HC Deb 12 February 1998 vol 306 cc553-65 3.30 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

May I ask the Leader of the House to make a statement on the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

The business for next week is as follows: MONDAY 16 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Human Rights Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Debate on Iraq, on a Government motion.

WEDNESDAY 18 FEBRUARY—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the first report from the International Development Committee on Montserrat, followed by a debate on the first report from the Education and Employment Committee on teacher supply. Followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motions on the Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order, the Social Security (Contributions) (Re-Rating and National Insurance Fund Payments) Order, the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order, and the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Amendment Regulations.

THURSDAY 19 FEBRUARY—Until 7 pm, motions on the Scottish Revenue Support Grant Reports, the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Variation Order and the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 20 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week is as follows:

MONDAY 23 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Fifth Day).

TUESDAY 24 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill (First Day).

WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUARY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Sixth Day).

THURSDAY 26 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill (Second Day).

FRIDAY 27 FEBRUARY—Debate on the Government's priorities for women on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 18 February there will be a debate on the Court of Auditors report for 1996, and sound financial management, in European Standing Committee B.

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

[Wednesday 18 February:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: (a) OJ No. C348, Court of Auditors Report for 1996; (b) SEM 2000/3, Sound Financial Management. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: (a) HC 155-xiv (1997–98); (b) HC 155-xvi.

Thursday 19 February:

Relevant Reports—The Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 1998; The Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Order 1998; The Special Grant Report (98/1) (Scotland): Local Taxation Collection Grant Scheme 1997–99 (House of Commons Paper No. 530); The Special Grant Report (98/2) (Scotland): Grant in Aid of Local Authority Revenue Costs and Reinstatement Works at Dunblane Cemetery Resulting from the Dunblane Tragedy (House of Commons Paper No. 531); The Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Variation Order 1998; the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order 1998.]

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and for giving us the provisional business for the week after next, which is always helpful to the House. We welcome the debate on Iraq. As I said last week, it is also very helpful to have debates on Select Committee reports.

Following the Prime Minister's answer yesterday, which was a rare event in itself, will the Leader of the House now arrange for an early clarification to the House of the Government's position on the impact of the Human Rights Bill on religious freedom in this country? Will she confirm that the Government's view on this matter is not the same as that of the Lord Chancellor, who, like his self-nominated predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey, seems likely to run into trouble with the Church? We know how that ended.

Are we right to assume that there will be a special guest appearance in the Chamber of the Minister without Portfolio next week, to enable him to explain to the House what he expects to be the contents of the dome, before he embarks on the glitzy press launch that he has already planned for 24 February? It would be nice for the House to know first.

Does the right hon. Lady plan to have the Secretary of State for Social Security come to the House to give further details of her benefits integrity project? Next Wednesday's debate may give an opportunity for that. The bare bones of the project were laid out in a written answer last Monday, but, given the Government's customary disregard for parliamentary procedure—I am sorry to have to say that—the media and, I think, a hand-picked audience in Middlesbrough may be more knowledgeable than the House about the Secretary of State's plans.

How would the right hon. Lady describe the details of the tax changes for women that were mentioned in The Times and The Daily Telegraph today? Would she describe them as a leak, as a briefing or pure speculation?

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the Minister of Agriculture to come to the House and explain why on Tuesday night he was to be seen lolling about in the Smoking Room instead of being in the Chamber defending his ban on beef on the bone? The Government have a profound contempt for Parliament, but the Minister of Agriculture, even by his Government's standards, showed on Tuesday that power has gone to his head. His utter disregard for his responsibilities will not have gone unnoticed either by farmers or by consumers.

Mrs. Taylor

Several of the questions asked by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) have already been answered by Ministers today or by the Prime Minister yesterday. I shall comment on whether some of the issues she mentioned are suitable for debate next week.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he would consider the issue of religious freedom, which was raised by the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley). It would be unreasonable to expect me to say anything further just 24 hours later.

The Minister without Portfolio will answer questions on Monday. He does not select the questions to be asked, so who gets a chance to ask him questions will depend on who catches Madam Speaker's eye. I am sure that his answers will be of their usual high quality.

