HC Deb 26 February 1998 vol 307 cc495-508 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 will be as follows.

MONDAY 2 MARCH—Completion of consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill.

TUESDAY 3 MARCH—Opposition Day [8th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on ISAs, PEPs and TESSAs, followed by a debate on the countryside. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

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—Until about 7 pm, completion of consideration in Committee of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

Motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Partial Continuance) Order.

FRIDAY 6 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 9 MARCH—Remaining stages of the National Minimum Wage Bill.

TUESDAY 10 MARCH—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Remaining stages of the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 11 MARCH—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Progress on remaining stages of the School Standards and Framework Bill.

Remaining stages of the Wireless Telegraphy Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 12 MARCH—Remaining stages of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

FRIDAY 13 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving us the business for two weeks. As she knows, we greatly appreciate the fact that she manages to give the House the provisional business for the second week. I know, as does she, that it has been quite tricky to arrange that business this time. We understand that business management is becoming more complex, because it is difficult to predict how long Committee stages will take, and we appreciate the fact that the Leader of the House endeavours to keep her pledge.

May I ask yet again for a debate on the national health service? Last week, we had the embarrassingly steep rise in NHS waiting lists, and this week there has been another embarrassment for the Secretary of State for Health with the disclosure that, despite his protestations, the Public Administration Committee has revealed that he has been packing NHS trust boards with political nominees. The Committee's Chairman, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), has rightly criticised the Secretary of State over the fact that 111 out of 113 council appointments came from the Labour party. The House should have a chance to debate those matters in Government time, together with the seven statements made by Health Ministers since the election, given that the only debate on the NHS since 1 May has taken place in Opposition time.

Will the Leader of the House also provide time for a debate on her Government's abuse of this House? I am sorry to have to put it to the right hon. Lady in that manner, because I know that she feels strongly about the issue, given the views that she has expressed in the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons. It is important that the House should not be sidelined and insulted by the constant stream of announcements, press briefings, conferences held outside the Chamber and disclosures on the "Today" programme.

Last week, the Leader of the House promised in good faith that the House would be informed before the wider world about the contents of the millennium dome. However, baby dome was announced on the "Breakfast With Frost" programme on Sunday and on Tuesday, the day that the glitzy launch took place at breakfast time, there was a written answer from the dome Minister saying that the Prime Minister's speech on the subject would be placed in the Library when it opened at 10 am, after the launch. The Government's plans for lifelong learning were also disclosed outside the House, and the House was thrown a sop in the form of a written answer.

The consequences for the Government of that arrogance were demonstrated yesterday, when the Minister for the Environment had to come to this place and apologise for briefing an outside group before he briefed the House. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's apology, which was gracefully made. However, it would have been less embarrassing for him and for the Government if their cavalier and rather hostile attitude to the conventions of parliamentary democracy had not made that apology necessary.

I feel sure that the Government will wish to arrange an early debate on social security issues. The amount of pre-Budget press briefing, with or without the knowledge of the Secretary of State for Social Security, has resulted in mess, muddle and confusion. With the Secretary of State supposedly sticking to her line that cuts in lone-parent benefits are necessary—although who could be quite sure—the Chancellor's people telling the press that he has bowed to Back-Bench pressure on lone parent benefit cuts, and the Prime Minister yesterday denying it all, we need a little clarity in that area. The House does not deserve that contempt of parliamentary democracy. I ask the right hon. Lady to insist that her ministerial colleagues adopt the view that she expressed so admirably to the Hansard Society earlier this week.

Finally, as the right hon. Lady said, we shall devote part of our Opposition day to a debate on PEPs, TESSAs and ISAs. Will the right hon. Lady assure the House that the Minister responsible for those matters, the Paymaster General, will reply to that debate?

Mrs. Taylor

On the last point, a senior Treasury Minister will reply to the debate. With regard to the pre-Budget speculation about the Department of Social Security, the right hon. Lady should take the advice that the Prime Minister offered during Question Time yesterday, when he dealt with that matter very clearly.

