HC Deb 13 July 2000 vol 353 cc1061-9 12.30 pm
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)

MONDAY 17 JULY—Remaining stages of the Football (Disorder) Bill, which will be taken on a timetable motion unless it is clear from today's debate that there is from the Opposition the full co-operation that they claimed to be offering a few days ago.

TUESDAY 18 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 19 JULY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 20 JULY—Debate on Public Expenditure on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motion on the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure.

FRIDAY 21 JULY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 24 JULY—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Government Resources and Accounts Bill.

FRIDAY 28 JULY—Motion on the Summer Recess Adjournment.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

I should also like to inform the House that the business for Westminster Hall for the remainder of July will be:

THURSDAY 20 JULY—Debate on the Fourth Report from the Agriculture Committee on Environmental Regulation and Farming.

THURSDAY 27 JULY—Debate on Crime Reduction Partnerships.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful to the Leader of the House for next week's business and an indication of some of the business for the following week. Can she throw some light on statements that the Government will be making next week? Can she confirm that the Chancellor will be making an announcement about the comprehensive spending review on Tuesday? Will the Prime Minister be making a statement on the NHS on a later date? Will the Deputy Prime Minister be making a statement on transport next week? In the spirit of the debate that is to take place later today, might the Government share that information with the House?

There appear to be a few blank days in the week after next. The House is still owed a debate on procurement for the armed forces which would otherwise run into the traditional two-day debate in October. Could we have that debate before we rise?

The Leader of the House has announced consideration of Lords amendments. She may have noticed that in the other place—where neither party has an in-built majority—the Government are regularly defeated. Can she confirm that she welcomes this revising role of the second Chamber and that the Government will not automatically use their majority here to overturn sensible Lords amendments?

Finally, further to a question that I asked a fortnight ago, is the Leader of the House any clearer on the likely date of the state opening of Parliament?

Mrs. Beckett

I can confirm that I anticipate that the comprehensive spending review will be announced in a statement to the House on Tuesday. The issue of what other statements might follow that is under consideration and we will convey that information as matters become clearer.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the provisional business included what appeared to be some blank days and suggested a debate on defence procurement. He went on to discuss the fact that there are regular Government defeats in the House of Lords. As he will know, and as the figures make clear, these are far more regular than under previous Governments. This Government have been defeated 38 times in the House of Lords in this Parliament, whereas the previous Government were defeated only 19 times in 1992–93, only 17 times in 1987–88 and only 20 times in 1983–84. I know that Opposition Members nurture the illusion that that is evidence of the independence of their Lordships. We think that it is evidence of their bias. On the issue of the state opening, I fear that I have nothing to tell the right hon. Gentleman at the moment.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Could the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the steel industry in the light of the report published this week by the UK Steel Association and the Engineering Employers Federation, which called for a re-balancing of the economy to support manufacturing? Such a debate should make special reference to the job lay-offs being announced by Corns at a time when the pound is weakening against the dollar and the euro, the company is moving into the black and, according to all analysts, will make a profit of £750 million next year. This is not the time for Corus to cut a swathe through jobs in the industrial heartlands.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern which, I believe, is shared across the House. At a time when there is so much creation of new employment, jobs are still being lost in manufacturing. I share my hon. Friend's disappointment at that, whether those jobs are lost in the steel industry or elsewhere. My hon. Friend is right to use this opportunity to raise the issue of whether Corns should reconsider its plans in the light of recent economic developments, but I fear that I cannot offer time for a special debate.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House recall that, in last week's business questions, I drew her attention to the extremely unfortunate precedent of the speedy dispatch of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 and related that to the dangerous yobs Bill that is now before the House? Will the Leader of the House look at the timetable for Monday's debate? First, will she give an assurance that there will be adequate time for all the major issues which, as Members on both sides of the House recognise, raise important matters of principle? Secondly, will she look at the controversial parts of the Bill, which relate to the third proposition on banning orders and the fourth proposition on the revival of the sus laws that we got rid of some years ago—at least, we thought that we had?

