The business for next week will be as follows:
MONDAY 4 NovEMBER—Second Reading of the Crime (Sentences) Bill.
TUESDAY 5 NovEMBER—Second Reading of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill.
WEDNESDAY 6 NOVEMBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Second Reading of the Local Government and Rating Bill.
THURSDAY 7 NovEMBER—Motion on the Copyright and Related Rights Regulations.
Motions on the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order and the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order.
FRIDAY 8 NOVEMBER—The House will not be Sitting.
MONDAY 11 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Education Bill.
Madam Speaker, I cannot yet be definite about Tuesday 12 and Wednesday 13 November, but I hope to provide Opposition time on one of those days and to take Government business on the other. It will be proposed that on Wednesday 13 November there will be a debate on the identification of cattle and labelling of beef and beef products in European Standing Committee A.
On Thursday 14 November there will be a debate on Hong Kong on a motion for the Adjournment of the House and on Friday 15 November a debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House on a subject that will be announced.
[Wednesday 13 November: European Standing Committee A—European Community Document: 10495/96; Identification of Cattle and Labelling of Beef and Beef Products. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report HC 36-i (1996–97)]
I thank the Leader of the House for that information.
In view of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's misleading remark yesterday that the Opposition always refuse the offer of a spring economy debate, will the Leader of the House guarantee that there will be such a debate early next spring so that the House will have an opportunity before the general election is called to examine the real facts and the Government's appalling record on the economy? If the Chancellor is offering such a debate, we will be happy to accept that offer.
After yesterday's debate winding up the Queen's Speech, can the Leader of the House shed any light on the rumours still circulating that a leasehold reform Bill may yet be introduced? Such a measure was originally pinpointed as due to be in the Queen's Speech but seems subsequently to have been dropped.
The Leader of the House heard the exchanges at Question Time on combat knives and will therefore know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) have made constructive suggestions to the Home Secretary. We have detailed proposals for legal controls to ban the sale of combat knives and to prevent the aggressive marketing of such knives.
Will he ensure that the Home Secretary considers those proposals in a less churlish manner than that which the Prime Minister displayed a few minutes ago when he was almost looking for problems rather than solutions to deal with the issue? Will he ensure that, when decisions are made following those discussions, a statement is made to the House so that the Home Secretary can be questioned further on the details of his proposals.
Finally, the Leader of the House is aware of the long-standing and widespread despair at the Government's handling of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, which has been made evident on many occasions by both Government and Opposition Members. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) pointed out at Question Time, the Prime Minister told us in June that the beef ban would be lifted by November—and November starts tomorrow. There was some confusion in what the Prime Minister said about whether the lifting of the ban was discussed at the Council meeting that finished last night.
It is an important matter and I should think that all hon. Members would like to know when the House will be given the opportunity to discuss the Government's failure to deliver on the lifting of the beef ban. If the Prime Minister cannot give us a date for its lifting, can the Leader of the House give us a date for a full-scale debate?
On the first question, I shall consider, as I always do, requests for debates, whether on economic matters or anything else. I hope that the hon. Lady will bear it in mind the opportunities provided by Opposition days. In view of what she said, she may want to explain the fact that, as far as I can recall, the last time that the Opposition chose anything that could be called an economic debate in their time is as far back as July 1995. Given the terms in which she described the economy, I find that odd.
Secondly, on leasehold reform, I think that the hon. Lady may be referring to the proposals that were published in draft some time ago in respect of commonhold rather than leasehold. She may be confusing those two distinct issues. I am not yet in a position to say more on that.
On combat knives, I did not think that the Prime Minister's remarks were in any way churlish. He made it clear that he was aware that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) had written to the Home Secretary, and said that he expected that a meeting would take place. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary's approach to that meeting will certainly be constructive because it has always been clear that there is no dispute about the desirability of banning offensive weapons but that the matter depends on being able effectively to define them. To anyone who doubts our willingness to do so, I should say that we have banned 14 such weapons over the past few years and given the police powers to stop and search for them—powers which the Labour party argued against.
