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Business Of The House

Volume 202: debated on Thursday 23 January 1992

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3.30 pm

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

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. John MacGregor)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 27 JANUARY—Motions on the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order and the Electricity (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order

TUESDAY 28 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Prison Security Bill.

Motion on the Uncertificated Securities Regulations

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at Seven o'clock.

WEDNESDAY 29 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Education (Schools) Bill.

THURSDAY 30 JANUARY—Motions on the English revenue support grant reports, followed by motions on the Welsh revenue support grant reports. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 31 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 3 FEBRUARY—Until Seven o'clock, Private Members' motions.

Motions on the Caribbean Development Bank (Further Payments) Order and the African Development Fund (Sixth Replenishment) Order.

The House will also wish to know that European Standing Committee B will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 29 January to consider European Community documents Nos. 7573/91, 8122/91 and 10157/91 relating to satellite broadcasting standards.

[Wednesday 29 January 1992

European Standing Committee B

Relevant European Community Documents

  • (a) 7573/91 Satellite Broadcasting of Television Signals
  • (b) 8122–91 Programmes for High Definition Television Services
  • (c) 10157/91 Satellite Broadcasting of Television Signals
  • Relevant Reports of the European Legislation Committee

  • (a) HC 29-xxx (1990–91), HC 24-ii (1991–92) and HC 24-v (1991–92)
  • (b) HC 24-iv (1991–92)
  • (c) HC 24-vii (1991–92)
  • Thursday 30 January

    English Revenue Support Grant Reports

  • 1. Revenue Support Grant Report (England) 1992–93
  • 2. Revenue Support Grant Distribution (Amendment) (No. 2) Report (England)
  • 3. The Population Report (England) (No. 3)
  • 4. The Special Grant Report (No. 3)
  • Welsh Revenue Support Grant Reports

  • 1. Welsh Revenue Support Grant Report 1992–93 (HC 151)
  • 2. Welsh Revenue Support Grant Distribution Report (No. 3) (HC 152)
  • 3. Distribution of Non-Domestic Rates (Relevant Population) Report for Wales (No. 3) (HC 153).]
  • May I begin by thanking the Leader of the House for responding so promptly to our request for debates on the revenue support grant orders for England and Wales? Will he assure us that, before the House rises tomorrow, we shall have the revenue support grant order documents for England available in the Vote Office? I realise that the debate is not until Thursday, but I am sure that it would be helpful to the House to have the documents that are the subject of the debate.

    On the same subject, will the Leader of the House arrange for his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make a statement on the latest poll tax fiasco—the decision by the courts not to allow computer evidence to be used by local authorities in pursuit of more than 7 million claims for non-payment? Does not this latest poll tax mess confirm everything that we have said from the Dispatch Box about the grotesque inefficiency of this capricious and unfair tax? Ought we not to have a statement as soon as possible to help local authorities and to inform all those people who are paying the tax about exactly what the Government intend to do?

    Why does not the Leader of the House help his hon. Friends and the Opposition by giving us more Supply day time? We are always hearing bogus claims by Conservative Members that they want more time to debate Labour party policy. We too should like to debate policies on industry, especially in view of the latest fall in industrial output and the awful news contained in the report of the Associated British Chambers of Commerce. But yet again the Leader of the House is denying the Opposition the opportunity to choose the subject for debate by not providing Supply day time. Will he assure us that he will provide some time the week after next?

    On the first point, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the orders being brought forward. As he knows, it is necessary to debate them very soon. That is relevant to the question about Supply days, to which I shall return in a moment. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the orders will be published and will be available in the Vote Office tomorrow.

    On his second point, about the community charge and its enforcement, the hon. Gentleman will know that there is a considerable distinction between the community charge and the procedures in the magistrates courts when people do not pay their community charge and local authorities take action against them. The two are distinct. There is no reason why people should not pay their community charge: that is the most important point on the issue.

    As for the proceedings in the magistrates courts, the Government are looking urgently at the matter. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are giving it great attention. There is nothing in that aspect which means in any way that people should not be paying their community charge, because there are many people on comparatively low incomes who may have to suffer because others are not paying. I hope that no one in the House will do anything but encourage people to pay the community charge.

    On the third point, about Supply days, we had a debate only yesterday on economic matters; industrial matters could have been included in that. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have two Supply day debates today. He will see from the business next week that there are a number of matters which are very important, and he will see that there is private business. I shall see what I can do about another Supply day in the week after that.

