HC Deb 15 January 1998 vol 304 cc485-97 3.30 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

May I ask the Leader of House to give next week's business—and, I hope, probably the week after's?

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 19 JANUARY—Completion of consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

TUESDAY 20 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee on the Government of Wales Bill (First Day).

WEDNESDAY 21 JANUARY—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 (Second Day).

THURSDAY 22 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Bank of England Bill.

FRIDAY 23 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 26 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Third Day).

TUESDAY 27 JANUARY—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day].

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

WEDNESDAY 28 JANUARY—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (First Day).

THURSDAY 29 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Second Day).

FRIDAY 30 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that, following discussions through the usual channels, it has been agreed to increase to 10 minutes the time allocated to my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio to answer oral questions on the millennium experience. The change will be effective from Monday 9 February and requires a slight alteration to the current questions rota. The Departments and individuals involved have been notified. The Table Office has also been notified of the changes and a revised order of questions will be issued as soon as possible.

The Session up to the Easter break will be extremely heavy. I shall continue to try to give two weeks' notice of business, but that may not always be possible. I hope that the programme for the Scotland Bill, which has already been accepted, and that for the Government of Wales Bill, which I hope will be accepted today, will help. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) for her co-operation on that.

Although I cannot yet provide definitive dates for the Easter recess, it will be for the convenience of the House if I say that it will fall in the week after Easter—the week beginning 13 April. I shall give more precise details on another occasion. It will also be of help for the forward planning of hon. Members for me to say that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor intends to introduce his Budget on Tuesday 17 March.

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement and for giving us two weeks' business. It is helpful to the House to hear something about the Easter recess and the date for the Budget at this stage in the year—and of course, we were all extremely excited to hear about the new plans for questioning the Minister without Portfolio.

In the right hon. Lady's statement, the House will have discerned the influence of the work of the Modernisation Select Committee in connection with the programming arrangements made for handling the Scottish devolution Bill on the Floor of the House. As she knows, we oppose the principle of the Bill on constitutional and other grounds, but we welcome the agreement reached on the way in which it should be debated. If the House agrees later today the arrangements for handling the Welsh Assembly Bill, that, too, will be owing in part to the work of the Modernisation Committee, as well as in part to a change of heart.

The influence of the Modernisation Committee could also be seen yesterday when the Minister of Agriculture announced that the Government would subject the legislation on the Food Standards Agency to pre-legislative scrutiny. That is very necessary in such a complex area, and will clarify the Government's plans for, among other things, taxing the food industry to pay for its own policing.

I would be grateful if the right hon. Lady would rule out now the notion that the agency should have its own Select Committee. If that were granted, by analogy we should have to have Select Committees for health and safety, highways, prisons and many other subjects. I think that the existing Select Committee system should be well able to cope with the Food Standards Agency.

There has been welcome progress in some of the areas for which the right hon. Lady is responsible, but alas, rather less progress elsewhere. I therefore ask her to arrange for an early debate on social security and other associated matters, to give the Government an opportunity to make clear the principles about which they are worrying their own Back Benchers, as well as every disability pensioner and single parent group in the country, with the briefing and counter-briefing in the Government's internal welfare wars. We should have a debate so that the House can know which Minister is in the lead. It would also be useful for us all to find out when a means test is not a means test.

Will the right hon. Lady also arrange for an early debate on Welsh affairs so that the Secretary of State for Wales can come to the House to answer the 40 questions that have been tabled on the Welsh referendum count controversy? It is no good Ministers brushing off legitimate concerns by saying that Opposition parties dislike the result of the referendum. Judging by the Welsh press, the people of Wales dislike the Secretary of State's inability to bring transparency to that matter. The people of Wales, and the people of the rest of Britain too, deserve a bit better.

Finally, according to today's edition of The Times the Minister for the Environment is due to announce sweeping changes in planning law in a written answer this afternoon. Yesterday he batted aside questions on the matter, although he could have answered them during the debate on the Regional Development Agencies Bill.

I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that we should have a debate on that matter, given that, sadly, one of her colleagues has again ducked facing the House to be questioned on his plans, preferring yet again to give a private briefing to the press first. I hope that she thinks that that is a serious matter.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her initial comments, especially her praise of the work of the Modernisation Select Committee. I hope that the fact that we are both members of that Committee need not prevent us from being pleased when our proposals are accepted by the House. The programming resolutions that we have been able to put forward with all-party support represent important steps forward. Credit goes to all the Members from all parties who serve on the Committee.

