HC Deb 04 December 1997 vol 302 cc500-12 4.14 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 8 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Government of Wales Bill.

TUESDAY 9 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Government of Wales Bill.

At 10 pm, the House will be asked to agree the winter supplementary estimates, the votes on account and supplementary defence vote A.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

WEDNESDAY 10 DECEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

THURSDAY 11 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill.

FRIDAY 12 DECEMBER—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week is as follows.

MONDAY 15 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.

TUESDAY 16 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the National Minimum Wage Bill.

WEDNESDAY 17 DECEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, which will include the usual three-hour pre-recess debate.

Until 7 pm, there will be a debate on the common fisheries policy, on a Government motion.

Progress in Committee on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

THURSDAY 18 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Public Processions etc (Northern Ireland) Bill[Lords].

FRIDAY 19 DECEMBER—Debate on welfare to work on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 22 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the School Standards and Framework Bill.

The House will rise for the Christmas recess.

The House will also wish to be reminded that on Tuesday 9 December there will be a debate on Agenda 2000: structural and cohesion policy, in European Standing Committee B.

On Wednesday 10 December, there will be a debate on Agenda 2000: reform of the common agricultural policy, in European Standing Committee A; and a debate on Agenda 2000: a new financial framework, in European Standing Committee B.

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

[Tuesday 9 December:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 9984/97, Agenda 2000: Structural and Cohesion Policy. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vi (1997–98).

wednesday 10 December:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community document: 9984/97, Agenda 2000: Reform of the CAP. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vi (1997–98).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 9984/97, Agenda 2000, New Financial Framework. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vi (1997–98).]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. I also thank her for arranging that there should be no Government statement on last Monday's Opposition day.

I note that the right hon. Lady announced provisional business for Monday 22 December. As she knows, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) expressed concerns last week, which I share, about the necessity for making the House sit on that day, causing unexpected inconvenience for those who serve the House. However, a debate on educational matters would put the day to good use, although I note that it is only provisional at this stage.

I should be grateful for information from the right hon. Lady on her proposals for handling the Welsh and Scottish devolution Bills. As she knows, the Opposition feel strongly that all stages should be taken on the Floor of the House, as they are self-evidently Bills of major constitutional importance. She has mentioned some ideas to me on the matter, and I should be grateful if she would tell the House where matters stand.

I think that the right hon. Lady was present in the House yesterday for the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who pointed out that journalists had been faxed at 3.55 pm full information on the statement made by the Secretary of State for Scotland in the Scottish Grand Committee at 4.30 pm. She will also recall that yesterday I complained to her and to you, Madam Speaker, that Opposition Members read on Ceefax that there was to be a Government statement on BSE, some 20 minutes before the Government told us about the statement.

The Government persist in treating the House, its procedures and its Members with contempt. We know that the Government have a large majority, but that should mean that they respect parliamentary democracy, not that they despise it. I continue to be saddened by the fact that the right hon. Lady does not answer straight questions on such matters from me and from others and that, unlike her distinguished predecessors, she seems to see her role as defender of the Government and not defender of the House and the interests of its Members. I hope that this afternoon the right hon. Lady will address those points and the others that I intend to raise.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a statement by the Paymaster General on individual savings accounts? He should have made his announcement on Tuesday to the House rather than outside it. Had he done so, he might have been able to give some helpful advice on avoiding tax to the nearly 1 million savers with savings of more than £50,000 who will be worse off as a result of his proposals. I am sure that all those savers will have been interested to hear themselves described as rich by someone who has his savings safely locked up in a £12 million offshore trust.

Will the right hon. Lady please explain to the House why the Secretary of State for Social Security is the only such Secretary of State in the past 10 years not to have bothered to make the social security uprating statement to the House? Was it because she was too busy; was it because she could not quite manage the detail; or is she merely discourteous? We should be told.

Mrs. Taylor

I thank the right hon. Lady for the compliments at the beginning of her comments. As I said to her hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) last week, we will try to avoid statements on Opposition days, but, as she knows from the previous Administration, sometimes situations arise in which that is unavoidable.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady thinks that we are putting Monday 22 December to good use. As she said, the business is provisional, but I do not expect it to change.

