HC Deb 05 March 1998 vol 307 cc1195-206 3.31 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give 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 9 MARCH—Remaining stages of the National Minimum Wage Bill.

TUESDAY 10 MARCH—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate entitled "Labour's Hidden Taxes", followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Damage to Pensioners' Incomes". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

That will be followed by remaining stages of the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill [Lords].

At 10 o'clock, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

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

In the afternoon we shall have proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill.

That will be followed by progress on remaining stages of the School Standards and Framework Bill, followed by 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.

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

MONDAY 16 MARCH—Second Reading of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 17 MARCH—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

WEDNESDAY 18 MARCH—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

That will be followed by continuation of the Budget debate.

THURSDAY 19 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate, which will be brought to a conclusion on Monday 23 March.

FRIDAY 20 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. As I habitually remark—because she habitually makes the arrangements—it is useful to have notice of two weeks' business, although it may have been a little easier for her this week than perhaps it was last week.

Can the right hon. Lady say when we are likely to see the forthcoming legislation relating to the registration of political parties for electoral purposes? The Scotland Bill, the Government of Wales Bill and the European Parliamentary Elections Bill are already well advanced in their progress through the House, and she will agree that their electoral credibility depends on the provisions of the proposed legislation on the registration of political parties. It clearly is not acceptable that those three constitutional Bills should be expected to complete their passage through the House without at least a first sight of the Government's plans for the registration legislation. I hope that she can help in that respect.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the way in which he chose to announce on Monday the rise in prescription charges? His plans seem to have been given to The Independent. They were then confirmed by his own Department, and were fully discussed and debated on radio and television all day—and all that before a written answer at 3.30 pm.

We know that it has become the practice of the Government in the past 10 months to bypass the House, but given that the present Secretary of State for Social Security described last year the announcement by written answer as "sneaking out the news", how would the right hon. Lady describe this year's arrangements? Announced on every channel, save to the House, perhaps.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a statement from the Minister for women on the Government's plans for the election of equal numbers of men and women to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh assembly, of which the Secretary of State for Social Security spoke so enthusiastically in last Friday's debate? Newspaper reports tell us—one has to believe them, as that is often the Government's chosen medium of communication—that those plans have been overruled by the Lord Chancellor. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) got rather short shrift from the Prime Minister yesterday when she asked that question. The whole House, not least Scottish and Welsh Members, would welcome clarification on the Government's apparently changed position.

Finally, will the right hon. Lady arrange for an early statement from the Secretary of State for Health on how much red meat the Government propose to allow us to eat? On 28 September, he told the appalled red meat eaters of Britain that, if they were eating an average amount, that was too much, and they had to eat less. Just today, the chief medical officer is telling the same meat eaters, "Forget it—average is okay." I suppose that that is what the Government mean by a "steakholder economy". On behalf of the meat eaters of Britain, I ask for early clarification.

Mrs. Taylor

I shall bring the right hon. Lady's last remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health. The House has taken steps recently to encourage the eating of British beef. I am sure that she will join me in congratulating the Refreshment Department and those who have signed the book supporting the eating of British beef.

On the right hon. Lady's other points, we are making progress on drawing up legislation on the registration of political parties. We originally thought that that might coincide with legislation on the funding of political parties. That will now be a separate matter, because the Neill committee is looking at it in some detail. We hope that more straightforward legislation will be available. I hope that we can discuss that through the usual channels in the not too distant future.

I was interested in what the right hon. Lady said about prescription charges, and especially what she claimed the present Secretary of State for Social Security said last year. I should remind her of the complaint last year: that prescription charges had increased by an amount above the rate of inflation without a statement being made to the House. The right hon. Lady and Conservative Members should be circumspect in their criticism, given the fact that this year's increase in prescription charges represents the first real-terms cut in the cost of a prescription for 19 years.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made the position clear yesterday on the election of women to the Scottish Parliament. We are committed to increasing the representation of women in political life, and have achieved the highest ever number of women Members of Parliament. There are 101 Labour women Members, so we shall not take lectures from a party with only 14 women Members.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend find time next week for an urgent debate on the consequences of the fire sale of rail rolling stock companies that was held by the previous Government? They threw away state assets with abandon and ruthlessness, and the taxpayer could have benefited from an enormous number of assets if that had not been allowed. Will she ensure not only that the public know what was done by the previous Government, but that an urgent method of getting good value back is sought?