As to the right hon. Lady's request for a debate on the national health service, she should read again the report of the Public Administration Committee that was published last week—I thought that Conservative Members might refer to it last week, but, as usual, they are a week or two behind. That report did not criticise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in the way that the right hon. Lady suggests. All appointments to NHS boards since the election have been made on merit and in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It is important that we abide by those guidelines, and my right hon. Friend has done that.

The right hon. Lady's other questions were about what she described as abuses of the House. I informed her and the whole House last week that the House would be kept informed about developments regarding the millennium dome. That was the case, and written parliamentary questions were answered. There has been no change of policy. I do not think that many hon. Members would want the House to be used as an exhibition centre or would consider it a good use of our time if we were to examine the details of the dome in this place, when we should be discussing legislation that is currently before us.

With regard to the Green Paper on lifelong learning, the right hon. Lady will recall, as she was a member of the previous Administration, that it was quite exceptional for any Green Paper to be the subject of a statement to the House.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady welcomed the graceful apology, as she described it, given yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment on the right to roam. I wish that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) had been as gracious in accepting that apology. If there was any abuse of the House, it was from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I am after another debate on Iraq—not on whether we should bomb or invade, but on what we should do to help the Iraqi people to achieve democracy, peace and economic and social progress. When I raised the matter on Tuesday with the Prime Minister, he twice said that we are doing everything we can to help in those areas. May we have a debate to discuss the details of what we are doing, and what we think we should do, to assist in those areas?

Mrs. Taylor

I understand the concern, which is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people but with Saddam Hussein's regime. My hon. Friend will know that many Government Departments have provided assistance to the people of Iraq. Indeed, during Health Question Time this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health detailed some of the help that was included in that programme. I do not think that it is possible to find time for a debate, but it is important that that information should see the light of day.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, during the student lobby yesterday, official police photographers took close-up pictures of some of our constituents in an intimidatory way, to try to discourage them from exercising their normal rights as citizens? Will she inquire whether that is normal practice? In future, will old-age pensioners, the disabled and farmers be photographed in that way? Is not that an abuse of the normal right of access of citizens to the House and to us as Members?

Secondly, has the Leader of the House made representations to the BBC, on behalf of us all, about the way in which it is dumbing down parliamentary and current affairs programmes that report to the nation the many activities of the House? Is she aware that in some parts of my constituency it will be impossible to listen to "Yesterday in Parliament" or "Today in Parliament"? Any increase in the number of times that "The Week in Westminster" will be broadcast—it will have a small audience on a Thursday—simply will not compensate for that. I hope that she will make representations on behalf of the whole House.

Thirdly, is the Leader of the House aware that there is all-party concern about anxieties expressed in all parts of the rural environment, about the way in which 10 months have made even worse the product of 10 years and more of Tory neglect of rural areas? Will she now recognise that there is anxiety on both sides of the House to make real what the Prime Minister is apparently prepared to concede is necessary: a new approach to poverty, deprivation and services in all parts of the rural community?

Mrs. Taylor

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I had not heard anything about the taking of photographs yesterday. I am sure that he has taken that up with the relevant authorities.

On the issue of the BBC, the hon. Gentleman may recall that you, Madam Speaker, invited hon. Members to comment, and I think that you made representations at the time. The hon. Gentleman may know that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport met this morning and questioned senior representatives of BBC Radio on the matter. The Select Committee has asked that no changes be made until it has published its report and recommendations. I am sure that the BBC will consider that request carefully.

