HC Deb 02 March 2000 vol 345 cc561-70 12.47 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)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 6 MARCH—Second Reading of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill.

TUESDAY 7 MARCH—Second Reading of the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial)(No.2) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 8 MARCH—Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Financial Provision and Clinical Distortion in the National Health Service" followed by a debate entitled "Regulatory Burdens on Small Business". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Supplemental Allocation of Time Motion relating to the Representation of the People Bill followed by consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received.

THURSDAY 9 MARCH—Second Reading of the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 10 MARCH—Private Members' Bill.

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

MONDAY 13 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill.

TUESDAY 14 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining Stages of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed Private Business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

WEDNESDAY 15 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Terrorism Bill.

Motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order.

At 10 o'clock the House will be asked to agree the Spring Supplementary Estimates, Supplementary Vote on Account, Excess Votes and Defence Votes A.

THURSDAY 16 MARCH—Opposition Day [8th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 17 MARCH—Debate on safeguards for children on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for details of next week's business and an indication of the likely business for the week after. I know that the whole House will welcome the fact that the debate on the Waterhouse report on child abuse will take place on the Floor of the House in Government time.

The right hon. Lady has announced a day and a half for the remaining stages of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. Is she aware that that is a challenging timetable? It is a long constitutional Bill. During its passage, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office has been characteristically generous in volunteering to revisit large sections of it and possibly amend it. Does she believe that the House can give adequate consideration to that Bill in the allotted time?

Given that fact and the exchanges that we have just heard, is it not clear that the Government are trying to push too much ill-considered legislation through the House? The House is littered with the debris of Bills that seem to have been abandoned, such as the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, those that are seriously damaged, such as the Utilities Bill, and others, such as the Freedom of Information Bill, which came out of Committee on 10 February and has not been seen since. Is the programme outlined in the Queen's Speech on track?

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that we shall have a debate in Government time on the intergovernmental conference White Paper? We still await a debate on the Wakeham report on reform of the House of Lords. Might we expect a statement next week from the Deputy Prime Minister on the Crow report, which has caused serious alarm in Hampshire and the rest of the south-east? As I am sure that the right hon. Lady knows, next Wednesday is international women's day. We normally have a debate on women's issues, which is of interest to the whole House. Will that take place?

Finally, does the right hon. Lady recall that, at the last business questions, I asked for a statement on the BBC licence fee? She replied: I cannot tell him when an announcement on the licence fee will be made, although it will not be next week.—[Official Report, 17 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1105.] On the next sitting day, the Government made a statement on the licence fee. Does she feel a pang of remorse at her reply?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that there is adequate time for the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. It has some constitutional implications, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have been very generous with the time allocated for discussions so far. We expect that to be taken into account.

It is plainly not the case that there is too much legislation or that the programme in the Queen's Speech is not on track. We already have a substantial number of Bills in Committee, on Report, being prepared and on their way through the House. There is no question of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill disappearing. The Government intend to pursue it, as we are pursuing the Utilities Bill. The Opposition are showing every sign of not learning from some of the mistakes that they made during the 1980s and 1990s. When I was first a Member of Parliament, it was an expected and normal part of the process of legislative scrutiny—indeed, it was the purpose of legislative scrutiny—that Governments listened to representations from other bodies outside the House and from the Opposition on the effect of legislation and might even change Bills as a result. It was only during Lady Thatcher's period that that became seen as a sign of weakness and incompetence. We see the consequences of that attitude in the diminished number of Conservative Members. Far from our legislation being ill-considered, the processes of the House are acting as they should.

