HC Deb 23 March 2000 vol 346 cc1111-20 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Could 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 27 MARCH—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 28 MARCH—Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill.

Motion on the Wireless Telegraphy (Television Licence Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2000.

WEDNESDAY 29 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.

THURSDAY 30 MARCH—Second Reading of the Learning and Skills Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 31 MARCH—The House will not be sitting.

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

MONDAY 3 APRIL—Second Reading of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill [Lords].

Conclusion of remaining stages of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.

TUESDAY 4 APRIL—Progress on remaining stages on the Freedom of Information Bill.

WEDNESDAY 5 APRIL—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Freedom of Information Bill.

THURSDAY 6 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Armed Forces Discipline Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill.

Opposition Day (7th Allotted Day) (Second part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the Ulster Unionist party. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 7 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to be reminded that, on Wednesday 29 March, there will be a debate on the aid system for flax and hemp in European Standing Committee A. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Tuesday 4 April 2000:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 13048/99, Banana Imports; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 23-v and HC 23-x (1999–2000).

I should like to inform the House of business to be taken in Westminster Hall for April.

THURSDAY 6 APRIL—Debate on the Second Anniversary of NHS Direct.

THURSDAY 13 APRIL—Debate on the Ninth Report from the Education and Employment Committee Session 1998–1999 on Opportunities for Disabled People.

THURSDAY 20 APRIL—There will be no debates in Westminster Hall.

THURSDAY 27 APRIL—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the end of business on Thursday 25 May and return on Monday 5 June.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful to learn next week's business, the provisional business for the week after and the provisional dates of the Whitsun recess. We hope that the right hon. Lady's voice lasts for the next half hour.

I am grateful for the response to the request that I made last week for more time to be given to consideration of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, and welcome the fact that we have been given that extra time. I am also grateful for the opportunity to debate on Tuesday the television licence fee increase.

May we expect a statement on Monday from the Prime Minister on the Lisbon summit? If we can expect that, might it be sharper in focus than the statement that we heard yesterday? When the Chief Secretary to the Treasury winds up the Budget debate on Monday, will he clarify the statement made by the Prime Minister yesterday? He asserted: It means that by 2003–04, NHS spending will have risen to 7.6 per cent. of gross domestic product.—[Official Report, 22 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 981.] According to many independent health analysts, the figure of 7.6 per cent. can be reached only by including private health spending. We need some clarity on that.

Does the right hon. Lady understand our disappointment that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will no longer be taking part in the Budget debate? With concern about the impact of the high pound on exports—a subject that the Chancellor of the Exchequer skated over in his Budget—we would have welcomed the Secretary of State's participation in a debate that could have dealt with the plight of manufacturing industry. At the very least, might we expect a statement from him following his discussions with BMW? We also regret the absence of the Deputy Prime Minister from the Budget debate—left out, no doubt, because his Department was a significant loser.

The programme for 6 April looks congested, particularly if there is interest in the Armed Forces Discipline Bill. Might the right hon. Lady reflect on thinning it out?

Finally, almost all the business for the next two weeks is devoted to the Government's legislative programme, with no time whatever to debate other matters such as the Wakeham report, the intergovernmental conference White Paper, the Liaison Committee report, separate debates on the Armed Forces and the Dame Fritchie report on the abuse of patronage. Is not the Government's ambitious programme seriously distorting the work of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's welcome for the extra time, for which the Opposition asked, to debate the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill and the television licence prayer.

I anticipate that the Prime Minister will be making a statement after the Lisbon summit. I am slightly surprised by the right hon. Gentleman's less than generous remarks about yesterday's statement, given that it is only now, for the first time since Lady Thatcher's day, as I recall, that Prime Ministers have again started to come to the House. I think that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend is the first Prime Minister to do so in order to deal with a domestic, as opposed to an international, matter. Considering how, however inaccurately, Opposition Members are always complaining about the Prime Minister not coming to the House, I would have thought that they would have welcomed him doing so. Of course we know that they do not welcome any announcement on health or education—or, indeed, on pensions—because they do not wish the British public to make a link between the improvements that they are seeing and the actions of this Government.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury will no doubt take note of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. I have not seen the analysis to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was of course before the House only a few days ago, and I anticipate that he will do what he can to keep the House informed on the progress of any discussions in which he is engaged.

