HC Deb 02 November 2000 vol 355 cc853-62 1.33 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will announce the business for next week.

MONDAY 6 NOVEMBER—Opposition Day [19th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on pensioners followed by a debate on privatisation. Both motions will arise in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

TUESDAY 7 NOVEMBER—Motions relating to the modernisation of the House of Commons.

WEDNESDAY 8 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Trustee Bill [Lords].

There will be a debate on the ninth report from the Trade and Industry Committee on proposed public-private partnership for BNFL. The debate will arise on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 9 NOVEMBER▀×Debate on the first report from the Liaison Committee on Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 10 NOVEMBER—There will be a debate on sport on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 13 NOVEMBER—Opposition Day [20th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Motion on the Energy Act 1976 (Reserve Powers) Order 2000.

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

THURSDAY 9 NOVEMBER—Debate on electronic conveyancing.

THURSDAY 16 NOVEMBER▀×Debate on fishing safety.

THURSDAY 23 NOVEMBER—Debate on a Select Committee Report. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 30 NOVEMBER—Debate on a Government topic. Subject to be announced.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the forthcoming business. Why has she tabled a guillotine motion on today's Order Paper for Tuesday's business? The motion will require the House to conclude its deliberations at 8 pm. As we have heard, that business is important to hon. Members and to those who take an interest in our constitutional proceedings. It seeks to require us, after the Queen's Speech, to curtail most of the votes that take place after 10 pm, which will be rounded up into one vote on a Wednesday. It also seeks to limit the time that we will be able to spend in future on debating Government legislation.

Why will such an important debate be curtailed at 8 pm? Does it have anything to do with the interesting and attractive invitations that many hon. Members have received to party next Tuesday night away as the American election results come in? Will the debate be curtailed to allow Labour Members to stomp at the Savoy instead of carrying out their duties to the House and the people whom they represent? Given that the motion stands in the right hon. Lady's name, I would be grateful if she would carefully consider changing her mind. Conservative Members want to scrutinise and debate such an important matter fully.

On Thursday we shall debate the Liaison Committee's report on Select Committees. The right hon. Lady said on a previous occasion that there would be a free vote on the matter, yet the House is to be denied a vote altogether. Despite representations, the debate is on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I ask for the debate to be on a substantive motion so that all hon. Members can express their views in the Lobby.

Will the right hon. Lady also consider allowing time for debates on two subjects about which hon. Members from all parties are concerned? The first is the position of the fire and rescue services around the country as a result of the radio spectrum auction which the Government have proposed. It will require them to change at great expense the systems that they currently use for radio communications. Arrangements have already been made for police forces around the country. The matter is now urgent because fire and rescue services have been given no suggestion about how they are expected to fund the considerable increase in costs that the auction will impose on them.

Notwithstanding the ten-minute Bill that was discussed this week, there are many letters about stem cell cloning in hon. Members' postbags. Will the right hon. Lady find time for a fuller debate on that important subject?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady first asked about the arrangements for the debate on Tuesday. Let me correct her, if I may. We have not tabled a guillotine motion, but a business motion, which is commonly tabled. Its timing will allow more than half a day for debate. [Interruption.] From the noises off, I can tell that Opposition Members do not often attend such debates. It is more time than we spent debating the parliamentary calendar and as much time as we spent debating whether we should set up the experiment in Westminster Hall. There is therefore nothing unprecedented about the time allowed for the debate.

Secondly, the hon. Lady asked me why the decision was taken. We anticipate that there may be a number of debates. She may be aware that one of her right hon. Friends has already tabled some 10 amendments, at least some of which he may wish to press to a vote. The hon. Lady suggested that it was because Labour Members might want to party the night away. Such remarks are most unwise. The last occasion on which I recall the House being kept up disruptively for a considerable time was when Conservative Members wanted to attend a dinner and the debate was prolonged until they came back. so it is always wise to be cautious about raising these parallels. Half a day for debating such an issue is perfectly normal and absolutely in line with all the precedents. We have made time in the hope that we can dispose of the business as expeditiously as is perfectly normal and efficient.