I am also pleased that the right hon. Lady welcomed what we have decided to do about the draft Bill introducing the Food Standards Agency. We can improve the quality of much complex legislation such as that Bill if we have appropriate consultation and on occasions scrutiny by the House.

The proposed system does not involve taxing food for policing; it is a system for improving consumer confidence, and such a move is long overdue.

The right hon. Lady asked for a debate on welfare reform. There will be plenty of opportunities outside this House as well as inside to discuss welfare issues. When we find that the Department of Social Security is spending more than is spent on education, health and law and order put together, yet poverty has increased since 1979, we can all be certain that the previous Government failed to tackle poverty. We must establish the right priorities for that Department, and there will be many occasions on which we can discuss those matters.

In respect of the right hon. Lady's comments on the Welsh referendum, I must point out that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is answering questions on that this afternoon. She and her colleagues will find that the issue has been totally blown out of proportion and that any problems which existed were minor and would not have affected the result, which was an endorsement of the Government's proposals.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The right hon. Lady does not know. We should have a recount.

.Mrs. Taylor

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the answers that come out this afternoon, he will be better informed on this matter.

As far as planning rules are concerned, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has not ducked facing this House. He has placed in the Library statements he has made, and he has published a consultation document to which hon. Members are welcome to respond.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Madam Speaker, you will be aware that I have persistently raised questions in the House about the maldistribution of national lottery awards, and I once received an apology from the Dispatch Box from the Minister of State in the previous Government for his inability to supply adequate information. I have pressed upon my constituents the need to apply and I have backed them in connection with those awards.

It is therefore disappointing to discover in today's Daily Mirror that north-east Derbyshire, which I represent, is bottom in terms of national lottery awards, receiving £2.78 per head of population, compared with some areas which have received £2,000 per head of population. In those circumstances, could we have a debate on the national lottery which is not just about the changes that have taken place, but which looks back at the funding arrangements so that we can make sure that this disaster does not carry on in the future?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend knows the ways of the House very well and usually finds many opportunities to raise the issues which concern him. He will be aware that questions to the relevant Department take place in this House on Monday. That might be an opportunity for him to ask the Minister.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that some Conservatives want not just a re-run of the Welsh referendum, but a re-run of the general election in Wales? Clearly, they are still smarting from their defeat on both counts.

May I congratulate the right hon. Lady on successfully negotiating good programme motions for the Scotland Bill and the Government of Wales Bill? We welcome that, and believe that far more of the business of the House would be improved if sensible discussions took place at an early stage about the way in which Bills are dealt with. I hope that she will confirm that, in future, we will try to agree on a programme where we split a major Bill between Standing Committee and a Committee of the whole House, so that we can make sure that the details are discussed adequately in those forums.

Can the right hon. Lady give a firm assurance that we will have a debate on SI 2959, the beef on the bone ban? The former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), supports the ban, but other Conservative Members appear to support us. Other hon. Members from all Opposition parties support our prayer 590. Can she give an undertaking that we will have a debate on that matter on the Floor of the House as soon as possible?

Finally, on a small point, can the Leader of the House assure us that "The Code of Conduct for Ministers" applies to parliamentary private secretaries as well as to Ministers?

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the Modernisation Committee, in which he and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) have played their part. I agree that programme motions can be important and can help the House to secure proper scrutiny of legislation. I also agree that there is a role for splitting Bills between the Floor of the House and a Standing Committee, but each Bill should be considered on its merits, and if we can accommodate the wishes of the House, we shall try to do so.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has asked for further information from the Ministry regarding the order banning beef on the bone. That information will be produced, and then it will be possible to have a debate on the order. I envisage that debate taking place on the Floor of the House before the recess.

