HC Deb 03 December 1998 vol 321 cc1067-80 5.10 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the business of the House. The business for next week is as follows:

MONDAY 7 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Water Industry Bill.

TUESDAY 8 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 9 DECEMBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock there will be a debate on decommissioning and the release of prisoners, followed by a debate on tax. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion on section 155 of the Finance Act 1998.

THURSDAY 10 DECEMBER—Estimates Day [1st Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on prison sentences and alternatives to prison sentences, followed by a debate on new deal pathfinders and pathways into work for lone parents. Details will be given in the Official Report.

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

FRIDAY 11 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 14 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill.

TUESDAY 15 DECEMBER—Until 7 o'clock, conclusion of Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill,

Debate on the Common Fisheries Policy on a Government motion

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

WEDNESDAY 16 DECEMBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House, which will include the usual three-hour pre-recess debate.

Debate on the modernisation of the House of Commons.

THURSDAY 17 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Scottish Enterprise Bill.

FRIDAY 18 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

Subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House will rise for the Christmas recess from Thursday 17 December until Monday 11 January 1999.

[Thursday 10 December:

Estimates Day [1st Allotted Day]—Class 1V, Votes 1 and 2: Home Office administration, police, probation, immigration and other services, England and Wales, and prisons, England and Wales, in so far as they relate to prison sentences and alternatives to prison sentences. Relevant reports: the Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1997–98, on Alternatives to Prison Sentences (HC 486).

The Department for Education and Employment and Office for Standards in Education Departmental Report: The Government's Expenditure Plans 1998–99 (Cm 3910).

The Home Office Annual Report 1998 (Cm 3908).

Class 1, Votes 1 and 3: Department for Education and Employment: programmes and central services and Employment Service and Class X11: Department of Social Security, in so far as they relate to New Deal Pathfinders and Pathways into Work for Lone Parents. Relevant Reports: the Seventh Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 1997–98, Pathways into Work for Lone Parents (HC 646); and the Government's response thereto (HC 1122); the Eighth Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 1997–98, New Deal Pathfinders (HC 1059)and the Government's response thereto (HC 1123)

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House is grateful for the business and for the dates of the Christmas recess, which are a sensible response to our suggestion that there was no point in bringing the House back after a non-sitting Friday for one or two days during Christmas week when we want to be busy in our constituencies.

On the Greater London Authority Bill, I am grateful for the right hon. Lady's response to my suggestion of allowing extra time for debate. Will the House be able to sit until midnight on that day so that debate is not duly constrained? May I repeat my request for sections of the Bill to be taken on the Floor of the House as they affect the constitution?

The right hon. Lady trailed a debate on modernisation of the House, not on a Thursday, but on a Wednesday. Can she confirm that the report on how we manage Thursdays will be published in good time for that debate? Does she recognise that Members have strong and conflicting views on that matter? Can she confirm that Members will be able to vote for a range of options, including the status quo, on a free vote?

On Monday, will the Prime Minister be making a statement on the Anglo-French summit, and will he be able to explain his increasingly isolationist language on European matters? When we debate tax on Wednesday, will the Chancellor try to make good his disappointing performance on the "Today" programme on tax harmonisation? Will he be able to tell us which United Kingdom businesses are being targeted by the working group on harmful competition, which is chaired by the Financial Secretary? Will the Chancellor explain what he meant when he signed a code to tackle harmful tax competition? Will he give the same messages in the UK that he gives when he is in Europe?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we intend to suspend the rule and to allow debate until midnight on the first day of consideration on the Greater London Authority Bill. We hope that debate on the second day will conclude at around 7 o'clock.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether we would take sections of that Bill on the Floor of the House. We can discuss that through the usual channels, and I understand both the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, and their anxiety to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I expected the report on modernisation of the House of Commons to be published in time for the debate. I expect it to be published on Monday, leaving many days in which Members may consider it. He also asked about voting. It would be wrong of me to attempt to comment on how we might handle decisions when the report is not yet before the House. I am sure that the matter can be discussed through the usual channels, although if hon. Members wish to vote for the status quo, all that is required is that they reject any proposal for change. There will certainly be a free vote.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would make a statement on the summit. I expect that my right hon. Friend will do so. As we have made clear, informal councils or meetings might not be followed by a statement, but we certainly expect the Prime Minister to make a statement after the summit. With regard to the observations of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on the Prime Minister's stand, I feel that the right hon. Gentleman is drifting back in time. The Government are not isolationist; on the contrary, we seek, successfully, to put together alliances across the European Union, which is one reason why we—unlike the previous Government—were successful in lifting the beef ban, a lifting long promised by the Conservatives, but never delivered.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman referred to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the finance debate. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will speak about some of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. As for the targeting of UK businesses in any proposal under discussion, the right hon. Gentleman entirely misunderstands that matter. We have had many complaints—I am sure that the previous Government had many such complaints in their day—about unfair taxes and concessions elsewhere. United Kingdom businesses have complained to us, and my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is addressing those complaints.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Have the Government given any consideration whatever to making a statement about the information that came out casually yesterday that there has been a major change in Government policy towards the second Chamber? The House has been completely bypassed. Was the matter discussed by the consultative committee on which the leader of the Liberal Democrats sits? Is Lord Cranborne now an unofficial member of that committee, as part of the patriotic alliance? Will the hereditary peers who are elected be elected by proportional representation on a closed-list system, or will they be elected in the traditional hereditary manner of first past the bedpost?

