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Business Of The House

Volume 300: debated on Thursday 13 November 1997

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3.30 pm

May I ask the Leader of the House to give next week's business?

The business for next week will be as follows.

MONDAY 17 NOVEMBER—Opposition Day [4th allotted day] [first part].

Until 7 pm, there will be a debate entitled "Public Services Under Threat" on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Motion to approve the seventh and eighth reports from the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges.

TUESDAY 18 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 19 NOVEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill [first day].

THURSDAY 20 NOVEMBER—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which a Government reply has been given. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 21 NOVEMBER—Debate on the review of civil justice and legal aid on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows.

MONDAY 24 NOVEMBER—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.

TUESDAY 25 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

WEDNESDAY 26 NOVEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Until about 7 pm, Third Reading of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission Bill [Lords].

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Plant Varieties Bill.

THURSDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill [first day].

FRIDAY 28 NOVEMBER—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 19 November there will be a debate on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies: controls on cattle, sheep and goats, in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on the draft general budget for 1998 in European Standing Committee B, as I announced last week.

The House will also wish to know that it is proposed that on Tuesday 25 November there will be a debate on biotechnological inventions in European Standing Committee B, and on Wednesday 26 November there will be a debate on food law in European Standing Committee A.

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

I remind the House that all Members may attend a European Standing Committee, and participate in questions to the Minister and in the debate that follows.

[ Wednesday 19 November:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community document: 10040/97, TSE: Prohibition of Risk Material. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 15-iii (1997–98) and HC 155-iv (1997–98).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 10153/97, Draft General Budget 1998; PE 262.699, 1998 Budget. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 155-iv (1997–98) and HC 155-vi (1997–98).

Tuesday 25 November:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 10510/97, Biotechnological Inventions. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-v (1997–98).

Wednesday 26 November:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community documents: 8150/97, Food Law; 8386/97, Consumer Health and Food Safety. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC I55-ii (1997–98) and HC 155-v (1997–98).

Thursday 20 November:

Debate on a motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee. Relevant reports:

Reports Session 1996–97

Report No:

Title

HC No.

Publication Date

1The office of Gas Supply: The Regulation of Gas Tariffs (The Gas Cost Index)3714 November
2Progress in Completing the New British Library3820 November
3The Sale of the Mining Operations of the British Coal Corporation6021 November
4The Construction of Quarry House6927 November
5Highways Agency: The Bridge Programme8328 November
6The Audit of European Community Transactions844 December
7The Hospital Information Support Systems Initiative975 December
8Information Technology Services Agency: Outsourcing The Service Delivery Operations9811 December
9Resource Accounting and Proposals for a Resource-based System of Supply16715 January
10Excess Vote NI DHSS19 February
11Excess Votes Classes 1, IV, VII, XIII, XIV, XVII (7&13)29313 February
12ODA: Turkish Universities Equipment Project7027 February
13H M Treasury: The Second Sale of Shares in National Power and PowerGen1516 March

Report No:

Title

HC No.

Publication Date

14Dept for Education & Employment: Financial Control of Payments made under the Training for Work and Youth Training Programmes in England6113 March
15The Award of the First Three Passenger Rail Franchises3913 March
16Office of Electricity Regulation, Office of Gas Supply: The Work of the Directors General of Telecommunications, Gas Supply, Water Services and Electricity Supply8919 March
17Health of the Nation: A Progress Report8520 March
18National Savings: Financial Reporting21425 March
19Former Yorkshire Regional Health Authority43226 March
20Payments to the National Lottery Distribution Fund9927 March
21The Management of Space in Higher Education Institutions in Wales1592 April
22British Rail Maintenance Limited: The Sale of Maintenance Depots1683 April
23Ministry of Defence: The Financial Management of the Military Operation in the Former Yugoslavia2424 April
24Department of Transport: Freight Facilities Grants in England2848 April
25Plymouth Development Corporation: Regularity Propriety and Control of Expenditure4508 April
REPLIES
Treasury Minute on the First to Eighth Reports from the Committee of Public Accounts 1996–97CM 355912 February 1997
Treasury Minute on the Ninth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts 1996–97CM 357712 March 1997
Treasury Minute on the Twelfth to Twenty-Fifth Reports from the Committee of Public Accounts 1996–97CM 371416 July 1997

I thank the right hon. Lady for her reply. It helps the House to be given two weeks' business, and to hear the fuller statements that she is giving.