I am sure that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk accepts that we should ensure that claimants receive the right benefit, and that as the money comes from public funds, benefits are paid only to those who are entitled to them. The benefits integrity project is sensible, and I am surprised that any hon. Member would criticise it.

The right hon. Lady asked me to speculate about possible tax changes for women in the Budget. That matter was dealt with by my right hon. Friends during Treasury questions, and I do not think that anything should be said before the Budget.

On the last matter that the right hon. Lady raised, I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has so much confidence in his junior Ministers.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

It has been decided not to extend the waiting period for entitlement to jobseeker's allowance from three to seven days. May we have a debate about tackling another gap: the pensions gap? People who are entitled to pensions often have to wait six days before they receive them.

Mrs. Taylor

I know that this is an issue in which my hon. Friend has taken an interest. There is a long-standing arrangement for entitlement to benefits and pensions. I do not think that this matter can be equated with the changes that were proposed for jobseeker's allowance, and I am afraid that I see no prospect of an early debate on it.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

May I thank the Leader of the House for her helpful response to our request for a debate on the Government's proposed changes in the jobseeker's allowance? We referred to those changes in our early-day motion 689.

[That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 1998, (S.I., 1998, No. 71), dated 15th January 1998, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd January, be annulled.]

The right hon. Lady has now withdrawn the order, and we regard that as a satisfactory response. While I am on a winning streak, may I express our view that consideration of the Human Rights Bill would be much more effective if the general principle were tackled in a Committee of the whole House, and the detail were scrutinised in Standing Committee?

Mrs. Taylor

I have nothing to add to what I said about jobseekers, except that the Government's approach was very reasonable, given that the changes were not due to come into force for two years, and given that a full-scale examination of welfare reform was to take place in the interim. It would have been silly to anticipate the outcome of that.

I know that there are differing views in different parties in the House about the way in which the Human Rights Bill should be handled. Some believe that splitting consideration of significant legislation often benefits the House, enabling hon. Members to scrutinise it properly and to achieve the right balance between decisions made on the Floor of the House and decisions made in Committee. No final decision has been made, but we are listening to representations.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on arranging a debate on Iraq for next Tuesday. I am particularly pleased that the motion will be amendable, so that hon. Members can express different views and, if necessary, vote in support of those views.

Can my right hon. Friend give us some idea of when the Government are likely to introduce measures that will transpose the European works council directive into British law, so that British workers can enjoy the same rights as their counterparts in other European Union countries?

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that my hon. Friend appreciates the fact that we are to have a debate on Iraq. I think that members of all parties will agree with him. The debate will indeed provide an opportunity for different views to be expressed, although I think that the overall view of the House is very clear. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the motion will be amendable, and that a vote on it is possible.

As for the social chapter and the European works council directive, my hon. Friend will know that the Government have undertaken to implement the measure within two years of the formal extension to the United Kingdom. I think that we shall make progress in the near future.

Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)

Yesterday, my hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and I received written communications from more than 1,400 of our constituents, expressing deep concern about the impact of the local government financial settlement on services provided by our county council. Will the Leader of the House provide time for the House to debate the serious effect that the settlement is having not only on Buckinghamshire but on other counties?

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows the constraints under which the Government are operating in respect of the previous Government's spending plans. He will also know that we have had a debate on the settlement, in which many hon. Members on both sides of the House were able to participate.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House recall that, last week, I called on the energy Minister to make a statement about the possibility that 55,000 retired miners and widows of retired miners would lose up to 16 cwt of concessionary coal? Now that the Prime Minister has made it clear that consultation is to be extended, will the Leader of the House convey to the energy Minister that, if he makes a statement to the House saying that the circular concerned has been withdrawn and that the concessionaires will receive their benefit, I will promise not to duff him up? Indeed, I will thank him.

Mrs. Taylor

It might be worth arranging that in order to see my hon. Friend pouring praise on a colleague. As he knows, I wrote to Ministers last week following his representations, because I was aware that there was a great deal of concern about the issue. I think that my hon. Friend was expressing the concern of many people. However, he heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, and I am sure that he is pleased that some progress has been made—although we must, of course, await the final outcome.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

The right hon. Lady may be aware that, on every occasion that the Government have been asked about their intentions on the Mental Health Act 1983, they have denied intending to have a review. There has been a series of briefs, leaks, spins and denials, but the House has never been given information on the Act.

