HC Deb 18 November 1999 vol 339 cc117-23 11.33 am
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

Madam Speaker, you informed the House yesterday of the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech. The business for the remainder of the week commencing 22 November will be:

Thursday 25 November—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Friday 26 November—There will be a debate on Government support for the arts on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Additionally, at the end of the main debate on Tuesday 23 November, motion on the draft Maximum Number of Judges Order 1999. The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

Monday 29 November—Second Reading of the Electronic Communications Bill.

Tuesday 30 November—Second Reading of the Representation of the People Bill.

Motion relating to the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999.

Wednesday 1 December—There will be a debate on the European Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House in advance of the European Council Meeting in Helsinki on 10 and 11 December.

Thursday 2 December—Second Reading of the Resource Accounting and Budgeting Bill.

Friday 3 December—The House will not be sitting.

The House will wish to be reminded that, as from the week commencing 29 November, there will be sittings in Westminster Hall. I shall announce the proposed subjects for debate in my business statement next week. Adjournment debates previously held in the Chamber on Wednesday mornings will, in future, take place in Westminster Hall. As the House is already aware, there will be no morning Adjournment debates on Wednesday 24 November.

The House will also wish to know that on Monday 22 November there will be a debate on the World Trade Organisation millennium round in European Standing Committee C. On Thursday 25 November there will be a debate on taxation and financial services in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Monday 22 November 1999:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union documents: 10297/99, World Trade Organisation Millennium Round; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 34-xxx, (1998–99).

[Thursday 25 November 1999:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents: 8329/99, Taxation and Financial Services; 6615/98, 8781/98, 8484/1/99. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: HC 155-xxv; HC 155-xxxvi and HC 155-xxxiii (1997–98). Relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports: HC 34-xvi; HC 34-xxiii and HC 34-xxviii (1998–99).

Sir George Young

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

I begin this Session as I ended the last, with a reminder that we are still awaiting a debate on the royal commission on long-term care. I hope that it will not be too long before we can find time for that important debate.

In view of the promising developments in Northern Ireland, can the Leader of the House tell us whether the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland plans to make a statement, either tomorrow or next week?

The Leader of the House announced the new sittings in Westminster Hall. Will she give guidance to Members on how the experiment will work, and how they should apply to have the relevant debates?

This is the first Queen's Speech since devolution, and the Leader of the House has announced the Second Reading of a number of Bills. Will the Government indicate in advance which Bills are United Kingdom Bills and which cover England and Wales only? For example, on fur farming, it is not clear whether the proposed Bill is a UK Bill or an England and Wales Bill. It would be genuinely helpful if Members knew.

Usually, there is a debate in Government time in the autumn on either the unified Budget or the public expenditure announcement. There is a risk of losing that debate. Will the Leader of the House assure us that there will be a debate on the economy, public expenditure or the pre-Budget statement before Christmas?

Finally, with memories of the disarray of the last Session fresh in our minds, may I ask the Leader of the House whether, in their programme, the Government have bitten off more than the House is able to chew?

Mrs. Beckett

On long-term care, I hope and anticipate that we will be able to schedule a debate on the matter, perhaps before Christmas.

On Northern Ireland, I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman at what point my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to come to this House and make a statement. However, I can assure him that the Government intend to keep the House informed. Clearly, the timing is not entirely in our hands.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the sittings in Westminster Hall, and it is our intention to provide some guidance. The Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons suggested that I, as Leader of the House, might write to all hon. Members to remind them of how the debates are to be organised and sought. I have that in hand.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Bills which are UK-wide and Bills which are for England and Wales only. We anticipate that that will be clear at their introduction, but I accept his point that it will be helpful to the House to know.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to an autumn debate following the pre-Budget statement. That is a matter that we can discuss through the usual channels.

Finally, I reject the right hon. Gentleman's contention that the Session ended in some disarray. I thought that it ended remarkably smoothly, with the Government getting not only all the legislation forecast in the previous Queen's Speech, but more legislation than had been forecast. There is a full legislative programme for the new Session—although that is not what Conservative Members said yesterday, when they claimed that there was nothing in the Queen's Speech.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman of an important development for the House, and an important potential improvement to the way in which we manage our business. A number of Bills foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech concern matters which have had substantial pre-legislative scrutiny in different Committees, and a number have been available in draft for a considerable period. That will make a big difference to the way in which the House can handle them.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Can we have a debate on mutuality, in view of the imminent threat to my local building society, Leek United, and other local mutual societies, from the asset-stripping company Murray Financial? That would also give us the opportunity to debate the report from the Select Committee on the Treasury on demutualisation, which is an important issue.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake at present to find time for a special debate on the important issue to which my hon. Friend refers, but perhaps I can remind her that there is a trade and industry debate on Friday as part of the Queen's Speech debates and that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will introduce a debate on the economy on Wednesday.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We endorse the request from the official Opposition for an urgent debate on the royal commission on long-term care. I hope that we can have that quickly.