On the issue of the countryside, I at least welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the problems in rural areas have been growing for the past 18 years and have not developed in nine months, but it is a false dichotomy to say that there is one group of problems in the countryside and another in urban areas. Many of the Government's policies on health, transport, housing, education and crime are relevant wherever one lives.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend please insist to the BBC that its plans should not include cutting down on scrutiny of Select Committees, which is usually an important part of its reportage? If those outside the House are to know what is happening day by day, they must rely on accurate representations of what we do from the BBC, not on a series of cheerfully written and wholly inaccurate reports that relate only to the individual idiosyncrasies of Members of Parliament.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will recall that one thing that has happened in recent weeks is that the House now produces, as a result of some of the Modernisation Committee's recommendations, a weekly list of all the Select Committee hearings, stating the topic and who is giving evidence. It is in everyone's interest that there should be a greater awareness of what happens in Select Committees, and serious reporting such as we can get through those programmes is useful to people outside. Those who want that information often find it difficult to get it in other ways.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Following a debate in the other place on 18 February, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in this Chamber on the restitution of assets to victims of Nazism, especially in the light of the extremely worrying comments of the Minister who participated in that debate, who implicitly suggested that the Government would take no action in returning those assets to victims of Nazism? If she cannot find time for a debate, will she at least ask the appropriate Minister to make a statement as soon as possible in this House?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is right to anticipate that I cannot find time for a debate in the near future. His wisest course of action might be to apply for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a debate on the fluoridation of public water supplies? There has a move by Ministers to push the fluoridation of public water supplies, and I want us to debate the moral and medical aspects of that, because it is in breach of the Food and Drugs Act 1956 and section 130 of the Medicines Act 1968, and was thrown out of the Scottish courts under the Water Act 1945. It would be unfair of Ministers to try and push that issue, especially given that there is a free vote in the House and in the Labour party.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will be aware that Ministers, in Scotland and the rest of the country, are consulting on health-related matters, and a Green Paper touches on the issue that he raises. My hon. Friend and others may wish to respond to the consultation that is taking place.

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Will the right hon. Lady consider an early debate on local government democracy, particularly on coalition government? Is she aware that last Thursday, Mrs. Lesley Salter won the Chalkwell ward for the Conservative party from the Liberal Democrat party, as a result of which Southend council is now made up of 19 Conservatives, 13 Liberal Democrats and seven Labour councillors? Does she agree that it is improper for the seven Labour councillors to continue to prop up the 13 Liberal Democrats?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that we can have a debate on local government in Southend—or, as some hon. Members have suggested, in Basildon.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

First, may I support the plea by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) for a further debate on Iraq? As founding chairman of the all-party land mine eradication group in the House, may I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the accelerating momentum around the globe for the development and discipline of policies on humanitarian de-mining and clearance of unexploded ordnance? That is of increasing interest. Improving the clearance rate would greatly help third-world aid projects, and there is pressing interest in the level of Government involvement in land mine eradication programmes. I seek a half-day debate on the subject.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend raises two serious issues. I answered the first when responding to a previous question. The whole House welcomes the progress that has been made on land mine eradication. It is appropriate for the House to debate such issues, but he knows the pressure of business as well as everybody else. I am afraid that I cannot hold out the prospect of an early debate on that matter, important though it is.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I press the Leader of the House for an early debate on the current situation in Northern Ireland, so that the House can explore how far the two Governments have danced to the tune of terrorists, of whatever ilk, and moved from the Mitchell principles? There were to be no preconditions to the talks, but Sinn Fein now says that it will not go back into the talks until it has met the Prime Minister. Sinn Fein is due to return on 9 March; I suspect that it may not go back in until after the purported meeting on 10 March. Surely that should not happen.

Mrs. Taylor

Clearly, the issues to which the hon. Gentleman refers are serious. All Hon. Members want the talks to succeed, and we are all aware of our responsibilities to choose our words carefully and to try to advance the peace process rather than cause difficulties. At the moment, an early debate is not possible, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland tries to keep the House informed. I am sure that that approach will continue.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Bearing in mind the fact that during Question Time we had an exchange on citizenship, is my right hon. Friend aware that it is totally unacceptable for the BBC to put forward plans whereby "Yesterday in Parliament" would be broadcast on long wave only? That programme has an audience of more than 1 million people; half, or more, will be lost if the BBC proposals go ahead. "Today in Parliament" lost half its audience when it went on to long wave.

As the House is not divided over the matter, will my right hon. Friend and the shadow Leader of the House make a joint representation to the BBC and tell it that it has no business whatever marginalising the proceedings of Parliament? Without Parliament and our democracy, there would be no BBC. I hope that there will be unanimity on this. Wearing her Commons hat, not her Government hat, will she and the shadow Leader of the House see the BBC people as soon as possible?