Mrs. Beckett

As my right hon. Friend will be well aware, the Leader of the Opposition chose yesterday to publicise discussions that had been undertaken. If the matter was put casually before the House, that was not the doing of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Indeed, had agreement been reached in the ordinary and customary way, it would have been properly announced to the House when we discussed the way in which the Bill on the Lords would be handled. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) chose instead to publicise the matter before any formal announcement had been made about the handling of that Bill. That is a matter for him, but given the way that Lords are leaping off the Tory Front Bench even as we speak, I imagine that he regrets his handling of it.

My right hon. Friend also asked me about the general issue of the second Chamber and how widely the matter was discussed. I understand that it was not widely discussed because the relevant discussions were continuing. Attempts were being made to reach agreement so that the matter could be handled by consensus and on common ground, according to how the Government had said from the outset that they wished to handle it, if and where they could. That has been the Government's position from the beginning, but it was clearly not the position at least of some parts of the Opposition, and it is still not their position.

As for whether Lord Cranborne is an unofficial member of any coalition, I am not sure where he stands at present. Should the agreement be put in place, how the hereditary peers will choose who should continue in the transitional House until all hereditary peers go—the Government have said from the outset that that is the intention at the conclusion of the legislation—is, I am happy say, for another place to decide.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I have a more serious question about the events of the past 24 hours. Does the Leader of the House acknowledge that the sensible management of the business of Parliament and, in particular, of this House, depends to a considerable degree on mutual trust and confidence across parties? Does she agree that that will be especially true not only for the business that she has announced for the next few weeks, but in the new year? Has the leadership of the Conservative party assured her that that mutual trust can be restored and that, when those who appear to be speaking on behalf of the party—appropriate spokesmen—enter into an agreement in good faith, they will stand by it? Has she received assurances to the effect that the Conservative party will now agree in good faith to the assurances that it has given?

Mrs. Beckett

I share the hon. Gentleman's view that mutual trust and confidence are important in this place and that, if assurances appear to be given but the situation then changes, it shakes that confidence. However, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that I have received assurances of the sort that he suggests. I do not want to rub salt into any wounds, but it seems to me that such is the confusion that exists on the Opposition Benches that no one is in a position to give an assurance.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I know that my right hon. Friend is highly efficient, so will she use the extra time that she will undoubtedly find in the legislative process, as a result of those interesting and rapidly arrived at decisions, to establish a strategic rail authority? That would not only be widely welcomed by all our constituents, but would produce positive results for all the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend will appreciate and as I said a moment ago, there is such confusion that it is a little hard to know what will happen. If, as seems possible, that agreement is adhered to, in particular in another place, we may well be able to introduce the strategic rail authority Bill, which will give not only my hon. Friend but many hon. Members considerable pleasure.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Further to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), can the Leader of the House tell us whether, when the Chancellor speaks to the House about taxation on Wednesday, he can explain why the Financial Secretary told European Standing Committee B that she believed that our "domestic tax system is fully consistent with the principles of the code"—[Official Report, European Standing Committee B, 26 November 1997; c. 2.] that the committee that she has been chairing is studying, when it turns out that 10 of our domestic tax measures will have to be changed?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not familiar with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. I know that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is seeking the best possible outcome for the United Kingdom from the discussions on the tax code. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will raise that matter in the debate next week.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early statement on family leave? Is she aware that a commission reported recently to the United States Congress on family and medical leave, stating that it has a good effect on families and no significant effect on competitiveness? The Government have referred to parental leave in their programme, but unless there is some arrangement for payment that will be a hollow right for many people. Will she undertake to communicate that fact to the relevant Ministers?