Thirdly, the hon. Lady asked me about the business on the Liaison Committee. Again, there is a precedent. If we look at debates on the Procedure Committee report, for example, as far back as 1990, 1994 and 1996—all under the previous Government—the precedent is for such matters to be discussed on a motion for the Adjournment. The hon. Lady asked whether there would be a free vote. I am always extremely careful about what I say about that, and I can tell the hon. Lady precisely what I said on every occasion when the matter was raised. All votes on House matters are free votes. That is what I said and those are the facts. I am astonished that the hon. Lady is in any doubt about that and that she and her right hon. and hon. Friends keep asking me about it every time we have a business statement.

The hon. Lady also asked about fire and rescue services. I shall undertake to make some inquiries for her. My recollection is that the matter was much debated when the spectrum option was being discussed and when the legislation was being prepared, but I will of course draw her remarks to the attention of my relevant right hon. and hon. Friends in case they have anything to add. I also take on board her request for discussions about stem cell cloning. We shall certainly bear it in mind and perhaps discuss it through the usual channels.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

As we move towards the anniversary of the gunpowder plot on 5 November, it may not surprise hon. Members that many people will be celebrating this weekend. May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1088:

[That this House calls for a ban on the sale of fireworks to the general public.]

At the moment, it does not have many signatures. It may be that hon. Members do not agree with the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), but there is a great deal of concern among our constituents about the nuisance, disruption and injuries caused largely because of the sale of ordinary fireworks to the public. Is it not time to reconsider the option of restricting the sale of fireworks, as many of our constituents are being disturbed and troubled by the illegal use of fireworks?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. There is concern if fireworks are used disruptively, and public safety is always a worry at this time of year. Although of course I share my hon. Friend's sympathy and concern for those who find these things distressing or who are in any way injured, the Government have again looked carefully at a review that was carried out by the previous Government about the possibility of banning the sale of fireworks to the general public. There remains concern that were we to do so, a black market in these goods might develop, or it might lead to some people producing home-made devices, and that would be even worse. We keep the matter under review, but I cannot undertake to act as my hon. Friend wishes at present.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the considerable difficulties that some hon. Members had in reaching the House on Monday? Will she consider carefully what steps are in her power to take, in consultation with you, Mr. Speaker, should the same happen next Monday? To illustrate that, let me draw her attention to the fact that at one stage on Monday my only route to the House appeared to be to fly to London City airport via Jersey, with no guarantee that the second half of the journey would take place. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] I managed to make it here.

The Leader of the House will be aware that similar problems involving public transport in general could arise if the statement that the Home Secretary has just given is repeated in future as the result of another fuel blockade? In such circumstances, attendance in the House will be unrepresentative, as it will consist of Members whose constituencies are close to the House, such as London Members. In those circumstances, what powers are available to the Leader of the House, in consultation with you, Mr. Speaker, to change the business of the House at short notice?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I am aware that many colleagues experienced difficulties, although, as he will have observed, many overcame those difficulties. The hon. Gentleman did not put it like this, but I understand that, had he travelled via Jersey, he might have been tempted not to complete the second half of his journey.

Any Government keep those matters under review because, in any winter, there are times when there are problems for Members. Of course, the matter is significantly one for Mr. Speaker, as well as the Government when dealing with the business. We shall keep these matters under review, but the hon. Gentleman will accept that, after last week's experience, Members will be mindful of the need to make satisfactory arrangements to try to attend the House.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Mr. Speaker, I take this first opportunity to extend to you and your family my warmest congratulations on your much deserved elevation to the Chair.

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the case of a 10-year-old constituent of mine, young Owen Roberts of Gibbonsdown in Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan, who broke his arm very badly eight weeks ago. His mum was unable to get medical attention or to get him to hospital for nearly 24 hours as a direct result of the actions of the so-called fuel protesters. In the light of evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry about the high level of threats and intimidation, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate in the House to assess accurately the effects of the protest?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the difficulties that many members of the public experienced, and I trust that the whole House is sorry to hear of the pain and difficulty experienced by a young constituent and the undoubted distress felt by any parent in those circumstances.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the effect of the disruption on people's lives. No matter how hard those engaged in such disruption try to minimise the effects on, for example, essential services, there will always be difficulties that cannot be overcome. I recognise that there were few arrests, as Opposition Members pointed out. It is generally held that much of the action that is now being described took place out of sight of the police, but I hope that even Opposition Members will not challenge the accuracy of statements being made, not by the Government but by oil companies and tanker drivers about the problems that they experienced. I hope that no one in the House supports such action.