The right hon. Lady asked about the handling of the Wales and Scotland Bills. I cannot yet say anything about the Scotland Bill because it has yet to be published and we have had no discussions with the Conservative party or any other party about its handling. I said last week that we would consult other parties in the House on the handling of the Government of Wales Bill and we have done so. That is one reason why we are now providing two days for its Second Reading debate next week.

Many people in the House have strong views. The right hon. Lady has outlined her strong view that the entire Bill, in all its stages, should be completed on the Floor of the House. Others have equally strong views that better scrutiny would be achieved by using the procedure adopted for the Finance Bill and splitting consideration between Committee of the whole House and a Standing Committee, taking points of principle on the Floor and the detail upstairs.

The majority view expressed to us is that the Committee stage of the Bill should be split and that that would achieve better-quality legislation. We intend to hold discussions with other parties about how that might be achieved and what issues need to be discussed on the Floor of the House. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will tell the House at the opening of the Second Reading debate on Monday how we intend to proceed.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the social security statement that was made on Tuesday. Usually, such a statement is made at the time of the Budget. This year, because the Budget was at a different time, different arrangements were made. It was appropriate for a junior Minister to make that statement. He was available to make that statement on Tuesday, the day on which we thought it appropriate for the statement to be made.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned the short notice given of the statement on BSE made by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food yesterday. I know from speaking to her that she understands the difficulties that can arise with that particularly difficult issue and that she understands why decisions sometimes have to be made late in the day if information becomes available, as it did yesterday.

I thank the right hon. Lady for mentioning the point of order raised yesterday by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I, too, was concerned—as I know you were, Madam Speaker—by the events that he related to the House. Somehow, however, he got his facts wrong. The information that the journalist showed to him at 3.55 pm had been available to every Member since 3.30 pm—when it was distributed as a parliamentary answer and was therefore in the public domain.

On ISAs, the Chancellor intends to include enabling legislation in next spring's Finance Bill. I remind the right hon. Lady that one of her noble Friends in another place said that my hon. Friend the Paymaster General has acted as Ministers in the previous Administration had.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

We are to discuss the remaining stages of the Social Security Bill on Wednesday. Even at this late stage, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will explain to Ministers how much many hon. Members hope that the Government's policy on single mothers can be changed. We do not want to be facing an undoubted dilemma. Speaking for myself, I will be faced with such a dilemma. Therefore, I trust that, even at this late stage, it will be possible for Social Security and Treasury Ministers to reconsider, and to consider the feelings of a good number of hon. Members.

Mrs. Taylor

As my hon. Friend knows—he is a regular attender in the Chamber and will have heard most of the exchanges in recent weeks—the simple fact is that we inherited a difficult situation and have had to make very difficult decisions. One thing is clear: under Conservative Governments, lone parents never had a choice, because training, child care and employment opportunities were not available. That is why the Government have set in train the mechanism to ensure that such a choice is a reality.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I thank the Leader of the House for acceding to some requests for minor changes in provisional business. It will help not only Liberal Democrat Members but those in other parties. Specifically, I thank her sincerely for affording two full days for the Second Reading of the Government of Wales Bill. It will be very helpful and much appreciated.

May I press the right hon. Lady on how the Bill will be handled thereafter? Does she accept that there seems to be a strong consensus on both sides of the House—which was represented fairly by the majority view in her Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons—that sensible programming at the outset of the Bill's Committee stage on the Floor of the House, followed by a sensible programme of detailed consideration in Committee upstairs of its specific points and schedules, would be a much better, mature and more intelligent way of dealing with it than to impose a guillotine halfway through its passage, with inadequate consideration in some of its latter stages?

Will the Leader of the House explain the apparent confusion over the Government's response to our request for an inquiry into BSE? Yesterday, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the Prime Minister said that no decision had been taken. This morning, No. 10 Downing street briefed the press that a decision that there would be an inquiry had been taken in principle, and that it was simply a question of what type of inquiry would be held. This afternoon, a Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said that no decision had been taken. Is she aware that there is not only confusion over the matter but pent-up anger on both sides of the House, represented by early-day motion 413?

[That this House welcomes the confirmation of the President of the Council that the Government is actively considering the case for a judicial inquiry into the decade of mishandling of BSE; and urges its early establishment to reassure both farmers and consumers that objective lessons have been learnt from this catalogue of disaster.]