Mrs. Beckett

I much respect my hon. Friend's strong feelings on that matter and take the point that a sensible balance between rights and the understanding and recognition of mutual responsibilities in the workplace facilitates competitiveness and economic success. He raised two slightly different issues. The first was family and parental leave; the Government have been discussing family leave in general rather than merely parental leave. Secondly, he mentioned a pay scheme and we are certainly some distance from that, although I understand the importance of his argument.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

Will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate on early-day motion 56?

[That this House notes that from April 1999, 300,000 non-taxpaying pensioners and 330,000 other non-taxpayers will lose an average of £75 each because of the Government's decision to abolish the dividend tax credit; further notes that 80,000 of the pensioners affected will lose over £100 per year; considers that it is unacceptable that basic rate taxpayers and higher rate taxpayers are unaffected directly by this decision which only affects non-taxpayers, half of them poor pensioners, who by definition must be poorer than taxpayers; calls on the Government to act on the promise made to the House on 30th June when the Paymaster General stated 'I am aware of the growing anxiety among poorer non-taxpayers who have been hit by the measure so I know that we need to make our position utterly clear as quickly as possible', Official Report, 30th June, column 175; calls upon the Government to now honour this pledge by announcing that non-taxpayers will be able to continue to reclaim a 10 per cent. tax credit from April 1999 in the same way as taxpayers who hold PEPs or ISAs will be able to do; and further notes that this is still a 50 per cent. cut from the current 20 per cent. dividend tax credit.]

It has been signed by Members representing all three main political parties and concerns the plight of more than 300,000 pensioners, who will lose on average £75 a year because of the Government's decision to end the repayment of dividend tax credits.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not in a position to allow an early debate on that matter, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say in the business statement that there will be a debate on tax matters. He will be able to raise it then.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm if there is to be a statement or a debate on the proceedings with which we have been deluged in the past 24 hours, that is, the demise of the hereditary peers? Although I, for one, want to see the end of the House of Lords, there is a delicious irony in seeing 750 hereditary peers sign their own death warrant-to-be, like the dead parrot, defunct and caput. In those circumstances, would it not be advantageous to introduce in the time that would be made available a strategic rail authority Bill, a food standards agency Bill and one or two other measures? The net result would be a benefit to the House and to the Labour party in particular.

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly accept my hon. Friend's strictures on the general handling of the issue. It is noteworthy that a most respected former Speaker of the House and other peers on the Cross Benches have put forward a proposal that commands support in another place. As my hon. Friend observes, that would mean that the Government could achieve a clear aim, namely, the removal of the right to sit and vote in another place on the basis of heredity. Indeed, we may well succeed in that aim faster than would otherwise have been the case. If the agreement can be implemented, we may well be able to introduce not only the strategic rail authority Bill but, one hopes, legislation on the food standards agency. Since the Conservative party has made so much of that latter measure, saying how important it is, I am sure that that would please Conservatives, too.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Will the right hon. Lady find Government time for a debate on early-day motion 69?

[That this House believes that the statement of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on 9th November, Official Report, column 14, that he has never been, and does not intend to be, involved in procuring or negotiating sponsorship deals for the New Millennium Experience Company is totally inconsistent with newspaper reports that he entered into discussions with S. P. and G. P. Hinduja in January with a view to persuading them to abandon support for a millennium project in the Midlands in favour of the dome at Greenwich and met the Hinduja brothers on 6th October at the Department of Trade and Industry to discuss the dome and other trade and industry matters; and is of the opinion that the Secretary of State should now apologise for having misled the House and should give up his position with the NMEC immediately.]