    Order. Before I call Back Benchers, may I remind them that we have today two debates, both of which are heavily over-subscribed? I have no ability to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches today. Furthermore, there is another statement. I propose to limit business questions to go on until 4 o'clock, when we shall move to the next statement. May I remind the House that questions should be directed to business next week and not to wider issues for which there may be other opportunities?

    Will my right hon. Friend consider, as there is no debate on the subject next week, the urgent necessity for a full debate on civil air transport policy, since the chairman of the Association of European Airlines and boss of Alitalia has warned that next summer, unless something urgent is done to overhaul air traffic control systems in Europe, the whole air transport industry may snarl up and gradually come to a halt?

    My hon. Friend will know that we are at the stage in the process where a large number of Bills are coming from the other place or from Committees. That business is taking a considerable amount of the time of the House, rightly and inevitably. I cannot therefore promise my hon. Friend an early debate on the subject.

    May I refer the Leader of the House to the answer given by the Prime Minister a moment ago about the need for debates in the Scottish Grand Committee on the future government of Scotland? Will he use his good offices to try to get those debates under way? They are long overdue. The Secretary of State for Scotland seems to think that we can have them without a statement on Government policy on the future government of Scotland. That is what we want.

    We have offered to have debates. My right hon. Friend has indicated that he would like to see them and has suggested that that is an appropriate way of having all the issues fully aired. I hope that discussions are under way to achieve that.

    Will my right hon. Friend find time next week to debate early-day motion 448, standing in my name and supported by a substantial number of hon. Members from all parties, welcoming the Government's support for the repeal of the infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution of the United Nations?

    [That this House welcomes the decision of the United Nations general assembly to repeal the notorious U.N.G.A. Resolution 3379/75 of 10th November 1975, normally known as the 'Zionism is Racism' resolution; congratulates Her Majesty's Government for ensuring that the United Kingdom voted for repeal, just as it originally voted against the 1975 resolution; thanks President Bush for leading the diplomatic activity which produced the repeal of that infamous slur on the Jewish people; but notes with regret that 25 nations voted against repeal, including such totalitarian dictatorships as Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria.]

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that resolution. As we have made clear, we warmly welcome the repeal of the resolution. We co-sponsored the repealing resolution and played a full part in ensuring that it was adopted by an overwhelming majority.

    Is the Leader of the House aware that there have been very disturbing reports this week about Fisons' pharmaceutical production standards by the American Food and Drug Administration, but that British inspectors' reports are kept secret? As the public are the consumers of these goods, may we have a debate next week so that we can discuss that very important information?

    I cannot promise a debate next week. The right hon. Gentleman has other ways of raising the matter, but I shall draw his point to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

    My right hon. Friend referred to the discussions that are to take place next Wednesday in European Standing Committee B on European satellite standards. He will be aware that the draft directive under discussion would, if implemented, commit the spending of many millions of pounds of European taxpayers' money to propagating a transmission system that virtually nobody in Europe would be able to watch. Expenditure of that magnitude might be a mere bagatelle to those who sit on the Opposition Benches, but the Department of Trade and Industry, and those who sit on this side of the House, are resisting that draft directive. Can my right hon. Friend find time for the whole House to debate that issue, so that a very clear message can be sent to the European Commission?

    It would not be appropriate for the whole House to debate the matter, because the Standing Committee is to consider it next week. However, I would point out to my hon. Friend, who I know takes a great interest in these matters, that part of the new European Standing Committee process is that we very much hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House who have an interest in a particular subject will attend the meetings. In that way, they will be able to make their points. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to do that next week. Moreover, the report of the Standing Committee will eventually be debated on the Floor of the House.

    Could we have additional information, perhaps by means of a statement next week, about those whose homes are being repossessed? Only this morning, I tried to intervene on behalf of a constituent whose home is being repossessed. When I reminded the lending society of what we had been told last week in the House of Commons, I was told, "We do not know very much about it; discussions are continuing, and it will be some time before any decisions are made." In the meantime, many thousands of people are in the greatest anxiety about what will happen to them. Can we be given an update?

    I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have been pleased to see that one building society has now reached agreement on the mortgages-to-rents scheme. That has already been announced. He will also know that, when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his statement in December on the outcome of the talks with the building societies, we intimated that we should be introducing a Bill to deal with the social security aspects. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has introduced that Bill today, and the House will have an opportunity to debate it shortly.

    May we have a debate next week on the community care programme so that we can be told how it is to be imlemented by the Government? A number of my constituents and their relatives are very anxious about the proposed closure of Westwood hospital in Bradford. If that hospital is closed, there will be nowhere for mentally handicapped people to go, if community care is a failure, and I suspect that to be the case in many areas. This is an urgent and increasing problem. The Government ought to provide time for a debate on the subject.

