HC Deb 09 March 2000 vol 345 cc1189-99 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House 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 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.

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.

WEDNESDAY 15 MARCH—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No.2) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Terrorism Bill.

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

THURSDAY 16 MARCH—Opposition Day [8th Allotted Day]. Until about 4 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "The Government's Handling of the Mozambique Crisis" followed by a debate entitled "The Protection of Green Fields and the Imposition of House Building Targets". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

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

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

MONDAY 20 MARCH—Second Reading of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill.

TUESDAY 21 MARCH—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

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

WEDNESDAY 22 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

THURSDAY 23 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 24 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 27 MARCH—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the business for the following week. Following my comments last week, I am grateful for the additional time that the Government have found for the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. The other place has debated the Wakeham report, but there is still no sign of progress at this end of the building. When will we get the promised Joint Committee on which the Government appear to be dragging their feet? When will we have the opportunity to debate the Wakeham report—a debate during which we hope the Government will clarify whether peerages are offered to so-called opposition parties on condition that they do not oppose?

Has the right hon. Lady had time to read the excellent report of the Liaison Committee on shifting the balance between Select Committees and the Executive? Does she agree that we should debate it on the Floor of the House? Does she recall that we still have not debated the Procedure Committee report on scrutinising public expenditure?

The right hon. Lady has confirmed the date of the Budget and the four-day debate. Can she tell us when the Finance Bill will be published? Are not our debates on the economy and public expenditure a bit like buses? We do not see one for months and then four come along at the same time. Is the right hon. Lady satisfied that the incidence of economic and public expenditure debates throughout the year is satisfactory?

Finally, so that members of staff can plan their lives, has the right hon. Lady anything interesting to say about the dates of the Whitsun recess?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. The Government have indeed found the extra time he asked for last week for the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, and I am grateful to him for acknowledging that. He asked me last week about the possibility of a debate on the Wakeham report and the setting up of a Joint Committee, and I made the point to him then—and I am afraid that I can only reiterate it—that of course the Government have to give priority to their legislative programme and will do so. That means that at present I cannot give him a date for that debate.

The right hon. Gentleman suggests that there is some evidence of a deal being done in terms of behaviour in the House in return for peerages. First, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made plain yesterday, he has given more peerages already to the Liberal Democrats than did the previous Prime Minister. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members making those noises. We all know that the creation of peerages is within the patronage of the Prime Minister, and this one is the first to give any of it up. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman has only to look at the voting record in the House of Lords to see that it shows no evidence of any kind of deal.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about a debate on the Floor of the House about the Liaison Committee report. Like the Lords debate, that will have to wait, but it is a matter to which the Government will give serious consideration, because it is a weighty and serious report. Similarly, I am aware of the need at some point to debate the Procedure Committee's report.

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the date of the publication of the Finance Bill, but I hope to do so shortly. I take heed of his remarks about the balance of economic and public expenditure debates. I fear that I cannot give him the dates for the Whitsun recess either, although I can confirm that we will not sit on the bank holiday.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate the important research that has been published in the past few weeks in Nature from scientists in south Carolina, London and Aberdeen, which proves that cannabis products can relieve the symptoms of multiple sclerosis in minutes? Another group of scientists have found proof that cannabinoids can destroy brain tumours that remain unaffected by conventional treatment such as chemotherapy. Those discoveries should cause us to end the practice of persecuting those desperately ill people who use cannabis—we should certainly stop jailing them, as happened last year in two cases. Cannot we at least say that we will do that now for people who tell us that it has been their experience for years that cannabis alleviates the worst symptoms of MS, and who want a night's sleep tonight—not in five years' time when the Government finally agree?

Madam Speaker

Order. This is a time for questions.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has long taken a great and close interest in that subject, but he will know that the Government have licensed projects to assess the scientific value of the medicinal use of cannabis, and when their results are available the Government will take due account of them.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Some of us are concerned that there has been no statement today from the Secretary of State for Defence on the apparent major leak in the security systems of NATO. Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that as soon as all the information is available—which I understand will be over the weekend—we will have a statement on Monday from the Secretary of State? It is clearly not enough to have Mr. Jamie Shea of NATO make a statement on the "Today" programme, but to have no response whatever to the legitimate concerns, both inside and outside the House, that our pilots may have been put at risk and the war unnecessarily lengthened by the leak.

