HC Deb 21 October 1999 vol 336 cc577-86 12.45 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 25 OCTOBER—Motion to provide for the carry-over of the Financial Services and Markets Bill.

Motion to renew the sessional orders relating to Thursday sittings.

Motion relating to meetings of Standing Committees.

Motion relating to sittings in Westminster Hall.

Changes to Standing Orders consequential on devolution.

TUESDAY 26 OCTOBER—Opposition Day.

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Police numbers, asylum seekers, immigration control and the Government's handling of revelations relating to cold war spies", followed by a debate entitled "The state of the national health service". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

WEDNESDAY 27 OCTOBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Debate on the Joint Committee report on parliamentary privilege on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 28 OCTOBER—Debate on agriculture on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 29 OCTOBER—Debate on the future of broadcasting on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 1 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Contracts (Right of Third Parties) Bill [Lords].

The House will appreciate that, as is usual at this time of year, I am not able to give a full two weeks' notice of business, because we are dependent on decisions being made in the House of Lords. The House will also want to know that on Wednesday 27 October there will be a debate on taxation of energy products in European Standing Committee B and a debate on harmonisation of copyright and electronic commerce in the single market in European Standing Committee C.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 27 October 1999:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union documents: 5562/98 and 8723/99, Harmonisation of copyright; 5123/99 and 10644/99, Electronic commerce in the single market; unnumbered EM, dated 18 October 1999—Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC155-xviii (1997–98). Relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports: HC34-ix and HC 34-xxviii (1998–99).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents: 6793/97, Taxation of energy products—Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 155-xi and HC 155-ii (1997–98).]

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House is grateful for details of next week's business. Of course we understand the difficulty about the week after, but I assume that we will be dealing with Lords amendments to Government Bills. Can the Leader of the House shed any light on the likely date of prorogation?

I welcome the proposed full day's debate on privilege, for which we have been pressing for some time, and the one on broadcasting, following the Davies report which was published just after the House rose.

The report of the royal commission on long-term care was published in the spring, and the Government have still not found time for a debate on it, despite the reduced pressure on time and the importance of the issue. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands the concern felt both inside and outside the House. I must press her for an undertaking to provide time for such a debate in the very near future.

I welcome the proposed debate on agriculture on Thursday. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be taking part and that it will be in order to raise the issues in the Cabinet Office report proposing VAT on new building, new taxes on tourism and the relaxation of the planning regime, all of which have caused widespread alarm? Will she reflect on what the Government have just done in respect of Agriculture questions—namely, grouping two questions and taking them at 12.30 pm? Would not it have been better to make a proper statement with due notice and the normal courtesies?

It has been usual to have a two-day debate on defence matters when the House returns in the autumn. What has happened to that debate and to the usual defence White Paper, which has not been published since 1996? The Leader of the House will understand the concerns about overstretch, the Territorial Army and the viability of the strategic defence review. I hope that she can confirm that the debate will indeed take place.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that, for the same reason that I am unable to give further details of future business, I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any indication of the likely date of prorogation. I am grateful to him for his welcome for the debates on broadcasting and on the privilege report. I accept that he has been pressing for a debate on long-term care, and I can indeed give him an undertaking that we will find an appropriate time for such a debate in the new Session.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would take part in the agriculture debate. It is the Minister who wishes to hold that debate in order to give the House an opportunity to discuss agricultural matters. Whether it will be in order to raise a range of issues alluded to in The Times is another matter entirely—and not, I am happy to say, a matter for me. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the debate will take place on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman asked also about the grouping of questions. I accept that the House may occasionally prefer a statement, but we are anxious not to take up the time of the House with too many statements. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food took the view that it might be more convenient for the House to handle the matter in this way. However, if Opposition Members do not agree, we will bear that in mind for the future.

The right hon. Gentleman said that there had been no defence White Paper since 1996. However, I remind him that we held the strategic defence review. A White Paper will come before the House and will be debated at the proper time. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that events in Kosovo have necessitated a fresh look at, and some revision of, defence estimates. That is why the paper has been delayed—there is no sinister motive.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Albeit that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and I will share an Adjournment debate on Monday 1 November about the reconstruction of Yugoslavia, will the Leader of the House expand upon her reply to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) about defence estimates? Although time is to be found for a debate on the White Paper, that may occur a long way into the future and there are urgent matters to consider in relation not only to Yugoslavia but to the continuing war against Iraq. We should also have an opportunity to discuss the reports of the Bishop of Coventry and his ecclesiastical colleagues who have returned from that country where human disaster is rife.