Yet again today, the BBC was informed that the Government were about to announce a review. It is becoming extremely tedious for Members that information is always given to the media before it is given to the House. I would strongly welcome a review of the Act—I think that the pendulum has swung too far—but I should be most grateful if the right hon. Lady would convey to Ministers that it would be courteous to inform the House first.

Mrs. Taylor

I must first say to the right hon. Lady that no one has been informed of any intentions on this matter. If a document that has not been agreed by Ministers is leaked, it is difficult to present that as a deliberate leak by the Government. However, I am glad that she would welcome a review in this sector. During the term of the previous Government, many people said that change should be made because—as she now acknowledges—the pendulum had swung too far. It is an important issue. I am not sure that we can have a debate in the near future, but when proposals come from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, I am sure that he will welcome widespread discussion.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the case of T. C. Campbell and Joseph Steele? I have been asked by their families to make inquiries into the interpretation by the three judges of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997 and their subsequent decision. On 1 May 1996, I asked the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, to review the Steele and Campbell case under section 124 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. As Scotland will not have a criminal review commission until April 1999—England and Wales have one—will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate urgently?

Mrs. Taylor

I am not aware of all the details of the case that my hon. Friend mentions. I will bring his remarks to the notice of my right hon. Friends. Perhaps it would be possible for him to raise the case at Scottish Question Time on Tuesday.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early statement on how the Government intend to fund the long-awaited and much-needed compensation for coal miners—and their dependants—suffering from emphysema and chronic bronchitis? Will she arrange for that statement to say how comprehensive such a settlement will be—will it cover other industrial workers—and to give an assurance that the funding of those payments will in no way come from coal miners' pensions, which the Government apparently intend raiding to the extent of £400 million?

Mrs. Taylor

Again, I cannot see time for an early debate, but I will draw the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to my colleagues' attention.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider her response to the request of the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), that the Secretary of State for Social Security make a statement in the House on the operation of the benefits integrity project? It is a question not of whether fraudulent activity should be cut out—I am sure that everyone agrees that it should—but of how the project is being operated and the hardship cases that are being brought to the attention of hon. Members: benefits are being cut, in some cases retrospectively, and, in some cases, benefits are being taken away altogether. Will the Leader of the House reconsider and ask the Secretary of State to make a statement about the changes that we understand she made to that project's operation?

Mrs. Taylor

As I understand it, the changes made the situation better, so that fairer decisions could be made and there was transparency. It is rich for Conservative Members, who did all in their power to cut benefits, now to complain about a system that is designed to introduce as much fairness as possible and to ensure that people who are entitled to benefits receive them and that those who make fraudulent claims are dealt with. I cannot see the prospect of an early debate on that specific matter, but I am sure that it is relevant to other issues that will be debated in the near future.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, a few weeks ago, I raised the issue of three deaths in my constituency following a fire in a private care home, and the fact that fire precautions should be considered by Parliament? My right hon. Friend suggested that I raise the matter in an Adjournment debate, but, given the difficulties in that, will she consider having a debate?

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that I have received a number of representations from constituents on the future of opencast coal mining? May we have a debate on that important matter which is causing great concern to many people who have opencast proposals in their communities?

Mrs. Taylor

I recall my hon. Friend raising the issue of fire regulations and the need for further precautions, and the case he mentioned. I recommended an Adjournment debate, but my recommendation is not a guarantee that an Adjournment debate will take place. Perhaps he might persist in that course of action, although I will look at other ways in which I might be able to assist him.

As for opencast mining, my hon. Friend will be aware that Ministers have been looking at the matter. The consultation period has ended recently, and Ministers will make the position clear in the near future.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Can the Leader of the House grant us next week—unlike last night—an unclosured debate on local government in London? Is she aware of the real concerns that exist about the conduct within social services departments in Labour-controlled local authorities—particularly Hackney, but now Hillingdon—as evidenced by early day motion 777?