Mrs. Taylor

As usual, my hon. Friend raises an important point, of which I am well aware. Everyone was staggered by the figures revealed today. We said at the time of the privatisation that the Conservative Government were selling the taxpayer short. In fact, that dogma-driven Government have cost the taxpayer millions of pounds. We warned of these difficulties, and it would be good if we had time to discuss the issues. However, the Opposition have chosen not to use their Supply day to debate transport.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am glad that the Leader of the House shares my disappointment that the Conservatives are not giving two former Secretaries of State, the right hon. Members for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) and for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the opportunity next Tuesday to defend their complicity in the great rail rip-off, which is now called the great train robbery.

Why have we not yet heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, not only about the matter raised by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—the taxpayer was cheated of £1 billion because of undervaluing—but about the takeover bid for Great Western Holdings, which he has apparently put on hold? Again, a huge sum of money was scandalously ripped off the taxpayer because the previous Government insisted on pushing ahead with privatisation for purely political reasons. Is it not time that the Government explained what they propose to do about this appalling situation, and the deteriorating standards faced by customers and users of the railways as a result of what has happened?

Mrs. Taylor

All of us who are customers and users of the railways, which are a civilised way to travel, are concerned about deteriorating standards and the particular problems on some lines. As taxpayers, we are also outraged by the amount of money that the Conservative Government have cost us.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Deputy Prime Minister has made his views clear on Great Western. The proposal has been put on hold, but the hon. Gentleman was right to say that further measures are required. He will know that the Government are conducting a thorough review of rail regulation. It is not possible to hold a debate in the near future, but the House will want to return to the issue.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the issue of the railways is becoming a scandal in Britain today? People such as Branson—Mr. Goody Two-Shoes—are picking up taxpayers' money for running trains in the north-west. Taxpayers' money is involved in Eurostar, because we have had to step in to run it temporarily. Now, there is the scandal of people making millions of pounds from selling off rail rolling stock. After 10 months in office, it is high time that the Government realised, just as many of us forecast, that there is only one solution to the problem: British Rail should be taken back into public ownership.

Mrs. Taylor

I have already said that my hon. Friend's concern is shared by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, although I am not sure how some Conservative Members can face their constituents, given the problems that they have created. There is no satisfaction whatever in having been proved right, but, as I have already told my hon. Friend, we are conducting a thorough review of rail regulation.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

May we please have an early statement from the Prime Minister on the Government's plans to reform the House of Lords? As the Lord Chancellor has revealed that his Cabinet Sub-Committee is already working up proposals for an elected Chamber as part of stage 2 of the reform of the House of Lords, may we have a statement setting out in detail how and when the Government will consult all major parties?

Mrs. Taylor

I presume that the hon. Gentleman was asking for a debate. There are many occasions on which we would like to debate the composition of the House of Lords and the impact of hereditary peers on legislation. We made our position on the House of Lords perfectly clear in our election manifesto, and we are sticking to it.

We said that, as an initial self-contained reform not dependent on further reform in future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. I wish that we had some idea what the Opposition think, as they are sending out such mixed messages. There are clear divisions between different parts of the Conservative party on this, as on most other issues.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Although I understand that my right hon. Friend will not be able to arrange a debate in the next fortnight on the report of the Modernisation Committee, will she consider sending a copy of that important report on the conduct of Members in the Chamber to all right hon. and hon. Members, so that we can consider its proposals?

