HC Deb 04 May 2000 vol 349 cc293-301 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House give 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 8 MAY—Remaining stages of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill.

TUESDAY 9 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Transport Bill.

WEDNESDAY 10 MAY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Transport Bill.

THURSDAY 11 MAY—Debate on the common agricultural policy on a Government motion. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 12 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 15 MAY—Second Reading of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill.

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

TUESDAY 16 MAY—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 17 MAY—Remaining stages of the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill.

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

THURSDAY 18 MAY—Second Reading of the Care Standards Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 19 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the business for the following week. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government motion for Thursday's debate will be tabled in good time?

The right hon. Lady has not announced the Northern Ireland policing Bill, which has been widely trailed and expected. May I ask what has happened to it, as it is getting rather late in the Session to introduce new Bills?

Although we are grateful that the debate on Lords reform is not being held today, when many hon. Members are reconnecting with their electorates, it is an important debate, and it is important that the House should address the key issue of the role and composition of the second Chamber. I therefore hope that it will not be too long before we can have that debate.

There is continuing concern in the House about the future of Longbridge and Dagenham, and it is some time since we had a statement from the Trade and Industry Secretary. Might we expect such a statement next week on progress in the negotiations between BMW and possible bidders?

If there are any developments on Zimbabwe, could the House be kept informed?

In today's elections, there are new methods of voting—which are always of interest to hon. Members. Could we have a debate on the implications of those experiments, in case they are extended and applied in future Westminster elections?

The Leader of the House may have received an e-mail message saying "I love you". I have to tell her that, sadly, that affectionate greeting contains a virus which has immobilised the House's internal communications system—the parliamentary data and video network. That means that no Member can receive e-mails from outside, nor indeed can we communicate with each other by e-mail. That has important implications for how we set about our duties and how we keep in touch with our constituents. I understand that, currently, our suppliers have no known cure. Is the right hon. Lady satisfied that everything possible is being done to restore the system? Does she agree that a review is needed to ensure that, in future, our system is adequately protected from such viruses?

The line of route is to be opened during the summer recess for the first time. It is therefore more important than usual for the dates of the summer recess to be known, so that proper planning can be made for that facility. Can the Leader of the House shed any light on that important event?

Mrs. Beckett

I anticipate that the terms of the Government motion for the debate on the common agricultural policy will be tabled later today, or certainly before the weekend, so that the House will have time to consider it.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Northern Ireland policing Bill. As he will have observed, it is not tabled for debate next week. The Government intend to table it when they are ready, and remain committed to doing so.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is glad that we are not debating House of Lords reform today. Of course, I recognise that it is an important matter and that the House wishes to have a debate on the subject before too long, and will bear that in mind.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the House can be kept informed about events at Longbridge. He will be aware that it is Department of Trade and Industry questions next Thursday, which will provide an opportunity for that. On both that issue and events in Zimbabwe, the Government will endeavour to keep the House informed.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's request for a debate on the implications of any new methods of voting. It will take some time for such an evaluation to take place, but I will bear his request in mind. It might be a suitable topic for Westminster Hall.

I do not know whether I am sorry or pleased that, as far as I am aware, I have not received an e-mail saying "I love you". I understand the concerns that the right hon. Gentleman has identified. I believe that the House authorities have shut down the House's e-mail in order to protect our systems—which seems to be a swift, decisive and sensible approach. Although it is a little early to judge, it seems that part of the problem is arising from the sheer volume of e-mails that the original e-mail generates. I understand that it triggers a response to everybody on a system's address book, so it may be the volume as much as the content.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that, until this moment, no cure has been identified. The House authorities have taken action to protect our systems and I am sure that they and the Information Committee will want to review what is happening and its effect. The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the House systems—we are obviously anxious to protect those—as though it is primarily the House that is under attack. I do not know whether he is aware that the same phenomenon is being observed widely across the private sector and across government. Clearly, it is something to which attention will have to be turned and I am confident that the Information Committee, with the House authorities, will do so.

At present, I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the dates for the summer recess, although I accept his point about the line of route. As always, we hope to avoid sitting in August.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I have not received an e-mail from the Government leadership saying "I love you".