[That this House notes with deep concern the thorough report of the Social Services Inspectorate into the Social Services Department of Labour-controlled Hillingdon Borough Council which is highly critical of the failure of the Department to ensure the implementation of child protection regulations thereby putting children in care greatly at risk leading in two disturbing cases to unacceptable levels of abuse; further notes that the Chairman of the Social Services Committee has resigned from Hillingdon Borough Council; and urges the Council as a whole to take responsibility for the Department's culture of chaos and helplessness and to initiate immediate remedial action within the Department.]

The motion is signed by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), other London Members and me. Serious scandals involving the care of children have occurred which ought to come before the House.

Mrs. Taylor

If the hon. Gentleman has specific concerns, he can bring them to the attention of Ministers in other ways. His examples are not relevant to last night's debate, and I do not see the prospect of the overall debate he is asking for.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Before Tuesday's debate or, better still, before my Adjournment debate tomorrow on the military situation in Iraq, could two documents be put in the Library? The first is an assessment by the Foreign Office of the situation between Iran and Iraq, which is mentioned on page 1 of The Times today.

Secondly, could there be a Ministry of Defence document outlining its sources of information and the validity of those sources, in the light of the fact that, in 1990–91, emotional appeals concerning babies that supposedly had been thrown out of incubators were made in the United States by a supposed nurse from a hospital in Kuwait? She turned out some months later to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington and had nothing whatever to do with the hospital. Sources of information become very suspect in these fraught situations.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot guarantee to provide the two documents to which my hon. Friend refers. I hope that he welcomes the fact that we are having a debate on Tuesday, as he is one of those who have pressed for it. He will be able to make the points he has raised with me in his Adjournment debate and, if he is fortunate enough to be called, next Tuesday.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I am confident that, as a member of the Cabinet, the right hon. Lady will be aware of the importance of design and innovation not only to our exporters, but to our environment. May I draw to her attention the Design Council's special week, the week after next? I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who has arranged an exhibition in the precincts of the Palace. Could the right hon. Lady put the icing on the cake—I say this as a permanently struggling, but non-practising architect, so I have nothing to declare, Madam Speaker—by promising us an albeit short debate on this critical subject?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman's tactics were somewhat different from those of other Conservative Members in trying to lure me into acknowledging the need for a debate. I am very pleased that such an exhibition will be held, and, like many hon. Members, I shall of course try to visit it. Despite his very charming suggestions and his reasons for a debate, I cannot guarantee the debate that he requires. I shall bear his points in mind. If there are other occasions on which those issues can be raised, I am sure that he will use every opportunity.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

As the Government have today announced the first allocation of money from the assisted places scheme to cut class sizes at key stage one, will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the policy of cutting classes sizes—so that constituencies such as mine can hear from Conservative Members exactly why they fought for so long to prevent them from benefiting from that money?

Mrs. Taylor

I should very much like to be able to find time for a debate of the type suggested by my hon. Friend, not least because my local authority is one of those to benefit from the new money to reduce class sizes—which is on top of the £1,000 that each school will receive for books. A debate would allow us also to expose the divisions among Conservative Members on whether they still believe that class size does not matter, or whether the view being adopted by some Conservative Members—that our approach is better—is now their official line. It is a good news story, but, in such a crowded programme, we do not always have time to debate all the good stories that the Government would wish.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Yesterday was market day in Oswestry and Market Drayton, and the beef on the bone regulations and the absence from the debate of the Minister of Agriculture were described in terms that I would not describe as parliamentary. If the Leader of the House had any feel for those in the livestock and meat industries, she would not have dreamt of dismissing the request of the shadow Leader of the House in the terms that she did.

No measure that the Government have taken since 1 May has been more mocked by my constituents. In local newspapers, it is openly stated that butchers are offering beef on the bone. The regulations are unenforceable, and, in the debate, it was revealed that the Prime Minister himself was actively involved in the final decision. Will he or his Agriculture Minister come to the House to make a statement?

Mrs. Taylor

We have had a debate on that matter, and the House reached a decision.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Within the next two weeks, it is reasonable to expect that the Deputy Prime Minister will make a statement in the House on the channel tunnel high-speed rail link. Will the Leader of the House use her good offices to draw to his attention my amendment to early-day motion 770?