I can be clear about publication. My right hon. and learned Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have published the report today and have placed a copy in the Library. 'The Government will obviously want to study the recommendations and respond formally in due course. That would be the appropriate time to consider whether a debate is necessary.
As the Leader of the House has left some time spare in the second week of business that he announced today, will he give hon. Members on both sides an early idea of when the Second Reading of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, which is about to be published, will be? Will he say a word about the representations that have been made to him through the usual channels about the possibility of a day in Committee of the whole House on the Bill shortly after the Second Reading?
I hope that I am always as helpful to the House as I can be. I certainly take note of the hon. Gentleman's request. As he knows, the Bill has not yet been published. He will also know that it is not usual practice to go into detail about discussions held through the usual channels, but I am sure that the representations that he mentioned will be taken into account.
May we have a debate on offensive weapons and knives? Sadly, a young man in my constituency was killed with a knife recently, but it was a kitchen knife, which would not be covered by the term "combat knife". Does that not show that easy definitions are not easy to come by and that the Opposition's opportunism is to be despised?
That shows not only the difficulty of definition, but that all sorts of knives would not be banned under any definition. Nobody would argue in favour of banning kitchen knives, but they can, nevertheless, be used to inflict considerable damage.
Is the Leader of the House aware that, since April this year, the Secretary of State for Social Security has failed to report to the House on the recommendations of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to change the rules relating to chronic bronchitis, which currently result in only 11 per cent. of applicants obtaining benefit? I have told the House before that, as a result of all the representations that have been made, we fully expected the Secretary of State for Social Security to come to the House before now and, we hope, accept the new proposals from that important advisory council. What is going on? Does the Secretary of State for Social Security not care about the miners who are coughing their lungs up? Is he waiting for them to die? Let us have a statement.
As I well know from my ministerial experience, such matters are complicated and they require detailed examination. My right hon. Friend will announce his decision as soon as he can.
Is there any chance of an early, urgent debate on the link between home ownership and mortgage interest relief? Conservative Members want to demonstrate their support for that relief and to argue in favour of adjusting it upwards, whereas the Labour party, in particular the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), wants mortgage interest relief abolished.
Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for an urgent debate on the work of the tripartite gold commission? After it has handed out money and gold to the Albanians, the commission will be left with a residue, much of which should go to individuals—Jewish and non-Jewish—who suffered from Nazism. Will he ensure, as far as he can, that Her Majesty's Government will not agree to any distribution of the residue without a debate in the House and without consulting the United States?
If there is to be a debate or discussions between the parties about dangerous knives, would my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that since it would be a criminal offence to be in a public place with any of those combat knives without reasonable excuse, subject to imprisonment of two years, one temporary solution to the problem might be to require all shops to display prominently a notice to that effect?
While the BSE crisis bites ever deeper, all we have had from the Government is confusion, contradiction and vagueness. The industry deserves better than that. I would like a full statement to clarify the issues, because, while the right hon. Gentleman may be satisfied with the situation, very few other folk are.
There is a fairly widespread misunderstanding of one aspect of the problem. Everybody knows that, over the past few months, there have been changes in the nature of the scientific advice. That advice plainly needs to be properly and carefully considered when deciding on courses of action.
Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on industrial relations in the Post Office? Did he hear the interview on the radio this lunchtime with a Post Office leader who said that the phrase "Post early for Christmas" would have a new meaning this year and that Christmas cards should be posted in November to arrive in time, while Christmas cards posted in December would arrive in January or February? Is that not quite intolerable? Does it not demonstrate that the monopoly must be lifted, and for ever?
It is certainly true that people not only in the House but outside will not look kindly at disruptions to the mail service in the run-up to Christmas. Now that further talks have been agreed, I hope that the union will reflect on the damage that would be done to its members, quite apart from anything else, if the strike goes ahead. We have, of course, made it clear that, if the postal service is disrupted by further strikes, we would be prepared to suspend the monopoly for a further three months.
Last night, evidence was submitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee by representatives of the Prison Governors Association and Prison Officers Association that the current rate of overcrowding is rising at a rate of 800 per month and at roughly an annual cost of £224 million, and that we need to build one prison a month just to cope with increasing numbers. They said that the current situation is almost one of warehousing prisoners rather than rehabilitating them. In the light of that evidence, and given those appalling and dangerous circumstances, does the right hon. Gentleman think that the time has come for a debate in the House on the prison system and its purpose?
