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Business of the House

3.33 pm

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): May I ask the Leader of the House for details of future business?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 13 February----Opposition Day (5th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled "Europe and a Referendum" on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday 14 February----Opposition Day (6th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled "A Divided Britain--The Problems of Poverty and Long-term Unemployment" on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 15 February----Until 2.30 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Until about 7 o'clock, Second Reading of the Licensing (Sunday Hours) Bill.

Motions on the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Variation Order, the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order and the Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Reports. Details will be given in the Official Report .

Thursday 16 February----Debate on the Royal Navy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 17 February----Private Members' Bills.

Monday 20 February----Opposition Day (7th allotted day). There will be a debate on a Opposition motion, subject to be announced. The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet on Wednesday 15 February to consider the unnumbered explanatory memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 9 December 1994 relating to the Euro- Mediterranean Association agreement with Israel.

In the following week, I expect Monday 20 February to be an Opposition Day, and Thursday 23 February to be a debate on the Army, on a motion for the Adjournment.

Looking a week further ahead than that, the House may also like to know that I hope to provide for the annual debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment on Thursday 3 March.

[Wednesday 15 February:

European Standing Committee B--Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 70-iii (1994-95).

Scotland Revenue Support Grant Reports. The documents are as follows:

Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 1995; the Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Order 1995.]

Mrs. Taylor: I thank the Leader of the House for that information, and for the advance notice of future business.

The Leader of the House will be aware that, last week, I raised with him the Government's attitude to the private Member's Bill that we will debate tomorrow, and he referred me to the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People. The right hon. Gentleman is aware that I wrote to the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People about the Government's attitude, and that, shortly before

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Question Time today, the Minister faxed me a reply saying that the Government would not ask the House to support the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the lobby taking place at the moment- -the thousands of people who have come here to lobby Members of Parliament- -will be extremely concerned by that reply from the Minister? Will he clarify the situation now, and tell us whether that means that the Government will actively block the measure tomorrow? Secondly, in view of the significant public concern about the lack of places in psychiatric units, and about the miraculous discovery of such places when the Secretary of State for Health is summoned to appear in court, can we have a debate in Government time about the scandal of the shortage of such provision? Health debates usually occur only in Opposition time.

Thirdly, in connection with public sector pay and this morning's Cabinet decision, is the Leader of the House aware that in the debate in Opposition time on Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Education said that she could not comment on the consequences of the pay award until final decisions had been made?

As the Cabinet has now made decisions that will mean that school governors all over the country face the impossible task of balancing their budgets and maintaining standards, will the Leader of the House find time for the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement in the House about the impact of the loss of teachers' jobs on class sizes and on the quality of education for our children?

Mr. Newton: There were three questions there. The first concerned proceedings on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill tomorrow. I have indeed seen a copy of my hon. Friend's letter to the hon. Lady, which does little more than repeat what he said in the debate--and I said as much last week. What my hon. Friend said was that he could not ask the House to support the Bill. I am sure that he will seek to explain the whole position more fully in his speech tomorrow, and I shall not seek to anticipate that.

The second question, which was about psychiatric units, also ranged wider into some more tendentious areas. I simply draw attention to the fact that the Secretary of State for Health is due to answer questions in the House next week, which may provide an opportunity for those points to be raised. There is also health service legislation now before the House, which will no doubt provide further opportunities for debate in due course.

Finally, I do not think that I would be revealing any great state secrets by acknowledging that the Cabinet discussed public sector pay this morning. All will be made clear to the hon. Lady and others within the next half hour, so I shall not try to pre-empt that, either.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the parliamentary ombudsman yesterday published his report on the channel tunnel rail link and blight, and found that the Department of Transport had been responsible for maladministration? Will he take an early opportunity to ensure that that important report is debated in the House, to give the Secretary of State for Transport an opportunity to respond to it and to tell us how he intends to remedy the grave injustices done to my constituents and to those of other Members on both sides of the House representing constituencies along the line of the channel tunnel rail link?

