The business for next week will be as follows:
MONDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day].
There will be a debate entitled "The BSE Crisis" on an Opposition motion.
TUESDAY 18 FEBRUARY—Consideration of supplemental allocation of time motion relating to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.
Consideration of Lords amendments to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.
Remaining stages of the National Heritage Bill [Lords].
WEDNESDAY 19 FEBRUARY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Motions on the Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order, the Social Security (Contributions) (Re-Rating and National Insurance Fund Payments) Order, the Social Security (Contributions) Amendment Regulations, the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order and the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Amendment Regulations.
THURSDAY 20 FEBRUARY—Debate on the constitution on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
FRIDAY 21 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting.
Madam Speaker, the House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 19 February there will be a debate on future noise policy in European Standing Committee A. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.
I regret that, once again, I am unable to give comprehensive information about the following week, but on Monday 24 February I expect to take Government business, including Second Reading of the Social Security (Recovery of Benefits) Bill [Lords]. The House may like to know that on Thursday 27 February I intend that we should have the annual debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment.
[Wednesday 19 February:
European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Document: 11419/96, Future Noise Policy. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 36-xi (1996–97).]
I thank the Leader of the House for that information. He announced that on Thursday there would be a debate on the constitution. He will know from previous exchanges at business questions that we welcome such a debate, but can he tell us who will speak for the Government? Who will explain the many and varied statements of Government policy on devolution that have been made in recent days? Will the Secretary of State for Health participate in the debate, or is it true that he has been sacked from his role as co-ordinator of policy in this area?
May we have a debate on the inspection rights of the National Audit Office, in the light of the Government's refusal to allow the NAO access to the books of private companies that contract to provide Government services? The expansion of Government services provided by the private sector has been so extensive and so rapid that often there is no real check on the expenditure of huge amounts of public money. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, whether expenditure is in the private or the public sector, taxpayers' money should be properly accounted for, and the House should be able to ensure that that is the case? A debate might help in that regard.
Finally, will the Leader of the House find time before the general election for a debate on the collection and presentation of official statistics? There is widespread public scepticism about Government figures—scepticism that was reinforced yesterday by the admission by a senior Minister at the Department for Education and Employment that unemployment was a temporary phase because the Government had given the unemployment figures a boost in the short term, confirming what many people already knew.
It is no wonder that the public have no confidence in the Government's statistics. As Ministers claim to be anxious to debate various aspects of Labour party policy, may we make a bid for a debate, in Government time, on the need for an independent statistical service?
I shall take those questions in order. I anticipate that the Ministers speaking in the debate on the constitution will be the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales, for obvious reasons. I shall consider what the hon. Lady said in her second question, but I assure her that the Government are always anxious for the National Audit Office to have the information that it needs in order to do its work—although other factors must be taken into account when that is being judged. As for the hon. Lady's question about official statistics, I echo what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a few moments ago. There is a good deal more doubt about some of the exaggerated estimates of unemployment that we hear from Opposition Members than about any of the figures given by the Government when the signs of falling unemployment are so obvious.
My right hon. Friend has been very cautious in the last couple of weeks in responding to questions about the tax simplification procedure report from the Procedure Committee. Can he be more forthcoming this week? It is an extremely important matter, and I think that we ought to be getting on with it.
I do not think it entirely obvious that only the Secretaries of State for Scotland or for Wales should speak in a debate on the constitution. There are constitutional matters for the United Kingdom. One of the oddities of the present Government, however, is that no one appears to be in charge of constitutional matters—no one, that is, except the Prime Minister.
May I, too, request a debate on statistics? I think that that would be valuable. More urgently, before the end of the Session, may we have a debate on an Adjournment motion about the future of Northern Ireland, which is still clearly a matter of huge concern and still not resolved? May we also have a debate on the housing projection of 4.4 million houses to be built over the next 25 years?
The hon. Gentleman has asked for no fewer than three debates in one or two sentences. I certainly cannot promise all those, but, obviously, as always, I will consider his representations.
