HC Deb 09 May 2001 vol 368 cc118-24 3.43 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The business for tomorrow will be: consideration of Lords amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill. Then, if amendments are received from the other place, the House will also consider Lords amendments to the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. That will be followed by the remaining stages of the International Criminal Court Bill [Lords]. The House may also be asked to consider any other Lords amendments that may be received.

On Friday, if amendments are received from the other place, the business will be, consideration of Lords amendments to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill, then the Armed Forces Bill and the Social Security Contributions (Share Options) Bill. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to all Acts. Parliament will be dissolved on Monday 14 May by proclamation.

In addition to the business in Westminster Hall, I remind the House that the Regional Affairs Committee will meet at 1.30 pm tomorrow.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. Can she confirm that Treasury questions will be taken tomorrow?

I welcome the fact that later today there will be time to debate the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill, a measure that has cross-party support and which is of particular help to people in rural areas, especially those who have suffered from the foot and mouth crisis.

It has been interesting to note which Bills have not been given high enough priority to progress to their final conclusion—reference was made to that during Prime Minister's Question Time. They include the homelessness legislation, the International Development Bill, which has yet to receive any scrutiny in the other place, and the Adoption and Children Bill, which for reasons we all understand is still at the Committee stage as it is complex and requires careful scrutiny. It is important that I put it on the record that, on coming to office, the Conservative party will almost certainly reintroduce the Adoption and Children Bill as a priority for a Conservative Government. Having had a Queen's Speech for this Session as late as December last year, it is regrettable that priority has been given to legislation on foxes rather than that on international development and the homeless.

The Leader of the House announced that in tomorrow's business we shall deal with the Health and Social Care Bill, which will abolish community health councils. CHCs contain people who have served their community well, and have been the champions of patients, holding health authorities and the medical profession to account. At this late stage, I plead with the Government to consider the valuable work that those people have done, and to drop that part of the Bill.

Mrs. Beckett

I confirm that there will be Treasury questions tomorrow, and that we anticipate that we shall

get through the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill. As the hon. Lady rightly said, the Adoption and Children Bill is under discussion in Committee. It deals with a complex and important subject, and the whole House wants it to be dealt with thoroughly.

It is obviously a source of regret that other legislation may not proceed. I am surprised by the hon. Lady's remarks about the International Development Bill, as there was nothing to prevent the Conservative party from allowing it to reach the statute book if it chose to do so.

The issues raised by the Health and Social Care Bill will be discussed, but as I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, the Government believe that we need to put in place stronger arrangements for the representation of patients, which is what the Bill envisages.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)

Does the Leader of the House share my regret that this is the first Session of Parliament since the 1973–74 Session when no private Members' Bills have succeeded? On her return, will she ensure, while protecting Government business, that private Members' Bills are also protected, especially from individual vandalism and the wrecking techniques of Conservative Members?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. A feature of this Parliament—not just of this Session—is that it has been much more difficult than usual to get private Members' Bills on to the statute book, even those that were widely thought to be non controversial and that were welcomed by all parties. I accept that that is a matter for concern. My hon. Friend will know that the issue is much discussed.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that, should she still be chairing the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, she will look favourably on the suggestion that the way in which we deal with private Members' legislation should be examined as a matter of urgency? I think that all Back Benchers would concur with that.

Does the right hon. Lady share my concern and astonishment that the Conservatives seem to want to blackball the International Development Bill, although it has been subject to much inquiry? Will she please do everything in her power to make them see reason? Does she accept that there is an element of stage-managed brinkmanship at the end of a Parliament, but this time it is extraordinary, given that we have all known for many weeks that this moment was coming?

Does she also accept that it is extraordinary that the Government are anxious to steamroller legislation through the House in this Parliament when presumably they are confident of re-election? On the other side, the Conservatives are desperate to extract the last ounce of compromise when presumably they believe that one day they will be elected to government again. The way in which we have to deal with these matters at the fag-end of a Parliament is extraordinary.

Mrs. Beckett

Few parliamentary ends were more evidence of that than the end of the last Parliament.

Although it ran until the last possible date, at the close of the Session it was necessary for the Government to deal with some 16 pieces of legislation—substantially more than we shall need to deal with this time.

