HC Deb 29 October 1998 vol 318 cc461-73 3.31 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 2 NOVEMBER—Debate on the security and intelligence agencies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

TUESDAY 3 NOVEMBER—Debate on personal pensions mis-selling on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 4 NOVEMBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day (20th allotted day).

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on the economy, followed by a debate on agriculture. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

THURSDAY 5 NOVEMBER—Debate on the report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 6 NOVEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

MONDAY 9 NOVEMBER—Debate on the fifth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the funding of political parties in the United Kingdom on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to be reminded that, on Wednesday 4 November, there will be a debate on the social action programme 1998–2000 in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to know that it is proposed that, on Wednesday 11 November, there will be a debate in European Standing Committee B on Agenda 2000: financial aspects.

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 (1998–2000); and relevant European Legislation Committee report, HC 155-xxx (1997–98).

Wednesday 11 November:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: (a) 7046/98, Agenda 2000: The financial perspective 2000–2006, (b) 7221/98, Agenda 2000: The interinstitutional agreement of 29 October 1993, (c) 9302/98 ADD1: Own resources based on VAT and GNP, (d) COM(98)560, Financing the European Union; and relevant European Legislation Committee reports: (a) HC 155-xxvi and HC 155-xxxvii (1997–98), (b) HC 155-xxvi (1997–98), (c) HC 155-xxxvii (1997–98), (d) HC 155-xxxviii (1997–98).]

Sir George Young

We are grateful to the right hon. Lady for providing the business for next week. Her predecessor was able to announce two weeks' business in advance, which was found to be helpful both inside and outside the House. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is her intention, and that she will revert to that practice as soon as she can?

I welcome the right hon. Lady's response to my request last week for an early debate on the Jenkins report. I hope that, in that debate, the Government spokesman will reconcile two sentences from the Labour party manifesto: We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons and We have promised only what we know we can deliver. Can she tell us whether a promise is to be broken?

The Leader of the House will know that we asked for a statement about Senator Pinochet. Of course we understand the sub judice rule, but will the right hon. Lady accept that, once the matter ceases to be sub judice, serious questions will remain to be answered? Will the Home Secretary make a statement before the House about the confusion that arose between Government Departments? Can the Foreign Secretary explain how relationships with Chile can be restored, as their democratic Government have made it clear that they want this matter to be brought to a swift conclusion?

Although we regret the Prime Minister's failure to make a statement following last weekend's European summit at which a number of key issues were covered, can the Leader of the House confirm that the Chancellor will make a statement on Tuesday? Can she confirm that we shall have, in Government time, the two-day debate on the economy that we usually have at this time of year? Following the further fall in business confidence reported in the press today, the Government have refused yet again to find time for a debate on the economy.

In view of the continuing uncertainty in Kosovo, may I press the Leader of the House for a debate on foreign affairs? Finally, is she yet able to give us the date of prorogation?

Mrs. Beckett

By chance, the first and last of the right hon. Gentleman's questions work well together. He asked the date of prorogation; he also asked me to return to the arrangement whereby we give two weeks' notice of business. My difficulty in both respects relates directly to the operation of another place. I cannot give a date for prorogation, although I can confirm that it is likely to be late because of the timing of debates in another place. Similarly, that is why I cannot give two weeks' notice of business. I very much regret that. I entirely share the right hon. Gentleman's view that it is highly desirable to do so, and confirm that it would always be my wish to do so as soon as that once again becomes possible.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the debate on the Jenkins commission report. It is clear from the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is making on that matter—I know that he will make it clear in the debate—that the Government primarily seek the fullest possible debate. The Government are committed to a referendum on those matters so that the people of this country can give their view, but it is clear, too, that the timing of that must be looked at in the context of the Jenkins report. It is certainly not ruled out that it may well be within this Parliament.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me for a statement on the Senator Pinochet issue when it ceases to be sub judice, which it is not yet. However, I can say that, as the Prime Minister made crystal clear yesterday, there has been no confusion between Government Departments. As he pointed out, the request came from the Spanish Government to the magistrates, not via this Government.

The right hon. Gentleman regretted the failure to report on the EU summit. As he is aware, it was an informal meeting in Austria. There were no formal conclusions to report to the House, and no formal statement was issued. The Prime Minister has always followed the practice, where there are such statements or communiqués, of reporting to the House, and he will continue to follow it.

