HC Deb 10 December 1998 vol 322 cc490-502 4.15 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

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

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.

Motion to approve the Modernisation Committee's report on the parliamentary calendar and sessional orders.

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

The provisional business for the first week back after the Christmas recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 11 JANUARY—Second reading of the Rating (Valuation) Bill.

TUESDAY 12 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Local Government Bill.

WEDNESDAY 13 JANUARY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition day [2nd Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats, the subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 14 JANUARY—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 15 JANUARY—The House will not be sitting.

[Thursday 14 January:

Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report. Relevant Reports: NHS Supplies in England HC349 11 December 1997 Cm 3880 Health and Safety in NHS Acute Hospital Trusts in England HC350 13 December 1997 Cm 3880 South and West Regional Health Authority: the disposal of SWIFT HC358 18 December 1997 Cm 3880 MOD: Management of Utilities HC359 19 December 1997 Cm 3880 Coronary Heart Disease in Northern Ireland HC381 14 January 1998 Cm 3893 Department of the Environment (NI) Control of Belfast Action Teams' Expenditure HC382 15 January 1998 Cm 3893 Resignation of the Chief Executive of English Heritage HC392 18th January 1998 Cm 3894 Governance and Management of Overseas Courses at the Swansea Institute of Higher Education HC393 18 January 1998 Cm 3894 Property Services in English Occupied Royal Palaces: Responsibilities for Royal Household Remuneration and the Provision of Accommodation HC94 17 December 1997 Cm 3936 Her Majesty's Stationery Office: Trade with Uzbekistan and 1995 Trading Fund Accounts HC405 21 January 1998 Cm 3894 MAFF: Tackling Common Agricultural Policy Irregularities HC406 22 January 1998 Cm 3894 ODA: Irregularities in the Encashment of Pension Payments in Amman, Jordan HC407 23 January 1998 Cm 3894. Criminal Legal Aid Means Testing in the Magistrates' Courts HC416 6 February 1998 Cm 3936 HM Customs and Excise: The Seizure of Drug Traffickers' Assets HC417 29 January 1998 Cm 3936 United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority: Sale of Facilities Services Division HC418 30 January 1998 Cm 3936 HM Customs & Excise: Appropriation Account Matters 1995–96 HC424 4 February 1998 Cm 3936 Waltham Forest Housing Action Trust: Progress in Regenerating Housing Estates HC425 18 February 1998 Cm 3936 The Department of Trade and Industry Redundancy Payment Service: The Management of Recovery of Debt HC426 11 February 1998 Cm 3936 Aid to Indonesia HC436 12 February 1998 Cm 3936 Motability HC444 15 February 1998 Cm 3936 Child Support Agency: Client Funds Account 1996–97 HC313 11 March 1998 Cm 3955 Excess Vote 1996–97: (Northern Ireland) Department of Education (Vote 2) Teachers' Superannuation HC592 12 March 1998 Excess Votes 1996–97: Ministry of Defence (Class 1: Votes 1, 2 and 3) HC593 12 March 1998 Department for Education and Employment: Remploy Limited HC339 18 March 1998 Cm 3955 Highlands & Islands Enterprise: Value for Money Review of Performance Measurement HC325 25 March 1998 Cm 3955 Vacant Office Property 395 1 April 1998 Cm 3973 Measures to Combat Housing