HC Deb 02 April 2001 vol 366 cc37-44 4.32 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for the rest of this week.

TUESDAY 3 APRIL—Second Reading of the International Criminal Court Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 4 APRIL—Allocation of time motion relating to the Elections Bill and the Election Publications Bill [Lords].

Proceedings on the Elections Bill and the Election Publications Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 5 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 6 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will now include:

MONDAY 9 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 10 APRIL—Remaining stages of the International Development Bill.

Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment debate.

It may be convenient for the House to know that the Government will propose that on Tuesday 10 April, we have Thursday sitting hours and that, in consequence, the Westminster Hall debates scheduled for that day will not take place.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I wonder whether the Leader of the House could explain why the Election Publications Bill [Lords]—a measure introduced only because an Act passed during the previous Session of this Parliament was so badly flawed that it needs change and amendment before the coming elections—will be subject to an allocation of time. The reason for the flaws in the original Act was that the measure was guillotined; a specific part of the then Bill, which was so flawed that it is the subject of the new Bill, was guillotined such that the House gave it no scrutiny whatever. Given that fact, it seems wrong that the Leader of the House should propose that the, Bill be guillotined under an allocation of time motion.

On the Elections Bill, which has just been the subject of discussion in the House, the Leader of the House will know that although we can understand why it needs to be processed reasonably quickly given the deferred date of the local elections, a lot of questions remain and it needs proper scrutiny none the less. When denying that there was a need to defer the date of the local elections, she referred to the seriousness of such an action. That is on the record of the House, so I hope that she accepts that the Elections Bill needs proper scrutiny and debate, otherwise we shall be in the same position as we were with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which was an absolute mess.

Mrs. Beckett

Opposition Members sometimes ought to give a little more thought to the words that they use. That Act was not badly drafted—that would be an insult to parliamentary draftsmen. Indeed, the issue is one not of the Act, but of the commencement order, which the House must now consider. There was consultation on the handling of the Act and, in particular, on the order. Perhaps Opposition Members did not take part in it, but those who do not take part in the consultation cannot complain about the outcome.

This must be certainly the third time, if not the fourth, in this Parliament that, yet again, on legislation that the Opposition said they would facilitate through the House—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act and its order—there appears to be a wish to impede it when it is introduced. Finally, the hon. Lady draws attention to my remarks on the seriousness of the decision that has now been announced. She will remember, if she casts her mind back, that I have always referred at the Dispatch Box to the different voices and the different opinions that were being given to the Government and the need to weigh seriously all those voices and opinions, one set of which were not often represented from the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Does the Leader of the House recall that, on 22 March, I asked her whether she would find time to consider the Review Body on Senior Salaries report on the office costs allowance? At that time, she rightly reminded me that the report had been available only for a short period, but that was a fortnight ago and we now have some extra time in which the House could consider such matters. If the House were to accept the main body of the report, the officers of the House could prepare themselves for the new intake and, if there were to be a general election sometime in June, they could get the procedures ready to induct new Members in the measures on the office costs allowance contained in the report.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He has, of course, made that point to me on a previous occasion, and I fully understand his concern for the staff of the House. However, all I can say is that, although I hear the case that he makes, I cannot anticipate a further business statement.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I think that we all recognise that this business statement is an inevitable consequence of the Home Secretary's statement, but we also recognise that the real implication of that statement is that the general election will not now be held any sooner than 7 June. We may or may not be allowed to say that in good order, but that is the fact of the matter. Does the right hon. Lady accept that there are now increased opportunities for the House to consider matters that might otherwise have escaped its notice? Will she give an undertaking that several of the measures that are currently shuttling between this House and the other place will now have an opportunity for debate and resolution, including the Hunting Bill, the Health and Social Care Bill and—perhaps closest to my heart—the Adoption and Children Bill? Such legislation is long outstanding, but the House may now be able to deal with it effectively.

Mrs. Beckett

Although the hon. Gentleman talks about Bills shuttling between the House and the upper Chamber, certainly at least one of those that he mentions—the Hunting Bill—is still in the upper Chamber, and I cannot quite recall where we are with the others, but they are still in the upper Chamber.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I spent all weekend talking to farmers and people in the tourism industry in my constituency, and I have to report that the situation is utterly desperate, especially in the tourism industry. Now that we have all these extra days and, indeed, weeks before the great day, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether we can have a debate on that as a matter of great urgency, because many Members of Parliament are affected? May I suggest that a Treasury Minister be asked to attend that debate?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will have heard me say that I am not in a position to anticipate the content of further business statements, nor would he expect me to do so. I shall, as ever, take heed of his remarks.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I am stunned that the Leader of the House did not use the business statement as an opportunity to announce that there would be a full day's debate in Government time on foot and mouth, at which the Minister of Agriculture, the taskforce Minister—the Minister for the Environment—and a Treasury Minister would be available to answer questions. There is an opportunity now for the Leader to look at the business and announce such a debate. A national crisis is taking place and the general public will be staggered to learn that we shall go into recess from 11 April until 23 April and will not be here. Will she look at opportunities and procedures so that the House can be recalled at short notice to continue to look at ways of ameliorating the awful situation throughout the country?

