HC Deb 12 March 1998 vol 308 cc749-62 3.30 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

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

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

The business for next week is as follows:

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

Remaining stages of the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) 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.

Continuation of the Budget debate.

THURSDAY 19 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 20 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week is as follows:

MONDAY 23 MARCH—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 24 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the School Standards and Framework Bill.

WEDNESDAY 25 MARCH—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the second to fifth reports from the Select Committee on Health on children's health, followed by a debate on the third report from the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs on the proposed strategic rail authority and railway regulation, followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Progress on remaining stages of the Government of Wales Bill (First Day).

THURSDAY 26 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Government of Wales Bill (Second Day).

FRIDAY 27 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 25 March there will be a debate on bananas in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on aid to shipbuilding in European Standing Committee B.

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

[Wednesday 25 March:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Document: 5357/98, Bananas. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-xvi (1997–98).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Documents: 11165/97 and 11167/97, Aid to Shipbuilding. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-ix (1997–98).]

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the Leader of the House for giving the House two weeks' business, as is becoming her habit and practice.

I wonder whether the right hon. Lady is able to give the House any information about the possible dates for the Easter recess. I understand, because she explained them last week, that there are problems in knowing exactly how the pattern of legislation will pan out, but, as I pointed out two weeks ago, The House Magazine printed a start date for the recess and she discreetly neither confirmed nor denied it on the day. It is possible that she may be able to tell us something today.

Once again, I make my weekly request for a debate in Government time on the national health service. The right hon. Lady has announced for Wednesday 25 March a debate on the second to fifth reports of the Health Committee on children's health. That is extremely welcome, but I must remind her and the House that the Government have not provided time for a single debate on the national health service since 1 May. It is no good the right hon. Lady stating in the Government's defence that there have been seven statements on the national health service since 1 May—we know that, but, because there have been so many statements, and because the Government have introduced so many changes to the national health service, it is time for a debate on those and wider issues relating to the national health service. I do not understand the Government's reluctance in that respect.

May we have an early debate on the Government's policy on human rights in China? Yesterday, in Prime Minister's Question Time, it was clear that the Prime Minister had a rather shaky grasp of the issues. It might be helpful if we could have a debate led by the Foreign Secretary on those and other features of the Government's ethical approach to foreign policy.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee and on the third and fourth reports that came out earlier this week. The reports are welcome, as they propose sensible reforms to make the proceedings of the House more comprehensible and effective. Has the right hon. Lady detected any misgivings among hon. Members about the proposals? If she has, what reassurances has she been able to provide?

Mrs. Taylor

The right hon. Lady asked me about the Easter recess. Early in January, I gave an indication of when I expected the Easter recess to be. I cannot yet confirm the precise dates, but I expect that the Easter recess will be the week of Easter Monday and that the House will return on the following Monday, but I am not yet in a position to confirm that. I hope also, in the not too distant future, to give some indication in respect of the Whitsun recess, but that is rather more difficult, as we have to consider the progress of business.

The right hon. Lady asked me again for a debate on health. I stress that there is no reluctance on our part to have such a debate. Indeed, we would be happy to discuss the extra £1.5 billion that we have found for the health service. We have a very heavy legislative programme and, at the moment, there are no slots available. I should point out, however, that, in the past 10 days, the Opposition chose the topics of four debates, and on all those occasions they avoided discussing health matters, so perhaps it is they who are running scared.

As for human rights issues in China, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday that we believe that the European Union's policy of dialogue with China, supported by practical assistance, is more likely to bring about real improvement in respect of the rights of ordinary people. We should like to find more time for foreign affairs debates, but that will not be possible in the near future.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her remarks about the Modernisation Committee. I also thank all members of the Committee for the consensus that we were able to develop in respect of the changes that we recommend to the House. The reactions to our reports so far—of course, it is early days—have been entirely positive, and I am very pleased indeed with the way in which they have been received by hon. Members.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to look at the questions—and their answers—that I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security about a major problem with the computer system in her Department? Will she find time very soon for the House to debate a number of problems that are arising in the public sector in respect of massive computer systems that are probably not capable of performing the tasks that are being asked of them? It would be very dangerous if the House were to continue to pour money into machinery that was not capable of working efficiently and which would leave many important functions of government in considerable disarray if they failed.