The motion has been signed by hon. Members of all parties and urges that it is time to get on with the job, so that we can learn the lessons.

Will the Leader of the House give the House an undertaking that early-day motion 451—a humble prayer to the sovereign to have the council tax benefit regulations re-examined—will be discussed fully on the Floor of the House? That motion also expresses cross-party concerns and requires urgent attention in the House.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks. I announce business provisionally in the hope that it will not be changed, but also with a willingness to listen to representations.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there has been some strong feeling about how the Government of Wales Bill should be handled. Many hon. Members have said that the Bill would be better scrutinised if part of it were dealt with in Committee but the principles were clearly established on the Floor of the House. I agree that if we can pace consideration of the Bill in what the hon. Gentleman described as a mature and intelligent way that will be to the benefit of all concerned. I will certainly bear his comments in mind.

The hon. Gentleman used the word "anger" in the context of BSE. There is anger in all parties and in Government circles at the fact that the situation is so desperate and is causing so many problems for consumers, farmers and taxpayers. There is still a lot of information that has yet to see the light of day. We should all like to know more about exactly how the crisis developed in the early stages. I can say no more than my right hon. Friends have said about the timing of any decision on an inquiry.

Any debate on council tax benefits would be subject to decision through the usual channels. I will await the hon. Gentleman's representations.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is there to be a statement on the Further Education Funding Council and on certain decisions that were made before I May? It seems that many of the qualifications that were supposed to be handed out to tertiary colleges using FEFC money were taken up by a firm called Link, which was a subsidiary of CRT, which in turn is backed by the junk bond dealer Michael Milken from across the water. Under the Tories, hours were being duplicated across the country and there was fraud on a massive scale.

I want the matter dealt with now because people such as Milken, and others, might want to get their greedy paws on the windfall tax and make a lot more money.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot comment because I do not know the details of the specific allegations that my hon. Friend has made. He has had a good opportunity to voice his concerns, and I will make sure that the relevant Minister is aware of what he has said.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Allowing for the excellent way in which the right hon. Lady has enunciated the difficulties of BSE—anyone who has had anything to do with it will appreciate the difficulties faced by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food yesterday on receiving the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee's advice—is it not important to have a debate in the House on the problems facing the beef industry, and on the process of decision making?

The decision taken yesterday dealt a further body blow to the beef industry. Would it not have been better—this could be discussed in such a debate—if the Secretary of State had advised consumers of SEAC's recommendations, acknowledged that the risk involved was infinitesimal, and left it to consumers to make up their own minds? Will not yesterday's announcement lead to further destruction and to many of our wonderful specialist butchers, who have had such a difficult time in the past few years, being put out of business?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman raises serious matters of concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Earlier today we had Agriculture Question Time, and Madam Speaker rightly allowed yesterday's statement to run longer than usual because of its significance to so many people.

There will be opportunities in the next couple of weeks for the hon. Gentleman and others to make their points about this issue. Indeed, today we have a debate on the European Union, and next Wednesday morning there will be one on the rural economy.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Following your ruling, Madam Speaker, that the Oath for Members wishing to take their seats in the House can be changed only by legislative action, should we not have a debate on that? There is a precedent in the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to change the Royal Ulster Constabulary oath from an oath of allegiance to the Crown to an affirmation to one's duty.

Constituents' cases should be dealt with by their Member of Parliament. The rest of us should not be expected to pick up cases from West Belfast and other areas, as some of us have had to do in the past.

Mrs. Taylor

Your said in your statement, Madam Speaker, that the hon. Members concerned could take up case work, that stationery would be provided for that and that they would have access to Ministers. My hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House on 18 June; there are no plans to change the oath of allegiance."—[official Report, 18 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 305.]

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

In the light of your ruling yesterday, Madam Speaker, in answer to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), does the right hon. Lady recall that at 4.30 pm on Tuesday the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) made his statement on uprating?

Unbeknown to hon. Members, an hour before, at 3.30 pm, the Secretary of State issued a press release to journalists outlining all the uprating details, as well as a written answer to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). As the right hon. Lady knows, no other hon. Members have access to those written answers, because many of them are not put in the House of Commons Library or on the letter board at 3.30 pm on the dot. The answer in question has not yet been published in Hansard. Does she accept that the press were given the information an hour before hon. Members on the Floor of the House? Will she apologise for what I suspect was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy?