Mrs. Taylor

I confirm that the Modernisation Committee has completed a report on the conduct of Members in the Chamber and that it will be published on Monday. It addresses many issues that have been raised on the Floor of the House by right hon. and hon. Members in the past few months. I hope that it will be a step forward, and that you, Madam Speaker, will welcome it. As my hon. Friend anticipated, I cannot provide time for a debate in the near future, but it is something that the House will wish to consider in due course.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

In view of the increasing likelihood that the United Nations arms inspectors will not be allowed to carry out their duties in Iraq unhindered, and in view of the growing racial strife in Kosovo, will the Leader of the House provide time for an early debate on foreign affairs, to reassure right hon. and hon. Members that Her Majesty's Government will not be flouted by two dictators at once—Saddam Hussein and Mr. Milosevic?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman knows that, during the recent difficulties with Iraq, the Government kept the House very well informed on all occasions. I cannot promise the early debate he requests, but he will know that there are Foreign and Commonwealth questions on Tuesday.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to look at early-day motion 873, which highlights the desperate plight of Afghan women living under the Taliban?

[That this House offers its support for the women of Afghanistan who have been stripped of rights taken for granted in this country, who are banned from work and barred from receiving any education, are not allowed to leave home unaccompanied or to speak in public and are forced to wear the all-enveloping burqa and for whom healthcare is almost non-existent, notes that thousands of widows are deprived of the right to earn any livelihood for their families and that their children are forced to scavenge on the streets; therefore calls upon the Government to initiate a campaign at the UN to ensure that the Declaration of Human Rights is respected in Afghanistan, and the rights of women upheld; and further calls upon honourable Members to wear a flower on 8th March to show solidarity with Afghan women.]

I wonder whether, despite the tight legislative timetable, the Leader of the House could provide an urgent debate on an appalling human rights abuse that is really gender apartheid.

Mrs. Taylor

I understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend. She will be aware that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of efforts to improve the conditions of women in Afghanistan. We monitor the position carefully, and offer what help we can. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has taken a particular interest in the matter. However, I cannot promise her a debate in the near future.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), to clarify his statement that any threats of closure to a village school will be called in for a decision? His statement has caused confusion throughout the country. Councils do not know whether it is a further example of the Government's determination to centralise power, or just an empty gesture to the countryside movement.

Mrs. Taylor

I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides would welcome my hon. Friend's decision. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and his Ministers should be involved in such important decisions.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

Will my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate on credit unions? The new quango, the Financial Services Authority, has given credit unions the shivers. They feel that they will be asked to pay the same amount of support to the FSA as banks.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot answer my hon. Friend's specific point. He will know that the Government are proposing to publish a draft Bill on financial services regulation. That will allow everyone with an interest to contribute to the consultation period.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the estimate that tourism will become the largest business sector in the world by the millennium? It is a tradition that the House has a Friday morning debate on tourism fairly regularly. Will she consider that request seriously?

Mrs. Taylor

I shall consider that request, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Fridays in the near future are reserved for private Members' Bills.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we have a debate on the national insurance fund, and the welcome news announced on Friday that it has £896 million unallocated for next year? Since that money can be used without infringing the spending limits set down by the previous Government and this Government, will the Government consider applying it to ensure that pensioners have what they have not had since 1980—an increase in their pension linked to the increase in earnings?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will know that it is unwise to take a figure in isolation and draw simple conclusions. He will also be aware that we have Treasury questions on Thursday and the Budget the following week. I do not think that it will be possible to have a debate on the specific point that he has raised.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I reinforce the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie)? Will the Leader of the House grant us an urgent debate on the Government's plans for reform of the upper House? Is it not clear that the Government's true intention is to do away with the independence of the upper House, replacing the current structure with a quango full of placemen appointed by the Prime Minister, to ensure that the Government's overriding and dictatorial behaviour in this House is unimpeded by a reformed upper House?

Mrs. Taylor

I would have expected such comments from the right hon. Gentleman. I am not surprised that he thinks that the so-called independence of the upper House can be equated with an hereditary peerage that predominantly supports the Conservative party. If he thinks that that has anything to do with independence, he has a lot to learn about how the Houses of Parliament work.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 881, which calls on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to sack the governing body of the Gwent tertiary college because of serious mismanagement and misuse of European funds?