Mrs. Beckett

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I am afraid that there is a limit to the extent to which I can help him. I have said that the White Paper will be handled in the traditional manner, and my hon. Friend will appreciate that it would be discourteous to the House if the Defence Committee were not given the chance to examine the White Paper and put its views before the House. However, we shall obviously do our best to bring the matter before the House as soon as we can reasonably do so.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I endorse the concerns expressed about the rather unusual way in which the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has dealt with the issue of beef exports. It would have been much tidier, and the House would have appreciated it, if we had received notice that the issue was to be the subject of a proper ministerial statement. We could then have dealt with the matter more effectively.

We understand that the Home Secretary will tomorrow publish the Freedom of Information Bill, which has been watered down. This is a controversial matter in which hon. Members on both sides of the House have considerable interest. It was also the subject of two important reports: the first from the Select Committee on Public Administration in July and the second from the other place. This is a parliamentary matter, yet the Government's Bill is to be published on a non-sitting day. That is surely unacceptable. There should be a proper statement and all hon. Members should have the opportunity to learn what is going on. May we at least have a guarantee that the Second Reading of this extremely important Bill will occur very early in the new Session and that, in the meantime, there will be some statement to the House about the Government's precise intentions?

Mrs. Beckett

The handling of Agriculture questions was explained on the Annunciator. However, I accept that hon. Members may have been unhappy with that procedure and, as I have said already to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), I will take that on board.

As to the Freedom of Information Bill, I say with respect to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that anyone would think that this matter had not been in the public domain and not been discussed and scrutinised thoroughly. After all, we had a special opportunity, which I think we all welcomed, to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Government are taking account of and replying to some of the comments made during that process. Nevertheless, the Bill will put freedom of information on a statutory basis for the first time.

It is rather a pity that so much comment has concentrated on allegations that the Bill has been in some way watered down, not on the greater access that is being provided, particularly on matters of keen public interest. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's wish for an early Second Reading, but I cannot pre-empt a business statement quite so far ahead.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

May we have a debate on the objective 2 funding proposals from the Department of Trade and Industry to the European Union? The Leader of the House will know that in the east midlands and Derbyshire the figures are quite good. Nevertheless, in north-east Derbyshire the figure is 70 per cent. down in coalfield community areas, so something has gone wrong there. May we have a debate in which the details are examined to see whether there should be some adjustment in the submissions?

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government got a good settlement on objective 2 and, indeed, on objective 1. As another Derbyshire Member of Parliament, I regret the concern expressed in his part of the county although, as he will know, most coalfield communities have welcomed the settlement. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter, but two weeks today there will be a Department of Trade and Industry Question Time when there may well be an opportunity to raise it.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

To facilitate the next fortnight's business, could the Leader of the House put a bomb under the Cabinet Office to renew the publication of ministerial duties as an index of joined-up government, as throughout the recess we have had to operate with a pre-July document, which is a classic example of Harold Macmillan's remark about looking up this year's trains in last year's "Bradshaw"?

Mrs. Beckett

Indeed, I entirely take the right hon. Gentleman's point. I cannot undertake to put a bomb under the Cabinet Office, but I certainly undertake to draw his remarks to its attention.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been a warm welcome for the Prime Minister's undertaking in the House yesterday that there will be a full consultation process before any decision is taken on whether to bring forward legislative proposals on air traffic control in the next Session of Parliament? She will be aware that when the announcement was made on the 27 July there was deep anxiety on the Government Benches. Will she arrange for a debate on this subject before the House prorogues?

Mrs. Beckett

I undertake to bear in mind my right hon. Friend's request, but I cannot give him the undertaking that he seeks. He will know that the Government are concerned to get the right outcome for the air traffic control services and that safety is our priority. It is also important to get much-needed investment into those rather neglected services. However, I shall certainly bear his request in mind.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House spoke about pressure on the business of the House. Nevertheless, may I press for a debate in the very near future on the Patten commission report? There is great concern in Northern Ireland and throughout the kingdom as a whole about some of its proposals. Surely before the consultation period ends, this House should have an opportunity to express its opinion.

Mrs. Beckett

Again, I undertake to bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman says. As he said, the consultation process is under way and, I believe, runs until the end of November. The Government will respond as quickly as possible after that. I cannot give him an undertaking now about the timing of the handling of these matters, but I shall bear his observations in mind.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Given the breadth of some of the titles of the debates over the next few weeks, could my right hon. Friend use her ingenuity to stretch one of those debates to include industrial relations, particularly the case of the Lufthansa Skychef workers? For 12 months they have been locked out, with management refusing to negotiate. I believe that they deserve the support of the whole House for the way in which they have conducted their dispute and sought to redress the wrong of their instantaneous dismissal 12 months ago simply because they took industrial action for 24 hours.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned for a long period about this matter, and the whole House will respect his concern for his constituents. I freely admit that despite the portmanteau nature of our business, particularly the Opposition day debates, how he could raise that matter next week does not immediately spring to mind. However, knowing his ingenuity, I am confident that he will find some way of raising the matter in the near future.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

