HC Deb 29 April 1999 vol 330 cc476-91 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 for next 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—There will be a debate on modernising London's health service on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 7 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 10 MAY—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill.

TUESDAY 11 MAY—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 12 MAY—Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill.

THURSDAY 13 MAY—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 14 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the end of business on Thursday 27 May and return on Tuesday 8 June.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the business for the following week.

As the NATO action in Yugoslavia may last for some time, will the Leader of the House reflect on how the House may be kept in the picture in the weeks ahead? We have had debates and statements, which we very much welcome, but they have tended to be somewhat random. I do not press the right hon. Lady for an answer now, but the House will want regular opportunities to be kept informed, possibly on a weekly basis.

Will the debates that the right hon. Lady has announced on Northern Ireland give the House an opportunity to be informed on the progress of the talks?

Next week, will the Leader of the House ensure that the disagreement between Ministers as to who is responsible for lifting the beef ban in Wales is resolved? On a point of order yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) drew attention to conflicting statements from two Ministers, one of whom said that responsibility had been devolved to the Assembly, while the other said that it had not. As the Welsh people go to the polls, can they be clear as to what powers the body that they are voting for may have?

I make no apologies for asking yet again for a debate on Lords reform. I very much hope that the Leader of the House can tell us that it will happen soon.

On 11 May, hon. Members will be tabling questions to Scottish Office Ministers for answer on 25 May. Will the right hon. Lady tell us who will be answering those questions, as the Secretary of State for Scotland has said that it will not be him?

Finally, while we welcome the dates of the Whitsun recess, will the Leader of the House confirm whether the House will be sitting on the date of the European elections?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point about the arrangements for handling reporting back to the House on events in Kosovo. Although I appreciate his recognition that the Government have tried very hard to keep the House informed, he is right that it has been on a somewhat ad hoc basis. As all of us recognise that the NATO action may continue for some time, there is much merit in considering how we might keep the House updated and properly informed. That seems to me to be exactly the type of matter that requires careful consideration through the usual channels, and I shall be happy to take that forward and try to reach agreement on how we do so.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about progress on the talks being raised in the context of the Northern Ireland debates. I recognise that that is a serious point, and that people may well wish to allude to that subject. As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it is a matter as much for Madam Speaker and for the Chair as for me. These subjects may well come up in the debate, but the legislation is a grave and serious matter, to which the House will wish to give proper and full attention.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to provide time for a discussion on a contradiction that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) thought he had identified. I fear that I must disappoint him. Not only can I not find time for such a discussion, but it is totally unnecessary. The hon. Member for Woodspring seems to have overlooked the fact that when my noble Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn gave the initial answer, in a debate in June 1998, policy discussions on the handling of functions covered by the Food Safety Act 1990 were still under way, and those matters had not been decided. Since then, naturally, they have been decided. It is a matter for which responsibility is transferred, so the answer given by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was therefore entirely correct.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on Lords reform. We are conscious of the wish to hold a debate on the White Paper. We are seeking a suitable date, which I hope will be before the Whitsun recess, but the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, for reasons that we mentioned earlier in relation to Kosovo and so on, I cannot make any promises.

With regard to Scottish questions, the appropriate Minister will answer, quite naturally.

I can confirm that the House will be sitting on 10 June. I understand that that is not unusual. The House has always sat on the date of European elections, with the one exception of the most recent European elections in June 1994, when the previous Government, at what they must have hoped would turn out to be the nadir of their popularity, hoped to avoid further parliamentary scrutiny and embarrassment by ensuring that the House did not sit.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is there not merit in the Government tabling a substantive motion on the Kosovo situation—a motion which some of us might well wish to use to challenge the whole basis of the current on-going strategy, which is leading to a Vietnam-like situation? In particular, will there be a statement on why there has been a change of policy on the substantive bombing of Montenegro, a question of which I have given my right hon. Friend notice? How can we do this to Mr. Djukanovic, who has been a friend of the west, and what is the likely effect of bombing Montenegro in relation to any development of Yugoslavia in a peaceful situation?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that the Government's view on the issue of a substantive motion on those matters has not changed. As the point has been raised several times in the House, I have looked more carefully into the background, and I understand that a combination of the exercise of the royal prerogative and of the approach that has been taken that this is partly a common law matter, has led successive Governments, literally through the generations, to take the view that these matters are not decided by a substantive motion in the House. At present, the Government do not intend to change that policy.