    I am sure that the hon. Gentleman noted that successive Governments have adopted a community care policy. Such a policy is now being implemented by the Government, with considerable expenditure. Spending on the social services has gone up faster, in real terms, than the number of elderly people. Nearly £2 billion is being spent to provide support for people in their own surroundings in the community. That policy involves considerable expenditure. I cannot promise a debate next week on the particular example that the hon. Gentleman gave.

    May we have a debate on the circumstances surrounding the resignation of the leader of Derbyshire county council, whose policies have led to redundancy for hundreds of teachers yet who has managed to ensure for himself a well-paid part-time job, at a salary equivalent to £40,000 a year, with the loss-making, council-controlled Derbyshire enterprise board? Is that not a unique example of the rat building himself a cosy lifeboat before abandoning the ship that he himself has sunk?

    I know that my hon. Friend will find many opportunities to draw attention to the great inadequacies of Derbyshire county council. I have certainly found much about it to criticise when visiting the county, not least when I was Secretary of State for Education and Science. I hope that my hon. Friend will find ways of raising that point in the House again.

    May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 546 on the subject of software piracy?

    [That this House notes that the culture of criminality at Mirror Group Newspapers continues; expresses concern that much of the computer software used by the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror was illicit; welcomes the news that a substantial sum has been paid by MGN plc to the programme manufacturers in compensation; and urges MGN directors to consider resignation in recognition of the mismanagement perpetuated under Robert Maxwell and his successor.]
    Will he please find time in the business of the House next week for a debate on the subject of software piracy and the continuing culture of illegality at Mirror Group Newspapers? What advice would he give Sir Peter Parker, a supporter of the Liberal Democrats, who has suggested that he will clean that Augean stable?

    I understand that, regrettably, the illicit use of computer software is widespread. I have indeed seen my hon. Friend's early-day motion. Copyright owners are actively enforcing their statutory rights against such activities in both the public and private sectors. The Government welcome the fact that several bodies have reached mutually acceptable agreements with the copyright owners.

    May I refer the Leader of the House to a matter of extreme urgency, which I referred to him on 11 December, regarding the total moratorium on public expenditure in Northern Ireland, both capital and revenue, and to the dire consequences of that for commerce, industry and employment? On 11 December, the right hon. Gentleman generously said that he would refer that matter to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but the only reply that I have received is a letter that was dated the day before a certain written answer was tabled in the Library, giving no details whatsoever. It is absolutely imperative that at least the Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland, if not the House as a whole, should debate the fact that there is a total ban on public expenditure in Northern Ireland. We are told that we could debate this in the spring estimates, but that would be too late in the fiscal year.

    I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there has been no reduction in the total volume of public expenditure in Northern Ireland that is planned for this year. It is currently running at £6.5 billion. The moratorium relates to new contracts only and, at most, will last until the end of this financial year. Work on contracts already let is unaffected. Clearly, it is necessary to keep within the total public expenditure plans. That is part of good budgeting and that is why the moratorium has had to be introduced.

    In our debates on the Education (Schools) Bill, will it be in order to refer to the threat to education standards and parental choice, the suggested abolition of grammar schools, grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges, and to the threat of an increase in private school fees of 30 per cent?

    My hon. Friend knows that I am strongly supportive of the positive aspects of those policies, and would be extremely concerned at any suggestion that the policies of other parties might have a severe effect upon them. Given that the Education (Schools) Bill relates to the whole issue of greater choice for parents and to greater parental knowledge of what is available in our schools, I expect that some of his points will be within the terms of the Third Reading debate at least.

    Will the Leader of the House make time for an early debate on the minimum wage? Is he aware that 4.5 million people in this country would benefit from a minimum wage, of whom 80 per cent. are women? Before we get the usual propaganda from central office, will he explain why all our EC partners and our main competitors, such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States, have a minimum wage which appears to cause them no problems? Is it not time that we came into the 21st century?

    I would certainly be happy to find time for a debate on the minimum wage to enable us to refute the charge that so many of those other countries have minimum wage proposals precisely along the lines advocated by the Labour party.

    Such a debate would also enable us to state the serious danger to jobs, including part-time jobs, and the big increase in unemployment that would result from a minimum wage. It would also enable us to bring out the fact that, as a result of the Labour party's support for the social chapter, national insurance contributions would also be brought to bear on many part-time workers, thus reducing their incomes. I would be happy to have such a debate, but it cannot be next week.