It draws attention to the fact that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry misled the House when he said on 9 November that he had never been and never would be involved in securing sponsorship for the New Millennium Experience Company. This afternoon, the right hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to explain and apologise for his actions on that day. In an answer to a very reasonable question from my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), he did not deny the facts or that he had misled the House. He sought, however, not to apologise, but to ridicule my hon. Friend and, in so doing, he made a fresh and totally false allegation against Mr. Hinduja.

Madam Speaker

Order. It is perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to call the House's attention to early-day motion 69, but he should not use the colourful language that he is using, or introduce new charges. He has done perfectly well in putting down that early-day motion, but he should stick closely to its wording, of which I am well aware.

Mr. Chope

I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Speaker. You were here this afternoon when the issue was put to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and you heard his response. Will the Leader of the House demand that he comes to the House to explain his conduct? At the moment, he appears to be above the law.

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly cannot undertake to give the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends an opportunity to raise afresh a matter that has clearly been raised once already today. From the hon. Gentleman's remarks, it seems to me not that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did not deal with the matters raised, but that the hon. Gentleman does not like the answer that my right hon. Friend gave. I fear that that is not unknown in this place. It remains the position that my right hon. Friend does not procure or negotiate sponsorship deals. I understand that, in early October, he had a meeting with the Hinduja brothers to discuss several issues relating to the Department of Trade and Industry, but there is no record of any discussion of the millennium experience at that meeting.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if there was a statement on the hereditary peers next week, it would provide the Government with an opportunity to respond fully to the quite extraordinary—there is no other way to describe them—antics of the Leader of the Opposition? One would like to see the right hon. Gentleman respond accordingly. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as far as one can ascertain, there is widespread Labour support for any compromise and practical solution that would deal with most of the hereditary peers? I welcome what appears to be an arrangement that would help the Government and provide an excellent opportunity for both Houses of Parliament to move forward. It will certainly be appreciated in the country.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to all my hon. Friends who share the view that he expresses. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future to debate the developments of the past few days, although I agree that that might be an entertaining debate. Unfortunately, we are not here to enjoy ourselves, but to get on with legislative work.

One most noteworthy aspect of the events of the past few days is that the hypocrisy of the Conservative party has been completely exposed. Conservative Members have repeatedly claimed that the measure on Lords reform should not even be in the Gracious Speech, because it would take time from matters that are of far greater concern to the British people. On the other hand, we have made it quite plain that our chief interests in the Queen's Speech were indeed those other issues, such as health care, which are of far greater importance, but that we felt that Lords reform was a matter that had to be dealt with in its proper place. It is we who have been trying to find a way of not taking up excessive time to discuss the matter, although the proper time will, of course, be made available. Therefore. it is now crystal clear that it is Conservative Members who want to spend all their time discussing a matter which they say should not be a high priority.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) in calling for a debate in Government time on funding for the millennium dome? I ask that not least because it struck me that the original answer at Question Time was that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had not sought extra funding for the millennium dome from other sources. I would have asked the right hon. Gentleman directly whether the matter had been put to the Hinduja brothers at their last meeting, but I failed to catch your eye, Madam Speaker. The Secretary of State is a fairly slippery customer, and 10 minutes is a short time—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will withdraw that remark.

Mr. Blunt

I am sorry, Madam Speaker. I withdraw that remark. The right hon. Gentleman is capable of evading a point for 10 minutes of questions in the House, and he has shown his ability to do so. However, a full debate on the dome would not only allow that question to be properly addressed. but would enable us to ask the right hon. Gentleman to explain the extraordinary claim he made this afternoon, that the millennium dome would somehow create £1 billion-worth of economic growth for the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman has raised the same issue as his hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and he will get the same answer. All I can add is that, as Conservative Members have of late spent so much time arguing that the House should devote itself to high-priority issues, the notion that we should spend a day debating the Conservatives' ridiculous accusations about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is quite ludicrous.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May we have a debate on the banking industry, especially the role played by Lombard banking and National Westminster bank in inducing customers to invest in The Tanning Shop franchisee business, when the bank knew, because that business was one of its major customers, that it was collapsing? If it is possible to have that debate, will my right hon. Friend ask Ministers at the DTI to ask inspectors to interview Mr. Peter Stern, who is the NatWest franchise manager? He knows the whole truth and he should tell the whole truth, so that the bank learns the whole truth. It is his failure to tell the bank the whole truth that is costing franchisees all over the country millions of pounds.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to hear of the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised and of the losses he has identified as being made. I understand that DTI officials are looking at those issues and that the matter may have been referred to the banking ombudsman. I believe that my hon. Friend may have secured a meeting with the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). He is the relevant DTI Minister and I know that he will share my hon. Friend's concern and be anxious to ensure that anything that can be resolved is resolved. However, I fear that I cannot promise my hon. Friend that I shall be able to arrange a debate in the House on the matter in the near future.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

