HC Deb 22 October 1998 vol 317 cc1395-406 3.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I ask the Leader of the House 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 26 OCTOBER—Opposition Day

Until about 7 o'clock there will be a debate on the Economy followed by a debate on Agriculture and the Food Industry. Both debates will arise on motions in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

TUESDAY 27 OCTOBER—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

Motion relating to the Working Time Regulations

WEDNESDAY 28 OCTOBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Debate on the Army on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 29 OCTOBER—Debate on Quarantine for Pets on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 30 OCTOBER—The House will not be sitting.

MONDAY 2 NOVEMBER—Debate on the Security and Intelligence Agencies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 4 November there will be a debate on the Social Action Programme 1998–2000 in European Standing Committee B.

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

[Wednesday 4 November:

European Standing Committee B:—Relevant European Community Document: 8328/98, Social Action Programme; Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-xxx (1997–98].

It may be convenient for the House if I announce now that the new Session will be opened on Tuesday 24 November.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful to the right hon. Lady for providing the business for the first week. I understand the current uncertainties, but I hope that she plans to revert to announcing two weeks' business in advance so that hon. Members may plan ahead.

Is it not astonishing that, although there is minimal pressure on parliamentary time, the Government have not found time for a full day's debate on the economy? While we may disagree about the reasons for the economic downturn confronting us, the recession concerns our constituents and is the subject of intense debate in the newspapers. It should be debated in the House, and the Government should not rely on Opposition days for debating that key subject. Is that not further evidence of the Government's intention to sideline and marginalise this Chamber?

After Parliament rose for the recess, we saw the publication of the Neill committee's report on the funding of political parties. It is a radical report with wide implications for the political process, and there are rumours that the Government plan to cherry-pick it. Can the right hon. Lady find time to debate the Neill committee report in the overspill? We are expecting the publication next week of the Jenkins report commissioned by the Government. On what day next week does the right hon. Lady expect its publication? Will the Government make a statement about that report? The House will expect an early debate on the report and the Government's response to it.

We are grateful to the right hon. Lady for announcing the date of the state opening of Parliament. Can she confirm when she plans to prorogue the House? In view of the shifting foreign affairs situation in Kosovo and elsewhere, is there any prospect of a debate on foreign affairs?

Finally, the right hon. Lady may know that an important international conference will be held in Buenos Aires from 2 to 12 November following up the Kyoto summit. It would be helpful if the Government could hold a debate before the conference starts so that hon. Members may give the Government the benefit of their views on those issues.

Mrs. Beckett

I shall endeavour to cover all the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. On the economy, the House will be very well aware that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that he will be making his pre-Budget statement on 3 November. The House will also be well aware that this is when the Government set out in full, with all the latest information, their current view of the economy. In that sense, it is faintly ludicrous to accuse the Government of not being prepared to come to the House and focus on those issues.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the Neill and Jenkins reports. I would normally hope to adopt an attitude of sweet reason in our weekly exchanges, but I find it extraordinary that the Opposition are already trying to make something of the Neill report and accusing the Government of trying to cherry-pick it. As the Conservatives are supposed to have given undertakings to implement some of the recommendations on publishing political party accounts and have singularly failed to do so, I do not think that it lies with them to accuse anyone of cherry-picking the Neill report. It is an extensive report. We were pleased that many of its recommendations chime in with our own evidence, but it goes far wider—

Sir George Young

Not all.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman says, "Not all". As far as I can recall, the report does not chime in with any of the recommendations made by the Opposition. Indeed, they refused point blank to allow Neill even to consider party political funding, so it seems quite farcical for them to pretend that they have the high ground on this matter. Of course we have every intention that there should be proper debate and consideration of the Neill report. When we have had a better chance to consider its wide range of recommendations and proposals, no doubt the matter will return in some form.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me when I expected the Jenkins report. I am afraid that is not immediately fresh in my mind. It may be Thursday next week, but I cannot be absolutely categorical. Again, we do not yet have the report, but of course I recognise that it is a matter in which there is passionate interest on both sides of the House and I am confident that it will come before the House at some stage.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me when the House may prorogue. I cannot give him a date, but I anticipate that it is likely to be late in the week preceding the state opening. I have taken note of his request for a debate on matters raised in the aftermath of Kyoto and of the dates that he gave for the conference in Buenos Aires. He also asked me about the prospect of a discussion on Kosovo. He will be aware, I am sure, that Foreign and Commonwealth questions are top next Tuesday.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the House be kept informed of developments over the Pinochet case? Is it not important that the due processes of law apply to all criminals, including a former murderous, criminal dictator and torturer such as Pinochet? Would it not have been far better had Lady Thatcher realised that and kept her mouth shut?