The right hon. Gentleman asks for time for debate on issues such as Lords reform and international women's day and for a statement on the Crow report. It is clear from his remarks that he agrees that the Government have to give priority to their legislative programme. He will be well aware of the way in which Opposition Members have sought to exploit the time and the means available to them. It is perfectly legitimate that they should do so and I make no complaint about it. However, the Government's priority is our legislative timetable. If he wants time to debate other issues—I have a great deal of sympathy with that—I suggest that he does something to prevent his hon. Friends from making undue and unnecessary use of time.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned my comments about the statement on the BBC licence fee. I made those comments in good faith. He must have forgotten that he and a large number of other hon. Members made strong representations on that occasion, as they had on previous occasions, about the importance of an early statement on the subject. I am sorry that he apparently does not appreciate the power of his advocacy.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will be shocked to hear that, within the past hour, TRW has announced 450 redundancies at the former Lucas factory in my constituency. Does she see any prospect of debating the motor and motor components industry at an early date?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to hear of that announcement and I understand and share my hon. Friend's concern for his constituents. The Government have done a great deal to improve the way that we respond when such announcements are made. I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate on the motor industry but, as my hon. Friend was one of the strongest advocates of the extra time found for discussion and debate in Westminster Hall, he will be keenly aware of the possibilities that presents.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

When does the Leader of the House intend that the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill will return to the parliamentary programme? Following the withdrawal last night of the Nuclear (Safeguards) Bill, will the right hon. Lady confirm that that measure does not appear in the business programme for the next two weeks? Can the right hon. Lady give the House an assurance that technical but important Bill will reappear?

As to the Utilities Bill, does the Leader of the House agree—as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee—that the Government have a lesson to learn? A formal process of pre-legislative scrutiny might have been more appropriate, and it might have meant that one arm of government would have known that another arm was going to produce a White Paper. Then the telecommunications industry might have known the Government's intentions prior to publication. The tension and adrenalin that has flowed today could have been avoided by following the sensible procedures established in this parliamentary Session.

Mrs. Beckett

We have not withdrawn the Nuclear (Safeguards) Bill—it was not moved last night. It is an important technical measure.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important and worthwhile point about pre-legislative scrutiny and the Modernisation Select Committee. Perhaps understandably, the hon. Gentleman has not wholly taken on board the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—who was of course aware of, and involved in, discussions about a White Paper. As was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), there are two slightly different processes.

The Utilities Bill as originally conceived was intended to bring a degree of consistency to the approach taken to regulation across those sectors, which is why the telecoms and water sectors were in the original Bill. When an announcement was made of further work on the telecoms sector not related to those patterns of regulatory approval, there were fresh and different representations from that industry suggesting that the effect would be one round of probably perfectly worthwhile regulatory change, succeeded in different circumstances by another round relating to a business that is fast moving. In those circumstances, the representations made by the industry were considered and changes were made.

It is intended that the water sections of the Bill, where different issues arise, will go through a pre-legislative scrutiny process with the water Bill. Such a process has already been announced. So the hon. Gentleman will get exactly that for which he asks.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)

Will my right hon. Friend find time as soon as possible for a debate on the welcome measures announced yesterday to improve road safety? Although I would like those measures to go further, such a debate would allow the House to contrast them with the answer that I received from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on 29 June 1999—that the Opposition would like to see the removal of bumps, chicanes and speed cameras as an impediment to cars. Would that not increase danger for the majority of pedestrians? As 103 child deaths a year are too many, may we have a debate on how to reduce that number as much as possible?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I well remember the exchange to which he refers and the statement he elicited from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). It is again a matter of creative tension between sensible regulation and red tape—and of the inability of the Conservative party to distinguish between the two.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Representing the interests of the House rather than the Government, does the Leader of the House think that it was appropriate for a Minister—in this case the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—to use a parliamentary question to announce a major change in a piece of legislation?

Secondly, thousands of redundancies are being announced in the textile and clothing industry, in which I have taken an interest in all the 29 years that I have been in the House. Those redundancies are the result of companies locating their manufacturing capacity overseas, encouraged, very often, by our major retailers, and of the costs in this country, which are caused by Government regulation and action. Will the right hon. Lady therefore allow a debate about the crisis facing the textile and clothing industry, particularly the strategy document that has recently been published and put out for consultation by the textile and clothing industry trade organisations, including the trade unions?

