HC Deb 11 March 1999 vol 327 cc499-509 12.32 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 15 MARCH—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 16 MARcH—Third Reading of the House of Lords Bill.

Motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order.

WEDNESDAY 17 MARCH—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the second report from the Environmental Audit Committee on the greening government initiative, followed by a debate on the sixth report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Tax Credits Bill.

THURSDAY 18 MARCH—Opposition day [7th allotted day].

Until about 4 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "reductions in the strength of the police" followed by a debate that the Opposition wish to call "The Government's failed roads policy". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

At 7 o'clock the House will be asked to agree the spring supplementary estimates, excess votes and defence votes A.

FRIDAY 19 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 22 MARCH—Opposition day [8th allotted day].

There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats, subject to be announced.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No.2) Bill.

TUESDAY 23 MARCH—Second Reading of the Access to Justice Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 24 MARCH—Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Local Government Bill.

THURSDAY 25 MARCH—There will be a debate on the armed forces on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 26 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 17 March there will be a debate on the welfare of laying hens in European Standing Committee A, and that on Wednesday 24 March, there will be a debate on deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms, also in European Standing Committee A. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 17 March:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 6985/98, Welfare of Laying Hens; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 34-iv, and HC 34 xii (1998–99); Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-xxviii (1997–98).

Wednesday 24 March 1999:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 6378/98, Deliberate Release into the Environment of Genetically Modified Organisms. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 34 iii (1998–99) Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-xxvi (1997–98).]

The House may also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, it is proposed that the House will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Wednesday 31 March and return on Tuesday 13 April, which will be a full sitting day.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for being informed of next week's business, for the indication of the business for the following week and, indeed, for the dates of the Easter recess.

The Leader of the House has announced a debate on the armed forces. Can she confirm that, after discussions through the usual channels, we are moving away from three debates—one on each armed service—to a better structure, with debates on equipment, policy and personnel? Will she consider holding the debate on personnel on Thursday week?

Following a previous exchange at business questions, will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate and a vote on public expenditure? Having moved away from a unified Budget, with debates and votes on expenditure, the Government have so far not provided Parliament with adequate time for debates that are central to our role of voting supply. Can the right hon. Lady put that right?

In his Budget statement, the Chancellor trailed a number of further statements by his Cabinet colleagues. Will any of those be oral statements next week?

The right hon. Lady has not announced any debates in the next two weeks on recent statements and publications that need debating: the Macpherson report, the national changeover plan, the White Paper on Lords reform and the report of the royal commission on long-term care of the elderly. What plans has she to tackle that growing backlog?

May we also have a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister on council tax increases?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Where is he?

Sir George Young

Will not such reductions as were announced by the Chancellor on 9 March be wiped out by town halls on 1 April, leaving people to face the increases announced by the Chancellor is his previous Budgets?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courteous remarks about our giving further notice. He is entirely right that there is a new structure for defence debates, following discussions through the usual channels which involved the Select Committee. I think the whole House will feel that that is a better structure for debates.

Through those same channels, we will consider his suggestion that the debate on Thursday week should be on personnel. It had been envisaged that it would be on defence in the world, because it was thought that it might be preferable for the House to begin this new pattern by discussing the strategic approach, but we will discuss those matters through the usual channels. We will do the same in respect of the right hon. Gentleman's proposal that we should look again at the arrangements for discussing public expenditure, although I took advantage of his raising that issue, on the last occasion when I answered business questions, to remind him of the record of the previous Government on this matter. I did not intend by doing so to suggest that this Government are not much more sensible and reasonable.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about any oral statements following the Budget. We hope and envisage that, today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will be able to flesh out during the debate some of the matters in his area of responsibility. We hope that there will be oral statements next week—on Monday, from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and on Tuesday, from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I hope that it is helpful to the House to have advance notice of what the Government envisage for next week.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about debates on the Macpherson report, the national changeover plan, the White Paper on Lords reform and care of the elderly. He described those matters as a growing backlog. I accept that we have not yet found time for full debates on them, but he will recognise that all those reports have been published only in the recent past. I certainly expect to try to find time for a debate on the Macpherson report—I hope in the not-too-distant future—and we have not yet finished dealing with the legislation on Lords reform. I have that, and the other issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised, very much in mind. Again, we can discuss those issues through the usual channels.