Mrs. Taylor

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Normal practice was followed. The full technical details were given in a parliamentary answer at 3.30 pm. A press notice was issued at the same time. In an effort to be helpful, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State circulated letters to all Members at the same time, outlining the changes. I have checked that advance copies of the statement and the letter were given to the Opposition through the usual channels at 3.30 pm.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Further to the points raised by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on behalf of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), will my right hon. Friend arrange for time—even Government time—to be made available for a debate on the misuse of the privilege of raising points of order, through the raising of points that the hon. Member concerned knows to be bogus?

The hon. Member for Woodspring is an experienced Member. He was a Minister in the last Conservative Government and he knows how the system works. I tabled a priority written question for 3 December asking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to give details of his further expenditure plans for the years ahead. That was on the letter board and available to other hon. Members at 3.30 pm.

If my right hon. Friend cannot find time for a debate, the hon. Member for Woodspring should apologise to the House. The embarrassment caused to you, Madam Speaker, and to the House is clear from today's press. We require an explanation from the hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not sure that I shall be able to provide time for a debate. I think that the events were very unfortunate, although I do not know whether the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) knew that his point of order was bogus. However, all of us have a duty and responsibility to check with any journalists who supposedly give us facts that are not known to everyone else whether those facts are in the public domain. It is important that we try to follow procedures. Part of the problem may be that the hon. Member for Woodspring and other Conservative Members are not used to being in opposition.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

With the permission of the Leader of the House, I should like us to have a proper debate on the Crown Prosecution Service. At every Attorney-General's Question Time, we hear that there are great difficulties in the CPS. My conviction is that the CPS will not recover its morale unless it is given rights of audience in the higher courts. A debate on the subject would be of great importance to the justice system.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

I have heard criticisms of the Crown Prosecution Service on a number of occasions. I cannot promise the specific debate that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I know that he has been able to raise the issue several times.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

Will we have an opportunity in the near future to discuss the excellent news that after-school study clubs will be established at some of our leading football clubs? Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Pele, who is arguably the finest living footballer, on his recent award of an honorary knighthood?

Mrs. Taylor

The after-school care club initiative is extremely good. There are many ways in which we can encourage children to take their studies seriously. The endorsement of such activities by someone of the Pele's stature is significant; I am sure that it will have the desired effect. I understand that Pele is visiting the House today to meet some Members; I regret that I shall not be able to be there. I will not be drawn on other footballing points on this important day in the world cup competition.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I support the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for a debate on the BSE crisis as soon as possible? I will go further than my hon. Friend and say that there is a crisis facing United Kingdom agriculture as a whole, as every sector is depressed for the first time in living memory and farming incomes have been dramatically reduced. There is a crisis.

On the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), I do not want to enter the debate about the Paymaster General and offshore trusts. What concerns me is the statement that the Paymaster General made outside the House about the taxation of savings, bearing in mind the fact that that is tantamount to legislation which will affect decisions already taken by people about PEPs and TESSAs—especially PEPs.

May we have a debate on savings, because the proposed changes are critical for the way in which people plan their future? We have just had a statement on long-term care, and I believe that savings changes will have an impact on that as well.

Mrs. Taylor

On the hon. Gentleman's first point on BSE and farming, he is a very experienced Member of the House, and I think that he will have no difficulty in finding opportunities to participate in debates in which he can raise those concerns.

In respect of the new savings plans that have been announced, as I said earlier, the Treasury hopes to introduce the appropriate legislation next spring and there will be plenty of time to debate it then. The basic policy is extremely welcome because it will help the many and not the few.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend will know that, some time ago, the Department of Trade and Industry carried out a consultation exercise on opencast mining. When will the outcome be reported? Can she promise an early debate on opencast mining, because it is critical to the deep mining industry?