There are rules about the behaviour of parliamentary private secretaries and what parts of our proceedings they cannot or should not take part in. They are not as clearly laid down as those for Ministers, because PPSs clearly do not have the same responsibilities.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In view of the exchanges at Treasury questions concerning offshore islands and so forth, can we have a debate next week on the scandalous position whereby Dame Shirley Porter has hidden away a vast amount of her private fortune to avoid paying the £27 million surcharge that has been upheld by a court of law? Not one word of criticism has come from Tory Members over her conduct, and that shows them as the hypocrites that they are. Can the debate take place as early as possible? In view of the court's findings, should not the Government recommend to the Queen that the title, the honour, given to Dame Shirley, be taken away?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will know that collection of the money due from Dame Shirley Porter, and indeed from the other individual involved in the case, is a matter not for the Government but for the city of Westminster and the auditor. There are clear rules regarding any honours that have been awarded and the ways in which they may have to be forfeited.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

In view of the intense interest aroused by the Minister of Agriculture's statement to the House yesterday, as instanced by the fact that you, Madam Speaker, understandably could not call all the hon. Members who wanted to question him, can we have a general debate on food safety measures? In the meantime, can the Leader of the House clarify what seems to be the Government's position—that, as a result of what the Minister said yesterday, all matters and authority relating to food safety are now the responsibility, and under the control, of the Department of Health, and not the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? If that is not the case, can we have a statement soon to clarify the areas of responsibility of the two Departments?

Mrs. Taylor

There has always been some overlap, especially, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, on nutritional issues. He ought to bear it in mind that, in addition to the full statement yesterday, we are to have a draft Bill, and we envisage some form of parliamentary scrutiny of that Bill. I think that that will be helpful to hon. Members of all parties; it will help to inform any future debate on the precise nature of the legislation that is introduced.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that IBM in America has issued a statement saying that it is very unlikely that computers controlling air traffic will be able to deal with the millennium problem? Although there is a statement from the Civil Aviation Authority saying that that will not affect British transatlantic traffic, it seems an urgent problem that is not being addressed, so will she have an urgent talk with her opposite number in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? The House will want to have those important assurances and to know that our air traffic control system is wholly safe.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend raises an important and serious problem, and many aspects of industry in this country and elsewhere are very concerned about the progress of preparations for that event. She will be aware that, before Christmas, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made a statement to the House about the Government's assistance with the preparations for the change in date. Many of her points have been taken on board and are being considered, not least by the committee that has been established to monitor progress. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service is present and we will ensure that all relevant Ministers are aware of her concerns.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that Budget day, 17 March, is a bank holiday in Northern Ireland? Does she feel that that is appropriate?

Mrs. Taylor

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was consulted on whether that date would create any problems, and it was not thought that it would.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) in his request for a debate on the unfairness of the lottery pay-outs, in view of the fact that Westminster gets about £2,000 per head whereas north-east Derbyshire, part of which I represent, gets only just over £2 per head. My right hon. Friend plays a role on the Modernisation Committee and she will be aware that a Bill has been introduced this week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to change the oath and prevent Members of Parliament from having to swear allegiance to the Queen and all who sail in her. Will she ensure that the Modernisation Committee considers the Bill, because it has support across the House?

Mrs. Taylor

I have not noticed a great deal of pressure for changing the oath as my hon. Friend suggests, and I and the Prime Minister have made it clear that we have no plans to do so at present. On his point about the lottery, I can only repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes)—that questions to the relevant Department will take place on Monday. Both my hon. Friends have a great record of persisting on issues in the House and I would not be surprised to find that they are able to raise the issue of lottery grants to their area on many other occasions.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I wish to press the Leader of the House on the issue of 17 March, and I question some of the advice that Ministers get from their advisers. I also wish to press her on the issue raised by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Will the Prime Minister, when he meets the President of the United States, raise the issue of millennium compliance by computers? Figures published recently in the press suggest that the £370 million that the Government have allocated, as announced by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in December, will be utterly inadequate for the task. The world depends on the leadership of this nation and the United States on the matter.

Mrs. Taylor

I have nothing to add on the subject of the date of the Budget. As I said, discussions took place and advice was sought before that date was agreed. On millennium compliance, I made the position clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken an interest in the matter. He will know that the Prime Minister has taken a direct personal interest in developments and is carefully observing how confident we can be about compliance. He has often stressed the need to take all appropriate action on the matter.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

In recognition of the Government's determination to pursue policies that prevent ill health, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to publish a Green Paper on public health? When will that happen, and will a statement be made?

Mrs. Taylor

The Government are committed to publishing a Green Paper on public health and will be ready to do so in the relatively near future. Under this and previous Governments, Green Papers have not always been announced to the House, but that one is especially important, and I will bear in mind my hon. Friend's request.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

Yesterday the Minister of Agriculture received a broad measure of support for his proposals for the Food Standards Agency, but he said that funding for the agency had yet to be decided. When the White Paper or a draft Bill are debated, will the Leader of the House urge him to avoid placing extra inspection charges and levies on farmers, who can ill afford them after the 47 per cent. drop in farm incomes?

