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Business Of The House

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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1.37 pm

The business for the week after the Easter recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 28 APRIL—Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Parliament (Representation) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the National Minimum Wage (Enforcement Notices) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 29 APRIL—Opposition day [5th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Title to be confirmed.

WEDNESDAY 30 APRIL—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, followed by Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, followed by Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

THURSDAY 1 MAY—Debate on Broadband on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 2 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

Right hon. and hon. Members will wish to know that the provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 5 MAY—The House will not be sitting

TUESDAY 6 MAY—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

May I welcome the Leader of the House to his new responsibilities, and hope that he finds them both enjoyable and satisfying? I am sure that he will be conscious of the role that he plays as Leader of the House in representing the interests of the House at the highest levels of government. Has he had an opportunity yet to read the document issued by the Committee on Standards in Public Life entitled "Defining the Boundaries within the Executive: Ministers, Special Advisers and the permanent Civil Service"? I hope that, if he has, he will be able to assure us of an early opportunity to debate the document, and that he will make a commitment now that the Government intend to carry out its recommendations—not least, for example, that

"an independent office holder, called an Adviser on Ministerial Interests, should be established to provide advice to Ministers on compliance with those sections of the Ministerial Code which cover the avoidance of perceived and actual conflicts between their public duties and private interests, formal or otherwise."
Further recommendations include:
"The Civil Service should be established in statute."
"Special advisers should be defined as a category of government servant distinct from the Civil Service."
"A clear statement of what special advisers cannot do should be set out in primary legislation."
"The total number of special advisers should be contained in statute, with an upper limit subject to alteration by resolution approved by both Houses of Parliament."
The report also proposes that
"An Accounting Officer should not hesitate to notify his or her concerns, in accordance with Treasury guidelines for Accounting Officers, where he or she believes that the Minister in charge of the department is contemplating a course of action relating to the operation of the press office which would infringe the requirements of financial propriety or regularity."
Under the heading "Securing the boundaries", the report suggests that
"The Government should begin an early process of public consultation on the contents of a draft Bill. The Bill should receive pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament."
I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that there is some important material in this report. I also hope that, if he has not already read and absorbed it, he will do so quickly and that he will make a commitment today that these matters will be dealt with urgently by the Government, covering, as they do, important matters such as special advisers and the integrity and impartiality of the civil service.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will recall what the Chancellor said yesterday, because he was sitting right beside him. The Chancellor was recorded faithfully in Hansard as saying that
"the British economy is now better placed to recognise local and regional conditions in pay, such as the extra costs for retention and recruitment that arise in London and the south-east, especially for the low-paid. In future, therefore, we plan regional price indexes showing differences in regional inflation rates; remits for pay review bodies and for public sector workers, including the civil service, will include a stronger local and regional dimension". —[Official Report, 9 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 283.]
I am sure that the Leader of the House endorses thoroughly everything that the Chancellor said in that regard. I am sure that he is enthusiastic about it and I am sure that he will want to tell us today of the degree of urgency with which he will want to press ahead with those recommendations, and of the nature of the vehicle by which the Chancellor's excellent statement will be brought to fruition.

Finally, may I ask the new Leader of the House when we are going to see the foundation hospitals Bill?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very gracious welcome, which I believe is fairly untypical. I will take it as being a new start, and I will respond in as emollient a fashion—[Interruption.] Well, I did my homework, as you would expect, Mr. Speaker. I have never regarded the right hon. Gentleman as a "libertarian thug" or a "Scottish brute", which I understand is how one of his former parliamentary colleagues describes him. I actually felt quite relieved that a strange journalist, Mr. Quentin Letts, should have described me in much less strong terms than the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues appear to use to describe him. I have never found the right hon. Gentleman to be those things, however, and I look forward to emollient exchanges across the Dispatch Box. I should also pay tribute to my predecessor, who I know was widely respected on both sides of the House, and to my deputy, who stood in over the last few weeks. [HON. MEMBERS: " We want Ben!"] Well, given the rate at which I change jobs, you might well have Ben in the very near future.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of the Wicks report. He will be aware that it was published only on Tuesday of this week. We will, of course, consider its recommendations carefully. It is too early for us to give a line-by-line analysis of it, although the right hon. Gentleman went a long way towards doing so when he took us through it. I am grateful to him for that, as there are now large passages of it that I will not have to read, having had them helpfully dictated to me. At first glance, some of the recommendations—including some to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—have already been implemented or are already happening in practice. We will look carefully at the report, however, and give it our urgent consideration, because we take this important topic seriously. We will also bear in mind, although the right hon. Gentleman did not mention it today, his constant robust opposition to over-regulation in government.

