HC Deb 06 May 1999 vol 330 cc1089-98 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House tell us 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 10 MAY—Second Reading of the Northern

Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill.

TUESDAY 11 MAY—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Labour's Pensions Failure", followed by a debate on implications of Scottish and Welsh devolution for the Westminster Parliament. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

WEDNESDAY 12 MAY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill.

THURSDAY 13 MAY—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day].

Until about 4 o'clock, there will be a debate on effective parliamentary democracy, followed by a debate entitled "American Food Imperialism and European Trade Policy". Both motions will arise in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

FRIDAY 14 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 17 MAY—Remaining stages of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill.

TUESDAY 18 MAY—There will be a debate on the European Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. It will be the pre-Cologne Council debate.

WEDNESDAY 19 MAY—Until 12.30 pm, there will be a debate on the third report from the Health Committee on the welfare of former British child migrants, followed by a debate on the fifth report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on regional Eurostar services, followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 20 MAY—There will be a debate on the White Paper on reforming the House of Lords on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 21 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 19 May there will be a debate on assistance to new independent states and Mongolia in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 19 May:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document: 5263/99, Assistance to NIS and Mongolia; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 34-xi, HC 34-xiii (1998-99).]

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business, and for an indication of business for the following week.

I welcome the response to my regular requests for a debate on the House of Lords, and have pencilled in the one for the week after next. I also welcome the proposed debate on Europe, which will give the House an opportunity to debate the problems facing the Commission.

On Kosovo, there has been much political and military activity since a statement was last made to the House, on 26 April. Last week, the Leader of the House responded sympathetically to my suggestion that there should be regular opportunities for the House to ask questions and be kept informed. May we have a statement early next week, possibly on Monday, after the talks among members of the G8, and may we have another full day's debate on Kosovo before the Whitsun recess?

What arrangements does the right hon. Lady propose for debates on public expenditure and the economy? Since the abolition of the unified Budget two years ago, the House has not been told how it will perform its key role of holding the Government to account on matters relating to finance. May we have an early announcement on that?

In view of recent speculation, will the right hon. Lady tell the House whether we might expect a statement soon on the much-delayed freedom of information Bill? Finally, what has happened to the leak inquiry into the Macpherson report? The leak happened two and a half months ago, and there are a limited number of suspects. Might we have a statement on the outcome of the inquiry next week?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that we have found time for a debate on the White Paper on reform of the House of Lords. He is right to say that the pre-Cologne Council debate will allow hon. Members an opportunity to raise a number of matters, including the affairs of the European Commission.

We are giving full consideration to how we can fulfil our responsibility to keep the House informed about Kosovo—a responsibility that we have faithfully carried out so far. I expect that the right hon. Gentleman knows that discussions are taking place on that. I take on board his request for a statement, perhaps early next week, and for another full-day debate before Whitsun. We shall give that request favourable consideration.

I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman's request for an early announcement on arrangements for public expenditure and economic debates. We are pursuing that, and I shall report to the House as soon as I can. I also hope to be able to report soon on the freedom of information Bill.

I confess that I have not been following the timing of the Macpherson report leak inquiry.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

You should be.

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it is not an inquiry into anything that the Government have done; it is an inquiry into what went wrong in the Macpherson commission. The commission has readily acknowledged that the Government were not at fault. We shall give the House information when we can.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the written answer that I received from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday? He said: I have had no discussions on the use of depleted uranium with my NATO counterparts. The United Kingdom has not used DU ammunition in the Balkans. It is a matter for the individual nations as to what ammunition they employ."—[Official Report, 5 May 1999; Vol. 330, c. 383.] Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House accept that a cynic outside the House might well interpret that answer as meaning that such ammunition has been employed? Will she ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement to the House to explain why, in a war conducted by NATO in which we are led to believe that senior politicians such as him are regularly involved in discussing strategy, we cannot be told whether NATO nations are employing such weapons?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I have not seen the answer to which my hon. Friend refers. I understand the concern that he has expressed. Like him, I have seen several press reports, all of which have seemed highly speculative—"It is possible"; "It might be"; and, "If so would it not be the case?" It is hypothesis piled on hypothesis. He is undoubtedly right to say that some people will assume that something is being hidden. However, those reports may well be no more than speculation. As I have already said, we intend to keep the House informed. That may give my hon. Friend an opportunity to raise the issue.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement, particularly for notice of the timely debate on the European Union. Will she find time for a debate on incorporating first-aid training into the national curriculum? The case is well set out in early-day motion 596, which has attracted support from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