I fear that I must tell my hon. Friend that I cannot find time for a special debate on the matter, but I am confident that it will continue to be aired here.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we have an urgent debate on Monday entitled "The Suffocation of the House of Commons" so that we can highlight the arrogance of the Government and, I regret to say, the Leader of the House in seeking to cut short the debate on the curtailment of debates in the House of Commons in perpetuity? That would also allow us to highlight the fact that the Liaison Committee's report to the Government and the House, which recommends proper accountability of Government, is being hidden away. Indeed, the Government will not even allow it to be voted on.

Those are serious matters and must not be allowed to slip by without the House being given a proper opportunity to discuss in a full day's debate without time limit the fact that we are about to end all possibilities in the House for proper Government accountability and opposition.

Mrs. Beckett

I see no point in having an urgent debate on Monday about something that will be debated on Tuesday. As for the notion that, in some way, it is improper to discuss whether we should programme our business better, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there are those on his Benches who have long advocated such moves; that the matter was raised in the Jopling report; that that was also supported in the House; and that, only this week, the Hansard Society has published a report making a number of recommendations, of which the first is that all parliamentary business should be timetabled in precisely the way that the Modernisation Committee has proposed. The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to say that he believes that all those who advocate that view are wrong, but he cannot, in those circumstances, be correct in saying that it is a unique example of the arrogance of the Government and the Government alone.

The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the Liaison Committee report. Again, that is not being hidden away. It is being debated in accordance with precedent on a motion for the Adjournment. As for whether it will be voted on, Members can vote on a motion for the Adjournment if they choose, and do so from time to time.

Much has been said about the issue of a free vote. On any House matter, there are free votes on the Labour side. It is not clear from what the Leader of the Opposition said about the Liaison Committee report whether there is any intention to have a free vote on that on the Conservative side.

To finish on the right hon. Gentleman's first point, he asks why we do not have a debate on the suffocation of the House of Commons. I concede that no one is better fitted to lead it than him.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The Leader of the House will be aware that there was a half-hour debate yesterday in Westminster Hall on Saint-Gobain' s takeover and proposed closure of Biwaters, which would lead to 700 jobs being lost in the constituency that I represent. She might not be aware that that debate left many questions unanswered and many other issues in dispute.

May we have a wider debate to allow us to discuss the powers of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry under the Fair Trading Act 1973 to refer mergers to the Competition Commission, and to discuss what is considered to be a material fact in that case? We were informed that it was not a material fact that there were proposals to close Biwaters. That seems to a number of us to be incorrect and should be considered by the House. There is an important matter to pursue.

I raised the issue last week and the Leader of the House said that she would have a word with the Prime Minister about the petition that was sent by my constituents to Downing street. I wonder whether anything followed from that.

Mrs. Beckett

To take up my hon. Friend's last point, of course that was drawn to the attention of the relevant authorities. I fear that I have not come armed with the answer. To return to his first and later points, I know that he has on a number of occasions raised the problems being experienced at Biwaters by his constituents and pursued them assiduously through all the channels open to him. He now makes a different, although equally legitimate, point about the role and powers of the Secretary of State. It is an issue that could be separately explored. Again, my hon. Friend might like to use the opportunities that he has already used in raising the specific issue of Biwaters and the problems that have arisen there. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the House on the subject in the near future.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Can the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on preliminary views on the Phillips report, given that the criticisms in that report are more trenchant than the rather cosy exchanges last week might lead the outside world to believe? Furthermore, will she ensure that there is sufficient time when the Freedom of Information Bill returns to the House for a Government amendment to extend the scope of the Bill to scientific advice provided to Ministers—an amendment that the Government have so far resisted in both Houses?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Again, it is open to hon. Members to seek to pursue opportunities to secure their own debates on those matters, but I can only confirm what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said last week: it is the Government's intention to have a debate on those matters, but we feel that it would be better for the House if that took place when the Government were in a position to highlight their initial response to the report. I understand the anxiety to have earlier debates, but, considering it is a 16-volume report and my right hon. Friend urged people to study the whole report, the Government would be reluctant to stage a much earlier debate, although, as I say, it is open to the hon. Gentleman and to his colleagues to pursue the matter.