While thanking my right hon. Friend for responding to the request that we have made for a debate on the constitution, may I ask him to think of the details again because what has been asked for is a debate on a substantive motion upholding the integrity of the United Kingdom? Perhaps a debate that the Prime Minister led on that wider issue would flush out some of the Opposition.
I very much agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend's concluding remarks. It certainly would be very desirable to, as he put it, flush the Opposition out in respect of their proposals on the constitution and I harbour hopes that the debate that I have announced will enable us to do that.
In view of the immensely increasing dangers to peace in the Balkans, both between Turkey and Greece, in Albania, in Kosovo and in Cyprus because of the aggressive policies of the Greek-Cypriot Government, is it not time that the House of Commons had a real opportunity to debate these issues in depth—perhaps a two-day debate—before we go into the final seizures of this Government?
Without in any way dismissing the importance of the matters to which the hon. Gentleman adverts and in which he has long taken a close interest, I do not think that I can hold out hope for a two-day foreign affairs debate in the near future.
In view of the horrible killing yesterday of Stephen Restorick in Northern Ireland, which will achieve absolutely nothing for any purpose, but simply add to hatred and bitterness in Northern Ireland, might there be a case, unusually, perhaps next week, to have a short debate in which all the parties could express their respect and admiration for our armed forces, which are doing such a terribly difficult job in seeking to preserve security, and also their concern and respect for their parents, relatives, friends and all people associated with them?
While I cannot, to my regret, make an immediate undertaking to provide time for such a debate, I would like to associate myself with the thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks concerning our forces and the people of Northern Ireland.
I join the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) in that comment and sympathise with those relatives who are mourning today in this nation. At the same time, I join the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) in reminding the Leader of the House that Northern Ireland is part of this nation and therefore would like to be involved in the constitutional debate as well. Perhaps on that occasion it may be possible to know—as the Leader of the House is aware of my pressure for the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to have the same rights as the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees—whether the period of consultations is ending and when the changes will be brought forward to effect the proposal.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice of this question. We are certainly seeking to complete the consultations as soon as possible and I hope that it will be possible to make progress.
Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough):
Will my right hon. Friend make time available at an early opportunity for a debate on the economy, not least on the question of employment, so that I can point out the huge successes in my constituency as a consequence of the Government's economic policies? Is he aware that unemployment is now down to an all-time low of 1,320, which is a 50 per cent. reduction over the period of this Government, since 1992? Will he urgently look for time for a debate that could bring out those points?
I shall certainly look for time for a debate that will help to bring out those points, although, I am glad to note, they are being emphasised in various ways: at Prime Minister's questions, on other occasions and through the remarks of my hon. and learned Friend. It certainly is a very good story that deserves to be fully set out.
In the debate on the constitution, we will presumably be able to discuss the most fundamental constitutional provision in the UK: the right to vote. In preparation, therefore, for the debate next Thursday, may we have information of just a basic nature on how many people are on the new electoral registers that will operate from this weekend? The Treasury and the Office for National Statistics have refused to provide that information, claiming that it will come forward only in April. April might be too late. We might be into an election by then. How many people have the vote out of those who are entitled to vote? That basic information should be available to us.
May we have a debate next week on local government finance, because the good people of Ealing face a 10 per cent. increase in their council tax and a severe reduction in services from the ghastly Ealing Labour council? [Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but it is a serious matter. The people of Ealing will have to pay for the inefficiency of the Ealing Labour council, and I ask for a debate next week.
My hon. Friend will recall that we had a full day's debate on local government finance and the revenue support grant only a week ago, so I cannot promise an early opportunity. However, I wish my hon. Friend well in defending his constituency interests, as he always does, and perhaps he might raise the subject in a Wednesday morning debate.
With due respect to the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales, the Leader of the House must recognise that a debate on the constitution should embrace Northern Ireland and England. That being so, will he ask the Prime Minister to consider whether he or the Deputy Prime Minister should take part in the debate next week?