In the light of the right hon. Lady's remarks about faith and confidence in the House and given the comments that have been made today about the business yesterday, does she think it appropriate for an urgent debate to take place in which this House can discuss and debate the conduct of the Prime Minister? In the Queen's Speech debate, the right hon. Gentleman led the House to believe that he was keen to scrap hereditary peers at an early stage and made it a point of principle; yet, at the same time, through his offices and others in his party, he was making secret deals and negotiating how many hereditary peers could, through a Dutch auction, be retained in order to expedite the Government's business.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has been paying attention to what has been going on. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it plain that it is a point of principle in the Labour party that an hereditary position should not be a qualification for sitting and voting in the other place and that we want to see that change at an early stage. It is clear that part of the purpose behind the discussions that have been held is indeed to make sure that that eventuality does occur earlier than might otherwise have been the case—in fact, I am beginning to wonder whether that is the Conservatives' real objection.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Has my right hon. Friend had a moment to glance at the amazing, bewildering, breathtaking, fascinating and mind-boggling second report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs on "The Operation of Multi-Layer Democracy"? Not since Rip van Winkle, or at least since St. Paul was struck on the road to Damascus, has there been anything quite like it. Has she read paragraph 32, which states: Two aspects of the way in which the constitutional reform is being implemented give us particular cause for concern. One is the belated addressing of the English dimension."? Well, better late than never, but where on earth have our colleagues been all this time? Is it not about time that the House of Commons addressed itself seriously to what is actually happening to the constitution of this country and in Scotland?

Mrs. Beckett

I must confess that I have not committed to memory every word of the report to which my hon. Friend refers. I have a further confession to make: the connection he makes with Rip van Winkle escapes me for the moment, although I am sure that if I think about it afterwards, I shall realise what it is—I shall work on that. I can say only that I know and understand my hon. Friend's strong views about devolution, which he has held for many years. However, regardless of the evidence given to the Select Committee, the remarks made or opinions quoted, I understand that the report welcomes the Government's proposals overall.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I am sure that the right hon. Lady is aware that I asked her predecessor many times whether we could have a debate on the inordinate amount of time that Ministers take to reply to letters from Members of Parliament. She will probably also know that I put a series of questions to Ministers asking how long they took to reply to such letters. My questions were referred to a report that was published just before the summer recess. However, the report told us what had happened in 1997, not 1998—which is not satisfactory.

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a letter that I received from the Department of Social Security in response to a question about why pensioners in my constituency had been told that they would receive a guaranteed minimum income of £75 a week. After three and a half months, the reply eventually came that there is no guaranteed minimum income of £75 a week because people must have less than £3,000 in savings in order to qualify. Why must we wait three and a half months to discover that our constituents have been misled in that way?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not intend to sound as though I am treating the hon. Gentleman's concerns about answers to letters trivially. That is an important matter, and I know that all my colleagues do their utmost to answer correspondence as speedily as possible. However, as to the specific issue to which he referred, I take it that he was asking a rhetorical question as I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman is much too intelligent not to have known the answer before he wrote the letter.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed the rather strident language that has been used today? Lord Pilkington described Lord Cranborne's deal as his "crowning glory", while the Daily Mail described the actions of the Leader of the Opposition as "treason". In light of those comments, will my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate about constitutional reform? Finally, in light of Baroness Strange's departure to the Cross Benches and the changing balance of power in the other place, can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the Government will not lose their resolve to reform the hereditary peerage system?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the remarks to which my hon. Friend referred. Every time one turns on the television one learns that a fresh member of the Conservative Front Bench in the House of Lords has departed—no doubt as a vote of confidence in the party's overall leadership. Although I sympathise with my hon. Friend's request to have an enjoyable and amusing debate in what is normally a festive season, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for it.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I thank the Leader of the House for her courtesy in responding to questions put to her by the Northern Ireland Select Committee about the powers of Select Committees in the devolved territories and remind her that we corresponded about that issue in July and November. Is the Leader of the House aware that the deadline for settling those matters is 1 February? Although we are making progress, I hope that that deadline is firmly in the Government's mind.

