HC Deb 09 December 1999 vol 340 cc1001-15 1.12 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House 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 13 DECEMBER—Until 7 pm, debate on the Common Fisheries policy on a Government motion.

Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment debate.

TUESDAY 14 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the 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.

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

FRIDAY 17 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

I will give the House the provisional business for the following week, but it comes with more than the usual health warning. In the immediate run-up to Christmas and in the immediate aftermath, hon. Members will always try to fit in debates on certain issues. At present, we anticipate the business to be as follows:

MONDAY 20 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Transport Bill.

TUESDAY 21 DECEMBER—Debate on public expenditure.

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

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

[Thursday 9 December 1999: Relevant documents: Class III, Vote 6: Environment, Transport and the Regions: Transport Industries, in so far as they relate to aviation safety. (14th Report of the Environment, Transport and the Regional Affairs Committee, HC-275 (1998–99).

Class XIII, Vote 1: Scotland and transfers to the Scottish Consolidated Fund, in so far as they relate to inward and outward investment in Scotland.

Monday 13 December: Floor of the House—European Union document: unnumbered EM submitted by MAFF dated 5 December 1999. Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas for 2000. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 23–iii, (1999–2000).]

Sir George Young

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us next week's business and an indication of the likely business for the following week. I welcome the proposed debate in Government time on public expenditure, which comes after the great pressure exerted by Conservative Members at business questions. Will the right hon. Lady consider whether the House might, for the convenience of Members and staff, sit earlier than normal on the last day before it rises for the recess? Will the right hon. Lady confirm that there will be a statement on Monday from the Prime Minister, following the Helsinki summit, when the House will want to hold the Government to account on protecting British interests in Europe?

I understand that the much delayed defence White Paper will be published next week. Can the right hon. Lady confirm that, and tell us that the Secretary of State for Defence will present it in an oral statement? I understand that the Defence Committee will then conduct a swift inquiry, which is likely to be completed by the middle of January. Can we have the postponed two-day defence debate immediately thereafter, in view of increasing concern about procurement issues, overstretch and the European army?

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has announced a self-imposed deadline of next Wednesday on the plans for Wembley—either the plans are revised or the lottery money is forfeited. Will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement to the House when the deadline expires?

The former small business Minister promised an annual debate on small businesses. What has happened to that promise?

Finally, for those Members who like to plan ahead, can the right hon. Lady shed any light on the timing of the February constituency week?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his slightly grudging welcome for the debate on public expenditure, which we hope to schedule for the week after next. His suggestion that we should change the hours of sitting on the final day before the recess is interesting, and I shall certainly have it discussed and return to the House with information about that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me if I anticipate that the Prime Minister will make a statement after the Helsinki summit, and indeed I do anticipate such a statement, as is the norm after a European Council.

I cannot immediately confirm that I expect the defence White Paper to be published next week, although obviously we hope that it will be published in the not too distant future. I can certainly confirm that it will go to the Defence Committee. It is, of course, a matter for the Committee how speedily it deals with the White Paper, although I am sure that its members will want to deal with it as quickly as possible. I shall certainly keep under consideration the right hon. Gentleman's request for an oral statement, because of the delay. I can assure him that there will be a defence debate and that we will want to schedule it as early as we reasonably can, although of course I cannot, at the moment, give a clear indication of how early that will be.

On the expiry of the Wembley deadline, I shall draw the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and give consideration to the right hon. Gentleman's proposal, but whether there is merit in making a statement when the deadline has expired depends a little on what has happened by then.

I am aware of the undertaking to have regular debates on small and medium-sized enterprises, but I am not sure that I recall the wording that the right hon. Gentleman quoted. The Government will try to find time for such a debate, but he will know that before a recess timing is under great pressure.

I cannot, I fear, give the right hon. Gentleman any steer about a February half-term, although I shall certainly bear in mind his wish to have one.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May we have a statement next week about the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Montenegro? The Leader of the House will have heard that last night the Serbs occupied the international airport, which is the link to the world for the democratic Government and people of Montenegro that enables them to keep their distance from Milosevic's regime. I hope that my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Secretary will consider it important not only to keep the House informed about events but to signal to the regime in Belgrade that we will not stand idly by and watch the democratic Government of Montenegro perish.

