HC Deb 19 February 1998 vol 306 cc1183-94 3.32 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 will be 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 a 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 provisional business for the following week is as follows:
  • MONDAY 2 MARCH—Completion of consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill.
  • TUESDAY 3 MARCH—Opposition day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on an Opposition motion—subject or subjects to be announced.
  • WEDNESDAY 4 MARCH—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.
  • Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Sixth Day).
  • THURSDAY 5 MARCH—Remaining stages of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.
  • FRIDAY 6 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Shephard

May I thank the Leader of the House for that reply and for continuing to give the House two weeks' business where she can, which is helpful? She will recall that I have asked several times for a debate on the national health service in Government time. I say "Government time" because the only debate on the NHS in the life of this Parliament has been in Opposition time. With today's waiting list figures exposing the Government's pre-election promises on the health service as a deception of the British people, we all see why the Government have refused further exposure of their failure in the House. As the Secretary of State for Health has admitted his embarrassment about the figures, should we not expect a debate in the interests of open government?

Last week, I asked the right hon. Lady whether she would ensure that before the costly launch by the Prime Minister and the Minister for domes of the proposed content of the millennium dome—planned, I think, for next Tuesday—there would be a statement to the House. In reply to a subsequent point of order, Madam Speaker, you gave your view on the need for the House to be informed of policy developments before the media and outside bodies. Those of us who heard you express your view were left in doubt about it. Will the right hon. Lady reassure the House that there will be such a statement before Tuesday?

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a full debate on the cost to the taxpayer of the Lord Chancellor? She will have noticed that there is disquiet among Labour Members about the £650,000 that, it has emerged, is to be spent on refurbishing his accommodation. He may, as a spokesman for the Prime Minister said, have given up a very nice house in north London, but that surely should not be advanced as a justification for the taxpayer to give the self-styled Cardinal Wolsey an even nicer one near the river; we might call it Hampton Court.

Before she seeks to dismiss the question as trivial, as all Government spokesmen are programmed to do by pager, I remind the right hon. Lady that the Lord Chancellor's opinion of himself is anything but trivial. It is becoming a serious matter that his actions have made his functions and office into a national joke. I think that both Government and Opposition Members regard that with some concern.

Can the right hon. Lady explain the implications for the passage of the National Lottery Bill of delays to it in the other place? Can she assure us that its Committee stage in this House will not be guillotined? I realise that that may cause her some difficulty because the delay occurred only today. She may not be able to give us an assurance today, but I flag the matter up.

Given the strong encouragement that the Government are giving the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill, a private Member's Bill in another place, will the right hon. Lady say how they propose to handle it when it gets to this House?

Some weeks ago, the right hon. Lady was able to give an idea of her thinking on the dates of the Easter recess. That was very helpful and welcomed by all hon. Members who wished to be able to plan ahead. I see from this week's notes, the blue pages, in The House Magazine that her early thinking seems to have been firmly translated into a start date for the Easter recess. I understand her difficulties, but I wonder whether The House Magazine knows something that we all should.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for acknowledging that we are still able to give two weeks of business. As Bills progress this Session, it may become more difficult to stick to the second week with any certainty because, on some occasions, we anticipate the progress of legislation, and there may be variations. However, we will endeavour to give two weeks whenever possible.

The right hon. Lady asked again about the need for a health debate, and I remind her that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has come to the House on seven occasions for major statements, when he has been questioned on health matters. Of course, it is Health Question Time on Tuesday. My right hon. Friend made it clear when he was first appointed that the Government's most immediate priority was to prevent a winter crisis such as we had last year. The extra money that we have put into the health service has been used to good effect to ensure that, this winter, we have not seen the appalling picture of so many people on hospital trolleys that we saw under the previous Government, who neglected the health service for so long.

The right hon. Lady asked about a statement on the contents of the dome. I cannot guarantee such a statement. However, my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio intends to ensure that the House is informed first about the announcements to be made next week. He has answered a written question this week, pointing out that he will be guided by the relevant section of the ministerial code.