    May we have a debate on the future management of Government business in the House? My right hon. Friend may have noted that the Leader of the Opposition has announced today that he predicts that a Labour Government after the general election would have a majority of 20. My right hon. Friend will also note that yesterday an amendment was tabled by 25 Labour Members in which they called for socialist policies, arms cuts, harnessing of the national savings—whatever that means—and restoration of so-called trade union rights. During such a debate, could not the Leader of the Opposition tell us whether he would capitulate to the demands of such a group, and, if not, how he would control it?

    We do not need a debate on the management of the House to explore those points. Indeed, they were made effectively yesterday. There will be other opportunities for raising precisely those points without such a debate, and I hope that my hon. Friend will find the time to do so. I am sure that he agrees with me that there is no basis for the Leader of the Opposition's expectation of such a majority.

    Will the Leader of the House consult the Secretary of State for Health about the alarming state of affairs at the John Radcliffe hospital at Bicester? In November last year, Fred Hobson, 62, with heart trouble, went in for a heart operation. He was there three days and was then turned away because there were not sufficient facilities. In December he went back and got the same treatment. In January, he was told not to come. Three days ago, he was turned away again. Will the Leader of the House make sure that those Tory spivs who run the health service in Oxfordshire are the ones who are turned away—rather than Fred Hobson, who was turned away from the hospital—and get the operation done?

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) can tell us where in Bicester there is a John Radcliffe hospital? No such place exists.

    I am not responsible for what is said here. I am sure that the Leader of the House will know about that.

    I do not know the details of that case, and it sounds as if the hon. Gentleman may not either. I know that the hospital is not in his constituency, so it is not appropriate for him to seek ways of raising the matter in the House. Certainly, I would be happy to have many opportunities in the House to debate the great success and progress made under our national health service reforms.

    My right hon. Friend will have noted that, despite yesterday's debate on the autumn statement, there is still widespread ignorance among some hon. Members about the optimism about the United Kingdom economy shown by distinguished bodies abroad. With that in mind, I have a suggestion. Will my right hon. Friend consider, in advance of the next economic debate—I am sorry that it is not next week—tabling a list of quotations from bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the European Community, so that we can start the debate with the facts? That might help right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to conclude with the facts.

    We can certainly consider that suggestion. I am sure that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would wish to consider it. But every time that favourable comments are made about the United Kingdom economy—including, for example, that made by the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce about the successful operation of German-owned companies in the United Kingdom—which contrasted with the view that it took of industrial relations in the 1970s, the Labour party seeks to shout them down because it does not want to know.

    Will the right hon. Gentleman consider arranging a debate next week on the plight of the homeless? Does he realise that, of the 180,000 homeless people, 156,000 are between 16 and 25, that one in four children are homeless and that 34,000 of them are in Scotland? Could he also do something about debating the 53,000 people now in bed-and-breakfast accommodation?

    If the hon. Gentleman said that one in four children were homeless, I am sure that he did not mean to say it. That is a ludicrous charge. We have debated these matters in the House. The Government have taken considerable steps to provide facilities for the homeless. There is not an opportunity for a debate on the matter next week, but it might be possible to make some remarks about it during Thursday's business. I cannot promise any debate next week.

    Will the Leader of the House consider changing the order of business next week so that there may be an urgent debate on pensioners and unearned income? [Interruption.] Bearing in mind the Labour party's policy of imposing a 9 per cent. surcharge on unearned income over £3,000, we have a duty to tell millions of pensioners the disastrous effects that the Opposition's policies would have on their life style and means of survival. [Interruption.]

    I am afraid that I do not see, within the terms of next week's business, the opportunity to debate that subject, but I hope that before too long we can yet again raise the question of what the Labour party is saying about tax on investment income, which would clearly affect many people with modest incomes, many with incomes well below £20,000. From the noises which have just been made, it would once again seem that there is a considerable lack of clarity about the Opposition's tax policies. The more we hear from them, the more we realise that the amount of revenue is decreasing and therefore the gap between their expenditure and tax policies is getting greater.

    Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Wales to come to the House early next week to clarify the major initiative, which he announced in the Liverpool Daily Post yesterday, to set up an all-Wales body, nominated by him, which would include representatives from the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, local government and some hon. Members from the House, to—in the words of the statement—help him "to run Wales"? Should a statement on that matter not have been made to the House rather than leaked to the Liverpool Daily Post? If that is Government policy, surely we need a statement at an early date.