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that we should recognise the key importance of due processes of law with regard to all. He has asked for an assurance that the House will be kept informed. Knowing his considerable experience in commenting on such matters, I am confident that he will be well aware of the quasi-judicial role occupied by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Obviously, I will bear in mind his request, consistent with that responsibility.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I endorse the request for debates, when time can be found, on the Neill and Jenkins reports as well as Kosovo? There is a general feeling in the House that simply answering questions is not a sufficient response to that problem.

Will the Leader of the House undertake an urgent investigation and report back to the House as soon as possible on the terms of reference and the criteria for editing the parliamentary channel? I do not know whether she is aware that the BBC has now taken responsibility for the channel. I am given to understand, and I now have some evidence, that that has put the BBC in a rather invidious position. She may be aware that yesterday, I initiated a debate in the House on the reporting of Parliament by the BBC, which is a matter of considerable concern, and I was told afterwards by an hon. Gentleman that the BBC, in its strapline that runs across the bottom of the picture, was interpolating its own comments on our debate. This is a particularly invidious situation. I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that it is worth looking at the terms of reference of the BBC when it undertakes the reporting of Parliament on our behalf.

This afternoon, I viewed the tape of that debate. My speeches and those of other hon. Members appear with the BBC's own comments on the debate across the bottom of the picture. This may be a special case, but I think the Leader of the House will agree that in such circumstances, it could be invidious for the BBC to comment in that way, and possibly extremely misleading.

Mrs. Beckett

The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises was not familiar to me. I am sure that many hon. Members will share his concern. I take his point that he would wish the House to consider the matter at some stage, and I shall bear that in mind.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

After all the statements have been made about General Pinochet, and if all else fails, may I offer a decent suggestion? The official solicitor should gently take him by the hand to Mrs. Thatcher's flat, and force him to live there for the next six months.

Hon. Members

Cruel and unusual punishment.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot possibly comment.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

As I have read that the Government are in favour of the main thrust of the Neill report, which contained 100 recommendations, can the Leader of the House tell us how many recommendations fall under what I assume is the lesser thrust?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I did not follow the end of the right hon. Gentleman's question, but I can tell him, as I said a few moments ago, that the Neill report is more wide-ranging than any of us had anticipated, and the Government will want to—

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

We have accepted all the recommendations.

Mrs. Beckett

In that case, I look forward with eager anticipation to the publication of the Conservative party' s accounts.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

May I build on the response that the President of the Council gave to the shadow Leader of the House, and tell my right hon. Friend and the House that the Jenkins report will be published on Thursday morning with a press conference at the Institute of Directors, which seems entirely appropriate? In the light of my right hon. Friend's comments on sweet reasonableness, may I ask her to ask the Prime Minister to come to the House on Thursday afternoon and give us a statement on the Jenkins commission's report and recommendations, and to follow that with an early debate, given the report's constitutional implications and importance for the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the passionate interest that my hon. Friend, along with many other hon. Members, takes in the matter. I am confident that when the Jenkins report has been published, time will be found to air the issues that it raises, but I am not keen to speculate on when.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

As the Government of Libya have now accepted in writing the arrangements for a trial in The Hague of the Lockerbie suspects, subject to three amendments, and as the British and American Governments have said that there can be no amendments, is it not rather insulting to the House of Commons that the order providing for the trial and the expenditure, No. 2251, is not subject to debate or consideration by the House or any Committee? Would it not be fairer to democracy and to the relatives of those who lost their lives if the Government would arrange a debate for next week, to allow the House to say whether it approves of the Government's tough line, or whether it thinks that there was some merit in making concessions on the three amendments proposed by the Libyan Government?

