HC Deb 02 December 1999 vol 340 cc431-42 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 6 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill.

TUESDAY 7 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Freedom of Information Bill.

WEDNESDAY 8 DECEMBER—Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Cuts in Tube Investment, Ways of Paying for more Tube Investment and the General Transport Budget", followed by a debate entitled "Coalition Discussions between the Government and the Liberal Democrat Party". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion relating to the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order.

THURSDAY 9 DECEMBER—Debate on the World Trade Organisation Millennium Round on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 10 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows: MONDAY 13 DECEMBER—Until 7pm, debate on the Common Fisheries Policy on a Government motion, followed by a motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment debate.

TUESDAY 14 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill.

WEDNESDAY 15 DECEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the Representation of the People Bill [1st Day].

THURSDAY 16 DECEMBER—Estimates Day [1st Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on aviation safety, followed by a debate on inward and outward investment in Scotland. Details will be given in the Official Report. At 7pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates. That will be followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

FRIDAY 17 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

Sir George Young

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

I welcome the announcement that the Representation of the People Bill is to be taken on the Floor of the House, in response to the matter being raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) last week, but remain concerned at the continued absence of a debate in Government time on economic matters. I raised that omission a fortnight ago and my hon. Friend raised it last week. He was told that the Government were looking anxiously for an outcome to those discussions."—[Official Report, 25 November 1999; Vol. 339, c. 757.] Nothing has been said today to allay those anxieties, and we still have not had the normal two-day autumn defence debate. Does not the failure of the Government so far to find time for those debates on the economy and defence show that the role of the House in holding them to account is already being undermined by the large number of Bills that they have decided to introduce?

Yesterday, the Chancellor announced new joint action committees to link England with Scotland and Wales. The House has yet to have a proper debate on the concordats published in October. Can the right hon. Lady find time for a debate on those two important aspects of devolution?

Can the Leader of the House confirm that the next millennium bug statement will be oral? Does she plan to make a statement in the new year telling us how things went, assuming that we all make it back here?

Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Deputy Prime Minister will reply to the first debate on Wednesday, to deal with the mounting criticism of his performance? As for the second debate, on coalition, which is of interest to all three major parties, is it not clear that only one Minister knows what is going on? Can the right hon. Lady assure us that the Prime Minister will respond to that debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming the news that the Committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House. As he said, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) raised the matter last week, and the Government have agreed to the request.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me for a debate on economic matters in Government time. I am conscious that such a debate is outstanding, but the right hon. Gentleman will have observed that I have not announced all the business before we rise for the Christmas recess.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman, especially in view of his final remarks—although I recognise that he asked perfectly reasonably for a debate in Government time—that, if the Opposition are so anxious to discuss the economy, their wish to waste half a day discussing some mythical coalition suggests rather a strange order of priorities.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the defence debate. He knows, because I have said it before, that the Government have every intention of providing a proper two-day debate. He also knows not only that we have made it plain for some time that the defence White Paper has unfortunately been delayed, but that the White Paper must then go to the Select Committee on Defence, because that is part of the House's scrutinising role.

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. The White Paper does not have to go to the Select Committee but, if he talks of the undermining of the House's role while simultaneously suggesting that we should forget the Select Committee, I can only say that it is not we who are undermining the role of the House in engaging in proper scrutiny. We will have those debates when we can present the White Paper, and when the Committee has had a chance to look at it.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's request for a debate on the concordats, although there have been a number of debates on devolution issues. I can confirm that I expect the next millennium bug statement to be oral, because it will be the last before the date change.