As for a debate on the economy, I can confirm that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer hopes to make a statement on the matter. Arrangements for future debates on the economy are generally a matter for the usual channels, but we are likely in the not-too-distant future to have a Queen's Speech and an opportunity to debate such matters.

We shall continue to keep the House informed about developments in Kosovo, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has done throughout.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, some time ago, the Modernisation Committee reported on the need to improve the scrutiny of European legislation, both within the House as a whole and within its specific Committees? Can she give a firm undertaking that those recommendations will be debated on the Floor of the House before this Session ends so that they can come into effect in the next parliamentary Session?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot absolutely give my hon. Friend the undertaking that he seeks, but I can confirm that I share his wish to see such an outcome. As he knows, the House is under some pressure at present, but I hope to accommodate him before the end of the Session.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can the Leader of the House give us any more details about the nature of the motions that the Opposition will be tabling next Wednesday? It will not have escaped her notice that we had debates on the economy and agriculture on Monday, and Conservative Members not only did not turn up or table an amendment, but did not vote. It is well known that some Conservative Members find difficulty in reaching the Chamber in eight minutes, but 10 days to get to the Division Lobbies is rather a lengthy time.

The Leader of the House has made an announcement about the timing of the Jenkins report, and we certainly welcome an early debate in the House on the independent commission's recommendations. Does she think that sufficient time will have elapsed for the Conservative party to get its act together between now and then? She will have noted that the Conservative party published its reaction to the report before the report was published, and so missed all the rebuttal of its arguments contained in the report. Will she particularly note that the Conservative party has decided not to use the first-past-the-post system to elect its leader, although Conservative Members now seem to think that that is the one type of election that they can all rally around?

Will the Leader of the House give us a specific answer to a specific question: is it not right that every member of the parliamentary Labour party was elected to the House on a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the subject of the Jenkins report in this Parliament?

Mrs. Beckett

May I begin where the hon. Gentleman ended? The manifesto commitment, on which—he is right—every Labour candidate fought the election, was that we would have a referendum on proportional representation.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

In this Parliament?

Mrs. Beckett

No, the manifesto did not say that. It was, broadly speaking, the expectation, and might well indeed be the outcome, that the referendum would be held in this Parliament, but that was not the wording of the manifesto, which is what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said. It is only fair to set the record straight.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on the attendance of Conservative Members at Liberal Democrat Opposition day debates. It would not be right for me to intrude on private grief in that matter. He also asked me to speculate on the wording of the motions. That, also, is not directly within my area of responsibility, although we can be quite confident that, in some way or other, we will discover that the blame for everything that has gone wrong in this country lies at the door of the Government, and that nothing whatever relates in any way to the actions of the Conservative party or to its 18-year tenure of government.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me whether I believe that the Conservative party will get its act together on Jenkins. It would be wrong for me to predict that it will either get its act together on anything or that Conservative Members will all rally around anything.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

May I, too, add my welcome for the early debate on the report from the independent commission and express my hope that, whatever our different views on the report, we debate what is in it, rather than things that are not in it, as has happened today? What happened was hardly surprising, because some views were published before the report was published.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the important debate on the report will take place not in the House, but outside? It is the responsibility of all hon. Members to ensure that that debate is as informed and open as possible, because the British people should have the final say on the way in which Members of Parliament are elected, rather than Members of Parliament working it all out for themselves.

Mrs. Beckett

I agree with most of what my hon. Friend said in the sense that I whole-heartedly agree that it is enormously important that there is a thorough, proper and well-considered debate on those issues in the country. I take the view, however, that it is right for the House, if I may venture to say so, to lead that debate. It is important that hon. Members make their own contribution and, although the decision in the referendum will ultimately rest with the British people, the outcome will undoubtedly be influenced by discussions in this place.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to call for a thorough and long public debate—I certainly believe that it should be constructive, and hope that that will be the outcome—but it is also right to recognise that this House has its proper place.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Does the Leader of the House recall that, last week, when I put to her my complaint about the draft order on the arrangements and expenditure involved in The Hague trial of the Lockerbie suspects, she kindly suggested that I should raise the issue with the Foreign Secretary on Tuesday, which I did? He said that there was no reason why hon. Members could not have a debate on the subject. Sadly, however, having applied to Madam Speaker, I was advised this morning that I was unsuccessful in the ballot.