Mrs. Beckett

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says in requesting time to be found to raise the matter in the House. He will be aware that it is Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday, when he will no doubt look for an opportunity to raise the matter.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

As I am sure the Leader of the House knows, the Department of Social Security today announced the outcome of the annual review of the cold weather payments scheme. The problem still exists of postal areas being covered by different meteorological offices. In my constituency I have a massive problem with two postcode areas that are dealt with from Leeds, rather than from Nottinghamshire. The question of sorting out which meteorological offices should be used is one that should be aired in the House, bearing in mind that we shall all be receiving massive representations from our constituents.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that warning. He may be right to say that we shall receive heavy correspondence on the matter and that the issue will be raised in the House. I am aware that the way in which these matters are settled has long been an issue of controversy. The tabling of Social Security questions will be on Monday 2 November. That will give hon. Members an opportunity to try to raise the issue. It remains the position that as a result of the early actions that the Government took on coming into office, all pensioners receive help with their heating bills in a way that was not previously the case. That at least marginally alleviates the difficulties to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I reinforce the plea made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for a debate on foreign affairs? Would not such a debate be particularly apposite before the visit next week of President Menem of Argentina—a visit whose purpose is to effect a full reconciliation between our two countries—in that it would give an opportunity for the Government to explain their policies towards countries that have had civil strife, such as Argentina, where more people died than in Chile? Could not the occasion be used also to remind the House how General Secretary Honecker of East Germany, whose regime was responsible for the deaths of scores of people on the Berlin wall, was received in Chile to pass his declining years with his daughter—with his family? Could not appropriate conclusions be drawn?

Mrs. Beckett

I hear the hon. Gentleman's support for a debate on foreign affairs. We had a statement on foreign affairs on Monday of this week and there will be Foreign Office questions next week. I fear that I do not see time for a foreign affairs debate in the near future.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we have a debate on early-day motion 1677?

[That this House is gravely concerned at evidence of the over prescription of damaging and addictive medicinal drugs in women's prisons; believes that powerful medicinal drugs prescribed to the late Emma Humphries and one other woman may have caused their premature deaths; is alarmed by the claims made by a distinguished author that neuroleptic drugs are routinely prescribed to young women prisoners who mutilate themselves, and that medicinal drugs are used as pacifiers which move prisoners from non-addictive illegal drug use to highly addictive medicinal drug use; and calls for a full inquiry into all drug use in women's prisons.] The motion deals with the serious and tragic case of two young women who died at a very early age from, according to the families' belief, addictions to medicinal drugs that they acquired in prison. The claim is being made that there is vast over-prescription of Largactil and other neuroleptics in our prisons, and that Largactil is being used as a pacifier and as a means to enable prison officers to meet their performance targets by weaning prisoners, especially women prisoners, off non-addictive, illegal drugs on to highly addictive and dangerous legal drugs. The case has been made eloquently in a recent book by Angela Devlin entitled "Invisible Women".

The Home Office of this Government and that of the previous Government have refused to give details of prescribing neuroleptics in women's prisons. Is it not right that we should have a debate to ensure that the plight of these defenceless women is made visible?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of my hon. Friend's long-standing interest in these matters and of his concern about issues such as the welfare of prisoners. I can only say to him that there will be Home Office questions this coming Monday, which may provide an opportunity to raise the matter to which he has referred. I cannot promise him time for a debate in the very near future.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Does the Leader of the House accept that she has perhaps inadvertently given the best possible reason for an urgent debate on the Neill report? The Leader has wriggled obviously about the Government's response to the report, which they set up with much posturing and wringing of hands, allegedly taking the moral high ground. How is it that the right hon. Lady finds it so difficult, even at this stage, to say, "We don't need a debate on the report because we, the Government, accept every proposed measure in it", as the Opposition have done?

Surely we need an opportunity for the Leader of the House and others on the Government Benches to explain why they are so embarrassed about the Neill report and why they will not accept some of the key recommendations, not least those on referendums, which the Government are obviously hell bent on using as a twisted device to massage public opinion for their own needs.