My hon. Friend asked me—and I am grateful to him for giving me notice—to clarify the reasons for what he described as a change of policy on Montenegro. There has not been a change of policy. The Government support the elected Government of President Djukanovic, but, as I hope and expect the Montenegrin Government recognise, there are facilities in Montenegro that are of value to the Serb military machine, and NATO has sought to undermine those facilities.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I urge the Leader of the House to arrange an early statement on the urgent issue of the new trade war that seems to be about to break out on the issue of the import of hormone-treated beef to the European Union and the United Kingdom? It seems that the EU is being rather more effective in defending the interests and health of consumers in this country—and, indeed, British farmers—than the Government. An urgent statement is certainly necessary as this is a matter of considerable concern. The overnight news is that the situation is deteriorating fast.

The Leader of the House has previously said that she intends to arrange for a debate in the House on charging for entry to this building. The Administration Committee report is being published this week, so will the Commission be examining this matter and making a recommendation to the House before that debate takes place? Can the debate take place before the Whitsun recess?

In particular, will the right hon. Lady undertake that the Commission will look hard at the economics of the proposal? It seems to many Members, on both sides of the House, that those economics will stack up only if there is charging not for two months in the summer, but through 12 months—but that would amount to a creeping privatisation of the way in which visits to the House take place and considerable charges would inevitably be incurred by our constituents if the proposal were carried through. The House staff would be excluded from taking people round the building and considerable security issues would arise. Can we be reassured that the Commission will look hard at what looks like the thin end of a damaging wedge?

Mrs. Beckett

I did not hear any overnight reports of a change in the situation on hormone-treated beef, but it is ludicrous to suggest that the EU has been more effective in defending consumers' interests than the Government, who certainly give the highest possible priority to those interests. I should be sorry to learn of anything that is contributing to a new trade war, because we certainly want good trade relations between the EU and the United States, but these things bubble to the surface from time to time and have to be dealt with.

The hon. Gentleman asked about charging for entry to this place. He is right that the report has been published and it is anticipated that the Commission will consider the matter. We have not yet considered it, so I cannot tell him whether the Commission will make a recommendation; it may not. On the only occasion on which the matter was discussed by the Commission, all members took the view that this is very much a matter for the House. The economics are clearly the kind of thing that the House would want to take into account.

I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a debate before the Whitsun recess, but I can certainly say that it is my understanding that the impact of such issues as security—which he mentioned and which would of course be discussed—on the further opening up of the House has led to the proposal to consider charging. Let us not forget that this proposal concerns providing greater access, not less.

It has never been intended that Members would be charged. for taking parties of constituents around the House. I am not a member of the Administration Committee, and am in no way privy to its discussions or bound by its decisions, but, in fairness, it is only right for me to say to the hon. Gentleman and the House that precisely for those reasons, and not because the Committee is in any way advocating creeping privatisation, that the Committee has put these proposals to the House. The House may or may not decide to concur with the Committee's recommendation, but we must respect the seriousness of the concerns that it has identified.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Would it be possible for the BBC's special "Panorama" programme on the atrocities in Kosovo to be shown in the House—in particular, to critics of what is happening?

