful if he could make a statement, so that we could call upon him to arrange an investigation of all such cases at the Chesterfield Royal hospital over the past 10 years, so that all the patients who have had treatment there, and who in some cases have had a breast removed, can be assured that everything was carried out properly.

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend correctly says, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has announced an investigation. Perhaps it is a little early for him to come to the House with any fruits of that investigation, but I know that he shares, as does the entire House, the sympathy that has been expressed for the patients involved, after the terrible ordeal that they and their families have undergone. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the scope suggested by my hon. Friend for the investigation, but I undertake to draw it to his attention nevertheless.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

The Leader of the House is no doubt aware that PEPs and TESSAs come to an end in the near future, with the Government's new ISA being introduced. The Chancellor's statement on stamp duty has caused a large number of proposed ISA schemes to be cancelled, owing to its lack of clarity. Would the right hon. Lady please ask the Chancellor to get the Treasury to issue clarification of the implications of that statement, in order that ISAs can be offered?

Mrs. Beckett

If there is any confusion, I am sure my right hon. Friend would not wish that to harm the launch of ISAs or the opportunities being made available to people. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention. The hon. Gentleman will have observed that there are Treasury Questions on the first day back, and also that there will be the Second Reading of the Finance Bill quite early on.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

May I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that, as soon as possible, notification is given to the House on the progress of negotiations between the Government and BMW to secure £1.7 billion worth of investment in the Longbridge plant? Of course I understand that those negotiations are at a delicate stage, and no one who wants a successful conclusion would wish to add in the Chamber to the rather frenzied press speculation. However, much is at stake—50,000 jobs. Can the House have notification as soon as possible?

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware, as is the House, of my hon. Friend's long interest in and great support for the manufacturing plant at Longbridge, and of how much he, with his colleagues, has done to help to maintain sound commercial operations there. Again, I shall take on board his observations, and I am grateful to him for his understanding of the delicacy of negotiations.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I thank the right hon. Lady for finding another day for the defence in the world debate. Can she tell the House the reasons for today's business being held on a motion for the Adjournment, rather than on a substantive motion, which, I understand, has been the previous practice when troops have been put into action?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, as there seems to rather a lot of misinformation on the matter. I perfectly understand that he may be under the impression that that is the natural precedent. Not so. There are only about two examples over the past 50 years when such a debate has been held on a substantive motion. One of those was in 1991 on the Gulf war, and that was by agreement between the then Government and the Opposition, because the Opposition wished to make plain their full support for the Government. The tradition and the norm have been that when our troops are in conflict, the debate is held on the Adjournment, so that no question can be raised about the overall support of the House for our troops at a time of peril.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on the role of the media during the current conflict? As a former BBC correspondent, I was appalled to hear the Radio 5 Live phone-in this morning. On a panel of five people, there were two Serbs, Mr. Paul Routledge—a Serb apologist, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), and one retired Army officer—the only one of the panel of five who spoke in favour of the action, and he could not do so forcefully, of course, because he was not a politician. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that that is a complete abdication of responsibility by the BBC, on the day that our men and women are risking their lives for this country?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend is strongly in favour of freedom of speech and freedom of the media, but many people will share his concern that that requires full exploration of all points of view, not merely of one. I doubt whether he would want us to debate that matter at this time, but I suspect that he and others will return to it.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Could the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to come to the House on Monday to make a statement about the exercise of his responsibilities, to which the Law Lords referred yesterday in their opinion on the Pinochet case? Obviously it would be inappropriate for hon. Members to comment on the merits of the application for extradition preferred by the Spanish judicial authorities, but at the very least, should not we be able to question the Home Secretary on the cost of the whole matter, both to the British taxpayer and to our relations with Chile and to British interests in that country?

Mrs. Beckett

The matter is sub judice, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. I rather doubt whether such a debate could be held without straying beyond the matter of the costs, but he will be aware that, in response to an undertaking that he gave at the Opposition's request, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will come to the House on Monday to debate the Lawrence report.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in congratulating the British film industry on its success at the recent awards ceremony in America, which reinforces the industry's importance to the British economy. Will she consider finding time for a debate in the House on the British film industry, so that the Government's policies and future policies can be explored in full?

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House will want to congratulate this year's Oscar winners; they are a source of great pride to us all. The Government are certainly endeavouring to support the industry in practical ways—for example, by the extension of tax relief. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, but I am confident that my hon. Friend will find other ways of raising it.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I am sure that the House will be grateful for the notification from the Leader of the House that the Health Bill [Lords] will be debated on 13 April, but will she speak to the Secretary of State for Health to encourage him to publish before that day the real waiting list figures for health treatment in this country and, in particular, to confirm that the number of people waiting to go on to hospitals' official waiting lists has gone up by 220,000 since 1997, nearly doubling the waiting list for the waiting list?

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend is always only too willing to publish waiting list figures; there is no attempt to keep them confidential. As we repeatedly remind Conservative Members, there has been no change whatever in the way that those figures are calculated since the Government came to power.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Can we have a debate, or at least a brief statement, on speech therapists, of whom there is a national shortage? In my area, the shortage is particularly acute.