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the Deputy Prime Minister; there are a limited number of Budget debates and we wish to concentrate on its key themes. However, to describe my right hon. Friend's Department as a loser, when it has just been given an extra £280 million, seems rather an odd choice of words, but there we are.

The right hon. Gentleman said, "Oh dear; there is a lot of Government legislation." Yes; that is one of the key purposes for which the House exists. I remind him that, contrary to what is often said from the Opposition Benches, there is nothing unusual or heavy about the Government's legislative programme. It is substantial because there is much work to do, but there is nothing unprecedented about the number of Bills that the Government are seeking to deal with in this Session.

The issue of abuse of patronage is interesting. It would be nice to have time to look back over the previous Government's record in those matters, but I fear that we shall have to deny ourselves that luxury.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the increasing number of early-day motions protesting at the proposed closure by Barclays bank of branches that are of vital interest to some of its most loyal customers—pensioners—and of particular concern to small businesses. In the light of the recent Cruickshank report, which alleged excessive profits by high street banks, is it not time that the House had a full-scale debate on services that are continually declining while customer charges and profits seem to be ever increasing?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. She is absolutely right about the interesting conclusions of the Cruickshank report. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time on the Floor of the House in the near future for such a debate; as she knows, that is always a problem for any Government. However, I draw her attention to the extra debating opportunities in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Does the Leader of the House recognise the bitter disappointment in the north-west at the decision to site the replacement of the Daresbury synchrotron in the south of England? Does she agree that, given the problems described by the shadow Leader of the House on the value of the pound and investment and development, it is essential that a replacement Government research programme is soundly based in the north-west? Will she persuade the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to assure the House that the Government have recognised the issue created by the decision?

I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report, "Whatever Happened to News at Ten?" and particularly recommendation 56, which states: We recommend that the ITC require ITV to reinstate News at Ten. Can the right hon. Lady give us a report and bring a Minister to the House to say what pressure the Government have brought to bear on the Independent Television Commission to implement the recommendations in that Select Committee report?

Mrs. Beckett

My many right hon. and hon. Friends from the north-west have made plain to the Government how great is their concern about the decision on the partnership project, and the Government themselves have made it plain that they understand and sympathise with those concerns. However, I am confident that the hon. Gentleman will have observed that among the many proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget were extra resources for various regions. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is also making a separate point about science, and I believe that my right hon. Friend has indicated that he is aware of those concerns and has the matter under consideration.

On "News at Ten", I know how strongly that view is shared in the House. The hon. Gentleman asked me to bring a Minister to the House to deal with the matter; it is Department for Culture, Media and Sport oral questions on Monday.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 556, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). [That this House believes the £6 return charge imposed by GNER for carrying passengers' bicycles is excessive, unnecessary and inconsistent with the promotion of environmentally friendly transport; and calls upon the company to adopt a more positive and sympathetic approach to those who wish to combine rail and cycle travel.] Does she share my horror at the information that Great North Eastern Railway is charging passengers a £6 return fare to put their bicycles on the train? When we are trying to encourage integrated, environmentally friendly and healthy transport, is that not a disgrace?

