HC Deb 11 December 1997 vol 302 cc1197-214 4.24 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the business for next week.

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 the motion for the Adjournment of the House, which will include the usual three-hour pre-recess debate.

Until about 8 pm, there will be a debate on the common fisheries policy on a Government motion. That will be followed by consideration of an allocation of time motion relating to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

THURSDAY 18 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Public Processions (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 provisional business for the first week back after the Christmas recess is as follows.

MONDAY 12 JANUARY AND TUESDAY 13 JANUARY— Second Reading of the Scotland Bill.

WEDNESDAY 14 JANUARY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.— Second Reading of the Regional Development Agencies Bill

THURSDAY 15 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

FRIDAY 16 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 14 January there will be a debate on cocoa and chocolate in European Standing Committee A.

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

[Wednesday 14 January 1998:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community document: 8164/96, Cocoa and Chocolate. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-ix (1997–98).]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement and for giving the House the business for the first week after the recess. She is an enthusiastic and skilful Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, and I hope that she will explain to the House why, in practice, she is not only not modernising the sitting hours of the House but has chosen to ignore the Jopling rules by arranging controversial and potentially lengthy business on three successive Thursdays. It is true that the Government have somewhat incompetently overloaded their legislative programme—hence the need for yet another guillotine motion next week—but there is no reason why they should ride roughshod over the rules that they came into office vowing to improve. Like me, she has heard the strictures of her Front Benchers on those matters. The House will be interested in her reply.

We were glad that the Government supported our social security policies against the rebellion of many of their Back Benchers last night. We were assured by the Secretary of State for Social Security that the Government will not be deflected from their intention further to reform benefits. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate so that the Secretary of State for Social Security can explain those plans to her Back Benchers? In particular, can the Leader of the House say whether those plans include the taxation of benefits, especially for disabled people?

The Leader of the House heard the reaction of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) to the Government's White Paper on open government, in which there were some things to welcome. Lofty intention is one thing, practice another, as we shall see. It was a pity that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was not quite generous-spirited enough to make it clear that his proposals built on many of the policies that we established. In the light of his remarks on open government, and of those of many of his colleagues, including the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), and the evident enthusiasm that has been expressed by hon. Members of all parties, will the Leader of the House comment on the fact that the Table Office has been instructed by the Government that it must not accept any question about the impact on employment of, or the level of, the national minimum wage?

Will the right hon. Lady explain how that extraordinary denial of information to Members sits alongside the Government's just expressed, but clearly imperfect, commitment to openness? Perhaps she would like to define what her Government mean by openness and to which areas of policy the principle of openness may be applied. Which are the no-go areas? Clearly the national minimum wage is one. Is not the Government's instruction to the Table Office a denial of every principle enunciated by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster just 30 minutes ago? In the interests of open government, I think we should be told. Whatever the right hon. Lady's reply, it is obvious that "Your Right to Know" does not apply to Members in respect of the national minimum wage.

Can the right hon. Lady clarify for the benefit of the House which Department has responsibility for the current crisis in the coal industry? We had thought that it was a matter for the President of the Board of Trade, but we read on page 22 of today's edition of the Financial Times that responsibility now rests with the Paymaster General. If departmental responsibility is to be shifted around in this way should not the principles of open government dictate that the House should be told? Is it a slap in the face for an inactive Department of Trade and Industry, as the Financial Times seems to have been briefed to say? Or is it some form of occupational therapy for the Paymaster General, who has clearly disqualified himself from talking about other people's savings?

When may we have a statement in the House from the right hon. Gentleman, rather than statements through lawyers at friendly press conferences, because we should all like to hear his clarification of the potential conflict between the Government's intention to close tax loopholes and his own use of them. I am sure that, in the interests of open government, the right hon. Lady will wish to arrange for such a statement without delay.

Mrs. Taylor

I regret very much the attitude taken by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) in her response, particularly as she has repeated allegations about the Paymaster General which are unworthy of the House and have been thoroughly refuted elsewhere.

Among the right hon. Lady's specific questions about the business for next week, she asked me about the Jopling proposals and the fact that there is serious business set down for some Thursdays this month and that serious business will be taken on some Thursdays in January.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes that.

The right hon. Lady seems to be unaware of the exact details of the Jopling agreement. It said that the House will try to rise early and take non-controversial business on the second half of Thursdays that are followed by a non-sitting Friday. None of the business that I have announced to be taken on Thursdays, which she regards as significant or controversial, will be followed by a non-sitting Friday.