Will the Leader of the House address the issue of early-day motions, which have in the past been discouraged by the attempt by some outside the House to treat them as parliamentary wallpaper? Some early-day motions receive the support of large numbers of hon. Members. For example, early-day motion 16,

[That this House welcomes the proposed national Fleet Air Arm Memorial in honour of more than 6,000 men and women who gave their lives in service with the Royal Naval Air Service and the Fleet Air Arm from 1914 to 1918 and since 1938, respectively; acknowledges the vital role played by naval aviation in defence of freedom during the 20th century; recalls the 40 battle honours won in two world wars and in subsequent campaigns, including Korea, Borneo, the Falklands, the Gulf and the Adriatic; and believes that the unveiling of the Memorial in June 2000, in Victoria Embankment Gardens outside the Ministry of Defence, will be a fitting tribute to those who have died and an inspiration to future generations.], received the signatures of 101 hon. Members on the first full day back. Early-day motion 17 received 287 signatures; early-day motion 29 received 192; and early-day motion 51, 135.

That is a considerable expression of parliamentary opinion. Will the Leader of the House consider how early-day motions could be debated, perhaps by a ballot of those that receive the most signatures? Could not the Modernisation Committee consider some way of reintroducing real debates on real motions, rather than allowing them merely to sit on the Order Paper?

Mrs. Beckett

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman, along with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), has been pressing for a debate on long-term care, and he will have heard my response.

The hon. Gentleman's other point has two important implications: the handling of early-day motions and whether we can find a way of debating them again; and the means and forum for such debates and whether that is a matter for the Modernisation Committee. Obviously, the matter can be discussed in that Committee but, as he will know, following proposals already made by the Committee on sittings in Westminster Hall, there are substantial extra opportunities for debate. Regardless of whether the matter arises directly as part of the mechanism of early-day motions, when there is an issue of genuine interest and concern, there is nothing to stop hon. Members using other means of raising it in the House.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Tonight's Adjournment debate is to be on objective 2 funding in Beverley and Holderness. In order to save Member after Member applying for Adjournment debates on objective 2 status for their areas, could not we have a general debate, so that all those who have concerns can question the Minister?

Mrs. Beckett

That is an interesting remark. I remind my hon. Friend that there is a trade and industry debate on Friday. I cannot at the moment undertake to find time for a special debate on objective 2 funding, but I completely accept his basic point that there should be better ways of handling the matter than for every hon. Member to try to get a debate on his or her area. When I write to hon. Members, I shall draw attention to the variety of ways in which they have the opportunity to raise issues, and I hope that that will be of assistance.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

One of the notable omissions from the Queen's Speech was any mention of farming, with the single exception of fur farming. Is the Leader of the House aware that pigs today cost £7 more to produce than the price that they achieve at the abattoir and that the industry is losing about £2 million a week and facing total meltdown before Christmas? Will she find time for a full day's debate on the plight of the pig farming industry and, if not, does she accept that pig farming may disappear in this country before fur farming?

Mrs. Beckett

Unless the Conservatives intend to subsume agriculture in today's debate on the countryside and the environment, they have not chosen to make it one of the subjects on which we shall focus during the debates on the Queen's Speech.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

That is today's debate.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, I realise that, but the right hon. Gentleman's party has not singled out agriculture and farming for debate. I was under the impression that the Conservative party's general approach was that there was too much legislation and regulation, but the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) seems to be calling for more. I merely note that degree of inconsistency. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have given substantial help and are concerned about the plight of pig farmers and farmers in general. We shall continue to keep matters under review.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), may I ask my right hon. Friend whether time can be found for a debate on early-day motion 929 from the last Session, which attracted more signatures than any other? That motion showed the overwhelming support of Back Benchers from all parties for an appeal asking the United States Senate to reconsider the comprehensive test ban treaty. I have forwarded the early-day motion to President Clinton and to the leaders of the Senate in the hope that they may follow the example of the House of Commons in putting global security before partisan politics. I fear that if they do not do so, they may endanger non-proliferation.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a serious point about a matter that has raised concern on both sides of the House and across the world. Anxiety remains that the signal from the American Senate may hinder the cause of non-proliferation. The strong expression of views by Members of the House of Commons will not go unnoticed, but this is hardly the first time that partisan politics has gone against national and international interests.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I understand that, in keeping with growing tradition, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may make a statement elsewhere today. Meanwhile, may I plead with the Leader of the House for a debate on the Patten report, a plea that I have made before? Before the consultation period is over, may the House have an opportunity to express its views on the report?