The right hon. Lady will recall that the Prime Minister said yesterday that he would set out the Government's position on the tobacco sponsorship ban with "enthusiasm and relish". As he apparently omitted some information, which has since emerged overnight, will she arrange an early opportunity for him to set out the Government's position with not only enthusiasm and relish, but completeness?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, if the Secretary of State for Health had bothered to make a statement to the House about Government policy on tobacco sponsorship, as he should have done, instead of announcing it outside, and if the Minister for Public Health had done the House the courtesy of informing it of the Government's change of policy on the matter, as she should have done, instead of announcing it on the "Today" programme, the Government not only might have avoided much of the bother that they have created for themselves over the affair, but would have demonstrated that they have, after all, some regard for parliamentary democracy and convention?

As the right hon. Lady may know, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) said yesterday on the Jimmy Young programme that it is the Minister without Portfolio who is running the Labour party. If she agrees with her hon. Friend, perhaps she could arrange for the Minister to appear at the Dispatch Box slightly more frequently than once every six months and for slightly longer than five minutes. She will know that last Monday's occasion was a terrible disappointment to the House. Given the great role ascribed to the Minister by the hon. Member for Brent, East, surely the House should be given more ample opportunity to question him.

Will the right hon. Lady make a statement to the House to confirm, or otherwise, that a substantial amount of office accommodation in the Cloisters, which was formerly used by hon. Members, has now been allocated to something called the parliamentary Labour party resource centre? If that is so, is not the taxpayer subsidising the Labour party's political activities within the House? Is not the centre taking up much needed office space, which should be for the use of elected Members of Parliament, including Labour Members?

I hope to be able to give two weeks' notice of business quite often. I cannot promise to do it on all occasions, and the second week's business will be provisional, of course, but I undertake to try to give as much notice of business as possible, and I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her comments.

On the Prime Minister's answers yesterday, I do not think that there was a question asked by a Conservative Member that he did not answer fully, completely and enthusiastically. I am not sure which information the right hon. Lady thinks has come to light overnight. Does the Conservative party want to criticise the Labour party for taking an open donation, for giving back a donation and for refusing a donation? Other hon. Members might like a debate on all political funding in the past few years. For Conservative Members to complain about tobacco advertising is a bit of a cheek, as they never lifted a finger to tackle that problem.

On the right hon. Lady's comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), I do not have time to listen to the Jimmy Young programme, so I missed his comments, but if she accurately reported what he said, on this occasion, he is mistaken. We have ample opportunity to question the person who is running the country—the Prime Minister.

The right hon. Lady is right to say that the resource centre is now in office accommodation in the Cloisters, having vacated its previous room to accommodate the needs of an hon. Member.

Will my right hon. Friend take on board the idea of having several debates about political funding because, contrary to the view that is expressed by a few Tories as of now, it would help us considerably to take the lid off all those donations to the Tory party when it was in government? It was not a full statement yesterday by the Opposition because they omitted to mention that they had received £14 million from Bernie Ecclestone and did not give it back. Also, they made no mention of the money that they received from a crook, Asil Nadir, who gave them £440,000 which they did not give back. What is more, it has now come to light that they received more than £1 million from a Hong Kong family dealing in heroin. The money was made out of heroin dealing and was used to help them with their election campaign. It is time to lift the real lid.

My hon. Friend is making a strong case for a debate such as he mentioned; we could make good use of parliamentary time on such issues. My problem is that we have such a crowded programme. However, issues such as this will not go away and will be aired at some time in some place.

Will the Leader of the House switch her attention from contaminated donations to contaminated land? Is she aware that there have been conflicting statements in the past few days from Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said that he still expects to be able to site development to the tune of 50 per cent. on brown land rather than taking green-field sites, whereas the Minister for the Environment said that the work that should be undertaken to decontaminate contaminated land cannot go forward, because the Treasury cannot afford the very small sum—£14 million—that is necessary to progress that programme. May we be assured that there will be a Green Paper, a statement and a debate on the Government's intentions with regard to the development of green-field and brown-field sites in the near future?