As the United States has said that time is running out, and as this matter is vital to the relatives of those who lost their lives and to the people of Libya, would the Government agree to hold a debate to let the House express a view on what some consider to be an incorrect policy and others think is correct? Surely the House should debate an order produced by the Government on a vital issue of public policy.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for a debate for the hon. Gentleman in the near future. I suspect that he has not wholly exhausted the procedures. Knowing his skill and experience as a parliamentarian, I am confident that he will continue to explore the means open to him to secure a debate on this matter in the near future. I shall draw his observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend may have heard the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry refer in Question Time to the need for more competition among the banks. May we have a debate on the banking sector, because the National Westminster bank's operations are causing much damage to many businesses in our constituencies, and much heartache to our constituents? The banking practices of the National Westminster bank, including the practices of its subsidiary Lombard, should be exposed to Parliament. May we have that debate as a matter of urgency?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot promise my hon. Friend such a debate as a matter of urgency. Like the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), my hon. Friend is skilled in finding opportunities to raise matters, and I am confident that he will do so.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that, last October—a year ago—the Government published a Green Paper on the provision for children with special educational needs. In December last year, the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), promised that, when the Government gave their response to the Green Paper, they would come to the House. A response has been promised since last April, and there have been rumours that it will be made in a statement to the House. However, I learned this afternoon that the Government intend to make their response not to the House as promised, but in a press conference next week. Will the Leader of the House ensure either that the response is made to the House in a statement or that we have an early debate on special educational needs and the Government's response to the consultation?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Lady's concern. The subject of special educational needs arouses great interest on both sides of the House. I hear what she says about expectations of the outcome of the consultation, and I shall draw her views to the attention of my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends in the Department for Education and Employment. However, I cannot undertake to find time for a debate next week.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that, in next week's debate, the Government will be astute and will not get tied hand and foot to the tinpot Jenkins proposals which were published today? If those proposals were carried into practice, every constituency in Britain would have to be changed, there would be first and second-class Members of Parliament, and for some the entire constituency link would be removed. As for the report, we need two bottles of claret to digest it.

Will my right hon. Friend always remember that Roy Jenkins—"Woy of the Wadicals"—was the man who tried to destroy the Labour party some years ago, and failed? He destroyed the Social Democratic party, and now he is among the Liberal Democrats. Word has it that even some of the Liberal Democrats do not like the Jenkins proposition. He is trying to destroy them as well.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend has made it plain why it is necessary for a full debate to take place on those issues, about which he has raised important points. As for his call for the Government to be astute, I assure him that we endeavour to be so.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May we have a debate, as a matter of urgency, on transport in London, in view of the exorbitant and scandalous increases in tube fares that are to take place from January next year? Tube fares are to rise to five times the inflation rate, while bus fares will rise to six times that rate, and further increases above inflation are projected for every year until 2002. Is that the Labour party's integrated transport strategy in action? The debate in question should surely be wound up by a Treasury Minister, as the travelling public will have to travel not by tube or bus, but by car, and will thus be caught not only by duty rates that are above inflation but by congestion tax. It seems that the only possibility for Londoners is to travel on foot.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman asks me to arrange a debate in the near future, which I am not sure that I can undertake to do. He also asks whether that increase is a consequence of the Labour party's integrated transport policy. No; it is a consequence of the Conservative party's neglect of London Transport, its failure to invest and its ignoring of Londoners' transport needs over the past 18 years. As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware, London Transport fares are the statutory responsibility of London Transport, not of Ministers, and the balance between fare levels and the need for investment is always difficult to strike.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May we have a debate on the role of private firms and private capital in education action zones? I understand that McDonald's has become involved in one zone. I cannot believe that its motive is entirely altruistic; it is more likely to be the wish to stuff hamburgers down children's throats.

There are various worries about the role of private firms in the new education action zones. May we have a debate soon?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that the issue of education action zones, how they might work and how they could deliver different ideas on the running of the education system is a matter of interest and controversy throughout the House. I will bear my hon. Friend's request in mind, but I am afraid that I cannot promise a debate in the near future.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I am grateful to the Government for lifting the siege of the London clinic, a subject to which I shall want to return when the case ceases to be sub judice, but did the Leader of the House really mean to say that the extradition request had come from the Spanish Government? I had understood that that was the one source from which it had not come.