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Mr. Newton: I am aware of that report, and my right hon. Friend probably needs no reassurance from me, but I understand why he has raised the matter. I think that he will also understand--certainly I understand-- that the first step is for the Department to explain its position further before the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will wish to do that, and it would not be right for me to comment further in advance of the Select Committee's deliberations.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): May I respectfully suggest that the Leader of the House may have meant that the Welsh debate would take place on 2 March, as that is the date of the Thursday two weeks from now?

On more important matters, now that the right hon. Gentleman has told us the business for next week, we see that, over the next six working days, there are three Supply days for the Opposition, which are welcome enough, one Adjournment debate on the Navy and one day for private Members' Bills, but only half a day for Government legislation--and even that was the legislation that the Prime Minister thought up the other day.

Does not that timetable confirm that the Government programme this year is, as we all said in November, somewhat light, to put it generously? In that case, can we not use some of the time available for a Government motion to allow the House to debate the subject being investigated by the Nolan committee--standards in public life--so that not only will the views of the Government and of the Opposition parties be known, but views from all corners of the House will be heard before the Nolan committee finishes its initial deliberations?

Mr. Newton: On the latter point, I am not sure what view would be taken were the House to give any impression of pre-empting the Nolan committee's work, but I will note the hon Gentleman's suggestion. Having given evidence to the committee and tried to keep up with reading the voluminous amounts of evidence that others have given, I have found that it appears to have been generous in taking evidence from anyone who wishes to give it. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wishes to do so.

I heard on some grapevine or other that the Liberal party was finding it difficult to decide what evidence it should give. Perhaps that difficulty has informed these matters-- [Interruption.] It may well be very short--

Mr. Hughes: No, it would be long.

Mr. Newton: Well, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be very welcome, if and when he cares to unveil the Liberal approach to these matters, and the rest of us will read it with proper fascination. On the earlier parts of his question, although I may inadvertently have said 3 March instead of 2 March, whatever date it is, it is the Thursday of that week.

Mr. Hughes: It is Thursday 2 March.

Mr. Newton: I am just telling the House that it is the Thursday. If I said that it is the third and it is the second, whatever it is, it is the Thursday. As to the legislative programme, it is going very smoothly, thanks.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility later in the

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parliamentary timetable of providing a full day's debate on the Government's research and development programme and their science policy? There was considerable pressure on time during the three-hour debate last week, and six of the eight Members who were fortunate enough to speak had to shorten their speeches. In the light of the Foresight programme, will my right hon. Friend consider this an early request for a full day's debate on a very important subject, which concerns both sides of the House?

Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend will realise that I am not in a position to make an off-the-cuff commitment, but the very fact that we recently had the half-day debate is a sign of my willingness to listen to representations asking for time on that important matter, and I will certainly bear in mind what she said.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Since we have been treated to the views of the Minister for Transport in London on the general public and public transport, perhaps the Leader of the House would ask him to come here next week to make a statement on the reasons for getting rid of vast numbers of vehicle examination inspectors just when there is clear evidence that more and more lorries are travelling the roads with defects that lead directly to many deaths and injuries. It is essential that the Government take action on enforcement on more occasions, not fewer.

Mr. Newton: My right hon. and hon. Friends are aware of the concerns being expressed in the House. I drew those to their attention after I had been asked questions on the subject three times at business questions last Thursday. I cannot promise an early dedicated debate, but my right hon. and hon. Friends are looking very carefully at the points that have been made.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): Does my right hon. Friend recall that, under European Community legislation, we have undertaken to implement EC directives by way of statutory instruments, which are not amendable, are barely debatable and, at the hour that we deal with such matters, do not always command the total attention of the House? As a result, certain measures are likely to be imposed on this country--in particular, a change in the regime for halal and kosher meat and some other undesirable matters, such as the extension of the Data Protection Acts to handwriting.

We ought seriously to consider whether those changes are acceptable to the British nation. Will my right hon. Friend look closely at what we can do to safeguard the interests of this House and the nation against that sort of undesirable legislation, which will otherwise be rammed down our throats?