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are committed to protecting the countryside and to helping regenerate towns and cities and provide the housing that is required. It is always a difficult balance under any Government. Each case has to be decided on its merits. I know that the specific problem of decontamination is very difficult, because there are often technical as well as financial problems. I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman time for a debate, but I shall bring his concerns to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

May I press my right hon. Friend on the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? May we have a debate on the Ecclestone contributions? We are told that he paid £10 million to the Tories and lent them £4 million. It is either true or not true. If it is true, surely an Opposition Member should come to the Dispatch Box, admit that it is true and tell us what the Opposition did in return for that money. What did they do for the money?

My hon. Friend again tempts me to agree to a debate on the issue that he mentioned. I see the strength of that case, not least because I recall the many occasions on which I and my hon. Friends sat on the Opposition Benches asking that the Nolan committee be allowed to look at those issues before the election. Had that happened, this information would have come to light much earlier.

May I offer the right hon. Lady a constructive suggestion? We should have a rolling debate on political donations, starting with a debate on the moralistic posturings of a political party that makes high-sounding noises about these matters, and going on with a continuing debate so that each time a revelation is dragged out of the Government by the media, we can debate that new fact.

I have to remind the right hon. Gentleman that Members of the previous Parliament of course had opportunities to vote for complete openness on political donations. I cannot remember him joining us in the Lobby.

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the performance of the west coast main line? As she will be aware, I have a special interest in that. I attended the press conference in March, when Virgin was awarded the franchise. Given all the private companies, I welcomed that. We were told that there would be 90 per cent. reliability in a year. This month, we have found out that the line is the worst performing railway in the country.

The journey from London to my constituency takes four hours. Last week, a train took nine hours. Earlier in the week, a train did not start out for Carlisle because the company forgot to roster a driver. The situation is getting worse.

I appreciate that the problems are not all Virgin's—many of them are Railtrack's. Unless the problems are put right, Cumbria will not be able to exist as an economic unit until we have the tilting train and the 140 mph train in seven years' time. We need action now.

My hon. Friend raises a problem which is clearly of great concern to him and his constituents. It must be very depressing to be told that the line is the worst in the country and to endure experiences such as those that he described. I am sure that my hon. Friends in the relevant Department—and, indeed, the Rail Regulator—are aware of the problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has made a strong case for highlighting the problem, but I am afraid that I cannot find time for a debate in the near future.

The right hon. Lady will know that, although six months have elapsed since the election, we do not yet have the Register of Members' Interests. May we have a debate to help hon. Members understand the rules? Under current rules, all of us must declare the amount and the donor concerning any outside interest or any funding of our private political offices.

The Leader of the House will know that current advice from the registrar is that blind trusts do not mean that such information need not be put into the public domain. Two right hon. Members, who are now the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, received money in that way. Such information needs to be published to conform with the rules of the House. We need a debate so that matters can be brought out into the open. Otherwise, everyone could claim to have received—or be accused of having received—contributions from blind trusts.

On the last point, I remind the hon. Gentleman that he and his hon. Friends tried to make that point during the previous Parliament, and it was established without doubt that my right hon. Friends obeyed the rules that were in place at that time. It is important that all hon. Members understand the rules. The forms sent out and the advice available are very clear. Of course, we now also have a code of conduct. The register will be published later this month.

May we have an early debate on the hazards of laser pointers? On Friday, the eyes of a young girl in my constituency were damaged in her school playground by a laser used by another pupil. The Trading Standards Authority told me that, of the 49 laser pointers that it has tested, fewer than 5 per cent. were safe. It also told me that some of the type 2 lasers that it had taken were in fact type 3 and hazardous. It is very concerned about that. As the House will understand, I, too, am very concerned about the hazards to children in my constituency.

I sympathise with the experience of my hon. Friend's constituent. To have somebody hurt in such a way in the school playground must be extremely alarming. I know that, in my constituency, a bus driver found himself under threat because of the misuse of laser pointers.

The police already have the power to consider laser pointers as offensive weapons when they are used in such a way. My hon. Friend the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs announced on 28 October that he was urging trading standards departments to use their powers under 1994 regulations to remove dangerous laser pens and pointers from sale. If there is a problem with classification, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) has indicated, I shall ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the potential problem.

In the light of press reports that the Government will appoint a commission to consider proportional representation, may we have a statement so that hon. Members who have experience of the two forms of PR elections held in the United Kingdom may contribute to the debate?

The electoral commission has not yet been appointed; nor have its terms of reference yet been made public or, indeed, completed. I know that some hon. Members have experience of PR, and in the next few months that matter will probably be debated on several occasions.