I am perfectly prepared to consider making a statement in the new year. I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about the possibility that not everyone would "make it back"; I could give him a small list of the people whom we could do without, but it might get longer as scrutiny of it continued.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me who would respond to the Opposition day debates. He will appreciate that we have only just received notice of the debates that the Opposition intend to schedule. I can only say that the appropriate Ministers, representing the relevant Departments, will take part. I fear that I cannot undertake to provide the Prime Minister for the second half of the Opposition day, as he has much better things to do with his time than to respond to a rather frivolous debate based on frivolous newspaper reports.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the most distressing complaints brought to our constituency surgeries concern medical cases in which people feel that their health has been more damaged than helped by interventions on their behalf? Some such complaints were the subject of a Channel 4 news programme broadcast in July 1998, and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health was quick to commission an independent review of the allegations that were made. I am pleased to say that the report resulting from that review is published today, and I hope that Derriford hospital in Plymouth will act equally swiftly on its recommendations.

A report by the Select Committee on Health also deals with such matters of concern. Would my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate, so that we can examine the way in which complaints are handled in the health service, and can ensure that they are dealt with as swiftly and seriously as we would all wish them to be?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to say that people's concerns about the impact and effect of medical intervention can be some of the most distressing cases that Members have to deal with. Obviously, people hope for a successful outcome in all their dealings with the health service and will be particularly disappointed and distressed if they feel that that is not the case. I am grateful to her for drawing to our attention the recent publication of the two reports. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future, but if, say, the Liaison Committee were to select the Health Committee report for debate, either in the Chamber, or in Westminster Hall, that would give an opportunity for those issues to be raised.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I warmly endorse the request from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) not only from a constituency point of view—my constituents also use the hospital to which she referred—but because much wider national issues are involved, as I am sure that the Leader of the House recognises.

Can we have a debate, if not before the Christmas recess, soon after, on the resources available to the House of Commons Library? Did she notice in Prime Minister's questions last week that, in answer both to the leader of the Conservative party at column 610 and to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) at column 612, when faced with facts that were made available by the House of Commons Library, the Prime Minister said that those facts were "simply wrong"?

In my experience and, I am sure, in that of the Leader of the House, the House of Commons Library provides an excellent service to all hon. Members. It is the first time, at least in recent history, that any Prime Minister has cast aspersions on the validity of such facts—at least since Baroness Thatcher, who used to take the view that she did not want to be confused with the facts. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the way in which we are served by the House of Commons Library?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising the worth of the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and the degree to which there is common ground on the matter across the House.

Of course I noticed what the Prime Minister said. Naturally, I hang on his every word at Prime Minister's Question Time.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

We all do.

Mrs. Beckett

As we all do. I entirely share, as I know the Prime Minister does, the view of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that the Library provides an excellent service. Equally, however, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Library would dissociate itself from having any responsibility for what statistics are sought and how they are used.

I cannot promise an early debate on resources for the Library, but the hon. Gentleman might ask the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) a question on the matter when House of Commons Commission questions come up next.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

My right hon. Friend will know that, despite strenuous opposition from some Members in the past century, ways were found for Catholics, Jews and non-believers to take their seats without in any way undermining their religious, or non-religious, principles. Will she consider the possibility of a change of wording that would allow Sinn Fein MPs to take their seats? After all, they were elected in the same way as we were. If the peace process is to continue and, as we hope, to be consolidated, will that not be an encouraging sign of our own flexibility as a parliamentary democracy? Of course, we would need to work on the basis that there is a genuine wish on the part of the people to whom I have referred to take their seats.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend raises an interesting and important point. He is right to say that the House has, historically, found ways to enable people to be at ease with their conscience and to operate properly as Members of Parliament. I am not entirely sure who the issue that he has raised would be a matter for, but I will draw it to the attention of my relevant right hon. and hon. Friends. However, I share his view that, before the matter could even be considered, there would have to be a genuine wish to operate properly as Members of Parliament and in the context of the development of peace.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Has the Leader of the House been struck by the irony of the fact that, on Tuesday, we shall debate the Second Reading of the Freedom of Information Bill and, at 7 o'clock the following evening, we shall be talking about a matter so arcane that only two members of the Government could be informed about it?