Mrs. Beckett

I think I am right in saying that, although the request originated with a Spanish judge, it had to have the imprimatur of a Spanish Minister in order to be delivered. If I am incorrect, I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman, but 'in any event' that does not affect the main thrust of my earlier answer, which was that the matter was not dealt with through this Government.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

Has my right hon. Friend read the comment attributed to Sir Paul Condon this morning that pay levels in the Metropolitan police somehow excuse corruption? I am sure that that rather strange comment was a misquotation, or that it was quoted out of context, but does it not highlight the fact that the sooner we have the annual Adjournment debate on policing in London, the better? I wonder whether it could be fitted in before prorogation.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not know whether the remarks that Sir Paul Condon is reported to have made have been quoted accurately, but I recognise and understand my hon. Friend's active interest in policing in London, and agree that it is worthy of debate in the House. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate during this Session, but the next Session might be another matter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The Leader of the House is aware that western parts of the United Kingdom have experienced severe weather and flooding in recent times. In my constituency, Garden street, Steeple street and Hurdsfield road, and the houses in those streets, have been under water. In the village of Bollington, north of my constituency, Water street and John street have been under water. The village of Adlington has experienced severe flooding, and part of the village of Prestbury, at Bridge green, has also been under water.

As the House will have time over the next week or two, will the right hon. Lady arrange for the appropriate Minister to come to the House and make a statement about the experience in the west of England that has resulted from the severe weather, so that we know what action we can take to help our constituents and what help may be available to our local authorities—whether borough or county councils—so that they can try to alleviate the suffering?

Mrs. Beckett

Like hon. Members from both sides of the House, I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the distress that is being experienced as a result of the flooding. I will certainly bear in mind his request for a debate, although, as I know that he will appreciate from his long experience in the House, we are approaching a point in the Session when time will be under pressure in various ways. He will know that, on 20 October, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a statement on the lessons to be learned from the Easter floods. The Government keep those matters under review and will certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituencies, particularly the fact that they have a responsibility to represent the areas for which they are elected? In the context of the Jenkins debate, will she make it clear that any proposal for a two-tier system of Members of Parliament, in which Members at large could interfere in any of the 10 constituencies within an area, would be contrary to the tradition in which Members of Parliament represent the electorate of a town, city or constituency for which they are elected?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend, too, alludes to the proposals in the Jenkins commission report. He identifies important aspects of those proposals, which I know the House—whether hon. Members support or oppose them—will want most thoroughly to debate and to encourage the public to debate.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

May I press the Leader of the House on the issue of the floods that are causing so much havoc not only in the west of England but in the Welsh borders? In my constituency, the city of Hereford is effectively cut off—there are no trains in or out of the city and the main A49 is blocked by waist-high water at the Belmont roundabout. The city is in gridlock and Herefordshire's largest trading estate—at Rotherwas—has been closed. People are today being evacuated from their homes, at least one fanner is believed to have drowned and two old people's homes have been closed. Floods are heading for Ross-on-Wye, where evacuations will take place later today and a school is being made ready as a reception centre. Moreover, four Royal National Lifeboat Institution inshore lifeboats have been stationed in Herefordshire. Although, as the right hon. Lady said to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), we have had a statement on the Easter floods, clearly the lessons have not been learnt, so why can we not have a statement on those floods?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot recall whether the hon. Gentleman was here when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary made a statement a few days ago, but part of the problem at Easter was the failure of the flood warning system and, as I understand it, some lessons have been learnt from that. However, that does not detract in any way from the hon. Gentleman's concerns, which the House will share, for his constituents and others who are affected by present developments. I assure him that the Government are monitoring, and will continue to monitor, the position carefully. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who deal with those matters, are in the Chamber and have heard this exchange.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Are not some of our hon. Friends being somewhat unfair to Lord Jenkins? As for next Thursday's debate, should not Lord Jenkins and his colleagues be warmly congratulated for making recommendations that are so untenable and unacceptable that most people will conclude that, with all its faults, the first-past-the-post system is far preferable to a two-tier House of Commons, which there has never been in the past and which there should not be in the future?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes it absolutely plain how wise the Government were to arrange for a debate next week.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Has the right hon. Lady seen early-day motion 1714?

