HC Deb 12 November 1998 vol 319 cc479-92
Madam Speaker

At this time I would take the private notice question to the Secretary of State for Health, but there is a problem with the Department's computers. As the Leader and shadow Leader of the House have been able to make themselves available, it will be sensible for us to proceed with the business question, and take the private notice question when the Minister is here.

3.31 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

We completely accept your judgment, Madam Speaker, although we hope that this is not a foretaste of the millennium bug. Will the Leader of the House be kind enough to give us the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 16 NOVEMBER—Until about 7 o'clock, conclusion of consideration of Lords amendments to the Scotland Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Regional Development Agencies Bill. Consideration of any Lords Amendments which may be received.

TUESDAY 17 NOVEMBER—Motion to approve the seventh report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on the scrutiny of European business and proposed amendments to standing orders.

Motion to appoint a new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Motion on the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) (No. 2) Order.

Consideration of any Lords Amendments which may be received.

WEDNESDAY 18 NOVEMBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received to the Northern Ireland Bill.

Consideration of any Lords messages which may be received.

THURSDAY 19 NOVEMBER AND FRIDAY 20 NOVEMBER—The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

The House will also wish to be reminded that, on Wednesday 18 November, there will be a debate on agrimonetary arrangements and the introduction of the euro in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on European Commission development aid to South Africa (1986–96) in European Standing Committee B.

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

[Wednesday 18 November: European Standing Committee A: European Community document: 9597/98, agrimonetary arrangements following the introduction of the Euro. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: (a) HC 155-xxxiii and HC 155-xxxviii (1997–98)

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 9690/98, EC development aid to South Africa (1986–1996). Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-xxxvi (1997–98).]

Sir Patrick Cormack

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week. Will she conduct an investigation into the computer effectiveness of various Government Departments, so that we do not have a repetition of what I am sure she will agree has been an unfortunate occurrence this afternoon?

Will the Leader of the House make a statement to the House on Monday on the concordat between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, and tell us what bearing it will have on the allocation of Opposition days in the next Session?

Will the Leader of the House tell us the Government's intentions if the other place once again rejects the closed-list system for European elections? Is she aware that, in the recent debates here and in the other place, not a single Labour Member of Parliament or Labour peer spoke in favour of the closed-list system? Has she sought the advice of the hon. Members for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) on the desirability of that system? Can she name a single Labour Back Bencher who enthusiastically supports it?

The Leader of the House will know that my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House and I have asked for debates on the economy and on foreign affairs. We appreciate that, as this lengthy Session grinds to a close, she will not be able to give a day's debate to both those subjects next week, but will she assure us, given the critical situation of Iraq, that a statement will be made next week and time found for a debate, if necessary? Will she also give an assurance that we will have proper, full debates on the earliest possible dates in the new Session, not only on the Queen's Speech, but on the economy and on foreign affairs?

Will the Leader of the House give us next week, perhaps in lieu of the normal Business Statement, a statement on how she views the timetable for the coming Session? Will she try to ensure that the Government's legislative zeal does not leave the House unable to debate, adequately and properly, non-legislative subjects? Will she especially assure us that, if House of Lords reform is in the Queen's Speech, every stage of that Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman asked about the viability of computers used in Government Departments. We all regret the difficulties that have been caused today, and nobody more so that Ministers from the Department of Health. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government endeavour to ensure that Departments provide the right service to the House as to others.

The hon. Gentleman asked about discussions that are taking place. I am sure that he is aware that there have been discussions between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in the past, which focused primarily on constitutional issues and matters on which the two parties were in agreement. That is all that is under debate today.

The hon. Gentleman asked about—oh dear, all I have written down is, "intentions with regard to the other place". It might be helpful if the hon. Gentleman were to provide me with a summary list, if he and his right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House intend to ask as many as seven or nine questions at Business Questions, because it is hard to keep track of them. The hon. Gentleman asked about our intentions, and it remains the Government's view that they have put forward the right legislation. It has been carried in the House, and the Government will continue to advocate its cause in the other place.

The hon. Gentleman asked for debates on the economy and foreign affairs, with especial attention to the issue of Iraq. He is aware that we anticipate Queen's Speech debates in the not-too-distant future, and I cannot pre-empt the timetable beyond then. However, I can assure him that we will try to the best of our ability to keep the House informed, as we have so far, about the handling of the issue of Iraq.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the parliamentary timetable for the next Session. It is always a question of balance. When the Government have a full programme, especially if they have recently come to office, a tension is always felt between that programme and more general debates. We will put forward a programme of legislation that will be a further substantial step towards implementing the Government's manifesto, and we will do our utmost to reconcile that with proper debate.

