HC Deb 15 February 2001 vol 363 cc455-66 12.32 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House please give the business for the coming week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The business for the week after the forthcoming constituency week is as follows:

MONDAY 26 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Criminal Defence Service (Advice and Assistance) Bill [Lords].

Motion to approve the Administration Committee report on the trial summer reopening of the line of route.

TUESDAY 27 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Hunting Bill.

WEDNESDAY 28 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 1 MARCH—Consideration in Committee followed by remaining stages of the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill.

FRIDAY 2 MARCH—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week after will be:

MONDAY 5 MARCH—Debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

TUESDAY 6 MARCH—Second Reading of the International Development Bill.

WEDNESDAY 7 MARCH—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

THURSDAY 8 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 9 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 28 February, there will be a debate relating to the protection of the European Communities' financial interests and to the Court of Auditors' annual report for 1999 in European Standing Committee B.

On Wednesday 28 February there will also be a debate relating to informing and consulting employees in the European Community in European Standing Committee C.

The House will also wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 7 March there will be a debate relating to motor vehicle distribution and servicing agreements in the European Community in European Standing Committee C.

Additionally on Wednesday 7 March, there will be a debate relating to health requirements for animal by-products in European Standing Committee A.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

The business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of March will be as follows:

THURSDAY 8 MARCH—Debate on public funding of civil legal services.

THURSDAY 15 MARCH—Debate on the Social Security Committee report on housing benefit.

THURSDAY 22 MARCH—Debate on the Scottish Affairs Committee report on poverty in Scotland.

THURSDAY 29 MARCH—Debate on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland.

[Wednesday 28 February 2001:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union document: Unnumbered EM submitted by DTI dated 21 November 2000, informing and consulting employees. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee report: HC 23-xxx(1999-2000).]

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document: (a) 13572/00, European Community Finance; (b) Unnumbered EM submitted by HM Treasury dated 20 December 2000, European Community Finance. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report HC 28-v (2001).

Wednesday 7 March 2001:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union document: 13889/00, Competition in Motor Vehicle Distribution and Servicing. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 28-iii(2000–01).]

Mrs. Browning

I am grateful to the Leader of the House, although I suspect that her attractive red outfit may be matched by some red herrings in what she has announced. I am sure that it will be comforting to hon. Members of all parties to know that the House will be sitting throughout the month of March.

The House rises today and does not return until Monday 26 February. Under normal circumstances, we would have expected ministerial statements on two pressing matters. The first is the millennium dome, and today's report that there will be a handback clause in the sale agreement—

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

A handbag?

Mrs. Browning

The hon. Gentleman did not hear me, so I shall repeat that it is reported that there will be a handback clause in the sale agreement. There is great concern about that, and I am sure that the House would want to hear about the details of the agreement for the disposal of the dome site from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The dome has been a terrible drain on lottery resources, and it is very worrying to think that it will continue to be a drain on taxpayer resources. Will the Leader of the House explain how the Government intend to inform hon. Members about the detail of the agreement, given that the House will be in recess?

The second matter on which we would have expected a statement is the complete failure, announced today, of the Home Office computer system to process asylum applications. For the past four years, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has been challenging Government policy on the matter, often in Opposition time. The Government continued to claim that they were increasing the rate at which decisions were processed, and made no reference to any technical problems with the computer. The Home Office now says that the problems are due to the computer. The Government seem to be falling back on those old chestnuts when a problem arises—it is the fault either of the previous Tory Government, or of the computer. Those excuses are beginning to have about as much credibility as the promise that the cheque is in the post.

Will the Leader of the House say when we can expect a White Paper outlining the consideration given by the Government to the constitutional consequences of scrapping the pound? The matter is especially pertinent, as we heard only this week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been rebuked by the European Union for spending too much public money. That is our money, and it has been spent in our country. Will the right hon. Lady ensure that for the first time the Chancellor shares with the House how he and the Government came to the decision that there are no constitutional consequences to the policy? Otherwise, we fear that the Chancellor's EU masters will continue to wish to control UK public expenditure, regardless of whether we join the euro.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady asked about statements on the dome. To the best of my recollection, the fact that discussions on the handling of the dome are continuing is in the public domain. She referred to stories about a handback clause, but I am afraid that I have not seen them. I am sorry to learn that they are causing great concern, but I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions is taking such matters into account.