In response to the right hon. Lady's comments about benefits reform and the need for a further debate, I do not believe that there is such a need, not least because the debate that Conservative Members chose to have on that matter on the most recent Opposition day fell somewhat flat because they had so little to say on the subject.

As for the coal industry, the DTI remains the lead Department. Of course, other Ministers in other Departments get involved in such issues and, given the right hon. Lady's experience in government, which is not that long ago, I should have thought that she could remember Cabinet Committees and the fact that Ministers assist each other when certain problems arise.

On freedom of information, the right hon. Lady was somewhat more dismissive than her colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who was far more generous in his welcome of the White Paper. She claims that her party started this process, but, if it did so, it did not get very far and stalled on every relevant occasion. The statement that has been given to the House today was a significant breakthrough and was long overdue.

The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk asked about the right to know and claimed that the Table Office was being instructed by the Government on what questions it should be accepting. She should have known the answer to that, not least from her experience in government. The Government cannot give instructions to the Table Office; nor would the Government try to do so.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will there be a statement next week on the outcome of the Kyoto summit on world climate change? Will my right hon. Friend arrange for there to be a full debate early in the new year, in Government time, on the issue of climate change and the world's environment? Each time there is such a major conference, the House should be able to make a serious assessment of its impact and give some indication of how it wants the Government to behave at the next conference, whenever that may be.

Mrs. Taylor

The agreement reached at Kyoto is certainly historic and will help to counter the problems of climate change. The part played in those negotiations by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was extremely important and constructive. I expect that my right hon. Friend will be looking to make a statement in the House in the not-too-distant future. I cannot promise my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) the sort of debate that he wants in the near future, but I will bear his request in mind.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The right hon. Lady is rightly protective of the rights and privileges of the House and its Members. Does she agree that any threat to those rights and privileges, in particular any attempt to bully Members and any attempt to exert improper influence over Members of the House—I think that that is the definition that the Joint Committee on Privileges is now examining—should be resisted? The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) reported to the House that he had to change his view on a specific piece of legislation owing to the pressure exerted on him by the standing orders of the Labour party. Can the Leader of the House give us an explicit assurance that members of the Labour party who voted with the Liberal Democrats last night against a Conservative proposal will not be subjected to undue pressure of that sort, with their livelihoods being threatened if they cease to be Members?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If I had to rely on the hon. Gentleman, I would be dead.

Mr. Tyler

Can the Leader of the House give us an assurance that the new, draconian standing orders of the parliamentary Labour party will not be allowed to interfere with the proper judgment of Members.

Mrs. Taylor

That was a good try, but this is an internal matter for the Labour party. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, I do not think that he needs any help from the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will my right hon. Friend consider, perhaps in Government time and in the not-too-distant future, a short debate on a matter of which I have had personal experience: the success of treatment carried out in the national health service? We do not seem to have any intelligence unit to record that treatment, its results and the successes of the service; nor do we seem to have any means of recording best practice so that best practice initiated in one area can be disseminated to other areas. That may be a useful adjunct for us to debate.

Mrs. Taylor

Many Members will be aware that my hon. Friend has had experience of the health service, which was, I am glad to say, extremely successful. He may be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has, as part of the White Paper process, taken on board some of the points that my hon. Friend has made and has said that he is in favour of a clinical audit and of the establishment of a national institute of clinical excellence. That organisation would be able to do the job that my hon. Friend rightly says is necessary if we are continually to improve the national health service.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Can the Leader of the House arrange to have a statement made early next week in connection with the agriculture industry? Is she aware that farmers and consumers alike are confused by the evidence being produced by the various scientific organisations? We are particularly concerned about whether the Government will make any compensation available to our agricultural communities as a result of the appreciation of sterling.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot guarantee any statement on any particular day, but the hon. Lady will know that Ministers are well aware of the concerns of people involved in agriculture and that there was a full statement last week from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am hopeful that there may be a statement in the House on BSE issues and the current situation in farming before the recess.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

May I simply reiterate the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)? It is crucial that, as soon as the Deputy Prime Minister gets back and has had a chance to recover from all his negotiations in Kyoto, we have not only a statement, but an opportunity for a full debate. The implications of the agreement are so wide and far reaching that it is crucial that we set out in the House how we are to move the matter forward on the world platform.