For the benefit of someone at the back of the Chamber who clearly was not listening to the "Today" programme, may I say that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is in Bombay at present? I envisage that my right hon. Friend will indeed address the issue of council taxes, although the right hon. Gentleman will know that the survey that was published today is a preliminary survey and that, in many cases, those matters are not settled.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the steps that the Government are taking to promote family-friendly employment? It might help that cause if we debated what is currently happening in the House of Commons, and the contracts that have been imposed on some staff—in particular, some part-time staff who work 28 hours a week serving tea, buns, cakes and bacon rolls to Members of Parliament. I understand that they have been told that they must work for 11 hours before they can be paid overtime. We do not have many all-night sittings nowadays. but they are still a possibility, and in the event of such a sitting, members of staff might have to work for 11 hours before being paid time and a half. That is a disgrace, and I think that the House should discuss it.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot promise time for a debate in the near future, but I was not aware of the issues raised by my hon. Friend, and I shall make inquiries—as, no doubt, will other hon. Members.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

May I join my—I am sorry, Madam Speaker. [HON. MEMBERS: "You've started well."] I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the dates for the Easter recess: that is very helpful to Members.

May I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to early-day motion 413, which is, a prayer against the social security and child benefit regulations? It asks

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the draft Social Security and Child Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations 1999, which were laid before this House on 4th March, be not made.]

The motion refers to a proposal to replace appeal tribunals by what I can only describe as "uni-unals", consisting of just one member. The proposal worries many Members, and it certainly worries a number of people facing appeals—a prospect that is already daunting enough for many.

The Chancellor promised us a number of statements. Will the right hon. Lady find time for a statement that he failed to promise—a statement about a renewables review? Such a statement would be very relevant to the Chancellor's proposals for an energy tax, and other environmental measures. The subject is clearly missing from the Government's current programme; it appears to be stuck in the system.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Stunell

Finally, let me say this. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] I may have started slowly, but I will finish quickly.

On Monday, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport will visit Manchester to examine some of the facilities for the Commonwealth games that will take place in 2002. Will the Leader of the House find an opportunity for a Minister to make a statement of support for a project that could bring benefits not just to the north-west but to the United Kingdom as a whole?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that we will try to find time for a debate on the form that tribunals should take, but he can raise the matter through the usual channels. I shall inform my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister of the hon. Gentleman's expressed wish for a renewables review, but I suspect that hon. Members will have opportunities to raise the issue, not least during debates on the Budget.

I take on board what the hon. Gentleman said about Manchester. I think the whole House supports Manchester's case, and I am glad to learn that the Select Committee is going there to see for itself. I shall bear the matter in mind, because it is of general interest and also in view of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that it could be aired in the Chamber.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of what was said this morning on the BBC about banking fraud? Apparently, it is taking place on a pretty big scale. Nine months ago, a loophole was discovered: top banks were allowing standing orders to be allocated to different accounts. That loophole is supposed to have been closed, but, according to the latest reports, it has not been. A BBC reporter was able to transfer a standing order from the account of one his colleagues to his own account.

May we have a statement—or, better still, will my right hon. Friend get in touch with Departments that are responsible for such matters. to ensure that the top banks sort this out?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that Members on both sides of the House will share my hon. Friend's concern that these matters are not being resolved. The subject may have been mentioned in yesterday's debate. We all want to see the highest possible standards of consumer service. I say to my hon. Friend, however, that if anyone is willing to transfer money into someone else's account, mine is available.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Can the right hon. Lady ensure that on Monday, in the winding-up speeches, her right hon. Friend the Chancellor deals with the issue that was raised on Budget day by her hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) in a petition in respect of excise duty on diesel? Will he address the fact that we now stand to suffer greater pollution as vehicles fill up in France on lower-grade diesel to avoid the highest diesel prices in the world, which now pertain in this country?