The hon. Lady then moved on to the issue of the Home Office computer system. I know that it is very awkward for Opposition Members that almost all the present computer systems were commissioned by the previous Government, who tied us in to irrevocable contracts. Those contracts had very severe penalties, and we could not abrogate them. I recognise that that is a real source of difficulty, especially on matters such as asylum, out of which the Conservative party is trying to make some mileage.

I heard the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) this morning trying to pretend that no one had ever mentioned problems with the system in the past. I do not know where the right hon. Lady has been, but I remember copious references to the problems. If I heard her correctly, she also alleged this morning that no one had ever said that the system had been commissioned by the Conservative party. I have heard that repeatedly over the past few years—in despairing tones, from ministerial colleague. As I am feeling charitable today, I will say that the right hon. Lady was uncharacteristically inaccurate.

On the question of a White Paper on the constitutional consequences of the euro, as you will be sadly aware, Mr. Speaker, we have been over this territory many times. The Conservative party is completely familiar with the Government's position on the constitutional issues—we do not believe that there is a bar—the moves towards the euro and the five economic tests. There is nothing to add to what has been said so often before.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the International Criminal Court Bill is progressing through the House of Lords. However, I am disappointed that she has not given a date by which it will be debated in the Commons. Could she now do that so that the Bill can get here rapidly? Clearly, the Bill will be an important step forward in dealing with the prosecution of international war criminals and dictators in the future.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's great interest in the Bill, of which he has long been a supporter and advocate. I say to him, gently, that the Bill has not had its Report stage in the House of Lords.

Mr. Corbyn

I said that it was progressing.

Mrs. Beckett

I know, but it has not yet completed its progress. No matter how great the concern, we do not set timetables for debates in this House when the other House is still dealing with a matter. We do not presume to know the judgment of another House until a Bill arrives here.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to a matter that may be of particular interest to you, Mr. Speaker—namely, the report this morning from the Procedure Committee on the election of Speaker? May I ask for an undertaking from the right hon. Lady that the House will have an opportunity to debate this report as soon as possible? Given that the Committee itself seems to have reached a consensus on recommendations to the House—that is broadly representative of the House generally—we may require very little time in the Chamber to deal with the matter. Perhaps the Leader of the House might find such an opportunity even in the week after our constituency week. It is important that the matter be determined before any possible Dissolution. Will she give us that undertaking today?

Secondly, I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the report this morning that the official advisers to the Government on the safety aspects of the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services are very concerned about the qualifications of the preferred bidder. Clearly, this problem should be brought before the House as quickly as possible so all Members can see what is involved.

Thirdly, what are the plans for the remaining stages of the Hunting Bill on Tuesday 27 February? The Leader of the House will be aware that substantial amendments are being tabled by the Government to cover huge areas of concern on all sides. Putting aside the personal views that all hon. Members have, I am sure she would agree that we all have a responsibility to make sure that the Bill is workable and practical and meets the anxieties of police forces throughout the country. Can I have an undertaking that, if it proves necessary, amendments will be available before Monday, the day before the debate? Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that if additional time is required, we can at least go until midnight that night, if not longer? Perhaps she might negotiate with Conservative Front Benchers who, I understand, share our anxieties about getting the Bill right. Perhaps the Government might like to borrow half a day—or even the whole of the following Opposition day—from the Conservatives so that the House can give the Bill careful consideration.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the publication of the report on the election of a Speaker. The House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who chairs the Procedure Committee, and his colleagues for their assiduity and speed in dealing with the matter. I have not had an opportunity to study the report fully, but I understand that it is very good. We all appreciate that.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) knows perfectly well that no Leader of the House would make a commitment ahead of time to dates that have not already been announced. I repeat my comments to the hon. Member for Macclesfield and his colleagues that I understand the House's wish to discuss the matter and make decisions on it. I shall bear that in mind; doubtless it will be discussed through the usual channels.