May I again ask about the possibility of bringing European Union questions back to the Floor of the House? They were kicked upstairs by the Tories in 1992, when Maastricht got a bit embarrassing for them. We are getting to a crucial stage in western Europe, with the introduction of the euro and the Commission collapsing in a sea of corruption and nepotism—something in which I took enormous delight. We need to put the activities of the European Union under the spotlight.

We also need to put under the spotlight the true record of the Tory party on Europe; it gave us the Maastricht treaty, the common agricultural policy, the common fisheries policy and took us into Europe in the first place—the Common Market, as it then was—without any mandate from the British people. It took a Labour Government to give us a referendum.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health shares my hon. Friend's concern about the availability of speech therapy in the health service. It is one of a number of important areas of expertise and professionalism in the health service that became run down under the Conservative party, and my right hon. Friend is endeavouring to address that problem.

I cannot undertake to bring EU questions back to the Floor of the House, although my hon. Friend mounts such a strong case that he almost tempts me to do so. Should EU questions come back to the Floor, we could also focus on the fact that the Conservative party gave up the British veto. Much as I am tempted to do as my hon. Friend asks, I cannot undertake that at present.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Leader of the House try to find time for the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House next week to make a statement about the transport industry? London Underground has yet to receive any significant capital investment, whereas Railtrack has today announced an investment of no less than £27 billion of private capital. That is a remarkable contrast, and the House should hear about it from the Deputy Prime Minister when he chooses how he wants to proceed with the future of London Underground.

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House is aware that responsibility for the state of Railtrack and London Underground, and for the fact that the rail industry was starved of investment, lies squarely at the door of the Conservative party in government. I cannot undertake that my right hon. Friend will debate the matter in the House in the near future, but the hon. Gentleman may have noticed that he is due to answer questions on the Tuesday we come back after the recess, so the hon. Gentleman can seek an opportunity to raise the matter then.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all this week there is an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall of the Committee Corridor by SSAFA Forces Help? More than 30 million people in this country can take advantage of that charity, including current or former service men and women and any members of their families. Giving SSAFA Forces Help that exposure is intended to make all hon. Members aware that their constituents with relations who have been in the services or are service personnel can go to the charity for help. That could considerably assist hon. Members in their constituency duties.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As it happens, I am familiar with the work of SSAFA Forces Help, and I know what a tremendous charity it is and how much good work it does. I am happy to join my hon. Friend in giving it a little extra publicity.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

May I invite the Leader of the House to reconsider the answer that she gave my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) about the potential impact on this country of an adverse decision by the Home Secretary regarding General Pinochet? May I impress upon her the fact that the Home Secretary has enormously wide discretion in this matter, and that an adverse decision in respect of General Pinochet could have serious consequences for this country? It would be reasonable in this particular case—although not in every case—for the Home Secretary to come to the House so that we may hold him to account on this extremely important matter.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood the reply that I gave his hon. Friend. There is no suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not come to the House on this matter. I was asked whether he would come to the House in the next few days, and I cannot promise that. The hon. Gentleman rightly identified the grave responsibility that my right hon. Friend holds in these matters, and I know of no one better fitted to hold it. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that my right hon. Friend is meticulous in keeping the House informed of his responsibilities.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

May I welcome the fact that we are having an early debate on the Health Bill, which is coming back from the Lords after the recess? The legacy of staff shortages in the national health service is a problem that we inherited and that continues to dog the NHS. Kettering general hospital serves people from my constituency and is having to hold an open day for its modernised casualty ward to attract nurses into the NHS. I hope that the health debate will provide a good opportunity to examine in detail and with thoroughness new ways to recruit and retain nurses in the NHS.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I am glad to learn of the initiative taken by the hospital in his constituency, and I wish it success. He will be pleased to know that the recruitment hotline—the most recent innovation of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—is proving a stunning success. As of yesterday teatime, it had received more than 51,000 calls from people interested in either returning to or taking up nursing. That is encouraging, but I share my hon. Friend's view that there is much ground to make up.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that it is not normal practice for statements to be made on Fridays, when we deal with private Members' business, and that recently there has been a tendency to break with that convention?

Of course, if a statement of Kosovo were scheduled for tomorrow it would have to take priority, but I understand that a statement on quarantine may be scheduled. That cannot be described as urgent. Is such a statement to be made; if so, why should private Members' business be interrupted for a statement on a matter that is not urgent?

Mrs. Beckett

I respect the hon. Gentleman's concern, and the conventions of the House; but I think the hon. Gentleman will find that this is a convention that was honoured more in the breach than the observance when his party was in office. I realise that it is not always helpful for statements to be made on Fridays, and although the hon. Gentleman says that the statement that may indeed be made tomorrow is not urgent, he will know that we have not many days left before the recess, and also that a great deal of urgent business remains to be dealt with. The hon. Gentleman may not consider the question of quarantine to be urgent, but there is a good deal of interest in it, and a good deal of pressure for a statement to be made as soon as possible.

Forward to