Mrs. Taylor

I shall look at the questions tabled by my hon. Friend. I am aware of the possible difficulties in that particular area, not least because it was a massive IT project involving a great number of systems, and I understand that it was always expected that early plans would need to be tested and reviewed as the programme moved forward. That is what is happening. Obviously, we have to be careful that the systems we introduce work. If my hon. Friend has specific points she wishes to raise, I am afraid that I cannot find time for a debate, but it is questions to the relevant Department a week on Monday.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

Following our representations, has the Leader of the House had any success in getting earlier answers to ministerial letters and parliamentary questions?

On the subject of railways and the takeover of Great Western Trains, what has happened to the right hon. Lady's assurances given last week in response to representations on that subject from my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)? Is it not time that there was a statement from Ministers on the shenanigans within rail companies and the huge profits being made by individuals at taxpayers' expense?

Finally, will the right hon. Lady comment on the fact that, with a statutory instrument today on Scottish water charges, the Government appear to have decided to follow the precedent set by the previous Conservative Government of subsidising water charges in Scotland, but refusing to do so for areas in England such as the south-west, which has water charges that are 40 per cent. higher than those in Scotland, yet we are told that there is no taxpayers' money available? Is it not time that Ministers explained that in the House?

Mrs. Taylor

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, if he wishes to have an SI discussed, he knows the procedure and the discussions that can go on through the usual channels.

We alluded to rail problems last week, and I think that everyone is very concerned about what is happening in some parts of the rail industry. I announced that there would be a debate that includes rail regulation a week on Wednesday, when the hon. Gentleman may be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Speaker.

Ministerial correspondence has been raised by several hon. Members, including some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues. I have been looking at the issue in some detail. The picture is an extremely mixed one, with some Departments performing better since the general election than previously and others having difficulties because of the huge increase in the number of letters received; we have clear evidence to back that up. That is not to say that I do not think that things can be improved: I am writing to all Cabinet colleagues on that matter to seek improvements, and the Cabinet Office is also taking it up at official level.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that tomorrow may well be the last day for debate on the private Member's Bill to abolish fox hunting? Is she aware that, on our side this week, many hon. Members got excited about the prospect of sitting all night to get the National Minimum Wage Bill through? They would quite happily not call for Government time, but sit after 10 o'clock for, say, two or three nights to complete the Bill and frustrate the wishes of that minority opposite. Then we could send the Bill to the House of Lords, and if those hereditary peers—the fox hunters and the Tories—turned up in large numbers to thwart the Bill's progress, that would give us a perfect excuse to get rid of the lot of them.

Mrs. Taylor

I will be here again tomorrow, as will many of my colleagues, to vote on that Bill. The responsibility for the Bill's fate rests with the Conservative Members who seem determined to flout the overwhelming will of the House and the British people. I know that that causes a great deal of concern, and I hope that those who are worried about the issue will make their views known to Conservative Members.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the provision of local justice? Is she aware that, in my constituency, people are concerned about the threat hanging over the magistrates courts in Ashbourne, Bakewell and Matlock? We see this as yet another attack on the countryside, depriving rural areas of services—something the Government allege they are not trying to do. However, we see the proposed closure of these courts as another service being taken from the countryside.