I endorse the Conservative view that an early debate on the Wakeham report is now necessary in order to establish precisely what the Government's intentions are. In particular, will the Leader of the House tell us whether it is the Government's policy, as apparently enunciated by the Leader of the House of Lords, that any proposal totally to elect a second Chamber under the mistaken view that it would increase the democratic base of Parliament would in fact undermine that democracy.?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 914.] That is an extraordinary statement.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot give the undertaking that the hon. Gentleman seeks on a statement from the MOD about the stories in today's papers, which stem clearly from the trailing of a BBC programme. That is a perfectly legitimate thing for the BBC to do, but it is quite another matter to assume that it requires a statement to the House. In any case, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in Argentina, and hardly could be here simultaneously.

The hon. Gentleman asked for an early debate on the Wakeham report. He will recall that Lord Wakeham himself suggested that people should take time to give mature consideration to the report's proposals, rather than rushing to judgment.

As for the remark of my noble Friend about an elected Upper House undermining the nature of our democracy in this country, I take that to be a reference to the inevitable conflict which would occur between a wholly elected upper House and this House. That is a view that many will share.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Telford)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm something that has been puzzling me—that she has, so far, received no request from the Opposition for a debate on the national minimum wage to explain their latest thinking on the subject? If there were an opportunity for such a debate, could we have it in Government time on a simple motion, inviting the House to support the way in which Her Majesty's Government introduced the minimum wage in the teeth of Tory opposition? We could then test the sincerity of the Tories' view by seeing whether they would join us in the Lobby.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and raises an attractive proposition. He will recall that, in 1997, the present shadow Chancellor said that the minimum wage was an "immoral" policy. Last month, he said that the next Tory Government would not repeal it. My hon. Friend is entirely right to think that those are two mutually exclusive propositions which are worthy of debate. However, I fear that one of the little luxuries that we must deny ourselves at the moment is that of exploring the contradictions in the Opposition's position, which are many.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Will the right hon. Lady arrange an early debate on the new rules for all-party groups that were announced by the Chairman of the Administration Committee on 22 February at col. 844? Is she aware that the likely impact of the new rules will be the disappearance of a significant number of all-party country groups? That would be a matter of concern for the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and for the embassies and high commissions of the countries concerned in London.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, in parliamentary terms, it is wholly unacceptable for a Select Committee of this House to make far-reaching proposals bearing on the parliamentary activities of large numbers of hon. Members without making any formal report to this House; to do so without giving the House an opportunity to approve or reject the proposals; and to bring them in with immediate effect, backed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards' minute of 29 February, by the expedient of a written parliamentary answer?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the concern of the right hon. Gentleman, and his anxiety at the nature of the proposal and the means that we used to bring it into effect. I am sure that the Administration Committee had no intention of causing difficulties for right hon. and hon. Members, but I will draw the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to the Committee's attention.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I add my voice to those calling for an early debate on the hugely significant report of the Liaison Committee issued last Friday? Does my right hon. Friend share my disbelief that the Committee found that colleagues are kept off Select Committees because of their views? I had no idea that that happened. However, this matter has particular salience at the moment. The Government are perceived by some to be in the grip of control freaks, manipulative and out to fix everything. Would not the best way of responding to that be to schedule an early debate and a vote on the Committee's recommendations?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate on what is, as my hon. Friend correctly identifies, a weighty and serious report which will require careful consideration. Of course it is shocking to suggest that someone might be kept off a Select Committee because of their views—just as shocking as when the previous Government removed a long-serving and highly respected Member of this House from a Select Committee. It was widely thought—including by the Member in question—that that was done because of his views. The notion that there is something unprecedented about these disputes is clearly wholly wrong, but I understand the concern that my hon. Friend expresses.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will know that the management of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast has put its work force on notice. Will she use her influence in joined-up Government with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Northern Ireland Office to try get a deal done quickly to preserve a shipbuilding industry in the United Kingdom? Such a deal would also help our steel industry, as the purchasers of the cruise liner involved are keen that their ship be built in a British yard.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has involved himself in the matter, with a view to helping. Tabling for the next Department of Trade and Industry Question Time will be next week, and the hon. Gentleman may want to explore the matter further then. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on European Union objective 1 funding for areas of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion? Has she noticed that Conservative Members increasingly call for that funding for different parts of the United Kingdom? Would not such a debate give them an opportunity to explain why the inheritance of 18 years of Tory Government is that there are so many areas that qualify for objective 1 funding?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right, and such a debate would give an opportunity for Opposition Members to explain why so much poverty and deprivation was left in this country at the end of the Conservative Government's long term of office. It would also give this Government a chance to point to our excellent record in wresting objective 1 funding from negotiations in the European Union.