May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the disgraceful circumstances that surround the design of the euro notes? Is he aware that the euro notes that bear pictures of bridges, especially a bridge in India, have been copied from an English book, probably in breach of copyright? Is it not disgraceful that that has occurred and that Europe has covered up the problem? Will my right hon. Friend find time next week for a Government statement to give an undertaking to the British people that those particular notes will never be introduced as legal tender?
I was not present throughout Treasury questions, but my hon. Friend may have asked a question that he was not able to ask earlier because he did not catch your eye, Madam Speaker, although I do not suggest that your selection was not right and proper. I will bring my hon. Friend's remarks to the Chancellor's attention but, as my briefing states, the matter is not one for the Treasury or, indeed, the Government. The design of the euro notes and coins is the responsibility of the European Monetary Institute.
Why has the Secretary of State for Health been signed off for the debate on the constitution next week? Is it because, as we read in the papers, he has been sacked for blurting out the truth—there is no greater crime for a Tory Minister—or should we believe the story from 10 Downing street that it was a figment of our imaginations that he was appointed in the first place? Has he been sacked or is he a figment?
Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the appalling state of affairs in Deal in my constituency, where the Labour county council has threatened to close the library, has threatened fire service cover and has caused job losses without opportunities for job replacement, because the county councillor responsible for job replacement has been on 14 junketing trips abroad in the past three years?
Since we had a debate on local government in Kent only just over a week ago, my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot give him an encouraging reply. I hope that my hon. Friend will find other ways to make his effective points.
Such matters have been discussed at length by the House on several occasions, so I cannot promise an early debate. What I can say, as the hon. Lady knows, is that much effort has gone into improving the work of the Child Support Agency, and undoubtedly a significant improvement has taken place.
May we have a debate next week on the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw)—that of Labour politicians such as councillors junketing around the world? We could then highlight the excesses outlined by the district auditor in Doncaster, where councillors were sent on free trips all round the world, and had so many business lunches and were said to have consumed so much alcohol that they could not stand up, let alone work. We would also be able to contrast the behaviour of the Doncaster councillors with that of the Leader of the Opposition, who travelled to the United States by Concorde on a free trip.
Did the right hon. Gentleman hear the Prime Minister saying today that there was not a shred of evidence that the unemployment figures were fiddled? Will he refer to early-day motion 525, which has been signed by more than 50 Opposition Members?
[That this House draws attention to the Government's fraudulent unemployment figures which ignore the latest Labour force Survey which shows unemployment about 302,000 higher than the Government's claimant count and further ignores the findings of the Employment Policy Institute that the number of jobless people who say that they want a job is well over four million, and not the 1.8 million registered by the Government's deliberately flawed claimant count; and calls on the Government to come clean on the true level of unemployment and the job insecurity and human suffering that unemployment causes in pre-election Britain.]
In the light of that information, should we not have a debate as a matter of urgency, so as to point out the disgraceful fact that there are more than a dozen exclusions from the claimant count? We could also make clear the need for an honest answer on the unemployment figures before the election, and an end to the lies that are presaging that election.
I have already observed to one of my hon. Friends that I see the attraction of a debate on unemployment and other economic matters, because what will emerge from such a debate is not the sort of accusation that the hon. and learned Gentleman is chucking about, but the fact that Britain's success in having more people working and fewer out of work than any other major European country is one of the notable successes of the Conservative Government.
Will my right hon. Friend find time before this Parliament ends for a debate on the third report of the Select Committee on Social Security, which is about the uprating of state retirement pensions payable to people resident abroad? Is he aware that that is the theme of early-day motion 185, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill)?
[That this House expresses its grave concern at the discrimination practised by Her Majesty's Government against British state pensioners living in certain countries abroad; believes that the denial of pension increases to persons who have paid national insurance contributions is indefensible; and calls on the Government to end without further delay this discrimination against the hero generation who saved the world from Hitler.]
That early-day motion has attracted the signatures of no fewer than 248 hon. Members on both sides of the House. The Select Committee calls for a free vote in prime time on the matter, because there is clear discrimination against British citizens who have worked hard and paid a full stamp all their working lives, and who have gone abroad in their retirement, perhaps to join their children or grandchildren, only to see their living standards decline.