Benefit Fraud HC366 26 March 1998 Cm 3955 Charity Commission: Regulation and Support of Charities HC408 2 April 1998 Cm 3973 HM Customs and Excise: Checking Large-Traders' VAT Liability HC445 5 April 1998 Cm 3973 The Prison Service: Prison Catering HC419 8 April 1998 Cm 3973 Inland Revenue: Employer Compliance Reviews HC357 3 May 1998 Cm 4004 NHS Scotland: Cataract Surgery in Scotland HC546 7 May 1998 Cm 4004 Crown Prosecution Service HC526 10 May 1998 Cm 4004 FCO: Fraud at Amman Embassy HC553 13 May 1998 Cm 4004 The Annual Report of the European Court of Auditors HC729 17 May 1998 Cm 4004 OFWAT: Regulation of Water Industry HC483 20 May 1998 Cm 4004 FCO: Contingent Liabilities in the Dependent Territories HC435 21 May 1998 Cm 4004 Northern Ireland: The Industrial Research and Technology Unit HC429 24 May 1998 Cm 4015 Protecting Environmentally Sensitive Areas HC513 3 June 1998 Cm 4021 The Management of Building Projects at English Higher Education Institutions HC558 4 June 1998 Cm 4021 The Construction of the Southampton Oceanography Centre HC608 17 June 1998 Cm 4055 The Skye Bridge HC348 21 June 1998 Cm 4041 The Privatisation of Belfast International Airport HC427 24 June 1998 Cm 4060 Northern Ireland Social Security Agency: The Administration of Disability Living Allowance HC527 25 June 1998 Cm 4060 Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions: The Home Energy Efficiency Scheme HC6 13 27 June 1998 Cm 4055 The Contract to Develop and Update the Replacement National Insurance Recording System HC472 1 July 1998 Cm 4041 The Private Finance Initiative: The First Four Design, Build, Finance and Operate Roads Contracts HC580 2 July 1998 Cm 4041 MOD: Sale of the Married Quarters Estate HC518 8 July 1998 Cm 4055 The Sale of the Stationery Office HC599 9 July 1998 Cm 4055 The Management of Sickness Absence in the Metropolitan Police Service HC594 15 July 1998 Cm 4055 Ministry of Defence Appropriation Accounts 1996–97 HC671 16 July 1998 Cm 1055 Intervention Board Executive Agency: Qualification of Appropriation Account 1996–97 18 July 1998 Cm 4055 Appropriation Account 1996–97 Class V, Vote 7: Passenger Rail Services HC625 22 July 1998 Cm 4055 HM Customs and Excise: Matters on the 1996–97 Accounts HC7I7 23 July 1998 Cm 4055 Inland Revenue: The Monitoring and Control of Tax Exemptions for Charities HC728 24 July 1998 Cm 4055 Appropriation Accounts 1996–97 Class IX: Department for Education and Employment (Overpayments to Training and Enterprise Councils) HC704 25 July 1998 Cm 4055 The PFI Contracts for Bridgend and Fazakerley Prisons HC499 29 July 1998 Cm 4041 Appropriation Accounts 1996–97 Class XII, Vote 1: (Administered Social Security Benefits and Other Payments) HC570 30 July 1998 Cm 4069 HM Coastguard: HM Coastguard: Civil Maritime Search and Rescue HC741 31 July 1998 Cm 4069 The Sale of AEA Technology HC749 5 August 1998 Cm 4069 Getting Value for Money in Privatisations HC992 3 September 1998 Cm 4075 The Purchase of the Read Codes and the Management of the NHS Centre for Coding and Classification HC657 6 August 1998 Cm 4069 The Management of Growth in the English Further Education Sector HC 665 7 August 1998 Cm 4069 Countering Anti-Competitive Behaviour in the Telecommunications Industry HC842 12 August 1998 Cm 4069 Privatisation of the Rolling Stock Leasing Companies HC782 9 August 1998 Cm 4069 Managing the Millennium Threat HC816 19 August 1998 Cm 4069 HM Treasury: Resource Accounting and Resource-Based Supply HC731 13 August 1998 Cm 4069]