Mrs. Beckett

Others may be making statements today. I am not clear of the time scale on these matters, and the hon. Gentleman may be more familiar than I am with the detail of how matters are shifting. However, the Government have sought throughout the process to keep the House properly informed, and we shall continue to do so. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland feels that the time is right to make a statement to the House, he will certainly do so. Indeed, he is eager to do so, as we are all eager that the Good Friday Agreement should reach a successful conclusion.

The hon. Gentleman rightly reminds me that he has previously asked about a debate on the Patten report. I cannot undertake to schedule such a debate, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I am sorry to have to tell the House that the Barclays bank branch in Heacham will close tomorrow. This is one of many bank closures in rural areas of England, and I am sure that it results from general market failure. None of the banks seems able to justify a presence in our larger villages. There are 5,000 people in Heacham, and Barclays is the last bank there. Will the Government recognise that when markets fail, we need new initiatives to help people in rural areas, particularly those who have neither cars nor easy access to neighbouring market towns? Can the House debate that issue at an early date?

Ms. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I note that Conservative Members seem amused by the prospect of his constituents losing their opportunity to access valuable services, an attitude in sharp contrast with their professed concern for people in rural areas. I should remind my hon. Friend that today's debate focuses on the countryside as well as the environment and transport. The Treasury team will attend Wednesday's debate. However, I accept that he is making an important point. I assure him that the Government give great attention to rural issues and expect to publish further proposals in due course.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Leader of the House will be aware that today's Order Paper shows two First Readings, one of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill and the other of the Freedom of Information Bill. Will she consider allowing us an urgent debate as a preliminary to the Second Reading debates on those Bills, so that we can attempt to influence them? It is becoming increasingly obvious that Ministers, especially the Prime Minister, are either genuinely ignorant of Government financial matters such as taxation and expenditure, or give the wrong impression of such matters from time to time both to the House and to the public. Would it not be helpful to have a proper framework of public information, perhaps based on those two Bills, so that we in the House and the public in general could be assured that no matter what the Prime Minister tells us, the truth will somehow come out?

Mrs. Beckett

That was a rather elaborate attempt to make some general, although ill-founded, political points. I simply remind the right hon. Gentleman that he shows less than his usual skill in choosing those two examples, because both those Bills have had substantial pre-scrutiny.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

This afternoon Serplan, which represents 18 million people in the south-east, is likely to reject the proposals of the Crow report. It is vital that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions makes a speedy decision, and I believe that it would assist him if we debated the issue in the House. I realise that it will be possible to raise the matter in the debate this afternoon, but I believe that it is a vital issue that merits a full day's debate.

Mrs. Beckett

I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that he can raise the issue today. No doubt he will also look for other opportunities to do so, and I shall make a point of ensuring that his name is on the mailing list for the letter telling hon. Members how to raise issues in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Can the Leader of the House assure us that when the defence White Paper finally arrives we will have a full two-day debate on it, as well as, at the end of the Session, another two-day debate on the defence estimates for next year? Will she assure us that we will not lose two days' defence debates because the Government have been late in producing this year's White Paper?

Secondly, will the right hon. Lady ensure, as a matter of priority, that one of the first debates on Select Committee reports is on the Defence Committee's unanimous report on the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which found that the Government's privatisation proposals were fatally flawed and should not proceed?

Thirdly, may we, as a matter of urgency, have a statement by the Secretary of State for Defence on his proposals for some form of enlarged Euro corps, such as we have read about in the newspapers? Some of us do not quite understand, and are confused about where all those troops will come from, so we wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman might like to float those ideas across Parliament at some stage.

Mrs. Beckett

There is no question of any debating time for defence matters being lost. I made it clear at the outset that although the White Paper has been delayed—I shall return to that point in a moment—the Government intend to allow the full range of scrutiny. The hon. Gentleman will realise, however, that we shall want the White Paper to go to the Select Committee first, and I am sure that he, too, would want that to happen. He said that the White Paper was late, as if that resulted from fault on the Government's part. May I remind him that we had a small war, and there was some feeling that that ought to be reflected in what would otherwise have been a routine presentation of the White Paper?

The hon. Gentleman also asked me to schedule an early debate on the Select Committee report on DERA. That report has only just been published, and I am sure that he would wish the Government to give it proper consideration and respond to it, as indeed we shall. I also remind him that the order for scheduling debates on Select Committee reports is not solely a matter for me; it is an important function of the Liaison Committee, and any Leader of the House who sought to usurp that function would be treading on difficult territory. Finally, I remind him that there will, of course, be an opportunity to raise defence matters in the debate on the Queen' s Speech.

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