Mrs. Beckett

A number of people are concerned about the reports that appeared yesterday. My hon. Friend said that the situation in Montenegro is dangerous and deteriorating, but I understand—I know that my hon. Friend will welcome this—that that is not the case. The airport has reopened to normal civilian traffic, and it appears that there was more of a misunderstanding than a deliberately engineered difficulty, and that that misunderstanding has been resolved. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to keep the situation under review because we are anxious that Montenegro should continue to prosper.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House look more carefully at the opportunities that the House may have to follow up the issues raised at the Helsinki summit? She was present for much of the discussion just now when her right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a statement and she will be well aware that the issues raised by the continued French ban on British beef go much wider even than agriculture; they raise questions about the whole decision-making process in the European Union and the integrity that member states believe it to have.

The right hon. Lady will recognise that the French Government are attempting to emulate the pick-and-mix attitude to EU agreements shown by some elements of the Conservative party. Such an approach could spread to other countries. Does she accept that the issues relate to qualified majority voting and the veto? Indeed, had the latter been applicable in the summer, the French could have vetoed the lifting of the ban on our beef exports.

Will the right hon. Lady take account of the extremely important issue of reform of European institutions and the way in which the European Court operates—important implications of which Members on both sides of the House have just recognised? A mere statement by the Prime Minister on Monday, and then a very short discussion, is not sufficient to deal with such extremely important structural issues.

The debate allocated for the Tuesday before we rise for the Christmas recess is not time-sensitive. May I suggest that that would be an appropriate day on which to discuss the extensive implications of the French decision for agriculture, our exports and the decision-making processes of the EU?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not dismiss the importance of the hon. Gentleman's points, but, unfortunately, it is by no means the first time that one country or another, including this country under the previous Government's maladministration, has found itself falling foul of the way in which European law works.

Although these are of course grave and serious matters, and the Government will so deal with them, I am afraid that they are not unprecedented. I certainly do not see a case for sweeping away all other items that the House may wish to discuss in order to concentrate on that item at this particular time. Obviously, the matter will come up—perhaps in the aftermath of the statement on the Helsinki Council and, no doubt, on other occasions. However, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am afraid that the issue does not require our urgent consideration in quite the way that he suggests.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to early-day motion 100, which has been signed by me and 115 other Members?

[That this House wishes to register its deep appreciation and gratitude to the doorkeepers and police who serve in the House of Commons and whose help and guidance have been of incalculable assistance to generations of members of the public; welcomes the introduction of modern communications technology, including telephones, computers, pagers and faxes which now make it possible for information to pass more quickly and efficiently but does not share the view that these techniques have, in any way, diminished the need for those staff who have always had responsibilities that go much wider; regrets the recent decisions that have been taken to reduce the staffing of doorkeepers and police in the Palace, thus preventing them from providing the best possible service, for which they have been recently, and expensively, trained; and invites the Serjeant at Arms to reconsider his decision, so as to take account of the importance these members of the staff play in the life and work of this place.]

It has given Members an opportunity to express their gratitude to the doorkeepers and police, who are essential to Members' work and to the public who come here. The motion expresses anxiety that the use of pagers and modern communications may render many of those doorkeepers and police unnecessary. Will my right hon. Friend discuss that with the Serjeant at Arms to see whether some arrangement can be reached that will safeguard the jobs of those people, who really make this place work?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that there is an hon. Member who does not share my right hon. Friend's appreciation of and gratitude to the doorkeepers, police and related staff who provide the services on which we all depend and who do so much to smooth the path of Members, particularly when they are new and relatively inexperienced. I am sure that everyone shares my right hon. Friend's concern, too.

It is a matter of continued agreement between the Serjeant at Arms, the Speaker and all who are engaged in the management of the House that we truly value, and show that we value, our staff. In that sense, my right hon. Friend is seeking a continuation of our normal concerns. Without recalling precisely the rest of the text of the motion, I think that he would be the first to say that the House must use modern and efficient methods, as well as recognise the value and service of individuals.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

The right hon. Lady's answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) shows that the Government have betrayed the interests of small business. In the run-up to the election, the Labour party made a specific manifesto commitment to hold an annual debate on small business. So far, in two and a half years, there has been one such debate, and that was in 1998. The Government have obviously broken their promise for 1999. Is not it about time that they admitted just that?