May I also raise a domestic matter? Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate next week on the public financing of essential services? Such a debate would give Members, especially Conservative Members, an opportunity to express their views. That would be better than all the hole-in-corner discussions in the Corridors, the rumours, the leaks, the sackings—and, of course, the undermining of the position of the Leader of the Opposition. A debate would allow us to air the differences in a proper way, in the Chamber of the House of Commons.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank my hon. Friend for his interesting suggestion. I understand his wish for the "Panorama" programme to be readily available to Members, and I think that he will find that it and other programmes are available through the Library. I hope that hon. Members will take advantage of that service. As for my hon. Friend's proposal for a debate on the public financing of essential services, I think that such a debate would be very interesting, although most of us would hardly need to attend; the Conservative party could hold the debate on its own. As we are offering Conservative Members opposition time, they may wish to take up my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the conflict, in the week including 10 May, between discussion of all stages of the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill and a visit to the United States by 11 members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which was arranged several months ago? That coincidence will give rise to a considerable conflict of loyalties among Committee members representing both Northern Ireland constituencies and constituencies in Great Britain. It would be very unfortunate if we could not take a balanced Committee to America.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, and also for the terms and the tone in which he did so. I was not aware of the conflict, but I agree that it is most unfortunate. Obviously, I cannot deal with the matter now, but the business that I announced for the second week is, of course, provisional. I am well aware of the concerns that led to the wish for a debate on the Bill to take place as soon as possible, and as concurrently as possible with what the Irish Government are doing; but I agree that the clash of events is very unfortunate. All I can suggest is that we try to encourage discussions between all involved as a matter of urgency, to establish whether the matter can be resolved in any way.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to NATO's new strategic concepts, which foreshadow considerable commitments of one kind or another. They may raise issues relating to the amendment of the NATO treaty, as well as defence and budgetary issues. May we have a debate as soon as possible, so that Members' views on a matter of profound significance for the future can be heard?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and worthwhile point. I cannot promise to find time for a special debate focusing solely on that issue, but I can tell him that we are very mindful of the fact that we are committed to arranging three defence debates each year. As he will know, we now have a new structure for those debates. One matter that we have not yet debated is the overall issue of defence in the world. We hope to find time for that debate in the not too distant future, and when it comes along the issue raised by my hon. Friend will be very pertinent.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House may know that the people of Omagh, who have suffered from bombing, are keen to open their town and their community to Kosovar refugees in sympathy, but that is on a long finger. Could that be explained, and, at the same time, could the Home Secretary come to the House to tell us whether any attempts have been made to deal with what some of us consider to be an anomaly in the new legislation dealing with European elections? Under that legislation, a person could spend £5,000 to influence the election of a candidate—or, indeed, an objection to that candidate —without any sort of regulation. I feel that we are getting into a dangerous position with our own electoral laws.

Mrs. Beckett

All of us recognise and honour the generosity of the people of Omagh in their willingness to welcome Kosovo refugees. The Government's approach has been to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify the people who are the highest priority cases in needing, for some particular reason, to come to the United Kingdom and who wish to come here. One piece of information that has continually been reinforced by all who talk to the refugees is that by far the majority of them want to return to their homes as soon as possible and to stay in the vicinity of Kosovo. The families of many of them are divided and they are anxious about relatives. I am sure that there is no wish to reject the generosity and good will of the people of Omagh, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

I am not familiar with the anomaly to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his second point. I shall also draw those remarks to the attention of the Home Secretary.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Last Monday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a substantial statement on his visit to Washington for the NATO summit, and I understand that most of the questioning turned on the issue of Kosovo. Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House make time for a serious debate on the future of NATO, and in particular the changes in the NATO structure that were agreed at Washington and the possible changes in the NATO treaty? Notwithstanding what she said to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), would this matter be covered by the royal prerogative or would there be a substantive vote on the Floor of the House on any changes in the NATO treaty? Clearly, they would have long-term implications for British foreign policy and our relationships with the United Nations

Mrs. Beckett

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), we are committed to a number of defence debates, which may provide an opportunity to raise these issues. We have Defence questions on 10 May if my hon. Friend wants to probe Government—from what he said, he does—on the immediate aftermath of the NATO summit.

On my hon. Friend's further question about whether this decision has to be on a substantive motion or can be done by royal prerogative, my inclination is that it is the second of the two, but I have not had the chance to give much thought to the matter. If I come to a different conclusion, I shall write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Can we have an urgent debate to inform and, I hope, reassure the people of this country about the continuity of public services over the millennium period? The Leader of the House may be aware that there is speculation and anxiety about the fact that some people and some trade unions in the public services are making disturbing threatening noises about the unavailability of key public services, not least health, over the millennium period. Is she aware of that, and does she accept that it is of the greatest urgency that this matter is debated in the House, in the hope of getting an absolute guarantee from the Government that there is no question but that public services will be continued over the millennium period?