The hon. Gentleman's final question concerned reform of the other place. It is of course not proper for me to pre-empt or prejudge what might be in the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Prime Minister made it clear on the "Today" programme this morning that British forces could be engaged in military action by the end of next week? That statement was not made in the House, and no provision has been made for a debate on the matter, whatever its merits may be. That is not the proper way in which to treat the House of Commons.

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the current relations between two political parties in the House are not a private matter between two party leaders, but concern the relationship between the legislature and the Executive? Will there still be Supply days for the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) now that he is on a Cabinet Committee? Will it be possible for us to table parliamentary questions to him? Has not Parliament been totally sidelined over two fundamental matters that affect the rights of Members to represent both service men and the people who elected a Labour Government, not a Lib-Lab Government?

Mrs. Beckett

I did hear the interview to which my right hon. Friend referred. I am also well aware that he, like many other Members, is a jealous guardian of the rights of the House. However, I did not take from the interview given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the reading that my right hon. Friend the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has given in suggesting that the Prime Minister said something that has not been said in the House. I do not recall whether my right hon. Friend was in his place—he probably was—during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, when the Prime Minister made remarks almost identical to those that he made on the radio this morning.

There is no question of the Prime Minister having said something that he has not aired here. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has repeatedly kept the House informed, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The House is aware of the unchanged situation in Iraq during the past few days; Saddam Hussein has chosen to break the agreements made both after the Gulf war, and with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The House has been kept informed. I cannot agree with my right hon. Friend that the Prime Minister has said something different today from what he has said in the House.

My right hon. Friend also asked about the discussions between the Liberal Democrat party and the Labour party. I repeat that those discussions have hitherto focused on constitutional matters. A discussion is taking place today on whether there are other matters on which there is sufficient agreement on policy issues to merit further exploration. Those discussions are in progress, but they have come to no conclusion. There is no question of appointments or of procedures of the type mentioned by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Pursuant to the first question put by my hon. Friend the deputy shadow Leader of the House, may I ask for a statement next week on the Government's progress towards anticipating the millennium bug, particularly following the Task Force 2000 report, which states that nine Departments are not up to speed—led, embarrassingly, by the Department of Trade and Industry?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to allow for a statement next week, but there will certainly be a statement soon to give an update. The Government began to give the House such updates on preparations, for the millennium bug—particularly our own—and we shall certainly continue to do so.

I am aware of the Task Force 2000 report. As task force members would acknowledge, the situation is continually changing. I do not share all the analysis by the task force, but I am always happy to know that others are concerned about the matter. It is vital that everyone who is aware of the issue should continue to urge people in all organisations, particularly those who run small and medium businesses, to take as much action as possible. There is still time in which to make a substantial difference to people's preparedness, and in which to prepare contingency plans for unforeseen developments. We are doing both those things, and we shall continue to report progress to the House.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I return to the concordat between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats? There has been no discussion of that matter in the parliamentary Labour party or in the wider Labour party. It is a great relief to hear that there will be no appointments of Liberal Democrats to Cabinet Sub-Committees. If there are to be constitutional changes, so that Liberal Democrats can be secreted on to Cabinet Sub-Committees, will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ensure that a statement is made to the House—not, with respect, by her, but by the Prime Minister?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend says that this matter has not been discussed in this context recently within the parliamentary party, but, as I pointed out some moments ago, all that has been said in the announcement under discussion is that, as arrangements already exist in the form of a channel for communication and discussion on issues where there is agreement and common ground, in particular on constitutional issues, it is being considered whether there are other areas of agreement and common ground.

My hon. Friend will be entirely aware, as is the whole House, that, although we may see eye to eye with members of other parties, including even those in the Tory party, on issues such as economic and monetary union, there are those in the official Opposition who see rather more eye to eye with this Government than they do with their own on this matter. It is sensible, mature politics to take forward ideas with those where there is common ground. Obviously, there are many issues, as I am sure the Liberal Democrats would be the first to acknowledge, on which there is not common ground, about which we not only disagree, but express our disagreement.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)


Hon. Members


Mr. Tyler

First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Leader of the House for the fact that I was caught out by the change in the sequence of the business and the late announcement on the Annunciator.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that, when the far left and the far right attack one, one knows that one has it just about right. After 35 years in politics, I have learnt that through experience. Can the Leader of the House give us any indication when it may be possible to allocate time for a debate on Iraq? There is a general view throughout the House that that would be helpful. To leave it until late next week, when inevitably we shall be up against the buffers, would be unfortunate.