However, I fear that I must repeat what I have had to say to one or two hon. Members already: attractive though the prospect may be, unfortunately the Government have more pressing matters to debate.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Is the Leader of the House aware that Tuesday's spring supplementary estimates, which were published on 23 February, were sent for publication by the Treasury on 31 January? If the Government harnessed modern technology to reduce that production period, would there not be less need for revised supplementary estimates?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I freely confess to the right hon. Gentleman that I was not aware of that. I take his point entirely, and will draw it to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

In mining communities and former mining communities, there is much concern about the time taken for miners to receive compensation for chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Does my right hon. Friend have any plans for an early debate on the progress that is being made in making the delayed payments? I understand that the process is very bureaucratic, and I urge my right hon. Friend to investigate how joined-up Government thinking might speed up the compensation payments.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know how great is the concern that she identifies. Many hon. Members—especially Labour Members, but also hon. Members of all parties—have campaigned for the compensation. No one regrets more than the Government the time that has been taken to bring these matters to a conclusion. However, I believe that a working party has recently reported that the Government have made sure that about 50 additional chest consultants have been appointed to carry out the examinations. It is hoped that, from this month, cases will start to be settled much more speedily.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the rising incidence of suicide among farmers? It now far exceeds the number of deaths caused by or attributed to CJD. This morning, dairy farmers marched through my constituency on their way to lobby Parliament next Wednesday. Those people are at their wits' end with worry about their livelihoods and their lives in general. Last week, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was sent a letter signed by 138 organisations and associations pleading for action to save rural and small abattoirs.

May I remind the right hon. Lady and the rest of the House that for the past several weeks, pig farmers have been camped out in Parliament square because of the desperate situation in their industry? I request that the Leader of the House organise an early debate, in Government time, when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food can come to the House and account for his stewardship. It should not take very long, because he has done nothing.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand, and the whole House shares, the concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed about the farming industry, which my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Prime Minister have repeatedly acknowledged. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the leader of his own party has acknowledged that the problems of agriculture did not start on 1 May 1997, but are of long standing. I believe that the Prime Minister is due to see representatives of the farming industry again at the end of the month.

As for the notion that we should have a further special debate, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last debate we had on agriculture was in Government time, at the instigation of the Minister of Agriculture. Secondly, I remind him that his party has Opposition time, and if his right hon. and hon. Friends share so widely his concern, it is open to them to use that time to debate such matters.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if she managed to arrange a debate on industries in trouble, it might enable someone to point out just what happened when the Tories were closing the pits? They did not care about subsidies then; they did not care about subsidies when they were shutting down the steel industry; they did not care about subsidies when they were shutting down the shipbuilding industry. They are very selective about which industry to support.

I ask my right hon. Friend to remember that when the Tories privatised the pits, they decided to take 50 per cent. of the surplus of the miners' pension fund. Will she have a word with those responsible, to see that that money goes back into the miners' pockets and into the mining communities where it belongs?

Mrs. Beckett

It is well within the memory of everyone in the House how many industries suffered devastating job losses and how many companies disappeared under the regime supported by Conservative Members. Although I fully recognise the concerns of the farming industry, it has not escaped my attention that the amount of money going in public support to that industry is more than the entire budget for the Department of Trade and Industry.

