HC Deb 22 April 1999 vol 329 cc1045-58 12.31 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 will be as follows: MONDAY 26 APRIL—There will be a debate on defence equipment on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

TUESDAY 27 APRIL—Progress on consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

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

Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 29 APRIL—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day].

Until about 4 o'clock there will be a debate on the Government's policies on housing and the green belt. Followed by a debate entitled Job Losses, Industrial Collapse and the Failure of the New Deal. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

FRIDAY 30 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows: MONDAY 3 MAY—Bank holiday.

TUESDAY 4 MAY—Until about midnight, progress on remaining stages of the Greater London Authority Bill.

WEDNESDAY 5 MAY—Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Conclusion of remaining stages of the Greater London Authority Bill. THURSDAY 6 MAY—Debate on modernising London's health service on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 7 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the business for the following week. Will the Leader of the House confirm what she said last Thursday, namely that the Prime Minister will make a statement on Monday on the NATO summit and the situation in Kosovo? As all options are being kept under review, will the House be regularly updated thereafter, not least if the position changes on the use of ground troops?

On the backlog of promised debates, I must press the Leader of the House for the debate on the reform of the House of Lords. The Bill is making progress in another place. It is some considerable time since the White Paper was published, and the debate would now be informed by my party's publication of the Mackay commission report. Can the right hon. Lady try hard to find time for this debate in the near future? I note in passing that the upper House has found time for a debate on the national changeover plan for the euro, whereas we have not.

Can the Leader of the House confirm also that she has not lost sight of the usual debate on policing in London? Can the Government find time next week to explain the muddle that they have got into on the working time directive? This commitment, which the Government signed us up to, is apparently being broken by the national health service, with technicians at the Royal Victoria infirmary Newcastle taking the trust to an employment tribunal. Despite the extra money for the NHS, is it the case that it does not have the resources to observe this directive?

Finally, can the House now be given the dates of the Whitsun recess so that Members and staff can plan their diaries?

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, I can confirm that the Prime Minister will make a statement on Monday following the NATO summit. I have little doubt but that he will take the opportunity to update the House on affairs in Kosovo and that either he or others will continue to keep the House up to date with events, as we have done throughout.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the backlog of promised debates, but what we have is a backlog of debates that he has asked for and which I have agreed should be considered. We will try to find time for them when we can. Of these, the debate on the reform of the House of Lords is one that we hope for which to find time in the reasonably near future. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said last week, there is a creative tension between the desire of the House for continuing debate and update on issues such as Kosovo, and the many other matters that the House would wish to debate.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why we do not have a debate on the changeover plan. The Lords debated that, but its agenda is in its own hands. He asks the Government to provide time for a debate on a subject on which the Conservative party could engage in debate were it to join the committee that the Government have set up. He also asked for the usual debate on policing in London. I have not lost sight of that.

It surprises me when Conservative Members raise the working time directive because they were in government when it went through in the European Union. Indeed, the Conservative party, having not voted against it, made a clumsy and expensive effort—that anyone could have told it would be unsuccessful—to take the matter to court. If it had proceeded sensibly and properly with good government and followed through consistently its stance in Committee on the matter, no one would be in any difficulty—the directive would have been in place and we would have had proper experience of how it worked long ago.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend encourage a clear Government statement next week on our policy towards Kosovo refugees? When I was in the camps in Macedonia last week, refugees told me that they had put down to go to Norway and Germany. Both would have preferred to come to Britain but had been told that Britain did not want them. I do not know whether that was true but I found it worrying. So far, we have been told that only 250 Kosovar refugees are coming to this country. I have had several phone calls from members of the public who believe that we should be far more generous and are willing to offer accommodation. I think that that is the will of the people of Britain. They want us to throw our arms open to refugees, who through no fault of their own cannot stay in their homes and will not be able to return to them in the foreseeable future.

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend says, there is much sympathy in the House and across the country for people in that terrible position. She knows that the Government have had a couple of approaches from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on behalf of families in particularly difficult circumstances, and that we are giving much support, faster and more efficiently than many others, to help people to survive in the area of Kosovo. There may be some individuals who want to come to this country or others, but the great bulk of those who are, sadly, refugees continue to express the view that they want to go back to their homes in Kosovo. We are anxious to do what most of the refugee effort is geared to doing: giving people all the help and support that we can now and maintaining them in that area so that they can more readily return to their homes as that becomes possible.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We endorse the plea for clarification of the Government's policy on Kosovar refugees. The Leader of the House has promised some debates rather than merely having had them requested of her. First, on the second report of the Modernisation Committee, which she chairs, she well knows that there is a narrow opportunity for the House to debate the issue so that it can take a decision and arrange the necessary works in time for the start of the autumn Session.