Mrs. Taylor

I know full well, not least from my constituency interests, of the concerns that many people have about opencast mining. The consultation period finished at the end of October and I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will make a statement on the matter early in the new year. There are opportunities to raise the issue in the near future, not least during the three-hour Adjournment debate just before the recess.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Concerns have already been expressed by my hon.Friends the Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) about the conduct of Ministers. The Leader of the House will be aware that the code of conduct was reissued in June or July this year and that it is now called the ministerial code. May we have a debate on the ministerial code? Does the right hon. Lady agree that the reputation of the House is put in doubt when Treasury Ministers have tax avoidance plans for £12 million and statements are made outside before they are made in the House? Those actions may have been taken in ignorance; perhaps such matters should be included in the code. They could well be included in the debate that I have suggested.

Mrs. Taylor

I agree with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) that there is no need to discuss those issues.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for outlining the work of European Standing Committee B next week. Yesterday, documents on shipbuilding were listed on the Order Paper. Will that matter be debated before the recess?

Will my right hon. Friend write to Liberal Democrat Members to remind them of their membership of European Standing Committee B, given that they have been absent, to all intents and purposes, from the past six sittings?

Mrs. Taylor

I am pleased that a new Member has so quickly come to terms with the detail of European Standing Committee B; I recommend that to others. The only debates that have been scheduled for that Committee so far are the ones that I have announced. The debates over the next week or so are extremely important. I remind the House that European Standing Committees are open to any Member of any party.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

It appears that the right hon. Lady made an illegitimate inference from the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). Has she seen this morning's leader in The Daily Telegraph which is headlined "Let them eat cake"? She should have seen early-day motion 555 on the conduct of the Paymaster General.

[That this House, mindful of Labour's pledge not to 'permit tax reliefs to millionaires in offshore tax havens', notes that the Paymaster General is simultaneously abolishing PEPs and TESSAs, and is a beneficiary of the offshore Orion Trust; and calls upon him to clarify why he sold his rights to £10 million of Trans Tec shares to Stenbell, and how much of the latter he owns, and why these shares were then passed to Orion, whether he holds any other of his 30.4 million shares in Trans Tec in offshore trusts, whether Orion was the family trust noted in Trans Tec's 1996 annual report in which he held 9.8 million shares, and who increased this holding to 12.7 million shares in September 1997, and whether Orion holds any other assets, why and when he made a personal loan of $1 million to Roll Centre Inc. before its purchase by Trans Tec and whether any similar loans are extant, whether he is still in receipt of pension certification or other emoluments for Trans Tec, what agreement was conducted with the late Robert Maxwell on the 1991 company merger with Trans Tec, and why the latter sold back his shares just before his death.]

A debate on the taxation of savings next spring is not soon enough. I would welcome the opportunity now to discuss the possibility of giving England the same tax status as Guernsey, so that Treasury Ministers can invest in my constituency.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman should have taken the advice of his hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton.)

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the number and range of experiments carried out on animals? Is she aware that, according to Home Office figures, 3 million animal experiments are carried out, many of which are repetitive, unnecessary and probably unreliable? I welcome the fact that the Government have banned cosmetic testing, but that will reduce the number of experiments by only about 200, leaving a huge number.

Is the right hon. Lady also aware that at Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence has almost trebled the number of experiments carried out on animals in recent years, many of which are deeply unpleasant and very painful for the animals concerned? Is she aware that the number of animal experiments there is now at its highest since 1982? Does she understand that this is a serious matter for the public? What steps can she take to ensure that hon. Members can debate the issue?

Mrs. Taylor

Again, the hon. Gentleman has used his time well to make his points. I cannot promise time for a debate. Many hon. Members on both sides and members of the Government are concerned about the total number of experiments, but it is never easy to reduce the number overnight. The hon. Gentleman has pointed to some of the facts that have led to the increase in recent years. Some progress has been made by the ban on cosmetic testing and I hope that there are other ways in which we can continue to improve animal welfare.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Will the Leader of the House vouchsafe a debate on the quality and consistency of legal advice offered to the Government, especially in relation to European legislation? I understand that the reason why the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food rejected the first option under the SEAC proposals, and did not take the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), was that he had received legal advice against imposing a ban on under-30-months beef from outside the UK? That seems to fly directly in the face of his earlier threat to ban beef if it did not meet our stringent health requirements. There seems to be substance for a debate on legal advice.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that that is necessary. My right hon. Friend the Minister made it clear that he would have been acting irresponsibly if he had not taken the advice that he was given yesterday. To act quickly was absolutely essential. He also had to consider the options and decide which one was most practical and which one could be easily understood and implemented. On that basis, he made the right decision, he made it quickly, and most important, he published the advice—unlike the situation under the previous Government.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

First, may I make it clear to the Leader of the House that, in the comments that I made yesterday, I was not referring to the usual channels. I was referring to how, as an hon. Member, I was able to read not the written answer to which she referred—I apologise for missing that—but the text of the Minister's statement, which he was due to make in the Scottish Grand Committee later that day.