[That this House regrets that thousands of lives have been needlessly lost because the public has not been given lifesaving and first aid training; welcomes the work of the St John Ambulance, who celebrate their 900th Anniversary this year, and other charities in providing such training in school; acknowledges the millions of pounds of savings available to the NHS if more people were empowered to take lifesaving action; and calls upon the Government to incorporate first aid training into the National Curriculum.]

Does the right hon. Lady agree that such a debate would enable the House to acknowledge the work done by the St. John Ambulance and other uniformed organisations in first-aid training and would help us to empower more of our citizens to give life-saving support as we saw many Londoners so bravely do after the appalling recent bombings in the capital?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging the importance of debates on the European Union. Secondly, we all share his admiration for the work of the St. John Ambulance. I entirely take his point that the aid and assistance that people in London were able to give those who were injured by the recent bombs were improved by training. The Government are examining ways to introduce such training in schools, and members of the St. John Ambulance are about to offer such training to Members of Parliament—a truly courageous act. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that it should be included in the national curriculum takes the matter further, but the Government are considering how to improve such training.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

On behalf of the whole House, may I thank you, Madam Speaker, for the excellent address you gave us yesterday morning in a very moving ceremony in the Queen's Gallery to celebrate the tremendous achievements of the Council of Europe on its 50th anniversary? Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House consider a further debate to celebrate the achievements of the Council of Europe? 1 realise that debates on Europe repeatedly expose divisions in the Conservative party on the subject, but, despite that, I feel that the House should have a full debate on those tremendous achievements in the very near future.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, particularly for his acknowledgement of the importance and value of Madam Speaker's address. Having heard her speak on a number of occasions, I know that she always does the House credit—although whether we always do her credit is quite another matter. As for a further debate on the Council of Europe, although I am attracted by my hon. Friend's suggestion that it would expose divisions within the Conservative party, I feel that Conservative Members need no help from us in that respect, and I cannot find time for an extra debate on Europe.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Having heard Labour Members congratulate you, Madam Speaker, on your speech yesterday, let me acknowledge on behalf of the Opposition that yours received more applause than the other three speeches and it was much to your credit.

I have a question on Kosovo for the Leader of the House. Does she realise that statements by Ministers do not in themselves provide an adequate opportunity for debate? An illustration of that was the statement by the Home Secretary yesterday, when, although a number of hon. Members asked questions, others were still waiting to participate when time was called. Does she realise that Kosovo has three aspects: the military factor, the negotiations and foreign affairs issues, and the massive problem of refugees? Can she find perhaps half a day of Government time to discuss the problem of refugees—how they will be dealt with and what assistance they will receive—sometime in the immediate future?