Thirdly, and most importantly, will the Leader of the House examine the case for a proper interval between the Bill's Committee stage and its Report and Third Reading? Otherwise, there will be no opportunity for the House and for those outside who have an interest in the matter, such as the police, to take account of Committee debates before we come to Report and Third Reading, which could perfectly well be taken on Wednesday, after 10 pm, if necessary. Does the Leader of the House recognise that the imperative for this legislation appears to be a club fixture in August, and that there is no great urgency for the measure at all?

Mrs. Beckett

I am mindful of the matter. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that he reminded me at the last business questions of unfortunate precedents on the speedy dispatch of legislation. However, he will know that under none of those precedents did we have the degree of scrutiny and the unprecedented degree of consultation and co-operation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has demonstrated. The hon. Gentleman will also know that the Bill's proposals are not all new, although I accept that some are more controversial than others. I accept, as I know that my right hon. Friend will, the hon. Gentleman's point about timetabling enough time to deal with the issues adequately. From what I have said, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government would be pleased if we could do that in a co-operative way. We are offering to do that, but only time will show whether that will turn out to be possible.

As for the notion that there are no relevant international matches, I understand that that is not the case. There is an important international match in early September, and there is some concern that, unless further measures are then in place, more problems could occur.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I urge my right hon. Friend to think seriously about the matter. Passing legislation because of a deadline set by a football match is not, on the whole, a sensible precedent. We are discussing a fundamental right, and I therefore urge my right hon. Friend to consider seriously giving more time to the period between the introduction of the Bill and its Report stage. It is a question not just of dealing with football hooligans, but of putting on the statute book a precedent that will affect all United Kingdom citizens. I seriously ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider the timing.

Mrs. Beckett

The Government have given a good deal of thought to the timing and consulted on the matter very fully, as my hon. Friend will know. Of course I take her point about these being major issues, but she will know that not only did we have substantial discussion on an earlier private Member's Bill, but there has been some nine months debate of the issues. I hope that she is also aware that recent events highlighted loopholes in existing legislation whose importance had not previously been appreciated, in that the measures on the statute book deal specifically with football-related offences and convictions, and not with others that may be equally relevant. Of course I take my hon. Friend's observations on board, as I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I reinforce the point that has just been made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)? There has to be a great deal of concern that we are taking the Committee stage on the Floor of the House on Monday, which does not give us time to reflect on what has been said on Second Reading or to receive representations from outside. Moreover, the fact that the Committee stage will not be taken Upstairs precludes the holding of a Special Standing Committee, which in this case would be extremely important in considering whether, for example, there is a breach of articles 5(1) and 14 of the European convention on human rights. There is the further anxiety that there is likely to be no gap between the Committee stage and Report stage.

Finally, is the right hon. Lady aware that even now we have not been given the final copy of the Bill? I went to the Vote Office, and the Clerk said—no doubt perfectly properly—that I could not get a copy until the Bill had been formally laid. We still do not have the completed version of a Bill that we are to debate in five hours.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is being a little disingenuous, if I may say so. He knows perfectly well that the Bill has been under continued revision as a result, quite properly, of discussions in and across the House, and that we expect to have the present text available very shortly. He has expressed concern about the interval between discussion today and on Monday. I remind him that his first concern, expressed a week or so ago, was that not all the stages should be taken in one day. The Government have heeded that concern, and I hope that he will recognise that. All that I can say to him is that the Government will do their best to reach agreement on a matter that, I remind him, was urged on us by Conservative Members, who offered full co-operation in dealing with any legislative proposals.

Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on employment? I ask that in light of yesterday's figures, which show that a million more people have found jobs since Labour was elected. That is despite a prediction by the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), when he was Secretary of State for Employment, that a Labour Government would lose a million jobs. He had the right figure, but I am pleased to say that he was clearly going in the wrong direction, so nothing much has changed there.

This is a most important topic for all our constituents, and it would be useful to focus on the fact that, between 1979 and 1997, under successive Conservative Governments, unemployment doubled, while three years into a Labour Government, we have a million more jobs. Can my right hon. Friend find time for that important debate?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a powerful and relevant point, and it is certainly noteworthy that, after three years of a Labour Government, we have managed to return employment to the level that it was at when we last left office, after which Conservative Governments so substantially increased unemployment. However, I fear that, although my hon. Friend makes an important point, I cannot find time for an extra debate on that at present.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

As we are about to see a documentary on the out-of-control spin machine at No. 10 Downing street, will the right hon. Lady ensure that there is an early opportunity after its screening for us to cross-examine a Minister on the work of Mr. Alastair Campbell? It seems to us that the wages of spin are very high for him but a lousy deal for the rest of us.