I see that this is an exception to that rule.

On the British economy, I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to remind us of a subject that is creating its own historic headlines in terms of the lowest inflation for some three decades, the lowest interest rates—it has been announced today that they are remaining low—since 1955, the highest number of people in work, the lowest unemployment rate and the longest sustained growth in the British economy. These things not only give us a degree of certainty in an uncertain world, but enable us to combine nationwide guarantees, as exemplified by the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit, with a degree of flexibility, as the Chancellor described yesterday. We will approach that matter with a degree of urgency, as the right hon. Gentleman requested. He asked me to calibrate the degree of urgency, and I think it will please the Liberals to know that the matter will be treated with urgency in due course.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions and I look forward to our exchanges across the Floor of the House, including those on foundation hospitals when we come to debate that issue.

I do not know whether it is appropriate to mention it on this occasion, but I was warned that, during business questions, we are expected to signify our stance by the nature of our ties and socks. I chose a tie today that I hope represents stability and certainty in a very uncertain world. I cannot say the same for the rather garish tie that the right hon. Gentleman is wearing today, but, unlike him and his colleagues, we do not take risks, either with the economy or with the social development of our country.

I am not called Tyler for accidental reasons. May I reiterate the congratulations that I and my colleagues have already given to the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion? May I draw to his attention early-day motion 1048, which relates to the UK Gulf forces trust fund?

[That this House welcomes the establishment of the UK Gulf Forces Trust Fund to channel charitable public support for members of the UK Armed Forces and attached civilians involved in the war in Iraq; notes that the fund will also benefit their dependents; congratulatesthe National Service charities The Army Benevolent Fund, King George's Fund for Sailors and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, and The Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and other service charities, on establishing and promoting the new fund; and calls on the Government and honourable and Right honourable Members to urge the public to give generously to the UK Gulf Forces Trust Fund.] I am sure that, in his previous capacity as a Defence Minister, the right hon. Gentleman will have recognised what the British Legion has also told us, which is that once the focus of public and media attention has moved on from the hostilities, it is much more difficult for such a trust fund to raise the necessary sums of money from the public. As we must all hope that we are now moving into such a phase, will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to say, on behalf of the Government, that they enthusiastically endorse that trust fund for the UK Gulf forces and their dependents?

May I also draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1018? Will he take this opportunity to reiterate his personal commitment to removing outdated religious discrimination?

The Parliamentary Secretary will recall that, at last week's business questions, I raised the question of the Wicks Committee, and I am delighted to have gained the support of the Conservative party on that issue, albeit a week late. Will the Leader of the House now consider urgently whether the proposed civil service legislation is appropriate for pre-legislative scrutiny, either by both Houses together or by this House, because there is clearly going to be a great deal of discussion about its contents? I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that the Wicks Committee's recommendations are very far-sighted. I think he would also agree, however, that they require careful scrutiny by the House. Will the Government therefore bring forward a draft Bill, and can we have pre-legislative scrutiny of it?

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's last point first. He will be aware that we are attempting to use pre-legislative scrutiny more and more for the legislation that comes before the House. Indeed, it was one of the advances—sometimes referred to as "modernisation", although it is actually a more rational way of looking at these things—introduced by my predecessor. I cannot give a commitment regarding the specific Bill, but I will certainly give a commitment to view the matter sympathetically.

I must confess that I am not familiar with the detail of either of the early-day motions mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but I shall work through as much as I can by next week. I can say this about the first EDM: I think that anyone who has observed developments over the past few weeks will recognise that, notwithstanding all the vagaries of politics, the people who have really taken the risks—as they always do in such circumstances—are the young men and women of the British armed forces. Earlier today someone spoke of the possibility of honouring them, and I dare say that that will be considered; but I think no better honour could be bestowed on them than the expressions on the faces of some of the people filmed yesterday confronting their first few days of freedom. The confusion, anticipation, relief and joy reflected on those faces did indeed constitute such an honour. But any initiative, through trusts or otherwise, to raise money or look after our armed forces in some other way is to be encouraged.

As for the general issue of religious discrimination, I can only say that I am against such discrimination on any grounds—as would be expected from someone with my background, who, it seems, is prohibited from marrying the monarch or the monarch's daughter. That is a great pity for monarchs' daughters; but I personally have never had such a proclivity, and I do not want anyone to read too much into the information!

Again, the question is one of priorities. Given the range of business before the House, it may take a little time to get rid of many things that are objectionable but largely irrelevant in the modern world.