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely share the right hon. Gentleman's view that statements are not enough and that there must also be debate—indeed, that is why the Government have repeatedly found time for both and will continue to do so. I take his point that there are several aspects to the matter and that debates may focus on one aspect rather than another. However, I would prefer to leave that in the hands of the House. When we can, we provide Government time for debate, and it is a matter for the House whether it wishes to focus on one aspect rather than another; otherwise, we should be in danger of fettering the concerns of hon. Members.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Following the point made by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, albeit that in parliamentary terms we both might be out of Jurassic park, what does my right hon. Friend think that people such as Judith Hart, for whom she once worked, Jack Mendelson and Michael Foot, whose parliamentary activities kept us out of the Vietnam war, would have thought of a Leader of the House who said that we have statements to keep Parliament informed? In the old days, it was a much wider matter than keeping Parliament informed; there had to be parliamentary debates on substantive motions so that Members of Parliament could reach decisions by vote. I do not doubt that the Government would get a huge parliamentary majority, and that the dissenters among us may be few. However, given what is happening in the House of Representatives, the Folketing and the Bundestag; given the grave doubts of the Italians, with Mr. Rugova coming to talk to the Italian Prime Minister; given the dissatisfaction of the Greeks; and given the enormous environmental problems, with toxins spewing forth from chemical factories throughout Europe, is it sufficient for the House of Commons to agree to be kept informed? Is it not high time that the House registered an opinion? This is a parliamentary matter, not a party matter.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend entirely followed what I said to the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who is the ex-Chairman of the Procedure Committee.

Mr. Dalyell

Forgive me.

Mrs. Beckett

It is the right hon. Gentleman's successor, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who needs placating.

I said to the right hon. Member for East Devon that the Government would continue to find time for statements and debates. As for what some of our distinguished predecessors—including my great and very dear friend Judith Hart—would have thought of these proceedings, they all, as great parliamentarians in their day, would have anticipated that the Leader of the House would look into the precedents with regard to the handling of discussion in the House during a campaign—namely, the provision of statements and time for debates. I have done that. I have looked into precedents from the second world war, the Falklands war and the Gulf war.

Our predecessors would also have expected the Leader of the House to look at the precedents with regard to how Parliament comes to decisions on these matters. I greatly respect the strong views of my hon. Friend, who strayed at the end of his question into whether Parliament should make a decision on a substantive motion. I tell him again that there is no precedent for that whatever.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Home Secretary has today pronounced on the matter of Mr. Fayed's citizenship. She may recall that, on the previous occasion when this matter was considered by the former Home Secretary, the present Home Secretary—in his previous Opposition incarnation—made a fuss about the need for transparency, for statements and for details to be given. Does the Leader of the House share my surprise that, apparently, no such details have been provided as yet? Will she therefore provide time as a matter of urgency for the Home Secretary to come to the House to give us in great detail the reasons for the decision that he has made today?

Mrs. Beckett

The mistake that the right hon. Gentleman makes is in drawing a parallel between someone not knowing the reasons why their application has been refused and someone knowing the reasons. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced the refusal, and has made plain his reasons, in full, to Mr. Al Fayed in a letter to his solicitors. However, my right hon. Friend believes that it is for Mr. Al Fayed to decide whether he publishes those reasons. Mr. Al Fayed now knows where he stands, whereas he did not before.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on British identity and British nationality, so that we can make it clear to the wilder forms of nationalist extremism in Scotland and Wales, and to the growing English nationalist sentiment in the Conservative party, that my constituents—many of whom came to this country as refugees in the 1930s from Austria and Germany, with others coming from Somalia and fleeing from Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq—feel proud to be British? In such a debate, we could make it clear that Britain includes people of all religions, all cultures and all nationalities. We are proud of that, and we will not tolerate the wilder forms of separatism and nationalism that are being pedalled in Scotland, in particular.

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that one of the honourable things about the history of this great country is that it contains people of a rich variety of shades, cultures, opinions and religions, and has always done so. That is something that we celebrate, rightly. I am confident that many will consider it unutterably complacent to say so, but I fear that I share the view of a journalist who wrote recently that the other characteristic of the British identity is that one does not need to get excited about it, because it is a matter of feeling secure in that identity.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill has a financial measure attached to it, because relatives have already been seeking compensation for the cost of burying their dead.