I am pleased to announce that my local railway, LTS, does not charge for bicycles, and neither do many other companies. Could we have an urgent debate on this matter to ensure that we get integrated transport, and that we are not being kiboshed by railway companies trying to force people to use their cars rather than their bicycles?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). Train operators are required to provide facilities for the carriage of cycles; they are free to make a charge, although it should be reasonable. However, it sounds to me like a classic subject for a Westminster Hall debate.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Lady do her best to find out whether it is possible to have a separate day's debate on the urgent matter of the funding of defence? Is she aware that so serious is the situation that defence manufacturing companies are having to lay people off because of the slow down in defence procurement, and that major top-level budget holders in the Ministry of Defence are seeing their budgets slashed in a manner that is wholly unacceptable not only for the good order of matters such as property management, but for operations and exercises? Does the right hon. Lady understand that there is real concern and anxiety about that, and that we should have an urgent debate?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand that anxiety. However, my recollection is that, although the defence budget is scheduled to fall by some 3 per cent. over the next three years, under the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a distinguished member, it fell by a third.

Mr. Soames

That is not the point.

Mrs. Beckett

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that it is not the point, but it is the truth.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

In view of the Chancellor's welcome announcement this week that many thousands of extra pounds will be going direct to schools, can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on ensuring that extra Government resources get to children in schools and are not diverted or blocked by Conservative-run county councils such as Lincolnshire?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that there is always concern about whether education resources are being used for the purposes for which they are allocated, and I am well aware of Lincolnshire county council's track record on that. I always thought that it had something to do with the fact that, at least in my day, there had never been a chair of the education committee, under Conservative party rule, who had attended a state school or sent their children to one.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Will the right hon. Lady ensure that we are encouraged to send her our views on specific issues relating to the decision on whether to continue and make permanent the arrangements for sitting in Westminster Hall or to discontinue the experiment, if not next week, then well before she makes an assessment and a decision and puts a motion before the House? I am thinking in particular of what I consider to be the absurdity of the House, as it were, sitting in two places at the same time. That usually happens on Thursday afternoons.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which I chair, is anxious to hear Members' reactions to the current experiment. We hope to assess it towards the end of the summer but, if Members have specific concerns of the kind that the hon. Gentleman has identified, they are more than welcome to send them to the Modernisation Committee.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read the remarks of Mr. Martin Barnes, director of the Child Action Group? He says: This is a welcome Budget for the 4.4 million children living in poverty in the UK. We applaud the Chancellor's stubborn and consistent commitment to supporting families and children … We welcome the fact that as a result of this Budget up to one third of a million children will also be lifted out of poverty. Given the stark contrast between the two main parties' approach—the Government seek to lift children out of poverty, whereas the Opposition, when in government, created the conditions that took them into poverty—could my right hon. Friend possibly find time for a debate on this important subject?

Mr. Soames

Answer that!

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Child Poverty Action Group has welcomed the response to what he rightly describes as a major problem. Notwithstanding the laughter that I heard from Conservative Members, it should be a source of shame to them that, during their tenure of office, so many children ended up living in the poverty from which this Government will need to try to rescue them.

The Budget was also welcomed by representatives of pensioners and single parents, as well as representatives of the business community. Indeed, it was welcomed by nearly everyone except the Conservative party.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Given the problems of the immigration directorate, which are turning the constituency offices of a minority of Members into outstations of the Home Office because the latter cannot answer letters, may we have a statement next week? Can we be told why not a penny of the £285 million which, according to Tuesday's statement, is to be devoted to law and order, will go towards reinforcing the directorate?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman is more up to speed than I am in regard to how the allocation will be used. I do not know whether it will be used for the immigration directorate, but I am aware of the problems that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, and he is right to say that many Members experience them. As he will know, the system is a source of long-standing difficulty, and the Government are working hard to overcome it.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Further to my right hon. Friend's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), is she aware that the Conservative leadership of Redbridge council, supported by the Liberal Democrats, has adopted a budget allowing money made available under the standard spending assessment for education not to be directly passported to schools in my constituency? Will my right hon. Friend give us an early opportunity to debate the relationship between central Government and local government, and education spending? That would enable us to welcome the provision in the Budget for money to go directly to schools in my borough, rather than being frittered away on other matters by the Conservative council.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I know of his long-standing concern for the welfare of the schools in his borough, and the children who attend them. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the near future, but opportunities to question my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Deputy Prime Minister will give my hon. Friend a chance to air his worries.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The Leader of the House will be well aware of the desperate plight of Britain's pig farmers. Will she arrange for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make a statement to the House explaining exactly what the Budget has done for them? It should not take very long.