We would welcome a debate on the release of information to the House. There is a difference between a broad briefing—or even embargoed information—to journalists in advance and the ability of those outside the House to read full texts of ministerial statements before they are made.

The point is not one of Government against Opposition but of the reputation and standing of the House. I accept that embargoed pieces of information were made available to journalists when we were in government. The speed of, and the change in, the process are important. Debates are being conducted on ministerial statements outside the House before they are debated inside it. It is the standing of the House which matters. If we cannot control the release of information and defend the rights of Members of Parliament, who on earth will do so?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. The simple fact is that the statement to which he referred was entirely based on the information that was available in the written answer, which was available to the public at 3.30 pm. He made a great deal of that yesterday, implying that my right hon. Friend the Minister had broken the conventions of the House. That was a serious charge, and I think that he ought to apologise for it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

On behalf of the official Opposition, may I say first, as the matter was raised during Question Time, that we are extremely grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for your clear, unambiguous statement earlier? That leads me to my next point.

Second only to you, Madam Speaker, in defending the interests of the House, is the Leader of the House. Her prime responsibility is to all of us. Will she rethink what she has just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)? Will she please take on board the very genuine concern among all parliamentarians—I use that word deliberately—at the manner in which several Government announcements have been made recently? Will the Leader of the House also clarify her comments in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on the Government of Wales Bill? She referred to consultation and a majority opinion among Opposition parties, or words to that effect. What does she mean by a majority opinion among Opposition parties? Her Majesty's official Opposition comprise the majority on the Opposition Benches, and significantly so. We are emphatically of the opinion that the traditions of the House should be maintained and that all stages of all first-class constitutional Bills should be debated on the Floor of the House. We have had no full consultation with the right hon. Lady on this point. Will she clarify her position and assure the House that no final decision has been taken on the matter?

Mrs. Taylor

On the first point raised by the hon. Gentleman, the vast majority of hon. Members welcomed your statement, Madam Speaker. I pointed out earlier that we have no proposals to change the legislation on oaths of allegiance. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

In respect of yesterday's statement and the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), Opposition Members ought to cast their minds back. Being in opposition is different from being in government. One cannot assume that one knows everything all the time. The procedures that have been adopted by this Government are no less respectful of the House than any previously adopted. The hon. Member for Woodspring simply made a mistake yesterday. There have been occasions when Ministers have made mistakes, and I have stood at the Dispatch Box, acknowledged that fact and apologised to the House. Yesterday was not one of those occasions.

There have been discussions on the Government of Wales Bill through the usual channels with the party of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and minority parties. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that his is the only party which has expressed reservations about taking the Bill partly on the Floor and partly in Standing Committee. All the parties that are represented in Wales are in favour of splitting the Bill.

Mr. Burns

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. There seems to be some discrepancy in an answer given by the Leader of the House. She seems to rest her argument on the fact that written answers are put on the board for hon. Members at 3.30 pm. That is not so. The vast majority of written answers go on the board after 3.30 pm and at any time up to early evening. So that we can get to the bottom of the issue, would you, Madam Speaker, make inquiries of the House authorities about when written answers generally go on the board and when they did yesterday—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman talks about "generally go on the board" and precisely "at 3.30 pm". What is his point of order? It is either precise or general. Which is it to be?

Mr. Burns

The point that I am trying to make, however inadequately, is that the Leader of the House said that written answers go on the board for hon. Members at 3.30 pm. They do not. They might start going on the board at 3.30 pm, but they do so throughout the afternoon and early evening—

Madam Speaker

Order. This is an administrative matter, not a point of order. Of course, I always want to be helpful to the House. We have had a good exchange on this matter, and the hon. Member might leave it at that. I shall see what I can do, without any commitment. I always seek to protect the procedures of the House and to be helpful to hon. Members.

    1. c512