Can the right hon. Lady give us any indication of her preferred timetable for reports from the Modernisation Committee? She will acknowledge the widespread concern throughout the House, particularly but not exclusively from Back-Bench Members, that we have been unable to make more progress in bringing forward recommendations for the House to consider.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's difficulty with the timing of the business statement. We all had rather short notice of that.

The whole House shares the view that the situation in Iraq is serious and is to be kept under review. It is entirely a matter for the Chair, and I do not wish in any way to pre-empt the decisions of the Chair, but this afternoon there is a debate on defence matters in which Members may find it possible to raise these issues, should they catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I said, that is a matter for the Chair.

We anticipate that there will be debates on these matters in the aftermath of the Queen's Speech. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that, whether or not there is a specific day on Iraq, the Government will certainly keep the House informed about developments, and will take seriously such a request should dramatic developments require such a decision.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable for modernisation. I hope that, within this calendar year, the Modernisation Committee may be able to put some proposals to the House for consideration and decision.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

All hon. Members have received a letter from the relevant Foreign Office Ministers on Iraq to tell us how hideous Saddam Hussein is, with which we would all agree. However, there is no letter to tell us about the conditions of the Iraqi people, yet the intention is to bomb the Iraqi people, not Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein will not be concerned about what happens to his people. Should not we be concerned? Therefore, should we not have a specific and immediate debate on the situation in Iraq?

Mrs. Beckett

Everyone in the House shares my hon. Friend's concern for the Iraqi people, but I am confident that he knows that the responsibility for their condition lies squarely with Saddam Hussein and his immediate allies. Their difficulties with food and medicine shortages about which we are constantly told are entirely because of a decision made by the Government of Iraq. Nothing that the international community is doing prevents the people of Iraq from being much better treated. I heed my hon. Friend's words about the importance of keeping the situation in Iraq under review, and repeat the assurances that I have given to other hon. Members that the Government are very conscious of it in respect of the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I also apologise for arriving a couple of minutes late, because of the last-minute change of business.

Following several other questions, now that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and the Prime Minister are metaphorically in bed together, could we not explore in an urgent debate the important parliamentary and constitutional implications of this development? We must be told exactly what role the right hon. Member for Yeovil has in government, and how it alters the relationship between the Government party and an Opposition party, up to now, so-called.

How will this affect that party's rights in this House in terms of questioning and debates and the Chair calling its members? All these matters are of considerable importance. If the development is as important as both the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Yeovil insisted on the radio this morning—the galactic future of the universe was the implication I got—surely we in this House should be able to debate it properly, and give our views of what is going on.

Mrs. Beckett

I have little—in fact, nothing—to add to what I have already told several hon. Members on this matter. I certainly cannot undertake to find time for a debate on it. I realise that, to many members of the Conservative party, it must come as a devastating shock that mature politicians can agree about some things, as they cannot even agree among themselves.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Concerns about the millennium bug were raised earlier. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) has some difficulties of his own with information technology. In view of the alarmist comment in the press earlier this week on the millennium bug, and given that the Leader of the House referred to a statement earlier, I wonder whether we are shirking our responsibility by not having a proper debate on the Government's preparations for the millennium bug. I believe that the Government have taken the problem seriously, in sharp contrast to the Conservative party, which had many years to prepare for the problem, particularly in respect of small and medium enterprises. May we have a debate in Government time on the problems of and preparations for the millennium bug?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the Government's preparations again. He is right to say that we substantially stepped up the procedures and preparations that we inherited from the Conservatives. I am prepared to be characteristically generous towards them and acknowledge that, as time goes on, it is more and more evident that everyone who is dealing with the issue realises that they should have started several years before they actually did. Certainly, those who began to make their preparations as long as ago as 1996 often now believe that it would have been better if they had begun earlier.

As long as the Conservative party refrains from trying to make silly points by trying to pretend that we diminished the programme that we inherited from it, I am prepared to recognise that it could not have been expected to foresee some of the issues that face us now. I cannot promise him that I will find time for a debate on the matter in the near future. As I told the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, I intend to keep the House informed and up to date about the Government's preparations.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

As the Government are committed to open government, and given the serious nature of the allegations in The Sunday Times and the whitewash by the Deputy Prime Minister, could the Leader of the House find time before we prorogue for a debate on early-day motion 1709—now, please?