On an issue equally important in terms of the need for decision, the Leader of the House knows of my long-standing concern about the proposal to charge our constituents to use the line of route through the House in the summer. I understand that if we are to dispose of the matter speedily and effectively, we need a debate in the House as soon as possible, and she has promised one.

Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to make an urgent statement on NHS dentistry next week? She will have seen the report in The Independent today, based on an analysis by the British Dental Association, that NHS dentistry is close to collapse and that the number of NHS patients has dropped by 5 million since the previous Government altered contract arrangements in 1992. All parts of the country are affected by the collapse in a service that I fear we all have taken for granted. In Cornwall there is a particularly difficult situation, to which the report refers. Does the Leader of the House recognise that people throughout the country feel that they have contributed to the NHS through their national insurance contributions all their lives and that they simply are not getting the service for which they have paid?

Mrs. Beckett

First, may I take this opportunity to meet an unanswered request from the official Opposition for recess dates. I cannot give them yet. I will give them as soon as I possibly can.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) asked for clarification on the Kosovo refugees. We have made plain our approach to the treatment of the refugees, and we will continue to keep the House updated and informed on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have undertaken to give time for a debate on the report of the Modernisation Committee. I was a little surprised to hear negative noises from the Benches immediately opposite me, as there is a continual call from Conservative Members for further opportunities for scrutiny of what the Government are doing. That is precisely what it is intended to propose.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall also asked for a debate on charging for the line of route. We intend that any decision on charging anyone for access to this place—say, during the summer recess—should be properly considered, debated and taken by the House as a whole.

I can assure him that we are also conscious of the problems that we inherited in the NHS dental service. The Government have published a couple of documents—"Investing in Dentistry" and "Personal Dental Services". We have consulted widely and we expect soon to publish a new strategy for NHS dentistry.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I ask the Leader of the House a question of which I gave her office notice this morning? During the debate on defence equipment on Monday, will a statement be made on what knowledge is available on the pollution effects of the military action on the Danube—whether pollution is going down river to Hungary and Romania—on the effect of attacks on chemical plants, on chlorine-related problems, on any disease that is likely to arise and, not least, on whether depleted uranium shells are being used? If that is the case, some assessment really ought to be given in Monday's debate to the effect on health and whether the situation will resemble that in southern Iraq. Those are matters of fact that the House of Commons deserves to know about.

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that matters of fact are matters about which the House of Commons should know. He will recognise that the difficulty is that those facts are not always available to us. I undertake to draw his request to the attention of my hon. Friends who will lead for the Government in the debate. I have no doubt that if they have information which will answer some of the questions that my hon. Friend raises, they will do their utmost to make it available to the House. I merely caution my hon. Friend that in view of the action that is taking place, sound information such as he requests is not necessarily widely available.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have an urgent debate which will allow the Public Accounts Committee, on its return from its investigations in Brussels, to report urgently to the House its findings with regard to sleaze and corruption in Brussels? Such a debate would perhaps allow the Prime Minister himself to comment on whether he has confidence in his protege Mr. Prodi to sort out the sleaze and corruption, given the suspicion in some quarters that a group of Italian gentlemen close to and appointed by that gentleman are the least likely people to sort out sleaze and corruption in Brussels, never mind anywhere else.

Mrs. Beckett

Mr. Prodi has no relationship with or responsibility for the matters to which the right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention. He was the appointee of the previous Prime Minister, although I do not hold him responsible for that. I merely say that if we are going to point fingers all over the place, they do not point over here. One of the reasons why Mr. Prodi was supported not only by this Government but unanimously by all

member states of the European Union is the perception that he has a record of improvement and efficiency in Italy.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will my right hon. Friend give the House some time, between 6 May and the date when we rise for the Whitsun recess, to debate the regional development agencies and the next steps towards regional government in England?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to do so at present, especially within the short time scale suggested by my hon. Friend, but I shall bear in mind his keen interest in that matter.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Most hon. Members are aware that, from time to time, we hear more in the newspapers than in the House about prospective Government business. Newspapers have been leading with statements to the effect that the Government are to introduce, as a matter of urgency, a Bill to deal with the disappeared in Northern Ireland. Can the Leader of the House give us any information as to the timing of such a Bill? Can we have an assurance that the Government will not allow the terrorist organisations to continue playing ducks and drakes, especially in the way that such organisations put pressure on the families of the disappeared to prevent publicity and post mortem examination? If there is to be immunity under that measure, may there also be immunity for those called to give evidence in the inquiry into Londonderry that was recently set up?