Mrs. Taylor

We shall have environment Question Time on Tuesday, but I can well understand why my hon. Friend thinks that we need more time to discuss these issues and to get a full report from my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The agreement is an important one: for the first time, it sets binding targets for developed countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, and it is, therefore, something we should all welcome. The House will want to be informed of the details and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to take an opportunity to do that as soon as possible.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have an urgent debate on the rights of Members of Parliament, especially when on the premises of the Palace of Westminster? Specifically, could that debate centre on the rights of all Members when voting together in the same Lobby—especially when the Conservatives are supporting the Government for supporting the Conservatives, as happened last night—and on whether, in such cases, all Members will be completely free to approach Ministers, particularly the Prime Minister, without being molested?

Will the right hon. Lady conduct an investigation into the disgraceful incident last night, when one of my colleagues was molested simply as a result of trying to approach the Prime Minister as a fellow Member of Parliament?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that there is any need for a debate and, following last night's point of order, I made inquiries among those who were present on that occasion. Several people made it clear to me that the Conservative Member who was the subject of the point of order approached the Prime Minister and tried to interrupt a conversation that was taking place, in a most boorish and ungallant manner. I do not think that there is any need to discuss matters of that sort.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

In view of the excellent work carried out by nurses and staff in our emergency services and of the growing concern about their safety among the public and professionals, will my right hon. Friend make time next week for a debate on the safety of our emergency units?

Mrs. Taylor

I know that there have been cases recently of violence in emergency units—they can be tense places, and people can become extremely upset. The Minister of State, Department of Health is looking at giving further protection to people, especially women, who require protection in that situation. I do not think that it is possible to have a full debate next week, although it might be possible to raise such issues during the three-hour debate on Wednesday morning.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

This is the third time in just over six months that the Government are imposing a guillotine motion. Does the right hon. Lady not appreciate that the European Communities (Amendment) Bill gives more powers to the European Parliament, extends the competencies of the European Union, extends qualified majority voting, reinforces citizenship and dwells on economic and monetary union? It is clearly a profound constitutional matter for the House, and to curtail debate by a guillotine, which is the most outrageous expression of Executive power, is wholly inappropriate.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Member, who is extremely well informed, will know that this is by no means the first occasion that a guillotine has been used on a Bill of that sort; it was used not least by his own Government in previous days. It is an important Bill and we have had 19 hours of discussion so far. We have had the same number of days of discussion as we had in 1986 on what became the Single European Act. Most people would agree that that was a major piece of legislation, yet consideration was completed satisfactorily following that guillotine. I notice that, on Second Reading of that Act, nowhere near as many Members voted as did on the Bill that we are now discussing. Although he has strong views, the hon. Gentleman has to realise that virtually no progress has been made on the Bill and it is for better discussion of all parts of the Bill that we are having a guillotine at this stage.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When may we have a debate on procedures in the House? Following the statement by the shadow Leader of the House, I went to the Table Office and tabled a question asking what representations had been received by the Government on the possible link between the minimum wage and job numbers. That question was accepted without demur by the Table Office, but they expressed some bewilderment at the statement made a short while ago in the Chamber. Of course, questions that are hypothetical are not allowed and they never have been. May we have a debate on procedure, as that would be useful for all Members and a particularly useful educational experience for the shadow Leader of the House?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend clearly knows better than Conservative Members how to exercise his right to know. As I said earlier, there is no possibility of the Government's trying to restrict the questions that are asked, and the Table Office would certainly not tolerate that.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), may I urge that we have a full debate on the agriculture industry and on the beef situation in particular? I would not expect the right hon. Lady to be aware of this, but last night 400 farmers descended on a meat distribution depot in my constituency; they stopped lorries going this way and that, and are planning further disruptions. I am sure that no one wants to see such action, but, on the other hand, many people are very sympathetic to the farmers' case, especially as we have a beef export ban and further bans on meat, but no guarantee whatever of the quality and safety of meat coming from abroad.

Mrs. Taylor

I can well understand why the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the disruptions he mentions. I said earlier that Ministers are aware of and concerned about the situation and that we are hopeful that there can be a statement before the House rises for the Christmas recess.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for giving the House notice that European Standing Committee A will be considering the draft chocolate directive? She will be aware that the European Commission proposed a good compromise which did not discriminate against British chocolate or continental chocolate, but that the European Parliament proposed some quite extraordinary amendments backing up the commercial interests of some European chocolate manufacturers—those of France, Belgium and Germany—against those of others, including ourselves, the Irish, the Portuguese and those in Scandinavia.