[That this House expresses serious concern about the lack of a credible explanation of the interference by the honourable Member for Mansfield, the former Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the current Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at that Department, in planning applications in areas 140 miles outside his constituency; questions whether it is normal practice for parliamentary private secretaries to take up issues in other honourable Members' constituencies and on subjects covered by the department for which they are a parliamentary private secretary; and urges a full disclosure by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions of all papers, minutes of meetings and discussions concerning the Barnet Football Stadium and Belmont Riding Centre planning applications and a full investigation of this deeply unsatisfactory situation.]

Mrs. Beckett

I recall the early-day motion to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I think that he knows that the proper authorities in the House have made the inquiries that are called for, and that the matter has been cleared and my hon. Friend exonerated of any wrongdoing. If the hon. Gentleman seeks to substitute his judgment for that of the proper authorities, all I can say is that I am afraid that I have more confidence in the authorities than I have in him.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I make a House of Commons point? It used always to be the situation that, when a Minister went on an important, significant visit abroad, he or she reported to the House of Commons. Against that background, could we not have on Monday a factual report from the Secretary of State for Defence about what he said in the Gulf and what Gulf states said to him, in order to clear up something that is giving great concern? We are told that Arab states are privately in favour of military strikes, but publicly not a single Arab country, nor Iran for that matter, supports military action now or within the next month. At the very least, the House of Commons deserves to be told what the situation is on this matter.

Mrs. Beckett

On the general House of Commons point that my hon. Friend makes, I am not sure how far back he is harking. I say that with great respect; I am not in any way attempting to put my hon. Friend down. Certainly it is my own feeling that, of latter years, Ministers in all Governments have travelled so much more extensively than used to be the case that, while proper reports are always made to the House on visits of major importance, if we were to attempt to have a report every time a Minister went overseas, we would have difficulty finding time to do anything else.

I certainly take the serious point that my hon. Friend makes. I say to him, as I have said to others, that there is a debate on defence matters this afternoon, and, if my hon. Friend is fortunate enough to catch the Chair's eye, he may have an opportunity to raise the matter to which he refers. I can assure him and the House that the Government will continue to bring all proper information before the House on developments in Iraq.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Hardly a week goes by without some new revelation of disaster overcoming the project to rebuild and reorganise the Royal Opera house. Bernard Haitink, the musical director, has resigned, and there are rumours that Vivien Duffield, a major sponsor, is withdrawing funding. The artists are in disarray over what their contractual future will be. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to come to the House of Commons and tell us once and for all what on earth is going on with the project, before we find that the only performances to come from its newly constructed stages are farces?

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered questions on Monday, and, although matters continue to be discussed and meetings continue to take place, there has been no dramatic new development since then.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As regards talks with the Liberals, is it not a fact that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) tried to stay in office after the first election defeat in 1974 by trying to forge a coalition with the Liberals that did not come off? I am totally opposed to anything that might lead towards coalition government, and I have made my views clear. May I ask my right hon. Friend this question about Iraq—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. That is as classic an example of a non sequitur as I have heard at business questions.

Mr. Winnick

As regards business next week—which might be a more appropriate way of putting it, Mr. Deputy Speaker—will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House bear in mind the necessity of a statement on Iraq? Although only one Labour Member has so far expressed a view, many of us believe that the Iraqi dictator has shown the most blatant defiance both of the agreement he signed at the end of the war in 1991 and of the further agreement which he signed with the Secretary-General of the United Nations in February, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) referred.

Is my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House aware that the brutal terror in Iraq continues? Reports that appear to be totally reliable have emerged stating that, only last month, 122 political prisoners were murdered in a prison just outside Baghdad. That is an illustration of the terror that continues in that country.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right in what he says, both about the situation in Iraq and about the way in which Saddam Hussein has continually broken his word, including most recently to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I can give him the assurance he seeks, that the Government will do everything we can to keep the House informed. I know that hon. Members are concerned about the condition of the Iraqi people; however, I understand that Iraqi television reveals that the leadership continue to be well fed.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the Leader of the House give some guidance on how the Government intend to handle the Northern Ireland legislation, given that there are a significant number of amendments? Are we again to rush through the House legislation that we have not really thought out? In addition, I ask for a statement to be made in the near future that will allow the House to examine the implications of certain decisions taken in other places: for example, the attempt in Birmingham to camouflage Christmas by calling it "Winterval"; and the guidance being given to people in Northern Ireland that it is not right to display in places of work Christmas cards with scriptural texts on them, and that cars with GB plates showing that the owner has been abroad should not be parked in business car parks lest they cause offence. Surely that is carrying things to an unworthy extent?