I have seen the press reports to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall referred. The Government have always stressed that safety will be an important factor in any decisions. If the press reports are accurate, they will be carefully considered by my right hon. and hon. Friends who deal with those issues.

Discussions are under way about the best method of scheduling and debating the remaining stages of the Hunting Bill to ensure that hon. Members have an opportunity to reach a proper decision according to the wish of the majority. I cannot say more now, but those discussions are being undertaken in a spirit that all hon. Members would welcome. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's generous offer of a day of Conservative time.

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the review of local government finance? Consultation on the Green Paper, which was published last year, ended at the beginning of December. We held a debate only two weeks ago on this year's review, and several hon. Members raised general anxieties about the subject. In the light of those factors, it would be useful to discuss those issues generally before we make a decision on the future of local government finance.

Mrs. Beckett

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. Although the local government grant has increased by 14 per cent. in real terms in the past four years, compared with a cut of 7 per cent. in real terms in previous years, anxiety remains about the underlying structure for settling local government grant. Hon. Members of all parties share that anxiety. I cannot undertake to find time for an early further debate on the matter, but it is hoped that further proposals, perhaps even a White Paper, will be produced later this year.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

There was much discussion yesterday about long supplementaries, and especially long, rambling replies at Prime Minister's Question Time. Is not that almost implicit in a 30-minute session? Would not the House be better served by a return to two 15-minute sessions a week?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that Opposition Members like to make much of that point because they believe that the Government are somehow in a weak position. However, the Conservative party, not for the first time, is in danger of shooting itself in the foot. As someone who has had more experience than most hon. Members of dealing with Prime Minister's Question Time from the Opposition Benches, I believe that the 30-minute session is much harder for a Prime Minister. It gives a competent Opposition an opportunity to conduct a sustained line of questioning, which pits greater pressure on a Minister and a Prime Minister.

Despite the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about inadequate answers, the Prime Minister's second change, to which Conservative Members never refer for some reason, cut out the time-wasting repetition of the answer, "I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago." The Prime Minister has answered more questions than his predecessor; he answers them well, and the Conservative patty makes an error, not for the first time, in requesting a change.

Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham)

The Leader of the House will of course know that, since 1997, my constituency has received a substantial amount of money through regeneration budgets. Will she consider scheduling a debate on the relationship between retailers and multinational fast food chains and urban regeneration in our town centres? I ask that in the light of KFC's decision to pull out—indeed, to chicken out—of Tottenham High road, and our anxiety that other such outlets on our high streets will follow suit.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend and his constituents recognise the role that the Government have played in putting substantial further resources into the area. However, I also understand the underlying concern that he expresses and that I think is felt in many parts of the country about both the change in our high streets and the way in which that change renders community feeling and the local environment somewhat vulnerable. I sympathise with the concern that my hon. Friend expresses. I fear I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the Chamber on those issues, but he might seek an opportunity in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I thank the right hon. Laity for the very courteous and encouraging response that she gave to the question asked by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on the Procedure Committee's second report entitled "Election of a Speaker"? May I maximise my charm, diplomacy and persuasion in asking her whether she realises that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members—including I think the overwhelming majority of Labour Members let alone Opposition Members—would like to have a debate on that report and to have in place a new system for the election of a Speaker by the end of this Parliament? It is an important issue, and the Procedure Committee undertook the inquiry at the request of the House. May I make that fervent plea for an early debate?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point. He is also entirely right to say that it was very clearly the wish and the will of the whole House not only that such an inquiry be conducted, but that it be conducted expeditiously. As I said, we are all grateful to him and to his Committee for having done so. He will not, I know, expect me to go much further than I already have in answering the question from the hon. Member for North Cornwall. However, I do indeed bear in mind the wish of the House in wanting the report to be carried out, and I have little doubt that it will be the wish of the House for the report to be debated.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

May I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention a series of complaints that I have had from residents of Barrow upon Humber about a recent outbreak of lawlessness in the village? They are particularly concerned about cars continuing to park at bus stops and a truck that ended up in a bumper-to-bumper confrontation with a police car—when a bus was not able to proceed up the high street because it was blocked by the truck and a Mercedes was parked in the bus stop. May we therefore have a debate on observing the highway code? The fact that the truck was a "Save the Pound" Tory truck and the Mercedes at the bus stop was owned by a Conservative Member is in no way colouring my views on the issue.