Mrs. Taylor

That is not a new issue, and I do not recall the hon. Gentleman protesting about these matters when his party was in government. If he has specific points he wishes to raise, questions to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department take place on, I think, Tuesday. [HON. MEMBERS: "Monday."] It says Tuesday here. He will be able to raise these issues, but I will pass his concerns on to the Minister.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

May we have a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Scotland about the funding for the millennium link to reunite the Forth and Clyde canal and the Union canal? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is still a shortfall of about £7.8 million, and, unless sufficient funding is found by next Friday, the project may have to be abandoned, which would mean the loss of a great opportunity to create 4,000 permanent jobs and 1,500 construction jobs, plus an annual injection of £55 million into the economy of central Scotland?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend has made a strong point, and I am sure that he will wish to pursue it further with Ministers. There will not be time for a debate, but perhaps he can raise the matter at Question Time on Tuesday.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we have an early debate on the allegations that are made concerning Secretaries of State and conflicts of interest in terms of their constituencies, families or whatever? Does the Leader of the House think it is somewhat bizarre for a Secretary of State to instruct a permanent secretary to conduct an investigation into such matters? Does she believe that to expect an impartial inquiry under those conditions is somewhat optimistic? Does she agree that some sort of independent review mechanism would be preferable in getting to the bottom of the allegations?

Mrs. Taylor

I am surprised that a former Minister should cast doubt on the independence of a permanent secretary.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent comments by Steven Norris, the former Tory Minister, that the previous Government should be ashamed of their record on state education? Is she further aware of the report of the Audit Commission today, which outlines just how much all schools—including those in well-off areas—have been failed by the previous Government's policies'? Will she arrange for an urgent debate so that the House can assess how far state education was undermined by the previous Government?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We welcome the Audit Commission's work, which has highlighted the need to focus on the differences in standards produced by LEAs, even if they are working in similar circumstances. I cannot promise a debate on that specific point, but she will be aware that education matters will be debated in the House in the near future, and there may be opportunities to discuss the report.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the erstwhile leader of her party, the Euro Transport Commissioner Mr. Kinnock, is seeking to sue Her Majesty's Government if they pursue bilateral negotiations with the United States—as is their sovereign right—over air service agreements across the north Atlantic? In view of that, can the Minister for Transport come to the House at the earliest possible date to make a statement, or, preferably, can we have a proper debate on civil air transport, which could take in the proposed abolition of duty free shopping and the reduction in capital allowances for airliners?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that there will be an opportunity for such a debate in the near future. If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue specific points, it is tabling day for questions to that Department on Tuesday.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Has my right hon. Friend, like me, read in the newspapers today that the protector of the Camelot interest in the lottery has not only been dismissed for not doing his job, but will be compensated for not doing his job? To make matters worse—and this is a bit rich—the money will come from the lottery's good causes fund. Can she ensure that someone will come to the House to explain what on earth is going on? Has not the time come for a debate on whether it is time that someone else ran the lottery?

Mrs. Taylor

I do not think that my hon. Friend is technically correct—I do not think that the man was dismissed; I think that he resigned to ensure that there was full confidence in the lottery. If my hon. Friend wants to raise the issue, he must either apply for an Adjournment debate or try to be called at Question Time on Monday.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Will the Leader of the House consider a debate on greater public access to the Palace of Westminster? In view of the justified public expenditure on its magnificent refurbishments, will she consider putting the Lord Chancellor's apartment on the line of route, so that, in the manner of aristocrats welcoming American tourists to their homes, the Lord Chancellor—one of our greatest ornaments—could give tea to visiting Americans?

Mrs. Taylor

I understand that plans to allow access to the Lord Chancellor's apartment are complete and will be implemented—there will be access. Shortly after becoming Leader of the House, I made inquiries about whether we could increase public access to the whole building at weekends and in the recess. Work is now under way to examine the feasibility of that idea.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

As the Government have delivered on devolution for Scotland and Wales and are developing a strong regional policy, will my right hon. Friend consider the prospects for allowing our debates to have regional dimensions? I understand that time has been given to regional debates in the past.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Many hon. Members, representing different parts of the country, might find such debates extremely valuable. However, he will be aware of the pressure on time, so I do not think that he would give such debates priority over our legislative programme. Nevertheless, I shall bear his request in mind when time permits.

Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West)

Will the Leader of the House consider inviting to her excellent Modernisation Committee the people who run the radio programme "Just a Minute", so that they could suggest better ways in which to enforce the rules of no deviation and no repetition? The Committee could then, perhaps produce better rules to strengthen your position, Madam Speaker and that of your colleagues.

Mrs. Taylor

The Modernisation Committee has not suggested a rewriting of Standing Orders along the lines of the rules of "Just a Minute". I recommend that the hon. Gentleman reads the Committee's report—I believe that hon. Members will agree that it suggests ways forward.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I return to the subject that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? Does my right hon. Friend recall telling me that time would not be the enemy of the fox hunting Bill if hon. Members—I think that she had in mind Conservative Members—behaved themselves? After last Friday, is not it as plain as a pikestaff that Conservative Members want to torpedo the Bill? I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that the relevant Minister makes a statement to the House next week, saying, I hope, that time will be made available in this Parliament to ban blood sports.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that I will be in danger of repetition if I remind my hon. Friend of what I said on Monday—that time is not the enemy. As I said earlier, the responsibility for the fate of the Bill rests with those Conservative Members who seem determined to flout the overwhelming will of the House. It is not the case that, if the Government gave extra time, that would be the end of any problems associated with the Bill. I think that most people understand exactly what is happening.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Leader of the House is being very agreeable today. Bearing in mind her long-standing interest in education, will she arrange for a Minister from the Department for Education and Employment to make a statement on the decision that has been made by several county council local education authorities to abolish free school transport for 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time secondary education? While I accept that, once secondary education is completed, people or their families should start to pay, that decision is a dramatic change and is causing grave anxiety to people in my constituency's rural villages and to the All Hallows Catholic high school in Macclesfield, which does a wonderful job providing excellent education to youngsters from a wide area of east Cheshire.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, and if he cannot weave that issue into one of the debates on the education Bills before the House, I will be surprised. He knows that, if that is not possible, his best option is to apply for an Adjournment debate.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for a debate on the regeneration of the former RAF Finningley site in my constituency? The site has already benefited from considerable public investment and has one of the longest runways in Britain. As it is in an area formerly dominated by the coal mining industry, it is seen by businesses and communities as key to the development of jobs and industries in South Yorkshire. I would welcome time for a debate on the subject.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend knows that I have said on several occasions today that the Government's legislative programme is heavy and it is difficult to find time to debate all the issues that we want to, so I cannot give the assurance she wants. I understand that the Ministry of Defence is considering the bids that have been received for her local RAF station and is closely consulting other Government Departments, because it recognises the local sensitivity of the issue. I assure her that transport, planning and all other issues will be fully taken into account before a decision is made.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

The incredibly damning report produced by the Public Accounts Committee on the Child Support Agency includes the sentence: Unless firm action is taken, the work of the Child Support Agency will continue to bring unnecessary hardship and suffering to thousands of our fellow citizens. Will the Leader of the House ensure that time is made available for a debate, so that the Government can explain whether they intend to take such firm action to get rid of the ghastly traumas being suffered, not only by the parents but by the children involved?

Mrs. Taylor

We made it clear when the Conservatives introduced the child support legislation that—while we supported it in principle—we had grave concerns about the detail. It is clear to everybody in the House that the previous Government's Child Support Agency scheme is failing to deliver what was hoped. We have had two debates on the issue so far, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have listened carefully to the issues that have been raised. We aim to produce by the summer a consultation document containing our proposals for improvement; it is important that as many hon. Members as possible are involved in the consultation, because we all have examples of problems caused by the CSA.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate the dire consequences of the previous Government's pension policy and, in particular, the comment made by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, almost exactly eight years ago, on 15 March 1990, when she told me that she "totally rejected"—her words—my premise that 1 million people could be mis-sold personal pensions? Now we know the awful truth—that up to £6 billion and possibly £10 billion has to be found to compensate those millions of people who face poverty in their retirement years. Is not the lesson from that awful experience that we can never trust the pensions market to the private firms again and that pensions must be based on the state earnings-related pension scheme—a good-value state scheme, with a great record?