Mrs. Beckett

It is my understanding that there might be a significant number of amendments to the Northern Ireland legislation, and I also understand that that causes concern. I assure the hon. Gentleman that one of the developments in the House that I have long deplored is the way in which, over the years, we have had more and more substantial numbers of amendments to legislation, instead of getting the legislation right in the first place. If we are able to implement some of the previous recommendations of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons in respect of pre-legislative scrutiny and so on, we might avoid that sort of thing in future.

However, I know that the hon. Gentleman recognises, as does the whole House, that the Northern Ireland legislation is a rather special case, having been devised over a relatively short period in order to deal with a fast-moving situation. In those circumstances, some amendment is inevitable. I fear that I am not familiar with the other issues he raises, but I assure him that opportunities to raise those matters in the House will continue to be available.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If any statement is to be made about the Lib-Lab arrangements, can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House have a word with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister before it is made and explain to him that many of us are against making such tinpot arrangements with the rag, tag and bobtail sitting opposite?

Notwithstanding all that, even if someone was in favour of some sort of loose arrangement, the last thing to do would be to arrange matters with that broken reed of a man, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. The man is under challenge from at least three or four of his colleagues, and they are rowing among themselves.

May I remind my right hon. Friend that, between 1976 and 1978, there was a less loose arrangement of a Lib-Lab pact? It ended in tears, when the Liberals ran away with the ball and would not play any longer. The problem was that it got a little hot in the kitchen, and they could not stand it. They are totally unreliable, and the sooner we get rid of that barmy idea, the better. What is more, if it carries on for any length of time, stop their Short money.

Mrs. Beckett

I take that as a further request for a debate on the matter, which I am unable to grant.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is it possible for the Leader of the House to arrange a debate on the principles of democracy? That would give us an opportunity to discuss the supine way in which the leader of the Liberal Democrats is being led by the nose to the Cabinet table to get his marching orders from the Prime Minister.

It would also allow us to consider more closely and contrast the way in which the leader of the Conservative party in Wales was elected on Tuesday by one man, one vote, involving all party members, with what is happening in the Labour party in Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales, who showed no interest in the Welsh Assembly, is being parachuted in by the party leadership, who are complete control freaks and are afraid of someone else getting their hands on the reins in the Welsh Assembly. They are also considering giving the Labour party membership just half a say in the matter. Since when has democracy meant one person, half a vote?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's final brilliant remark was lost on me, and as for his opening remark, I should have thought that somebody who was supine could not be led anywhere. The hon. Gentleman lectures the House on democracy. We need no lectures on that from the Conservative party. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there would be no devolution and no such elections if Conservative Members had had their way.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

I also ask my right hon. Friend seriously to consider having a debate on democracy, not on the drivel coming from the Conservative party but on House of Lords reform, so that we can finally put an end to the ludicrous ping-pong game that we are playing with important legislation at the moment.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. A good example of the Conservatives' attitude to democracy is that they agreed in 1911 that it was unsuitable for the hereditary principle to be a reason for membership of another place, but, 87 years later, they have not done a thing about it.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I reinforce the requests from around the Chamber for an early statement on Iraq. The Leader of the House said that the situation was unchanged. She is perhaps unaware that, last night, the United Nations met to discuss the evacuation of personnel from the country. Will she ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to say whether any British nationals remain in Iraq, and assure us that we will not face a repetition of the Gulf war when Saddam Hussein made use of the so-called human shield?

Will the right hon. Lady also ensure that time is available to discuss the legal basis for possible British intervention, so that, if and when British forces are used to enforce the will of the UN and the international community, the whole House can be in agreement and give our forces the full support they deserve?

Mrs. Beckett

I find it inconceivable that there would be circumstances in which the House would not give support to British forces. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that we have continued meticulously to keep the House informed. I accept that discussions continue day by day, but the position remains unchanged, in that Saddam Hussein is in breach of his obligations and the Government continue to insist and reiterate with our allies that he must come back into compliance. I assure the hon. Lady and the House that every effort will be made to keep the House informed.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about Ministers who have been abroad coming back and telling us about their experiences, will the Leader of the House confirm that it is the intention of the Deputy Prime Minister, when he returns from slaving away in Buenos Aires, to give us a statement on carbon emissions and what progress has been made internationally on global warming?