May we have a debate on early-day motion 141?

[That this House notes that no representatives of the Liberal Democrat Party have played any role in the proceedings on the Financial Services and Markets Bill since 26th October and that their attendance before then had been at best 'patchy'; further notes that the role of the honourable Member for Twickenham as the representative of the Liberal Democrat Party from this House on the Pre-Scrutiny Burns Committee on the Bill was virtually non-existent; and is concerned that the Liberal Democrat Party is not taking seriously, or contributing to, the scrutiny of this important and complex piece of legislation which will have an enormous influence on the whole financial services industry in the United Kingdom.]

It reveals the pressure on the Liberal Democrats as a result of their involvement in government, which leaves them unable to attend Standing Committees that are considering important legislation.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is utterly ridiculous. We made a commitment to small businesses. The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who first became the small business Minister, was gratified to hear people in the small business associations saying that she was the most successful and helpful small business Minister whom they could recall.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Is that why she was sacked?

Mrs. Beckett

She has now been replaced by someone who is equally assiduous in her interest.

Mr. Bercow

So she was sacked.

Mrs. Beckett

She was promoted, not sacked. The notion that we have in some way betrayed the interests of small business—on account of a commitment that the Conservative party never even thought of giving—is ludicrous.

As for the role played by the Liberal Democrats, may I remind the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that it was his party that first sought to debate their role in the House, then changed its mind in the hope of scoring a triumph in the transport debate, which expectation was singularly disappointed? Secondly, may I say—without, I hope, causing too much disarray on the Liberal Democrat Benches—that for many years it has been my experience that they are not always the most assiduous attenders at Committee, irrespective of what else is happening?

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

My right hon. Friend may be aware that I asked the Prime Minister yesterday for an inquiry into the insertion of a listening device in the car of the president of Sinn Fein during the peace process. Will she prevail upon her colleague, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to make a statement about whether an inquiry will be pursued, in the light of the call for that inquiry by both the Irish Taoiseach and the Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly? That statement should contain a response to questions about which Minister authorised the bugging device to be inserted; if a Minister did not authorise a device, who did; and what factors were taken into account in the decision, either by a Minister or by an official, particularly in view of the danger to the peace process at that delicate stage.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint my hon. Friend. I did hear his question to the Prime Minister yesterday and I am aware that the Prime Minister said that he did not comment on such security matters. That is the consistent approach of the Government, so I fear that I cannot satisfy my hon. Friend's request.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Right hon. and hon. Members who were present for the statement by the Agriculture Minister on beef exports to France heard the right hon. Gentleman imply that there had been 47 deaths as a result of BSE. That is a serious and significant comment by the Agriculture Minister. To my knowledge, there has been no proof of any connection between death caused by CJD, and BSE in beef. If the Minister made that comment in the light of some knowledge that he has, does the Leader of the House consider it appropriate that he should come back to the House to clear up this important matter? For a Minister of the Crown to imply that 47 humans have lost their lives as a result of BSE, when there is no evidence of that, is extremely serious. If, however, the Minister has evidence to prove that, the House should be told about it, because of the enormous significance of that in the context of all that has gone on in the beef industry over the past several years.

Mrs. Beckett

I heard almost all of my right hon. Friend's statement and his replies to questions. I do not recall the precise wording to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and, therefore, I cannot confirm his interpretation. All those issues are being actively considered in the BSE inquiry. Although it may not have been the hon. Gentleman's intention, any attempt by Conservative Members to pretend that the Government are at fault on BSE is not only terrible but doomed to failure.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I wonder whether the Leader of the House has had time to read early-day motion 164?

[That this House notes the success of the national minimum wage in helping lift people out of poverty; further notes under this Government jobs have been created; however notes that the rate of the national minimum wage was set in July 1998; and believes it is now time to substantially raise this rate.]