[That this House expresses concern over the announcement by London and Continental Railways that it is unable to fulfil its contract to build the Channel Tunnel Rail Link without further subsidy; welcomes the Deputy Prime Minister's preparedness to discuss any revised proposal from London and Continental Railways, his commitment to the House that Eurostar services will operate as normal, and his assurance of his wish to see the completion of the high speed rail link; believes that the agreed route through Kent to stations at Ebbsfleet, Stratford and St. Pancras, which was fully debated and scrutinised by Parliament, is environmentally designed and essential to the economic and social regeneration of East London and the Thames Gateway area which covers some of the most deprived communities in the United Kingdom; and furthermore believes that the sustainable transport improvements associated with the rail link, will, in addition to benefiting commuters, improve the mobility and employment prospects for residents in these areas and is equally essential for facilitating improved communications to mainland Europe for all the regions of England and Wales and via the West Coast Main Line to Scotland.] My amendment draws attention to the great plight of some of those operating medium and small businesses in Kent, in my constituency of Thurrock and elsewhere in Essex, who—as we speak—are losing their businesses because of London and Continental's failure to agree reasonable terms and time scales for the purchase of properties. Jobs are being lost and family businesses are being destroyed because of that enormous hiatus and a scheme that is absurd as it stands. I make a plea to the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that, whatever else happens, those businesses will not be allowed to founder because they are victims of the hiatus in constructing the route.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend raises serious issues which I realise must be a great concern to his constituents. I think that he will acknowledge that, as soon as possible, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister informed the House of the difficulties. He has undertaken to keep the House informed. We are still not at the end of the 30-day period in which decisions have to be made. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister will be keeping the House informed, and that the concerns of hon. Members representing that area will be taken fully into account.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a statement by the President of the Board of Trade in which she can explain to the House the whereabouts of the profit from the sale of shares in British Petroleum by the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, Lord Simon? I hope that the right hon. Lady is aware that, last summer, the noble Lord publicly undertook that the profit on the sale would go to charity, but, in a letter to me dated 9 February 1998, he refused to confirm that he had made that donation. In the public interest, should not the President of the Board of Trade come to the House and clear up the confusion? If she will not, will the Leader of the House, in the name of decency and integrity, ask the noble Lord to do the right and proper thing for once?

Mrs. Taylor

It has been made clear from the Dispatch Box on several occasions that the noble Lord has done the right thing.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

Has my right hon. Friend been made aware of reports of a sixfold increase in the use or misuse of drugs while driving? Does she share my concern that it is as yet a hidden, but potentially serious, issue in terms of reducing road traffic accidents and injury? I welcome the Government's recently announced drug-screening trials, but can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the information from those trials will be fed into the analysis that the anti-drugs co-ordinator is undertaking to identify priorities for the Government in terms of tackling the wide-ranging problem of drugs?

Madam Speaker

And could the Leader of the House arrange a debate?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that was the essence of my hon. Friend's question, Madam Speaker. I acknowledge that it is an important problem in which I take a particular interest. The information that came to light this week was important, but not definitive. As we have said, we will trial the testing procedure to see whether it is workable and how good the resulting information is. I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's request for a debate and I shall certainly ensure that the anti-drugs co-ordinator is kept fully informed. He was party to the press conference where the information was given.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Will the Leader of the House remind us on what occasions since May the House has had the opportunity to debate the national health service in Government time? In the light of that, will she find time in the next fortnight for a debate on the NHS White Paper, now that more than two months have elapsed since its publication? If not, will she give the House a commitment that she will seek to find time for a debate before health action zones or primary care group pilots are initiated at the beginning of April?

Mrs. Taylor

As I said last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made seven statements and has shown himself very keen to keep the House informed of all developments. As for debates, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), who asked for a debate on education, it is not always possible for the Government to find time to debate all the good news stories—and that applies to health as well as education.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Will my right hon. Friend consider an early debate on university vice-chancellors' pay? I am sure that all hon. Members welcome the fact that the Government have given an additional £165 million to higher education this year, but they will be equally concerned at the news at the weekend that, in the past year, university vice-chancellors' pay has increased by double the rate of increase of lecturers' pay, and, in some cases, by as much as 28 per cent.? In my view, that constitutes a completely warped sense of priorities. I hope and believe that Education Ministers will make the concerns of hon. Members clear to university institutions and I would welcome an early debate.