Mrs. Beckett

I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Prime Minister intends to meet representatives of agriculture on 30 March. I take it that his remarks constitute a call for more resources for the industry. I note that Conservative Members continually call for more resources, which strikes me as incompatible with their other policies.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I return to the Government's inexplicable decision to transfer the synchrotron project to Oxfordshire from the north-west, a subject that was raised by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell)? The decision may now be irreversible, but the Prime Minister told me only on Tuesday that the Wellcome Trust said that it would withdraw from the partnership if the decision were taken to locate the project at Daresbury. However, there is some confusion about the Wellcome Trust's position and that of the French Government. Many Labour Members—in the north-west group and in other parts of the party—would welcome an early debate so that there is full transparency and we understand all the reasons why the decision was taken to transfer technology from the north-west to Oxfordshire.

Mrs. Beckett

However much I know that my hon. Friend and other north-west Members are rightly expressing concern about the decision on behalf of their constituents, I fear that I cannot accept that it is inexplicable. Sadly, it is all too explicable. Nor, indeed, am I aware that there is any confusion at all about the reasons for it or about the position of the Wellcome Trust or the French Government. I either remind or tell him—I am not sure which—that the French Ministry of National Education, Research and Technology issued a press notice on 13 March saying: This site was strongly supported by the French Partners in the project and we are delighted with the choice. In a letter to The Guardian, the French ambassador said: The French Government has consistently made clear its preference for the Rutherford Appleton site. I understand that that has also always been the position of the Wellcome Trust. As I say, I understand the anxieties and concerns expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends, but, unfortunately, the decision is all too easy to understand.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will the Leader of the House ask a Minister to make a statement next week to correct the mistaken information that the Prime Minister gave the House yesterday? He said that national health service expenditure would increase to 7.6 per cent. of gross domestic product.—[Official Report, 22 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 981.] However, the Red Book clearly shows that the real figure is 6.4 per cent. He arrived at his figure by including private health expenditure. That is a simple drafting mistake—there is no big deal about it—and a statement would clarify the matter. However, that increase represents a doubling in private NHS expenditure and, therefore, a great departure from Government policy. We need a statement.

Mrs. Beckett

We had a statement and a debate yesterday and I do not think that the House needs any further opportunities to discuss the matter. Indeed, the point has already been made in this Question Time.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the bright and multifaceted diamond that was the Budget, there was possibly one face that was slightly darker than the others? Naturally, I shall advert to that. As we know, many pensioners who are just above the minimum income guarantee are poorer than those on the minimum income guarantee. They do not receive income support so they do not get various other benefits that come with it. When the Secretary of State for Social Security said that a report dealing with their difficulties would be made in the next Parliament, did he mean the Session beginning after the Queen's Speech in November or the Parliament beginning after a general election? Will she ask him to make a statement in the near future to clarify the position?

Mrs. Beckett

There will be questions and a debate on social security matters on Monday and my hon. Friend will find time to raise the matter then. However, he may be mistaken in thinking that no one who is not already on the minimum income guarantee is affected by yesterday's announcements. After all, those who are not in a position to take advantage of it—because of capital, for example—will find their circumstances substantially improved. One other group remains particularly difficult to assist and it is to those people, who have a small additional income as opposed to capital, to whom my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is turning his attention. I am sure that he will make proposals that he believes to be workable and effective at an earlier date if he is able to do so. Yesterday, he said what he anticipates to be the likely timetable for what is a particularly difficult policy area to resolve.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

With regard to the right hon. Lady's comment that we should be ashamed of our child poverty, may I remind her that the Rowntree Foundation has said that the divide between rich and poor has increased in the past two or three years under the Labour Government? When he returns from Munich, will the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry make a statement not only on the future of the Longbridge plant, but on the concerns over the future of the Dagenham Ford plant? Is she aware that there is growing and informed speculation that engine production will be transferred from the Ford plant at Dagenham to the newly acquired Ford Land Rover plant?