Mrs. Taylor

I have already acknowledged the strong feelings on both sides of the House, which were expressed some months ago when the plans saw the light of day. I have also outlined to the House the action taken today by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. The BBC chairman will be available in the House on 12 March to meet hon. Members on the matter. A meeting between Madam Speaker and the chairman has already been arranged for 17 March. I hope that there will be sufficient opportunity to ensure that the BBC is in no doubt about the strength of feeling on both sides of the House.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Lady make time for a full debate in Government time on countryside issues, because they are undoubtedly at or near the top of the list of parliamentary anxieties? Does she agree that it might be worth while attaching to Bills a rural impact statement, to test the interests of rural communities against those of towns, to ensure greater equity? Does she further agree that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer put more duty on petrol, he would be inveighing against rural areas?

Mrs. Taylor

I think it right to assess the environmental impact of legislation when it is introduced, regardless of the nature of that legislation. I entirely reject the hon. Gentleman's basic premise that the issue is "rural versus town". I do not think that it does anyone any good to try to portray it in that way, or to try to pretend that the problems that have arisen in rural areas have become apparent only in the past nine months.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

There has been publicity recently relating to the industrial tribunal criticisms of Lincolnshire police authority and the handling of grievance and disciplinary procedures, which have been the subject of investigation by Humberside police—although, regrettably, their report remains secret. Will my right hon. Friend allow a full debate on the matter, so that we can make progress in increasing openness and effectiveness?

Mrs. Taylor

I know that my hon. Friend has asked questions about the issue before. Fortuitously, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is present, and will have heard what she has said today. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will find other ways in which to pursue the matter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I agree with the concern expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the action that the BBC may take to reduce coverage of Parliament's activities, and I thank the Leader of the House for taking such a positive stance. May I express the hope that the governors and chairman of the BBC will note what Parliament feels—and what I think people outside feel—before taking any irrevocable action?

Can the Leader of the House also tell us when a statement will be made, or a debate take place, about the roads review that is currently being undertaken?

Mrs. Taylor

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will make his voice heard during the consultations that I mentioned—and I am sure that the fact that the chairman of the BBC is to be in the House has not escaped his notice. Given the hon. Gentleman's reputation, I expect that he will be present then. I think that a positive stance has been adopted on all sides.

I am afraid that I cannot say anything about the roads review at this stage, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is warned of when it will be completed.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If there is a statement or a debate about the implications of the march of the rural communities, will my right hon. Friend bear this in mind? I speak as someone who has been in the House for more than 20 years, representing a rural constituency 30 miles long and about 20 miles wide. One of the problems that we face in the rural villages—more than 20 altogether—is that they were utterly ruined by the last Tory Government, who shut every single pit in every single pit village, and created a BSE crisis that has hammered all the small farmers in my constituency. Almost all the ruin and breakdown of the social fabric has been a direct result of what was done by those Tories, many of whom will be cheering people on at the beacons and in Hyde park on Sunday. Let the country know where the trouble started, and let us remember that we shall have to mend all the problems created by that lousy lot.

Mrs. Taylor

I hope that my hon. Friend catches your eye during Tuesday's debate, Madam Speaker. As someone who has represented a rural constituency for more than 20 years, he is well placed to examine the problems that exist there. I think that rural areas gave their verdict on the last Government—and it is significant that there are now more Labour Members representing rural constituencies than Tories and Liberal Democrats put together.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House please arrange for a debate on the relationship between the House of Commons and the Government in the context of the extent to which the Government are increasingly refusing to answer questions tabled by Members of Parliament? Does the Leader of the House realise the number of occasions on which written questions in particular, but also oral questions, are met with what amounts to a point-blank refusal to divulge information that should rightly be in the public domain, not only now but particularly in the light of the oft-repeated claims by her Government that they believe in open government? Surely it is time for a debate on that matter, in order to get it out into the open and regularise it.

Mrs. Taylor

As a member of the former Government, the right hon. Gentleman is showing his usual lack of memory in these matters. There have always been holding answers and limited answers. More questions are being asked and, often, the quality of the answer reflects the quality of the question.