Mrs. Beckett

It is unlikely that we can find time for a special debate on that matter. The right hon. Gentleman says that there is anxiety, but it is a bit late now for there to be anxiety about the delivery of services when planning for the continuous delivery of services without interruption should have started at least five years ago, if not more. I am not making a party political point—although I will if the right hon. Gentleman starts to press me. I am merely making the point that everyone who deals with the issue now recognises that to be the case. The more closely the matter is studied, the more apparent it becomes that the ramifications are far greater than people first anticipated when they began to plan for the millennium.

As for the speculation, I am aware of pressure within some of the services. The heads of services have responsibility for ensuring that they are delivered sensibly and without interruption. Everyone is working hard to achieve that, and there has been proper contingency planning should some unforeseen events take place, which is likely to happen over such an unusually long holiday. As for me giving an absolute guarantee, I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that Conservative Members frequently quote reports from the organisation that advised the Conservative Government, TaskForce 2000, and its most recent report is riddled with what are to my mind helpful references to the fact that no one can give absolute guarantees about anything, and that only someone very unwise would ask them to do so.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware that today is "take your daughters to work" day. Will she join with me in congratulating the tens of thousands of young girls who are taking the opportunity to go with their mothers and fathers to workplaces throughout the country, including the House of Commons, to see the work that their parents do? Will she also arrange for an early debate on the matter, so that we may discuss how not only girls but boys might gain more work experience and a better understanding of the world of work? It is important for the future that all our young people should have a better understanding of that world.

Mrs. Beckett

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming this day, and in congratulating those who are participating in it, particularly those who, like his own daughter, are participating in it in the House. I cannot promise him an early debate on the matter, but I can certainly wholeheartedly endorse—as the whole House will—his view that there is much that is worthwhile in young people having work experience, so that they may begin to see what it is that—we hope—their parents find interesting and attractive in their work, besides the salary that they draw at the end of the month.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the number of times that we have been able to discuss Kosovo. Although I wholly endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, it is worth acknowledging that we have had plenty of opportunities for such debate. However, we have not yet had an opportunity to debate the very real difficulties—which will be enormous and complex, and have to be discussed in the House—of how, when Milosevic has accepted the inevitable, we go about reconstructing Kosovo, with all the attendant disastrous consequences that we shall have to deal with then. Will she try to find time for what would be a very important debate, bearing in mind that it concerns not only the Foreign Office, but almost every Department of State?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement of the time that the Government have found for such debate. I share —as I am sure that the whole House will—his recognition both of the importance of reconstruction in Kosovo and of the fact that the matter requires most careful consideration. Although I cannot promise him now that I shall find time for a special debate, I assure him that, when discussions are held on how the House should continue to be informed and to debate those matters, we shall consider exactly those types of issue. I am grateful to him for reminding us of that.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 558, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner)?

[That this House deplores the action of Pizza Hut, which, in its opposition to the national minimum wage, has cut funds for late night taxi services for its staff, many of whom are under 18 years and some of whom work as late as 1.00 am; considers such action prejudicial to the welfare and safety of Pizza Hut staff; and urges the company to reconsider its position.]

Many hon. Members think that withdrawing that benefit demonstrates a callous disregard for loyal staff who work late at night, and that it is certainly against the spirit of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. May we have an urgent debate on the matter, so that we may discuss not only employers who are working against the national minimum wage and treating their staff in that manner, but employers who have welcomed the national minimum wage and a re ensuring that it succeeds?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Although I do not feel that, at the Dispatch Box, I can be drawn into the affairs of a specific company, I understand the anxiety that my hon. Friend expresses. It is not the first time, and I suspect that it will not be the last, that employers have prayed in aid the existence—or even the possibility of—the minimum wage as an excuse for doing something that they chose to do for reasons of their own. That may well apply in this case.