Mrs. Beckett

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I have not seen the reports to which he refers—I am sorry about that. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; I am sure that she will understand the point that he makes.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Has the Leader of the House studied Hansard for Monday of this week? If so, did she notice that, although all the major parties support the general policy that the Government have adopted towards Yugoslavia, there was a great deal of support—it was more than sympathy—expressed by the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat spokesman for the idea that Parliament should have the opportunity to register its opinion on a substantive motion? I say that because I seek an assurance from the Leader of the House that, were any decision taken to commit ground troops, which would represent a complete change from the original policy, the House would receive a motion seeking support for that so that we could debate, discuss and decide it. We should then avoid the fiasco of Monday, when 13 Members expressed a view on the Adjournment of the House, but the House itself had no opportunity to register its opinion on the nature, objectives and character of the policy being pursued.

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend has raised that matter in a variety of ways on several occasions. He continues to press his point of view, as he has every right to do. As I have told him before, although I well understand the express wish of Members on both sides of the House for a decision-making procedure of the type that he describes and suggests, there is no precedent for that in the House. I cannot give him the assurance he seeks that the Government intend to break that practice, which was adopted for extremely good reasons.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Since my question last week, has the Leader of the House had time to discuss with the Minister for the Cabinet Office the desirability of debating the national drugs strategy, following the publication of the first annual report of the United Kingdom anti-drugs co-ordinator, so that Members can discuss those vital issues, which affect almost every community in the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

I have considered the matter and the request made by the hon. Lady. The matter will be discussed through the usual channels. However, the hon. Lady will be aware—as are all hon. Members—of the great pressure on the business of the House at present.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about what is becoming a crisis for national health service dentistry, is my right hon. Friend aware that many Labour Members share those concerns? For example, until recently, about 60,000 people in my constituency had no access to a full NHS dentistry service on which they could rely. Will she convey those concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and find time for Members to debate what has become an extremely urgent and important issue?

Mrs. Beckett

I recognise the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed today and on previous occasions on behalf of his constituents, but all I can say is that we intend to publish proposals in the not-too-distant future, and perhaps at that time it will be possible to air the issues in the House. I understand the depth of concern felt in every constituency, in every part of the country, about the lack of service available. I heard the shadow Chancellor talking on the radio the other morning, about how the Conservative party had always said that the NHS was safe in its hands, but one of the best examples of how it was not is NHS dentistry.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Can we have a statement next week on the plight of those British businesses that are the innocent victims of the trade sanctions resulting from the European Union's illegal banana regime? The Government were quick to offer £40 million in compensation to the Scottish cashmere industry and to exclude Scottish biscuits from the list of firms that were subject to sanctions, but it appears that, if the firms are based in England, the Government are not quite so sympathetic. May we have an urgent statement on that subject next week?

May we also have a statement to clarify a doubt that has now arisen in the minds of many sub-postmasters in this country, many of whom are paid only £2.10 per hour for a 38-hour week by the Post Office? It would appear that, under the minimum wage legislation, they are entitled to a substantial pay rise.

Mrs. Beckett

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in working the national minimum wage into a question about bananas. It is nonsense to suggest that there is some discrimination in the way in which the Government have handled the concerns of businesses throughout the country that have been affected by that trade dispute. I am slightly surprised, and perhaps even a little disappointed, that the hon. Gentleman is apparently so unsupportive of the concerns of Caribbean banana producers, on whose behalf this country, under Governments of both political colours, has sought to act for so long—perhaps that is new conservatism. I shall draw the issues he raises in respect of the Post Office to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to an earlier answer, will my right hon. Friend reconsider the position on a vote on the military action against Serbia, bearing it in mind that, if such a vote were to take place, there would undoubtedly be an overwhelming majority in favour of dealing with ethnic cleansing, mass murder and rapes in Europe? [Interruption.] Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be useful—

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Wait until the body bags come back.