Mrs. Beckett

It is important that we are to have a debate on the Freedom of Information Bill, which will, for the first time, give a statutory right of freedom to receive information. I take no responsibility for the other debate to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. It is the choice of his right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I am grateful that the Leader of the House has found time for us to debate aviation safety, which is essential, particularly in the run-up to the millennium. Will she also find time to debate the role of Railtrack—a company at the centre of the railway system? A report issued today shows that changes in the management and the culture of the company are long overdue. It might be a good idea to look carefully at the role of a private company at the centre of one of our most essential services.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for the debate on aviation safety. I understand her interest in, and concern about, the role of Railtrack. The Transport Sub-Committee, which she chairs, has done a great deal of worthwhile work on those issues. I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate just on Railtrack, but she will know that the Transport Bill has been published and will offer opportunities for such concerns to be raised. I shall bear her further remarks in mind.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

The right hon. Lady has had on her desk since she took office the fourth report of the Select Committee on Procedure about delegated legislation, which was published three years ago. As the present Procedure Committee is also considering the issue, would it not be helpful if the Government were to respond to the report, or at least arrange a debate on it, so that the current Committee can have the views of the House as it proceeds? We are debating modernisation. With more than 1,700 pieces of legislation going forward every year, often unconsidered by the House, it is an essential matter for debate.

Mrs. Beckett

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have found time to debate a number of Procedure Committee reports of late. He says that at least we should have a debate on the report that he referred to, but as he was, if I recall correctly, one of the principal movers behind the establishment of the sittings in Westminster Hall, he is as aware as anybody of how tight time is for debates. I shall bear his remarks in mind, but, given that discussions are in train, I am not sure whether I fully accept his view that now, rather than when the discussions are further advanced, is the time for us to have a debate.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Given the welcome developments in Northern Ireland, what does my right hon. Friend see as the scope of Northern Ireland business in the House in future? We have the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and Northern Ireland questions. Has she had any indication that the Ulster Unionists might be willing to take their seats on the British-Irish parliamentary body?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. There may be issues in the aftermath of developments in the peace process that the House will need to discuss, although I cannot anticipate what they will be. I have not had any indication of what changes are intended for the membership of the various bodies, perhaps because people have been more engaged in dealing with the aftermath of the re-establishment at Stormont. I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but I fear that I cannot give him the information that he seeks today.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House knows that there have been some unfounded concerns about aviation with the millennium coming on. Would it be possible to have a debate when we come back—if we cannot have it before then—on the open skies policy? The Government might be impeding some of our people from reducing transatlantic fares and allowing people to travel with more speed and freedom.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and I am grateful to him for saying that some of the stories that have appeared have been unfounded. I recognise his ingenuity in linking that to the open skies policy. However, I fear that, at this stage of the Session and with legislation to get under way, I see little prospect of finding time for a specific debate on the open skies policy, although I recognise its importance.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

Will my right hon. Friend make time available for an early debate on housing? The House will be aware of the developing housing and homelessness crisis in Greater London, where more than 38,000 people are now in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation and considerable numbers are sleeping rough on the streets. The problems and concerns in other parts of the country are more about declining estates and empty properties. The Conservative party has expressed collective nimbyism about the building of new homes in the south-east, where there is a great demand and need for affordable accommodation, and those issues should be aired. We are to have a Green Paper in the next few months, and Parliament should express some views before then.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns about the continued aftermath of the difficulties and deficiencies in housing policy that we inherited from the Conservative party. He will know that the Government are seeking to turn that around. However, he will know also that the provision of sound housing takes time. Previous Governments of all political shades have sometimes regretted a great rush to throw up housing in the short term. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the issue in the near future, but my hon. Friend may like to bear in mind the opportunities that arise in Westminster Hall, and seek a debate in that forum.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Could the right hon. Lady induce the Deputy Prime Minister to put right his dereliction of duty in not coming to the House to present a statement on the withdrawal of his proposal that Railtrack should assume responsibility for the modernisation of the sub-surface lines—the District, Circle and Metropolitan lines—of London Underground? Would it not be better—even at this late hour—if, in advance of Wednesday's debate on cuts in London Underground, he came to the House to provide the background for that debate, and to allay our suspicions that his decision had more to do with buying off the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) than with providing an effective strategy for the modernisation of the tube?