It is a matter of contract law, rather than the handling of the minimum wage itself. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will know—I am happy to remind people—that there is a national minimum wage helpline for those who believe that they are being unfairly disadvantaged. There is also a local office of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service that employees may contact, and I hope that they are doing so.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Given the rather disturbing answer that the Leader of the House gave earlier to the shadow Leader of the House, on the rights of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to lift the beef-on-the-bone ban, will she arrange for an urgent statement on the issue? Hon. Members will realise that it is entirely feasible that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly might lift the ban, whereas the House of Commons does not, thereby putting English farmers at a competitive disadvantage. Moreover, Scots Members of this House could vote against lifting the ban in England, which would cause concern and distress to farmers across the whole of this nation. An urgent statement is therefore required to reassure them that a Government whom they already feel are badly letting them down will not let them down even further.

Mrs. Beckett

I know nothing disturbing about those arrangements, and those to whom they come as a surprise cannot have been awake while we were debating the Welsh and Scottish devolution Bills. I am happy to say that it is not my problem. Moreover, the idea that English farmers will be at a disadvantage assumes that they are incapable of selling into Wales and Scotland, which I would have thought was a slur that they would not be happy to hear.

It is clear that, as the Government have said repeatedly, any decision made on the matter must be on the basis of scientific advice. That has always been, and will continue to be, the Government's stance, and we all hope that the scientific advice will soon give us clarity.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate on the economy, especially as under Labour we have the lowest mortgage rate for 30 years, inflation is under control and £40 billion is being spent on education and the health service? Will she consider a debate specifically about that £40 billion, because in discussing the Finance Bill this week, the shadow Chancellor said that his party supports our investment of £40 billion in health and education—but if we read the papers or listen to the news, we realise that there is a split in the Conservative party on that subject, and that such statements seem to cause problems? Should we not consider the matter? Is it not true that the Tories cannot be trusted on our public services?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a sensible suggestion, but I fear I cannot help him with his proposal for a special debate. As he will be aware, we have debated the Finance Bill this week but, inexplicably, the Opposition chose to ignore the facts to which he has drawn attention—the low mortgage rate, low inflation and the substantial investment in our public services. I understand his wish to remedy the defects in the Conservatives' choice of issues to debate, but I fear that I cannot find extra time.

As for whether the Opposition now support the investment in our public services, over the past few weeks I have heard the shadow Chancellor and others in the Conservative party saying sometimes that it was wild extravagance and sometimes that they supported it—and also that perhaps they did not support a change of direction. The Conservative party's position is far from clear, but I do not think that a debate would help us, because the party seems to have a split personality on the subject.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a short statement on the worrying incident that occurred at Stansted airport, in which a package of highly dangerous iridium weighing 200 lb was discovered lying there, having been "lost in the post"? Had it been opened, it could have killed thousands of people. If she makes a statement, will she be able to explain why the package, having been lost between the United States of America and Mexico and having ended up at Stansted, lay undiscovered for 10 days; what steps the Government are taking to investigate the matter, whether the package was carried on a passenger airliner, and what the Government are doing to reduce the movement of radioactive material in general?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman says that the material was discovered "lying there". My understanding is that it was "lying" in a safe radioactive storage area, which is not quite the same thing. It was not exactly on a baggage trolley. Of course, I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's concern about such material being untraced, but I cannot offer him an early statement on the subject.

This morning, I had the advantage of hearing part of the hon. Gentleman's interview on the radio, in which he called for a reduction in the movement of radioactive materials. Of course I understand his fears—public safety is a high priority for the Government—but if one were waiting to be treated with radioactive isotopes, or were concerned about the safety of something that was being investigated using radioactive trace techniques, one might be less sympathetic to the notion that such material should not be transported anywhere.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate—next week, I hope—on that part of the £21 billion that the Government are spending on the national health service that will restore free eye tests for pensioners from this month? The Conservatives abolished those during their reign, and it would seem appropriate for both sides of the House to have the opportunity to accept that that was wrong, while alerting many of our constituents, including almost 19,000 people in my constituency, to the fact that they can now go down to their optician and have a free eye test.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right, and I regret that I cannot promise time for such a debate, especially as it is important—as she rightly says—that pensioners understand that their right to free eye tests has been reinstated. There was much concern in the House at the time of abolition, even in the Conservative party, about the health consequences of that move. It has been damaging, and I am proud to be part of a Labour Government who have reversed it.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the plight of those people on low incomes who have worked hard all their lives and are approaching retirement? They have been considerably disadvantaged by this Government's changes to the tax structure, including the abolition of MIRAS and the married couples allowance, the increase in national insurance for the self-employed and the rise in the cost of living caused by increases in petrol duty. Such people have worked hard all their lives on low incomes and may have saved a little, but they have no time left to build up their pensions. They can expect to retire on a lower pension not only because they have earned less in the past few years, but because of the tax changes to pensions.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot offer a further debate on the matter other than the ones we have already had on the Finance Bill. The hon. Gentleman is addressing the wrong person. I shadowed social security for five years, during which time the Government whom he was proud to support did more than any Government in living memory to devastate the pension provision, the safety net and all the services that underpin support for pensioners, especially those on low incomes.