Mr. Eddie O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

I am sure that I speak on behalf of many colleagues from the Merseyside area if I once again appeal to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to give consideration to a full debate in the House on the Hillsborough disaster. My right hon. Friend will be aware that in the week since the publication of Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report, there has been intense and increasing concern and anger on Merseyside and in the wider region.

The whole affair gives rise to a wide range of issues relating to the management of disasters and their aftermath. A full debate in the House would, for once, give us a full and adequate opportunity to address the issues. I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary might even welcome an opportunity to make a full response on the record. A debate would also provide a full opportunity to explore what could and should be done about what my constituents regard as an unclosed chapter of history.

Mrs. Taylor

There is to be an Adjournment debate, which has been secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), a week on Monday. I am sure that that will not be considered sufficient to cover all the issues that hon. Members would like to raise. We all have enormous sympathy for those involved, and we understand hon. Members' desire to raise those issues. However, as last week, I have to say that I do not rule out the possibility of a debate on the matter, but I do not want to raise false hopes that there can be an early debate in Government time.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Can the right hon. Lady grant the House an early debate on foreign affairs, so that right hon. and hon. Members may have an opportunity to hold Her Majesty's Government to account on their policy towards European Union enlargement, which is supposedly at the heart of their Euro-presidential efforts? That is particularly important in the light of early-day motion 827 on Estonia, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and signed by 39 hon. Members.

[That this House notes the importance of the 80th anniversary of Estonian independence on 24th February; welcomes the decision to include Estonia in the first wave of European Union enlargement negotiations, due to start under the UK Presidency of the European Union in April 1998; notes that Tallinn, the capital, is a thriving city with a successful stock market, banking, business and insurance sectors, is a growing tourist destination and presents increasing opportunities for British business investment; notes the positive efforts made by Tallinn City Council to prepare for membership of the European Union and to promote the inclusion of the Russian minority; and calls on the UK Government to encourage British investment in Estonia and the UK's relations with Estonia.]

The right hon. Lady will be aware that the President of Estonia is in this country this week, and it would be a symbolic gesture and would be warmly welcomed if Her Majesty's Government could give that commitment.

Mrs. Taylor

I understand why the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is important, but he will know that I have announced the business for the next two weeks and that much of the following week is to be taken up by the Budget debate. Important though those issues are, it is not always easy to find time when hon. Members request it. I shall bear that in mind, but I cannot raise hopes of an early debate.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Can the Leader of the House squeeze some time out of the calendar to allow a proper debate and a Division on the BBC? All the protests have been made and the BBC continues to show complete contempt for anything said in the House. Putting "Yesterday in Parliament" on long wave is like sending it to Siberia—all we get on long wave is Radio Baghdad. Putting "The Week in Westminster" on Thursday means that no hon. Member is likely to be able to listen to it. Sending the chairman down here is not enough. He may be bland, but we are not blind. We do not want this public relations schmoozing; we want a proper debate. I think that a deeper strategy is involved, because I believe that certain senior BBC executives want to decouple the BBC from the public and the nation and possibly want to privatise it. The House must take this much more seriously than simply meeting the odd delegation or sending the odd letter of protest.

Mrs. Taylor

The action that I have already outlined—that the Select Committee will report on the matter, that the chairman of the BBC will be made available in the House to discuss it, and that he is to meet you, Madam Speaker—is not mutually incompatible with a debate: the problem is finding time for one. One way of securing a debate would be if many hon. Members were to enter the ballot for a one-and-a-half-hour Wednesday morning debate. By the law of averages, one of them might be successful.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Lady find time for a statement next week by the President of the Board of Trade, in which she can clarify, once and for all, whether the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, Lord Simon, has paid to charity the profit on the sale of his BP shares? Lord Simon gave a specific public undertaking to make that donation. The right hon. Lady will recall that I have raised that issue before. When I last raised it with her, she claimed that Lord Simon had done the right and proper thing. Did she mean by that that the donation had been made: yes or no?