Mrs. Beckett

As the whole House must be aware, there will be ample opportunity to air those matters during the Budget debate. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking as to what matters my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will include in his winding-up speech, as obviously he will be trying to summarise several days of debate, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's concerns to his attention.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the publication this week of the Government's biodiversity action plan, a long-awaited document that is part of our international treaty obligations? Does she share my concern that, as of 12.25 pm today, that document was not available in the Vote Office or the Library? Does she agree that it is an important part of our environmental policy? In view of increasing public concern about the implications for biodiversity of genetically modified foods and our conformity with the requirements of the Kyoto protocol, will she make every effort to ensure that, at the very least, there is a statement on the biodiversity action plan next week?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure that I can promise a statement on the matter next week, but I share—as I am sure do all hon. Members—my hon. Friend's concern that such a document should not be available, and I shall take steps to ensure that something is done about that?

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Leader of the House speak to the Foreign Secretary and to the Defence Secretary and say that it is unacceptable to the House that the bombing raids on Iraq should continue without one of them coming to the House and explaining why, on so many occasions since the conclusion of the original Operation Desert Fox, those bombing raids have taken place, without any authority from the House, and—even worse—without the House being informed that they have been taking place? The chosen medium for the Secretary of State for Defence to discuss the matter was the letter page of The Times. That is not acceptable to the House of Commons.

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard from my statement, there is to be a defence debate a week on Thursday. He says that the House has not been kept informed; I fear that I do not entirely share that view. I know that the matter has been raised many times, and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary have both repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that what is happening at present is that, where allied aircraft find themselves under threat of attack, they respond to that attack. All that—and the patrols that those aircraft are undertaking in the no-fly zones—follows on the decision of the United Nations to protect people in the north and south of Iraq from their own Government. It therefore appears to me that although the hon. Gentleman may seek further opportunities for debate, the matter has been aired repeatedly in the House.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

How can the Leader of the House say that those activities follow from United Nations decisions when the present President of the Security Council—the People's Republic of China—has officially voiced its strong objection to the bombing? Is it not high time that we had a serious debate in the House about the role of the United Nations and what the UN's obligations are in a changing situation, rather than simply going back to resolutions that were passed in different circumstances, a long time ago, which have been overtaken by events?

As 41 per cent. of British forces are committed in action areas, is it not important for there to be some discussion of the whole question of bombing? Has my right hon. Friend seen the dramatic pictures in the Tribune of those children in Iraq? Has she read in the British Medical Journal the article by Dr. Sikora, who is the head of the World Health Organisation cancer unit, which outlines the dreadful situation?

Furthermore, could we have a statement next week on the progress—or lack of progress, as I fear—on Lockerbie? If any constructive progress is to be made, is it not high time that British lawyers met the Libyan lawyers to discuss going ahead with a trial in a third country—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I fear that all next week will be taken by the hon. Gentleman's questions. Could he bring his requests to a conclusion?

Mr. Dalyell

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, from May onwards, Lockerbie and all its legal aspects will be matters for Holyrood rather than for the Westminster Parliament? Will people who raise the subject of the legal aspects of Lockerbie in the House of Commons be out of order after May? Is that the position? That seems to be the position from an answer given during Scottish questions. If that answer is right, no one could be more concerned than I am about the authority of Madam Speaker and this House over matters that affect not only Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Beckett

I tried to use my words with care when I said to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that the actions in Iraq follow from United Nations decisions about no-fly zones. I reiterate that those actions do, indeed, follow from those decisions. I am aware that concerns have more recently been aired in the United Nations, but that does not alter the fact that those actions follow from UN decisions.

I am aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has correctly raised in the House on many occasions about the suffering of many people in Iraq, particularly children. I differ from my hon. Friend in that I place more weight than he does on the fact that responsibility for that suffering lies at the door of the Government of Iraq. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have noticed a recent United Nations report, which suggested that, even as we speak, food and medicines that have been purchased by Iraq under the UN programme are being stockpiled in warehouses in Iraq rather than being released for use by the Iraqi people. That is obviously a matter of concern to us all.