Sir George Young

Come on!

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman keeps saying "Come on". Business questions do not exist solely for the Opposition to have a go at the Government: the Government can have a go back.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

If everything has gone to plan, a plane containing refugees from Kosovo recently landed at East Midlands airport. The refugees will be taken to Leicestershire and to a part of north-east Derbyshire in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) —who will, I understand, soon be back with us and will be a solid representative of the refugees' needs. Can we have a debate specifically about the problems of refugees from Kosovo, both those who are in the countries around Kosovo and those who have been transferred to other areas? People have different views on how the refugee situation should be handled and what facilities should be available. It would be valuable if the House had a debate on the needs of the refugees, rather than another debate on the NATO bombing and the background to the situation.

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with my hon. Friend's concerns. Like him, I have heard the reports that some of the refugees will go to north-east Derbyshire. I cannot promise to find time in the near future for a specific debate on the issue of refugees, but I can assure him that the Government keep those concerns under review and will continue to discuss them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made a statement on 21 March on the issue and we will continue to keep the House informed.

I share my hon. Friend's view that the matter will be kept under review by the powerful and beady eye of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). The Chamber is not the same without him and I am sure that all hon. Members wish him a speedy return.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement by the Home Secretary on the work of the Passport Agency? My constituents face delays of weeks and months in the return of their passports when they have made new passport applications. That serious situation especially affects families who now have to get passports for their children. I understand that since 25 March all passport applications have been diverted to Belfast because of the overload of the mainland system. Will she bring the Home Secretary to the House to explain the work of the agency and the measures that will be taken to rectify the problems?

Mrs. Beckett

I think that the whole House—and certainly all hon. Members whose constituencies include a substantial population from the ethnic minority communities—will be aware of how great are the difficulties being experienced by the Passport Agency and of their serious effect on the service available to people. I am not promising to bring my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to the House in the near future to give an explanation, partly because it is a problem—a difficult and thorny one—which we inherited and are trying to resolve.

However, it is typical of IT problems that no one is willing to predict accurately when they will be sorted out. All I can say is that an enormous amount of work is being undertaken to try and resolve the matter. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has written to hon. Members—or will do so in the near future—to give them as much information as he can. As things stand, we can only do what we can to alleviate the worst of the difficulties and hope that proper service is resumed soon.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

If it turns out that my right hon. Friend has been unsuccessful in persuading the Opposition to hold a debate on public services, will she reconsider the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)? My right hon. Friend will be aware of the speculation last weekend that Michael Portillo, the former Member for Enfield, Southgate, may seek the Conservative nomination in my constituency of Harrow, West at the next election. Will she seek an assurance, through the usual channels, that Mr. Portillo's campaign for that nomination will not be blocked by the Leader of the Opposition?