Mrs. Taylor

I believe that my right hon. Friend and colleagues are well aware of the pressures that exist in that industry. Part of the purpose of publishing the draft Bill and having further consultation is to allow such arguments to be made. However, ultimately it will be in the interests of everyone, including the farming community, if we can improve confidence in British food.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

First, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on electoral reform. We now have the Electoral Reform Commission; we also have the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which deals in part with the way in which Members of the European Parliament are elected. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have strong views on electoral reform, and there are even some supporters of proportional representation—I would not touch it with a bargepole, but there we are.

Secondly, I add my support to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who asked for a debate on the activities of the spivs and fraudsters of Westminster city council.

Mrs. Taylor

Electoral reform was not just touched on during, but was the essence of, our Second Reading debate on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which will return to the Floor of the House before long. The Electoral Reform Commission is embarking on its work and it may be wiser to wait until the outcome is known before we talk about further debates in the House on the principle of the matter.

On local government and the difficulties that Dame Shirley Porter created and faces, I have nothing to add to what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Opposition Members are touchingly grateful for the opportunity for an exhaustive 10-minute internal and external examination of the Minister without Portfolio's affairs; I thank the Leader of the House very much for being so good as to arrange that.

Would the right hon. Lady be good enough to arrange for a debate in which West Sussex Members of Parliament would have the opportunity to challenge the Deputy Prime Minister on the extraordinary—unprecedented—decision that he has taken to overturn examination in public of the West Sussex county council structure plan, thus causing a potential crisis in the shire counties of over-development on a scale never before seen? Such a debate would give us an opportunity to explain the enormous anxieties and concerns of our constituents.

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that the Minister without Portfolio will be touchingly grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments; I do not suppose that he realised he was so popular. I cannot find time for a debate on structure planning in West Sussex in the near future, but that may be an appropriate topic for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

The right hon. Lady will be aware that, as a result of the Government's policies, interest rates have risen on a number of occasions, leading to rises in mortgage interest rates and causing a very significant gap in the amount paid in benefit to people on housing benefit, who, sadly, have to have their mortgage interest paid, and the real rates charged. That is especially so in the case of disabled people, who are now being caused considerable further distress by Labour proposals to cut their benefit. That distress is experienced also by the very many elderly people who are expressing concern about cuts in their benefits.

Therefore, may I reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, and ask for an urgent debate on social security issues? It really is not good enough to say that there will be plenty of opportunity to talk about that outside the House.

Mrs. Taylor

It is strange that the hon. Gentleman is denying that there is any problem in respect of social security—either spending or the fact that some people who need help do not get it. We should all realise, not least from experience of our constituency work, that the social security system is not as comprehensive as it should be, and that it is not always the people who need help the most who get the help they want.

It is unwise of the hon. Gentleman to act in such an alarmist way and frighten people in his constituency or elsewhere about benefits that they might lose when there is no specific proposal of the type that he mentions.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

In view of today's publication of the Home Affairs Committee's report on police disciplinary and complaints procedures, will the right hon. Lady tell us when the report will be debated on the Floor of the House? Will she draw the Home Secretary's attention to the appalling level of secrecy that has surrounded allegations of sexual abuse and ritual initiation behaviour at Harrogate police station in the early 1990s, which have resulted in a huge financial cost to the North Yorkshire police authority? Can we be assured that the whole issue will be discussed by hon. Members—either in a Select Committee or on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Taylor

The Home Affairs Committee report on police complaints procedures, which has just been published, is very important and the Government will study its recommendations carefully. We shall respond to the report in the near future. I am not in a position to say at present whether the report will be debated on the Floor of the House and, if so, upon what time scale—although there is provision for debating some Select Committee reports on the Floor of the House.

I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's specific points about allegations at Harrogate police station to the attention of Home Office Ministers. The hon. Gentleman may wish to try to secure an Adjournment debate or to raise the matter on the Floor of the House in some other way.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Will the right hon. Lady consider arranging for an early debate on the difficulties that the Government are having meeting their debts? Given the fact that the Government are currently legislating for a private statutory rate of interest and that, when in opposition, the Prime Minister pledged to settle debts within 30 days, will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that there is widespread and varied concern about matters as different as the delay in paying additional payments promised to pensioners, which will now not take place until well after the end of winter; and delayed compensation for confiscated handguns?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman raised that matter during Treasury questions, when it would have been appropriate to do so. I do not think that the picture is as bleak as he suggests. The poorest pensioners who will receive most help with their winter fuel bills will get that money this month. All hon. Members should welcome the Government's move to assist pensioners with their fuel bills.