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving us the business for next week and the provisional business for the week after we return from the recess. I wish her a very happy Christmas between those two weeks.

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that the Prime Minister will give a full statement to the House on Monday following the Vienna summit? Will she also confirm that, in accordance with the traditions of the House, there will be a free vote when we consider the Modernisation Committee's report on Wednesday, and that that free vote will include all Labour Members and members of Her Majesty's Government? In her speech in that debate, will she be able to meet one of the Committee's simpler recommendations, and give the dates of the Easter and Whitsun Adjournments?

In giving the provisional business for the week after the Christmas recess, the right hon. Lady did not mention the House of Lords reform Bill. Do the Government intend to introduce that Bill in January? Will she give the assurance for which we have asked that all stages of the Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House?

Will the right hon. Lady arrange a special debate, in the week or fortnight after we return, on the millennium dome and on the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for that major project, bearing in mind the fact that there will then be less than a year before its opening?

On a very important matter, will the right hon. Lady arrange for a statement next week by the Prime Minister or, if that is not possible, by the Foreign Secretary on the criteria governing relations with friendly democratic states? May we be told what has happened to the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of such nations? Will the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary explain in that statement what the reaction of Her Majesty's Government would be if a Member of either House of Parliament or of the Northern Ireland Assembly were arrested abroad on political charges related to the Province?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his Christmas good wishes, and return them to hon. Members on both sides of the House. He asks whether my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is likely to make a statement on the outcome of the Vienna Council; I anticipate that he will. I take this opportunity to apologise to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who last week asked me what I thought was the same question, although it turns out that it was not, which meant that I told him that the Prime Minister would make a statement about a matter on which he was not intending to make one. I apologise for that misunderstanding.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Modernisation Committee, and about whether there will be a free vote in the debate. He will be well aware that some of the proposals have been made by the Government, and there will be a free vote—at least on this side of the House. I hope that that will apply to the Opposition also. I fear that I cannot undertake at this moment to give the dates of the Easter and Whitsun recesses, but I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we anticipate introducing the Lords reform Bill during January. I hope that the Bill will be introduced quickly. I am aware of the Opposition's view that all stages should be taken on the Floor of the House, and that is the kind of issue that I am happy to discuss through the usual channels.

I fear that I cannot undertake to offer an early, special debate on the millennium dome, or on the responsibilities in that matter of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The matter is raised continually in this House by Conservative Members, and it seems to me that they have ample opportunities to air it.

Finally, I fear that I cannot undertake to provide a statement—either by the Prime Minister or by the Foreign Secretary—on the broad issue of relations with friendly democratic states if, as I take it to be the case, the hon. Gentleman is referring, not very elliptically, to the case of Senator Pinochet. The hon. Gentleman will be as aware as I am of the operation and delicacy of the sub judice rule. I take the point that that is not quite what he is asking, but it would be quite hard to have a debate of the kind for which he has asked—

Sir Patrick Cormack

Or a statement.

Mrs. Beckett

Indeed. For the reasons which have led the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter, it would be hard to have a debate or a statement that touched on the issues without trespassing on the territory of the sub judice rule.

The hon. Gentleman asked what my view would be should a Member of this House be arrested overseas. I hope that it will not be thought unduly frivolous if I say that it would probably depend on who it was, frankly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If, as I suspect, in Wednesday's debate on the modernisation of the House, there is a proposal for an extra week off for Members of Parliament to coincide with half term, would it not make more sense, and be more acceptable to the public, if there was a week or two in September when the House returned? There is a problem in terms of the number of holidays that Members of Parliament can have. To add another week without some compensatory sitting week at another time would not be acceptable to a lot of people out there.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend knows the great respect that I have for him, his concerns and his record in this House and outside. For once, however, I must take issue with him. The Modernisation Committee has proposed the option of a non-sitting week. If time can be found—and I am not necessarily saying that it will be in the coming Session, although the Government will do our best—it will be for the House to reach a view on a free vote. As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, that is not by any means the same thing as a holiday.

All hon. Members have a vast range of pressing duties, and the Committee chose quite deliberately not to call the proposed week a constituency week, because there are many other issues to which hon. Members must give their time. My hon. Friend will know—although he may not sympathise—that many hon. Members feel that we ought to devote a little more time to liaising with parliamentarians in other EU member states. [Laughter.] That might not appeal to my hon. Friend. There is concern in the EU about the level of scrutiny that Parliaments in member states are able to give to EU business, and about whether we have sufficiently good liaison with Parliaments that may share some of our concerns.

On his suggestion about September, my hon. Friend may not yet have had a chance to study the Committee report, but he should be aware that it also identified the fact that we believe that it should be open to both Select and Standing Committees to designate a Committee week in September when they might be able to devote their attention to their work and bridge the gap that is sometimes thought to open up.

I am especially sensitive to the suggestion that we are asking the House to vote itself extra holidays. As someone with a marginal seat, I have had only one holiday a year for about 15 years, and that in the summer recess.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Some of us were privileged to attend this morning a moving, non- denominational, ecumenical service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. The anniversary is precisely today. Does the Leader of the House realise that there is an irony, because there was reference in the service to General Pinochet, so obviously the matter is not sub judice in Westminster abbey, even though it is in the House?

With that anniversary in mind, is it not high time we had a full debate, in Government time, on progress towards an ethical foreign policy? I understand that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is about to produce a report. Can we have a debate early in the new year? I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to give us an assurance that all the recommendations of the Scott inquiry into the iniquities of the previous regime will be fully assessed in that debate.

On the matter of ethics in political life at home, has the Leader of the House noted the fact that the Conservative party has refused to implement its own promises on secret and foreign donations?

