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Business Of The House

Volume 170: debated on Thursday 19 April 1990

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3.30 pm

Will the Leader of the House tell us the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Sir Geoffrey Howe)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 23 APRIL AND TUESDAY 24 APRIL— Consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords] (1st and 2nd Allotted Days).

WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL—Opposition day (11th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The poll tax, the uniform business rate and local government services".

Remaining stages of the War Crimes Bill.

THURSDAY 26 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Enterprise and New Towns (Scotland) Bill.

Motion to take note of EC document relating to the automobile industry. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 27 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 3o APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

[Thursday 26 April: Relevant European Community Document: 10971/89 Single Motor Vehicle Market Relevant Report of European Legislation Committee: HC 11-xii (1989–90) para 2.]

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his proposal that the House should take the remaining stages of the War Crimes Bill after 10 pm? It is not usual for us to consider primary legislation after 10 pm in the House. We regard that as an unacceptable proposal, and I hope that he will take it away and think again about it.

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give the House some more explanation about the likely course of events when we come to consider the amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on Tuesday night? Is he aware that it appears that the House will be asked to vote on perhaps 14 consecutive amendments, taking four or more hours of voting time during the night? Is it reasonable or rational to ask the House of Commons to determine such important, controversial and sensitive issues in that way? I hope that we can have some explanation from the Leader of the House of why the House is being placed in that position.

Is not Parliament entitled to some clarification from the Secretary of State for rade and Industry following his statement yesterday about the Iraqi gun fiasco? Should not we have some urgent and candid answers from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence to the many unanswered questions which remain following the exchanges in the House yesterday?

For example, who will explain the widely differing versions of events given by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sir. H. Miller)? I hope that the Leader of the House will soon provide Government time for a debate so that we can have proper answers to those questions to make up for the pathetically inadequate performance given by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in the Chamber yesterday.

Of course I understand why the Gentleman raises his first point. However, it is important for the House to get ahead with the business at convenient opportunities. The House had a full day's debate on the general principles of the War Crimes Bill on Second Reading on 19 March. No amendments have been made to the Bill in Committee, and no Government amendments are proposed on Report. In those circumstances, what I have proposed should be reasonable.

I understand why the hon. Gentleman raised his point about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, but he will know that there has been extensive consultation about the handling of the Bill, both through the usual channels and with a wide range of other representatives. I do not expect to have commanded universal assent to that, but I believe that I have arrived at conclusions that are the best practicable arrangements.

It is important for us to tackle the central questions in an orderly fashion, and together. Again, we have considered through the usual channels and in other ways the possibility of separating them, but that has given rise to anxiety that hon. Members might vote on one part of the debate and not remain closely involved to vote on the other part. We have arrived at the conclusion that this is the best way to do it. I appreciate that considerable time may be spent on voting, but if we address the matter sensibly we should be able to reduce the number of contested votes. I believe that it will be regarded in the end as more satisfactory to do that than to spend a great deal of time debating without reaching a conclusion, as has happened so often in the past.

As for the questions about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, he made a statement to the House yesterday describing all that was then known about the matter. The components in question were apprehended as a result of alertness once the matter became known. It is in the nature of things that exports of that type take place against a background of subterfuge and concealment, not least on the part of the orderers, and those concerned with supply are not always fully informed of what is happening or how they should be handling the matter. The Government have apprehended the components, and further investigations must take place. If it is thought right to tell the House any more about the matter at any future stage, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will consider doing so.

Order. May I point out that no fewer than 49 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to take part in the subsequent Hong Kong debate? I hope that hon. Members will put only one question each to the Leader of the House, and confine it to next week's business.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome his decision on dealing with the abortion question next Tuesday night? At last there will be a decision without obstruction. It is worth voting, if necessary for four hours, to clear the matter up.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; that is the other side of the argument.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that there is a prayer concerning the Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 1990. Will he find time for a full debate on the matter? The regulations have been with us for a long while, and it is about time that the House explored the matter once more to come to conclusions on certain inequities that are beginning to show up.