Mrs. Taylor

As I have said before, my noble Friend has done the right and proper thing, by obeying all the established rules on the conduct of Ministers.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As we are not yet, alas, out of the Iraqi marsh, may I hark back to the questions of my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), and ask the Leader of the House to reflect again that it is not sufficient to say that we have no quarrel with the Iraqi people? As a letter from four recent ambassadors to Baghdad, Sir Donald Maitland and our arms negotiator, David Summerhayes, in today's issue of The Independent makes clear, there are real on-going problems. The Leader of the House replied to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire that the Secretary of State for Health had made a comment during Health questions, at column 172, in reply to a question from me, but that was—necessarily—a very brief comment. Before Easter, could she not reflect on whether we should have a follow-up debate?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that we can have a debate in the near future on that specific point. My hon. Friend is a very experienced hon. Member and very often finds time to raise issues, regardless of the fact that there will not be a debate in Government time.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

The right hon. Lady will be aware that the Government have yet to respond to the report of the Procedure Committee in the previous Parliament on delegated legislation and its scrutiny. Does she propose to introduce measures to improve the scrutiny of delegated legislation? Does she not think that the time has come for a full debate on the scrutiny of delegated legislation, which is of great concern to many hon. Members?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government recently submitted a memorandum on the scrutiny of European legislation to the Modernisation Committee. We are considering also what has to be said about delegated legislation. The best course of action is for the Modernisation Committee to examine the issues. It may be appropriate for the House to debate those matters at some stage, but not in the immediate future.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

May I ask one more question on broadcasting? Although we have heard that the BBC's proposals to restrict parliamentary broadcasting are causing distress in the House, the proposals from all broadcasters effectively to withdraw party political broadcasting are causing distress across the nation. Those matters are important and involve not only party managers, broadcasters or even individual hon. Members: they are House matters and democracy matters. My right hon. Friend mentioned the Modernisation Committee, but we have no guarantee that its reports will be debated in the House. Will she give us an assurance that, in the near future, those matters will at least be debated by the House?

Mrs. Taylor

The proposal that I made for several hon. Members to enter the ballot for the hour-and-a-half debates might be the best way forward.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that there is considerable concern among professional providers of child care about suggestions by the Government that it may be possible rapidly to train large number of school leavers to engage in child care activities? Does she accept that child care is desperately important and that it should be done well? May we have an urgent debate on training for child care?

Mrs. Taylor

I certainly agree that training is important, as is child care itself. The steps that are being taken, in the welfare-to-work programmes, for example, are ensuring that quality training is available.

Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

May we have an early debate on the unfair competition represented by out-of-town shopping centres that provide free car parking? It is an issue which is particularly pertinent to my constituency, where the town centre is the vibrant hub of a local community. People there are working to provide an integrated and sustainable transport policy, recognising that car parking charges are an important factor within that.

Mrs. Taylor

There will be questions to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on Tuesday, and it might be possible for my hon. Friend to raise that issue then. Failing that, I can only recommend trying to secure an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

We have all seen the expensive television advertisements about the new deal, but I am concerned about the silent majority whose voice is not heard. May we have a debate on the impact of the windfall tax on people who work in the utilities and who may lose their jobs because of the utilities' inability to invest the money that they would otherwise have invested and because the utilities will no longer be able to peg their prices? I raise that matter following the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about some hon. Members not being able to obtain proper answers from Ministers via the Table Office.

Mrs. Taylor

We debated the windfall tax last summer, and the House endorsed the Government's proposals.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Has my right hon. Friend had the chance to see the excellent exhibition by the Design Council in the Upper Waiting Hall, which covers some of the exciting products in the millennium product challenge fund? Is she aware that we have not had a debate on design innovation for a long time? Design innovation is at the heart of this country's competitive edge. Will she not only visit the exhibition, perhaps with some senior colleagues, but arrange a debate on that important subject?