As a qualified engineer and Leader of the House, will my right hon. Friend cast a benign eye on the problems of the greatest monument to 19th century engineering anywhere in Europe, by which I mean the Forth rail bridge? It is tentatively listed as a world heritage site. As hon. Members know, particularly the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), world heritage sites and potential sites have to have management plans. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Scottish Executive and the Scotland Office to find some way between them of establishing a management plan? Unless it is done soon, that bridge will deteriorate because of the inappropriate treatment by rigblast, which might be all right for North sea oil rigs for 25 years, but is no good for structures that have lasted 100 years and which are expected to last for another century or more. As an engineer, will my right hon. Friend cast her mind over this problem and knock heads together?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand entirely my hon. Friend's great concern and I know that his view will be widely shared, not just in the engineering community but across the United Kingdom. I will draw his remarks to the attention of the relevant Departments. I believe that consideration is being given to how proposals for the bridge can be taken forward and I know that everyone will share his anxiety to ensure that the monument is protected and preserved.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Is the Leader of the House as reassured as I am by the fact that the House authorities quickly realised that any message sent to a Member of Parliament saying "I love you" would obviously cause trouble? Seriously, this is an important issue. We are grateful to the House authorities for acting as promptly as they did, but I hope that there will also soon be a report to the House to tell us what can be done to protect our systems of communication, which are extremely important in any democratic legislature.

Why, in the provisional business for the week after next, has it been decided that hot dog sellers in royal parks should take precedence in prime time over the extremely important debate on the future of the House of Lords, which, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said, has been postponed from today? Surely we cannot go on waiting for the Government to come off the fence and tell us what their proposals are. We all know that that will be the burden of the debate on the Wakeham report. Can we now have a firm promise that that important debate will take place before the Whitsun recess?

Mrs. Beckett

First, the House authorities may well have been swift to identify an e-mail addressed to any politician saying "I love you" as something that was not only likely to cause trouble, but was clearly not genuine. Their response was clearly triggered by a sound cynicism.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard previous exchanges about the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill, in particular involving the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), so he will know that it is a minor but important measure that will not only remove an inconvenience and ensure that tourists and visitors are properly protected, but prevent the unfortunate instances of violence, gang involvement and food poisoning that have happened under the present arrangements.

The question why the Bill needs half a day to be debated should be addressed to those who tabled four pages of amendments to what was previously regarded as a completely uncontroversial piece of legislation—which is, indeed, sponsored by Conservative Members. The hope and anticipation was that it would have been enacted last year, being uncontroversial, and would now be in effect. If it does not go through soon it cannot possibly take effect this summer, so there is some urgency, although of course I take the point about the importance of Lords reform.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Has my right hon. Friend any good news for me?

Mrs. Beckett

Not yet, I fear.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

Given that, at this very moment, voters all over London are struggling with an unfamiliar electoral system for electing the mayor of London, and that today's newspapers report that the Prime Minister intends to stifle debate at his own party conference on the subject of electoral reform—no doubt because he fears the honest and straightforward views of many Labour Members—will the Leader of the House undertake to make time for a debate on the subject in the near future, in this proper debating Chamber and not in Westminster Hall, so that we can hear the true views of Labour Members?

Mrs. Beckett

I would be surprised if anyone was struggling with the voting system. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has voted yet, but I have—

Mrs. Laing

I certainly have.

Mrs. Beckett

I am pleased to hear that. Having voted, I do not think that anyone would find it a struggle.

I am not aware of any proposals to stifle debate on electoral reform at the Labour party conference. Indeed, I would be very surprised if anyone was giving massive thought at the moment—I am certainly not—to what might be debated there. I realise that the story is in the newspapers, but I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that that does not mean that it is necessarily true.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on the fact that we are fulfilling an election pledge by bringing back the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill? Will she also consider a debate in the reasonably near future on the continuing problems in getting compensation payments to coal miners for white finger, with an increasing number of people dying before compensation arrives? I know that the Government are very concerned about the matter, but there are still substantial delays.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks on a subject in which he has taken a great interest. He has also been active on the issue of white finger, as have many colleagues, especially on the Labour Benches. The compensation schemes for that affliction are now beginning to come into effect, but concern remains about some of the other schemes. However, I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is working with the unions and representatives of the mining industry to get those payments through as fast as possible.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

In March 1998, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee produced an excellent report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. In May last year, the Government responded by saying that they were beginning work on a plan to implement a series of changes in line with the Committee's recommendations. May we have a debate in which we can learn what is happening, because we have heard nothing on the subject since and important elections will take place next year, including local government elections and perhaps even a Westminster election?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an important and powerful point. The Northern Ireland Office has a great deal on its plate at the moment, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, especially in relation to the elections that are due next year.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on science in the Chamber in the near future? Since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have been disappointed that many hon. Members respond to scientific advances with fear and loathing—often arising from incomprehension—rather than hope and inspiration. If we are to capitalise on advances in biotechnology and build on our incredibly successful pharmaceutical industries, we need a better understanding of the issues.