Mr. Newton: If I have heard my hon. and learned Friend aright, he is referring to provisions that exist, for which the House voted under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, which provide for some things to be done through secondary legislation in the way that he described. I should assure the House, however, that the Government always consider the most appropriate way to proceed on each and every one of those matters.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): May I ask the Leader of the House to undertake an investigation into the sound system on the Committee Corridor of the House of Commons? He will appreciate, as all hon. Members do,

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that it is very important that all questions and answers be effectively recorded in our proceedings. In that context, I draw to his attention column 47 of the report of yesterday's Scottish Grand Committee, where, right at the end of proceedings, responding to a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), the Scottish Office Minister clearly said that, yes, there would be formal consultation under the Railways Act 1993 as it affected railway services in Scotland--yet that is not recorded in the Official Report .

Obviously, we are not condemning the Hansard reporters, but the statement is on the recorded version--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has been here long enough to know that that is not at all a matter for the Leader of the House. I caution hon. Members that they should raise only matters that concern the Leader of the House. This is an administrative matter that does not concern him--although, if he is generous enough to comment briefly on it, I shall hear what he has to say.

Mr. Newton: I hope that I am always generous, and I shall seek to be courteous to the hon. Lady. You, Madam Speaker, are right to say that this is a matter for the Administration Committee or for the Accommodation and Works Committee, but certainly not for me. I shall make sure that those representations are drawn to their attention. I am well aware of the comment made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I should make it clear that he was referring to formal consultations about passenger service requirements, which are going on now and which have already led to some results in some cases. Any decision to withdraw services in advance of consultation on passenger service requirements would, of course, be a commercial decision for British Rail.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford): The Leader of the House will be aware that, for almost 30 years, this House has refused to give the people a decision they want--the restoration of capital punishment. Will he provide for an urgent and early debate on the need for a national referendum on its reintroduction?

Mr. Newton: Perhaps I should make it clear, if my hon. Friend does not already know it, that I have on a number of occasions voted on that matter in a way of which my hon. Friend would not approve. I hope, however, that he will not think that that influences the answer I am about to give, which is that I do not think that it would be appropriate to arrange such a debate. We have already had an opportunity in this Parliament--as in every other Parliament since I became a Member--to debate and decide these issues, and the House once again made its position very clear.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): Is the Lord President aware of the report in The Daily Telegraph today on yesterday's proceedings in the Nolan committee? The National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts said that it believed that the Secretary of State for Health was appointing people on the basis of croneyism.

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that Sir William Utting, a member of that committee, said that thousands of people are being appointed under unacceptable procedures? Given those remarks, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is high time that the

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Secretary of State for Health came before the House to justify her appointments, especially as the Health Authorities Bill is now in Committee and Health Ministers are unable to make any changes because of the Secretary of State's position?

Mr. Newton: I have already adverted to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is due to be answering questions next Tuesday. I shall give her warning of some of the points that the hon. Lady may raise.

I have not yet had an opportunity to read the transcript of yesterday's proceedings in the Nolan committee, although I rather doubt whether Sir William Utting, whom I know well as a former social services official, put his question in quite the terms that the hon. Lady suggests.

Madam Speaker: Mr. John Greenway--I am sorry, Mr. Harry Greenway.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): Thank you, Madam Speaker--we are different.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate next week on special educational needs, so that I can bring before the House the complete failure of Ealing's Labour council to make proper provision for children with special educational needs in Ealing? That was the subject of an important street meeting which I addressed in Ealing this afternoon, and the House should hear about it. There should be a response from the Government, and pressure should be brought to bear on Ealing council to improve its behaviour.

Mr. Newton: I am sure that my right hon. Friends responsible for those matters will look carefully at my hon. Friend's remarks and consider what they might do. I say wryly, rather than in an aggressive manner, that, on the basis of my hon. Friend's account, I sometimes think that we could spend all our time debating the inequities of the London borough of Ealing.