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the robust action that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury has taken to deal with the problem. It is true that the Conservative Government created the problem, the Conservative Government ignored the problem and the Conservative party has never apologised for it. Owing to Government pressure, particularly the action of my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary, two thirds of the priority cases have now been resolved; previously, hardly any had been resolved. It is clearly a difficult, on-going problem, and my hon. Friend is perfectly right to lay the blame at the door of the previous Conservative Government. However, even though it is tempting to have a debate, I am afraid that we cannot find time in the near future.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that, while we understand that the Government's bad management of their own programme has led to a legislative backlog, that is no reason to deny the House of Commons the chance to debate the major issues of the day? Does she agree that Britain has a major interest in events in Kosovo, where a large number of women, children and old men were murdered on the direct orders of the war criminal Milosevic, and in the former Yugoslavia, where more that 8,000 British service men of all arms are stationed? Those events need to be debated in the House so that hon. Members have a chance to put their views to the Foreign Secretary, not least to see whether Milosevic should be indicted as a war criminal. Will the right hon. Lady see what she can do to fit such a debate into the Government's programme?

Mrs. Taylor

First, there is no legislative backlog; we are very much on target, although some days have been taken up, by agreement, with Bills that Conservative Members wanted to debate on the Floor of the House.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that an important statement on Kosovo was made on Tuesday—unusually, it was made on an Opposition day because of the importance of the subject. It will not be possible in the very near future to find Government time for a debate, but it may be possible for the hon. Gentleman or others to secure an Adjournment debate, which has often happened on similar issues.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Does the Leader of the House agree that it is high time that we had a debate on the way in which the Opposition Front-Bench team uses the research assistance provided to it out of public funds? In business questions a fortnight ago, the shadow Leader of the House claimed that I had criticised my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health for allegedly packing NHS trusts with political appointments, when I had said no such thing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there seems to be a problem, in that either the shadow Front-Bench team research assistants cannot read newspaper articles with words of more than one syllable or the shadow Front-Bench team cannot?

Mrs. Taylor

I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the chance, without a debate, to set the record straight. On occasions, we need a full session geared into the weekly programme so that we can set the record straight about some of the allegations made by Conservative Members.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Eight weeks ago today, at Treasury questions, a Minister quoted pension return figures that I considered erroneous. I tabled a question, but I have not yet received a substantive answer. If the figures exist, I should have thought that it would be easy to provide an answer. Will the right hon. Lady find time next week for a debate on the length of time that Ministers take to respond to questions and on their inefficiency in doing so, so that I can raise the question of those figures, which I believe to be erroneous?

Mrs. Taylor

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not have an opportunity to raise that matter in the debate on pensions that the Conservatives organised the other day. There are many opportunities to question Treasury Ministers—indeed, there were opportunities today.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Given that the subject of human rights was raised in the Chamber today, may we have an early debate on the calibre of candidates chosen by the Conservative party to stand in local government elections? It has come to the attention of my constituents that my Tory predecessor, the racist Terry Dicks, has been selected in Runnymede to stand for local government. Hon. Members will recall that that creature went on a paid trip to Baghdad, at Saddam Hussein's expense, returned to the House and tried to justify Iraq's statement that the Kurds were not gassed in Halaji. He then supported the hanging of the Observer journalist Fazal Barzoft by Saddam Hussein. I would welcome an early debate to expose that character, who has yet again been selected by the Tory party.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to refer to my former colleague Terry Dicks as a racist? It sounds to me a most unparliamentary word to use.