As for the issue of the Freedom of Information Bill, no doubt that matter, too, will be raised when the Bill returns to the House, but I can only repeat that the Government have striven to get a sound and workable balance between putting as much information as possible into the public domain, and not jeopardising the proper and sensible operation of government.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I thank my right hon. Friend for finding time next Wednesday for a debate on BNFL as it relates to the report from the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. However, would she consider that if the debate had taken place this Monday, we could have debated the urban and rural White Papers from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? Can she find time—probably, after the announcement of the urban and rural White Papers—for a full debate on those important matters?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those matters are not yet before us, but I shall certainly bear his remarks in mind.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the right hon. Lady find time for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement on last night's Herbert Morrison lecture, which he gave and in which he said that Labour had exaggerated what was possible in its first term of government and that one of the key lessons of that first term was the need not to over-claim…? He also said that members of the Government were all a bit guilty of letting some of our sense of the possible get out of sync with the pace of change on the ground. There are hon. Members on both sides of the House who would feel that, in the case of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that is an example of confession being good for the soul.

Mrs. Beckett

I have heard only brief reports of the speech to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I am not clear to what extent my right hon. Friend is being quoted directly and to what extent a spin is being put on what he said.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for the important debate that the House needs to hold on global warming? We have seen some of the consequences of global warming lately—the recent floods. There have been many examples, both in this country and abroad, of changes in weather patterns, which are disastrous for many people. We need to debate global warming to find out what the Government—and, indeed, the British people—can do to try to tackle that ever increasing problem.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In recent days and weeks, it has become increasingly clear that we are experiencing some of the more severe weather that people have long predicted. My hon. friend will know that investment in flood defences has increased—by a further £30 million for capital schemes in the spending review this year. The investment will now be some £267 million over the next three years. I believe that he has experienced problems in Arnold in his own area. I hope that the resources that are being made available will be of assistance, but he will know that those problems will take some time to overcome.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

If it is true that, on Tuesday, many hon. Members will be enjoying themselves following the American presidential and congressional elections, could it be that those elections actually mean something precisely because the Select Committees in Congress are so powerful? Will the right hon. Lady therefore accept that Thursday's debate on our Select Committees is vital? I know that she wants to help the House, but can she make it clear that we shall have an Adjournment debate in which Members can express their general opinions, after which there will be substantive motions amendable with a full free vote so that all Members can exercise their conscience? That is an important issue, and I know that she will want to help the House.

Mrs. Beckett

There are substantial differences between the Committees in the American Senate and Congress and those that exist here, but the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that that does not necessarily lead to greater voter interest and identification, because the turnout at elections in America is substantially worse than in this country. I do not draw a logical connection between the two matters; I simply make the point that his case is not necessarily made by what he says.

The hon. Gentleman requests a debate on the matter because it is so vital. I agree that it is vital and very much hope that all Members who take part in Thursday's debate will have read the report and that they will have given serious thought to its recommendations. I do not dismiss the report lightly; it is very serious indeed. If it were to be brought into effect, it would have profound implications and profound consequences for the House, not least for the standing and role of individual Members.

I was saddened to see the Leader of the Opposition appear to respond in a knee-jerk manner to something that he hopes the Government would dislike. The report has grave implications for the House, Ministers and Back Benchers alike, regardless of who is in government. It is also a matter on which I know that there were strong opposing views among Opposition Members. I hope that we will not see those views stifled.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, on your election. This is my first opportunity to do so.