I cannot say more than that I will examine the matter closely in the light of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

In next Wednesday's debate initiated by the Opposition on the community charge and the uniform business rate, will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for the the Secretary of State for the Environment to remind the House that, of the totality of local government expenditure, a sizeable amount is met through national taxation, and that therefore ability to pay—a matter widely referred to in the press and in the House recently—is already a matter carefully taken into account by Her Majesty's Government?

I shall certainly draw that important point to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Did the Leader of the House watch the programme on television last night in the "Inside Story" series called, "Our Reactor is on Fire"? If he or those in his Department did not see it, I offer him a copy of the programme and ask him to look at it and take note of how the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of the day were duped by the nuclear industry and how the Black inquiry, which was set up specifically to look into health problems of that community on the Cumbrian coast, was deliberately kept in ignorance. If he cannot initiate a debate next week in Government time, will the Leader of the House allow the House an early opportunity to discuss the degree of mendacity that the nuclear industry visited on what appears to have been a supine Government in the past?

I do not accept the judgment that the hon. Gentleman makes on the entire industry, nor, I suspect, does the shadow Leader of the House. The safety of the industry, and of Sellafield in particular, has been subject to continuous scrutiny by the Health and Safety Executive authorities and the Government.

While I accept that next Wednesday's debate on local government finance and the community charge arises on an Opposition motion, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that during that debate, the powers that be in the Government produce proposals to remove the inadequacy of the current rebate scheme and the transitional relief scheme and to raise the £3,000 limit at which the taper begins to make what is in principle a good change in local government finance acceptable to the people?

I hope that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity offered by the debate to make those points. He might also take the opportunity to comment on the fact that the Opposition are now apparently dedicated to maintaining the community charge for the foreseeable future.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) about the Iraqi gun incident and the answers that were given yesterday by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who has developed a new doctrine that Ministers can refuse to answer a question because there may be a case pending in the courts? You, Mr. Speaker, were right to say that it was not a matter for you, but it is a matter for Members of Parliament, as that would mean that. in future any Minister in any Government could refuse to answer a question because there might be a court case pending. Therefore, it is a matter for the House of Commons, and we should be debating it. I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider his answer and to provide a early debate on that aspect of the matter as well as the particular incident.

I do not think that the matter spreads as widely as the hon. Gentleman suggests. One can well imagine that in other circumstances, a Minister would be unable to comment on every aspect of a matter that is still the subject of inquiry for a variety of reasons including the possibility of criminal proceedings. In those circumstances, there must be some inhibition, but, as I have said already, if a suitable means arises, I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend will be prepared to came back to the House.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, at Question Time yesterday, the Minister for Industry made a significant statement about the huge increase in Britain's car manufacturing capacity? In the circumstances, despite what is happening at Ford, does he agree that we should have a debate on the industry soon, as one of the great success stories of recent years?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The continuing expansion of our automobile manufacturing capability is an important achievement of the past 10 years.

Happily, the Government have now accepted the intention of my Bill, supported by right hon. and hon. Members of all parties in the House, to give the peoplp of Australia one of the two original copies of their Constitution Act. While I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the House for their most helpful discussions with me on the legislation, is there anything that the right hon. and learned Gentleman can tell us today about the timing of its passage through the House? Could we possibly mark ANZAC day on 25 April by completing in this House at least one stage of the Bill?

I have seen that suggestion made, although on a rather more ambitious basis. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the timing proposals for that Bill; nor would I want to raise any expectations of the kind that he has identified. I shall certainly see whether it is possible.

When my right hon. and learned Friend is discussing next Wednesday's debate with the Secretary of State for the Environment, will he ask him to deal at length with transferring the whole cost of education, or at least teachers' salaries, from local authorities to the central Exchequer? Will he also deal with the plight of village shops, which is a very real one?

I will draw both points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, but I cannot resist the opportunity to say yet again to my hon. Friend what I said during the Easter Adjournment debate: merely transferring the financing of this or that aspect of any activity to central Government amounts to no more than a book-keeping transaction.