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman's long-standing interest in the industry and, indeed, in all aspects of manufacturing. He knows that I share that interest. I recognise the concerns of the clothing and textile industry. I am aware of how successive Governments have sought to work with it to solve those problems. Knowing the hon. Gentleman, I am quite prepared to believe that he does not solely lay at the door of this Government the problems that the industry faces.

Mr. Winterton

indicated assent.

Mrs. Beckett

I am pleased to see that he agrees. However, I cannot undertake to find time for a further special debate on the industry, although I recognise the concerns that he identifies. I know that he and other hon. Members with similar interests will keep the matter under close scrutiny.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether it was appropriate for the Secretary of State to announce the changes that have been made in the way that he did. We are in a somewhat difficult position. As he will appreciate, the Bill is being considered by a Standing Committee Upstairs. I do not think it unreasonable for me to share with the House the information that it was the very strong advice of the Clerks that, when a Bill is in that stage of its process through the House, it is the property of the Committee which the hon. Gentleman, given his long-standing contribution to Standing Committees, will understand. It was therefore felt that an announcement had to be made first to the Committee, and it was then a matter of getting the timing right so that the House was not deprived while the Committee was informed. Since it coincided with Trade and Industry questions, this was thought the best possible way of dealing with the slightly difficult technicality of the Committee being in existence and the Government wishing, as always, to show full courtesy to both the House and the Committee.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

When the Wakeham commission was established, it was asked to work to a very tight timetable so that we could make rapid progress on reform of the other House. It worked to that timetable and delivered its report against all the odds by the end of last year. Since then, nothing seems to have happened. We have not yet fulfilled our pledge to remove the hereditaries because nearly 100 remain. It is now urgent for the House to debate this issue and for a Joint Committee of the two Houses to be established, as promised, so that it can begin to work and we can move from an incomplete stage 1 to a proper stage 2.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is remembering only half of what was said about Wakeham. We wished the royal commission to meet, discuss and come to a speedy conclusion so that the Government could then judge whether it was possible to see an emerging consensus which could be followed by further speedy action. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Opposition Members groan but, if they look at the record, they will find that that has always and consistently been the view expressed from the Dispatch Box. It is well within my hon. Friend's memory, I am sure, that the Conservative party claimed that no such consensus would emerge, and has indeed done its best to ensure that it does not. The question of who wants to see progress on this is a different one.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend's remarks about the remaining hereditary principle. No one sits in the House of Lords on the basis of heredity any more. The procedures have been changed so that people are there through some mechanism related to their record and not to the record of their forebears.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I seek to follow the Government's logic by asking whether, if the water provisions had been first withdrawn, the Leader of the House would have withdrawn the telecommunications provisions, even if there had been no elusive White Paper on telecommunications?

Mrs. Beckett

The point that the right hon. Gentleman was seeking to make was, uncharacteristically, not entirely clear. The issues are separate and slightly different, but as proposals for change were to be made on each matter, it was sensible to make them together.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Has the Leader of the House read the exchanges at column 1381 of Hansard on 22 February regarding rail safety? Is she familiar with the expression that something is "like painting the Forth rail bridge", which means that some process is going on and on and will never stop? Well, the painting of the bridge has now stopped because of an acrimonious dispute between Rigblast and Railtrack. Both as Leader of the House and as an engineer, has my right hon. Friend read Magnus Linklater's damning comment in The Times today that the whole business is a disgrace to our country? Much of the responsibility for that lies on The Mound, where today is being spent on a discussion of Gaelic, a language that only two Members there speak—and one of them badly. They are paying for simultaneous translation rather than attending to urgent engineering problems.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand, as the whole House does, my hon. Friend's proper concern for the Forth bridge, which is an important international monument. I am familiar with the expression—now a cliché I suppose—to which he drew attention, and I have read both the exchanges between my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the comments in The Times. I well understand my hon. Friend's concern, and shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend, who I believe is looking into the matter, and will write to my hon. Friend on it. Other than that, I am conscious of the courtesies required between fellow legislative bodies.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to the negative prayer in my name against statutory instrument 239, which introduces changes to jobseeker's allowance regulations? The purpose of the change is to increase the benefit penalty sanction to 26 weeks if an 18 to 24-year-old refuses a new deal option over 12 months. The Advisory Committee on Social Security has made helpful suggestions that would mitigate some of the adverse effects of that change. Will the Leader of the House use her good offices through the usual channels to seek Committee consideration of the regulations before their implementation, which, I understand, is intended to happen early in March?