Order. I hope I can engage the sympathy of the House. We have a crowded business schedule, and I cannot guarantee that I will call everyone who wants to question the Leader of the House. Another important statement follows, and we must then proceed to the Budget debate, to which a great many Members wish to contribute. A great many Members also wish to go home at 6 pm. There are difficulties for the Chair, and I would appreciate very brief questions and very brief answers.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment to what I believe is the most enjoyable job in the Cabinet. I hope he has as much fun at the Dispatch Box on Thursday afternoons as I used to.

Somewhere in my right hon. Friend's in-tray will be a brief setting out the agreement that most Bills to be dealt with in the next Session should be published in draft during the current Session. Many Members think that the best way of strengthening scrutiny here would be to let Parliament comment on Bills while they are still in draft, before being frozen in their final form. I should warn my right hon. Friend, however, that—I know this from experience—Departments will only come up with the goods if he continues to nag them to meet the deadlines. May I assure him that he will have my full-hearted and enthusiastic support, and that of many Members on both sides of the House, if he maintains the pressure on Departments to deliver the drafts before the summer recess?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his advice. I assure him that I will do as he suggested. No doubt that was only one of the valuable pieces of wisdom that he will pass on when we have our discussions this week. Let me repeat, on behalf of the whole House, grateful thanks for all that he did for the Government in this and indeed other positions.

As the House no longer has an opportunity to debate private Members' motions, and as certain issues can be decided only on substantive motions, will the right hon. Gentleman—whom I welcome warmly to his new task—give us an opportunity before the end of this Session to debate, at the very least, the new Tuesday sitting hours? Many Members whose votes secured that narrow majority of seven have changed their minds.

There are many routes to the same destination. We covered some of them a few days ago during questions to the President of the Privy Council, when I said that, whatever my own views, I did not want to be coming in with some agenda to reverse everything or anything. I also said, however, that I had an open mind, and that the House could take stock as things developed. I think it would be best to allow a reasonable time in which to try out the arrangements in practice, regardless of our original views, and to deal with issues as they arise—but only in the event of substantial and genuine practical problems. As I have said, I have an open mind. It will depend on what evidence of problems there is.

As my right hon. Friend will know, a Standing Committee meets from time to time to discuss the Convention on the Future of Europe. Unfortunately it was difficult to secure a quorum at its last meeting, one reason being a clash with another European Standing Committee. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that everything possible is done to avoid such clashes in future?

It is up to Committees to decide when they meet, and Committees are rightly jealous of their powers in this and many other respects, but I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will do anything I can to facilitate a more convenient agreement.

Will the new Leader of the House tell us when he expects the Report stage of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill to take place? As he will know, at least three months elapsed before it was rushed through its Committee stage, during which only a small proportion of its provisions were discussed. I am sure that the Minister responsible will confirm that there was no attempt at filibustering. This seems to me to be an unnecessary and inefficient way of dealing with an important measure: the inadequate time allowed in Committee means that the other place will have to deal with most of the Bill.

Although I was not centrally involved with that Bill, I know that it was widely regarded as important, indeed urgent. I am afraid that I cannot specify the exact timelines at this stage, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman as soon as possible.

Yesterday I learnt that someone in the Home Office had leaked the information that the Government's response to the Home Affairs Committee's report on historical sex abuse would be published on Friday for Merseyside police authority. I had no objection to the leak other than on the grounds that the Committee's Chairman did not have that information, and neither did I, as chair of the all-party abuse investigations group.

I assume that the information was leaked for a number of reasons, not least to enable the police authority to defend itself in an indefensible position, but I strongly object to the leaking of the information before it was given to members of the Select Committee. I also resent the fact that the document will be issued on what is essentially the last Friday of this term, which means that the subject may well drown in the proliferation of press reports on Saturday. Will the Leader of the House instigate a Home Office inquiry immediately to ascertain how such a thing can have happened?

I share my hon. Friend's concern. This is a serious issue, which I know has affected a number of her constituents. A number of groups and stakeholders have been involved in the process. I assure my hon. Friend that any information in the public domain did not come from Ministers. I have no authority to initiate an inquiry into the leak, but I want to make that plain. The Government's response will be published tomorrow; in the meantime, as I have said, I share my hon. Friend's concern.

Will the Leader of the House acknowledge the importance of the approaching enlargement of the European Union to agriculture in this country? Given the Doha round and the mid-term review, is there not a case for an early debate on agriculture and its future in the United Kingdom?