Madam Speaker


Mr. Winnick

Regardless of the interruptions, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be extremely useful if there were a debate in the Belgrade Parliament, in which critics were able to express their point of view without fearing for their very lives? That is the difference between the dictatorship whose crimes we are currently combating and own free and democratic Parliament.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's final point about how unfortunate it is that the sort of free debate and freely expressed differences of view that we, quite rightly, hear in the House are unlikely to be heard in the Serbian Parliament, not least because, in many cases, the information that might fuel such opinions is denied. I also understand the desire he expresses on behalf of those of us who, despite recognising the difficulties and concerns arising from such action, would like an opportunity to register our support for those who carry the burden of responsibility in dealing with that extremely difficult situation. However, I remain of the view that, attractive though such a proposal is for those reasons, it is not appropriate to change the precedent in the House at this time.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Leader of the House discuss with the House authorities whether it might be possible to arrange for those who work in this place—Members of Parliament and their staff, and all those who work elsewhere in the House of Commons—to have the opportunity to give money to aid the Kosovo refugees, whose plight is simply unbelievable and grows more awful with every passing day? Will she ask the relevant authority whether it would be possible to put collecting tins in the Bars and Cafeterias and other places where people gather, so that the House and all those who work here can make their contributions?

Madam Speaker

Order. That is hardly a matter for the Leader of the House at Business Questions. However, as I am sympathetic to the point of view expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), I shall allow the Leader of the House to respond.

Mrs. Beckett

I am very grateful, Madam Speaker. I think many in the House would welcome that suggestion. As the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) will be aware, despite a tendency in the press to notice only Members of Parliament and to divide expenditure on the House only by our number, some 9,000 to 10,000 people work in and around the Palace of Westminster. It may be that many of them would welcome the opportunity to make such a contribution. As you said, Madam Speaker, the hon. Gentleman is not seeking a debate on this matter, but I think the whole House will welcome his suggestion.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I refer the Leader of the House to her reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) concerning refugee policy and treatment. We all obviously want people to have the right to access this country as asylum seekers. Will the Government clarify, by way of a statement or a debate, their policy regarding asylum seekers coming to this country? As I understand it, present Kosovo refugees will be granted automatic entry to the United Kingdom—I have no complaints about that—but those who arrived earlier did not receive automatic entry. Many of them have been denied both access to any benefits and the right to work in this country and must sustain themselves with food parcels handed out by local government. If a substantial number of asylum seekers arrive in this country—and, as I said, I have no problem with that—it is essential that local authorities from inner-city areas where many asylum seekers are likely to go receive sufficient funding to deal with their social services, health, education and recreational needs so that those asylum seekers may live a decent life in this country for as long as they wish to remain. The Government must clarify their position towards local authorities that will be expected to deal with the problem when those unfortunate people arrive.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend may have noticed that it is Home Office questions on Monday, and he may have an opportunity to put his questions directly to the Home Secretary, who is responsible for handling some of those asylum applications. Some 120 Kosovar refugees—mainly women and children—are expected to arrive in this country in the next few days. The Government also anticipate a further request from UNHCR to accept 18 medical cases with 121 dependants between them. My hon. Friend will therefore appreciate that they are quite specific cases forwarded by the refugee organisations for specific reasons: those people need care and treatment which can be provided in this country. For that reason, our approach is different from that which we take to refugees generally when we seek to sustain them in a region. My hon. Friend asked several other questions about local authority problems and, as I said, he should seek to raise them with my right hon. Friend at Question Time.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Has the Leader of the House had a chance to read yesterday's article in the Financial Times about the annual report of the International Institute for Management Development,

which is based in Lausanne? It revealed that, embarrassingly, Britain has fallen three points on the international competitiveness league table and is now 15th, behind countries such as Sweden and Australia. Will the Leader of the House find time to debate that subject so that we may point to the Government's economic management failures in the past year?

Mrs. Beckett

I have not seen the particular story to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I am aware that international surveys and league tables are of varying reliability and produce varying results. I recall vividly the fact that the United Kingdom ranked below Sweden and Australia in many competitiveness surveys produced under the previous Government.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 572: [That this House believes that the artefacts of the previous Welsh Parliament should be returned to Wales; recalls that the Pennal Letter and Seal of Owain Glyndwr sent to France in 1404 are of great historical significance in Wales as rare treasures of Welsh history; and believes that they should be reclaimed from the French National Library and exhibited and honoured in Wales as tangible links between the Parliament of 1404 and of the Assembly of today.]