Mrs. Beckett

I have seen the hon. Gentleman's prayer, and I understand his point. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The hon. Gentleman asks me to see that the issue is raised through the usual channels; having been a usual channel himself, he will be well aware of how that process operates.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate early-day motion 2?

[That this House applauds the Government's intention to ensure that all pensioners entitled to income support receive it, making it a genuine minimum income guarantee; notes that, although the minimum income guarantee was introduced in April 1999, the promised national programme of measures to maximise take-up is still awaited; and urges the Secretary of State for Social Security to announce that claims made by pensioners after the date of that announcement will be treated as having been made on that date and that arrears of benefit will be paid accordingly.]

According to the Government's figures, 700,000 of the poorest pensioners will lose out on the so-called minimum income guarantee to an average of £18 a week. When will we begin the campaign promised in our manifesto? It was promised for April 1999 but, on 6 February 2000, the Minister of State, Department of Social Security promised that it would happen by the end of that month. He repeated that promise in Westminster Hall on 9 February, but we are into March and nothing has happened. Can we have a debate in which the Government can reassure the poorest pensioners, who were promised, but have been denied, a minimum income? It is worth recalling that the minimum income guarantee is the Government's main excuse for not restoring the link between pensions and earnings. We need a debate to make sure that the Government guarantee that the great losses suffered by the poorest pensioners because of delays in the take-up campaign will be backdated.

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the long campaign that my hon. Friend—with other Members—has run on that issue. I do not entirely share the view that there has been no action and that no measures have been taken by the Government to promote the minimum income guarantee—although I am not even sure whether that is his proposition. However, I understand his point; despite the efforts made by the Government, we acknowledge that there are still too many people who do not take up their entitlement. I regret the fact that action might not have been taken as speedily as my hon. Friend had hoped and as Ministers had indicated. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. I understand that a campaign will be mounted soon. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that, after my recent experience in the matter of television licences, I am reluctant to offer a date.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I should be obliged if hon. Members would put direct questions to the Leader of the House.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

Tomorrow, I shall present my Food Labelling Bill for Second Reading. In the light of the sympathy of the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for better food labelling, may I expect Government support for the Bill—and if not, why not?

Mrs. Beckett

Offhand, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman whether we will support his Bill. However, I can tell him that the Government have consistently promoted and pursued the cause of food labelling—in contrast to the party that he represents, which fought it all the way.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I realise that further statements can be made as developments take place in Mozambique. However, should not the House hold a debate on the crisis there? Our constituents expect a debate in the House so that we can all apply our minds to the massive problems in that country.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's wish to keep the matter before the House. As he is well aware, we have already discussed the matter on several occasions. However, as he appreciates, action is being taken to assist people in Mozambique—that is the most important thing—even though it is logistically difficult. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will keep the matter under review, but I cannot promise time for a further debate in the near future.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

As I am a non-smoker, the Leader of the House will appreciate that I do not advocate smoking. However, on a day when those who represent the tobacco industry are lobbying the House, would she remind the Chancellor of the Exchequer that it would be helpful for manufacturing industry if he did not continue to increase the taxation on tobacco? That hits not only an industry but many shopkeepers throughout the Province.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the difficulties that arise over the taxation of tobacco, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that the matter also relates to health and that, too, is a burden on the economy. The Government have to try to balance both those important issues.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I know that the Leader of the House will be well aware of the extreme disquiet among the Indian community in this country over the proposal for a visa bond pilot scheme. Although that anxiety was engendered by a mendacious piece of journalism that linked asylum seekers with a £10,000 bond, it is important that there should be discussion of the matter in the House at the earliest opportunity, so that it can be clarified for members of the Indian community who are extremely concerned.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right. I am aware of the concerns on those issues. I am also aware—as is he through his involvement in the Labour Friends of India organisation—of the need to air those concerns. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the near future, but I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that Home Office questions will be held on 13 March, when he may find an opportunity to raise the issue. Hopefully, he will hear a statement then that will ease the concerns of his constituents.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