Mr. Skinner: Will the Leader of the House bear it in mind that, now that the Jopling report has been implemented and, on a few occasions, the sittings of the House have not lasted until 10 o'clock at night, we should avoid debating Bills of an emergency nature on Fridays, when they get mixed up with Bills drawn in the first six? Would it not be a good idea to allow them to be brought forward by the Government, with Government support, so that they can get through the House without being subject to the vagaries of Fridays when the competition is so strong?

In that respect, would it not be a good idea if the Government would back the Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Societies Bill-- [Interruption.] --so that it can get approval in time?

Mr. Newton: I hear some sedentary interventions behind me of a not unhelpful kind. I can assume only that this is an attempt to explain and justify the blocking of that Bill, which will help many tens of thousands of mainly widows throughout the country. I hope that those who blocked it will not do so next time.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East): Further to early-day motion 557, will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on efficiency in the construction industry?

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[ That this House notes that the construction industry produces almost 10 per cent. of gross national product and is made up of more than 200,000 companies and a workforce of over one and a quarter million people; welcomes the proposals put forward by the Latham Report to improve the relationship between clients, contractors and subcontractors in the construction industry and improve value for money by an estimated 30 per cent. over the next five years and so encourage an increase in construction activity; notes the crucial role that a Construction Contracts Act would play in the implementation of the report's findings, recognising that it will reduce commercial red tape, and improve payment security by reducing payment abuse, introduce trust funds, and provide for a system of speedy and inexpensive dispute resolution; and therefore requests that Her Majesty's Government considers the introduction of a Construction Contracts Bill during the next Parliamentary session, as recommended in the Report. ]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Latham report shows the potential for a 30 per cent. improvement in productivity?

Mr. Newton: I am indeed aware of the Latham report, and pay further tribute to the work that our former colleague has done in that report, and to the support that it has gained throughout the industry. I am certainly willing to consider ways in which I might contribute to advancing sensible and necessary proposals.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): For a specific and compelling reason which I have given to the private secretary to the Foreign Secretary and which emerged since the Foreign Secretary courteously answered the Adjournment debate last Wednesday, may I request that the Foreign Secretary, in the light of the information that he has been given, makes another statement on Lockerbie?

Mr. Newton: I understand that the current position is that the hon. Gentleman, as he says, wrote to the Foreign Secretary a couple of days ago. I understand also that he will receive a reply shortly. Further consideration of the matter should depend on the outcome of all that.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye): May we have an early debate on the common fisheries policy, so that we can find out whether the Liberals support a review, as promoted by their fisheries spokesman; are totally disinterested, as evidenced by the fact that their leader could not even be bothered to vote last time; or support complete withdrawal, as advocated by the East Sussex county councillor of the Liberal Democrat party in my constituency?

Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend has, with her usual ingenuity, put some useful points on the record. I cannot promise a debate, not least because of my inner conviction that, however many debates we have, Liberal policy will never become clear.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston): May we have a debate in the House, if not next week then as soon as possible, on overseas domestic servants who are brought to this country? This week, hon. Members heard reports from those people of the conditions under which they work, which are little short of slavery.

Mr. Newton: If the hon. Gentleman has a particular concern and evidence of aspects of that concern which

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should be looked into, I hope that he will bring the evidence to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary or whoever else may be appropriate.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay): May I draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the work undertaken by Mr. Harold Doyne-Ditmass and his staff in the security division of the Department of Transport? Is he aware of the widespread concern about a directive circulated last week relating to redundancies and other staff cuts in the security division?

Given that inspectors working in that division are responsible for security inspections at airports and the channel tunnel, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance, and perhaps invite the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House next week to confirm, that there will be no compromise of passenger safety whatever cuts are made in the security division of the Department of Transport?