On Lockerbie, my hon. Friend will be aware that we have asked the United Nations Secretary-General to report to the UN Security Council by the end of the month on the position. I repeat that there will be a defence debate in a few days' time. The shadow Leader of the House will have heard my hon. Friend's remarks and those of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, who raised the matter a moment ago. The right hon. Gentleman may be thinking better of his suggestion that we should have a debate on personnel rather than on defence in the world.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Following the statement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry yesterday and his comment that he was anxious to look into the reason for the huge differential in prices of products between continental Europe and this country, may we have an urgent debate, with both the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Chancellor present, so that the Secretary of State can ask the Chancellor publicly why he is contributing to the very high price of products in this country, as compared with prices in Europe? The Secretary of State could start with petrol, but could go on and ask about tobacco products and alcohol. Surely the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will want to hold the Chancellor accountable for the huge price differential about which he has been complaining.

Mrs. Beckett

I was not in the House all day yesterday, so I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was here. I know what an assiduous attender he is, so he may well have been here, in which case he will have seen my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Chancellor together on the Treasury Bench. As for whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should wish to challenge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on high prices, they will be conscious, as I am, that the issue subsisted throughout the 18-year life of the previous Government, including the time during which the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister, although I do not recall whether he was a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that my constituency is one of the most photogenic in the country. Most of those on the Government Front Bench visit it from time to time. It is regularly used as a backdrop by the film and television industry. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could find the time—not necessarily next week, because I appreciate the pressures that are building up by the moment—for a debate on the film industry to allow us to draw attention to the extra help that it has been given in the Budget.

Mrs. Beckett

I am familiar with the great use that is made of the beautiful constituency that my hon. Friend represents. He is as fortunate in his constituency as his constituents are in their representative. I am grateful to him for his understanding of the pressures on the time of the House. He is right to draw to the attention of the House the confirmation by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that the existing tax relief for the film industry will be extended until July 2002—part of our continuing commitment to supporting the growth of that industry.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Will the right hon. Lady assure us that there will be a statement next week on the most recent quarterly report on the millennium bug? Why has the statement not already been given to the House? It is now more than two weeks late. How can we seriously believe that the Government are treating the issue as an emergency and a crisis if they delay the publication of the report? Why are details of the quarterly returns available on the internet when they have not been made available to hon. Members?

Mrs. Beckett

I doubt very much whether all the details of the quarterly returns are available on the internet, although I recognise that some may be. The hon. Gentleman's question is based on an error. He assumes that the statement is late, but in fact the previous one was early. I hope to make a statement in the very near future.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in recent weeks the Government have made important statements about elderly people and carers? If consideration can be given to a debate on the royal commission on long-term care, could consideration also be given to a debate on the national carers strategy?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to those important areas of policy. He is also right that it is crucial to look simultaneously at care and those who need it and at the needs of carers. The Government have been striving to do that. I shall bear his remarks in mind should we be able to find time for such a debate in the near future.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

I note that genetically modified products are to be discussed in European Standing Committee A. I should like to draw the right hon. Lady's attention to an article in today's Daily Mail that talks about genetically modified products found in baby milk powder products, particularly those that are soya-based. Does she have any plans for a statement on what we all agree is a sensitive area in which public confidence needs to be maintained?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of the article to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We have just had Agriculture questions, during which there might have been an opportunity to raise the issue. I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman an extra debate in the near future, but I assure him that the Government will continue to bring such issues to the House.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement to the House on the counting system for the European elections? I am talking not about the pernicious closed-list system, but about the problem of recounts and where votes are to be counted and reported. There are widespread concerns that recounts will be impossible because they must take place at constituency level, but candidates will not know how well they have done because the numbers are to be tallied at sub-regional or regional level. Where votes are reported is to be left to the discretion of returning officers. At best that will lead to suspicion—I say no more than suspicion—of fudge and muddle. At worst it will lead to suspicion of fiddle and malpractice. I am sure that the Leader of the House would not want to put honourable and hard working returning officers in that position, so it is essential that she makes a statement to the House that clarifies matters and puts an end to such allegations.