Mrs. Beckett

I have seldom heard such claptrap at any Question Time or debate. Labour asked the Neill committee to report on these matters against the opposition of the Conservative party. We have implemented all the things that we could voluntarily implement and that were in our evidence to the committee already. The Conservative party claims to accept all the recommendations, but has not lifted a finger to implement any of them. As there are wide recommendations on referendums that require careful consideration, it is sensible for the Government to weigh these matters and then come to the House with their response. As for the notion that the Conservatives have attained the moral high ground by saying that they accept in full all the recommendations, the fact that they have not implemented any of the ones that they could have implemented shows that they would not know the moral high ground if they saw it.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the words attributed to the Prime Minister this week on the European Union and defence? If she has, could she explain in greater detail than was given in the press what he had in mind on that relationship? If she cannot do that now, could she encourage him to come to the House to flesh out his ideas so that ordinary Members of Parliament can hear his views, and let him know ours, about any possible relationship between the European Union and defence?

Mrs. Beckett

I speak from memory, but I think this matter might have been raised with the Prime Minister yesterday. I understand and respect my hon. Friend's concerns. The Prime Minister was saying that we want some imaginative thinking on how we can enhance the European contribution to NATO. There is no suggestion, and never has been, that he or the Government wish to undermine NATO, which is the cornerstone of our defence and security policy. It has always been made clear that we would not support, for example, a standing European army. If my hon. Friend or other hon. Members wish to explore the matter further, there will be an opportunity next Wednesday in the debate on the Army.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider and find time for an early debate on the deteriorating state of the economy—that debate to be initiated by the Prime Minister? Is she aware that despite his glib evasions yesterday and the truly gut-wrenching complacency of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the European Commission predicts that Britain will slump to the bottom of the European growth table next year? Does she accept that as the Prime Minister's policies of tax, waste and regulate are responsible for, once again, making Britain the sick man of Europe, he is responsible for coming to the Floor of the House to debate the possible cures for the sickness that he has caused?

Mrs. Beckett

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on trumping the contribution of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in the deleteriousness league. I agree with what I think was the underlying thrust of the hon. Gentleman's observations—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did an excellent job yesterday of advancing the Government's case on the handling of the economy, although I can well understand that the hon. Gentleman did not like it one little bit.

Mr. Bercow

Glib evasions.

Mrs. Beckett

They were not glib evasions. The problem for the Conservatives is that they were statistics, which are much harder for them to deal with, especially as they seem not to understand them. The hon. Gentleman accused my right hon. Friends of complacency. That is not the case. It is clear that they, like the whole Government, recognise the difficulties that some sections of the economy face, but we also recognise how far-fetched are the suggestions of the Conservative party that all the problems arose only during our tenure of office. The pre-Budget statement putting all these matters in context will be made on 3 November and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is looking forward to that. We certainly are.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have seen a welcome renaissance of the British film industry in recent times? Does she recall that in March, a review co-chaired by Stewart Till of Polygram, called "A Bigger Picture", met with fairly widespread approval? I think that it was the Financial Times that said that it was the most comprehensive review of the British film industry for 30 years. Will my right hon. Friend therefore give us some support in ensuring that such an important aspect of Britain's creative industries is given a fair wind, and a debate on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I know of his strong support for the film industry, and I appreciate his welcome for the review that he mentioned. He will know of the strong support being given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and about his widespread consultations on how we can advance the future of the film industry, whose importance is recognised throughout the House. I shall certainly bear my right hon. Friend's observation in mind. The day for tabling questions to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is next Monday.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

May I follow the question asked by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), who asked whether the Prime Minister would be able to answer questions about his view on what defence co-operation not covered by present arrangements should take place in Europe? Hearing other Ministers speak in Wednesday's debate would not be sufficient.

We are responding to a story that came out through a briefing, so could the Government give us an open register of official briefings to journalists by Ministers and for the Prime Minister, so that the rest of us would know what was said in private? Could we also have a register of the Philip Gould-type groups consulted by the Government and paid for with taxpayers' money, so that we can understand what the Government are being told by other people, in the same way that we hope that the Government will also pay attention to what we say in the Chamber?