Mrs. Beckett

I am indeed aware that it is the 50th anniversary of the declaration of human rights. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary attended the service in Westminster abbey, in the presence of the Princess Royal. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) is hosting a reception this afternoon; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is addressing a special session of the United Nations General Assembly; and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin) will be attending a commemorative event in Vienna, where it is intended to issue a joint United Kingdom-German proposal to publish an annual European Union human rights report. A great deal is being done, quite rightly, to commemorate what is a very important anniversary.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted an issue of concern to hon. Members, and a matter on which I am confident that you, Madam Speaker, are very sensitive: the operation of the sub judice rule here. He will know that Parliament acts in a special and separate capacity: we are the law-making body, and it is right that we are especially sensitive and careful.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a full debate on foreign policy in Government time. There was a full debate on foreign affairs only recently, in the debates on the Gracious Speech, but I will certainly bear in mind his further request, and indeed his concomitant request for a full assessment of the recommendations in the Scott report. I am mindful of the range of those recommendations, and the Government want to implement them and follow the spirit of the proposed safeguards.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I had observed—I cannot remember whether he asked whether I was surprised by it—the fact that the Conservative party is yet again not adhering to what it claimed to be its own rules and views on announcements of the source of funding. I had observed it, and I am sorry to say that I was not surprised.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My right hon. Friend will know that the European Commission has proposed a ban, from 1 January 1999, on four antibiotic compounds that are used as growth promoters in animal feed. I understand that the issue will be discussed at the Agriculture Council on Monday and Tuesday next week. I know that we have a crowded schedule next week, but the issue is important to many of us. Will it be possible for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to make a statement to the House on the Government's position?

Mrs. Beckett

I hear what my hon. Friend says and I understand his view that the issue is important, although I must admit that I had not appreciated that it was to be discussed. I cannot promise him to find time for a statement, but I feel confident that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will be happy to acquaint him with the Government's view on the matter.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Will the Leader of the House consider publishing next week a list of the all-party parliamentary groups that have satisfied the House authorities of their viability? The number of such groups has exploded in this Parliament to the congestion of the Whip and to some conflict, to the extent that outside bodies can be disappointed by the number of Members of Parliament who turn up.

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware that it was within my sphere of responsibility to publish such a list, but I am happy to consider the right hon. Gentleman's proposal. I take his point, because it is difficult to strike a balance, and it must often be struck afresh in a new Parliament. So many entirely well-meaning and worthy people have a passionate interest in this or that subject and urge Members of Parliament to set up or join various groups. I will not conceal from the right hon. Gentleman that I have long since replied to such people that there is a limit to the number of causes that I can support, and I have declined to join many of the groups that I could have joined. I take his point that it leads to disappointment when not as many Members attend events as was hoped, but that is also a feature of the enormous pressure on the diaries of hon. Members. No one could possibly undertake everything that people would like us to do.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When may we debate the horrific abuse of medicinal drugs in care homes? A debate could examine the successful exercise conducted by the school of old age psychiatry in Manchester. The researchers went into care homes and examined the use of neuroleptic drugs on the elderly. They found that in more than half the cases in which signs of dementia were shown by patients, the cause was not senility, but the over-use of neuroleptic drugs. Other trials in Glasgow have found that many people end their days in misery and confusion because care homes wish to minimise trouble. Many elderly people are defenceless victims of such over-use of drugs and it causes them immense damage. The exercise carried out in Manchester should be replicated throughout the country. When may we have a debate to ensure that that is done?

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House will share my hon. Friend's concern. I cannot promise him time in the near future for a special debate, but I can remind him, first, that it is health questions next week and, secondly and perhaps more helpfully, that we will have the recess Adjournment debate in which any issue can be raised. My hon. Friend may be successful in catching your eye, Madam Speaker.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In the light of the unsatisfactory replies given by the Secretary of State for Health to the House on Tuesday, will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the subject of the mentally ill? Does she recognise that an early debate would afford an opportunity for the Government to give the categorical commitment, which the Secretary of State failed to give on Tuesday, that all new psychiatric units will exclusively comprise single-sex wards?

Mrs. Beckett

I am a little surprised by the hon. Gentleman's tone. Having heard a large part of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's statement and its aftermath, I understood that it had been widely welcomed everywhere, except on the Conservative Benches. I certainly heard my right hon. Friend robustly affirm his views about the undesirability of single-sex wards.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Could my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary be asked whether copies of the United Nations charter on human rights, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today, could be distributed by the British embassy in Chile to anti-British and unruly elements who are demonstrating? Perhaps that would explain to them the decision made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mrs. Beckett

That is a most interesting suggestion, and I shall bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who will, I am sure, be most grateful for it.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

The right hon. Lady's statement on the provisional business for the first week of next year contained no reference to the Bill on the national health service. Would she confirm that the Government's pledge to wind up fundholding by 31 March would require that Bill to pass into law before that date? Does the absence of the Bill from the provisional business for the first week of next year imply that the Government have finally abandoned the attempt to keep the pledge of abolishing fundholding by 31 March?