Mrs. Beckett

I have taken heed of the remarks about subjects that Members wish to debate. However, I announced last week that the recess would commence on 10 April and I made it plain that that was in consideration of the dates of school holidays. If Conservative Members did not take that seriously, I cannot help that.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

In view of the serious problems in agriculture, can we have an early debate on the concept of set-aside, in which we could deal with that issue, the subsidy from urban areas to rural areas and those people who seem to be advocating the set-aside of democracy in this country indefinitely?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend asks for a number of issues to be discussed, certainly in his final remarks. I have taken heed of the pressing demand from the Leader of the Opposition that we should postpone an election without coming to the House to tell hon. Members when that election might take place. That is an interesting insight into his view of what is constitutionally proper. I shall take heed of my hon. Friend's request for a debate on these fundamental issues, but I cannot undertake to find time for one in the near future.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Will the right hon. Lady allow time for a debate on the increasing contempt that the present Government show for the House of Commons? A perfect example of this is the handling of the terribly important constitutional issue of the date of the local government elections, news of which was first leaked to The Sun and then to the BBC. We then had the Prime Minister making a statement at No. 10 and answering questions from newspaper reporters only. Is not that insulting to democracy and to the Home Secretary, who had to come here today to make a statement that has been announced three times before?

Mrs. Beckett

As I have just reminded the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I made the point at last week's Business questions—I know that the hon. Gentleman was not able to be with us for that—that there would be an Easter recess and that it would begin on 10 April, and no Opposition Member queried that.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

As I recall, the High Hedges Bill—which deals with leylandii, in particular—has been racing against time to reach its completion. It has had strong Government and all-party support until now and addresses a problem that causes serious distress to a great many people. Will the Leader of the House kindly take a close look at the possibility of furthering progress on that Bill in the extra time that is now available?

Mrs. Beckett

I am mindful of the cross-party support for the Bill. My recollection is that it is presently in Committee, but I am afraid that I am not familiar with how close it is to emerging. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but he may find that the answer to his question is on his own party's Benches.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Now that we have some more time, can the Leader of the House bring the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the House to make inside the House the statement that was made in the press over the weekend about the future of the railways? That has major importance, not least in terms of the deferral of the decision on who is to get the franchise for the east coast main line.

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered a parliamentary question today. I understand and sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman's request for a statement—Members often want statements on matters of interest—but I am not entirely sure whether he would have welcomed a third statement today.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

In view of what members of the lobby are saying, will the right hon. Lady confirm that there will be no provision in the Elections Bill for a further deferment from 7 June? If that is so, how will she deal with the matter? At present, foot and mouth is bad enough to justify the suspension of elections, but if it is the same or even worse on 7 June, it appears that those circumstances will not justify a further suspension.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, it is my understanding that the legislation will provide for a firm date, and I think that hon. Members would expect that. I shudder to think what Conservative Members would say if, as the Leader of the Opposition asked, the Government introduced legislation that did not contain a date. As to the notion that, in some way, all elections must be deferred until we can be absolutely clear that the crisis is totally at an end, I remind the hon. Gentleman that I think that I am right in saying that, in 1967, a rather smaller scale crisis lasted for eight months. I doubt very much that even Conservative Members would wish us to postpone elections beyond the termination of this Parliament.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady tell us precisely how long the House will have to debate the Elections Bill on Wednesday? Will she also reconsider the plea from the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and change the business for next Tuesday so that, before we rise for the Easter recess, we have an opportunity to debate these grave matters?

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have to debate the Easter Adjournment and I am not able to change that. I have taken seriously the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), but I fear that, at present, I am not in a position to change the business that is before us. I am also not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman the precise answer that he seeks about the time available for the Elections Bill. That matter is still under consideration.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross):

In view of the statement made by Mr. Gerry Robinson, the chairman of the Arts Council of England, that he proposes to wind up the regional arts boards this month—a statement that was made without consulting the boards—will the right hon. Lady suggest to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that he makes a statement to the House? That would enable us to hear more about how regional accountability is to be retained. It is appropriate that we know soon in view of the statement made by Mr. Robinson.