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's view that science is a very important subject. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the Chamber in the near future, but I understand that there will be a debate next week on a report by the Science and Technology Committee in Westminster Hall. I know also that my hon. Friend recently had an important debate there on some medical issues. Because of the existence of Westminster Hall, we are able to air such matters, although it is not easy to find time in the Chamber.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Is there any possibility that the Home Secretary will make another statement to tell the House the outcome of the inquiries that he announced in his statement on Tuesday? He said that several questions remained unanswered and that he was seeking answers. Will the House be given those answers? Our constituents who write to us with representations about the need for more policemen on the beat have been left with the unwelcome impression that the largest congregation of policemen brought together for an operational purpose were effectively ordered to stand by and watch while the nation's most important monuments were desecrated.

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Home Secretary has a good track record of keeping the House informed and I am sure he will continue to do so.

Mr. Swayne

indicated assent.

Mrs. Beckett

I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees. It is right and proper for hon. Members to ask questions about the nature of the decisions that were taken and why they were taken, but it is also important for the House to avoid straying into second-guessing the operational decisions that have to be made by the police. It would be especially unfortunate if any impression were created that any hon. Member was attacking the police. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to do that.

Mr. Swayne

indicated assent.

Mrs. Beckett

I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees again. We must be grateful to the police for the excellent job they do. Their tactical decisions are the decisions they have to make because they are at the sharp end.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent bid for the assets and workings of Associated British Ports by the Japanese investment bank Nomura? At present, it is not clear whether the bank wishes to develop the land on which the ports stand or wishes to operate the ports. In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend make time available for a debate on the future of UK ports, particularly those that are strategic to the UK economy, such as Southampton?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, particularly as he is one of the hon. Members who represent the great port of Southampton. My understanding is that the bid to which he refers has not yet been successful, but I recognise his wish to air the issues that surround it. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the House in the near future, but my hon. Friend, like others, might like to explore the possibility of putting a question to Ministers during Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions questions next Tuesday, or raising the matter in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

I have the honour to serve on the Select Committee on Agriculture. Today, I received a very disturbing letter from the National Sheep Association describing an abattoir in Eardisley which has a reputation second to none for quality, which gets premium prices for its products in France, and which has just lost a £6 million order for 150,000 lambs because the owners have decided to close it down. Despite the fact that, over the past two years, 16 vets have given it excellent health scores, a new vet appointed by the Meat Hygiene Service has dropped its scores, forcing it to close.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make a statement to the House? Not only will the closure have a devastating effect on the sheep industry on the Welsh borders, but it exposes a fundamental flaw in the way in which the Food Standards Agency has been constituted in that it cannot act as an executive agency via the Meat Hygiene Service and as the policing agency for the industry.

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, although he will know, as he is a regular attender at these questions, that there is great concern about the operation of abattoirs and the Meat Hygiene Service. I fear that I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friends to make a special statement, but I feel confident that with a little ingenuity, and some good will from the Chair, the hon. Gentleman might manage to raise the matter during the debate on the common agricultural policy next week.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Given that local elections are being held today, as well as Londonwide elections, would my right hon. Friend, after consultation with the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, consider arranging for a debate on council tax valuation? Certainly, there has been a live debate on the rights and wrongs of second home discounts, but I am more concerned about the possible need for revaluations of the bandings because park homes, which are also known as mobile homes, are valued at well below £40,000—the level at which council tax bandings start. A week ago, I visited the Berkeley Vale site in my constituency, so I know that the matter is a source of aggravation. Is it time for a proper, informed debate.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I cannot undertake to find time for a specific debate on the matter in the near future, nor can I say offhand whether he will find a slot in oral questions to DETR next week. However, a working group is looking at the precise issue that he raised, with regard to the concerns of those who own or rent mobile homes. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of the relevant Minister.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to the inquiry of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), can we please have an urgent debate on local government? Does the right hon. Lady accept that that would provide an excellent opportunity for the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the leader of the Liberal Democrats to defend the fact that their parties in control of local councils charge respectively £124 and £79 a year more than Conservative authorities for band D council tax? Would it not also provide an admirable opportunity for my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) to point out that precisely because Labour and Liberal Democrat authorities provide rotten services at rip off prices, people would be altogether wiser to vote Conservatives?