It is, I fear, a feature of our system that it is always necessary to deal with things in this way. I reject the suggestion that we are attempting to steamroller legislation through —we are allowing time for proper consideration—although I share the hon. Gentleman's regret about the [...]stonewalling of the International Development Bill, which I find wholly inexplicable.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

As my right hon. Friend will know, one of the private Members' Bills that have, sadly, been lost is my Christmas Day Trading Bill, which would have protected the interests of low-paid workers and secured their right to remain with their families on one of the most important days in the Christian calendar. May I commend the subject of the Bill to my right hon. Friend, and hope that Her Majesty's Government will look kindly on an important but quite straightforward measure which could be passed fairly quickly by an incoming Government and which would, I am sure, be welcomed by low-paid workers throughout tie United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend knows that I am not in a position to give advance commitments, but I understand the importance of the issue that she has raised and, as always, take her remarks seriously.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the right hon. Lady give me the last assurance that I shall ask of any Minister? Will she assure me that, whatever position she holds in the next Parliament, she will use her experience in the Modernisation Committee—especially in the context of its last report—to try to enable Members on both sides of the House to realise the concept of ensuring that all legislation i fully debated and all Opposition amendments properly considered? That was the intention of the Committee's report; it has not worked, but it requires the co-operation of both sides. Perhaps, in the next Parliament, I shall be able to look from afar and see that it really is working.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case, which I know he has pursued assiduously for many years. I have no hesitation in giving him, unequivocally, the assurance that he seeks.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

As my right hon. Friend knows, over the past couple of months I have pressed regulary for a debate on matters of standards and privileges. Can she assure us that there will be a debate early in the next Parliament, before any assessment of the case being made by the office of standards for an increase in its resources? May we have a debate first, and then consideration of resources?

Mrs. Beckett

First, may I say that we shall certainly miss my hon. Friend on the Labour Benches?

My hon. Friend says, correctly, that he has pressed me on this matter a number of times. He makes an important point, and I have taken his words on board; but I suspect that, although he will not be here to deal with the issues that he has raised, others will take them up.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

As I made clear earlier today, the Prime Minister has maintained a stream of correspondence, and has held several meetings, with the Hindujas, which he did not disclose to Sir Anthony Hammond's inquiry. Parliament is the proper place in which to raise these issues. We now need a statement from the Prime Minister to clarify his position on two important points. First, why did the right hon. Gentleman ignore official advice, deepen his personal relations with the Hindujas and extend his Government's business with them, when he knew from January 1998 onwards that they were under investigation by the Indian Government? Secondly, why did he conceal his contacts and his meetings from Sir Anthony Hammond's inquiry?

Mrs. Beckett

None of that will arise in the business that we shall take during the next couple of days, and I think it a sad indication of the Conservative party's desperation that it seeks to raise those issues now.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On the points made by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), the former Chairman of the Procedure Committee, does my right hon. Friend accept that, if programme motions are here to stay whoever forms the next Government, and I cannot see any change, it is important to try to reach agreement—it may not be possible—with the Opposition, so that we do not sit all through the night, which is not necessary and which the public do not appreciate, and that the Opposition have the opportunity to put their points of view which is the essence of our place of work and of parliamentary democracy? A compromise is possible if both sides wish it.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Indeed, there is growing evidence that people have begun to understand the opportunity and advantage that scheduling debate in that way can offer the Opposition. Let us hope that they will have many more years to make use of it.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The right hon. Lady may be aware that, last weekend, we had the first serious outbreak of foot and mouth in west Somerset and that some 5,000 animals were culled, Which is the clearest possible reminder that the suggestion that the outbreak is under control and over could not be more inaccurate. In that connection, a very serious crisis is emerging not only for agriculture but for tourism in the area. May I plead with the right hon. Lady again to speak to her colleagues in government and to do the one thing that might help: to introduce interest-free loans for some businesses, which otherwise will simply collapse? It will cost the Government much more, if they are serious about tourism, to try to re-create them. May we have a statement from the chairman of the taskforce before Parliament is dissolved?

Mrs. Beckett

All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know is also leaving this place, is that it is inaccurate to suggest that anyone has said that the foot and mouth outbreak is over. What has clearly been taken on board is the fact that, mercifully, the number of cases is falling, but everyone is very conscious of the fact that it is by no means over. Indeed, both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have said repeatedly that we must expect some fluctuation in the position and perhaps even some increase on occasion in the number of cases.

The right hon. Gentleman makes the point about the assistance and support that should be made available. I cannot promise that there will be a statement in the next few days, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the Minister.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Some 43 days ago, I asked two questions of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which have still to receive a substantive answer. As questions are meant to be answered within a few working days, will the right hon. Lady confirm that all proper questions that are in order will be answered before the House rises?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot confirm that off the cuff, but I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the relevant Department.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Walter Bagehot drew a distinction between the dignified and the efficient parts of the constitution. We have heard this week about the dignified parts: prorogation, the audience with the Queen and such like. What answer does the right hon. Lady have to the heartfelt plea by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) about the decline in the ability of this place to scrutinise the Executive? Is she aware that we are in danger of becoming a dignified part of the constitution? The only effective part will be the audience that the Prime Minister has with the head of the fourth estate, the editor of The Sun.