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend says, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is in Buenos Aires, where discussions are continuing. I thank my hon. Friend for his concerns and his suggestion that a statement might be made in the House, but, as it is not yet clear what conclusions will come from those discussions, it is a little premature to conclude whether there will be material to report to the House. I shall bear his remarks in mind, and draw them to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Can the right hon. Lady really not find time for a debate on democracy? The problem is that the belief on the Treasury Bench seems to be that democracy is one man, one vote—so long as that man happens to be the Prime Minister.

Mrs. Beckett

On these Benches, the position is—and long has been—that we believe in one Member, one vote. Women have the vote in the Labour party.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate the report that emanated yesterday from the House of Lords, which was dismissed by the Home Office without a nanosecond of consideration? That report was delivered not by a group of drug-crazed teenagers but by senior scientists, and has been described as authoritative, compassionate and wise.

The message sent from Parliament—which conducts much of its activities in alcohol-drenched rooms that are filled with smoke—is that it is against drugs. Yesterday, Parliament re-declared its war on people with cancer or multiple sclerosis who suffer serious pain. Will the Government explain why they believe that those who seek relief from pain are criminals? Can we not examine the posture adopted by the Home Office, which many of us believe to be not only premature but deeply stupid and cruel?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's long-standing concern about this matter. I understand also his concern for those who believe that this drug might help them. However, it is right and consistent that the Government should take the view that research must be carried out in this area. I accept that my hon. Friend believes that we should take a decision before the results of that research are known, but he will know that that is not the Government's view.

It has been made plain that, if and when a cannabis-based medicine is developed and shown to meet established standards in terms of safety and so on, the matter could be reconsidered. I understand my hon. Friend's concern—particularly for those who are in distress or pain—but the Government have considered the matter most carefully, and do not feel able to take the course of action that he recommends.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

May I echo the calls from both sides of the Chamber for a debate on the concordat between the Government and the Liberal party? That would provide an opportunity to explore fully the rumour circulating the Palace that the Liberals will have to rename themselves the Liberal doormat party.

Mrs. Beckett

I have nothing to add to what I said before about the unlikelihood of a debate on that matter.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a further debate on employee rights? Following the implementation of legislation such as the working time directive, some of my constituents have reported that some employers are trying to evade their responsibilities under those new directives. Indeed, some employees feel intimidated against acting to ensure that they secure their entitlements under the law. They are concerned that measures passed by this place will not be available to them because of threats by their employers.

Mrs. Beckett

It is always a source of concern if people feel that their rights may be at risk or that there is some danger of those rights being denied. My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the improvements that the Government have made in access to fair treatment at work. We shall continue to work on those matters.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to the pertinent inquiries by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), will the Leader of the House find time for an early statement or debate about the proposed allocation of Short money in light of the announced engagement between the Government and the Liberal Democrats?

The right hon. Lady will be aware that, to all intents and purposes, on the subjects of education, health, social security and European Union policy, the Liberal Democrats will not oppose the Government. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the purpose of Short money is specifically to assist the work of a major party that seeks to oppose the Government, and not to assist parties that are—metaphorically at least—kissing, cuddling and fawning over the Government?

Mrs. Beckett

I am touched by the enthusiasm of the Conservative party for Short money—which was, of course, introduced by a Labour Government to support the better working of the House, and which the Conservatives showed considerable reluctance to improve in any way when they were the Government and we were the Opposition.

The hon. Gentleman's entire question appears to be based on a false premise. If he believes that the Liberal party is supporting everything that we are doing on health and education, never mind on the handling of economic and monetary union, he has not been listening in this place.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

In response to earlier questions, the Leader of the House suggested that the proposed merger between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats was confined to some policy areas, or some departmental areas. May I add my voice to the calls for a proper debate on the implications of the merger? In those policy areas, it would obviously be inappropriate for them to have continued representation on Select Committees and other Committees of the House in the proportion that they have at the moment.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not know how the Conservative Opposition would manage if they were asked to take up more places on Committees, because—thanks to the judgment of the electorate—there are, comparatively speaking, so few Conservative Members. However, I repeat that I do not intend to find time for a debate on the matter; and as there has been no merger, there would be nothing to debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The right hon. Lady said that she got slightly lost with my second original question. Therefore, will she answer a specific point that I put to her? Can she name a single Labour Back Bencher who enthusiastically supports the closed-list system?

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, of course. That system is supported by all Labour Members, who are well aware that that it is simple and straightforward. However, the main point is that, if Conservative Members—as they do—continually talk about democracy, they make it plain that they do not understand it. The choices that were made on the operation of the system as it is to be applied to the European elections, were made democratically in the Labour party by members of our party, not by the leadership.