HC Deb 01 November 2001 vol 373 cc1005-13 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House give the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 5 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill (Lords).

Motion to approve the special education needs code of practice.

Motion to establish the Liaison Committee.

TUESDAY 6 NOVEMBER—Opposition Day [4th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Crisis in the Government's Education and Life Long Learning Policies".

WEDNESDAY 7 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the International Development Bill (Lords).

THURSDAY 8 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Export Control Bill.

FRIDAY 9 NOVEMBER—Debate on drugs strategy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

MONDAY 12 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Animal Health Bill.

TUESDAY 13 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords].

Motion to approve a money resolution on the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill.

WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Football Disorder [Amendment] Bill.

THURSDAY 15 NOVEMBER—Motion to update the House sub judice rule.

The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration at 4 o'clock.

FRIDAY 16 NOVEMBER—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Subject to be announced.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. May I ask him again—I hope that this is the last time that I have to do so—to tell us when we will have the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement? It would be helpful to the House and to those outside if we could have notification of that.

Before we come to the Second Reading of the Animal Health Bill on 12 November, will the Government clarify the position on the report on the assessment of hunting in foot and mouth areas? It strikes me as rather odd—or maybe it is not that odd—that a Minister is sitting on the report, presumably because its contents are not what the Government would wish to share with the House or anyone else. Given its relevance, may I have an undertaking from the Leader of the House that we shall know the contents of the document before Second Reading? Obviously, they will be highly relevant to it.

May we have an urgent statement, well in advance of Remembrance day on 11 November, on what is going on following the headline in today's Daily Express, of all newspapers, "The Cruel Betrayal of our Old War Heroes"? In the editorial, the Daily Express, of all newspapers, says: But in a shameful example of red tape and bureaucratic pettiness, members of the Royal British Legion who were planning a traditional Remembrance Day in Berkshire have been banned from making their traditional march to church. A two-minute procession has been stopped because, under the Human Rights Act and the Road Traffic Act, the Legion would have had to apply for the road to be closed and provide signs a week in advance of their parade. This would be laughable if the matter were not so serious. I demand that the Leader of the House arrange for the matter to be clarified and cleared up so that Remembrance day can be properly carried out throughout the country without being obstructed in a ridiculous way by the Human Rights Act 1998 and the attendant bureaucracy.

Mr. Cook

It is obvious that the right hon. Gentleman's period in office is not in any way mellowing him. I am heartily relieved.

First, there is the question of the pre-Budget statement. The right hon. Gentleman referred to it last week as the autumn statement, and I thought that I gave him the technically correct answer that we would have it in the autumn. Usually, the pre-Budget statement takes place at some time during this month. I do not expect that to vary.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is important that the report on hunting is assessed carefully. For more than 30 days there has been no instance of foot and mouth disease, and we want to ensure that any step that we take does not endanger our success in eradicating the disease. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of the report's contents being known before the debate in a week's time.

As for the Royal British Legion, I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the incident at Boroughfield, which I was briefed on this morning. The House will be relieved to hear that there is no ban on the march. It has absolutely nothing to do with human rights. The police would be happy to co-operate if they were approached about road closures.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate the important report that was produced by the joint aviation authorities in July, and published last month, on minimum aircraft seating standards? It is the first independent scientific report that states that seats in aircraft are too small for at least a quarter of the population, and that they are dangerous. The report recommends that seat spacing be increased immediately by at least 2.2 in.

I recognise the problems facing the aviation industry—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are laughing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to restore confidence in the industry among customers and passengers, we should guarantee their security and safety, and the health of passengers as well?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has raised the issue in a number of different ways over a period of time. I congratulate him on the vigilance with which he pursues it. As a frequent traveller I would welcome more space to accommodate both myself and my red box. I doubt whether 2.2 in would be enough to get the red box in beside me. I cannot promise a debate on the subject, but I am sure that the relevant authorities have heard what my hon. Friend has said. I am sure that he will find other opportunities to repeat the point until they act.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

What progress is being made on proposals for the reform of the House of Lords? Does the Leader of the House recall putting his name to the Cook-Maclennan report before the 1997 election, which stated: The removal of the hereditary peers' right to vote is the first stage in a process of reform. Following their removal a joint committee of both houses should be established to bring forward detailed proposals on structure and functions for the later stages of reform within a time limited period. This body should produce recommendations for a democratic and representative second chamber."? Is it now the Government's view that that has to be watered down so that it is even wetter than Wakeham? Will the Government produce a White Paper? It is reported that one will appear next week. If so, will it be put to a Joint Committee of all parties to consider before final proposals come forward?