Mrs. Beckett

I am very sorry to hear of the sad experience of my hon. Friend's constituents—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mrs. Beckett

Yes, indeed, I am devastated, particularly as it would appear that the incident was due either to bad parking by a Tory Member of Parliament or to the lack of progress of a piece of Tory party propaganda on wheels. Clearly, yet not for the first time, a Tory bandwagon has hit some problems. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for debate specifically on that matter.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Is there any possibility of a Home Office Minister making a statement to the House on the policy for the treatment of people seeking asylum in this country, giver that genuine asylum seekers would have no objection at all to being held in detention until it was shown that their applications were genuine? It would then be possible to see whether there was any alternative to the Conservative policy of having comprehensive detention, which wail ensure that those who deserve asylum get it and that me vast majority who do not are not able to get into society illegally, as is happening under this Government.

Mrs. Beckett

I am pleased to hear what the hon. Gentleman says about sympathy—which does not always shine through on the Opposition Benches—for those who are genuine asylum seekers. Of course we understand the anxiety to ensure that those issues w e properly resolved.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the Conservative policy of universal reception centres. It is unfortunate that the Conservative Government did not implement the policy during the years when they had the opportunity. I have, no doubt in common with other hon. Members, experience of constituents who were here seeking a decision on their case for years under the previous Government without its ever being resolved. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, not only has the Conservative party opposed all the measures that we have introduced to tackle asylum problems but it is CN en opposing the only proposal that has been made so far for a new detention centre, at Aldington. Therefore, although ugh I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, I fear that, not for the first time, the remarks made by members of his party are not consistent with its policy.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we return to the question of the loss of jobs in the steel industry and consider the disgraceful events of yesterday? At dawn, a confident announcement was made of 4,000 jobs for redundant steelworkers. By midday, it turned out that the jobs would probably never be created and, if they were, that few of them would be located in the areas where the steelworkers lived. Is it not grossly unfair to steelworkers to raise their hopes in that way? Was it not reasonable of the steel union to describe yesterday's stunt as "a cruel fantasy"? Would not a debate be an opportunity to appeal to Corms once again to negotiate in a reasonable way with the steelworkers and the Government, instead of indulging with its collaborators in self-serving publicity stunts?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will know that there is considerable concern about the impact of the Corus changes on the local communities and that the Government are determined to do what we can to assist and will work to provide retraining or other opportunities. I understand my hon. Friend's concern that some of the proposals, when followed through, will not have as much impact as was hoped. He will know that the Government have throughout pressed Corms to reconsider some of its proposals and have consistently offered to do what we can to help. That position remains unchanged.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

The right hon. Lady will be aware that yesterday was one of those rare occasions when the Prime Minister gave a full and enthusiastic answer to one of his hon. Friends about regional government, referring specifically to the north-east. Can she assure my constituents that such a statement does not indicate that the Government have serious intentions of introducing an assembly in the so-called north-west of England? The very thought of another layer of government and even more politicians like us fills my constituents with horror. Their loyalties lie with their town, their county and their country, and there is no room for an alien concept such as the north-west of England, which is merely a geographical expression and carries no sense of identity for the people of my constituency.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, with which I suspect that not everyone in the north-west agrees. We have been consistent in making it plain that, were any proposals to be made for the development of regional government structures, they would be implemented only if that was the wish of the people in the locality. The hon. Gentleman can therefore reassure his constituents that there is no danger of anything being imposed on them against their will.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