Mrs. Beckett

As Ford has not yet acquired the Land Rover plant, as far as I am aware, and as the matters are still being discussed, that may be a little premature, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry keeps all those matters under review.

On the hon. Gentleman's remarks on the divide between rich and poor, I am sure that it has not escaped his memory that the Rowntree Foundation figures were on the first two years of the Government's life, during which they were following the Budget guidelines that were set by the party that he supports.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

May I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 547: [That this House regrets the Government's decision to award the £200 million Diamond Synchrotron project to Oxfordshire and not to the existing synchrotron facility at Daresbury in Cheshire; notes that the long-term cost to the North West economy will be £550 million; notes that it will damage the science base of the North West risking the loss of over 200 high-skilled jobs, likely to go overseas; further notes that the Science and Technology Select Committee found no scientific case to favour Oxfordshire over Cheshire as a site for the new investment; and believes that this decision taken personally by the Prime Minister, shows that he has not given sufficient weight to the importance of regional policy or to the need to promote science and encourage investment in the North West.] It stands in my name and has the support of Members of her party. It raises concern about the Government's decision to site the synchrotron project in Oxford and not in Cheshire. Is she aware that that will take some £500 million out of the north-west economy and that it is a major blow for regional policy? Following the comments of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), I hope that we may secure all-party support for the motion, not just by-partisan support.

The Prime Minister was prepared to come to the House earlier in the week to explain to north-west Labour Members why he will ignore their views on the matter. Would it not be a courtesy for him to make time to come to the Chamber to make clear his reasons for taking that decision?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) yesterday and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) today were less than welcoming to the Prime Minister coming to the Chamber to make statements, other than at Prime Minister's Question Time. The Prime Minister has made plain his regret at the impact of the decision on the north-west. The hon. Gentleman will know, I hope, that the Government commissioned a review of the science base in the north-west and have committed in advance some £25 million from the science budget to implement the review recommendations. Therefore, the Government are aware of the concern and will do what they can to address it.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the report that was submitted by foreign policy supremo Solana at the European Union in which he describes the way in which the security situation in Kosovo is spiralling out of control? As she is unwilling to grant a single service debate at an early date, will she at the very least allow the House a foreign affairs debate, as our armed forces are gravely at risk and Mr. Solana's prognosis is dire in the extreme?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and that that leads him to call for a foreign affairs debate, but one of the things that led the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons to recommend the creation of the experiment in Westminster Hall was the anxiety that a foreign affairs debate, which would cover, naturally, the entire world, was perhaps of less value to all participants than more focused debates of the type that we envisaged Westminster Hall accommodating. I warmly recommend that the hon. Gentleman seeks such a debate on Kosovo, if he wishes to.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Following the Lisbon summit, will it be possible to have a full-day debate on the internet and e-democracy? That would give us an opportunity not only to expose the glorification of St. Tony and the nauseating No. 10 website, but, on a wider scale, to look at the possibility of inter-activity with Standing Committees in their pre-legislative stages and Select Committees. Archive material may be put on some of the Select Committee websites, so that people may be able to access that, give their own suggestions as to areas of concern and make representations to Select Committees on the issues that they are discussing.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman made various suggestions on how we might, in future years, better exploit the opportunities offered by the internet. He will know that some of the House's own Committees are examining that matter. I suggest that, first, he should write particularly to the Information Committee to raise some of those issues. Many of the points that he made are a matter for the relevant Select Committee and for other Committees. However, I think that, as time goes on, ever more members of the public and hon. Members will wish to take advantage of the opportunities that he described.