Mr. Evans

The right hon. Lady has referred already to the conduct of the count of the Welsh referendum. Does she appreciate that the difference between those who voted no and those who voted yes is 0.6 per cent.? Does she appreciate that allegations about breaches of the Representation of the People Act 1989 were made first by members of the Labour party in Caerphilly? Does the right hon. Lady also appreciate the fact that members of her party are calling for an independent inquiry, as is the editor of the Western Mail, which is a pro-devolution newspaper in Wales? Does the right hon. Lady believe that it is fair that the judge and jury in this matter is the Secretary of State for Wales? Many people believe that, if the vote had gone another way, his future would have been in jeopardy.

Does the right hon. Lady appreciate that the only way that democracy will be done, and will be seen to be done, in Wales is by establishing an independent inquiry that will examine properly all the problems that have been raised since the referendum? Perhaps an independent inquiry would request a recount of the votes.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to appreciate the fact that his side lost the vote and the referendum found in favour of Welsh devolution. I do not think that he has the relevant details. If he were to examine answers to parliamentary questions and the information that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is to place in the Library today, he would find that his allegations cannot be substantiated. In fact, the number of disputed votes amounts to about 320. There is no case for an inquiry into the matter. The chief counting officer, Professor Sunderland, has considered the allegations and rejected the suggestion of any problem whatsoever. The Welsh referendum was won fair and square.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Could the Leader of the House persuade the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, no less, to make a statement to the House on the future of London Underground? Is she aware that the Labour party's manifesto for London made much of the need for a better transport system for London, and that referring to the fare increases and under-investment in the underground system, it stated that Labour would change all that? Is it not the case that fares have increased way above inflation, the problems of commuters have got worse and worse, and there is perpetual inaction on the Government's part?

Mrs. Taylor

There was a great deal of inaction in the past 18 years, which led to the present problems. The hon. Gentleman will know that questions to the relevant Department are being tabled next week, and he may want to pursue the matter in that way. He should recognise that the problems that exist in London Transport have not been created in the past few months.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that there is a developing crisis in the planning regime? She will have heard the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and the point raised by the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), and she may be aware of the arguments in yesterday's debate on regional development agencies, all of which demonstrated that the arbitrary decisions being made by her ministerial colleagues on planning matters are turning out to be against the interests of the rural communities and the green belt, and are a menace and danger to the way of life that many people have come to cherish. Will the right hon. Lady therefore arrange for an urgent debate on these matters, so that we can have some open government and openness about the iniquitous decisions being made behind everyone's back?

Mrs. Taylor

In the past 18 years there was a presumption in favour of development that caused many problems throughout the country. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that most planning decisions are not made by Ministers. If he has concerns about planning matters, he can respond to the consultation document that the Minister for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), issued today.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

When are we to have a general economic debate on the green Budget, and in particular on the announcement in that Budget that TESSAs and PEPs are to be abolished? Some 750,000 savers, including some with extremely small savings—the smallest in the land—will suddenly have to pay increased tax under the policy devised by the Paymaster General, who has an offshore trust sheltering potentially millions of pounds' worth of tax not paid as a UK taxpayer.

Mrs. Taylor

I have already announced that the next Budget will be on 17 March, which will be an opportunity for all hon. Members to make speeches on the economy.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I add my support to the request by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) for a debate on electoral reform, so that the benefits of a preferential proportional electoral system can be explained to hon. Members.

Bearing it in mind that 22 January is National B6 Day, may we have a debate on the Government's proposed restrictions on the sale of vitamin B6? Does the Leader of the House realise that up to 600 health food stores throughout the country could close if the restrictions go through? Many of my constituents do not understand why the Government want to proceed with the restrictions, when people use vitamin B6 to aid their health, and the scientific evidence against it is discredited and highly questionable.