Will my right hon. Friend be able to find time for a debate on the obscene profits announced by the oil companies, perhaps with a view to levying a windfall tax in order to compensate motorists?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that great concern has been expressed about the profits of the oil companies, and that that has been drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and other right hon. and hon. Friends on repeated occasions. My hon. Friend will know that we look carefully at all the issues and all the complications that arise, but he will also know that, while my right hon. Friend has undertaken to take those matters into account, he has made no commitment on them.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I revert to an important point made by the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). Why do Her Majesty's Government refuse to make a statement in this place on the dome? Can the Leader of the House not change her mind, even at this late stage? Is she aware that the taxpayer is paying £1 million a month for the care and maintenance of the dome, and that a cosy deal seems to have been struck with the Labour benefactor, Mr. Bourne, whereby his bid can be perpetuated as the sole bid under consideration—notwithstanding the fact that other bidders, such as Mr. Gerbeau, are keen to have their tenders considered? Is that not a scandal? Does the right hon. Lady not realise that obfuscation and flannel by the ignoble peer, Lord Falconer—[Interruption]—in the other place shed no light on the matter and do not reassure the public that an honest deal is being done for the taxpayer and for the country?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not refer to an honourable Member of the House of Lords as "ignoble". Perhaps he would be good enough to withdraw that remark.

Mr. Wilkinson

I think Mr. Gerbeau talked about the total ineffectiveness of the Government—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am instructing the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the remark.

Mr. Wilkinson

I withdraw it and say instead "the ineffective peer in the other place".

Mrs. Beckett

With regard to the request for a statement on the dome, I told the shadow Leader of the House that of course the matter is under consideration at present, and will remain so. There is no cause to make a statement at present; no doubt the point will be borne in mind, should the need for such a statement arise.

As for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about a cosy deal, it is not a cosy deal—the matter is in the public domain. Mr. Bourne has indeed been a benefactor to the Labour party—he has been a benefactor to the Conservative party as well.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I know that my right hon. Friend always reads the latest Employment Service statistics with great care. I am sure that she will have been as delighted as I was that they show that youth unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 50 per cent. since 1997. Could she make time for a debate on youth employment and the success of the Government's programmes, and could particular attention be given to the differential rates below the minimum wage, which are paid to apprentices, as I think that there may be abuse by some companies?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes two powerful points. I have noticed increasingly that observations are made by my hon. Friends about the dramatic fall in youth unemployment and in long-term youth unemployment. I have no doubt that the same phenomenon is occurring in the constituencies of Opposition Members, but for some reason they do not want to mention it very often. The fall in youth unemployment should be a source of great satisfaction to Members on both sides of the House. Nothing could be mere damaging for the future of our country than for the young, in particular, to languish in unemployment and se e their prospects and hopes blighted so early in their lives

I take my hon. Friend's point about the concerns as to the potential for exploitation in the different rates of the minimum wage. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, although my hon. Friend may find that there are opportunities to raise it in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

When are we going to have the debate on small businesses? Last week, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), the Leader of the House said that many requests w ere received for annual debates and that it was not possible to comply with all of them. Is not this matter different, however? Does the Leader of the House remember that the Labour party made an explicit policy promise in its manifesto at the previous general election that there would be an annual debate on small businesses? Are not he Labour Government reneging on that promise?

Mrs. Beckett

We are not reneging on anything. I am simply unable to announce a date at the present time.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on consumer protection? There are two principal reasons. The first is so that the Government can amplify the provisions of the White Paper "Modern Markets: Confident Consumers". Secondly, such a debate would give the Conservative party the opportunity to explain its consumer protection policies. For example, some Conservative Members supported the Outworking Bill and put their names to it; others opposed on principle providing legal protection from con artists wanting money up front; and those on the Conservative Front Bench, while saying that they agreed with the principles and participating in the debate, absented themselves from the vote, thereby effectively killing the Bill for this Session. Vulnerable people who could have been protected will now have to wait months, perhaps years, as a result of their actions.