    I shall discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

    May we have a debate on attempts to suppress democratic discussion of vital national issues in light of the decision of Mirror Group Newspapers—for so long, the voice of Robert Maxwell—to refuse paid advertising from a political party and consequently deny their hard-pressed pensioners some revenue?

    If I can guess at what my hon. Friend is referring to, if the group will not take the advertising, we shall certainly get the case over in many other ways to the people who are likely to be affected by Labour's tax and spending policies.

    May I return the Leader of the House to the issue that I raised last week—the illegal use of computer evidence in magistrates courts? He told me last week and the shadow Leader of the House today that the Government were giving that matter urgent consideration. Has he seen early-day motion 539, which I tabled last night after the judgment given by the senior stipendiary magistrate, Mr. Christopher Bourke, after five days study?

    [That this House notes the decision of Mr. Christopher Bourke, the Clerkenwell stipendiary magistrate, on Tuesday 22nd January, to reject the use of computer records in magistrates' courts as amounting to hearsay evidence; believes that this stems from the failure of the Home Office to issue the appropriate commencement order to the Civil Evidence Act 1968; believes that, in regard to poll tax cases, the Government's options are limited, to either not extending the legal use of computer records, which presumably will require the presence of a council officer with personal knowledge of each individual case to swear on oath as to the particular individual circumstances, or to extend the use of the Act to allow the legal use of computer records and face a possible challenge on any of the seven million liability orders already granted in England and Wales, particularly those that led on to nearly 200 imprisonments; and calls for all poll tax cases to be halted until this is sorted out.]

    That judgment backs up what I told the Leader of the House last week and what I have been telling the House for more than a year—that flawed procedures are being used in magistrates courts to railroad more than 7 million people through the courts and to put almost 200 people in prison. Why will the Leader of the House not announce not merely that urgent consideration is being given to the matter but that all poll tax cases will be halted forthwith until the situation is resolved?

    I have already said that the Government are considering the matter urgently. Nothing that has happened in some recent cases provides any reason for people who are liable to pay the community charge failing to do so.

    Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on education, and especially on the local authorities' responsibilities and their relationship with Government in terms of school organisation, so that I may highlight the need for an early decision on proposals to reorganise schools in Ealing, where parents, teachers and children will be greatly affected by those decisions?

    I cannot promise my hon. Friend Government time for that matter. However, he is aware that he can seek to find time to raise it in the House.

    Will the Leader of the House look at early-day motion 291, which has been signed by 124 right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House?

    [That this House regrets the Government's failure to deal with the imminent threat of wholesale breaches of the law on Sunday trading; expresses concern that Ministers appear to be running away from their responsibility to uphold the law as soon as one or more large commercial organisations express their intention to ignore the law; greatly regrets the way that this situation puts pressure on responsible and law-abiding retailers to open on Sundays simply to protect their market share; further regrets the damage that is likely to be done to small shops and family businesses as a consequence; considers that sensible progress to modernising the law should be made on the basis of the REST proposals put forward by Keep Sunday Special; and calls on the Government actively to pursue the regulation of Sunday trading in a way which deals fairly with employees, their families and with community and commercial interests.]
    The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of yesterday's decision by the House, by 224 votes to 4, to do something about the shambles about the operation of the Shops Act 1950. Surely some time should be given next week so that we can debate this issue, especially when, today, in answer to Question 4, the Minister of State, Home Office told the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) that it would be a couple of months before we had the report from the law courts in Europe. That does not answer the burning problem of law-breaking on a Sunday, especially when the House has not been afforded the opportunity even to debate the matter in full so that a consensus of hon. Members can be taken. The Leader of the House should make time next week for this urgent matter to be discussed.

    But the Government have already made clear their position on this matter. We had a full statement on the case that is now in the House of Lords and on the general discussion in relation to the reform of Sunday trading. The hon. Gentleman has been here sufficiently long to know that yesterday's decision by the House was simply to give leave to bring in a Bill. The House did not take a decision on the Bill or express a view on it. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are many views in the House about exactly what any reform of Sunday trading should involve. It is unlikely that the House will be able to consider a Bill on this matter in the remainder of this Session, given the amount of business that we have to do.

    No, I cannot take a point of order—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".]—until after the statement. I must apply the same rules to those on the Front Benches as to those on the Back Benches. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about Tracey?"] This is taking up time, but if hon. Members are alleging that I took a point of order from the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey), I did so because the Chair has to hear the point of order if it is alleged that something unparliamentary happened during the course of Question Time. Nothing had happened.

    No, I am not taking it. The shadow Leader of the House cannot ask me to hear a point of order from the Front Bench when I am not prepared to hear them from those on the Back Benches.