Will the Leader of the House arrange a further debate following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller)? The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that, yesterday, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that his Department was not aware of the gun contract with Iraq. He will be further aware that the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller), a former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, did not agree with him. He said that he had informed the Department twice about the gun but that he had had to go elsewhere to get some action.

Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that this matter needs clearing up for the benefit of the House and of the country, to decide who is telling the truth and who is lying?

There are clearly matters that can be further examined, but I do not honestly think that it is sensible for us to do so across the Floor of the House.

May I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)? Almost everyone agrees that the principle of the community charge is right, that everyone should pay something, but most people will agree that at the least, the first year's implementation has been unfortunate. Will my right hon. and learned Friend insist on the Secretary of State for the Environment—the Government realise the need for this—announcing proposals in his speech next week for reform and change, because it is time that they were debated?

I am more ready to endorse my hon. Friend's warm welcome for the principle of the community charge than the rest of his remarks, but I shall bring his observations to the attention of the Secretary of State.

As the Leader of the House has found himself unable to arrange debates on some of the many outstanding statutory instruments that are the subject of prayers on the Order Paper, will he give the House an undertaking that important issues such as the Police (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations—police officers have been considerably financially prejudiced as a result of the poll tax regulations—and the National Health Service (Charges for Drugs and Appliances) (Amendment) Regulations will be debated in Committee next week?

I cannot give a specific undertaking in respect of either of those matters—certainly not for next week. I understand that there is widespread interest in the police regulations and I shall seek through the usual channels to find an opportunity for them to be discussed in due course.

May we have a debate on Lithuania? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the widespread concern about the reaction of the Soviet authorities? Is he further aware of the feeling that the EEC and the Government must come up with some initiatives for aid? May we have a debate in the near future?

The whole House will understand my hon. Friend's expression of concern. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will discuss the matter with his colleagues in the Twelve during their meeting this weekend.

Following the extremely important question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller), and as this matter affects the rights of the House against the Executive, will the Leader of the House, first, say when the Solicitor-General or the Attorney-General will make a statement on the legal aspects of the matter? Secondly, will he give an absolute guarantee that the Minister concerned will appear before the House if there is to be no legal case, because he took refuge in the fact that there would be one? We think that it was quite improper that he should have done so, but if he is to proceed, he must explain himself to the House.

I am not sure whether the Law Officers would be the most appropriate Ministers to respond on a matter that is the subject of possible proceedings by the Customs and Excise rather than by the Law Officers' Department. The matter is still under investigation in that way. The right hon. Gentleman should not conclude that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is taking refuge in the prospect of a prosecution. He is merely saying that certain matters are subject to investigation for a possible prosecution, about which it would not be sensible to comment at this stage.

Following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) about Lithuania, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the Foreign Secretary, in a statement after the weekend EC meeting, makes it perfectly clear that the Government endorse the view of the United States President that Lithuania enjoys an unequivocal right to self-determination, and that the western European powers will provide practical assistance in every reasonable way?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is here, and will have listened to that point. He will certainly consider with me the possibility of a statement about the matter next week, and he certainly bears in mind my hon. Friend's points of argument.

When we have a debate on the Iraqi gun, as the Leader of the House implied that we should, will it be in order to point out that the reasons why we have this shambles are the free market philosophy operated by the Government and the fact that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has gone on record on many occasions as saying that he wants to see the Department of Trade and Industry completely abolished? It is because he has not been keeping his eye on things that we have this mess now.

There were two misunderstandings in that short observation. First, I gave no suggestion of a prospect of a debate on the matter. Secondly, it is foolish to contend that the possibility of promoting the supply of arms to any customer is greater or lesser under any given pattern of economic organisation. By definition, such activities take place covertly and such people set out to find arms wherever they can. It is always the task of the Government to try to detect that, but it is by no means easy.

Could my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on tourism? Some months ago, a decision was made to exempt people who run bed-and-breakfast businesses from the uniform business rate for up to 100 days a year. That has created a major burden for others in the industry, especially in my constituency. We have not had a tourism debate for a considerable time, so will my right hon. and learned Friend please find time for a debate as soon as possible?