Mrs. Beckett

I had seen some of those reports, and I think that many Conservative Members—not just the present Leader of the Opposition but the contenders for that post as well—will be both interested and alarmed to learn of the plans of the former Member for Enfield, Southgate to seek a return to the House. However, I fear that, even with the enticing prospect that we might further expose the divisions in the Conservative party, I still cannot find time for a debate.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a statement to be made early next week by the Minister for Sport, so that he can explain his remark about underachievers in the Scottish football team? He said that the team was the West Ham of world football and urged it to throw in its lot with the England team so that a United Kingdom side could take the field. If possible, can we have such a statement before Thursday?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport. I fear that it is unlikely that I can arrange for a statement to be made before Thursday, but I rather suspect, for good or ill, that if the hon. Gentleman were to press my hon. Friend on the matter he may find my hon. Friend only too willing to explain his views.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the new campaign on agency workers launched this week by the Trades Union Congress? The campaign has the support of two reputable employment agencies, Manpower and Adecco, which are keen to promote the existing legal rights against rogue agencies and the new rights being introduced by the Employment Relations Bill. A telephone hotline is to be made available so that people can find out what their rights are, and a debate would give the House an opportunity to consider the merits of a European directive on establishing employment status and rights for all temporary workers in the European Union.

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that the TUC's aim of improving standards in the industry is to be welcomed, and I very much welcome the campaign. There is much talk about the flexible labour market in this country, and it can be of advantage to both employers and employees, but decent standards must be observed. Good employers who try to do a sensible job and supply the needs of the employment market are let down if standards are undermined by rogue agencies. I hope that all hon. Members will support the campaign, which I hope will be successful. However, I fear that I cannot find time for a debate on the matter soon.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Apparently well-founded reports suggest that nursery schools and pre-school playgroups have been closing at a rate of two or three a week. The matter was raised at Education and Employment questions this morning, but the Under-Secretary of State dodged it. The question also came up in Prime Minister's questions yesterday, and the Prime Minister flatly denied that the closures were taking place. Will the Leader of the House therefore find time for a statement from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, so that we can get to the bottom of the matter and find out the truth about the harm being done to nursery education by the Government's policies?

Mrs. Beckett

I did not hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said this morning, but I did hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday, and I fear that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) must have misheard him. The Prime Minister said that the Government were making further investment in nursery education and that such facilities were being made more widely available.

The position clearly varies in different parts of the country, but I suspect that part of the reason for the concerns aired by some Conservative Members is that as the Government have put substantial investment into providing additional nursery places through public funds, that investment may be reducing the need for some privately provided places.

Obviously, there are differences in provision, but that does not necessarily mean that there is less provision, and it certainly does not necessarily mean that provision is of a less high standard. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment were quite right to contradict any Conservative Member who said that nursery provision was declining under the Government. It is increasing; what is changing is how it is provided.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Will the Leader of the House organise an early debate on the single currency? I ask that for the particular benefit of the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who, on Radio 4's "Today" programme yesterday, was diverted from his normal tirade against Europe into a discussion of splits in the Conservative party. Interestingly, the right hon. Gentleman seemed three times to refuse to back the stance taken by the Leader of the Opposition. I feel, therefore, that he—and both wings of the Conservative party—should be given the opportunity to debate the euro and explain why the Tories have dogmatically ruled out British membership for 10 years, regardless of the economic circumstances or potential benefits for the British people.

Mrs. Beckett

I also heard a large part of the interview with the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I was deeply irritated that the interviewer, uncharacteristically, did not interrupt the right hon. Gentleman with what seemed to me to be the pertinent question. What struck me forcefully was not only that the right hon. Gentleman took his usual negative attitude to the euro, but that he spent his entire time saying that the fact that the euro had gone down in value was a very bad thing that would cost jobs and cause great difficulties in economies that have joined the euro. He said that it was, therefore, a jolly good thing that we were not in it. As that was the very opposite of all that he had said about the value of the pound since the general election, I could not understand why he was not questioned on that point by the interviewer.

No matter how inconsistent the right hon. Gentleman may be about his attitude to the euro and the pound, however, there is one matter on which he is entirely consistent—his attitude to whoever happens to be leading his party.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Recently, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced a review of meat inspection charges. A deluge of expensive regulation is sweeping away numerous small abattoirs and food businesses. If the review is to have integrity and win the respect of the industry, it is essential that it should be conducted by someone outside the Ministry who is truly independent. May we have a statement from the Minister on the grounds of the review, its timetable and who will lead it? If we do not have such a statement, the review will be seen to be an internal cover-up by the Ministry.