Mrs. Taylor

I have nothing to add to what I said about a debate on electoral reform. I must admit that I was not aware that 22 January is National B6 Day. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that it is also the day for Agriculture questions.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the right hon. Lady consider an early debate—if not next week, then in the near future—to consider the implications of the apology that was given earlier this week by the Japanese Government for the way in which prisoners of war were treated in the last war? Is she aware that the apology, valuable and sincere though it doubtless was, merely repeated two previous apologies that had been given over the past five years, and that what the veterans want is not simply an apology, which is obviously necessary in the first instance, but proper compensation for their sufferings?

The purpose of such a debate would be to make the Japanese Government understand that if they think that the apology is the end of the matter, it is not. Proper compensation should be paid, and the matter should be settled once and for all, before the state visit takes place.

Mrs. Taylor

Many people throughout Britain are still very mindful of the sacrifices that were made during the second world war and the suffering that took place in Japanese prison camps. We all have constituents who well remember those days and we know and understand their concerns. The Japanese Government have now shown understanding of the strong feelings that remain in the United Kingdom about that suffering. The Japanese Prime Minister recently made an official apology not just on his own behalf but on behalf of his Government, and that is why it was different.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

On 25 November during Foreign Office questions I asked the Foreign Secretary the straight and simple question whether he could explain to me and the House why youth unemployment in Britain has fallen rapidly during the past four years whereas it has risen rapidly in most of our major European competitor countries. He gave what I regard as a flippant response, which was: Primarily because the number of young people in Britain has been declining."—[Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 765.] Believing that to be inaccurate, I followed it up with a written question to the Foreign Office to which the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who has recently entered the Chamber, gave an answer which demonstrated that the Foreign Secretary's response to me had been inaccurate. That answer said that, in the Foreign Office's estimate, 30 per cent. of the decline had been due to a decline in the number of young people in the United Kingdom, the remainder being due to economic growth and an increase in the number of people going into higher education.

Realising that there was a clear discrepancy between those two versions, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary before Christmas asking him to say which reflected the Foreign Office's view, and I was concerned to receive a response, again from the Minister of State, dated 5 January, which said that he had replied to a written question and had nothing further to add.

Given the clear statement in "The Code of Conduct for Ministers", which makes it clear that if Ministers give inaccurate information in the House of Commons they should come at their earliest convenience to the House to put that inaccuracy right, will the Leader of the House ask her right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to come to the House to do so?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman raised this matter with the Foreign Secretary during questions on Tuesday, and I do not know the full details or the full responses that he was given. He mentioned that he was talking about estimates and it may be that there is scope for discrepancy there, but of course I shall look into the matter.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

The right hon. Lady has already answered a couple of requests for a debate on social security and welfare reform with the suggestion that those matters can be debated outside the House. With the Prime Minister spending half of Prime Minister's Question Time refusing to answer questions on welfare reform on the basis that the review is still going on; with a debate having been refused in the House when the Prime Minister is today going out to tell the public what is happening; and when, while he was in Japan, the chairman of his association was out telling us what would be in the reforms—I suspect inaccurately—surely our constituents need us to debate the matters in the House, not to be told that we should be doing it outside.

Mrs. Taylor

I announced that the week after next there will be an Opposition day when it will be open to the Opposition to decide what they wish to debate. If they wish to debate the principles on which we should reform the welfare state, the Government would welcome that, not least because we could then draw attention to the extent to which DSS spending increased enormously while they were in government and yet poverty increased, with an increase in the proportion of families on less than half the national average income, and to the fact that when we came into office 4 million children were living in poverty. We shall be happy to discuss the backdrop against which we need to debate reform of the welfare state because of the failures of the past 18 years.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Does the Leader of the House recall that, when she made her announcement about extra time for the Minister without Portfolio, there were jeers from around the House? After months of ministerial silence, he was finally called in to answer one question a month and it now seems that he will be called in to answer two questions a month. Does she recognise the fact that there was a deficit in her announcement today because the Minister without Portfolio has wide responsibility for areas of Government policy and co-ordination outside the millennium dome, and her announcement did not deal with that? He is on 11 Cabinet Committees, and he interferes, with prime ministerial approval, in areas as wide as food safety, energy and minimum pay.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Baker

Quite right. Why do we not have an oral slot for the Minister without Portfolio, so that, like every other Minister, he could be accountable and face questions from Opposition Members as well as from Labour Back Benchers?

Mr. Skinner

We do not want him here every day.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend seems to be in a minority on this occasion. I should like to respond to the popularity of the Minister without Portfolio. He answers questions on matters for which he is most directly responsible. He has no other responsibilities for which he is the lead Minister answerable to this House.