Mrs. Beckett

I am tempted by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should have a debate on local government, especially one focusing on council tax. For perfectly understandable reasons, Conservative Members are—and have always been—obsessed with one council tax band or another, although precisely which band preoccupies them changes according to what best suits their case.

My experience is that people do not give a damn about how the tax is calculated: what they care about is the amount that they pay. For some reason the hon. Gentleman did not think to mention the fact that people living in Labour areas pay the lowest average council taxes and have had the lowest average rise in council taxes.

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) may not be as grateful to the hon. Gentleman as the hon. Gentleman imagines, as the council tax in Tory-controlled Tunbridge Wells has gone up by 7.5 per cent. compared with the average increase in Labour-controlled councils of 5.9 per cent. The hon. Gentleman will understand why I am tempted to grant his request, but I fear that I just cannot find the time.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on finding time for the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. All of us who are interested in animal welfare will be especially pleased with her announcement today. However, will she confirm that the Government will get the Bill through the House, even though certain Conservative Members seem prepared to go to any length to stop it?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has strongly supported the Bill for a long time, and I am grateful to him for his kind remarks. I assure him that, as we said on the previous occasion when the Bill should have been put before the House, the Government remain committed to making a change that is sought by the industry as well as by the general public.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on the current crisis arising from the mismanagement of our national foreign currency and precious metal reserves? She will know that we do not enjoy a strong pound, which has fallen from $1.68 to $1.55 over the past few months. However, we suffer from a very weak euro, which has fallen by 23 per cent. Why has Germany decided to increase the value of its reserves by buying gold, whereas Britain has decided to sell gold and buy weak, plummeting euros?

Mrs. Beckett

As the House is aware, decisions about the management of reserves are taken on the advice of the Bank of England. That advice has been followed in this case. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman's other remarks were more than a little off-message. He said that Britain does not enjoy a strong pound, but my understanding is that the Conservative party has been talking about a sterling crisis because of the strong pound. I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to go back to his Whips and get a fresh briefing.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a written answer from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, dated 13 April, to a question from me about the case for compensation for distant-water trawlermen? The answer states: The case for providing compensation for former distant-water trawlermen is being given urgent consideration and a decision is expected shortly.—[Official Report, 13 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 268W.]

That gives me a glimmer of hope, but the case has been going on for more than two decades. Will my right hon. Friend do all that she can to ensure that "urgent" means urgent, that "shortly" means shortly, and that a statement is made to the House on this most important issue while there are still some men left to compensate?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I know how strongly she has campaigned on this issue. She is right to identify the matter as one that has been around for decades rather than years. I am not in a position to deal with her request, but I shall certainly draw her remarks and concerns to the attention of the relevant Ministers, who I know will be anxious to deal with them if they can.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

My right hon. Friend will know that the nature of the reporting of, and media commentary on, the trial of my constituent Tony Martin has done much to raise the fear of crime in rural areas. Local Conservatives have been eager to attack the Government, but their comments have undermined the police. Moreover, the Leader of the Opposition has stomped around the country making unhelpful comments which, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister noted yesterday, he does not repeat in the House. Does not my right hon. Friend think that the Government should hold a debate on law and order, so that those issues can be discussed in the House? I hope that on this occasion she does not refer me to Westminster Hall, as I have rarely seen the Leader of the Opposition there.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, both about the attitude and stance taken by the Leader of the Opposition and about the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is not likely to be visible in Westminster Hall.

I share my hon. Friend's concern. Yesterday, the exchanges between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition offered a good and classic example of the shortsightedness and folly of the Leader of the Opposition, not only in the way in which he raises such issues but in his remark that he was prepared to see a change in mandatory life sentences—a legitimate point—but only in the context of self-defence. The right hon. Gentleman apparently overlooked not only the fact that Kenneth Noye was released by a Conservative Government, but that his defence, on both occasions when he appeared before the courts, was self-defence. All of that shows that it is wise to think more carefully about such matters than the Leader of the Opposition apparently does.