Mrs. Beckett

It is unusual for someone to want a statement even before a debate, and I fear that I cannot satisfy the hon. Gentleman in that regard. He talked about the withdrawal of a role for Railtrack. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister has announced that Railtrack will not be charged with sole responsibility because it has been unable to confirm that it could do so on the basis of an integrated system. My right hon. Friend has made it plain that that was the basis of any possibility of Railtrack being given the sole role. That was announced in June. In consequence, I see no need for a statement to confirm what my right hon. Friend said was the framework of the negotiations then.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the extreme frustration of many of my constituents in Norfolk about the fact that they are having to watch Yorkshire and north English television regionally. Last week, the Minister responsible for broadcasting came to Norfolk. Although supportive of the need to address the problem, she had to relay the information that the next major legislation on broadcasting is not likely to be until the next Parliament. In those circumstances, and given the good will expressed by Ministers—and the fact that I must be one of 30 or 40 hon. Members with constituents in this position—is there any chance that the Government will be willing to give a fair wind and some time to a private Member's Bill specifically addressing this issue?

Mrs. Beckett

I have great sympathy with the concern that my hon. Friend expresses, and I know that it is a cause of great resentment in the areas the he and other hon. Members represent that that choice is denied. However, I am not sure that I share my hon. Friend's confidence that legislation would be the best way to tackle the problem, still less that the best solution would be a private Member's Bill. However, I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will exercise his persuasive powers on those hon. Members who won a place in the ballot for private Member's Bills. I wish him well with his efforts, but I cannot undertake to provide the support that he seeks.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we have a focused debate on the relationship between the Prime Minister, Mr. Prodi—the Prime Minister's friend and a man whom he admires—and the Prime Minister's crony, Lord Simon of Highbury, to explore the nature of the relationship between them, especially their views on Europe and its future, and the national veto in the European Union? The Prime Minister may agree with his crony and his friend, or he may not, but the issue is vital for the future of this country and its relationship with the European Union. We need an urgent debate to get to the bottom of the problem and find out whether the Prime Minister is a good European or whether he has already—although I can hardly believe it—fallen out with his friend, Mr. Prodi, and taken a different view.

Mrs. Beckett

I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that we had a debate on Europe yesterday, so it seems strange for him to call for an urgent debate today on the same European matters. He will be mindful of the fact that no Labour Government have ever given up any element of the British veto, because that was done by the Conservative Government under Baroness Thatcher. The right hon. Gentleman should perhaps focus on the rethinking that seems to be happening in the Conservative party.

I find it offensive that a senior, distinguished and internationally recognised British businessman should be dismissed and sneered at in the way that the right hon. Gentleman did by describing him as "a crony" of the Prime Minister. Every time that the right hon. Gentleman and people like him make such remarks, people in the City wonder more and more about the direction of the Conservative party.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Could my right hon. Friend find Government time to debate the role, function and effectiveness of local health authorities? The Leicestershire health authority, in an acute hospital review in the county of Leicestershire, has concluded that the almost new Glenfield hospital—a lung cancer centre of county importance; a breast care centre of regional importance, with a unit recently opened by the previous Secretary of State for Health; and a cardiology unit of national importance—is imperilled by its downgrading in status to a planned care and rehabilitation unit, which is a concept not yet known in the United Kingdom. We need to review that issue, which is of great concern to 1 million people in the county of Leicestershire.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the reputation of the Glenfield hospital, which I visited as shadow Secretary of State for Health. I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend expresses, although I am sure that he accepts that there has never been a proposal to change, reform or close a hospital anywhere in the United Kingdom that has not caused great anxiety and concern locally, because people are naturally and properly attached to their local hospitals. I am afraid that I cannot find time for a special debate on the matter in the near future, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is in his place and will have noted my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

May I add my voice to the calls from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for a debate on the report published today, "Thoracic Surgery Services within the Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust"? Several questions were not asked and several answers were not published in the report. It is imperative that there is public confidence in health services, and those questions and answers need to be heard in this House, which is the appropriate forum.