It would cost only £255 million a year to put right that manifest injustice. How can we ignore it, when £3 billion a year is wasted on social security fraud and £9 billion a year is made in contributions to the European Union, much of which is fraudulently misapplied?
My hon. Friend will be aware of the Government's increasingly successful efforts to counter the undoubted problem of social security benefit fraud. As for the main purpose of his question, I am aware that that controversy has continued for some time; it was going on when I was Secretary of State for Social Security. My hon. Friend talks about "only" £255 million a year, but he ought to acknowledge, as I hope that he will, that the Government need to think carefully about priorities, in view of the need to control the growth in social security spending as a whole.
The Leader of the House will recall that I asked him last week when the Secretary of State was to release the official figures for hospital waiting lists in England. May I remind him that we expected the figures to be released on 3 February, but, 10 days later, there is no sign of them? Does the Secretary of State propose to come to the House to make a statement on the figures? Since it became clear that the figures for the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen hospital were being doctored, I have received correspondence from one Liverpool resident who has had his knee operation cancelled three times and who now knows that he will not figure on any official waiting list. Does he accept that while the Prime Minister may make light of fiddling, no one else—certainly no Opposition Member—would agree with such abuses of official figures?
My right hon. Friend will be aware that many of us are delighted that we are to have a debate on the constitution on Thursday. Will he seriously consider tabling a substantive motion for the debate? The Prime Minister should speak in that debate, as we believe that it is important that the Leader of the Opposition should come to the Dispatch Box to explain to the House why his proposals to have Scots running Westminster, as well as Scots running Scotland, are fair to the 83 per cent. of the population living in England who will be faced with changes voted for by Scottish Members of Parliament who cannot vote on the same changes for Scotland. It is crazy, and it will break up the United Kingdom unless we stop it now.
Will the Leader of the House find time next week for an urgent debate on the continuing deterioration of the west coast main line, which runs through my constituency? I do not know whether the Leader of the House is aware of this, but Lord Archer was travelling to the Wirral today to make a keynote speech prior to the by-election. His train left Euston 40 minutes late and went slower and slower until Lord Archer had to abandon his trip at Nuneaton. Will the Government make sure that passengers on the west coast main line get to where they have to go on time?
I am naturally sorry to hear of my noble Friend Lord Archer' s unhappy experience, although clearly there is rather less sympathy among Opposition Members. In view of the experience recounted by the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will look carefully at the matter.
May we have an urgent debate on the implications of the social chapter for employment in my constituency—where unemployment is falling—so that we may talk about Germany, where the social chapter is applied and where unemployment increased by more than 500,000 in the month of December alone? It is important that people know the precise implications of the social chapter and the minimum wage.
That request, as my hon. Friend will realise, ties in with a number of others that I have received during these exchanges. I will bear his representations very much in mind, along with the others.
The Leader of the House will be aware that I have raised the subject of the treatment of asylum seekers before. Will he find time for a statement or a debate about the number of asylum seekers still held in British prisons, the number in Rochester prison who are still on hunger strike and the great difficulty that supporters and friends of those people are having in making bail applications to the courts to ensure that they at least have some degree of liberty? Is it not a disgrace that this country routinely imprisons nearly 1,000 people for doing nothing more than seek asylum, having fled from political oppression?
The hon. Gentleman knows that undoubtedly there have been abuses of asylum as a means of obtaining entry to this country, and that there is general agreement that it was necessary to take action on that front.
On the hon. Gentleman's actual question, I cannot promise a statement of the kind that he sought, but I can draw his attention to the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is due to answer questions this day week.
May we have an urgent debate on local government in London? I refer my right hon. Friend to an answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford). It pointed out that outstanding rent and tax arrears amounted to £135 million in the London borough of Lambeth and £143 million in Camden; that in Hackney rent arrears were more than 30 per cent. of the annual rent roll, and 9.8 per cent. of council properties were empty; and that in Haringey rent arrears were 33 per cent. of the annual rent roll, and in Southwark more than 20 per cent.