We have just had a debate on home affairs and Home Office matters during the debate on the Queen's Speech, and I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman participated. I have not had a chance to study the evidence to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will look at it carefully.
May I support the calls to my right hon. Friend for a debate on combat knives so that the House can get down to the problem of definition, bearing in mind the fact that a small penknife is a combat knife if used in combat? It is a very difficult question, on which my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary needs proper support rather than all the absurd criticism that we have heard from the Opposition.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that during the passage of the Broadcasting Bill the Minister of State at the Department of National Heritage promised to bring forward regulations to change the television concessionary licence scheme for old age pensioners. When can we expect those regulations? Will they he published before Christmas, because many pensioners are waiting for them?
Has my right hon. Friend seen today's report from the Select Committee on Social Security on unfunded pension liabilities? Will he allocate time for a debate on it, for two reasons? First, we could debate the success of early Government policies to reduce our own liabilities, but, most important, we could give a lead to the rest of Europe in exposing that incredibly important subject, which will not only destroy the whole process of monetary union, but could rend the fabric of Europe in the next 20 or 30 years. Let us have that debate now and give a lead to Europe.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend that the report is a valuable contribution to the debate on these matters, and it certainly highlights how much better placed than our European partners we are in that respect. I cannot promise an early debate, but it is highly likely that there would be an opportunity for such matters to be considered in the Budget debate following my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor's Budget statement and the associated social security announcements.
May we have a debate on opencast mining, which is spreading like a virulent cancer throughout north Derbyshire, where the Government closed the final pits? Early-day motion 24 mentions a case in my constituency.
[That this House calls upon the Secretaries of State for Health and the Environment to jointly establish a full-scale and impartial investigation into the nature, extent and impact of hazardous and toxic materials on contaminated land on the site of the former Avenue Cokeworks at Wingerworth, Derbyshire, which would undertake detailed research into the impact of past operations on the site upon the health and well being of the former workforce and of the local communities; further calls for such an investigation to assess the likely impact for cases of asthma, cancer, heart disease and ill-health generally of present plans to commence opencast mining operations on the site, which will involve the movement and burial on-site of the contaminated land in question, and insists that a block be placed upon the commencement of the opencast operations to allow this investigation to take place, which should be given the duty of reporting on the best available methods of cleaning and decontaminating the site in the safest possible fashion.]
In another place, between Barrow Hill and Eckington, it is proposed to dig a great hole in the ground, which for 19 years will be filled by waste, brought in over that vast period by train in 50 sealed containers, which will be dismantled and then brought in by road. That is just one of the problems that exist in that area, which we need to debate in the House.
I have some constituency experience of a somewhat comparable matter, involving, not extraction of coal and insertion of rubbish, but extraction of gravel and insertion of rubbish. It is for the mineral planning authority in the first instance to decide whether permission should be given for such proposals.
As my right hon. Friend is also my constituency neighbour, might he be aware of the concern in north Essex about the erection of telecommunications masts, and is there a possibility of his drawing that matter to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency? Will there be a space in the forthcoming business to raise that matter of concern, as, if a telecommunications mast is constructed adjacent to or in an area of outstanding natural beauty, there will be considerable anger in my constituency?
I am aware that, in what I will call our part of the country, there is quite a lot of concern about the number of such masts that have sprung up and are springing up. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency, who is sitting on the Front Bench, has both met my hon. Friend and replied to a debate on the matter, but that would not exclude other possibilities being considered if I can find an opportunity.
The Leader of the House will be aware that there is growing concern that medical evidence is excluded in appeals arising from the all work test. Is it not time that we had a debate to discuss how that all work test operates? There are many unfairnesses, and I do not believe that even the present Government intended the test to work as unfairly as it does.
I have already said that I would anticipate that, because of the association between the Budget and social security matters—I take it that that is what the hon. Gentleman is raising—there will be opportunities for debate on such matters in the immediate aftermath of the Budget.