[That this House expresses its concern at the decision of the governors of Gwent Tertiary College to employ a personnel consultant at a cost of £400 a day, in addition to the £650 a day it paid to another consultant; is disturbed that millions of pounds of European funds were misused; asks for all the reports into the college to be made public; recognises the uncertainty both students and staff at the college face as a result of all the investigations; and calls on the Secretary of State to sack the governors and make the management of further education colleges more open, accountable and representative of the communities they serve.]

Will my right hon. Friend allow time for an early debate on that, so that we can express a view that the governing bodies of further education colleges should be accountable for their actions?

Mrs. Taylor

I agree with my hon. Friend that FE colleges should be fully accountable. He will be aware that the issue of Gwent tertiary college was raised a couple of weeks ago in an Adjournment debate. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also addressed it yesterday, and asked to be kept informed about what is happening. I am sure that he will be. However, I cannot find time for another debate on that.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the right hon. Lady take particular note of yesterday's debate on the high-speed rail link to the channel tunnel? May I remind her that the issue affects the whole of the United Kingdom, and the north-west as we both know, and is not just a Kent or east London matter? The National Audit Office report shows that the loss on the sale of rolling stock almost exactly equals the missing money needed to complete the link right through to north London. Will she draw that fact to the attention of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions? Will she ask him to make a full statement on the Government's proposals for the link?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman asks me for a statement on the matter, and goes a long way to justifying the House giving the issue more attention. As I said earlier, hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the missing money and the way in which taxpayers were cheated at the time of rail privatisation. I do not need to bring those facts to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is fully aware of them. My right hon. Friend has said that he will keep the House informed on the high-speed rail link to the tunnel. He made a statement when the emergency first arose, and will certainly be keeping the House informed of developments.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the past few days, an unarmed man was shot and killed in his home by Bedfordshire police on the misinformation of a gunman in the vicinity? Is she also aware that, the day before, a family in my constituency received compensation for very similar circumstances, when two young children who were left at home alone were confronted by police gunmen? Will she arrange an early debate to ensure that the matter is fully investigated, so that further such fatalities are avoided?

Mrs. Taylor

The issues that my hon. Friend raises sound very serious indeed; I can well understand her concern. She asks for an early debate, but I do not think that that will be possible. However, a Home Office Minister is present on the Front Bench, and I am sure that he has heard her remarks.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

A little later this month, European Culture Ministers will be visiting Macclesfield to attend a seminar at the excellent Shrigley Hall hotel in a wonderful hill village to the south of Manchester. Unfortunately, this long overdue and justified recognition of Macclesfield comes at a time when its museums are under threat of closure, because Cheshire county council—Labour-controlled—is dramatically cutting the grant for museums. Labour-controlled Cheshire county council blames that on the very unfair revenue support grant settlement given to it by a Labour Government. Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the appropriate Minister to come to the House to deal with future funding of very important local museums, such as the silk heritage museum in Macclesfield?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman just about kept a straight face during that question. I hope that he has given his constituency sufficient publicity. He will know that it is Culture, Media and Sport Question Time a week on Monday.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Can we have a debate next week on the other serious report published yesterday by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office on the supply of Westland helicopters to India under cover of the overseas aid budget? Twenty-one helicopters, costing £50 million, lasted for only six years and were then sold for £900,000. Their sole purpose was to ferry people to and from oil rigs. The Comptroller and Auditor General said that that served absolutely no purpose for the benefit of the poorest people in India. The people responsible—the previous Government—need to be held to account.

Mrs. Taylor

We could spend an awful lot of time in this Chamber debating all the issues for which the previous Government should be held to account. As we are looking to the future and pursuing legislation, we cannot, unfortunately, find time for all debates—even when there is a reasonable request.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Would the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to make a statement on any change in Government education policy since 1 May, owing to the fact that Lancashire county council proposes to remove concessionary bus travel from 16 to 18-year-olds who go to sixth-form colleges or sixth-form schools? That will deter many families in Lancashire—I believe the figure is 7,000—who will now have to find hundreds of pounds for bus travel, or perhaps will not put their child forward for further education. Has not education, education, education been replaced by back-door tax, back-door tax, back-door tax?