I am not sure about the prospect of a debate on tourism. However, my hon. Friend will see that the uniform business rate is one of the subjects selected by the Opposition for debate next Wednesday.

Bearing in mind the fact that virtually every newspaper today carries comments by the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) that someone in Whitehall has been lying about the export order for Iraq, is not it essential that we have a statement early next week from the Secretary of State for Defence or the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? The statement should tell us precisely what the responsibilities of those Departments were when the hon. Member for Bromsgrove made representations on behalf of a firm in the west midlands and when that firm said that the pipes might well not be pipes, but parts of a gun. Surely the House of Commons is entitled to know about those matters. Why is there this cover-up, evasion and deceit from Ministers and everyone else on this matter?

The hon. Gentleman should not dramatise the matter in that way. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a statement to the House yesterday. The possibility of a criminal offence is being investigated in the light of some of his observations. It is entirely proper that that should happen.

Order. In view of the pressure on time today, I ask hon. Members not to ask questions that have already been asked and answered, but to ask about business next week.

Is not it a little quixotic that the House found a whole day to debate the breach of some informal rules by one Conservative Member, but is still unable to find time to debate the conduct of 31 Labour Members who are breaking the law? Does my right hon. and learned Friend further agree that the inaction of the Leader of the Opposition—

The inaction of the Leader of the Opposition on the subject is incredible.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The important point that he raises has been raised frequently in the House, and rightly so.

Will the Home Secretary be making a statement next week on some of the recent decisions in courts in the Irish Republic—particularly the decision in the Dublin criminal court which was reported in a Dublin newspaper on 1 April, in which a person who was up for a stabbing offence was told that he must go to England to take a job immediately? Is there a "sin bin" here? Are our immigration laws so open that people can come here to escape justice?

The matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers is not one of the more familiar cases in the Irish jurisdiction, but I shall certainly bring it to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, following the Opposition's choice of the community charge as the subject for debate next Wednesday, it is high time that the Government found time for a time for a debate on the future of local government organisation, as it is becoming increasingly clear that two tiers of local government are unnecessarily wasteful and that the present system causes confusion, with district councils being blamed for overspending by county councils?

I understand my hon. Friend's point. The present arrangements certainly can give rise to such misunderstandings, but I would hesitate to conclude that that in itself is sufficient to persuade us to embark on the wholesale reform of local government.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the poll tax of £297 set by my council, Calderdale, was 34th from the bottom of the league and that, when the charge is capped, it will be fourth from the bottom? May we have a full day's debate on the matter, so that the Secretary of State for the Environment can explain how he arrived at the ludicrous decision to cap Calderdale council?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained, his approach was founded on the principles that he set out to the House when he made his statement. The hon. Lady will be able to raise the matter in next week's debate.

My right hon. and learned Friend will remember that, on 29 March, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) called for a debate on Barnet's housing policy, claiming that the chief solicitor had said that Barnet council was liable for prosecution under the Race Relations Act 1976. May we have such a debate soon, as the head of legal services of Barnet council claims that he said no such thing? Is not it disgraceful that the hon. Member for Brent, East should make such misleading statements?

I confess that I do not have the details of the matter at my fingertips to quite the same extent as my hon. Friend, but I am grateful to him for reminding me of the subject.

Can we have a debate on no-strike agreements? Does the Leader of the House think that it is fair that those who provide cheap labour in the dining rooms and elsewhere in the Refreshment Department of the House should be prevented from taking industrial action? Is that fair, given that they earn so little?

That matter, so often raised by the hon. Gentleman, will be considered by the House of Commons Commission shortly.

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that this year is Tidy Britain Year. May we have an early debate on tidiness and keeping litter off our streets, especially as I am sorry to have to report that I have received a complaint from her worship the mayor of Weymouth and Portland that she has seen the House with litter strewn all over its floors? Should not we be setting an example? I should be most grateful if we could have a debate on this subject.