So that the debate on the Local Government and Rating Bill can be better informed, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Secretary of State for the Environment comes to the House before next Wednesday to give a statement explaining why his Department rightly had to lodge an objection with Labour-controlled Hillingdon borough council against its proposed changes to the unitary development plan in the borough—in particular to promote social housing on public open space, green belt and green chain, to the grave damage of the local environment? Those are entirely germane issues, for which a statement is opportune at the earliest possible date.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on the crisis facing many local authorities, especially in London and in the London borough of Lambeth, following the ruling in the courts about asylum seekers? Does he realise that many local authorities are faced with huge financial burdens, for which they receive absolutely no extra money from Government? That is a national responsibility, not the responsibility of London authorities and not the responsibility of those local authorities which in the past have done their best to help asylum seekers.
May I add my support to calls for an early debate on the threat by the Communication Workers Union to disrupt the postal service during the Christmas period? The postmen and postwomen of this country have much public good will, but they will lose that if they carry out their threat. We need to consider the monopoly position of the postal service, because simply lengthening the period during which the monopoly is suspended to three months will not attract enough people into delivering mail. A debate on that subject will also tempt the Labour party to say something about the dispute, so that we can demonstrate once and for all that new Labour is still on the side of the unions and that the Conservative Government is on the side of the consumers.
Does the Leader of the House keep a checklist of resolutions passed by the House? If so, why have we had no action on resolution No. 3, which the House passed unanimously on 1 July 1994 after four hours' debate? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Prime Minister to make a statement next week on his intentions in respect of that resolution?
I think that I know, as I was here when the hon. Gentleman made his speech. I believe that it concerns the administration of arrangements for war veterans—my memory is quite good. Comments have been made on those matters from time to time and I shall bring the matter to the attention of my appropriate hon. Friends. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman's intended gesture of marching across the Floor of the House did not work, because I remembered what he was talking about.
May I endorse the call for a debate on the Social Security Select Committee report published today on unfunded European pension liabilities, which are set to run into trillions of pounds? As a single European currency would preclude national Governments from using any combination of variations in interest rates, exchange rates, inflation rates and Government borrowing to cover the bill, it would be extremely helpful if the House knew the position that the Government intend to take in the intergovernmental conference negotiations on how the bill should be paid and by whom.
On that same point, it is such a serious issue within the Social Security Select Committee report that it may get lost in the general debate on the Budget. There is extreme speculation that, if a single currency is introduced, liability may fall on British taxpayers. We should therefore have an early debate on the issue.
There are important issues here and the Government will respond to the report in the usual way. Thereafter, apart from anything that I might wish to do, there are opportunities for Select Committee reports to be debated in a way that is well understood in the House.
Does the Leader of the House agree that it is as important to retain overseas investment in this country as it is to seek inward investment in the first place? He is aware that the Swiss-Swedish company Asea Brown Boveri closed down the carriage works in my constituency with the loss of some 1,650 jobs, but is he aware that the American printing giant, Donnelley's, has announced its intention to close its commercial printing operation in York with the loss of more than 300 jobs? Why does not the DTI respond by giving the same help to those companies as it does to companies considering inward investment? May we have a debate on the importance of retaining overseas investment in this country?
I cannot comment on specific cases but obviously I accept the importance of not only attracting inward investment but retaining it. I would find the hon. Gentleman's comments more credible if he were using his influence against his party's policies, which would manifestly make overseas and inward investment more difficult to obtain and to keep.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that next week has been designated regeneration week? Will he therefore ensure that an appropriate Minister makes a statement to the House about the transfer of 80 sites from British Coal to English Partnerships? The right hon. Gentleman will recall that those discussions have been going on for 18 months. Does he share our concern to bring new investment, new jobs and a new future to coalfield communities by putting an end to those interminable discussions?
My hon. Friend the Member for West Hertfordshire (Mr. Jones), who has responsibilities in the relevant Department, is by my side and I am certain that he will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are communicated directly to the Secretary of State. No one need doubt the Government's determination to maximise the speed and degree of regeneration both in the areas to which the hon. Gentleman refers and in many others.