Will my right hon. Friend convey to the Ministers who will appear before European Standing Committee A my strongly held view, as a Member of Parliament representing a constituency with many confectionery workers, that the European Parliament's proposal would be bad for the chocolate industry and bad for jobs, and that Britain should reject it and go for the fair compromise proposed by the Commission, which will provide a level playing field for all brands of chocolate manufactured by all countries in the Community?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

And all because the lady loves Milk Tray.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not know what is made in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), so my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) had better be careful in what he says.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of York is right to raise concerns relating to a subject about which I know he is well informed. I shall certainly bring the points he has raised to the attention of my hon. Friends who will be in charge of that debate. I take this opportunity to remind the House that all Members can attend such Committees.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the right hon. Lady will make time for a statement by the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning on planning procedures? The City of York council is currently undergoing a massive consultation exercise on a proposed park and ride scheme in the Vale of York. The only people who are not being consulted in that exercise are the residents of Rawcliffe, where the scheme is to be situated. I believe that they deserve a statement on that matter from the Minister responsible for planning, and I hope that the Government will make time for that.

Mrs. Taylor

Obviously, that is a matter for local consideration in the first instance, but I remind the hon. Lady that we have environment questions on Tuesday.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

Is my right hon. Friend is aware of the damning report produced by the National Audit Office on the performance of Ofwat and, if she is, given the high cost of water in the United Kingdom and the poor performance of water companies, will she make time available in the House to discuss that important issue?

Mrs. Taylor

I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue is important to every person in the country. The Government are undertaking a review of utility regulation and considering ways to strengthen customer protection. We welcome the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, and we have made careful note of his recommendations.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

When can we have a debate on the performance of the privatised rail industry and especially the train operating companies, not least Connex South Central, which services my constituency and has recently witnessed a 138 per cent. increase in complaints about its cancellation of services, overcrowded trains and generally inadequate investment in rolling stock? When can we have a debate so that we may discover the Government's plans for our rail industry and how they intend to make a difference to it?

Mrs. Taylor

There are also transport questions on Tuesday, so the hon. Gentleman may be able to raise issues then. I cannot promise a full debate of the type that he requests, but I remind him of the three-hour Adjournment debate on Wednesday.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the campaign by The Independent on Sunday to decriminalise cannabis, but I wonder whether she is aware that the National Association of Head Teachers today issued stringent guidance to schools on combating the menace of drugs. In the light of that, does she agree that we should have a more consistent line on that issue, and will she arrange for an early debate in the House so that those of us who believe that the drugs menace should be fought, not given into, may have an opportunity to debate the matter?

Mrs. Taylor

I very much welcome and accept my hon. Friend's comments. I do not think that we are likely to get an objective assessment from a conference organised by a newspaper which has the explicit aim of decriminalising cannabis. On the other point that she raised, about the report by head teachers, we are aware that we need good education in schools. The Department for Education and Employment will be issuing some targeted guidance in the near future and Keith Hellawell, the UK anti-drugs co-ordinator, is developing plans to audit and do a full assessment of what works best in ensuring that young people do not fall into the drugs trap.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

The Leader of the House will recall that, during the general election campaign, one of Labour's claims was that the election was partly a question of trust. Given the widespread disappointment in the country that the word "trust" has been interpreted as meaning either blind trusts in favour of some Ministers or offshore trusts in favour of others, may we have a debate next week to establish exactly what "trust" now means to new Labour?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman would do well to read the most recent poll of Tory Members.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

As it is not only Yorkies that are threatened by the dictates of the European Union but the livelihoods of many of my constituents who work in duty-free shops at Heathrow and on airliners for British carriers, and many Members' constituents who work at airports, or for airlines or shipping companies throughout the country, will the right hon. Lady ensure that the appropriate Minister comes to the House to explain the Government's policy which, until now, has been one of total acquiescence in the job-destroying policy of the European Union?

Mrs. Taylor

Ministers keep the House informed as appropriate. We had a debate on the European Union last Thursday.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I shall try to be in order this time, Madam Speaker.

The Leader of the House said that she hoped that, before the recess, we would have a statement on farming. That is a welcome small step, but is there any chance of a larger step in the form of a day's debate on farming issues as soon as possible? As I represent a rural constituency, I want to speak about the crisis in farming, but that is not the only matter that I want to raise. Today, a butcher telephoned me to say that hundreds of his customers—including four doctors—had told him that they still wished to buy beef on the bone, and that they were still doing so in his shop in my constituency. Is it possible to have a debate so that all these issues may be debated properly?