Madam Speaker

Members are responsible for the comments that they make. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) referred to an individual who is not a Member of the House. I do believe that, when we make comments on anyone, whether they are a Member or whether they are outside, we should be very careful in what we say, and that we should be able to say those words outside this House and substantiate them. I cautioned Members on these matters only yesterday.

Mrs. Taylor

There is no ministerial responsibility for Conservative candidates in local elections.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

As everyone knows, the decision making on the site of the new Welsh assembly has been a complete shambles, and the Secretary of State for Wales is even dithering about when and how to make the announcement. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Wales, when he finally reaches a decision, instead of making that announcement in a written answer or in a press conference outside the House, to come to the House to make a statement, so that all Back Benchers have an opportunity to question him?

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will keep the House informed. The manner in which he does so must be for his judgment.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

May I echo the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) for us to hold a debate very soon about the way in which the Tories ripped off so many pensioners? I should like to refer specifically to the National Audit Office report published yesterday, which showed that when the water companies were privatised, all the choice, best bits of the pension funds went to private firms, and they left the taxpayer with a bill of £400 million to prop up the ailing pensions for workers in the previously nationalised water service.

Mrs. Taylor

I am tempted to arrange a debate on that matter, because the National Audit Office report shows the ridiculous, outrageous waste of taxpayers' money by the previous, Conservative Government in their rush, driven by dogma, to sell off the water industry. However, as I have said on other occasions, although there is much for which we would want to expose the previous Government, we cannot always find time to debate all those issues.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 914 signed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House?

[That this House is concerned about the unwelcome proposals to change BBC networked parliamentary programmes and views with great concern the proposals to cut back political coverage in the regions; greatly values the contribution to informed political debate by the BBC's regional weekly political programmes; urges the Corporation to retain and enhance these as a vital link between honourable Members and their constituents; and further urges the BBC to retain its regional reporting presence at Westminster.]

I believe that the BBC would be wrong to implement its proposals to cut regional political programmes, especially the political reviews that usually take place at the weekend, which are an important link between Members of Parliament at Westminster and their regions, showing what we do in the House and the importance of that work to the regions.

Although I support the BBC's plans for 24-hour news programming, it would be a mistake if that sucked away money that would usually be spent on political programmes for the regions. A debate in the House might show how much backing regional political programmes have from hon. Members.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman has raised an issue of concern to hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. He knows that the chairman of the BBC has been in the House today to discuss those issues and the broadcasting of such programmes as "Today in Parliament" with hon. Members who have an interest.

I understand that my hon. Friends are always pleased to see the hon. Gentleman on his own regional television programme, and I am sure that his comments will be noted by those in the BBC.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the recently published report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs entitled "Sewage Treatment and Disposal"? I agree that that is not the most obviously sexy topic, but it is of extreme interest to those who, like me, represent coastal constituencies, where sewage disposal is a matter of great public concern and an important public health issue. Therefore, it would be very helpful if we could debate the report at the earliest possible opportunity. Can the Leader of the House offer any assistance in that regard?

Mrs. Taylor

For the reasons I gave earlier, I do not think that I can hold out the prospect of an early debate in Government time. My hon. Friend will be aware that two Select Committee reports will be debated a week on Wednesday. The reports are chosen by the Liaison Committee, so perhaps my hon. Friend would like to make representations to that Committee about the topics for future debates in that slot.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I should be grateful if the Leader of the House would prevail on her Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Health to hold an early debate in the House on nurse training, particularly in Portsmouth and south-east Hampshire. If the Leader of the House is not prepared to allow such a debate, I ask that the Secretary of State be prompted to investigate the way in which nurse training in Portsmouth and south-east Hampshire has been conducted and how it will be dealt with in future.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot promise a debate, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's interest in the matter.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

I am sure that the Leader of the House welcomes the fact that our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary met representatives of the Hillsborough families last Saturday and has agreed to a further meeting. However, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the keen interest in Merseyside and beyond about when a debate will take place on Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's scrutiny of evidence report. It is obviously important that that should occur as soon as possible. Is she in a position today to confirm that a debate will take place, and say when that might be?