Mrs. Beckett

I point out to the hon. Gentleman, who I am sure was listening to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), that the right hon. Gentleman claimed that that trend had taken place over the past century, not over the past four years. Some of the changes that the Government have made have improved opportunities for scrutiny, not least the opportunity to scrutinise business from the European Union. There were substantial gaps in the ability of the House to cover that legislation, which have been remedied by the Government. Further opportunities have been provided in Westminster Hall, the establishment of which was opposed by many Conservatives Members. Other reforms are under way, including the reforms long advocated by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), the former Chairman of the Procedure Committee. We believe that those reforms will facilitate improved scrutiny, should hon. Members use them to their full effect.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

I echo and reinforce the call by the shadow Leader of the House for the Government to take the ready opportunity and the chance to save face, and not to scrap community health councils. The excellent CHCs of Cheshire Central, and Chester and Ellesmere Port need not be scrapped. There is a continuing sense of outrage about the scrapping of those excellent representative bodies. The Government have a chance to do the right thing. I urge the Leader of the House to encourage her colleagues to take that chance now.

Mrs. Beckett

Those matters have been extensively discussed in our consideration of the Bill, and no doubt they will be again.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that 1 tabled to the Agriculture Minister a named-day question on whether he would make a statement on the price of inspection for small and medium-sized abattoirs? The question was due to be answered today, so why have I only been told today that it has been transferred to the Secretary of State for Health. Why has the question not been answered today?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot tell the hon. Lady that, but I can certainly undertake to draw her concerns to the attention of my relevant colleagues.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

It might be helpful for the right hon. Lady to know that MAFF has told me in an answer that it has not been able to answer within the allotted time 98 per cent. of the questions that it has been asked in the past month. My question, however, is whether she will answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about whether there will be Treasury questions tomorrow.

Mrs. Beckett

I did answer that, and there will be.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Can the Leader of the House explain why No. 10 Downing street was yesterday able to issue a press release announcing that Dissolution will be on Monday, whereas she was clearly unable to answer that question when she was asked it in the Chamber? Why was it possible for that information to be made clear to the press before hon. Members were allowed to have it?

Mrs. Beckett

The press were informed first, but negotiations were continuing when I made my statement yesterday. That is why I was not able to give the House all the information that I gave it today.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

As it would appear from what the Leader has told us that most of the business in the next two days relates to amendments coming here from another place, and since presumably even the Leader cannot predict with great accuracy how many amendments there may be, may we have an undertaking from her that the Government will make no attempt to reduce, truncate or otherwise limit the time that we have properly to consider amendments from the other place and any other business that may be before us? I think that it would be very helpful, even at this stage of the Parliament, if we were given that reassurance and if the Government were prepared for once properly to be scrutinised and held to account in this place.

Mrs. Beckett

I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall follow the precedents that have been followed by every Government at the rise of every Parliament.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Does the right hon. Lady recognise that the prospect of a number of items of business on Friday will give me an additional glint in my eye and spring in my step as it presumably means, does it not, that Friday's business will close with an Adjournment debate on treatment of diabetes sufferers, which it will be my privilege to introduce?

Mrs. Beckett

I must freely confess that I had not been studying that. However, the hon. Gentleman may well be correct.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the right hon. Lady ensure that, before Dissolution, we have an opportunity to discus s the two impending tube strikes in London and the other rail strikes across the country that have been called by the RMT union? Such a debate would give us an opportunity to discuss the extraordinary fact that not only the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but his deputy, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) are members of that union. Of course the Secretary of State also receives substantial benefits in kind from that union

Mrs. Beckett

I do not see any need for a further opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to make a point that he has already made on a number of occasions.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The reply that the Leader of the House gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgewater (Mr. King) shows that the Government still underestimate the desperate problems caused by foot and mouth to the rural economy. I have been on to the Agriculture Minister's private office for almost a week trying to sort out certain problems with licences, and we need his presence in this Chamber in the next two days to answer questions. We also need the presence of the Minister responsible for the taskforce. Although the Government have made some glossy PR announcements about the sums that are being handed down, people in the tourism industry cannot get hold of that money. They do not know who is distributing it or the criteria for applying for it. Members representing rural areas have only two more days to put those questions to the responsible Ministers. Can she please make a clear statement on why those two Ministers cannot find time in the next two days to come to the House to answer decent questions?

Mrs. Beckett

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that everyone in the Government takes the crisis in the rural economy extremely seriously. Additionally, as he will have observed, substantial sums have been made available, whether it is to agriculture or to tourism, and that will continue. I shall certainly draw the concerns expressed by hon. Members to the attention of my right. hon. and hon. Friends

As the hon. Gentleman will, I believe, be the last contributor, may I take this opportunity, Mr. Speaker, to thank you, and your predecessor, for the way in which you have presided over this mêlée? Indeed, I thank all those who have participated, not least the shadow Leader of the House and her predecessors. As Leader of the House, let me say—on behalf of the whole House, if I may—how deeply indebted we are to all those who facilitate our proceedings: the officers and officials of the House in every capacity.