The Leader of the House will appreciate the difficulty that I have in convincing her that we must debate urgently an event that took place in 1406. In that year, the last Welsh Parliament sent certain artefacts—the Pennal letter and the Great Seal of Owain Glyndwr—to the French king. They are now housed in the national library in Paris and, while they are of no significance—a mere footnote—to French history, they are the only tangible link between the last Welsh Parliament and the new Assembly to be established next month. Would it not be marvellous if we could reclaim those treasures?

Mrs. Beckett

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I freely confess that I was not aware that those interesting historical artefacts were held by the French. I am uncertain whether the French Government would readily release those objects, and I am conscious that the British Government are frequently petitioned to release historical documents and artefacts that were brought to this country. However, I shall draw my hon. Friend's request to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales who, I am sure, despite his pressing concerns with important elections in Wales, will do his utmost to explore the matter.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the woeful performance of some of her colleagues in responding to questions tabled for answer on a named day with substantive answers on that named day? I note from her reply to my question on that matter that her Department manages to answer a perfectly reasonable 85 per cent. of questions on the named day, but the Treasury manages only 32 per cent. and the Department of Trade and Industry only 31 per cent.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, when I asked a named-day question, said that it would give me a reply as soon as possible, and that was borne out by the eventual substantive reply stating that it managed to answer only 26 per cent. of questions on the named day. Does the right hon. Lady agree that those figures are unacceptable? Will she find an opportunity for those of her colleagues whose performance in this matter falls below her own to explain to the House how they intend to improve it?

Mrs. Beckett

Although I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about my Department, I point out that we have a lighter administrative work load than the Departments of some of my colleagues. I have mixed feelings on the matter. Of course the House must have proper and prompt replies to Members' questions. However, I confess to the House—perhaps I should not—that when I was in opposition, I never gave any thought to the realism of the day that I named in my questions. I merely bunged down the date on which I wanted an answer to my most urgent question. I suspect that most Members do the same—it is perfectly reasonable that they should.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that some questions are of considerable complexity and it may take time for Ministers to answer them as accurately and fully as they can. I understand his concern, but delays are understandable, particularly for Departments that have a heavy work load and where accuracy is essential, such as the Treasury and the DTI. If the hon. Gentleman wants to hold Ministers to account for the delivery of their answers, all I can suggest is that when he tables questions he might give a little more thought to how long it may take to answer them. I would not blame him if he did not, because I never did.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I recognise that security matters are not usually debated on the Floor of the House, but will my right hon. Friend find time to discuss the grave allegations in the editorial of the Scottish National party's monthly newsletter that MI5 has infiltrated the SNP with agents provocateurs to cause damage and discredit to the party? Before dismissing those allegations as the fantasies of the James Bond party, we should consider the very real evidence that the SNP is being undermined from within, if only by its leader, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond).

Mrs. Beckett

I freely confess to my hon. Friend that I was not familiar with that concern. I should have thought that the SNP was only too grateful to get new members—but as an excuse for poor performance, its ingenuity makes one gasp.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Has the Leader of the House yet studied, and can we have an early debate on, early-day motion 560: [That this House reasserts the importance of maintaining the integrity and political impartiality of the BBC; recognises the contribution made by Mr. Greg Dyke to the broadcasting industry; believes, however, that his substantial financial donations to the Labour Party render him inappropriate to be the next Director General of the BBC; and is confident that, in making this appointment, the BBC Governors will be conscious of the need to avoid accusations of political bias or cronyism.]

It was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and concerns the appointment of the next Director-General of the BBC.

Moreover, is the right hon. Lady aware of the widespread opinion within the House and outside that in the name of retaining the BBC's integrity and impartiality, Mr. Greg Dyke, notwithstanding his significant contribution to British broadcasting, would be a most unsuitable occupant of that high office, in view of his substantial financial donations over time to the Labour party? Does the right hon. Lady agree that to avoid charges of bias and cronyism and to retain public confidence, the BBC governors should properly take that widespread concern into account in making their judgment?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I remind the hon. Gentleman of where he ended up—that it is not the Government but the BBC board of governors that makes this appointment.

