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23 Mar 1999 : Column 289

Business of the House

12.17 am

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): With permission, I should like to make a short business statement.

The business for tomorrow will be a timetable motion on the Local Government Bill, followed by consideration of proceedings on the Bill. The business previously announced will be taken at a later date.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The House is grateful to the right hon. Lady for making a proper business statement, on which the House can ask questions.

If the House is no longer to address the Access to Justice Bill tomorrow, what more important issue could the House address than the crisis in Kosovo? As for local government, we believe that we should have continued to discuss the Local Government Bill on Report tonight. We believe that the Prime Minister was right to table a motion saying that

We cannot understand why Labour Members have abandoned the motion that was tabled by their Prime Minister, which they supported at 10 o'clock.

It is not unusual for consideration to continue after 10 o'clock, particularly if that is the best way in which to make progress on important issues concerning local government. Is the right hon. Lady aware that, under the curtailed arrangements that she has just announced, the House will have an inadequate opportunity to discuss rate capping, policing, compulsory competitive tendering and other issues concerning the future of local government?

We were prepared to discuss those issues--which are vital to our constituents--through the night. The Government had no response to the cogent arguments of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Government have panicked by changing the business. They have displayed arrogance--an arrogance that is becoming the hallmark of the Administration.

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman does himself and his colleagues a great injustice when he says that they cannot understand why the Government have taken the step of adjourning consideration of the Local Government Bill. He is entirely right. That is not unusual. The House does debate matters on occasion beyond 10 o'clock when it is for the convenience of the House to dispose of important business, but I am sure that he will have noticed that we were not disposing of the business at all.

The Bill went through Committee in good order and it came out of Committee in good order. It then came before the House. At no point did the Opposition suggest to the Government that the time proposed for the debate was insufficient. We had reached 10 pm, and we had debated two of the 12 groups of amendments that had been tabled. I think that it was very clear what was happening. Moreover, at no point did the Opposition indicate what further time they thought would be required, or when they thought that it might be possible to finish the debate.

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Great concern has been expressed about local government matters. It may be known at least to Opposition local government spokesmen that early tomorrow morning--and I mean early--an important meeting is scheduled to take place between senior local government figures and my colleagues who deal with such matters. That meeting would have been prevented had the House continued to debate the Bill. When the right hon. Gentleman says that some people do not understand the purpose of the statement, he does himself an injustice.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Before I call another Member, let me say that the Leader of the House must be asked questions on her statement.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I hope that Ministers will have a good night's sleep, so that they can have a good meeting with representatives of local government. I trust that the Leader of the House will appreciate that the gentlemen and ladies whom they will meet tomorrow will want to know what happened to the Local Government Bill tonight.

Why were we not given an opportunity to debate the council tax benefit subsidy clawback that the Government are imposing? Why were we not given an opportunity to debate capping, and the Government's decision to impose it again? Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that we have spent an hour and a half debating not debating anything, and that we have consequently lost an opportunity to make further progress on the Bill? Will she also acknowledge that the lion's share of time has been taken by Conservative Members who have filled air time, but have not provided any substance? Does she accept that, as a result, we have lost the opportunity to debate properly local government issues that the Conservative party never cared about, and did a very bad job of dealing with in government?

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Burstow: My final question is this. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House would guarantee adequate time tomorrow for us to debate the final groups of amendments properly, so that we can test the Government on the issues as the official Opposition signally failed to do today.

Mrs. Beckett: I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government will find time for those debates, however that time is used. He has made some very fair points about the way in which the time has been used today. That was not our doing, however; it was the doing of the official Opposition. We cannot predict or control the way in which the time that will be provided is used tomorrow, although the Government wish and intend the Bill to be properly debated, and we have done nothing to prevent that.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Given that a day of Government business will be lost tomorrow, and given that the Tories are very concerned about losing that day, may I suggest a solution to the problem that my right hon. Friend could consider before the Easter break? There are

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two extra days for that holiday, the Thursday before Easter and the Monday after the holiday is over. My right hon. Friend should inform--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The statement was about tomorrow's business, and questions should relate to that.

Mrs. Beckett: I shall bear my hon. Friend's suggestion in mind. I am sure that Conservative Members will be anxious to attend.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): As proceedings on the Access to Justice Bill are now to be delayed, will the Leader of the House ask her noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor to take the opportunity of that delay to explain more clearly why access to justice for poor people who have suffered personal injuries is being reduced?

Mrs. Beckett: Again, I shall bear in mind the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks. He will have the opportunity to make those points when the Access to Justice Bill is considered by the House.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): As there have been new developments since the Prime Minister's statement on Yugoslavia, may I ask the Leader of the House--not least in light of the fact that Mr. Primakov has cancelled his visit to Washington--what the Government's thinking is on a statement or a debate on Yugoslavia tomorrow?

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend will be aware that a debate on defence in the world is scheduled for Thursday. I have little doubt that those matters will be aired then.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): May I reinforce the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on tomorrow's business? As the business of the House is now being arranged, does the Leader of the House not agree that, tomorrow, we really should be debating Kosovo? Many of us have very grave reservations about the policy that the Government currently are pursuing, and we should like to have an opportunity to probe the thinking and the strategy of the Government and the NATO alliance. Tomorrow is an opportunity, as the business is being arranged. Why does she not take it?

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. and learned Gentleman had an opportunity this afternoon to take part in the questioning on those matters. I understand that he was not here, just as he was not here for any of today's debates--although he has been very vocal since 10 o'clock.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): May I support the claims of both my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and of the Opposition that we should have a debate on Kosovo? I think that there is a useful compromise. The Leader of the House has quite sensibly said that, on Thursday, there will be a related debate on defence. Can we not have that debate rescheduled as a debate on Kosovo, rather than as a tour d'horizon of all the issues of defence in the world? Let us

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have a debate on Kosovo alone, in view of the developments to which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow has drawn attention.

Mrs. Beckett: I hear what my right hon. Friend says and shall bear his remarks in mind. However, it seems that the debate that it is intended we shall have on Thursday will provide an opportunity for those issues to be raised--perhaps with rather more knowledge and understanding, as the House will have had time to assimilate events that may be taking place tonight or tomorrow. I feel assured that it will be a better debate for that.

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