As for the Lord Chancellor, I really think that Conservative Members should by now have been able to find something more significant to go at than the cost of that refurbishment—an issue for which the House has no responsibility whatsoever. The right hon. Lady said that we are programmed by pagers to give the right answers, but I have noticed an increasing number of pagers on the Opposition side of the House, so Conservative central office must now be programming people by pager to raise exactly the same concern. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will be touched by her concern for his reputation.

As to progress with the National Lottery Bill, the right hon. Lady is right to say that I cannot answer now, but I will look into that. The Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill to which she referred will be treated the same as any other private Member's Bill. As to the Easter recess, I, too, should read The House Magazine, because, at this stage, I have nothing to add to what I said earlier.

Mrs. Gwyneth Duwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend find time next week for a debate on various National Audit Office reports about the cost of the sale of various state assets by the previous Government? It would be useful if the taxpayer could be told exactly how much was wasted in the sale of Army houses and if we were able to explore carefully the cost of the sale of Her Majesty's Stationery Office at way below what it was worth. Finally, what of the contracts that London and Continental Railways entered into, which the taxpayer will have to carry for some considerable time to come? Would it not be helpful for the House to have the total cost of the previous Government spelled out in clear detail?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and gives but three of the long list of examples that she could have given had we been in a position to have a debate and had time been available. I will look into the issue. The Modernisation Committee is considering our problem with discussing such issues. In due course, I hope that we may be able to make some recommendations to the House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In contrast to the jokes from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, may I put two serious matters to the Leader of the House? First, on Iraq, the whole House appreciated the opportunity to have a debate on a substantive motion in a full House; it was a good debate as a result. If the situation changes and, in particular, if the Secretary-General of the United Nations comes back from Baghdad with a substantial change in the situation, whether good or bad, can the right hon. Lady undertake that there will not merely be a full statement, but a full debate so that the House can understand the situation that may have developed?

Secondly, the Leader of the House may have witnessed the considerable support on both sides of the House for the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday about the European Union code of conduct for arms sales.

Hon. Members on both sides are determined that there should not be a repeat of the arms for Iraq scandal. The Government have given some undertakings in that regard. Can we be sure that the draft in circulation, which has been discussed at a European Union meeting this week, will fully meet the concerns of all hon. Members in the light of the Scott report? I hope that the right hon. Lady will recognise that there is all-party concern on this matter. The last thing we want is to find British service people again facing British arms when they are undertaking responsibilities on behalf of this nation.

Mrs. Taylor

On the hon. Gentleman's second question, I am aware of the concerns and the points that have been raised. The Government are still looking at the issue. We may want to consult further, and there may be a White Paper—the House will be kept informed.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the situation in Iraq and what will happen if there are developments that should be reported to the House. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that he wants to keep the House as fully informed as possible. As the hon. Gentleman said, the debate was important. We shall keep under review the possibility of any future debates, because we are very conscious of the need to keep the House fully informed and to test the opinion of hon. Members.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

May I press my right hon. Friend further on Iraq? She knows, as the House knows, that we had a good debate earlier this week, but I hope that she will accept that the Government should not regard that as the final word on the views of the House on further attacks on Iraq. I hope that she will bear in mind the points that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made. If there is significant change and the situation improves or deteriorates, will she ensure that the Government allow an urgent debate? I do not want Britain to be involved in an attack on Iraq—I am sure that many Labour Members share my view—until the House has made a firm decision.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that we all hope that things will not come to that; we are all watching developments extremely carefully. As I said to the hon. Member for North Cornwall, we are very conscious of our responsibilities to the House. The situation is changing, and we cannot be sure of the time scale of any developments, but the Government have so far shown that they want to keep the House informed and to consult it whenever possible.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Pursuant to a question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), if patients are confronted by a choice between remaining in their own home in pain waiting for an operation of uncertain date, and being in a hospital, albeit on a trolley, where people are trying to help them, does the Leader of the House believe that they would automatically opt for the former?