Mrs. Taylor

I did not see the report to which my hon. Friend referred, but I shall draw the attention of Ministers to his comments. My only other suggestion is that he applies for an Adjournment debate on the subject, because I am afraid that I cannot find Government time for the debate that he requests.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

May I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the very crowded timetable of events leading up to the decision to be taken in May on which countries will participate in economic and monetary union and move to the third stage? Does she agree that the House is entitled to know and debate exactly how Her Majesty's Government will deploy their votes in the Council of Ministers on that decision? The 11 countries that are likely to participate are, on average, in excess of the debt and annual borrowing criteria, so this is an important issue, regardless of whether Britain decides to participate.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a debate in the near future. I shall, of course, bring his remarks to Ministers' attention.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

In liaison with the Secretary of State for Health, will my right hon. Friend consider holding an urgent debate on the implications of bed blocking in hospitals? Much as we welcome the winter pressures money and the announcement that there will be a royal commission on community care, we are aware that hospitals currently face urgent problems, which is a matter that we would do well to air in the House.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier remarks. If he wants to draw a particular constituency problem to Ministers' attention, he can do so in the usual way or apply for an Adjournment debate. For the reasons that I outlined, there is not time in the immediate future for a debate on the Floor of the House.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

May I take the Leader of the House back to her comments to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on the millennium dome? I do not think that it is acceptable to the House to hope that the Minister without Portfolio will be asked the correct questions. If the contents of the dome are to be unveiled, they should be unveiled to the House first. When Ministers give information to the House, they are not doing hon. Members a favour—they are doing their constitutional duty. That applies especially to a Government who say that they cannot afford to give money to county councils, but who can spend £750 million of public money on this project.

Mrs. Taylor

I remind the hon. Gentleman how the project started. I did not hear his dissenting voice when the Conservative party was in government. On Monday, my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio will be here to answer questions and we have doubled the amount of time available for hon. Members to ask him questions.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

May I ask the Leader of the House, as I have previously, whether she can find time for a short debate on animal experimentation? I remind her that, according to Home Office figures, 2.7 million experiments, many of which are deeply unpleasant, are carried out on animals each year. Moreover, the number of experiments carried out by the Ministry of Defence at Porton Down has trebled. That is a matter of great concern to hon. Members of all parties, as has been reflected in early-day motions, oral questions and attempts—sadly unsuccessful—to secure Adjournment debates.

Mrs. Taylor

I am sorry that attempts to secure Adjournment debates have been unsuccessful. There are far more applications for Adjournment debates than can be granted—it is right that there should be so many—and hon. Members may have to be persistent in their requests. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are extremely concerned about animal experimentation and I believe that, in the agreements that have been arrived at—on cosmetics testing, for example—the Government have moved in the right direction, which has been widely welcomed. I can only advise the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to be persistent; perhaps, finally, someone will secure an Adjournment debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, next Wednesday, one of the most remarkable—indeed, one of the greatest—parliamentarians of modern times, the right hon. Enoch Powell, will be laid to rest? Does she agree that it is rather unfortunate, although it is no one's fault, that the procedures of the House do not allow us to pay even brief tribute to notable parliamentarians unless they have held the highest office of state?

Will the right hon. Lady do two things? First, when the Modernisation Committee meets next week, will she raise the matter of how we can pay adequate tribute to those who have served Parliament and the country with great distinction? Secondly, will she consider allowing the briefest Adjournment—lasting two or five minutes—at 11 am next Wednesday, when the funeral service for Enoch Powell begins?

Mrs. Taylor

There have been many people who have served the House well whose deaths have not been acknowledged because they were not serving Members at the time. It is difficult to make special arrangements for one person. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that much has been said about Enoch Powell and, no doubt, much more will be said. Opportunities are open to hon. Members, such as early-day motions, but that is up to the individual. As the hon. Gentleman asked me to do so, I will take his views back to the Modernisation Committee, but it is extremely difficult to make arrangements that would be fair to everyone.