Mrs. Beckett

I am so bored with hearing the Conservatives rattle on about spin, image and presentation. I cannot be the only Member who remembers photographs of Lady Thatcher sitting in a field, holding a calf. They should not lecture us about image.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

The Edinburgh CJD surveillance unit has announced that, in a nation of 60 million people, there have been 74 confirmed and probable cases of human variant CJD, of which five have occurred in Leicestershire, which has a population of fewer than 1 million. Statistically, it is highly unlikely that that has occurred by chance. Will the Leader of the House press her colleagues to find time for a parliamentary debate on that very worrying occurrence or at least to use the research and information that may exist in Leicestershire to aid national understanding of this distressing disease?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I understand the concern that he expressed, but I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor in the near future. He might see whether there is an opportunity in Westminster Hall, and it may be tabling for Health questions today. I am confident that he will use other opportunities to raise the matter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I return to the Football (Disorder) Bill—a matter that has been raised from both sides of the House by hon. Members with considerable service in, and experience of, the House? Was I right to deduce from what the Leader of the House said that, following the debate today, a decision will be taken on whether the business of the House on Monday will he subject to a guillotine motion? If that is the case, is the right hon. Lady aware that hon. Members are getting a pretty heavy postbag on the Bill, some of it in favour and quite a lot of it against, particularly because of the rather draconian proposals contained in the Bill? Does she accept that, although the Committee stage is being taken on the Floor, the Report stage is often the only stage of a Bill when Back-Bench Members of Parliament have an opportunity of expressing the concerns of their constituents? If it is to be good legislation, is it not right that there should be a full and proper opportunity for all hon. Members who wish to participate to take part in such an important debate?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, and I take it seriously. Although of course I understand the concerns and reservations of hon. Members when legislation is dealt with at speed—the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of what I said is quite correct—the Government will, if it appears necessary, propose a timetable motion. When we began our exchanges—I do not mean the hon. Gentleman and I, but across the Dispatch Box—the Opposition offered co-operation for speedy legislative action. The Leader of the Opposition was quoted by The Northern Echo on 23 June as saying: I hope the Government accepts our sincere offer of cooperation. By 4 July, in this place, the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said: We cannot proceed on a rushed basis—[Official Report, 4 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 173.] with the Bill. Since then, Opposition Members from the Front Bench and beyond have repeatedly said that, if we are to proceed with the Bill, they demand that the Government drop some other piece of legislation. That is not what we consider full co-operation.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the agreement reached this week between British Nuclear Fuels and the Kansai electric company in Japan relating to the return of defective nuclear fuel from Japan, and including significant compensation payments. Does she agree that that has major implications for the potential future development of the plutonium trade between Britain and Japan, which could have serious economic and environmental consequences? Does she find it remarkable that there has not been one form of parliamentary scrutiny of the development of that trade? Does she agree that the recent publication by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on the future of BNFL provides a perfect opportunity for such parliamentary scrutiny?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point about the implications for the plutonium trade and also about the Select Committee report. He will know that it is open to the Liaison Committee to nominate Select Committee reports for debate, whether on the estimates days or in Westminster Hall. He makes a powerful case for one of those nominations to be the report.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Does the right hon. Lady realise that her failure to provide time to debate defence procurement is undermining the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General? Should not the House debate the National Audit Office major projects report on defence, which demonstrates that, far from undertaking smart procurement, the Ministry of Defence is overseeing a cost overrun of £2.75 billion on the 25 projects studied by the NAO, and furthermore, that 15 projects are more than three years late? Is it not the case that, far from smart procurement, the Government are conniving at the rip-off of the taxpayer?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman first makes a point about the defence procurement debate. I have repeatedly said that the Government will provide time for that debate, but we are not able to do so before the recess. It is not at all clear to me that there is any reason why that should hold up the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General. As for the notion that the National Audit Office major projects report in some way casts doubt on the Government's approach to smart procurement, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the report measures cumulative cost over-runs during the life of projects that, in some cases, extend for 20 years or more. It cannot have escaped his notice that that was not under this Government.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Has my right hon. Friend cast her eyes over the parliamentary ombudsman report, which came out last week, entitled, "Investigation into delays into making payments under the Arable Area Payments Scheme"—a riveting, good read? It refers to the previous Government's behaviour and their complete failure to reform the common agricultural policy, let alone manage it. Has that anything to do with why Conservatives dropped the debate on agriculture from today's Order Paper?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Indeed, he may well be right. I have struggled to identify the reason why Opposition Members, who so often—not least at this Question Time—make complaints and express concerns about the farming industry, agriculture and so on, chose to abandon the scheduled debate on the crisis in agriculture to discuss the riveting subject of the House of Commons itself. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Opposition Members make noises, but clearly the crisis in agriculture has disappeared, or perhaps my hon. Friend is right.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