Finally, would not it be better for the whole nation if the BBC spent a little more time broadcasting what we say in the House instead of spending so much time being anti the millennium and the millennium exhibition?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that the whole House will agree with my hon. Friend's last comment. As for the Design Council exhibition, I saw it briefly one morning this week. I am sure that my hon. Friend's comments will encourage other hon. Members to see it. As for a debate on design innovation, he will not be surprised to hear me repeat what I said before about parliamentary time and the difficulties that I would have in finding Government time for such a debate. Of course, there are Trade and Industry questions on Thursday and, as a regular attender at those, he might well find the opportunity to make some of the points that he has made today.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

May we have an early debate on the importance of local education authorities prioritising education spending, as the Government have done? I should like to inform my right hon. Friend of the situation in my local authority area of Essex, where the move from a Labour-Liberal Democrat administration to a Conservative one on 1 April meant a move from four years of consistently spending above the standard spending assessment to a proposed Conservative budget £3.5 million below the SSA. That has meant a complete, sudden and brutal cessation of discretionary awards to dance and drama students. There are six potential such students in my constituency who have gained places at prestigious dance and drama colleges but who are finding their life chances being taken away by the new Conservative administration. May I ask for an early debate on this subject and, through my right hon. Friend, ask Education Ministers to ask those Conservative councillors in Essex to rethink their decision, even at this late stage?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has made his point well and informed the House of the new priorities of the Conservatives in Essex. He will not be surprised at my saying that there is no Government time for the debate that he requests. He may be fortunate in securing an Adjournment debate, although we shall soon be discussing the remaining stages of education Bills, and he may find that he can raise some of the issues then.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the multilateral agreement on investment is an issue of profound significance to trade and industry in this country and many others? The negotiations are currently taking place in Paris and the agreement may be signed shortly after Easter, so will she discuss the matter with her Cabinet colleagues and ensure that, before the Government sign any agreement, there is a full debate on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that there have been two debates on the matter—there was certainly one earlier this week—and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made the Government's position clear last week, if not the week before, at Question Time. If my hon. Friend wants to raise any outstanding points, he could try to do so during Trade and Industry questions on Thursday, but I do not think that a full debate on the matter is possible in the near future, simply because we are very short of time on the Floor of the House.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

At my surgery about a week ago, I met a father whose son urgently needed his tonsils removed but had been told that he would have to wait up to eight months on the national health service, even though the same surgeon could perform the operation privately the following week. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider her decision on a debate on the national health service, so that Labour Members can raise such issues as consultants' contracts and the deliberate manipulation of waiting lists to favour the private sector? We want to expose the dire legacy that we inherited from the Conservative Government, and correct some of the misinformation that Conservative Members are giving about what we need to do to rebuild the national health service.

Mrs. Taylor

Since the Government came to office, we have announced an extra £1.5 billion for the health service—£300 million for this year and £1.2 billion for next year—so it is extremely tempting to arrange such a debate. However, my hon. Friend is aware of our priorities in the legislative programme. I shall certainly bring his specific point to the attention of Ministers, but if he wants to take those local issues further, I can only suggest that he takes his chances with all the other hon. Members in the ballot for an Adjournment debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

May I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said about the BBC and associate the Opposition with the concerns that have been expressed this afternoon? Will she go one stage further and write to the chairman of the BBC today, enclosing a copy of Hansard containing the exchanges that have taken place, and ask him to see her personally when he comes to the House on 12 March? If she wants my right hon. Friend the Member for South—West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and me to be present, we should be glad to do that.

Will the right hon. Lady also clarify a point that she made in replying to my right hon. Friend the Member for South—West Norfolk? She said that a senior Treasury Minister would reply to the debate on TESSAs and PEPs, but sidestepped the specific question whether the Paymaster General would reply. Will she assure us that there will not be another evasion, such as occurred when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food sat in the Smoking Room while the House debated beef on the bone? The Paymaster General is specifically responsible for these matters, and we expect him to reply.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman protests too much. There will be two Government speakers during that debate: my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will open the debate and my hon. Friend the Paymaster General will close it. We are treating the debate as we treat every other—extremely seriously.

I am more than happy to ensure that a copy of the Hansard report of the exchanges is sent to the chairman of the BBC. How we take the matter further, especially as Madam Speaker has already planned to meet the chairman, should perhaps best be discussed through the usual channels.