The right hon. Lady will recall that, on 13 January, I asked whether she would consider providing time for a further fishing debate. We had only half a day for the annual fishing debate. A long statement from the Prime Minister before the debate, and long speeches from those on the Front Bench meant that only one Opposition Back Bencher was called. She was not able to accede to my request, but I was encouraged when, in a reply to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) about the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill, she said that it would offer an opportunity to discuss fishing issues.

The Bill was debated yesterday and I prepared a speech dealing with the problems of the British fishing industry, which is in a serious and desperate state. However, I was horrified when, at the beginning of the Second Reading debate, the occupant of the Chair indicated that it was a purely technical Bill and that he would not allow a general debate on fishing issues. Clearly, I agree that it might have been unwitting, but the right hon. Lady misled the House. I ask her to apologise for that and to make amends by offering a full day's debate on fishing, so that the vast majority of Members representing fishing communities have the chance to debate an industry that is in crisis and to speak for their fishermen.

Mrs. Beckett

I say this with respect, but I do not take lightly the use of the words "misled" or "apologise". I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, at least in my view, those remarks were disproportionate. Of course, I accept the concern that he has expressed and I regret the circumstances in which he found himself. He will know that I do not speak for, and cannot bind, the Chair, so I regret that he did not have the opportunity that he expected.

Equally, I regret that it has not been possible to find time for a debate on fishing. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that we might have had more time on the Bill yesterday had not time been taken up on other matters. That was perfectly proper. However, I repeat what I said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) at the outset. I understand the concerns, and that is why the Government, through Westminster Hall, have provided opportunities for 200 extra debates. I understand the great desire in the House to discuss all manner of issues, but that means that we have to use our time wisely. The Government must give priority to legislation, and Conservative Members might like to bear that point in mind.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the important role that home helps play for vulnerable people? Is she aware that a dispute in Derbyshire means that many home helps have had their low wages reduced by 15 per cent? Will she use her efforts in the House and as a Member representing a Derbyshire constituency—although I accept that she is not on the county council—to see that this unfortunate dispute is brought to an end?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not exercise powers over social services authorities. I always regret it when disputes arise and hope that they can be speedily resolved. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the House on this matter.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The right hon. Lady always treats the House with great courtesy, but this afternoon she has repeatedly been unable to give clear answers to questions because she has given the House legislative indigestion. In response to the initial questions of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), will she tell us whether it is her intention, as she has suggested in the past, to give us a debate on the Wakeham report, for which the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has also asked? Is it her intention to give us a debate on the intergovernmental conference White Paper and will we have a statement on the Crow report, which touches on the consistencies of many Members on both sides of the House? Can we please have a clear affirmation on those three points?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I think that I have given the House a very clear steer indeed. I said nothing to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that suggested that the Government were not perfectly prepared to have a debate on the Wakeham report. I am very mindful of the pressure from Conservative Members for a debate on the IGC report, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the number of occasions in recent weeks in which the Government have allowed one or two days for business and, because of the perfectly proper activities of Conservative Members, that business has not been concluded within the expected time. That has been a repeated pattern.

The Government have every intention of seeking to find time for some of the issues that he has raised, and for others that Members have perfectly properly mentioned, but there is a creative tension between these things, and the Government's priority is their legislative programme. Hon. Members who wish to debate other matters might like to have that in mind.

Madam Speaker

We shall now take the first statement.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order—

Madam Speaker

Order. Points of order always come after statements.