Mrs. Taylor

I really think that the problems are far more serious than the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges. He should remember the crisis in the health service last winter; Labour Members certainly do. The steps that we have taken to avoid such a crisis this year have been very important.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

Does my right hon. Friend recollect that I have drawn to her attention the fact that the Standing Orders of the House contain provision for a Committee of the English regions? It last met on 16 July 1978, but it is entirely within the Government's power to ask it to meet at any time. Has she considered the matter? Is it under review?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has spoken to me about that matter. So far, I have not detected a consensus in the House for a move in that direction.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Leader of the House will remember that, 10 months ago, Labour spokesmen committed a Labour Government to urgent modernisation of the London underground. Since then, nothing has happened, except that fares have gone up and the situation has worsened to such an extent that, on 27 January, we had a half-day debate on the matter. Will the right hon. Lady ensure that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions comes to the House to say exactly what Her Majesty Government's plans are, or will the people of London have to wait until 2000, when the Greater London authority is convened and appoints a board of London Transport to do something about the matter?

Mrs. Taylor

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is actively looking at ways to alleviate the problems caused by the legacy that we inherited from the previous Administration. He will keep the House informed of any proposals he has to make, but I cannot promise a debate in the near future.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that if she decided to arrange a debate or statement on the expenditure on the Lord Chancellor's apartment, it might well be revealed that, as I found out this week, the Committee that is making the decision to spend all the money is in fact a Committee in another place that is dominated by the Tories? I find it odd that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) comes to the House every Thursday, mouthing about the subject, when it is her friends down the other end who are taking the decision. That leaves me with only one thing to say: let's abolish the Lords.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has made some significant points and, as I said earlier, the matter of the refurbishment of the Lord Chancellor's accommodation is not a matter for this House.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the difficulties created by the extended waiting lists? May I particularly draw her attention to the situation of a constituent of mine, who is facing the fourth consecutive monthly delay in vital heart surgery? May I urge her to bring the Secretary of State for Health to the House to explain not only what has happened, but what is going to happen to put that situation right?

Mrs. Taylor

I have every sympathy with the constituent who has been waiting in that way, but the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that it would have been a serious situation if the record number of emergencies that have had to be treated this winter had been ignored. That would have been far more difficult for him and his constituents. I do not have to bring my right hon. Friend to the House to defend that policy, as he will be answering questions on Tuesday.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to glance at early-day motion 761? [That this House notes that a number of boys under 13 years old were recently called to give evidence in court as victims of sexual abuse, that over a year had elapsed between the offences and the court appearances, a time of great distress and trauma for the victims and their families and that during this time normal family relationships were effectively suspended because of the need for adults to be seen to be exerting no influence on the nature or presentation of evidence by their sons; is concerned that in cases like this, especially if they go to appeal, children may be subjected to many days of re-living their abuse in court when what they most need is a period of counselling, rest and recovery; and calls for early reforms in the treatment of young and vulnerable witnesses so as to minimise the trauma of court and avoid the perception that the legal process is more of a punishment for some victims of crime than for some perpetrators.] Is there a possibility of arranging a debate on the treatment of vulnerable victims? I am particularly concerned about three of my constituents, all boys aged under 12, who waited for 15 months between the time at which they were victims of sexual abuse and the case coming to court. The court sittings were traumatic for them, and their family was denied the possibility of counselling and rebuilding the family during that time. We must bring that situation to an end and give dignity to all victims of crime. Is there a possibility of a debate on that issue in the near future?