Mrs. Beckett

I have great sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend makes. I know how disappointed he will be that he was unable to make further progress with his Outworking Bill. Sadly, as he will know, it is by no means the first time that Conservative Members have claimed to support legislation, or to be perfectly happy to facilitate its consideration, but the opposite has happened, and they claim it is ill an unfortunate coincidence. He is therefore right to draw attention to that problem, and I share his regret that it is not possible to proceed with his Bill and do more to protect outworkers. I am confident that my hon. Friend, and those like him who genuinely wish to help those who are being exploited, will look for other opportunities to raise the matter, but I fear that I cannot promise a debate on the issue in the near future.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The Government have made some very controversial changes to our procedures, with a view to injecting some certainty into the legislative programme. Against that background, will the right hon. Lady tell the House how optimistic she is that, by the end of March, the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill, the Social Security Contributions (Share Options) Bill, the Health and Social Care Bill, the Homes Bill and the Hunting Bill will have completed their passage through Parliament?

Mrs. Beckett

I should have to check precisely where all those Bills are at present, but the right hon. Gentleman may be inviting me to anticipate some of the decisions of the other place. He is certainly right to say that we have embarked on some experimental changes in procedures, which are controversial, especially among Conservative Members, but have long been recommended by Members on both sides of the House. We believe that as the procedures settle down, they will give the House greater certainty and enable us to deal with legislation more effectively. I am confident that the Government's legislative programme is well on track.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Might my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the administrative costs of social security—in particular, the new Conservative plan to scrap the automatic £200 winter allowance for pensioners, which would be expensive, complex and confusing—

Hon. Members: Order, order.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot heat the hon. Gentleman, with hon. Members shouting "order?. Let me hear what he is saying. He might know that the Leader of the House is not responsible for Conservative party policy, but he can continue with the question; I s ant to hear what he has to say.

Mr. Leslie

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I wanted to ask my right hon. Friend whether the Government would find time to debate the administrative costs of social security, so that we could debate issues such as the effect of scrapping the automatic £200 winter allowance for pensioners—a plan that would b not only confusing and complex, but extremely costly. Chat blows a hole in the Conservative party's hollow aspirations to cut the costs of red tape, which are a complete and utter joke.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the concern that any Government should feel about the possibility of a substantial increase in administrative costs for no gain. I understand his wish to debate the possible impact on costs of the policy that the Conservative party currently advocates. Such are the pressures of time, however, that I fear I cannot find time to debate issues such as social security every time that the Conservative party changes its policy.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Does the Leader of the House have any intention of restoring to our timetable the debate on the Standards and Privileges Committee which, rather sinisterly, she pulled out of the timetable last week? Unfortunately, there is a danger of our whole system of self-regulation being irrevocably discredited. The Committee has overridden the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on three occasions, and it so happens that each time a member of the Government was involved: the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), formerly the Secretary of State for Scotland, and the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), formerly the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Chairman himself has been convicted by the commissioner of systematic non-disclosure.

The inquiry into the affairs of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), has dragged on for more than a year and will drag on for even longer because the Committee is hearing witnesses, something which the same Chairman refused to do in the inquiry into the Hamilton affair at the beginning of this Parliament. In fact, he cut off the Committee proceedings when I was about to question Mr. Hamilton, and he prevented us from calling Fayed or any of the other witnesses.

We need to know what is going on. Will the Leader of the House restore that debate to the timetable so that we have an opportunity to express our concerns? I hope that there will also be an opportunity for those concerns to be satisfactorily addressed.

Mrs. Beckett

Although I am somewhat disappointed by what the hon. Gentleman has said and the tone in which he said it, I am in some ways quite pleased that he said it on the Floor of the House, because it enables me to tell him how disgraceful I thought his contribution was on the BBC last week, when he made exactly the same points. He was, as he pointed out, a member of the previous Standards and Privileges Committee, and in consequence I should have thought that he knew better than to try to undermine the work of the present Committee in the way that he has done previously and again today.

I must say two other things to the hon. Gentleman. First, despite his remarks, the Committee's decisions—which it is free to make on behalf of the House, as is right and proper—were unanimous. The Committee makes the decisions that it believes are in the interests of the House. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who chairs the Committee, is held in high esteem and respect in the House, which is more than can be said for the hon. Gentleman at present or will be said if he carries on like this.