I agree that all those things are important. Indeed, before the headlines were diverted to the Iraq conflict they featured in our discussions with our European colleagues. I am sure that they would indeed benefit from further discussion; Westminster Hall might provide a useful vehicle.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the current European structural fund programme ends in 2006, and that consultation is taking place between this Government and our European partners. Will he find parliamentary time for discussion of this important issue?

My hon. Friend will undoubtedly be aware that we are obliged to report on progress made against economic performance measures by 2006. I am pleased to say, however, that my hon. Friend's constituency has benefited by almost £20 million under the current structural fund programme. Economic performance will be examined in due course, and although matters may be difficult, let us hope that next time, we get as much benefit as we possibly can from the structural fund for my hon. Friend's constituency, and for the whole country.

I am sure that you will share, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the appreciation of all hon. Members for the work carried out by the House of Commons post office and its staff. You will also know that the Royal Mail Group has now curtailed its evening collections from the House, and as a result the last collection is at 6 o'clock. Given the new sitting hours, that makes life very difficult for Members, who now find it necessary to process mail in the early evening to send to offices for onward work. The Royal Mail Group has written to me today, saying that this is not directly a result of its wishes, but is an imposition of Postcomm under the terms of its licence.

The House appears to be being treated as a business, rather than as part of the democratic process. May I ask the Leader of the House to make representations to Postcomm, and to explain the difference as subtly as he knows how, in order that the postal service that the Royal Mail Group would like to provide for us can be restored?

I will look into this issue, which has been raised before. If the authority that the hon. Gentleman mentions is indeed involved, I shall try to convey his views, which are shared by all Members.

My right hon. Friend will probably be aware that 28 April is workers' memorial day. Given that 28,000 serious accidents and more than 300 fatalities occur in British workplaces every year, will he give close consideration to having an early debate on the Floor of the House on how to revitalise health and safety legislation?

I am aware that my hon. Friend is promoting a private Member's Bill on health and safety at work, and I have a great deal of sympathy with and support for that, as do the Government. I know that he will raise this issue for debate at every opportunity, and rightly so. It should be a matter of concern for all of us, and perhaps he might like to apply for an Adjournment debate on it as well.

I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in the execution of his new responsibilities. Given the growing coverage of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which was highlighted in an important letter to The Times last Thursday by Mr. Malcolm Rees, a lecturer in health economics at the University of Buckingham, which is in my constituency, may we please have a statement or a debate, in government time, on the epidemiology of the disease and the possible development of a vaccine against it, and on the advice proffered by the Department of Health to those who think that they might suffer from the disease?

I will make the hon. Gentleman's views known to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, because this is a very important issue. In many cases, the less that is known about such issues, the more frightening they are to the public. The Government have certainly tried to do what we can to put information in the public domain. The Department of Health issued information and advice to all general practitioners, trusts and public health authorities as early as Thursday 13 March, and on Monday 7 April it issued advice to the public, and to those travelling to south-east Asia on this specific subject. Partly as a result of this timely response, to date we have had, I think, only five probable cases in the United Kingdom, compared with a total of some 2,722 in other countries.

Obviously, my thoughts are with anyone who has suffered in this way, including the hon. Gentleman's constituent, and their families. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that the Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency are continuing to monitor the situation, and we will try to put as much information in the public domain as possible.

Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a debate in Government time on the current Competition Commission inquiry and the recent Office of Fair Trading inquiry into the future of the retail supermarket industry? In particular, will he acknowledge the concern of many of my constituents in the north Harrow and Pinner districts about a possible future closure programme in respect of any new owner of the Safeway store chain, given the importance of Safeway stores to the economic health of other businesses in those district centres?

My hon. Friend will know that we take the issue of competition very seriously, and he may also know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has referred four of the five proposed acquisitions of Safeway to the Competition Commission. The commission will report by 12 August, so it should not be that long before we have a response. Of course, we keep competition in all aspects of industry and commerce under constant review.

May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new role as Leader of the House, on behalf of my Ulster Unionist colleagues? We may not always have seen eye to eye when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but we hope that this new beginning for him could be a new beginning for us all. I should also pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary for his work as acting Leader of the House; he confirmed to us all that he will be a greater star one day.

May I add my voice to those who have already called for an urgent statement on Northern Ireland? May I also call on the Leader of the House, given this afternoon's news that the visit of the Prime Minister and Taioseach to Hillsborough has had to postponed due to yet more republican intransigence, to allow an urgent debate in Government time—so that we can reflect on this issue—on the need to move on without Sinn Fein-IRA if it refuses to carry out the very necessary acts of completion that ought to have been carried out long ago?