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that the whole House will have sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. We are determined to ensure that children are able to give evidence with the minimum of distress and my hon. Friend may know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is looking at the way in which vulnerable or intimidated witnesses can get assistance. I do not think that a debate is possible at the moment, but perhaps my hon. Friend will make the Home Secretary aware of his concerns. I shall also draw them to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Leader of the House please consider in whichever Committee is appropriate setting a limit on the length of time granted to Government Departments when they issue holding answers to written questions? Does she agree that it is an impertinence to the House for Departments to abuse holding answers? That is happening far too often, and I hope that she will look into it. Secondly, will she, in the interest of good manners in her Government, ensure that Ministers sign correspondence between themselves and Members of Parliament writing on behalf of their constituents? Some Ministers are exemplary in doing it, but others are lamentable, and it is only good manners that prevent me from naming the lady who is the worst.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman has raised issues which are important, but which can be abused both by the people who are asking questions and by those who are trying to delay answers. Holding answers play an important role if Members want full answers, but I agree that they should not be abused and that, where possible, the time between a holding answer and a substantive answer should be as short as possible. However, as a former Minister, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is not always possible if full information is to be obtained. I have to say that sometimes the quality of the answer has something to do with the quality of the question asked.

On Ministers signing letters, I believe that the hon. Gentleman knows that the pressure on different Ministers varies. Sometimes, Ministers are not available in London; some Ministers are abroad. I believe that Ministers do, by and large, sign as many letters as possible. It is not a new practice that Ministers' letters are signed on their behalf when they have approved the answer, and I think that hon. Members want replies as quickly as possible.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

In the light of the publication yesterday of Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report about the Hillsborough disaster, will it be possible for time to be found in the House for hon. Members to discuss that report? My right hon. Friend must be aware of the continuing disquiet, upset, anxiety, worry and concern, and I would ask that time be found so that we may discuss the report.

Mrs. Taylor

I can well understand my hon. Friend's concern. I know that many families, who are still extremely upset by the events, were disappointed with the outcome of the very thorough inquiry and would like to take the matter further. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a comprehensive statement to the House, and I know that there is a feeling in some quarters that a debate might help.

Regardless of how sympathetic I am to the issue, I think that it would be raising false hopes if I suggested to my hon. Friend that it was likely that we could find Government time for a debate in the very near future. However, there may be other ways in which he or his colleagues can raise the issue.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I reassure the Leader of the House that some Conservative Members are still pager-free, and therefore still able to express the odd personal opinion? [HON. MEMBERS: "Very odd."] I hope that, in my case, they are always odd. I would be letting hon. Members down if they were not.

I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on his openness in giving us details of the amount of public money that has been spent on his residence and in that area, but would the Leader of the House have a word with the Prime Minister, who, to date, has been remarkably secretive, and unwilling to answer similar questions to those answered by the Lord Chancellor about similar expenditures in No. 10 and No. 11 Downing street? Perhaps the Leader of the House could organise a debate, so that we might explore the difference between the attitude to open government of the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is pager-free. I have listened to his odd personal opinions for many years, and I am sure that he will remain pager-free and way off-message, which is probably why he is sitting on the Opposition Back Benches and not the Front Bench. Regarding his comments about the Prime Minister and the amounts of money that have been spent, it might be helpful if I reminded him and the House that, whether we are talking about the refurbishment of Government properties or about Government hospitality, the amounts spent by the present Government are less than those spent by the previous Government.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

May we have a debate next week on the issue of green-field sites in built-up areas, which are very valuable to their local communities, but are threatened with housing development, despite highways and sewerage constraints? I have two such sites in my constituency, at Warren lane in Gilstead and Jenny lane in Baildon. Housing development should not go ahead on those two sites, and I want to be able to raise that matter on the Floor of the House.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will know that work is going on to try to ensure that the Government's record of protecting green-field sites will be better than that of the previous Government. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will make a statement in the not too distant future.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

May I remind the right hon. Lady that the Government are due to be involved in some momentous decisions up to 2 May this year, regarding who shall participate in economic and monetary union in Europe? Will she undertake that the House will be given information at least on how the Government intend to vote on who will participate? Better still, and with justice, will she allocate a full day for a debate on the matter? Surely, whether or not we participate in monetary union, this is hugely significant and should be addressed by the House. The Government ought to be answerable to the House on those matters.

Mrs. Taylor

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. It is extremely tempting to hold such a debate, not least to expose the divisions among Opposition Members on this issue. I shall bear his point in mind.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

May we have an early opportunity, perhaps in the next fortnight, to discuss Britain's relationships with the Federal Republic of Germany? Would not such a debate provide an excellent opportunity for the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to apologise to the House for the offensive remarks that he made about Chancellor Kohl yesterday?