In supporting the call by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for an early debate on long-term care for the elderly, I thank the Leader of the House for indicating firmly that there will be a debate—early, I hope—in the new Session. Will the right hon. Lady ensure that the Government make no decisions about the White Paper—apparently, they have made decisions, but I hope that they will not be final—before the House has had the opportunity to debate those matters, which are of great importance to a large, vulnerable group of people?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will recall that I said that we would have a debate in the new Session at the appropriate time. I take on board his remarks about decisions. What he seeks would be difficult to achieve because the Government obviously want to form views and, if I understood him correctly, he is asking for a debate not only before the Government have made a response but before the White Paper is published. I shall certainly draw his views to the attention of my colleagues in the relevant Department.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to next week's exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall on behalf of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's Full Stop campaign, which wants to end the abuse of children? Would this not be a timely opportunity for a debate on that issue, given the widespread support for the campaign by hon. Members on all sides of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I am pleased to learn from my hon. Friend that there is such an exhibition because the campaign is indeed fully supported on all sides of the House, as it should be. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter in the near future, but I am confident that many hon. Members will be pleased that she has drawn the exhibition to their attention.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

Will the Leader of the House invite an appropriate Minister to make a statement about the future of the Campbeltown-Ballycastle ferry service, which is under threat and likely to be withdrawn? That will have severe consequences for County Antrim and for Kintyre in my constituency. I assure her that it is a matter for Westminster rather than a devolved matter because it concerns ferry services between Scotland and another part of the United Kingdom. We desperately need to know what is happening.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot undertake to find an opportunity for a statement on that matter, but I undertake to draw the hon. Lady's concerns to the attention of my ministerial colleague in the relevant Department.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

My right hon. Friend is probably aware that next Monday is United Nations day. Could we therefore have an early debate on UN peacekeeping operations and this country's contribution to them? Could we discuss in that debate the fact that a UN official was gunned down in the street in Kosovo, purportedly by the Kosovo Liberation Army? Will the Government make a statement about what is being done to bring the perpetrators of that crime to justice?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will certainly be aware that Foreign Office questions will take place on 2 November, when there may be an opportunity to raise those matters. In the not too distant future there will be debates on foreign affairs and defence following the Queen's Speech, and I have no doubt that if my hon. Friend has not managed to raise those matters with the relevant Ministers between now and then, he will do so on one of those occasions.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Could the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to come to the House to explain why the Department takes so long to determine planning applications following public inquiries? One delay has cost up to 2,000 jobs in my constituency. A plan to create a science park, which was the subject of a one-day public inquiry in January and to which there were no objections, has not yet been determined by Ministers, with the consequence that the scheme's backers have now walked away and the scheme is effectively dead.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, know that Ministers in the DETR are concerned about the time that such applications take and are reviewing the process to speed it up. I know that they will be sorry to learn of the difficulties to which he referred, and I shall certainly draw his remarks to their attention.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

For half its short history, Pakistan has been ruled by the military—and they are back again. Five Labour Members travelled under their own steam to Pakistan, and we narrowly missed being caught up in the military coup, but we did meet several Ministers, who are now under house arrest. Whether the military coup proves to be benign or otherwise, is it not absolutely deplorable that a democratically elected Government should have been set aside by the military, and is not there a powerful case for an early debate on that issue, notwithstanding the fact that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), has agreed to meet the five of us?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling the House that the Minister has agreed to meet him and his hon. Friends; it is obviously right for him to do so.

My hon. Friend knows that a decision has been taken to suspend Pakistan from the council of the Commonwealth, and I suspect that his concern will be shared on both sides of the House. It is most unfortunate that, yet again, democratic government has been suspended in Pakistan. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it in the near future although, as I told my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) earlier, there will be Foreign Office questions on 2 November. The position may be a little clearer by then.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Has the Leader of the House any news of the long-delayed announcement on the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency? She will appreciate that the delay is causing great uncertainty among hundreds of civil servants at Fort Halstead in my constituency. Does she recall that this was a privatisation that the previous Conservative Government ruled out?

Mrs. Beckett

I did not recall that, nor am I aware whether that statement is accurate, but I can well understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman expresses. If uncertainty is being caused among staff, I shall draw that to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the sale of Forestry Commission land? I draw her attention to early-day motion 920, in my name and that of other hon. Members.

[That this House deplores the decision by Forest Enterprise Wales to instruct agents to sell the freehold of Chepstow Park Wood in the Wye Valley area of outstanding natural beauty for potential development as a holiday village operation; notes with concern the manner in which this process has been conducted, the failure to consult or even notify local authorities or other public bodies, the failure to advertise the sale locally, the brief time period for the receipt of offers (noon 22nd October) and the sealed bid system of sale; calls on Forest Enterprise Wales to suspend the sale of Chepstow Park Wood until this matter has been subject to a process of public consultation that can determine what is in the public interest; and calls on the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the National Assembly for Wales to intervene.]