Mrs. Beckett

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman both for his kind remarks and for the manner in which he has raised the issue. If by any chance the matter was not strongly in people's minds, I assure him that it will be from now on.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the chief fire officer for London proposes to cut five fire pumps across Greater London. That proposal comes on top of the removal of 14 fire pumps in the three years since the docklands bombing. It is also proposed to cut one of two pumps in my constituency—a move that will be resisted every inch of the way. The legislation governing the fire service, the Fire Services Act 1947, is woefully out of date and in need of review. Could we have a debate or at least a statement about that matter?

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend has correctly identified, that legislation has been on the statute book for some time. Responsibility for provision of the fire service rests locally with the fire authority, but my hon. Friend will be aware that the approval of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is required if such an authority wishes to reduce the number of stations, appliances or fire-fighting posts. I understand that no application has been received to date from the London fire and civil defence authority in respect of Hornchurch fire station.

As a result of the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday, the fire service standard spending assessment for London should increase by almost £10 million—or 3.8 per cent. That may assist to some degree with the difficulties identified by my hon. Friend. I take his point about the concern regarding those issues, but I fear that I cannot offer to provide a debate or a statement before Christmas.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Bearing in mind the current confusion in the ranks of the Conservative party to which my right hon. Friend correctly referred, can she confirm whether the progress of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill—which was supported by a majority of hon. Members many times last night—will continue to be impeded by hereditary peers in the other place?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend asks a very interesting and pertinent question. I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record Labour Front Benchers' appreciation of the devotion to duty shown by many of our hon. Friends on the Back Benches who toiled through the Division Lobby on many occasions last night. I share my hon. Friend's hope that we are well on the way to disposing of the Bill. It is not yet entirely clear what attitude will be adopted in another place—whether as a consequence of the potential agreement or otherwise—but it is not impossible that we may finally be able to dispose of the matter in a manner that allows the efficient conduct of elections. That seems to me to be common sense.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The right hon. Lady's answer to the question from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was no less extraordinary for the fact that I drew her attention to the report at business questions last week. On that occasion, she replied that she did not read The Herald of Glasgow. So that we may be ready for next week's business—particularly Wednesday's business—will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be prepared to explain why he is now so ready to use the veto on tax harmonisation measures when he signed up to that agenda by acquiescing in "The European Way"?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that last week he asked me to comment on a leak reported in The Herald, not a Select Committee report that was published only today. I am sure that he has been in the House long enough to know that it would have been wrong for me to pre-empt the publication of a Select Committee report.

As for his remarks on tax harmonisation and the views of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it is a constant source of astonishment to me that Opposition Members forget that the only taxation powers given up were those surrendered by the Conservative Government under the Maastricht treaty and on other occasions. For example, we could not reduce value added tax on fuel any further than 5 per cent. because of an agreement made by the Conservatives in government. Opposition Members also complain frequently about the use of the qualified majority vote. I remind the hon. Gentleman that no Labour Government ever gave up the veto: that was the Conservatives' doing.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement about the Gulf war veterans who claim that they may have been affected by depleted uranium while on active service in the Gulf? Will she draw the Secretary of State's attention to the particular importance of that matter, bearing in mind that Ministry of Defence police have raided the homes of some veterans in the past 24 hours, apparently in an attempt to recover evidence and stop that claim proceeding?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not familiar with the hon. Gentleman's allegations, but I have no doubt that they will be drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I am aware that there has long been discussion about the difficult issue of illnesses suffered by many Gulf war veterans. The Minister of Transport, my right hon. Friend for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), devoted much time and sympathetic attention to the matter in his previous post as Minister for the Armed Forces. I am not familiar with the immediate issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I shall draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

First, may I thank my right hon. Friend for announcing the dates of the Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill, and welcome the publication of the Bill today? Will she resist as far as is practicable any scrutiny of the Bill on the Floor of the House, rather than Upstairs? It needs detailed scrutiny, which is far better done elsewhere.