Mrs. Taylor

That important topic has been raised several times during business questions. I have explained to my hon. Friends and others the difficulty of providing time for an early debate. I hope that, in the not too distant future, I shall be able to give an idea of what may be possible. However, I do not wish to hold out the prospect of an early debate on this matter, for the reasons that I gave earlier.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

Can the Leader of the House say when the Modernisation Committee will consider private Members' Bills, particularly the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill? What should happen when two Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen cannot agree their party line on an issue, leading one Conservative Member to ask, "At what point does a short speech become a long bore"?

Madam Speaker

Order. I do not think that that is a question for the Leader of the House to answer. We are discussing next week's business.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), will the Leader of the House talk to Ministers about the time it takes to provide answers to written questions and about the quality of the answers provided? I tabled a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer more than a month ago, and I have just collected yesterday's Hansard in order to confirm the inadequacy of that delayed response. I put down a written question because it concerned a technical matter that was better suited to a civil service reply than an oral answer.

It deserved a proper response. If the Leader of the House looks at column 208 of yesterday's Hansard, she will see the inadequacy of the Chancellor's answer.

Mrs. Taylor

I cannot, and do not intend to, have a debate on that matter. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when I said earlier that I would be writing to my colleagues about the difficulties experienced with delays in answering letters from Members. Variations on that complaint, including points about questions, have been drawn to people's attention. I have made it clear that I take that issue seriously—as I have during business questions on other occasions—and I explained earlier what I shall do about it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During business questions, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell)—who has now left the Chamber—referred to my former hon. Friend Mr. Terry Dicks. Unfortunately, I have not been able to notify the hon. Gentleman of my point of order, but I think it right to put the matter on the record very quickly. The hon. Gentleman has paid Terry Dicks some £15,000 in damages and £52,000 in costs. Therefore, it appears that this afternoon we have witnessed a personal vendetta, using the protection of parliamentary procedure. I hope that you will examine this matter, Madam Speaker, and perhaps study the accusations that were made.

Madam Speaker

The point of order gives me an opportunity once again to deplore the personal attacks that are unfortunately being made with increasing frequency, not only on hon. Members but on individuals outside the House. I remind everyone here that one of our most cherished privileges is the freedom of speech, but that privilege, as I said only this week, has to be tempered with responsibility. Personal attacks enhance neither the quality of our debate nor the reputation of the House. Hon. Members should always bear in mind "Erskine May" which states: Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language. I think that those words are as appropriate today as they were when they were written.

Although the House is not full, I hope that those responsible will see that my words are brought to the attention of every hon. Member.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The problem arises on both sides of the House. For example, last week, the shadow Chancellor said that I had £356,000 in a pension fund. I went to the Fees Office the following morning to ask whether I could get hold of that money. I said that if I could get the cash, I could leave. The lady there said, "I'm awfully sorry, Mr. Skinner. If you retired today, you'd get something over £20,000." However, only the day before, the shadow Chancellor had told the House an untruth. Two newspapers printed the story, and I had to seek the services of a lawyer in order to get corrections.

I did not come to you, Madam Speaker, to whinge and whine, but it ought to be made abundantly clear that members of the Tory Front Bench are at it just as much as any Labour Back Benchers.

Madam Speaker

The words that I used were carefully chosen. They apply to all Members, whether or not they are Privy Councillors and on whichever Front Bench they might sit.

I was here when the exchange to which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) refers took place, and I read the newspaper reports afterwards. I am delighted that his pension is not what was suggested; otherwise he might have taken his cards and gone home, and we would rather have him here than in Bolsover.

Mr. Skinner

I could have taken a world cruise.

Madam Speaker

I hope you would take me with you.