Mrs. Beckett

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and it is clear that there is considerable interest across the House in the issues that the report has raised, although, as it was published only today, it is too early to respond. However, the issue is a good example of one on which hon. Members with a common interest might get together to request a debate—perhaps in Westminster Hall—to air the issues of concern across the locality.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The right hon. Lady will recall—probably with some horror—that she was kind enough to tell me last week that she could think of nothing that she would enjoy more than to take part in a debate on pensions policy. With Christmas coming along, may I urge her to indulge herself and arrange for such a debate next week, so that the House can discuss at some length issues such as the scrapping of the married couples allowance and of dividend tax credits, and the abolition of home income plans, of the widow's bereavement allowance and of medical insurance tax? We could also debate the £5 billion a year in increased taxation that has been imposed on pension funds. Would not the Leader of the House admit that her instincts were basically sound and that we should have a debate next week on all the many ways in which her Government have betrayed middle-class pensioners?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman probably understood that, although I said how much I would enjoy taking part in such a debate, my role will prevent that. Although it remains my view that I would enjoy taking part in that debate—as I would then be able to wrap the record of the previous Conservative Government around the necks of the hon. Gentleman and of other Conservative Members—I fear that that is an indulgence that I must deny myself, even at Christmas.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

In Committee Room 9 this morning, we had the opportunity to debate the Government's change of policy with respect to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. The Government now require the institute to consider the affordability as well as the clinical effectiveness of procedures. Is that not such an important change in policy that the right hon. Lady should give the whole House the opportunity to indulge in debate on that matter?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, who makes the mistake of assuming that what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said during Prime Minister's questions yesterday was accurate. However, I fear that his confidence is misplaced. The Government have not changed policy and the consultation document issued in July 1998 entitled "A First Class Service—Quality in the New NHS" stated that the institute would promote clinical and cost-effectiveness through guidance and audit, to support frontline staff. There has therefore been no change in policy.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the disturbing incident in the Chamber on the night of 9 November, when my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) was allegedly threatened with physical violence by a junior Government Whip? I do not think it fair to name the Whip in question, but the episode was seen by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George), who I understand is willing to come forward as a witness.

Will the right hon. Lady find time for the Government Chief Whip to make a statement to the House about the investigations that have been undertaken into the formal complaint submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot? Although a long time has passed since that deplorable incident, the Chief Whip has not seen fit either to acknowledge that it took place, or to reply to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that hon. Gentleman merely confirms that my ear for gossip is much worse that I feared, as I was not aware of any such incident. Although Chief Whips do not make statements to the House, I shall draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention. It is always regrettable when relationships between hon. Members deteriorate. However, may I gently suggest to the hon. Gentleman that I am not sure that those relationships are improved by raising such matters on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

In her reply to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), the Leader of the House highlighted the confusion in the minds of both the Government and the public over whether cost-effectiveness will be taken into account in deciding whether people can have certain treatments or drugs. Is it not in the public interest that there be a statement—or better still a full debate—on the matter? Did not what the Prime Minister said yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about the cost-effectiveness of drugs amount to an admission that drugs will be rationed and that some people will get them if there is money available, and that others, regardless of their clinical need, will not?