Mrs. Taylor

That is also a tempting proposition. The simple explanation may be that the right hon.

Member for Wokingham does not have a pager, either, and that is why he is not on message. There are problems in the Conservative party on Europe, which makes a debate tempting, but I am afraid that I cannot promise one in the next week or two.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Our local papers tell us that the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 continuation order is to come before the House, but there was no mention of it in the announcement of business for the next two weeks. Is it possible for the right hon. Lady to tell us when the order may be taken on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Taylor

We have a lot of business, which we are trying to work into the programme. The business that I have announced for the week after next is, of course, provisional, although I hope that it will stay as it is fixed. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's need for early notice of such debates.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May I press the Leader of the House to reconsider the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton)? Politics is not a kid-gloves affair. We read in the newspapers this morning the revelation that the Leader of the Opposition has been substantially embarrassed on Europe by a member of the shadow Cabinet—a Member who coveted his job. It is reasonable for a Labour Member to ask for a debate so that the Leader of the Opposition can explain his position, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) can apologise or decide to stand firm, and some of us can explore more fully the fact that Conservative Members are raising money in the United Kingdom to influence the outcome of the Denmark referendum.

When the Conservatives cannot command a majority in the House to scupper the Amsterdam treaty, they use the people of Denmark on a surrogate basis, and interfere in their affairs by raising money in the UK. It is time that we exposed the Conservative party's cant and hypocrisy on Europe.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not sure that my hon. Friend needs a debate to do that, as he has been exposing such matters quite well today. Fortunately, I am not responsible for any apologies that the right hon. Member for Wokingham may have to make. I remind the House that the next day for tabling questions to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is Tuesday.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is growing concern both inside and outside the House over the Government's progress in tackling the year 2000 computer problem? For example, is she aware that the health service does not know either the extent of the problem or the full cost of the programme? In a written answer, the Prime Minister told me that all Departments and agencies have to find the cost of solving the problem out of their existing budgets. As that will run into millions of pounds, the House needs to know where cuts will fall in hospitals, schools, local authorities and even defence.

On 27 November, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster promised the House regular reports. Twelve weeks have passed and there has not been a murmur from him. Will the Leader of the House look on the matter with great urgency, and allow time for a debate or a statement on the subject, which greatly concerns us all?

Mrs. Taylor

It is a bit rich for a member of the previous Government to complain that not enough has been done, when the previous Administration did so little. My right hon. Friend made a comprehensive statement in November. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been keeping a careful watch on progress. The Government have acted as swiftly as is necessary. I do not think that it is appropriate to have a debate in the immediate future.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that today's crisis involving 5,000 people who have had artificial hip implants was entirely predictable and inevitable, and was described in some detail in an Adjournment debate on 14 July 1993, when a plea was made to the previous Government to stop the introduction of literally dozens of new implants that were no better than the existing, available and reliable Charnley replacement? New implants were being manufactured to produce new patents, so as to make a great deal of money for the 60 firms that were producing the implants. They were dangerous then, unreliable and untested.

Is it not important that we have a debate to illustrate the great difference between the two sides of the House? The Conservatives pursued health, through their long years in office, as a way of making money for the market. In contrast, the philosophy of Labour Members is to emphasise quality of treatment, of prostheses, of drugs and of the skills of surgeons—in other words, measuring the quality of the health service, not quantity.

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that many people who have had hip replacements will be extremely concerned at the prospect of a further operation, and will be angry that warnings given previously were not fully heeded. The Department of Health and my right hon. Friends have acted extremely quickly, given the information that has come to them. Hospitals are contacting all the relevant patients. A minority of those who have had hip replacements are involved, so I do not think that we should alarm too many people. However, it is a serious matter for those who are involved, and the previous Government bear some responsibility for not heeding other warnings that were given.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 802.