As a little, bald-headed, man in his sixties, with glasses and false teeth and whose trousers do not match his jacket, I may seem an unlikely moderniser. However, I wish to press my right hon. Friend to consider having a debate on modernisation in Government time—although on a different subject from the debate that we are about to have—to discuss a modern, technologically up-to-date electoral registration system, including rolling registers; access to polling stations for disabled people; the measure that I introduced yesterday to ensure the registration of homeless people; whether expatriates should be excluded from the register; and whether people resident in this country, from outside the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland, should also be on our electoral registers, as they are part of our society and pay their taxes here.

I have no problems in thinking of my hon. Friend as a moderniser, especially on that subject, because he has campaigned for a significant time for changes, with much justification. I am sure that improvements can be made in the system of registration, and a review is currently examining what can be done. My hon. Friend may have heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing say only this week that, together with local authorities, she is now examining the possibility of using different types of buildings, including possibly supermarkets, as centres for voting, to make it easier for people to exercise their democratic rights. I do not know whether that is too modern for my hon. Friend, but I hope that he appreciates that much thought is going into the subject.

The House will have noted the right hon. Lady's reluctance to grant a debate on the funding of political parties and drawn conclusions from that. May I suggest that we might discuss another funding matter—the funding of local authorities? Her colleagues in shire halls and town halls up and down the country are greatly concerned about the likelihood that the funding for local authorities will be infinitely less generous under this Government than under the previous Administration. The title for the debate could be "Rate Capping", given the commitment in the Labour party manifesto to abolish rate capping and the more recent confirmation from the Minister for Local Government and Housing that the Government intend to abolish crude and universal capping. May we have a debate on that subject?

I am not at all reluctant to find time to debate the funding of political parties. The problem is that we have a crowded programme and, although several of my hon. Friends have pointed out why we should be tempted to have such a debate, we have little time to do so.

There will be a statement before Christmas about the funding of local authorities, and the hon. Gentleman may be able to participate in that. Many local authorities are very grateful for the extra money for education that the Government have been able to find.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, giving time to make progress on the measure to restore democratic government to London. She will know that when the Greater London council was abolished, the responsibility for the local authority housing in Thamesmead and for all the development land and other assets was transferred to a private development company. The assurances about community participation in the company given by the Minister at the time—the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young)—have been broken. My right hon. Friend may know that in the past few weeks, directors elected to represent the community have been hounded out of office after being forced to take polygraph tests. Will she find time for a debate on the future of Thamesmead, the restoration of democracy to the democracy-free zone of Thamesmead and the abolition of Thamesmead Town Ltd.?

I am not aware of the details of the situation to which my hon. Friend refers, and I am not sure whether it is within the scope of the measure that I announced we are to debate next week. He may consider such a topic to be suitable for an Adjournment debate.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Scottish Office released the report "Government Expenditure and Revenue for Scotland" this morning and held a private press briefing? That report is not yet available from the Vote Office or the Scottish Office, in spite of repeated requests by hon. Members. Will she ensure that those matters are dealt with in the House and not at private press briefings?

Is there not a case for having an early debate on political party funding? Would it not be useful? Such a debate would show us whether the Conservative Opposition are in favour of disclosing in full all those who donate large sums to political parties, whether they are in favour of a ban on foreign donations and whether they take the view, as we do, that there should be a cap on the amount that can be spent in general elections—just as there is in constituency campaigning, where there is no controversy. Throughout the 18 years when many of us made proposals—through ten-minute Bills and questions—the Conservative Government were totally opposed to any reform of political funding. The Conservatives are about the last people in the world who should give us lectures.

My hon. Friend is quite right, and he is consistent. He was one of those who, in the previous Parliament, on several occasions raised the question whether political funding should be referred to the Nolan committee. Had our frequent requests been granted, the Conservative party's problems with political party funding might not have occurred.

Will the Leader of the House return to a question put by the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard)? After questions to the Secretary of State for culture and popular enlightenment on Monday, there was a five-minute slot to discuss the millennium experience and for the Minister without Portfolio to answer questions. We had waited six months, and many hon. Members on both sides wanted to ask legitimate questions. I and many others had never seen the Minister without Portfolio before, and thought that he was a figment of virtual reality—until I realised that I had seen him before. On Wednesday afternoons, he is the chap who plays peekaboo behind the Chair—like Kenneth Williams, frowning at Labour Members and saying, "Ooh, you are awful." This project involves millions of pounds and is supposed to be a national celebration of the millennium. We need the Minister responsible to come here more frequently than once every six months for five minutes.