Mrs. Beckett

The Gracious Speech referred to a Bill to reform the health service, and a Bill will be brought forward. I cannot immediately recall the issues relating to a specific deadline, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government clearly believe that we must dispense with the bureaucracy and waste that fundholding brought. We intend to ensure that doctors have the freedom to prescribe high-quality health care for their patients.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the local government ombudsman yesterday published a damning finding against Westminster city council. He found that the council had subjected vulnerable homeless families to unspeakable living conditions in the Clarendon Court hotel in Maida Vale, while paying £750,000 of taxpayers' money in housing benefits to the proprietors of that dubious establishment. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) for exposing that scandal and putting an end to it?

Does my right hon. Friend recall the instruction given by Conservative leaders of Westminster city council to officers to be mean and nasty to the homeless, shortly before families were forced into asbestos-riddled tower blocks not five miles from here? Does she also recall that not one right hon. or hon. Member from the Conservative Benches has so far uttered a syllable of regret or remorse for, or condemnation of, the doings of their colleagues at Westminster city hall?

Does my right hon. Friend share my sense of outrage at the fact that every local authority in the country is subject to a levy that the Audit Commission has been forced to impose to help it to meet the legal costs of contesting the appeal of Dame Shirley Porter and David Weeks against surcharge? Would it be appropriate to find time in our schedule for a debate on the appalling affairs of the flagship Tory authority, which would at least offer Conservative Members one last chance to express some remorse or regret?

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's views. Labour has every right to be proud of those colleagues who, as councillors at Westminster, did so much to expose what was happening to people and to bring to a close the appalling situation whereby people were made to live in such dreadful properties. I well recall that my hon. Friend drew his concerns about the matter to my attention during the general election campaign.

I share my hon. Friend's sadness at the knock-on effects of the problems raised by the cases brought against Dame Shirley Porter and others. We believed the behaviour of Westminster city council, quite aside from its dreadful human consequences, to be illegal—as has since been proved. Whenever it was raised in the House—time and time again—during the previous Parliament, we heard repeated assertions from members of the party then in government that, if any wrongdoing were proven, they would certainly condemn it. To this day, those Members have not done so. Some of my hon. Friends wrote on the matter almost a year ago to the Leader of the Opposition and to the former Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), but they have not elicited any reply.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the United Nations weapons inspectors were yesterday obstructed in the course of their business? Is she further aware that not only Christmas but Ramadan is approaching, and that the opportunity exists for Saddam Hussein to make a good deal of trouble with which it would be extremely difficult to deal? Will the right hon. Lady give some consideration to asking the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary to make a statement about the situation in Iraq before the House rises? If that is not possible, will she let me know what possible contingency plans could be in place, because, if the obstruction continues, it will clearly be necessary for the allies to take appropriate action?

Mrs. Beckett

I am indeed aware of the approach of Ramadan, as my constituency celebrates everything from Diwali to Ramadan and, indeed, Vaisakhi. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I am not in a position to say whether it would be right or necessary for the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary to make a statement before the House rises. We all hope that the pressure on the Iraqi Government will cause them to rethink. I can say, however, that the Government have, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman accepts, taken pains to try to keep the House informed throughout, and will continue to do so.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

May we have an early debate on press freedom and the availability of media in our regions? The Lord President may be aware that the Rotherham Star, the local evening paper that serves some quarter of a million people in and around my constituency, faces closure because of a decision by Regional Independent Media, a Leeds-based company that publishes the Yorkshire Evening Post and a number of evening papers in Yorkshire and the north-west of England.

The managing director of that organisation, or chief executive as such people are now called, has issued dismissal notices to up to 350 employees, despite the fact that the paper is bringing in record profits and advertising revenue for the group, and plans to invest £6.5 million next year. If the Rotherham Star, my local evening paper, is closed, there will be no local evening daily for a quarter of a million people. That is bad for democracy and for local politics.

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that such action comes close to contempt for the House of Commons—

Madam Speaker


Mr. MacShane

I am coming to a close, I promise.