My hon. Friend's final point about the pension fund is, as I am sure he will know, under review, and the Government will be making an announcement in due course.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Leader of the House will recall the Prime Minister boasting yesterday that he had visited his constituency of Sedgefield. The right hon. Gentleman did not tell us when last he went there prior to that visit. May I ask for an urgent debate on Sedgefield so that we can establish not only the frequency of the Prime Minister's visits to his constituency, but whether he listens to his constituents on the rare occasions he is there? The Leader of the House may be aware that a poll has just been taken showing that 71 per cent. of the people of Sedgefield are against the repeal of section 28.

I am trying to be helpful here, and perhaps the right hon. Lady can help me and the Prime Minister. If we debated this, it would give the Prime Minister the opportunity to come to the House, report on the number of times he goes to his constituency, and tell us whether he has listened to anyone there, particularly about section 28.

Mrs. Beckett

May I correct the right hon. Gentleman? The Prime Minister was challenged yesterday by Conservative Members to say when he had last visited his constituency, and that is why he gave the answer that he did. [HON. MEMBERS: "Once!"] He was asked when he was last in Sedgefield, and he said last Friday. I know that Conservative Members do not like it, but I am afraid that they will have to put up with it.

As for the frequency of my right hon. Friend's visits, that is not a matter in which there would be wide interest across the House. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that it cuts both ways. I have heard remarks from constituents of his about the frequency of his visits to his own constituency.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read early-day motion 459?

[That this House condemns the decision by Barclays Bank plc to close two branches in the Basildon and East Thurrock constituency in the Stanford-le-Hope and the Laindon centre; regrets that Barclays have chosen to close two out of five branches in the constituency, thus greatly reducing the service it offers to individual customers and local businesses; and calls upon Barclays to reconsider its decisions and consult its customers on the closures.]

Has she, in addition, read early-day motions 447, 479, 485, 488 and 494 on the same matter? Does she accept that there is concern about banks closing local branches and removing services from our constituents without consultation while simultaneously seeking to charge customers for hole-in-the-wall services? May we have an early debate?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that there is great concern, which she has frequently voiced, about access to financial services and the problems caused when banks make changes. There is a feeling in the House that the matter should be tackled, but I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the near future. I know that, through early-day motions and other means, my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will continue to raise the matter.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Will the right hon. Lady arrange a debate on a subject causing increasing concern in parliamentary circles—ministerial accountability to Parliament? The Chancellor of the Exchequer does not come to financial debates, and we recently observed that the Secretary of State for Defence failed to attend during Front-Bench speeches on the main defence debate of the year.

My immediate concern, however, is the answering of parliamentary questions. Is the right hon. Lady aware that I put down an important question on reserve forces on 10 December, to which I received a holding reply? My subsequent questions in January and February about when I would receive a substantive reply have not even been acknowledged. Is that not an abuse of the parliamentary system, and are not parliamentary questions and their timely answer an important part of parliamentary democracy?

Mrs. Beckett

In general terms, I have observed that the Opposition's great concern about ministerial accountability to Parliament seems to apply only to Ministers in the present Government. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point about his question on reserve forces. I was not aware that his question had gone unanswered, and I shall certainly draw that fact to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I suspect that there has been an oversight, but I agree that it is not satisfactory.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate in Government time on the future of parish and town councils? Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor), I am a member of such a council, and we should like to put it on the record that the Opposition's dishonourable and disreputable campaign claiming that the Government intend to get rid of those councils is anything but the truth.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point so firmly. I fear that I cannot find time for an extra debate on the Floor of the House, but he can seek other opportunities to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate or in Westminster Hall. I agree that the matter is important, and that it is wrong for people to be misled.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Barclays bank in Westgate on Sea in my constituency has announced its closure. The bank was the last in that populous village, although there is still a post office. Many of my constituents are concerned by the Government's apparent determination to remove pension payments from post offices. They fear that, as they will have to rely on automatic banking machines, they will be charged out of their pensions when they obtain relatively modest sums. Will the Leader of the House comply with the request made by the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) for time to debate this matter properly?