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend resist the fatuous trivialisation of the issue dealt with at Prime Minister's questions yesterday in terms of patriotic alliances? Will she be assured that, whether it takes one year or two years, as long as the end result is that we get rid of all hereditary peers, this party, which has waited 90 years to do it, will wait a little longer?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The clear wish of the Government, and of the people who elected us, is to make a long, long-awaited reform in another place. Anything that brings that about will be welcome. If it brings it about more quickly, all the better.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Greater London Authority Bill. We will consider the issues with care. I can assure him that the Government will discuss through the usual channels the best way of handling the Bill, because we all want it to be properly scrutinised. We shall attempt to get agreement about how that can best be done, in whatever way those discussions take place.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate early-day motion 1?

[That this House enthusiastically supports the Government's proposal for a £75 guaranteed minimum income for pensioners; notes that about a million pensioners entitled to income support do not receive it; and urges that the guaranteed minimum should be implemented for all by raising the basic pension to £75 per week in 1999 without a means test.]

The amendment to it reads:

[Line 3, leave out from 'it' to end and add 'congratulates the Government for honouring its commitment to uprate the state pension at least in line with prices; applauds the extra help given to all pensioners through the new winter fuel payments, reductions in VAT on fuel and the restoration of free eye tests; believes that the Government is right to give the highest priority to the poorest pensioners; further congratulates the Government on establishing pilot projects to encourage pensioners to claim those benefits to which they are entitled; and looks forward to the extension of this initiative, in partnership with local authorities and voluntary organisations, to the rest of the country.']

It supports enthusiastically the many beneficial measures introduced by the Government to improve the income of pensioners, but also sadly notes that, according to recent answers by the Government, up to 1 million pensioners will not receive the guaranteed minimum income of £75, principally because they regard claiming income support as claiming a handout?

Many of those pensioners have worked their entire lives without claiming any handouts or any welfare whatever, and they rightly say that if the level of the basic pension had been increased since 1980 according to the level of inflation, as the contributions that they made over 50 years increased by the level of inflation, the basic pension would now be not £66 a week, but £90 a week. Is it not right that we should say to those pensioners that they have earned the £75 on their basic pension? Would not that be the most dignified and best-value way of giving it to them?

Mrs. Beckett

I know of the huge amount of work on social security issues that my hon. Friend has done over the years, and of the great concern that he has shown. I can assure him that the Government whole-heartedly share his wish that the poorest pensioners, who in many cases are the poorest because during their working lives their earnings or their pension arrangements were such that they could not save, should receive a guaranteed minimum income.

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view—I think that I am right in my interpretation of his final remarks—that it is hugely important to encourage such pensioners to claim their entitlement and not to feel that they are discouraged from doing so. If, however, my hon. Friend was suggesting that massive increases should be made across the board to the basic pension, I understand and sympathise with the good will that lies behind that suggestion, but it is a much more difficult matter to give substantial increases on the basic pension, including to people who have—as so many now have, as a result of the scheme introduced by the last Labour Government—substantial second pensions.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sure that the Leader of the House would not want to mislead the House, even inadvertently. I thought I heard her say, in answer to a question, that the Labour Government had not conceded the veto in any areas. She should, of course, be aware that the treaty of Amsterdam, which was taken through the House and signed by her Government, conceded qualified majority voting in no less than 14 areas. I am sure that she will want to put the record straight.

Mrs. Beckett

With your permission, Madam Speaker, I shall reply to that point of order.

I certainly did not intend any misinterpretation to be put on my words. The point that I was making, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware, was that it was a Conservative Government who breached the important principle of whether or not everyone should enjoy a veto. Now that the issue of qualified majority voting is in place, thanks to the actions of the Conservative party, of course there are occasions when it seems sensible, in the national interest, that it should be used. It remains my view that it is quite accurate to say that no Labour Government gave up the veto: it was the Conservative Government who gave up the veto, and it is about time the Conservative party stopped making such a fuss and trying to pretend that we are culpable.