May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman, as he did not get round to answering my question last week, about the timetable for the communications legislation relating to media regulation? Will there be a draft Bill? Will there be pre-legislative scrutiny? Will he confirm the statement made by Lord McIntosh in the House of Lords on Monday that a Joint Committee is being considered to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill?

Mr. Cook

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, we hope to produce the Bill in draft so that it can be considered for pre-legislative scrutiny. We are currently consulting on the best way in which that can be done, but a Joint Committee is obviously one of the options, and I understand that there is willingness in both Houses to proceed with such a Committee. We will take that on board. On the other matter, I can say to the House that a document will be produced in the near future. He will be pleased to hear that it is a consultation document, so it will be open to Members of both Houses and to members of the public, who are members of neither House, to express their views. I can say now, however, that it will be our intention to complete the work that we started in the previous Parliament and to remove hereditary peers from the House of Lords, ensuring that, for the first time, nobody is casting a vote in the legislature of Great Britain on the basis of heredity.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I thank my right hon. Friend for scheduling the money resolution for the Marine Conservation Bill. Can I apologise to him and to the Whips for my whinge last week that the Bill might be killed off last Friday? I urge him now to make all efforts to get the Bill through to its full completion, instead of allowing the matter to be one of presentation, in which the Bill merely goes into Committee and is killed there.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. The way in which he raised the matter last Thursday and what then happened on Friday shows the efficacy of business questions and what can happen as a result of them. On the question of how the Bill proceeds after the Committee stage, as he knows, the Government made it clear last Friday that we wanted the Bill to proceed and to be examined by the House in Committee. However, we cannot commit ourselves to the Bill unless some of our concerns are met. Those concerns are felt not only by the Government, but by a wide range of bodies. I hope that we can find a way forward and reach agreement.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Will the Leader of the House consider allowing a debate on prison reform? There are some Christian-based prison units called Kainos wings that have had very good results in rehabilitating prisoners, much along the lines of Government policy, which we probably agree with. Yet, inexplicably, these wings have been told to shut by the Prison Service. I suspect that that was an irrational reaction to Muslim opinion following the events of 11 September. I also suspect that it happened without the Home Secretary's knowledge and was done behind his back. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore allow a debate, so that this irrational decision stands a chance of being reversed?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of prison reform, in which I have taken a close interest. Indeed, as a Back Bencher I once initiated a debate on the topic. I say to him that he makes a point that I am sure is of importance. I am sure also that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would wish to hear his comments. We can get an answer to him more quickly than through a debate by inviting the Home Secretary to write to him.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the shock and outrage that was felt on some of these Benches when we saw what is effectively a carry-over motion for the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill? It was printed on the Vote yesterday and today. Will there be time on the Floor of the House to debate the motion, and will plenty of time be given so that some of us can set about sabotaging it? It is, after all, a wretched Bill and an attack on democracy. Can he also assure us that the votes will be unwhipped? We know that they are unwhipped in theory, but, in practice, they are whipped in the Lobby. After all, Mr. Speaker, we do not want a row, do we?

Mr. Cook

It is one of the first duties of the Leader of the House to try to avert as many rows as possible. My hon. Friend is commendably candid about his views on the Bill, which I know excites strong feelings. The question of timetabling the Bill is the prerogative of the Chairman of Ways and Means, not me, although it will not have escaped him that time is reserved for the Chairman of Ways and Means for the week after next. As to a vote, it must be a free one, and I can assure him that that will be our intention.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Can the Leader of the House confirm that we have not debated the economy in the House since a one-day debate on the Queen's Speech some time ago and that we are not scheduled to do so in the next two weeks? As the health of the economy is central to so much of what the House wishes to achieve, can we have an earlier debate on it, certainly before the Christmas recess?

Mr. Cook

It certainly would be the wish of the Government that the whole House congratulate them on the fact that unemployment is below 1 million, on having the lowest inflation anywhere in Europe and on achieving a commendable high rate of growth, as well as on the fact that we are securing the lowest interest rates that we can remember on record. All those are very good achievements by the Government. If the Opposition wish us to debate them, I shall certainly commend that to my Cabinet and make sure that my colleagues there are aware that the Opposition are clamouring for more opportunities for us to demonstrate the sound economy that we have created.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 127, which deals with the Disability Discrimination Act 1996 and the exemption of airlines from it?

[That this House regrets that airlines and airports are exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act 1996; calls upon the Government to remove their exempt status so that blind or partially-sighted people are able to fly with their guide dogs, as the 'Passport for Pets' scheme introduced in the last administration enables airlines and airports to register to take assistance animals only; and believes this will ensure that blind and partially-sighted travellers are not discriminated against.]