The special slot for millennium questions was the result of popular demand. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio will be glad to know that he is so popular.

May I welcome the appointment of Chief Constable Keith Hellawell as co-ordinator of the Government's drugs initiatie—an appointment which has been widely welcomed? Many of us wait with anticipation for his work to start, because drugs continue to be a significant problem, affecting many of our young people and associated with high levels of crime. When will my right hon. Friend be in a position to make a statement to the House on the terms of reference of his appointment, and on his immediate and long-term objectives and how he may set about achieving them?

There has been a significant welcome for Keith Hellawell's appointment. Whether we use the term drugs tsar or anti-drugs co-ordinator, it is an important role and his job will be to advise Government on how we can build on the current strategy. Drugs are a significant problem and do indeed wreck many people's lives and cause a great deal of criminal activity.

It is hoped that early in the new year Keith Hellawell will be able to publish more information and present reports to the Government. At present, he is still a chief constable, although he is spending some time on his new post, and certainly in preparation, and I hope that both sides of the House will welcome his appointment and agree that tackling drugs should not be a party political issue.

Does the Leader of the House accept that the whole House should be truly shocked by the levity with which she treated the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) about questions on the millennium dome? Does not she think it incredible that we have not been granted a debate on the Floor of the House to allow us to test and probe the extent and nature of a project that will spend £750 million of taxpayers' money? Is not that completely improper in terms of parliamentary accountability?

We will not take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman, who was a member of a Government who did not believe in accountability at all.

In the light of newspaper reports this morning that Conservative peers are planning to vote against key elements of the programme on which the Government were elected, will my right hon. Friend allow an early debate on the proposed abolition of the hereditary peerage? As there are murmurings that they may vote against a ban on hunting, will she act with some urgency, so that the hunters may feel what it is like to be hunted?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. I am afraid that I cannot find time for such a debate in the near future, but I shall keep it in mind.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement next week to update us on the number of members of the Labour party elected to public office who are currently under suspension, and perhaps let us know what the party's target is for Christmas?

May I renew my call for an early debate on the operation of the law of perjury? Does my right hon. Friend share my disquiet that, in the many months that have passed since Jonathan Aitken discontinued his libel action against The Guardian, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has spent only 35 days—that is one officer working for 35 days—investigating the serious allegations of perjury against that former Cabinet Minister and Conservative Member of Parliament? Is not there a pressing case for an early debate on the matter?

I do not think that I can find time for such a debate, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's comments to the relevant Ministers' attention.

Having listened to hon. Members' views, can the right hon. Lady confirm that the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House next week on the formula one fiasco, so that instead of continuing to pretend that his handling of the matter has been flawless and fooling no one, he can take the opportunity to show a little humility and strength of character by apologising to the House for his errors of judgment on the matter?

I do not think that there is any requirement for any apology for any errors of judgment. The decisions that were taken were the right decisions, taken for the right reasons.

My right hon. Friend may have noticed that at Question Time, many hon. Members expressed their concerns about higher education funding. She will also have noticed that yesterday in another place, there was a debate about preserving the grotesque overfunding of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Could not those matters be usefully brought together in a debate, so that right hon. and hon. Members who represent other universities and colleges of higher education can discuss how to redistribute that money?

As I do not read them out, my hon. Friend may not know that the debates next Wednesday morning include one on Oxford and Cambridge college fees.

I was surprised that the Leader of the House did not respond more favourably to earlier requests for an urgent debate on local government finance in the light of this morning's Audit Commission report, which shows a £1 billion shortfall in the local authority pension fund arising from the number of early retirements. It is projected in a few years to amount to some 12 per cent. of the local government salary bill. The Accounts Commission for Scotland suggests that the Government's changes to advance corporation tax will add 3.5 per cent. of the local authority salary bill to the cost of maintaining pension funds.

The hon. Gentleman is right that an awful lot of money is spent that way, but the liability has not built up since May. Local authority finances are debated in the House from time to time. The next significant discussion of such issues will be on a statement on what used to be the rate support grant settlement, which, as I said earlier, will be later this year.