Could we have another—but full—debate on the situation in the middle east? Although there was a debate on it last week in Westminster Hall, events are moving very fast. In the light of the very welcome agreement between Nobel prize-winner Peres and Nobel prizewinner Arafat; of signs that it may be possible to get back on the path of negotiations, which would be very welcome; and of the concerns expressed to me by many of my constituents who are worried about a spillover into this country of conflict in the region, could we have an early debate to reaffirm our support for peace, negotiation, dialogue, compromise and the overall Oslo process?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot offer an early debate on the issue, although I accept—I think that the whole House accepts—its importance and timeliness. Fortunately, however, we have Foreign Office questions on Tuesday, and my hon. Friend may find an opportunity to raise the issue then.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

When can we have a debate on the growing crisis in medical general practice? In Dorset, and particularly in my constituency, general practitioners are finding that they are not allowed to exercise their clinical freedom to prescribe the drugs that they think are best for their patients because their budgets are subject to rationing. Additionally, primary care groups are taking unlawful sanctions against general practitioners, depriving them of their staff budget, if they do not reduce the service that they provide to patients. The situation is desperate. People who are entitled to receive the medicines that their doctors think are best for them are being deprived of those medicines because of the Government's budgetary constraints—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the House has got the point.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has exposed the flaw in his argument by his own remarks. The budgetary constraints being experienced in the health service under this Government, are nothing compared with those that were experienced under the previous Government, and, indeed, they are being substantially improved. As for the constraints issue itself, I think we all understand that there are genuine difficulties in striking a good balance between the most efficient use of moneys, particularly in prescribing, and the required level of clinical freedom. For those who were not fundholders, the level of clinical freedom that the hon. Gentleman describes did not exist under the Government whom he supported.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I was very disappointed by the reply that the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) on his request for a debate on the middle east crisis, because it is a desperately serious situation. On Monday, on television, the Israeli Foreign Minister said that he supported the concept of an independent Palestinian state. Meanwhile, however, he was unable to say why Israeli forces were continuing to occupy the Palestinian areas and to fire on protesters, including large numbers of unarmed young civilians.

The situation has enormous implications for events in the middle east as a whole, and there is a danger of other nations becoming involved in it. Obviously, we all hope that the Oslo peace process is resumed and gets back on track, and that we end up with a ceasefire and—I hope—an independent Palestinian state existing alongside the state of Israel. However, does not my right hon. Friend think that we could do a bit more than simply raise the issue at Foreign Office questions next week, and have a full and serious debate on the crisis?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a series of important points. As he said on the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), there is no doubt that it is a difficult situation, and that the whole House hopes that recent developments signal an easing of the difficulties. However, although he is right to identify that there is a difference between having a debate in the House and Foreign Office questions, the latter will provide an opportunity for the issue to be raised and aired. I also recommend to him the extra opportunities for debate in Westminster Hall, where I understand that there have been a number of more specific but also very well-attended and very good foreign affairs debates.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Does the Leader of the House understand the anger that is generated when she announces business that will mean the most revolutionary changes in the procedures of the House, certainly in my lifetime, and then tells us that she will decide how long we can debate those changes? Surely the debate should continue until everyone who wants to speak has spoken. Anything less is an abuse of the rights and privileges to speak on such matters bestowed on Members of Parliament by our constituents. Will she reconsider her position, because I do not think that she would wish to be guilty of such an abuse?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I sympathise with the concern expressed by Opposition Members, but the notion that these are the most revolutionary changes that have taken place in the hon. Gentleman's lifetime makes me doubt whether he has been paying attention these past 20 years.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Ministry of Defence is conducting an inquiry into the possibility of making ex gratia payments to the former far east prisoners of war. Can we have a debate on the issue on the Floor of the House? There are only about 7,500 of those ex-POWs left now. They are men who endured the most brutal treatment at the hands of their Japanese captors. Is it not about time that we put right what the Tories neglected for 18 years? They never cared about the POWs, the pensioners or all the people who sacrificed so much in the defeat of fascism. It is about time to put matters right, have a debate and get the payments made.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's wish to remind the House of what he properly describes—no one in the House would dissent—as the terrible suffering experienced by those to whose war record he refers. I fear, however, that I cannot find time for a special debate on that matter, especially as at present we have had and are having a number of defence debates.

Several hon. Members

rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on. I will take note of those who were patient and did not get called.