Will my right hon. Friend consider making time available for a debate on this very serious issue, which not only affects my constituents, but could seriously impact on the work of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. Plainly, we all want to improve the rights of disabled people wherever that is possible, and they must have fair access. I will convey his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and its relationship with the Department of Health, especially in relation to the drug beta interferon? He may be aware that NICE finally reported on beta interferon in August, after several years. The Department of Health is currently negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies on clinical trials of four different types of drugs. He will know—I see that he nods—that this an almost inhumane process, and our constituents in all parts of the country who suffer from multiple sclerosis are being put through it. Will he encourage somebody from the Department of Health to come to the House and make a statement? If he cannot do that, will he at the very least ensure that my written question, which has been tabled for priority answer on Monday, is answered on Monday by that Department?

Mr. Cook

I shall draw the Department's attention to the hon. Lady's question. The issue has been raised a number of times on Thursdays. The whole House will welcome the fact that progress is now being made. The Government are involved in discussions with the manufacturers to see whether we can find a cost-effective way of proceeding with clinical trials. That will provide us with a medical and financial perspective on whether the drug indeed offers a value remedy that can be prescribed with safety and confidence to those who suffer from multiple sclerosis.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has a reason for abandoning the process that was followed in the previous Parliament of allowing the Chairmen of all Select Committees to be represented on the Liaison Committee. It would appear from the Order Paper that, in future, there will be only one Chairman representing those Select Committees that have two Sub-Committees. Can he explain the reason for that, as it appears to disfranchise one of the Committees?

Mr. Cook

No Committee will be disfranchised; every Committee will be entitled to have its Chairman on the Liaison Committee. It is a matter for the Committees to choose whom their Chairmen may be. Of course, we changed the Standing Orders in June, in response to the report of the Liaison Committee, in which my hon. Friend played a distinguished part, which suggested that all Select Committees should have the right to appoint Sub-Committees. We have given that right to all the Committees. It is a matter for the House, but I would be surprised if it wished in those circumstances to provide a basis for the Liaison Committee on which the Chairmen of all Sub-Committees and all Committees should at all times be members.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Leader of the House accept that small shareholders in BT are very angry and resent the reported fact that the departing chairman, Sir Peter Bonfield, may receive a golden pay-off of more than —14 million? That is obscene and it is happening in spite of the fact that billions of pounds of shareholders' money was lost. Indeed, share values have collapsed during the period in which Sir Peter Bonfield has held that responsibility in BT. Will the right hon. Gentleman urgently find time to enable the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to introduce a Bill requiring shareholders to vote formally on individual directors' pay and pay-off packages, to prevent this scandalous pay-off, which is perceived as rewarding failure?

Mr. Cook

I believe the figure is £1.4 million, not £14 million, but it is still a considerable sum and the hon. Gentleman's point still stands. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said that we intend to empower shareholders with the right to review the rewards of executives. I echo her observation that, at a time when workers are losing their jobs and shareholders are losing their money, we expect executives to share some of the pain.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time next week for a debate on flood alleviation measures, so that we can consider what further funding could be made available to projects such as the Hatch End flood alleviation scheme in my constituency? It is being championed by the excellent local residents association. Its completion is of considerable interest to my constituents and businesses in Hatch End affected by flooding last year.

Mr. Cook

We have considerably increased spending on flood protection, as a result of which more homes are protected—many more than two years ago. We shall ensure that that investment is made. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is willing to receive applications from the Environment Agency, and if it puts forward that particular proposal I am sure that it will be sympathetically received.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time to have an early debate on the Government's use of the Crown's prerogative? Does he understand that there is considerable concern among hon. Members that the power to recall Parliament is vested in the Executive and not in the House, and that we are deploying troops for a substantial period without the House's authority being obtained on a substantive motion? Does he understand that motions on the Adjournment, although desirable and useful, are not a proper substitute for a substantive motion authorising such action?

Mr. Cook

I am very interested in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's views. I should like his confirmation that he expressed those views when the Government of whom he was a member repeatedly committed troops on a motion for the Adjournment. That is the long-standing basis on which the House has debated these affairs. I repeat what I said last week: whether or not there is a substantive motion, no one who has sat through the debates that we have had on this matter can be in any doubt about the will of the House and the overwhelming support from both sides for what we are doing.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on young people? The alienation of young people from the political system must be one of the greatest causes of concern. Other issues that affect young people include the provision of youth service facilities in our communities.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises an important point. All hon. Members attach importance to ensuring that the health of our democracy is strong among young people as well as among the rest of the electorate. I cannot promise a debate on this subject in the near future, but my hon. Friend can continue to raise this important issue through the vehicles available to private Members.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry makes a statement at the Dispatch Box next week on the Aldous report, which her Department has not published? It refers to the affairs of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), Hollis Industries and related Maxwell companies. It is essential that the report be published, and that the Secretary of State explain to the House why her predecessor did not make further inquiries, bearing in mind what the report is alleged to have said.