[That this House is concerned that non-human primates transported to United Kingdom research laboratories suffer greatly as a result of the journey from their country of origin; notes that journey times of up to 58 hours from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Mauritius and China are commonplace; further notes that the primates travel packed in small wooden crates in aeroplane holds; considers that such practices cause undue stress and suffering; is aware that it is Home Office policy to take into account adverse effects which may occur to animals during transport to the United Kingdom when deciding whether to allow their use in experiments; and therefore calls upon the Home Office not to grant licences to experiment on primates when the adverse effects endured by them during transport are too severe to be outweighed by the benefit of research.] Is it possible for a Home Office Minister to make a statement to the House? Is the right hon. Lady aware that monkeys used for experiments are being transported to this country for up to 58 hours, in crates in which they are unable to stand? The matter is under the control of the Home Office, which is at liberty to refuse licences. Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a Home Office Minister to explain why the process is being allowed to take place?

Mrs. Taylor

Home Office Ministers have taken action on some issues involving animal welfare, and that should be welcomed by the House. I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's points to the attention of my colleagues, but I would point out to him that Home Office questions will be taken a week on Monday.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May we have a debate on the shortage of speech therapists within the national health service, which is one of the major gaps in the NHS, especially in the area which I represent? The shortage was undoubtedly the responsibility of the Conservative Government.

Mr. Forth

Of course.

Mr. Cryer

May we have a debate, or a statement from the Department of Health, in the near future?

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) recognised the validity of what my hon. Friend was saying in terms of the problem being the responsibility of the previous Administration.

Over the past 20 years, we have seen a diminution in the number of speech therapists and an increase in the problems that exist. I shall bring my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend, but I cannot promise an early debate. My hon. Friend may seek other opportunities to raise the issue. It is clearly a serious matter, because speech therapy can make a great deal of difference, especially to children.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

May I ask the Leader of the House to consider a debate—if not next week, certainly in the near future—about support for school transport, especially transport for denominational schools? Is the right hon. Lady aware that the issue has particular topicality in that Liberal Democrat-controlled Devon county council is threatening to break an arrangement that has existed for more than 50 years— since 1944—by withdrawing denominational schools' transport?

The county council may or may not respond to pressure from parents to make it change its mind. Governments of both complexions—I pay credit to previous Labour Governments as well as Conservative Administrations— have always made it clear that both national and local government should try to support transport for denominational schools. We need a debate so that we can examine what was done in Devon to try to ensure that, whatever happens in the end—

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

And Norfolk.

Mr. Nicholls

Indeed, Norfolk as well.

We must try to ensure that Liberal Democrat-controlled councils can never cause such heartache again.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot promise a debate, but we shall have Education Question Time on Thursday.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I have previously raised with the Leader of the House the possibility of a debate on the blind trusts that brought the Prime Minister and various of his Ministers to office. Has she seen the preferment that has been given to the trustees of the blind trust? We can judge whether that is justified, but we still do not know who else gave money to it, or whether the Lord Chancellor or the Paymaster General donated. Surely we should know.

While I am on my feet, will the Leader of the House answer my letters about the time it takes for Ministers to answer letters?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that he has raised the issue of blind trusts before. I have nothing further to say in response to that.

In respect of the letter that the hon. Gentleman wrote last week, I am looking at all the examples that he gave of where problems have arisen and why.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Can the right hon. Lady find time next week for a statement or debate on the operation of the benefits integrity project? To date, more than 40,000 disabled people receiving disability living allowance have been interviewed or had questionnaires sent to them about their entitlement to benefit. Many have had their benefit stopped or reduced, but have been successful on appeal and had their benefits reinstated. Many others have received questionnaires when they should not have been included in the programme. The programme is clearly in a mess. We need to know what the Government are doing to ensure that the project has integrity. Please may we have a statement or debate?

Mrs. Taylor

We shall have Social Security Question Time on Monday. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be here to pursue the matter. I am also sure that all hon. Members think it right that we should ensure that people claim the right benefit, and that only those who are fully entitled to it get it.