Mrs. Beckett

My recollection is that that statement was made some little time ago. I cannot promise the right hon. Gentleman a statement, but I shall draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

Given that the Prime Minister has said that he is taking personal control of the foot and mouth crisis in an attempt to stop it spiralling further out of control, and given that the current circumstances of the crisis, the epidemiological advice and the prognosis rightly justify in the eyes of my constituents the deferral of the local elections that were due on 3 May, what precise elements of the advice, crisis and prognosis have to be different in a month's time to justify proceeding with elections on 7 June?

Mrs. Beckett

I am being asked the same question repeatedly, as was my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that it has been clear latterly that, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister identified last week, the scale of movement of animals before any sign of the disease manifested itself publicly or had been detected was much more than anyone had understood. Consequently, the scale of the difficulties is greater than had originally been anticipated. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have taken account of issues such as the need to put in place the full machinery to deal with the scale of the crisis as we now appreciate it, but it may well be that all those matters can be dealt with in the time scale that we are discussing.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

When can we expect a decision and, therefore, a statement on vaccination against foot and mouth?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will know that that issue is and has been under active consideration. It is much debated and is very controversial, and he will also know that it does not offer, as media reports sometimes seem to suggest, a simple answer. All that I can say is that that option remains under active consideration and discussion.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Can the right hon. Lady tell us when the Elections Bill will be available? So that such important matters are adequately discussed, can she assure me that the Government will not shrink from an all-night sitting if necessary?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary hopes to have something for consultation later today. As for how late the House sits, that is a matter for the House as a whole. Although I have long experience of sitting late into the night in the House, I am rarely willing to do so unnecessarily.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)


Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) that I can call only those who were present for the statement.

Mr. Forth

The Home Secretary's comments make it obvious that the Elections Bill will, of necessity, be large and complex, as it will cover many contingencies and possibilities. It will, therefore, require proper scrutiny. It might even require considerable amendment, given that the Government's track record of getting things right the first time is extremely poor. The Leader of the House has helpfully told us that we might have sight of the Bill later today, which is generous of her, and that the Bill is expected to pass through all its stages on Wednesday. Will she be even more helpful and tell us how it will be possible to table amendments at each stage, given that we have not yet seen the Bill, it is to be before the House the day after tomorrow, and it looks as though the Government will try to shove it through in one sitting?

Mrs. Beckett

It just goes to show how different people's reactions and perceptions differ. The right hon. Gentleman says that he anticipates the Bill being large and complex, but it sounds to me as though it will be a small and simple Bill—clearly, there is a difference in our perceptions. As for the way in which amendments will be tabled, it will be done in accordance with the usual procedures of the House. The Government believe that the issues that need to be dealt with in connection with the Bill can be dealt with efficiently and expeditiously.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

I strongly support the calls for a full debate on foot and mouth disease, but I hope that the Leader of the House will make time available for a MAFF Minister to answer hon. Members' urgent questions. It has come to my notice that consideration is now being given to movement orders to allow livestock to be imported to the Isle of Wight. We are grateful to have been without foot and mouth and we have been careful to maintain disinfectant barriers at all our ferries. It would be wholly disastrous if livestock were allowed to move into an area that is the best protected in England.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of any such proposals, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

This morning, I accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Hobbs to No. 10 Downing street to present a petition. Just before Christmas, their eight-year-old daughter and her grandmother were killed on the A249, which is a notoriously dreadful road. The county council has finally agreed to build a bridge to join the two halves of their village, and the petition asks the Government for financial assistance. Given that today the Deputy Prime Minister said on the radio that he is commissioning the second half of the channel tunnel rail link—a project that, as far as one can tell, will cost £70 per passenger in subsidy—will he come to the House and explain the Government's transport priorities?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman, perfectly properly, makes a strong case on his constituents' behalf, and I am sure that the whole House sympathises with them in the terrible tragedy that they have suffered. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. However, while there are always many desirable improvements to be made, the fundamental infrastructure, of which the channel tunnel rail link is a part, must also be taken into account. The balance is sometimes difficult to weigh.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Does the Leader of the House believe that the way in which the serious announcement that has led to her statement today was made first to The Sun, before being made to the Cabinet and Parliament, is satisfactory?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an assertion, but as a member of the Cabinet I have no complaints.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that consideration of the remaining stages of the International Development Bill has been deferred from this week to next and that an opportunity has thus inadvertently been created for sober reflection, will the right hon. Lady undertake to speak to the Secretary of State for International Development and then to guarantee that there will be adequate time in next week's consideration fully to debate the issue of whether to incorporate into that Bill the OECD convention against international bribery in business dealings?

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. However, as the Bill is well prepared and has already had a great deal of sober reflection, I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will share the hon. Gentleman's view that it should be amended. As someone who wishes legislation to go through the House in good order, I do not seek to encourage people to amend legislation.