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Mr. Peter Hain (Neath): Does the Secretary of State have any additional damping provision above that previously announced for Neath and Port Talbot? Depending on his answer, I am either extremely angry or absolutely livid. Last year, we had cuts of £10 million, and lost 35 teachers. This year, I estimate additional cuts of £7 million and that 25 teachers will be sacked. Last year, we had a 25 per cent. increase in council tax, an average of £125. This year, I estimate that it will be 15 per cent., nearly £90.

That will mean that council tax will have risen by more than 40 per cent. in two years. How can the Secretary of State possibly think that local people can pay that sort of money? He is strangling local communities in Wales. He should apologise and be ashamed of himself.

Mr. Hague: As I have explained, the Government provide, one way or another, 88 per cent. of the money spent by local authorities in Wales. That proportion is dramatically higher than in England. Last year, I introduced two damping schemes to protect people faced by very large council tax rises; this year I do not contemplate any additional damping on top.

Mr. Hain: Now I am livid.

Mr. Hague: I am distressed that the hon. Gentleman is now livid, but he will understand that the £18 million damping scheme that I announced in my statement will mean that the maximum council tax increase for any authority in Wales will be 15 per cent. However, the maximum increase that most authorities can impose will be dramatically less than that. We are dealing with a situation quite different from last year. The large differential between English and Welsh council taxes will at the least be maintained.

12 Dec 1996 : Column 420

Business of the House

4.25 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): I should like to make a statement about the business for next week and for the week after the recess:

Monday 16 December--Debate on the common fisheries policy on a Government motion.

Tuesday 17 December--Progress on the Protection from Harassment Bill.

Wednesday 18 December--Until 2 pm, debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House, of which the first will be the three-hour debate that I normally wind up.

Conclusion of proceedings on the Protection from Harassment Bill.

Second Reading of the National Heritage Bill [Lords].

The House will wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, it is proposed that the House should rise for the Christmas recess on Wednesday 18 December until Monday 13 January.

The business for the first week back after the Christmas recess will be as follows:

Monday 13 January--Remaining stages of the Crime (Sentences) Bill.

Tuesday 14 January--Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 15 January--Until 2 pm, debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill.

Thursday 16 January--Subject to progress in Committee, remaining stages of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill.

Friday 17 January--Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Tuesday 17 December there will be a debate on the information society in European Standing Committee B, and that on Wednesday 18 December there will be a debate on the social dialogue in European Standing Committee B.

It will also be proposed that on Wednesday 15 January there will be a debate on the draft general budget for 1997 in European Standing Committee B.

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

[Tuesday 17 December 1996:

European Standing Committee B--Relevant European Community Document: 9795/96, The Information Society: priorities and implications. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 36-i (1996-97).

Wednesday 18 December 1996:

European Standing Committee B--Relevant European Community Document: 10305/96, Development of the Social Dialogue. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 36-ii (1996-97).

Wednesday 15 January 1997:

Relevant European Community Documents: (a) 9372/96, Draft general budget 1997; (b) SEC(96)1677, Letter of amendment No. 1 to the preliminary draft budget 1997; (c) PE 252 724, 1997

12 Dec 1996 : Column 421

Budget; (d) Unnumbered, Letter of amendment No. 2 to the preliminary draft budget 1997; (e) Unnumbered, Amendments to the draft general budget 1997. Relevant European Legislation Committee Reports: (a) and (b) HC 36-i (1996-97); (c) HC 36-iii (1996-97); (d) HC 36-iv and HC 36-vii (1996-97); (e) HC 36-v (1996-97).]

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): I thank the Leader of the House for that information. The House will be grateful that he was able to give us an idea of business during the first week back, which will help hon. Members.

The Leader of the House knows that the first meeting of the Highlands and Islands Convention is to be held in Inverness on Monday afternoon. The hon. Members who will attend have a significant interest in the fisheries debate which is to be held in the House at exactly the same time. Can we have an assurance that such clashes will be avoided in future? Hon. Members will face great difficulty in representing their constituencies in two places at the same time.

In view of the recent meeting of the Millennium Commission and the concerns about the future of the millennium exhibition, would not it be appropriate for the Secretary of State for National Heritage to make a statement to the House before we rise for the Christmas recess so that we can be kept informed about that project, which involves large sums of money?

The Leader of the House will be aware that he has been unable to grant our request for an Opposition day between the Budget and Christmas. May we have an assurance that, in the new year, Opposition days will be given the priority that they deserve in business planning?

What will happen to the Welsh Development Agency Bill in the new year?

When the House returns after the recess, is the writ for the Wirral, South by-election likely to be moved?

In view of significant public concern about food safety, which stretches back over many years--with scares about salmonella, listeria, BSE and now E. coli--will the Government find time to debate the positive steps that could be taken were they to accept the Labour party's policy of introducing an independent food standards agency?

Mr. Newton: I thank the hon. Lady for her words at the beginning of her response.

I regret the possible clash of commitments for Scottish Members--particularly on Monday--but there would have been complaints if we had not had the fisheries debate before the Fisheries Council, which is what the House would expect and is the cause of the clash. If there were an obvious way of avoiding the clash, I would happily find it, but as far as I can judge there is not.

I shall draw the hon. Lady's request about the Millennium Commission to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage. I note that my right hon. Friend is the next Minister to answer questions in the House--she is due to answer them on Monday.

I am grateful for the moderate way in which the hon. Lady made her point about Opposition days, and I know that she appreciates the problems that we have had recently. I shall bear in mind the need for Opposition time when I consider future business.

12 Dec 1996 : Column 422

We shall seek to make progress on the Welsh Development Agency Bill as soon as possible, but I cannot predict exactly when that will be.

On the subject of the Wirral, South by-election, the hon. Lady will be aware that the memorial service for our late colleague took place only this morning, and it is certainly not customary to think about moving writs before such a service. I am sure that my right hon. Friends who are concerned with such matters will, when appropriate, consider the timing of the writ.

On the subject of food safety, the Government will seek to consider the lessons to be learnt from the latest outbreak, but I cannot draw conclusions from it in the way that the hon. Lady suggested.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Will my right hon. Friend allow the House time to debate civil air transport policy either before the Christmas recess or in the first week after it? Is he aware that there are issues of great importance that should be debated in Government time--the proposed alliance between British Airways and American Airlines, the possibility of a slot auction at Heathrow airport, the continuing Bermuda 2 air service agreement negotiations between the United States and the United Kingdom, with the necessity for more gateways for British carriers into the United States, and the fact that the new noise regulations are due to come into force on 1 January? Those are important matters for my constituents and the country as a whole.

Mr. Newton: I certainly acknowledge the importance of those matters for my hon. Friend's constituents. I also acknowledge my hon. Friend's expertise in the matter, but I cannot immediately promise a debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is the first Minister due to answer questions after the recess.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Does the Leader of the House recognise the great concern, felt in several parts of the country that have Ministry of Defence establishments, about possible changes to the MOD police force? Is he prepared to allow a full debate in the House on the Army Terms of Service (Amendment) Regulations 1996, against which a prayer has been laid by two prominent members of the Conservative party as well as the leader of the Opposition and me?

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