Mrs. Taylor

Many Labour Members have farming interests, including my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He has been very forthcoming in giving information to the House and the best that I can say at the moment is that we are hopeful that a full statement can be made before the House rises.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

During the general election campaign, not one Labour candidate in Shropshire told the electors of Shropshire that, in the event of a Labour Government coming to power, they would impose a local government settlement such as the one that was announced last week. It has brought £9.7 million in cuts and a 17 per cent. increase in council tax. The county is in a state of shock. May we please have a debate next week on that huge betrayal?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman ought to know that the orders are always debated when they are laid before the House. That will be done next year. However, if he is asking us to say why we could not anticipate during the general election campaign a settlement that was made only a short time ago, he should know that, in my opinion, it would have been outrageous for us to be audacious enough to suggest that we could precisely guess such details that far in advance.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

May we have an early debate on the role in the House, and in the general performance of his duties, of the Minister without Portfolio? We are increasingly seeing that his influence on his colleagues—such as his undermining of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—is making it clear that he is the modern Rasputin of politics.

Given the farcical performance at recent Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions—the Minister without Portfolio spins out his answers to the few friends that he has left sitting behind him, so that Opposition Members' questions are never properly answered—and given that the hon. Gentleman declines to answer written questions of the type that I have repeatedly tabled, is it not clear that we need the second most powerful person in the Government to be questioned properly, that we need his role to be properly debated and that we need to have a full debate so that the real Deputy Prime Minister is exposed to public view?

Mrs. Taylor

People see a great deal of the real Deputy Prime Minister, and I hope that he will make a statement on Kyoto when he returns.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In view of the right hon. Lady's failure properly to answer my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, will she undertake to find time next week for the Paymaster General to make a statement about his intervention in the coal industry, which is likely to result in miners who are thrown out of work losing up to £10,000 each of their redundancy money?

Mrs. Taylor

There is no need for any such statement.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Last night, when the heavies had finished duffing up my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) in the Division Lobby, the Prime Minister made a tough decision not to join his beleaguered colleagues on the Front Bench but instead to go to yet another glitzy soirée at Downing street. Can the right hon. Lady afford us time to debate the £7.4 million that the Government have spent on entertainment since they came to office? It really is a case of "Hello Tony, Let's go party."

Mrs. Taylor

I have no plans to arrange an invitation to No. 10 for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

Will the Leader of the House find time early next week for the Minister for Public Health to make a statement on the ban on tobacco advertising in sport, given that she appears not just to have failed to follow, but to have deliberately broken, the 1996 Cabinet guidelines?

Mrs. Taylor

There is no evidence whatever that that is so. My hon. Friend has made her position clear, and took clear steps at a very early stage to ensure that she complied with the guidelines. The permanent secretary and the Cabinet Secretary are satisfied that she did.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I thank the Leader of the House for what she said about a statement on Kyoto, and urge her to go further and to impress on Ministers the need for a debate in Government time on climate change. That issue concerns members of all parties—[Interruption.]—although it seems of less concern on the Conservative Benches. During the United Kingdom's presidency of the European Union, perhaps the right hon. Lady will press Ministers to ensure that European Council meetings are promptly reported to, and debated in, the House.

Mrs. Taylor

We have followed the convention of making statements following Council meetings. 1, too, have noticed considerable pressure from Labour and Liberal Democrat Members on the subject of Kyoto, although not one word has been said by Conservative Members. That may tell us something about their lack of concern for these issues. I have said that I hope for a statement; I will bear in mind the request for a debate.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Lady has said that there may be a statement on BSE next week, but can she find time for a full-blown debate on agriculture, as previously requested? There was a short debate on the rural economy yesterday, but no sooner had the Minister spoken than he resigned. [Interruption.] We should like to know what the Government's position is. Members of all parties have constituents working in the rural economy, and the right hon. Lady must realise that there is a real crisis in farming, in south Leicestershire and elsewhere. There may not be a crisis in Dewsbury, but there certainly is in the rest of the country.

Mrs. Taylor

Many constituencies include farming interests and food interests. All our constituents consume food and need proper reassurance. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends found his question so amusing—I thought it was extremely serious, which is why I announced earlier that I hoped for a statement before the House rose. That is not a guarantee, it is a hope; but it is a sign of how seriously Ministers treat the situation.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

Will the right hon. Lady ensure that the shipping Minister comes to the House before the recess to make a statement on the growing concern for maritime safety? There have been a number of incidents in the fishing industry, and more lives are being lost. I refer particularly to the recent loss of the Margaretha Maria, from Newland in Cornwall, when four fishermen died. Their children will face this Christmas without their fathers—and we still do not even know where the vessel is.

Mrs. Taylor

That is indeed a serious issue. I am sure that Members on both sides would like to express their condolences to the families involved in the tragedy. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to raise the issue before Christmas, but the open debate next Wednesday morning, which we have before each recess, is particularly useful for raising such topics.

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