As for the notion that anyone who has ever given money to the Labour party should be debarred from holding public office, I can only say that if such a principle had applied during the period of office of the previous Government, the public service would have been denuded of many appointments.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on public transport, particularly in inner-city areas? In Salford last week, First Bus, a major bus company, withdrew services unilaterally, leaving pensioners and working people stranded at bus stops. The alleged reason was attacks by young people on buses. Clearly it is important that buses and drivers must be protected, but in inner-city areas very few people have access to private transport—so keeping the buses running is crucial to the well-being of such communities. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider that.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am sorry to learn of the difficulties that her constituents experienced. On Tuesday, there will be tabling of Department of Trade and Industry questions. I have no doubt that through that and other ways my hon. Friend will find an opportunity to raise the matter. I fear that I cannot promise her an early debate.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 562: [That this House notes the issuing of Health Service Circular 1999/999 on the multiple sclerosis drug Beta Interferon; believes that this circular represents a further withdrawal from the Government's pledge of universal care for those that need it; finds the circular pre-empts proper consideration by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence; and opposes any further moves to ration drugs available on the NHS on grounds of cost rather than clinical effectiveness.]

The motion relates to the provision of beta interferon for the treatment and alleviation of multiple sclerosis. The Government have just issued new guidance to health authorities on the rationing of this drug. Why is it that we have not yet had a statement from the Secretary of State for Health, explaining why he has issued fresh guidance that has pre-empted the work of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, which was meant to be giving guidance to health authorities so that they could take real decisions about the clinical effectiveness of beta interferon—rather than the Government, as it seems, dictating that decisions should be based upon cost-effectiveness, not clinical effectiveness? May we have a statement?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is a little ahead of himself. He says that the Department of Health has issued guidance. My understanding is that it has not. It may well be that someone has leaked a draft. Sadly, these things happen from time to time. I can only say that, as I understand it, a draft for guidance is being prepared. There have been some concerns about how it might be interpreted and the Department of Health is giving further consideration to how it might be clarified to meet those concerns. It has deferred issuing any guidance in the meantime, but it hopes to do so as soon as possible. If the hon. Gentleman still has concerns about the matter when he has seen the actual guidance, he will no doubt try to raise the matter again.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 566: [That this House welcomes the Government's commitment to tackling global warming but notes that without further measures the United Kingdom is unlikely to reach its targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; recognises that environmentally-benign refrigerants with low global-warming potential and significant energy-saving potential are not available for all refrigerant applications; and therefore urges the Government to introduce a system to incentivise a switch to such refrigerants, thus making a major contribution to filling the gap in policy on greenhouse gases.]

The motion relates to environmentally benign refrigerants—or friendly fridges, as we have called the relevant campaign. The motion draws the attention of the House to the problems of global warming. One of the problems is that in switching refrigerants from chlorofluorocarbons to hydrofluorocarbons we are reducing quite significantly, and very properly, the problems of the ozone layer, but the HFCs that are being used are causing severe problems with global warming. They are about 2,000 times worse than carbon monoxide. There are alternatives, and we welcome the Government's commitment to reducing global warming. However, we think that further action could be taken. I would like the Government to consider incentivising a switch to alternatives. I ask for an early debate on this issue in view of its importance.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early debate on the matter. However, I can tell her that the Government are developing a new climate change programme. Within that, we will be seeking to arrive at a balanced package of policies and measures covering all sectors and all gases. The problem, which given her remarks, my hon. Friend clearly appreciates, is the disadvantages of different measures. It is important to achieve a balance.

It is our intention to issue a draft programme for consultation later this year, and my hon. Friend may wish to return to the matter then. I had not previously heard the description "friendly fridges". People are always talking about new machines that will speak to us, so it opens up a rather endearing prospect.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Although the right hon. Lady is committed to a more structured

parliamentary year, she was not able to answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) about the Whitsun recess. Is it her intention for the House to sit on 11 June, the day of the European elections, or not? It would be helpful to Members of this House, and, more particularly—[Interruption.] I should have said 10 June; I am sorry. It would be helpful to Members of this House, and also to all who work here, to know whether she expects the House to sit on that day or not.

Mrs. Beckett

I am truly sorry not to be able to oblige the hon. Gentleman with the information that he seeks, but those matters are under consideration. That is why I have not been able to announce the dates of the Whitsun recess. I have given the House an indication that we expect the recess to include the week of 31 May, if I recall correctly, but I fear that I cannot go further at present.