Can we have a statement from the Chancellor or from someone else on a growing problem in Northern Ireland? One person is estimated to have an income of £2 million from smuggling, and some people are making £40,000 to £50,000 a week. Is it not time that we had more customs officials employed to deal with the haemorrhaging of money that should go to the Treasury?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. As I understand it, resources for customs have been increased as a result of the comprehensive spending review. I have little doubt that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Chancellor will keep the matter under review, because we are keen to have effective enforcement of law and order.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

I have asked my right hon. Friend before for a second debate on the Jenkins report on electoral reform. My request is given greater urgency by the emergence of a shadowy organisation called Make Votes Count. Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 592?

[That this House notes recent articles in the Tribune newspaper regarding the decision by the Make Votes Count campaign to appoint lobbyists Lawson Lucas Medelson to run its public relations; is alarmed that LLM is not a member of the Association of Professional Political Consultants and is therefore not bound by its ethical code; and condemns LLM's threat of legal action against the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union as an attempt to suppress debate on electoral reform.]

As far as I can gather, LLM is attempting to use legal action to suppress the debate. That demonstrates that the debate on electoral reform has moved to a more vicious and sectarian stage, at least on the part of the Jenkins supporters.

We need a second debate because 50 Labour Members were unable to speak in the first debate. I suspect that the vast majority of them wanted to make it clear that they would have nothing to do with the bucket of pigs' entrails that is the Jenkins report.

Mrs. Beckett

I note my hon. Friend's somewhat colourful language. I have heard of the campaign, but I am not aware of the legal action to which he refers. I can certainly assure him that it receives no financial support from the Government and is unlikely to do so.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the second runway at Manchester airport is in an advanced state of construction. She will also know, as it is a matter of importance to the United Kingdom as a whole, as well as Manchester in particular, that the Commonwealth games are to take place in and around that city in 2002. People right across the party political spectrum—local authorities, business, Manchester airport itself and others—are deeply concerned that the infrastructure to serve both the airport and the games is inadequate.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Minister for Roads and Road Safety to make a statement as soon as possible about the need for roads to the south and south-east of Manchester, in north Cheshire, and especially the Manchester airport eastern link road, the Macclesfield-Poynton road improvement and the Poynton bypass, which are essential if we are to serve those tens of thousands of people who will be attracted to both the airport and the games? That is critical. It is vital that the multimodal study be concluded.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, although in many ways the Manchester area has very good infrastructure compared with other parts of the country. I accept that there may be deficiencies that are causing concern. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the near future, but I remind him that Environment, Transport and the Regions questions are on Tuesday 11 May, and he might find an opportunity to work the subject in there.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend announce a debate on the House of Lords. Does she agree that part of that debate should focus on the disgraceful decision by the other place to overturn key sections of our working families tax credit proposals? Is that not proof, if more proof were necessary, that the hereditary peers are completely out of touch with modern realities, especially concerning the child care needs of working families, and that sensible reform, long blocked by the Conservative party, is long overdue?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to say that sensible reforms such as the working families tax credit are long overdue. It is part of the Government's multi-pronged approach to relieving the worst of the poverty for families in work which grew under the Conservative Government. Like my hon. Friend, I was astonished to learn that that was a matter in which the House of Lords thought fit to meddle. It is indeed a further example of the fact that that Chamber is now somewhat out of touch with modern realities and the modern world, and it shows that yet again it is acting on behalf of the few, rather than the many.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Although the coincidence of timing between the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs' visit to the United States and the Northern Ireland legislation next week, which I raised with the Leader of the House last week, has had some of the unfortunate consequences that I foresaw, I would still like to express my appreciation for the efforts that she made to find out whether anything could be changed.

I shall also ask a question supplementary to that asked by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), and say that one of the arguments in favour of a debate on smuggling across the Irish border is connected with a speech made by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury in Committee on the Finance Bill earlier this week. The hon. Lady said that the issue of a buffer zone such as that between Germany and Holland, which had been raised in the debate, was a matter for the Northern Ireland Office. However, Customs and Excise, for which she herself answers in the House, put that idea in a memorandum to the Select Committee. Is there not a sense in which the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office both seek to avoid their particular responsibilities for dealing with that increasingly urgent question?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; I regret that that unfortunate clash has arisen. Nevertheless I hope that between us, with some good will, we can resolve it without too much difficulty.