Mr. Newton: I think my hon. Friend knows that, after there had been a certain amount of reporting in the newspapers of anxieties of that type a week or so ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport commissioned urgent reports about channel tunnel security. He will decide what further action needs to be taken when he has considered those reports and any further security advice that he receives, but I am sure that he would wish to take security no less seriously than does my hon. Friend.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey): Will the Leader of the House find time next week for the Foreign Secretary to come to the House and make a statement about the reported loss of £900,000 of taxpayers' money by an Overseas Development Administration procurement agent, which the National Audit Office has just brought to our attention, especially as it appears that the Foreign Office knew two years before the company collapsed that it was financially insecure, yet did nothing?

Mr. Newton: I cannot promise to bring my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to the House for that purpose at the moment, but I can undertake to bring the hon. Lady's question to his attention, and I am sure that he would wish to consider it.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the recent Audit Commission report, which suggested that over-staffing by local authorities has cost the country £1 billion a year? Does he agree that the House should examine which local authorities have entered the sphere of politically correct advisers, rather than spending money on social services and, frankly, teachers' pay?

Mr. Newton: In the past fortnight, as I am sure that my hon. Friend would acknowledge, the House has had a full day's debate about local government matters in respect of the English revenue support grant, a further half-day of opportunity in the debate about the Welsh revenue support grant yesterday, and a half-day debate on education earlier this week. There are opportunities next Wednesday in respect of the same matters in Scotland. If

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my hon. Friend dares to take part in a debate on Scotland, with all the risks that that might entail, that may give her an opportunity.

Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan): I wonder whether the Leader of the House could give time in order to discuss the merits and demerits of regional selective assistance. Last week, I had to grab the Minister half- way through his lunch in order to save an eleventh-hour situation in my constituency. It would have meant the loss of 130 jobs and a firm that had invested millions of pounds during a five-year period, and the application considered that it was a crisis. It is time that we realised the importance of giving help to firms, as many firms in Scotland are going bankrupt that could be given help from regional selective assistance.

Mr. Newton: There are many examples of cases in which regional selective assistance, with which I was concerned as a Department of Trade and Industry Minister about six years ago, has been very helpful, including several recent examples, so I will certainly bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): May we have a debate next week on the printing facilities of the House, during which we could discuss the document that I have in my hand, which has been produced in many hundreds of copies on a photocopier of the House? It is a suggested answer to a questionnaire, under the title:

"A Model Reply to the NEC".

The House will be interested to know that it discusses ethnic and sexual struggles, condemns the choice of schooling made by some senior Labour politicians, supports clause IV and says:

"Whether or not you think . . . write to"

the address of the Inverkeithing constituency office of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown).

Mr. Newton: I think that I need to digest all that intelligence before commenting.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): I reiterate the demand for the Minister for Transport in London, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), to make a statement to the House, so that he can apologise for his insulting remarks about sitting beside dreadful human beings who travel by bus or by train.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the travelling public are appalled by the Government's transport policy, and especially by the rail privatisation proposals that have been dreamed up by the dreadful sub-human beings who sit beside him at Cabinet meetings?

Mr. Newton: As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already said during rather more crowded exchanges not so long ago, it is plain that the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London and the whole thrust of his speech have been

misinterpreted. His purpose was to suggest that we want motorists to understand more fully the desirability of using public transport. Frankly, our rail privatisation policy is designed to make public transport more desirable for people to use. We shall stick to that policy.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 581,

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entitled "The United Kingdom and the Single Currency", which has attracted 97 signatures from our right hon. and hon. Friends, including those of at least four former Cabinet colleagues of my right hon. Friend?

[ That this House congratulates the Prime Minister for making it clear on 8th January that it is not in the United Kingdom's interest to join a single currency in 1997 and for his confirmation that there are no proposals for legislation necessary for the purpose nor for the United Kingdom to accept any changes at the Inter-Governmental Conference which will impact on the constitution of the United Kingdom; and notes his rejections of the support for the principle of a single currency by the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and M. Jacques Santer. ]

On the basis of that motion, which now makes Government policy and the support for it quite clear, will my right hon. Friend draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister? Will he arrange for a debate on that matter at the earliest possible opportunity, because it is clearly time that we discovered Opposition policy on the matter?

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