Mrs. Beckett

As my right hon. Friend the Minister announced the review during a debate in the House only last week, it cannot be called a cover-up. The details of how it will be handled are being considered. The Government think it right and necessary to hold a review into a regime that was largely introduced at the behest and under the supervision of the Conservative Government. The review will be thorough and carried out well. If the hon. Gentleman wants more details about specific matters, I suggest that he tables a few parliamentary questions.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the schools repair programme? Is she aware that Labour has committed £5.4 billion to the programme, which is twice the amount that the Tories would have spent? Some 10,000 schools in England have already benefited, including Wath comprehensive, Swinton comprehensive and Wickersley comprehensive in my constituency, which received a total of about £150,000 for long-overdue repairs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that should remind the House that while the Government are tackling problems that matter to people, factions in the Opposition are spending their time tackling each other with increasing ferocity?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right about both the value and importance of the school repair programme and how much more important that is than the divisions in the Conservative party. He also reminds his local electorate— where the schools have benefited from this programme—and others of how important it is to give this Government the opportunity to continue to deliver on the promises that we made at the general election on the fundamental services that are of prime importance to the British people. I hope that message will be understood in his area and across the country.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given the detailed newspaper reports about allegations that the Labour party in Sheffield and Hackney is engaged in a concerted campaign to persuade and browbeat frail and elderly people to apply for a proxy vote—including, the House should know, through the use of the publicly available register at local town halls, with a view to persuading people who have permanent postal votes instead to opt for a proxy vote—will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to make an early statement upon this important matter? Does she accept that that would provide the Home Secretary with an opportunity to make it clear that he and the Government absolutely deprecate any such conduct in the run-up to the local elections and any others, that any such allegations will be thoroughly investigated by the Labour party nationally, and that any constituency Labour party found guilty of such malpractice will be immediately suspended or disbanded?

Mrs. Beckett

I have heard no report of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I think that he should be cautious in his language. There is no malpractice in encouraging people to take out a postal or proxy vote for their convenience. In many circumstances it can be sensible. As for the notion that in some way this is being misused, I have heard no reports of it whatever. I have not the faintest idea whether they have any reliability or are a wild figment of the imagination of some Conservative party supporter. In the only case of proven electoral fraud that I can recall in recent years, it was the Conservative party that was at fault.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Agriculture Select Committee this week published its report into badgers and bovine tuberculosis. As a result the Committee has largely backed Professor Krebs' report to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with some reservations. Those reservations are shared by the all-party animal welfare group, which I chair. We are concerned that in some parts of the country badgers will be obliterated with perhaps no good reason, and that in others badgers will be untouched for perhaps up to seven years, leaving farmers with the difficulty of dealing with bovine TB if it affects their herd and the cold comfort that the Government might see what they can do in five to seven years' time. That is of great concern to hon. Members who are interested in both the rural economy and animal welfare. Can my right hon. Friend arrange for a Minister from MAFF to come to the House to make a statement and hear hon. Members' views?

Mrs. Beckett

The Government have welcomed the Select Committee report. I understand that it is a careful and considered report, and we shall look carefully at its recommendations. We also take seriously the concerns of the all-party animal welfare group. It is difficult to balance the interests of badgers and those of cows, which are, of course, also animals. The Government have been looking at the matter carefully. I share the Select Committee's view that the matter should be handled with a policy approach which is science based. I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early statement on the matter, but I can certainly undertake that the Government will give the Select Committee report the full consideration that it deserves.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I thank the right hon. Lady for the answer that she gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). When she has these discussions on a possible change of business for the week after next, will she consider whether it might be a good idea, subject to agreement through the usual channels, to have the debate on the House of Lords reform White Paper that week, because it is long outstanding? It would be entirely convenient to debate that, whereas it would be inconvenient to have the debate that my right hon. Friend questioned.

Mrs. Beckett

I undertook to facilitate serious discussions about the business that was originally scheduled. I do not know what their outcome will be. It may be that the consensus is that it is right to continue with the business originally scheduled. We will have to consider that. As to what might replace it if the original business does not continue, this morning has shown that there is a plethora of interesting and engaging subjects, all of which will no doubt claim some part of the Government's attention.