It points out that the minimum wage rate was set in July 1998. Will there be a statement before the recess to announce an increase? May I make a modest suggestion of a £1.40 an hour increase, which would bring the minimum wage to only £5?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of the likelihood of any statement on the level of the national minimum wage in the near future. My hon. Friend knows that when the original rate was set, the timing of its introduction was taken into account. The Government receive advice on the matter from the Low Pay Commission, which will doubtless consider those issues in due course.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement at an early date on the Government's policy on pre-legislative scrutiny? The Government advise us that they are committed to such scrutiny, and they gave an assurance that the Government Resources and Accounts Bill, which was debated on Monday, would be published in draft form. However, they failed the Treasury Committee, the Procedure Committee and the Public Accounts Committee by not publishing the Bill in draft form, and refused my request, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, to make it subject to a Special Standing Committee. Will the Leader of the House explain the Government's position? They appear to support pre-legislative scrutiny, but fail to take an ideal opportunity to effect that process?

Secondly, will the right hon. Lady explain the reasons for the business of the next 10 days? Next Thursday, there is a one-line Whip on a subject that is of interest to some hon. Members, and the House is not sitting on Friday. Yet, in Christmas week, the House is returning for what could be two three-line Whip days. Would not it have been better to have scheduled the whipped business for the week prior to Christmas so that only a limited number of hon. Members needed to return to the House in Christmas week? That would have been more family friendly.

Mrs. Beckett

I am almost silenced by hearing the hon. Gentleman allow the words family friendly to cross his lips, although I am aware of his devotion to his charming family. I do not claim that he is one of the culprits, but he knows that Conservatives Members often complain that the House does not have sufficient significant business prior to a recess. Indeed, some idiot always complains about the length of the recess, even when it is of normal length, or shorter than on previous occasions. However, I acquit the hon. Gentleman of that complaint.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government are committed to it and fully recognise its worth. We would like as much legislation as is practicable to be published in draft. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand that we can achieve that only over time, because of the sheer scale of the resources required to complete advance drafting and drafting of legislation.

The hon. Gentleman implied that a commitment had been made to produce the Government Resources and Accounts Bill in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny. That was not possible because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, so much work was going on to take account of a substantial amount of pre-legislative discussion and debate. I acknowledge that that is not entirely the same as holding discussions on a draft Bill, but the hon. Gentleman knows that, for at least a year, extensive discussions have taken place between Select Committees, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and various expert commentators.

The hon. Gentleman raised the possibility of convening a Special Standing Committee, but I am not entirely convinced that that would be the right procedure for the legislation. I can assure him, however, that we are looking carefully at how to handle it in order to ensure that we provide adequate time for the depth of scrutiny that we know many Members on both sides of the House want and which the Government do not want to resist.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

The Leader of the House will know that today is the last day on which Raleigh Cycles in my constituency will be a mass producer of bicycle frames in the United Kingdom. I am sure that she shares my sadness that a variety of modern high-tech laser equipment that has been used to produce bikes at Raleigh will go under the auctioneer's hammer tomorrow. It will almost certainly be sold to its competitors from China and Taiwan, none of which have to meet the environmental, health and safety or labour standards that Raleigh has rightly set for production in the UK. Can we have a statement or a debate in the House about UK policy on manufacturing industry, particularly the bicycle manufacturing industry, with a view to defining a framework for provision in the 21st century that will not consign UK manufacturing to being little more than an offshore screwdriver assembly plant?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will know how thoroughly and for how long I have shared his concern for manufacturing industry and, in common with Members on both sides of the House, I recognise its importance. Equally, however, although I have great sympathy for the company and his constituents employed at Raleigh, he will know that, unfortunately, it is not always possible for all individual enterprises or manufacturing sectors to continue in business. It is vital that the Government work in partnership with the private sector to identify those areas of manufacturing in which Britain can continue to be competitive and not only maintain a competitive edge, but perhaps develop industry for the future. He will also know that that is part of the purpose of the Government's industrial policy.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May I wish the right hon. Lady a speedy recovery from the sore throat with which she is evidently suffering? May I also remind her that this time last week she said that she would speak to the Government Chief Whip about the incident in which a junior Government Whip threatened my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) with violence in the Chamber? Has she spoken to the Government Chief Whip about that? If so, what action will the Government Chief Whip take and when will my hon. Friend receive her reply to his formal letter of complaint about that disgraceful episode?