In a memorandum dated 19 August 1998, the chief executive warned that these mass redundancies were designed to avoid legislation that was in the pipeline. That should concern us all. Three hundred and fifty people will lose their jobs, and their families will have a miserable Christmas because of legislation passed by representatives of the people of this country, but this is also an important issue in terms of media democracy in our regions and the contempt shown for the democratic process of the House of Commons.

Mrs. Beckett

I am certainly sorry to learn that my hon. Friend's constituents are in danger of losing access to a local paper and, like the whole House, I am also sorry to learn that many people are about to lose their employment. This is a particularly sensitive time of year for people to find themselves in such circumstances.

I have slightly mixed feelings about the second part of the concerns aired by my hon. Friend. I certainly share his view that it is right and proper for the House to consider and, if it wishes to do so, to pass legislation that we believe will improve the governance and condition of our country, and that it is wrong for people to attempt to evade such democratically arrived at decisions. Equally, however, I feel a certain cynicism when I hear people claim that solely as a result of something that any Government—but especially this one—have done, they have been obliged to lay off considerable numbers of people.

I have never forgotten that, shortly before the 1992 general election, an announcement was made by a fairly major employer that, should a Labour Government be elected and introduce a national minimum wage, it would be forced to make several hundred of its employees redundant. We were not elected and there was no minimum wage, but that employer made 2,000 people redundant about three weeks after the election.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 59?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Income Support (General) (Standard Interest Rate Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 1998 (S.I., 1998 No. 2878), dated 23rd November 1998, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th November, be annulled.] Will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate in the appropriate Committee on this very important statutory instrument, to allow investigation of the anomalies and difficulties that are raised by social security regulations in the support and help of those who are on low incomes and live in owner-occupied residences? The problems for those with mortgages and mortgage interest rate payments, which they have to face, are baffling and bewildering even to the experts, never mind those who are subject to them. Will the right hon. Lady find time for the statutory instrument to be debated, in accordance with the wishes of many hon. Members?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with those who find social security issues, and regulations especially, arcane and difficult. I was fortunate enough, if I can put it like that, to spend five years shadowing Social Security Ministers, so I am under no illusions about the complexity and opaqueness of such matters. I am conscious that very often what happens is the net knock-on effect of a range of different decisions, which people find difficult to assess and understand.

I sympathise with the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman and by those who have signed his early-day motion. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to provide time for a specialist debate. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there will be a debate on the Christmas Adjournment. For those who are fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, any such issue can be raised.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

My right hon. Friend will know that there remain real concerns about progress on the third-country trial of those responsible for the Lockerbie air disaster. Is there to be any statement or further information on the progress that is being made this side of the Christmas recess? Are there any plans for senior Ministers to meet families of the Lockerbie victims to discuss that progress?

Mrs. Beckett

As far as I am aware, there are no particular plans, although the Government continue to discuss and express concern about these matters, for a statement in the House. However, I can say to my hon. Friend—I hope that this will be welcome to him and other hon. Members who have taken a great interest in these matters—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is meeting this afternoon, or has met, the families of some of the Lockerbie victims. I think that I am correct in saying that he is the first Prime Minister to do so. It is a deliberate signal, and an indication of the Government's concern and of our determination to do everything that we can to bring those who may be thought to be responsible to trial so that these matters can be assessed.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

In welcoming the promise of a statement on the outcome of the Vienna Council, may I bring the Leader of the House back to the assurance that she thought she had given last week, but had not because it was given on the wrong premise? Will she consider a debate in Government time on common foreign and security policy? Will she urge the Prime Minister to contribute to that debate? We did not have statements following Portschach and St. Malo. The Prime Minister has been saying some interesting things about the development of common foreign and security policy and the only people who have not had a chance to debate it are Members of this place. Will the right hon. Lady find time for us to do so?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is not entirely accurate. It is only quite recently that we had a full day's debate on foreign and defence affairs, in the debate on the Gracious Speech. Everything that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been saying and the point of view that he has been expressing in the discussions to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are very much in line with the views that he has expressed and made plain in the House. I therefore cannot promise to find time for another debate on the Floor of the House in the near future, although the hon. Gentleman may seek to raise the matter, should he catch your eye, Madam Speaker, during the debate on the Christmas Adjournment.

May I add that the Government have recently accepted the report of the Select Committee on Modernisation with regard to scrutiny of European Union legislation, so that all the issues that come under those pillars of policy making can be much more fully scrutinised in the House than used to be the case.

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