If the Leader of the House is determined to curtail debate on the Football (Disorder) Bill next week, will she give an assurance that the Government will not move any closure motion on this evening's debate so that everyone who wishes to speak is given full opportunity so to do? Can she confirm that her responsibilities should extend to protecting the interests of Back Benchers on both sides of the House who do not necessarily agree with their respective Front Benchers on such issues?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I am aware that there are differences of view in the House, and I accept that it is important to have time. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been absolutely meticulous in offering opportunities for consultation and, indeed, making changes to the proposed legislation as a result of those consultations. That is exactly the kind of exchange that, in other circumstances, would have taken place on Second Reading or in Committee, so we have attempted to take account of different concerns. Of course I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that there will be different views in the House and that some hon. Members may disagree with those on their Front Bench. Equally, he must accept my point that, while recognising that legitimate right, the Government have to take account of that in deciding how and whether we can proceed.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know that it is two years since agreement was reached in Rome on setting up the International Criminal Court. When does she intend to introduce legislation to ratify that treaty to fulfil the promise given by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that we would be among the first 60 nations to do so?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will know that that proposal did not find a place in this year's programme. He will also know that I cannot speculate about the contents of future Queen's Speeches. The Government recognise the importance of the issue, but there are many other important issues.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I have applied several times for Adjournment debates on tourism in the south-west. With the summer season upon us, tourists are fortunately flocking to the area, but there is a need to debate the Government's performance on tourism, given all the working parties and groups that they have set up and the recommendations that they have made, which have not yet been implemented. Will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate on tourism and its effects on the south-west economy?

Mrs. Beckett

While I wish the tourism industry in the hon. Gentleman's part of the world well, I fear that time is under a considerable premium at this time of year. I understand his concern in seeking time for such a debate. He will know that the Government have provided extra time for Adjournment debates. I fear that I cannot undertake to find specific time for such a debate at the moment.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will my right hon. Friend consider giving time to debate the plight of my constituents in the village of Croston who have been besieged by 100 travellers? Not only has crime increased throughout the village, but private land is being destroyed and waste and disease may follow given the insanitary conditions there. The problem exists throughout the United Kingdom; there is no constituency that has not suffered because of such travellers.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to learn of the concern and dismay expressed by my hon. Friend's constituents and sorry, too, to learn of the difficulties that have arisen in his locality. I am aware that consultation on whether new legislative proposals could be introduced is being undertaken, and he may want to contribute his experience to it.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Can we have an early debate on this country's relations with Iran? Would that not give us the opportunity to consider the circumstances in which the London-based charity Iran Aid was forced to close? The Iranian regime said that they would not let the Foreign Secretary into Iran until that had happened. Would we not also be given the opportunity to understand why the Iranian regime, when they found out who the Foreign Secretary is, said that they were too busy to see him anyway? Does the right hon. Lady accept that such a debate would allow us to understand how this country's interests are advanced by the sight of the Foreign Secretary grovelling to the torturers of Tehran?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I can only confess to the hon. Gentleman my entire ignorance of the circumstances of the Iran Aid case. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I see what has happened. While I was counting my worry beads, Opposition Members resumed their seats.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I believe that the Prime Minister is due to make a statement. Can someone run along to his office and bring him to the Chamber?

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The Prime Minister has arrived.

Madam Speaker

I was just counting my worry beads. I call the Prime Minister.