Mrs. Beckett

Last week, I expressed dismay that there are times when relationships between individual Members of the House break down. I was not aware of the incident to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I made some inquiries and my understanding is that it was unfortunate that there was some disagreement, but my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has dealt with it through the usual channels. It is also my understanding that both sides now consider the matter closed.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on leasehold reform? Several of my constituents who live in blocks of flats—Wycliffe gardens in Shipley and Myrtle court in Bingley—have been under threat of a charge being levied for new windows in those blocks. The problem is all the more difficult because they have already paid for their individual windows. If we have such a debate, might I be able to urge Bradford city council to obtain new legal advice so that it can waive those charges?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has been campaigning extensively on behalf of his constituents who could face that difficulty, and I sympathise with the concerns that he expresses, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the Chamber. He will know, however, that the Government have recently doubled the opportunities for Members to raise matters on the Adjournment and I have little doubt that he will seek to use that opportunity to raise the matter further.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Can the Leader of the House arrange for an early statement on the influx of asylum seekers into this country? I understand that the number may be as high as 60,000 this year, which represents a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. I also understand that there is a problem with a large number of them coming in through Calais and that our officers are not being allowed to look at those immigrants' papers because the French authorities will not allow it. It seems that, although they will not take our exports, we are expected to take theirs.

Mrs. Beckett

If the hon. Gentleman was present for the previous statement on beef, he will be perfectly well aware that there is extensive trade traffic between France and the UK and that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that the value of British goods exported to France in agricultural trade alone is significant.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a different and serious point about asylum seekers, however, and I can tell him that I am aware that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his officials have been discussing that matter. They are attempting to act with efficacy to ensure that we give refuge to real asylum seekers who are at risk, but dissuade entry by those who are not at any risk and simply wish to settle in this country.

I hope that it is within the hon. Gentleman's recollection that it is not so long since, if I recall correctly, his party, and no doubt he with it, voted against Government proposals that were designed to achieve precisely the effect that I have described. No doubt that was done for short-term opportunism which, sadly, is true of the Conservative party on so many occasions.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to study this week's primary school league tables? If so, has she observed the outstanding performance of schools in my constituency and throughout the local education authority of Bury, including schools in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis)?

Although we celebrate yet again the astonishing performance of primary schools in Bury—this year we mark a 10 per cent. improvement on last year's score—we are very conscious that the league tables as they are now constructed do not tell the whole story. They take no account of the social background of the children whose scores are being measured. We are confident that if we moved to a value-added system of league tables, schools in Bury would perform even better than at present.

Will my right hon. Friend discuss with colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment the urgent need to introduce a value-added system into league tables? Will she find time in the Government's programme to have a full and frank debate about the different methodologies of value added that are currently under debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the extremely encouraging results from the primary sector throughout the United Kingdom. I am happy to congratulate all involved in Bury, particularly the teachers who will have contributed so much to the outstanding results in my hon. Friend's constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis).

I am aware also of the great technical interest in precisely how the league tables are drawn up. While I acquit my hon. Friend of special pleading, since he is saying that he thinks that his constituency would show up even higher in the league tables if there were a different way of measuring performance, the debate that he seeks is not one that I am likely to be able to find time for in the Chamber in the near future. However, perhaps it is exactly the sort of subject—one of genuine interest but not one involving immediate party political controversy—that might be suitable for a bid for a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Could we not have two days to debate the Transport Bill on Second Reading? Is it not the case that it is a pantechnicon measure, a great big Bill into which two and a half years' worth of unfulfilled Labour manifesto promises have been chucked? Would it not be more appropriate that those disparate but crucial measures be debated over a reasonable time, because issues such as road user charges, workplace parking taxes and, above all, the proposed privatisation of National Air Traffic Services are of crucial significance? Is it not true that the Government are trying to prevent Labour Members from having adequate time to debate those issues, which are so controversial and so bitterly resisted, even by Labour Members.?