I know that, over the centuries, many people have had some sympathy with that view, but I fear that the House's deplorable habit of occasionally leaving paper behind could not be corrected very quickly.

Has the Leader of the House had time to look at the 14 private Bills set down for consideration today and again deferred until next Thursday? Does he recall that, about six months ago, he told the House that he would be urgently considering the whole question of private business? Is not it time that he reported back to the House and told us what progress he has made in that investigation?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to remind me of the matter. He knows that I am engaged in discussions about it, and I hope to report to the House before long.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with me that, now that the Russians have admitted to the massacre of 15,000 Polish officers in Katyn Wood, it would be right for the House to have a debate on the Polish Resettlement Act 1947, and that the best memorial that the British taxpayer could erect to those gallant murdered officers would be to provide financial aid to Polish people who settled in this country and who now wish to return to their native land?

I have not had an opportunity to consider that proposal. I will draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friends for further consideration.

Can the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made by the Secretary of State for Defence next week before Operation Elder Forest begins? That operation will subject many areas, especially the north-east of Scotland, to further bouts of low-flying aircraft. Does the Leader of the House understand that, next week, Scottish schoolchildren will be taking certificate examinations and that next Wednesday they will sit the English exam, one of the most popular exams, when the exercise will be at its height?

Will the Secretary of State for Defence explain why the exercise has been arranged for such an inconvenient time and also tell us who was responsible for organising it for next week?

I can only draw that matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, and I will do so.

Since some of the issues are outwith the Select Committee on Members' Interests, and since he phoned me asking for an apology about a question that I had asked on American complaints about him, before it festers any further, could the position of the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) be clarified by a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence about the complaints received—or not—by the Ministry of Defence?

As I understand it, those matters are being investigated by the two Select Committees concerned. However, I will bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Will the Leader of the House clarify the reply that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) earlier about the debate on Tuesday? Many of us have heard rumours about how the Leader of the House particularly intends to address the voting patterns. It seems to some of us that, if those rumours are true, in addition to giving way to pressure to include that matter—which many of us believe is far outwith the terms of the Bill—the Leader of the House is in fact giving way to other pressures so that the House will not be able to approach the issue in a fair and open-minded way, but would have a strong bias built into it.

The hon. Lady will know that the way in which that matter is being handled has, as I have said already, been the subject of the widest possible consultation. Decisions about management will be taken by the Chair and by the Business Committee. It is my impression that the approach that I have so far outlined has the support of the majority of hon. Members.

As was implicitly recognised in a written answer just before the Easter recess, the Prime Minister and other Ministers have inadvertently misled the House on a number of occasions because of the poverty statistics with which they have been provided. Ministers have been provided with statistics that appear to show that the poorest people in our communities have become more prosperous at twice the rate of the community as a whole. The Government now tell us that that is almost diametrically opposite the truth, and that their rate of increased prosperity has actually been less than that in the country as a whole. As Government policy has presumably been predicated on the false assumption that the statistics provided by the Prime Minister were correct, may we have a statement on the whole affair?

I doubt whether that is an appropriate question for business questions, but I shall bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. The Government set out the matter quite clearly in the written answer to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as a former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, share the concern of friends and families, including Jill Morrell, of British hostages? While supporting a policy of no deals, they are nevertheless concerned about the urgency that they believe the Government attach to solving the problem. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman, in his capacity as Leader of the House, offer an early opportunity for the Government at least to give an indication that they attach urgency and priority to reaching a conclusion to that serious problem—in spite of the delicacy of the matter, which the House will accept?

I fully understand why the friends and families of people who have been hostages for a long time feel continuous anxiety of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I must reassure him and them that that topic is almost never absent from the minds of Foreign Secretaries and Foreign Office Ministers. It is a matter of great and continuing anxiety to see whether there is anything further that can be done to explore possibilities. For reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand, it is not always sensible to advertise that continuing concern with the matter. He can assure all those concerned that the Foreign Secretary and his Ministers share their anxiety.