Mr. Cook

No, I shall not. Section 447 of the Companies Act 1985 was drafted by the Conservatives when they were in office. It explicitly provides that material provided in the course of an inquiry should remain confidential. The right hon. Gentleman might like to explain to the House why they included that provision in the Act if they now object to reports remaining confidential. My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is now the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, never saw that report. He was informed of the results of the inquiry, and there the matter rests.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on town and country planning? To be more precise, can we have a debate on the type of town and country planning administered by the Israeli Government on the west bank and Gaza? To this day, Palestinian homes are being bulldozed while illegal settlements are being established with encouragement from the Israeli Government. Such a debate would let the Palestinian people know that we are concerned about their welfare, and that we have them and their position at heart.

Mr. Cook

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of the approach that she outlined. The Mitchell report recommended that there should be a ceasefire, and that it should be supported by confidence-building measures, which plainly must include respect for the homes of people who live in the territory administered by the Palestinian authority. We want to see a return to the peace negotiations. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been in the middle east in the past two days, and that is the message he is carrying.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The House will welcome the creation of the Liaison Committee and the motion next week to set it up. Will the Leader of the House explain why the motion in "Remaining Orders and Notices" creates the Committee in a new way? It adds new, admittedly distinguished, members who are not existing members of departmental and domestic Select Committees. Will he confirm that that debate will be restricted to the matter of the membership, and will not enable the House to discuss some of the "Shifting the Balance" issues from the report published in the previous Parliament? If in that debate we cannot discuss the future role of the Liaison Committee, will he find time for a further debate so that we can?

Mr. Cook

The terms of the motion are not entirely new: there is a precedent. In the past, Sir Terence Higgins was added to the membership of the Liaison Committee and was treated with respect and honour by that Committee. I have included one additional member—he is a senior Member and has served on the Liaison Committee before—as I believe that the Committee would benefit from his wisdom and experience. However, it is a matter for the House to decide when we debate the motion.

That debate will turn on the motion to set up the Liaison Committee. The wider matters from "Shifting the Balance", to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are being examined by the Modernisation Committee. I hope that, in the near future, it will produce a report which will enable us to debate all those issues.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Following my right hon. Friend's response to the serious and legitimate question put by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), and in the light of the announcement of business for Tuesday 13 November, does my right hon. Friend recognise that he and I have had a deep interest in overseas territories for many years? Are we sure that it does the House of Commons any credit to have a day debating overseas territories rather than an amendable motion on whether there should be military action from 17 November and the beginning of Ramadan? That ought to be a matter of an affirmative resolution.

Mr. Cook

If I may say so, the Government have been punctilious in providing opportunities for the House to debate the coalition against international terrorism. Today will be the fifth full day of debate on the subject since the events of 11 September. We shall continue, when appropriate, to provide opportunities for the House to consider the Government's action and to make sure that we are taking every possible step to ensure that Osama bin Laden is brought to justice before he can strike again.

I strongly disagree with what my hon. Friend said about the British Overseas Territories Bill. It is an important measure and regarded as a matter of great significance throughout the overseas territories. I remind the House that it carries through the commitment that we made in the previous Parliament to extend British citizenship to those citizens of the overseas territories who want it. That commitment is very much welcomed in the overseas territories, and I hope that the House attaches importance to it.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Disturbing and serious claims were made in last Sunday's "Panorama" about this country's ability to withstand and cope with a chemical or a biological terrorist attack. Given the woefully inadequate response from the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) about effective co-ordination between civil and military emergency co-ordinators, when will we have a proper debate on civil defence and emergency planning in the light of the current international situation, so that we can reassure an increasingly worried public?

Mr. Cook

I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will have many opportunities in the near future to raise those issues. It would be a competent matter to raise in today's debate, and in the three-day debate we shall be holding on the emergency anti-terrorism Bill. A civil defence Bill will also have to be considered by the House. There will be plenty of opportunities for the House to explore those issues. However, I hope that none of us will encourage alarmism or public dismay. We regularly practise contingency planning, and we carry out exercises with all those involved. We shall continue to do everything we can to ensure that we are ready to respond, but sometimes it is not wise to publish the full details of that response.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I inform the House that almost 70 Back Benchers wish to speak in the debate on the main business. I must therefore, cut business questions short.