Mrs. Beckett

There is no validity in that accusation. The hon. Gentleman calls for a two-day debate, and I undertook to recognise that that call had been made and to consider the matter, but without commitment. He will be aware that a major part of the Bill, that which relates to the Strategic Rail Authority, has in effect already had a day's debate because that matter was discussed separately towards the end of the previous Session. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will provide time to debate the Transport Bill.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Will the Leader of the House consider making time for an urgent debate on the deep-mine coal industry? Five pits have been lost in the past year and two more are under threat, the main one being Ellington in the north-east, which is the last pit in that region. There have been such debates in the past—I think that two one-and-a-half-hour Adjournment debates have taken place since the election, the last initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). In that debate, many hon. Members were not called. Many hon. Members think that it is a national issue. I do not have any coal mines in my constituency—it has never contained one—but it is an issue of national importance. If we continue to leave the coal industry to free market forces, without any shadow of a doubt, within about 10 years, the last pit in England will probably have closed.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's concern. The Government have explicitly recognised the need for diverse sources of energy supply. I understand his point that leaving everything to the free working of the market may not always be to the coal industry's advantage, but, as he will know, that is a major improvement on the position that we inherited from the previous Government: the market was rigged to work against coal. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future, but he, like others, might like to consider whether there is scope to exploit the opportunity that is presented by Westminster Hall.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

I was glad to note that the Leader of the House had been able to witness most of the statement by the Minister of Agriculture. She can be in no doubt, as I have been in no doubt from telephone calls and faxes from my farming constituents this morning, of the deep anger—not sham anger—that is felt by them as a result of French inaction on the ban.

One of the main points at issue seems to be whether the legal options that are open to the House might incite a trade dispute. Many of us believe that, if we want to deal with France, we should deal with the legal aspect and the negotiations in parallel. Will the Leader of the House make time available for the legal officers of the Government to make a statement in the House to give an opportunity for questions, so that all the legal options are discussed, including injunctive relief?

Mrs. Beckett

I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my relevant right hon. and hon. Friends, but my understanding of the matter is that it is a European Commission case that is being taken against France. That is to Britain's advantage as it makes the point that France is isolated in its action. It is important that that remain firmly on the record. I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends, but I am not promising a statement of the type that he seeks.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

May I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) about the situation in Montenegro? Last week, with the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), I visited Montenegro under the auspices of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Not only I, but the people whom we visited and met, including members of the opposition parties from Serbia, were disappointed that no Labour Member was apparently available to accompany us. The position is potentially explosive and dangerous. Would it not be better to have a debate now than to have to rely on one when things have got worse?

Mrs. Beckett

I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The hon. Gentleman will know that Foreign Office questions may be tabled in a few days, but I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on that matter before Christmas. However, I take seriously his observations because he was in Montenegro so recently, and I will draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

May I urge the right hon. Lady—for once, quite genuinely—to hold a debate next week to consider the decision of the intervention board to remove the only remaining slaughterhouse in Devon from the over-30-months scheme? Does she appreciate that Devon has some of the most densely populated cow country in the land? The decision will mean that cows making their final journey, many having never left their home farm, will have to travel up to 116 miles for more than three and a half hours.

I do not say that that is yet the Government's fault—clearly, it is not—but the final decision remains with Government. Whatever may disunite us, whatever exchanges we have had on these occasions before, animal welfare—it is an animal welfare issue—cuts across the party divide. If she can see any time at all next week for a short debate, it really is something that she might want to accede to.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, given the closeness of the Christmas recess, I fear that I am unable to say now that I shall be able to find time for such a debate. I was, however, touched by his frankness in saying that his request was, for once, quite genuine—and I shall remind him of that on another occasion. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. He is entirely right to say that animal welfare concerns are shared on both sides of the House.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Has the right hon. Lady seen this morning's edition of The Independent, in which the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) is reported as saying that the Prime Minister is behaving like a madman? However, under the procedures established in section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, only you—as you will know, Madam Speaker—are able to determine whether an hon. Member is sane or insane. Nevertheless, the right hon. Lady might think that she could assist you, Madam Speaker, by enabling the Prime Minister to make a statement about that early next week to the House. With the greatest respect, it is very difficult to judge the matter only at Prime Minister's Question Time, as there are so many interventions by other excitable Labour Members.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not familiar with the report to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, although I am familiar with the varied and colourful phraseology frequently adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). I shall only say, first, that the Prime Minister will be in the House on Monday, in the aftermath of the Helsinki summit; and, secondly, that my right hon. Friend's sanity and effectiveness are not doubted anywhere, except perhaps on the Opposition Benches.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I join my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) in wishing the Leader of the House a speedy recovery from her malady.