Mrs. Beckett

It is an interesting phenomenon in politics, of which this is a classic example, that sometimes someone says something and someone else hears something completely different. I am at a loss to understand how the hon. Gentleman can read confusion in the Government into my identification of the fact that what was said in a document published in July 1998 is exactly what the Prime Minister said yesterday. If there is confusion, it is not on our side.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Italian chairman of the Federation of European Master Butchers has said that, because of consumer resistance to British beef, British farmers are singularly disadvantaged, as their beef has to be identified in Europe as being British? He said that he is perfectly happy to stock British beef, but knows that, as long as it is, uniquely, labelled as British, he will not because he and other members of the federation know jolly well that no one in Europe will buy it. Can we have an urgent debate on that and ensure either that all countries have to label their beef as French, German, Italian or whatever, or that the ridiculous ban on British beef being exported to Europe without being labelled as British is withdrawn?

Mrs. Beckett

I realise that it is a gross dereliction of duty, but I was not aware of the views of the Italian chairman of that federation. I know that that is a disgraceful confession, but I must be honest with the House. If he is speaking as an advocate of British beef, that is good. I know that Italy has been a good market for British beef and we hope that it will be again. I understand that the hon. Gentleman and his party are seeking what relics of advantage they can from the aftermath of the BSE crisis. However, in the long term, it would be to the advantage of British agriculture if the labelling of beef as British came to be seen as a mark of quality. Conservative Members should think more carefully about where our long-term interest lies before continuing to assert that such labelling will cause people not to buy British beef.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider her complacent replies to my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and agree to a full day's debate in Government time next week on the role of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and the policy on drug prescribing? Is she aware that the Department of Health previously assured Dr. John Chisholm of the British Medical Association that no one would be denied the investigations, drugs or treatments that he or she needed? Is she further aware that the Prime Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday was markedly different from that earlier pledge? Will she accept from me, in my characteristically non-partisan spirit, that my constituent who suffers from relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis, Caroline Cripps of Westcott in the south of my patch, requires those matters to be urgently addressed? Can we have a full debate on the Floor to thrash them out once and for all without delay?

Mrs. Beckett

I would normally be surprised at the hon. Gentleman returning to a subject on which his hon. Friends have comprehensively lost since I pointed out that what is being said now is what was said and published in 1998. However, I understand that he wished to refer to the case of his constituent, and I recognise his interest and concern in doing so. He knows that NICE is urgently considering MS treatment. Not only is what was said in the past few days about the institute to be found in the consultation document in July, but the White Paper published in December 1997 said: Efficiency and quality should go hand in hand … Patients suffer if resources are not used efficiently or to best effect. It has long been clear that the Government, too, recognise the importance of cost-effectiveness.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Yesterday, the Government published the massive Transport Bill, with some 231 clauses and 26 schedules. Will the Leader of the House confirm that despite the pre-legislative scrutiny that one part of it recently underwent, full parliamentary scrutiny will be given to the Bill as a whole? As a mark of her earnest, will she confirm that there will be a two-day debate on Second Reading before Christmas, with perhaps one day on road and rail and the second on the vital matter of the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I cannot confirm any such thing. As the hon. Gentleman says, the Bill has been published only recently; it will be debated in the House in the proper way, and will receive full and proper scrutiny. It is no good for the hon. Gentleman to say dismissively, "despite the pre-legislative scrutiny". Yes, the Bill did receive pre-legislative scrutiny of one of its most important parts. The Bill will be properly dealt with in accordance with the normal conventions of the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Would the right hon. Lady be kind enough to amplify the answer that she gave to her hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) about the oath and affirmation that members have to take before assuming their seats in the House? Does she accept that the requirement to take the oath, or to affirm, cannot be altered save by legislation? Will she confirm that, although the House has very properly addressed the matter of Members and their consciences in the past, it has never sought to suspend the requirement for a Member to proclaim and acknowledge the sovereignty of the Queen as monarch?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot amplify my remarks; the hon. Gentleman raises several important issues relating to conclusions that the House came to, presumably many decades ago, as to how we handle such matters. I can only repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick); the issue is important and I shall make inquiries into it. However, I am sorry that I cannot—on the hoof, so to speak—answer the question today.