Mrs. Taylor

I wish that we had time to discuss all the measures taken by Education Ministers which have been so positive—not least the vast amount of money that we are putting into education which the previous Government denied to schools. Education is being improved in a range of areas—smaller classes, more money for books and a raft of other measures which are necessary because of the failures of the previous Government.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

May I return to the subject of the Hillsborough scrutiny of evidence report, which has been raised in the House previously? Again, I ask the Government to find time to debate the report on the Floor of the House. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the anger and frustration in Merseyside and beyond, which has been fuelled by the fact that we have been unable to find time for a debate. I urge her to find time as a matter of urgency. It may not be possible to have a debate this side of Easter, but could she perhaps arrange for a debate as soon as possible after Easter? It would be seen as a positive response if she could give some indication today.

Mrs. Taylor

Hon. Members have raised this issue in previous weeks, and I must refer to what I said then. However much we understand the concerns of those who have been affected, it is difficult to find time in the near future for a debate on this important report. I know that hon. Members who feel concerned about the matter have looked at ways of trying to get an hour-and-a-half Adjournment debate on the subject. I understand what my hon. Friend describes as the frustration and anger of hon. Members who want a full debate. I share his concern, as does the Home Secretary. We would like to be able to find time for a debate. He is right to say that there is no possibility of finding time before Easter. I will look at the possibilities after Easter, but I cannot give him a specific date—although we understand the nature and depth of the concerns that are felt.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Does the Leader of the House understand why there has been such a concerted campaign to get a debate on her Government's proposals on the composition of the upper House? After all, it is clear that the Government intend to abolish the hereditary principle, but we do not know their intentions on the composition of the upper House in the future. Unless that is answered, we have no way of knowing whether what will be put in its place is any better or not.

Mrs. Taylor

I am interested to hear from the hon. Gentleman that there has been a concerted effort to get a debate on the upper House. This is the first business questions at which the matter has been mentioned. If that constitutes a concerted campaign by the Opposition, they still have a great deal to learn. If he thinks that this issue should take priority, perhaps he should have persuaded his Front-Bench colleagues to use an Opposition day for it.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

As my right hon. Friend knows, the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill returns to the Floor of the House tomorrow, but it may fall through lack of time. Is it possible, at this eleventh hour, for my right hon. Friend and the Government to follow the precedent set by my predecessor Sydney Silverman—the then Member for Nelson and Colne—on the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, when the Government, under the Prime Minister Harold Wilson, allocated nine Wednesday mornings? Surely it must be possible for the Government to allocate time, perhaps on a Tuesday or Thursday morning, which would not eat into Government business, to allow the Bill to succeed.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not sure that it is time that is the enemy of the Bill. Time is available for it to progress if the opponents respect the overwhelming support that it has.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Lady return to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson)? Is she aware that, this weekend, the Prime Minister will be meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel? Given the serious stalling of the peace process and the continuing crisis with Iraq, will she please drop her churlish reply to my hon. Friend and agree that, although the Government behaved correctly—rightly so, since there was a possibility of British troops being committed to action—she should make time for the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House on his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and to answer questions on the peace process as well as wider middle east questions?

Mrs. Taylor

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it clear that they set great store by trying to make progress on the peace process in the middle east. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports what was done about Iraq—he made that clear at the time. I hope that he will also accept that the Government are endeavouring to make progress in those peace talks. We all have a responsibility there as well, and Ministers are giving those talks as much priority as possible.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, in local government, when councillors make a reckless decision that incurs a loss to their local authority, they are surcharged. When we debate the sale of the rolling stock leasing companies, would my right hon. Friend consider producing retrospective legislation to surcharge those Ministers responsible for the loss of £1 billion to the public purse? Will she also consider producing legislation that would inflict another windfall tax on those who profiteered from the sale, which would obviate the need for student fees?