May we, please, have an early debate in Government time on the proposal unveiled by Lord Falconer, in the other place—in a written answer, and reported in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph—that new Ministers should be sent on induction courses to learn how to run the Whitehall machine? Does the right hon. Lady accept that, although the Government's performance—or underperformance—since 1 May 1997 demonstrates that the need for such courses is extremely pressing, it would be helpful if we could have such a debate, as it would allow Ministers to tell the House exactly how many Ministers have been invited to attend such courses, from which Departments they hail, the Ministers' identity, and which recalcitrant Ministers refused the invitation. Does she also agree that, in the interests of cross-party co-operation on this important matter, there should be an opportunity for Opposition Members to recommend suitable candidates who are most likely to benefit from the induction courses available?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful both to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for their kind remarks. It is most touching—in fact, it is almost suspicious.

I do not think that anyone in the United Kingdom, except perhaps some Opposition Members, will think that the Government's performance, compared with that of the previous Government, demonstrates any pressing need for special training for Ministers. However—I thought that this was common ground in the House—there must always be merit in better training being available for people in all walks of life. The hon. Gentleman will know that induction courses for new Members of Parliament have been introduced, and that many Members have benefited from them.

The hon. Gentleman walked straight into my final remark on the matter. He suggested—after yesterday's debate, I do not know how he has the nerve to do it—that Opposition Front Benchers should be invited to identify Ministers who could benefit from such courses, but we could all identify plenty of Conservative Members who could benefit from an induction course on how to be a decent Opposition.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

In the interests of the throat of the Leader of the House, my question may be answered with a simple yes.

Yesterday, Madam Speaker, you kindly granted an Adjournment debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), entitled "European Legislation (Parliamentary Scrutiny)". Although we had a most interesting debate, there were three problems.

First, very few hon. Members turned up for the debate, because it was held in the alien and lifeless atmosphere of the luvvie-zone of Westminster Hall. Secondly, and more importantly, the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee and all its members except for the Conservatives were visiting Brussels on Scrutiny Committee business. Thirdly, the Minister did not have enough time to answer the important questions that were raised. Those questions relate to the nature of the government of this country, as we face a deluge of regulation and legislation that is not properly scrutinised by our current arrangements. Could we have a full debate on the Floor of the House in the new year?

Mrs. Beckett

Having listened to the hon. Gentleman, I am not sure what that debate is supposed to be about. He seems to dislike the architecture of the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall. If yesterday's debate took place in the absence of many members of the European Scrutiny Committee it is not surprising that it was not as well attended as one would wish, although that is by no means unusual for Adjournment debates. However, I agree that the situation was unfortunate. As arrangements for debates in Westminster Hall settle down, we hope to avoid that problem. We go with the recommendations of the Liaison Committee on what Select Committee reports to debate, to ensure that Members who have a particular interest are not disadvantaged. I am sorry to hear that those arrangements might have broken down yesterday. We shall certainly bear that in mind. Whether the Minister had enough time to take part depended on the length of the contributions of the others who spoke.

Mr. Tyler

The hon. Gentleman spoke for 24 minutes.

Mrs. Beckett

A terrible allegation is being made that the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) spoke for 24 minutes. That suggests that he was enjoying what he describes as the alien and lifeless atmosphere of Westminster Hall, about which I fear that I cannot undertake to do anything.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

May I also wish the right hon. Lady a speedy recovery? I do not want to contradict her commendations of the new Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall. Will she acknowledge that Monday night will afford right hon. and hon. Members a proper opportunity to raise many subjects in the debate on the Christmas Adjournment?

Will she clarify her answer on the important subject of small businesses? On 19 June last year, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who was then the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, gave the House a clear undertaking, saying that the debate on that day fulfils a commitment that the Government gave while in opposition, when we said that we would institute an annual parliamentary debate about the small business sector".—[Official Report, 19 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 606.] I was inclined to infer that the Leader of the House was abandoning that commitment. Could we have an assurance that she will not abandon it and that there will be an annual debate on small businesses?

Mrs. Beckett

My answer is a mixture of yes and no. Of course we recognise the importance of having a debate on small and medium-sized businesses. I was not abrogating any undertaking. The fact that someone referred to what they described as an annual debate is not the same as saying that the Government have a commitment to one, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have taken the request for such a debate on board seriously. We shall endeavour to find time for it, but I cannot at the moment say when that might be.

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