Is my right hon. Friend further aware that in the London boroughs of Haringey and Islington arrears of council tax are such that the councils prefer not to tell the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy what they are? Is not it an urgent situation, when the authorities claim that they do not have enough money and want more from the Government but refuse to collect what is due to them from their tenants and council tax payers?
My hon. Friend will recall that I have already made the point once today that it is not long since we had a debate on local government, which certainly would have embraced London, so I cannot promise another immediately. I regret that he evidently did not on that occasion have the opportunity to make the admirably succinct and effective speech that he has just made.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Home Secretary is the police authority for London and that it has been customary to have an annual debate on policing in London. Does he recall the Prime Minister's pledge to provide resources to put an extra 5,000 bobbies on the beat, and is he aware that Londoners have lost 600 police constables and that the Home Secretary, in his capacity as police authority, has said that London has had its share of the additional resources but that he does not know where they have gone?
I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 527.
[That this House is concerned that Londoners face a 14.4 per cent. increase in the share of council tax which goes to meet policing costs in the capital; is horrified that the Home Secretary has described this as 'a modest increase', particularly at a time when the overall number of police officers has fallen by 649, of whom 599 were police constables; recalls that the Prime Minister made a pledge to provide resources to increase police numbers nationally by 5000; demands to know where London's share of those extra resources has been spent; is concerned at the transfer of the burden of the cost of policing from central government to council taxpayers; wishes to know why Londoners are being asked to pay more for fewer police officers whilst experiencing the worst crime clear-up rate in the country; and calls upon the Home Secretary, in his capacity as the Police Authority for London, to arrange for a debate on policing in London at the earliest opportunity before the Dissolution.]
In view of the remarks made earlier by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that London council tax payers will be paying 14.5 per cent. more for policing this year, for a lesser service. Will he therefore ensure that we have the annual police debate on London before Parliament is dissolved?
On the question of a debate, I shall ensure that that is added to what I sometimes call my list.
On the rest of what the hon. Gentleman said, I should perhaps make the point that council tax payers in London contribute only about 8 per cent. towards the cost of policing London, compared with an average contribution of about 12 per cent. elsewhere, and that in 1997–98 the spending power of the Metropolitan police will be £55 million more than in 1996–97.
My right hon. Friend has announced a debate on the constitution for next Thursday, and he will know that last week and on other occasions I have pressed him for just such a debate. My concern is that he announced today that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would not lead the debate. He also said that he would accept and welcome the idea that the Leader of the Opposition should come and make clear his position. I put it to him that unless the Prime Minister speaks on behalf of the whole country—not only Scotland and Wales and my constituency in England—at the Dispatch Box, we will not have the opportunity to hear from the Leader of the Opposition exactly what the Labour party's policy is towards English electors as well as those of Scotland and Wales.
I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider the position. The Prime Minister must come to the Dispatch Box and speak on behalf of the whole United Kingdom.
I cannot add to what I said earlier on the matter. As with other remarks that have been made this afternoon, I am sure that my hon. Friend's remarks will be carefully noted.
Why is the Leader of the House so coy about telling us the date of the Easter recess, and particularly the day on which, theoretically, we are due back, especially bearing in mind the fact that for last Easter he gave the information the preceding November? Is it because he does not want to give the game away about when liberation day is coming?
I have not seen myself as being coy about that or anything else. The difficulties of giving advance notice of the Easter recess have been clear to everybody for a long time.
Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to watch the highlights of last night's England v. Italy World cup qualifying match? It would be a short programme and he could no doubt fit it into his busy day. Is he aware that the vast majority of the population were denied the experience, perhaps thankfully, because it was not available on a terrestrial channel? It was available only to Sky subscribers. May we have a debate on sport soon to discuss the growing concentration of sporting events being televised only by Sky, thus denying them to many people who want to watch our national games?
I did not have the opportunity of seeing either the highlights, or what the hon. Gentleman evidently regards as the rather larger lowlights of the match, because I was doing other things. As always with his questions, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the National Heritage Secretary will study them with the care that they deserve.