Mrs. Beckett

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman has noticed, the Prime Minister comes here every week for half an hour of Question Time in which many such matters can be raised. I am sure that should the hon. Gentleman or any of his hon. Friends catch your eye, Madam Speaker, it will be possible for them to raise such issues directly with the Prime Minister. That will certainly meet the point that the hon. Gentleman made. As for openness, as we are a Government who hold open briefings to the Lobby by the Prime Minister's official spokesman, and who are committed to introducing proposals for freedom of information, we need no lectures from the Opposition on that subject.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware of the grave situation at Longbridge, next to my constituency. Many jobs are threatened there, and although I agree with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that the decision is primarily one for Rover, does not the present situation show us that the previous Government left us with deep structural damage to our industrial base? Our supply chain base is weakened and we lack a sufficiently skilled work force to provide the car industry with the skills that it needs. Can space be found in the near future for a debate on how the regional development agencies, in particular, could take a strategic position in developing our supply chain base, thus helping the people at Longbridge in connection with jobs in the car industry, whether with Rover or with one of the other manufacturers?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. It is clear that the difficulties being experienced at Longbridge have been long in the making. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry met representatives of the company this morning and had a useful discussion. The issues at Longbridge include short-term costs and long-term investment decisions. My hon. Friend is right to say that the present position casts light not only on the reality of our economic inheritance from the Conservatives, but on the need for work such as that of the regional development agencies. I shall bear in mind her view that hon. Members might like to debate the matter in future.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

It is a long time since we heard announcements about the Food Standards Agency. In view of the depression facing agriculture and the concern of farmers in particular that consumers should know where the food they buy in the shops is produced geographically—and that it has met the standards and quality of production required in this country and represented by the Food Advisory Board standards—might the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the issue of food standard labelling?

Mrs. Beckett

There will be a debate on agriculture on Monday, as the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say in the statement. I hear and welcome his support for greater information to be provided about food, and his support for food standards. It is unfortunate that the setting up of an agency was not a step that the Conservative Government felt inclined to take. However, I always welcome converts and I am glad to hear of his support. I cannot promise a debate in the near future, but I can promise him that the Government intend to press on with the matter.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on science and technology policy in the near future, particularly since the comprehensive spending review allocated a very welcome £1.1 billion to new initiatives? However, the House has not had an opportunity to consider the philosophy under which those funds should be allocated and distributed. In particular, I am worried by the possibility that, because our partner in the initiative is Wellcome, there might be too much of an emphasis on biochemistry or medicinal science and insufficient emphasis on, say, physics, mathematics or chemical sciences. I wish to make a specific plea to the Government to consider aerospace and space technology, particularly in view of the Beagle 2 project. We should make a representation to the European Space Agency before 30 October as to whether we are willing in principle to commit £25 million to support the Mars 2003 project. May we have an early debate on science and technology policy?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early debate on those matters, although I recognise his great interest in the issues. Trade and Industry questions will take place on Thursday. I note also the points he makes about the importance of the aerospace industry—a view he knows that I share—and his concerns about science policy. Some of the boundaries in the handling of and approach to the different scientific disciplines that he identifies are becoming rather blurred these days. I share his view that these are matters of great importance. I cannot promise time for a debate in the near future, but I will bear his views in mind.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I seek clarification from the Leader of the House on her reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), concerning his request for a debate on the Buenos Aires conference on climate change. When the right hon. Lady said that she had "taken note" of my right hon. Friend's request, did she mean that she had taken note because he asked the question and would do no more, or that she had taken note, would go away and would come up with the answer that the House can debate the question—preferably before the start of the conference, but certainly before we prorogue?

Mrs. Beckett

My answer means what it has always meant when the Leader of the House has said it under any previous Government.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

I wish to support the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for an early statement and debate on the Jenkins commission. If the reports are correct—and I think they are likely to be—that Jenkins has opted for the additional member system, it will mean not only that he will be trying to perpetrate an attack on democratic accountability, but that he will have broken the parameters of the investigation. He would have known that if he had read the submission to his commission from the first-past-the-post group, of which I am a member. Sadly, it seems that he was unable to stay off the claret long enough to read it.