[That this House welcomes the acknowledgement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that his responsibilities for competition policy require him 'both to act fairly and impartially and to be seen to do so'; notes that he satisfied himself he could take decisions about the British Airways/American Airlines alliance, and 'having discussed it with officials' decided he should determine whether the proposed acquisition by BSkyB of Manchester United be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission; calls upon him to explain why he concluded that he will be seen to be acting fairly and impartially in these cases, despite the acceptance by the New Millennium Experience Company of sponsorship from British Airways and Bskyb totalling £24 million; further notes that the Director General of Fair Trading is investigating the profitability of supermarkets, including Tesco which has committed sponsorship to the NMEC of £12 million; is concerned that the NMEC is negotiating with the Ford Motor Company over a £12 million sponsorship when it may lay off workers at Dagenham and when the DGFT is about to investigate UK car prices; is concerned that companies may appear to be compromised by the refusal of the Secretary of State to separate his role as regulator and sole shareholder of the NMEC; and calls upon him to give up his position with the NMEC immediately or step aside from any regulatory role regarding any industry involved in NMEC sponsorship.]

Will the right hon. Lady arrange a debate on the difficulties arising from the different interests of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware that the issue of interests and understandings for someone who holds the important post of Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is always kept under review by the Ministers involved and by proper officials. It has been confirmed repeatedly that my right hon. Friend does not have a conflict of interest.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Yesterday's statement on welfare reform by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security was very welcome, but will my right hon. Friend discuss with him the urgent need for widowers' rights to be promoted, because the existing anomalies are unacceptable?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that my hon. Friend's remarks can and will be drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention. Welfare reform is a major programme that is being conducted benefit by benefit and service by service. I feel confident that further announcements will be made in due course.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is it possible to arrange an early debate on the Government's energy policy? An application is pending for 15 wind turbines that will stretch from Pendle, a neighbouring constituency, into Ribble Valley, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty which attracts tourists and is used largely for agriculture. There is another application for about 350 wind turbines in Wales. If we have one more wind turbine in Wales, it is likely to take off on a windy day—not the answer to devolution for which we were looking. For a small fraction of the cost that goes towards subsidising turbines, energy conservation measures could save more energy than could ever be generated by those useless, ugly and unwanted wind turbines.

Mrs. Beckett

I take heed of the hon. Gentleman's request. He will know that there are a variety of ways in which to pursue the opportunity to raise such issues, especially if they are constituency related—in Adjournment debates and so on. I will, of course, draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends who deal with such matters.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate the accountability of quangos set up by the previous Government between now and the date they are likely to be wound up? I refer in particular to the Cardiff Bay development corporation and its cavalier treatment of charter fishing vessels owned by my constituents which sail out of Cardiff bay. Up to a dozen small businesses could be destroyed and, I am afraid, people are desperate. I spoke today to Skipper Steve Jones of the Lady Helen; my impression was that, unless the development corporation behaves in an acceptable manner, people may take desperate measures.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and I know of his great regard for his constituents' interests. I feel confident that he has taken steps to draw the matter to the attention of my parliamentary colleagues, but I fear that I cannot promise him a debate in Government time in the near future. Perhaps he might pursue the matter through an Adjournment debate.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

May I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the Labour party manifesto commitment to end unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists"? She has redefined a manifesto commitment as not necessarily applying to the Parliament concerned—which makes that merely a commitment to keep it in the manifesto—but does she accept that the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill, which was steered through all its stages in the House of Lords by the Labour peer Lady Turner of Camden, would be a worthwhile measure to end the institutionalised, widespread and systematic discrimination against homosexuals? As the Member in charge of the Bill in this place, I wonder whether Government time could be found in this spillover period to debate and legislate on that important matter.

Mrs. Beckett

I am deeply touched by the care with which hon. Members have read the Labour party manifesto and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we stand by its contents. I fear, however, that, as he will know, it is always difficult for a Government to find time for other measures, no matter how important and worth while the subject. I take his points about the seriousness with which those matters should be discussed and the opportunity that has been made in the other place. I cannot undertake to find time before the end of the Session, even for such an important measure.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early statement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to resolve the ministerial muddle over the future of the Post Office? The right hon. Lady will recall that the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, who is responsible for the Post Office—the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)—announced on 16 May last year a review of the options for the future of the Post Office with a view in particular to removing "unnecessary and damaging shackles" on it. The right hon. Lady and her colleagues will be aware that, since then, there has largely been an eerie silence in public, punctuated by occasional briefings to some journalists that the Government favour a radical move, and counter-briefings to others that they do not. Is it not time that Ministers stopped arguing like ferrets in a sack, came clean and announced their proposals for the future in the interests of management, employees and customers of the Post Office?