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about the concern expressed both by him and by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) about smuggling across the Irish border. The Government have provided resources for a substantial number of extra customs officers, so in that sense the Government are not ignoring the matter. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Treasury answers for Customs and Excise in the House, and I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and of Treasury Ministers, because it is important that we have the right liaison. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that all Departments are concerned about such matters.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

As Members are being elected to the Scottish Parliament today, does the right hon. Lady agree that the so-called West Lothian question now assumes immediate urgency? Will she join me in thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the shadow Leader of the House, for taking the initiative and arranging for the matter to be debated during the Opposition day debate on Welsh and Scottish devolution next Tuesday? Because of the vital importance of the issue within the United Kingdom constitution, will the right hon. Lady ask the Prime Minister to intervene in the debate and let us know exactly where the Government stand on this burning question?

Mrs. Beckett

Personally, I share the view expressed either by Sir Malcolm Rifkind or by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, or possibly by both, that the West Lothian question did not need to be answered but could readily be put on one side; devolution could continue without it. Both men were in key positions in the Conservative party when they said such things—but of course that was longer ago than last week.

The hon. Gentleman also asked for an early discussion to settle the matter with speed. I remind him that the hon. Member for Macclesfield, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, is now carrying out an inquiry into precisely how devolution may affect this House. With respect, I must tell the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) that no one who sensibly wants the House to develop effectively and efficiently wants to rush to judgment on such matters.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Leader of the House agree to make time for an early debate on another European matter—the revision and amendment of the sixth VAT directive, which is now before the Council of Ministers? The amendment would, for the first time, allow church repairs to be exempt from VAT. I am sure that the whole House will support my campaign to allow that to happen, but the Paymaster General seems reluctant to apply for the exemption. It would apply to all labour-intensive industries, and would end the anomaly between the building of new churches, which is exempt from VAT, and the repair of existing churches, which is subject to VAT at 17.5 per cent. Can we make time for an early debate, before the matter is decided in the Council of Ministers?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with the hon. Lady's concerns, and I am well aware that hon. Members seek to relieve all sorts of worthy causes from the imposition of VAT. Experience suggests that the boundaries are complicated and subject to much discussion. I shall draw her remarks to the attention of my Treasury colleagues, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the issue in the near future.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have an early debate in Government time on the problems of small businesses? Given that businesses with fewer than 100 employees constitute 99.6 per cent. of British enterprises, employ 50 per cent. of the private sector work force and produce two fifths of national output, but that there has been a massive rise of 32 per cent. in small business bankruptcies compared with the same period last year, such a debate would give the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry a chance to expand on his recent statement that we as a Government have not got regulation right".—[Official Report, 29 April 1999; Vol. 330, c. 555.] He could explain to the House and the country how and when he intends to reverse the damaging increase in regulation that his Government have spawned, and how they will create a climate in which the seedcorn of this country's prosperity can survive and flourish.

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the importance of small and medium-sized businesses and have long been so. We are all mindful of the importance of trying to reduce the burden of regulation, whether on small or other businesses, but I accept that it impinges especially on small businesses. I was a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman mentioned bankruptcies. Whatever recent difficulties have arisen, there is no doubt that bankruptcy levels under this Government pale into insignificance beside the record of the Conservative Government whom he supported. We strongly believe that it is important to try to get the burden of regulation lifted as much as possible and, indeed, we hope to reverse the Conservatives' record of talking about reducing the burden of regulation but actually increasing it out of sight.

On the Government's general record, I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was only recently that small business commentators were moved to say when my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) left the Department of Trade and Industry that she was the best Small Business Minister there had been for years.