Mrs. Beckett

I take that to be a call for a debate on the Jenkins commission report. I shall certainly bear it in mind when the report has been received.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

May I also call for an early debate on the Jenkins report? Lord Jenkins was generous enough to spare a full hour during his year researching it to talk to Members of Parliament here. As one colleague of the right hon. Lady pointed out, we all feel terribly humble before him because most of us have fought for only one political party. None the less, it would be nice if the place that is principally affected by his report had an opportunity to debate his findings.

Mrs. Beckett

What is already clear is that such a debate would certainly be lively.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

Will the Leader of the House clarify exactly what she meant by taking note of the request by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) for a debate on climate change before the meeting in Buenos Aires? Will she simply say yes or no to whether the Government take the issue seriously and whether they will find Government time for a debate on it?

Mrs. Beckett

It may save the hon. Gentleman much time and trouble in the future if he bears in mind that usually what I say is what I really mean. When I said that I would take note of the views of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), that is precisely what I meant.

Mr. Bercow

What does that mean?

Mrs. Beckett

It means that I will take note of the hon. Gentleman's views. It is quite straightforward. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford made a proposal, gave the date of a particular conference and asked for a debate. I shall consider that request and, if it is possible to grant it, no doubt I will do so. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman attends business questions often enough to know that there are many requests for debates. The whole purpose is that Members should have the opportunity to ask or a debate. I cannot say now what debates will be granted.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Will the right hon. Lady assure the House that the Prime Minister's press office is not trying to influence the present debate about the time of the Independent Television News programme "News at Ten", which was widely discussed by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport this morning and in the press? Does she agree that the issue warrants a debate without the influence of Alastair Campbell?

Mrs. Beckett

I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman is entirely mistaken in the apprehension upon which that question was based.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

Given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced to the International Monetary Fund on 6 October that growth in the United Kingdom economy next year would be cut by 50 per cent., is not it astonishing that hon. Members have to wait a month before the issue can be debated in full and a month before they are told the Government's actual forecast for 1999? How can hon. Members effectively scrutinise public finances given that the figures in the Blue Book are now completely meaningless, misleading and wrong?

Mrs. Beckett

Few Governments have more experience of figures being misleading and wrong than the Conservatives when they were in power. First, the House did not sit until this Monday. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already made it plain that he will be making his pre-Budget statement in about 10 days. That is when the latest information will be available. I am confident that the House awaits it with eager anticipation and, after what has been said today, I feel sure that there will be a full attendance for it.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the statement made by the chief constable of Greater Manchester on Monday that, as a result of a shortfall in funding induced by the comprehensive spending review, there will be a complete ban on recruitment to the police service there from now on? As a result, 400 posts will be lost in the next 12 months. Does she understand the great concern throughout Greater Manchester and certainly in my constituency? Will she ask the Home Secretary to explain to the House the impact of the comprehensive spending review on police services throughout the country and, in particular, in Greater Manchester, so hat I can tell my constituents exactly what the future of policing in the conurbation is to be?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the statement by the chief constable. The hon. Gentleman asked me to ask the Home Secretary to come to the House to deal with the matter, and my right hon. Friend will, of course, be here for Question Time on Monday.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that her reply to the request by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for a debate on foreign affairs was disappointing, as were her replies to hon. Members who raised a certain recent subject? Will she give a categorical assurance that Her Majesty's Government had no political involvement in the recent arrest of a senator from a friendly foreign democracy? Will she ask the Foreign Secretary to confirm to the House next week that the aim of the Government's so-called ethical foreign policy is not to interfere in the internal arrangements of other democratic states, any more than their wish is to have other countries interfere in whatever arrangements we deem it appropriate to make in Northern Ireland?

Mrs. Beckett

The issues that the hon. Gentleman raises have been debated—or at least generally discussed in public. He will be aware of the view that I have expressed that some of these more sensitive issues are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I readily assure him that the matter is not being handled politically; we have taken the view from the outset that it is a legal matter, which is how it has been and continues to be handled.

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