Mrs. Beckett

I am a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman raises the matter with me today, since we have just had Trade and Industry questions—

Mr. Bercow

The matter did not come up. The question was not reached.

Mrs. Beckett

That has never stopped the hon. Gentleman before. I feel confident, knowing the hon. Gentleman's ingenuity, that, had he really tried, he could have worked the matter into some question or other.

There is no confusion about the future of the Post Office. The Government are committed both to giving it greater commercial freedom and to its success. As for talk about removing shackles and concern about its future, all I can say is that when the Tory party had responsibility for those matters, it made an awful mess.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

May I ask the Leader of the House in her capacity as Chair of the Modernisation Committee—[Interruption.] Chairman of the Modernisation Committee—to draw to her colleagues' attention when bringing forward their proposals for the Queen's Speech the excellent new systems for bringing legislation before the House? Will she ask them to fulfil the promise of her predecessor that, in the next Session, there will be a number of Bills that take advantage of those new procedures, which will be to the benefit of the House and the legislation?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not wish to pre-empt any of the processes of the Queen's Speech, but I can say to the hon. Gentleman that I strongly share the view that there is room for improvement of the ways in which we scrutinised legislation in the past, which would immeasurably improve the quality of the legislation and perhaps even our efficiency in dealing with it. I share the hon. Gentleman's view and I can assure him that those matters are under consideration.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

The right hon. Lady has told us that, on Monday, we shall debate the security services. As she knows and as many hon. Members will have heard, Ministers frequently take refuge in the answer that they cannot discuss something because it relates to security matters. Would it be in order to ask a Minister whether the assessments of individual Cabinet members and their possible security risk are submitted in the first instance to the Prime Minister or to Mr. Alastair Campbell?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that the question about what is in order is not a matter for me, but I suspect that that is not the point that the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to make. The role of the Prime Minister's official spokesman is well known. He is highly respected. We all take note of the fact that the Tory party so much dislikes his efficacy in that role that hon. Members do everything that they can to undermine him.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on the ingenuity of that answer. I have two points to raise with her. First, following up a point made earlier, will she reconsider having a free vote at the end of next Thursday's debate so that every right hon. and hon. Member can express an opinion on a report which, in effect, proposes the destruction of our parliamentary system, so that she herself can be free, unfettered and unshackled and can tell us what she thinks about such a monstrous proposal?

Secondly, on a point that will unite the House, I am sure that the right hon. Lady will agree that it is a great pity that we have been unable to debate early-day motion 1647, headed "Speaker's Chaplain".

That this House notes that the Reverend Canon Donald Gray is to retire at the end of the current session after 11 years as Chaplain to the Speaker; pays warm tribute to his years of service to this House both in his formal duties and in his less formal but equally important ministry to honourable Members and staff throughout the House (including his support to the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship); notes also that he and his wife Joyce having made many friends in and outside Parliament, will be greatly missed; and wishes them both many happy and fulfilling years in their retirement.]

The right hon. Lady will know that, this afternoon, Canon Gray conducted Prayers in the House for the last time. Does she agree that it would be appropriate for us all to place on record our great respect for Canon Gray and our profound gratitude for the service that he has rendered to the House, to all right hon. and hon. Members in a pastoral role and to so many of the staff of the House and the other place who have gone to him for counsel and help? He has been an exemplary Speaker's Chaplain and it is appropriate for that to be put on record before we move on to the next business.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman asked me for a free vote at the end of the debate next Thursday. It is not the end of the debate or the discussion; it is very much the beginning. It is certainly my view and that of the entire Cabinet that we would like widespread and thorough debate on the issues raised by the Jenkins report.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his remarks about the Speaker's Chaplain and for giving me the opportunity—which might not otherwise have been in order—to say how strongly I share his views, which I know are shared by all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. The Speaker's Chaplain is held in not only great respect but much affection. The hon. Gentleman referred quite rightly to his pastoral role and his work with staff and with right hon. and hon. Members. If one may put it this way, he has adorned the House for a long time and we shall always find Prayers very different and for some time a little strange without him. I hope that he will be aware of how highly he is regarded and certainly, if that were not the case, I hope that it will be now.