On the latter subject, I am not completely up to date on the past hour's news, because I have been on the Front Bench. However, as promised, the Prime Minister will make a statement on wider matters before we rise, on Monday, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will wish to take the opportunity to raise certain issues with him. To judge from my limited but hopefully valuable experience of Northern Ireland—it was certainly valuable to me, as well as enjoyable—it would be a great boon to everyone if we were to draw to a conclusion the decades, and in some cases centuries, of terrible factional fighting and pain in what is a beautiful part of the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks, and in particular for what he said about my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am familiar with the refrain of the "Star of County Down", but I understand that we now have a star of the office of the Leader of the House, as well.

In his letter to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, the deputy Leader of the House acknowledged that business managers would make more time available for a debate on the European Convention "if need arises". Will the Leader of the House accept my assurance that the need and the opportunity have arisen, and that a good time for such a debate—on the Floor of this House—would be after the Praesidium has finished its discussions on 25 May, and before the resumption of the Convention in early June, so that Ministers can explain their position, and all hon. Members can explain, in a high-profile debate in Government time, their concerns to members of this House's representation to the Convention?

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific commitment today, but he will know that we have devoted considerable time to debating this issue in various forums, including Westminster Hall.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I lack many qualities, but I can hear and understand English, despite my accent. We will keep that issue, and many others, under review.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government suffered an effective defeat when they failed to secure a majority in this morning's delegated legislation Standing Committee considering the Sea Fishing (Restrictions) Order, which would restrict days at sea? Liberal Democrat Members prayed against the order and forced a debate, largely because the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments found the order to be "defectively drafted". Will the Leader of the House ensure that time is found for a full report on the matter, and for a debate on the Floor of the House?

I understand that, unfortunately, there were two errors in the way that the order was drafted, but also that neither was significant or substantial. The errors related to limited aspects of the scheme and did not create any real problems for enforcement, nor jeopardise the entire vires of the order, as has been suggested. Therefore, the basic days at sea provision, one of the substantial matters addressed by the order, is not affected.

We will shortly introduce an amendment to correct those errors, and to include any adjustments necessary as a consequence of the recent agreement in the European Agriculture and Fisheries Council on amendments to the EU scheme. I cannot give the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) a specific guarantee that that will happen on the Floor of the House, but the amendments will be brought forward shortly to remedy the errors that I have outlined.

I am an officer of the all-party group on abuse investigations, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). I endorse the hon. Lady's remarks earlier, as there is a real worry that miscarriages of justice may have taken place and that people may be in prison who should not be there. Does the Leader of the House agree that one thing at least could be done to make a positive contribution to dealing with the embarrassment caused by the publication of the report just before Easter, and the real situation that is continuing, and that that would be to arrange for an early and full debate so that the matter can be thrashed out?

I am not sure that the release of the report before Easter is an embarrassment in itself, although, as I have said already, I have considerable sympathy for, understanding of and agreement with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) about the leak. Obviously, I shall reflect on the matter to see whether there is anything more that I think can be done to compensate, but I do not think that the necessary investigative powers are part of my remit or vires.

May I, on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, also welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new position? A consensual figure such as he is exactly what is required as the new Leader of the House. In that spirit, will the right hon. Gentleman follow the example of his predecessor in making sure that the interests of the minority parties are looked out for? Specifically, will he continue to make progress in ensuring that we have our rightful and fair places on Select Committees, and that a member of the minority parties gets a place on the Liaison Committee?

Not only do I have reputation for being emollient and consensual, but the hon. Gentleman knows that I am also a long-time guardian of the interests of the Scottish National party. He can be assured that I shall do everything that I can to continue that tradition.

I was alarmed to hear the Leader of the House say that we would have a debate on broadband on 1 May.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) asks why I was alarmed, so I shall explain. The most controversial aspect with broadband is its availability in rural areas. Has the Leader of the House forgotten that 1 May is local elections day, particularly in rural areas? I shall try to be in the House to discuss the important question of broadband, but I and many other hon. Members of all parties are likely to be drawn back to our constituencies for election day. That could make it impossible for us to discuss the availability of broadband in rural areas. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider moving the debate away from 1 May to a time when all hon. Members can be here to discuss this important issue?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's question, but two things strike me. First, I did not anticipate that a complaint would be levelled at me on my first appearance at the Dispatch Box in my new role about the fact that the House would be having a debate on a certain matter. Normally, complaints arise for the opposite reason. Secondly, I had not anticipated a demand from the Conservative party that we should take a holiday on 1 May.