Mrs. Beckett

It was the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman who introduced the proposals that are causing a good deal of concern. We recently debated the Postal Services Bill, during which debate all those concerns were fully aired. My right hon. and hon. Friends from the Department of Trade and Industry made it plain that reports that people would have no choice in how their pensions would be paid were entirely wrong. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be glad to take this opportunity to reassure his constituents.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate the draft climate change programme published today, which I warmly welcome? Such a debate would allow the House to consider how to accelerate the launch of a domestic emissions trading scheme and to identify action necessary to stimulate the renewable energy industry. Achieving our targets for renewables and climate change could create between 10,000 and 45,000 new jobs, predominantly in manufacturing, but also in rural areas.

Mrs. Beckett

I know of my hon. Friend's great interest in that subject and of his pursuit of it. Indeed, he recently initiated an Adjournment debate on the matter.

There is great interest on both sides of the House in that detailed subject and a concern that the agenda be pursued. However, I fear that I cannot find time for a special, urgent debate on it in the near future.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Can the Leader of the House arrange time to have the Utilities Bill recommitted for debate on the Floor of the House? Since Second Reading, telecommunications and water have been removed from the Bill. The Clerks have been searching for a precedent for so many changes to a Bill while it was still in Committee. The measure is turning into the Futility Bill.

Today, we heard on Radio 4—where every Member obtains his or her information—that the Government have met the environmental target of 12.5 per cent. towards which, of course, the Utilities Bill was supposed to be working. The Government have just announced that they are holding urgent discussions with the Electricity Association about where the Bill should be going. May we have it back on the Floor of the House so that every Member of Parliament will be able to express their view as to what has happened?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I fear that there is no question of the Government finding time for that. The way in which the Bill is being handled has been made plain.

As for the hon. Gentleman's inquiries to the Clerks, I can save their time and his; the lifetime of the previous Government offers many precedents of Bills being changed substantially. I direct his attention to the debates in 1985 and 1986 on the Social Security Bill, when, after the Bill had been guillotined, the Tory Government introduced substantial new proposals and measures—all of which took money away from the most vulnerable people in the community.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), is not a parliamentary shrinking violet. Will the Leader of the House induce her right hon. Friend to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on the soaring estimates of the cost of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh? Is it not an affront that English taxpayers should have to pay for that, especially as they receive no quid pro quo? They even have to pay university fees for their children, unlike their Scottish and European Union counterparts.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is right: my right hon. Friend is not a shrinking violet—he is a robust contender in the House. Indeed, he will be in the Chamber for Question Time on 21 March to defend the Government's record robustly. However, I doubt that the hon. Gentleman or anyone else will be successful in drawing my right hon. Friend on the Scottish Parliament building; not only is that not a matter for him, it is not even one for Scottish Office Ministers—it is under the control of the Scottish parliamentary corporate body.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

In order to facilitate the family-friendly working practices to which, I am sure, we all aspire, can my right hon. Friend tell me whether there is any intention to timetable any of the Government Bills that she has announced today?

Mrs. Beckett

I only wish that I could agree that we all aspire to family-friendly working practices. It is all too plain that some hon. Members aspire to no such thing and, indeed, that they do their best to destroy those practices. The Government accept the decisions made in the earliest days of this Parliament by the Modernisation Committee to encourage the development of programme motions so that we can manage our business more effectively and in a more orderly way. That will ensure that important issues can be properly aired. I continue to hold that view, although it is not clear whether it remains that of the Opposition.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Leader of the House will be aware that there is growing public concern about the sneaky and disreputable way in which the Government increase taxes for millions of ordinary people. Tesco has written to 170,000 of its employees to tell them that, because of the Government's pensions tax, they will have to increase their contributions from 3.75 per cent. of salary to 4.25 per cent. In view of that, is it not time we held a debate on stealth taxes—on the way the Government are hitting ordinary working people extremely hard and trying to sneak their proposals through so that people will not notice them?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that Conservative Members are not much of an opposition, but four days debate on the Budget are to come and we have just had Treasury questions. Surely even they can manage to raise the financial issues that they want to.