Mrs. Taylor

Although it might be tempting to have retrospective surcharges of the sort my hon. Friend describes, it is not feasible.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether, on 20 March, when the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill comes before the House for its Second Reading, the Government will allow time for it to have a proper Second Reading debate? If there were time for such a debate, it would be interesting to explore the different views of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister on local government reform.

On the one hand, on Tuesday the Deputy Prime Minister proffered an olive branch of co-operation and partnership with local government, and, on the other, the Prime Minister yesterday wielded a big stick and told local government that, unless it did what he wanted, its services would be taken away. Which is it going to be, and can we have such a debate?

Mrs. Taylor

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to draw attention to a useful Bill and support it. Had he done so, I would gladly have agreed with him, although there is no prospect of any extra time—it is a private Member's Bill, and it will join the list in the normal way. In trying to manufacture a division, his comments were just plain silly.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that many Labour Members who represent rural constituencies would warmly welcome a debate on the future of the village school? Those village schools that managed to survive the previous Government, who oversaw the closure of between 90 and 100 schools in my county, mainly in villages, warmly welcomed the Government's brief announcement last week, but hon. Members know that village schools face genuine problems in maintaining academic standards, and local education authorities face problems in properly funding them. Therefore, a full debate would be of particular benefit to the House.

Mrs. Taylor

As I said, many positive statements have come out of Government recently on which I would like to be able to find time for a full debate. It would be good to contrast the statement of my hon. Friend with the pathetic record of Conservative Members when they were in government, as they closed 450 rural schools. With that record, it is perhaps not surprising that they do not know the difference between Saturday and Sunday.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will my right hon. Friend, in liaison with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, consider holding a debate on the implications of the Krebs report on bovine tuberculosis? There is a growing awareness that some of the report's recommendations may not be practicable, and an examination of this growing problem—which is probably second only to bovine spongiform encephalopathy—is long overdue.

Mrs. Taylor

The Krebs report recommended a package of measures which, taken together, provide a coherent basis for moving forward. We have consulted on the report to find the best way of implementing the measures. The consultation period ended only last week, and the Government are currently considering the views that were submitted. The House will be informed of decisions in due course, but I am afraid that I do not think that it will be possible to have a debate along the lines that my hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that house price gazumping has returned to England? Will she make time available to discuss how my constituents in St. Helens can enjoy the same protection as the constituents of our Scottish colleagues?

Mrs. Taylor

We all have constituents who have faced problems because of gazumping, which has, at times, been rampant and caused many difficulties. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing is issuing a consultative paper, as we take the problem seriously and want to establish whether we can protect people who currently feel extremely vulnerable.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Can the right hon. Lady give us an assurance today, rather than next week? She will be aware of the point of order that I raised yesterday in the House. Does she agree that the Opposition have tried to be wholly supportive and constructive in the work of the Modernisation Committee and in the timetabling of the Bills that are currently before the House? Does she accept that, if timetabling is to work, there must be no repeat of yesterday's events, when a statement—it was not urgent or of international importance—took up one hour of the three hours that had been allocated for a debate on a crucial feature of the Scotland Bill? I know that she has tried to be entirely constructive in these matters, and I ask for an assurance that she will use her best endeavours to ensure that what happened yesterday never occurs again.

Mrs. Taylor

I am not sure that I can give the entire assurance that the hon. Gentleman wants. The Business Committee, which decides about business on the programme motion, takes into account the possibility of statements. Opposition Members often criticise us for not making the statements that they want. I should point out that Conservative Front Benchers asked 24 questions about the statement yesterday—clearly, some Conservative Members thought that it was important.

Conservative Members may ask why we did not make the statement on another day, but if we had made it the day before, it would have taken time from the Supply day, which is something that we have so far managed to avoid doing. We made the statement on the day that had been decided. The Opposition want statements, but when we make them, they complain, and when we do not make them, they complain.