There is very deep concern in my constituency that the sale of Chepstow Park wood has been administered in a very underhand and secretive way, not up to the standards that we would expect of a public body. May we hold a debate about the way in which public bodies such as the Forestry Commission attempt to sell their land?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will know that the Government imposed a moratorium on such sales, which were of course handled quite differently under our predecessors. I appreciate that he is seeking a debate on the overall policy of the Forestry Commission, not on this specific matter, which would probably be a matter for the National Assembly for Wales. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate, as a special item, in the near future. However, I have announced a debate on agriculture, and my hon. Friend may find that the occupant of the Chair allows him to raise the matter in that debate.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Can the right hon. Lady arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on Monday to clarify the announcement that he made earlier this week? Notwithstanding the promises that he made in that announcement, the British Medical Association has said that there will not be a single additional specialist in the health service as a consequence of it. It would, I think, help the House in its short debate on Tuesday evening if those matters were made clear beforehand so that we could have an informed debate.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot undertake to find time for an extra debate when, as the hon. Gentleman said, we have so recently had Health questions and focused on those matters. I am afraid that I am not familiar with the BMA's most recent remarks, at least as the hon. Gentleman has reported them, but he will be aware that the Government are making substantial extra investment in the health service, including an extra investment in staff, to make up for the neglect that we inherited from the Government whom he supported.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I attended yesterday's launch of the Leyland Partnership. That partnership is using the new deal to create 300 jobs for the long-term unemployed in my constituency. As the unemployment rate in South Ribble has already dropped below 2 per cent., with the creation of those 300 jobs targeted at the long-term unemployed, there will be almost full employment in South Ribble by the time of the general election. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be appropriate, in the near future, to hold a debate on the success of the Government's job-creation policies?

Mrs. Beckett

I am delighted to hear of the success to which my hon. Friend draws attention. I am sure that his constituents will be appropriately impressed. Even though such a debate would be to discuss the success of the Government's employment and economic policies, I cannot undertake to find time for it.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Notwithstanding the debate on agriculture which the Leader of the House has announced, will she make time for a specific debate on planning and development in rural Britain? In the light of the reported Cabinet Office recommendation that would allow for the concreting over of prime agricultural land, and the amended planning guidelines, which will lead to an increase in car-parking charges and restrict car-parking places in market towns, to the detriment of rural car users and rural traders, the right hon. Lady will understand that such a debate would give the Government the opportunity to tell rural Britain what they have got against the countryside. It would also provide an opportunity for this side of the House—when I say this side of the House, I do not include those who sit on the Liberal Benches—to illustrate once again that we are the only champions here of rural Britain.

Mrs. Beckett

As I believe I said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire at the outset, I am aware of reports that have appeared in the press. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that no publication has taken place, and the Government are not putting forward any proposals at this stage on which to focus such a debate. In due course there will be the publication of a rural White Paper and the publication of any analysis that has been undertaken by the performance innovation unit, once that work has been completed, to provide fresh thinking for the Government. I fear that I cannot undertake now to find time for the extra debate for which the hon. Gentleman asks.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Leader of the House try to arrange for the Prime Minister to explain to the House next week the action that he has taken about a serious matter, which is the pressure being placed on the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), the former Paymaster General, by members of the Prime Minister's Office, not to refer in his memoirs to the improper soliciting before the general election of £250,000 from him for the funding of the Prime Minister's private office? Is not the seriousness of these allegations added to by the fact that the person who made that solicitation is now the Prime Minister's press secretary?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of any such concrete information. Consequently, there is no point in any suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should refer in the House to reports that appear in the press, some of which sound increasingly far fetched.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Will the Leader of the House put pressure on the Paymaster General to explain to the House the shocking revelation that 4 million people have been hit by a stealth tax with their national insurance contributions being increased? I did not see a great deal of evidence about this in the Red Book. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to explore the matter further, along with any other surprises and stealth taxes in the last Budget.

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware that it is the instruction, perhaps, and certainly the preference, of Opposition Members to make constant references to stealth taxes. However, there seems to be a flaw in the argument on this occasion. First, something can hardly be described as being handled by stealth when the relevant information was available in a parliamentary answer of 15 March. I know that not everybody reads Hansard with great assiduity, but this cannot really be described as keeping something secret.

Secondly, not only is it not stealthy but it is not a tax. The Government's overall package of proposals, including the abolition of the entry fee on national insurance contributions, the introduction of the 10 per cent. starting rate of tax and the cutting of the basic rate, more than compensate for any rise in the upper earnings level. The hon. Gentleman's question was well phrased but, I fear, ill targeted.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We shall now take the second statement.