Mrs. Beckett

On reflection, the hon. Gentleman may regret that anything in his words suggested that putting matters at the discretion of returning officers in any way contributed to fiddle and malpractice. Having said that, I understand his concern, which is shared by many in the House. It is, however, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, so the hon. Gentleman may find an opportunity to raise the issue during Home Office questions on Monday. In any event, I shall certainly draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, following changes to the petrol escalator in the Budget, for the first time ever, petrol in the United Kingdom is now the most expensive in Europe, and possibly in the developed world? Can the Deputy Prime Minister be towed back from his holiday scuba diving in the Indian ocean and his visit to Bombay—whatever he might be doing there—to make a statement to the House?

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is engaged with a trade mission which no doubt will be singularly unimpressed by the hon. Gentleman's view of its activities. The hon. Gentleman raises the cost of petrol, which was increased in the Budget. He will know that that is certainly a matter for the Budget debates. He will also know that the initial proposal for an escalator on fuel price was introduced by the Conservatives. Indeed, we have increased it by a mere 1 per cent. out of a possible 6 per cent. Finally, Opposition Members spend a considerable part of their time complaining that the Government are not doing enough to protect the environment, and the rest complaining when we do.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Can we have a debate in Government time next week on the increasingly damaging regulatory burden on British business? The right hon. Lady will surely recall that in the foreword to Labour's business manifesto the then shadow Chancellor declared: We will not impose burdensome regulations upon business because we understand that successful businesses must keep costs down. Given that since the election there have spewed forth no fewer than an additional 2,400 burdensome regulations upon business from which many small and medium-sized enterprises in my Buckingham constituency are suffering, does the right hon. Lady not accept that it is essential—especially as the Chancellor said nothing about this important matter in the Budget—that the House has an early opportunity to scrutinise the Government's record and show them how they can do better in future?

Mrs. Beckett

Other than to say that all those matters can be aired in the Budget debates, I fear that I cannot offer to find time for a further discussion on the regulatory burden. As I understand that the hon. Gentleman raised the matter yesterday, I am deeply grateful to him for giving me an opportunity to point out that 50 per cent. fewer regulations were introduced in the first year of the Labour Government than in the last year of the Conservative Government.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

In view of the deep concern expressed on both sides of the House this morning about the acute crisis facing British abattoirs, and in view of the Government's refusal to suspend the imposition of extra charges on those abattoirs until we have accurate information about the treatment of the issue in other European Union countries, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate later this month so that hon. Members can consider the matter before many abattoirs are forced out of business?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find the time for a debate, although I shall certainly bear it in mind. Of course, the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to raise the matter earlier today with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Deputy Prime Minister, when he returns from his delegation abroad, to make a statement on capping criteria? I do not know whether she has read this week's Clitheroe Advertiser and Times yet. It refers to council tax rising by 7.6 per cent., which is three times the rate of inflation. Only the Deputy Prime Minister can decide what is an excessive rise. The residents of Ribble Valley think that three times the rate of inflation is excessive. Much of the rise has come from Labour-controlled Lancashire county council. What protection will the Deputy Prime Minister give the people of Ribble Valley against this stealth tax rise?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that the hon. Gentleman, too, did not have time to listen to the "Today" programme.

Mr. Evans

I did.

Mrs. Beckett

In that case, he cannot have been listening with enough care, or he would have heard my right hon. Friend saying both that the final figures on what will happen with council tax are not yet available and that he will consider those matters with great care and make plain the reason for any decisions that he makes.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In view of the increasingly disappointing attendances on Thursdays, will the Leader of the House bring forward the date of the debate on the Thursday sittings experiment? Many hon. Members believe that it has not been to the advantage of Parliament or of our proceedings and want the debate sooner rather than later.

Mrs. Beckett

It has been my experience that Thursday mornings have been extremely well attended. I understand that such is the attendance expected for our debate later today that Madam Speaker has had to impose a time limit from very early on. There will be the opportunity for a debate on the Thursday sittings, but yet again I am experiencing the phenomenon whereby Conservative Members protest publicly about Thursday sittings and the other associated decisions but many of them tell me privately how pleased they are with the experiment.